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by Linda Leigh



In April 2013, I was awarded a scholarship to SAIC (School of the Art Institute in Chicago). Unfortunately, I developed breast and lymph node cancer which I called The Blimp. School started in August, so I put off going until my treatments with chemo and radiation were complete. The school was very accommodating with this arrangement.

When 2014 rolled in I was ready to begin my life in the windy city of Chicago, and really excited about beginning a new and adventurous life. I started having large yard sales and sold most of my worldly goods and the rest went into storage. I said my goodbyes to apartment, family, friends and my cat Isabella, whom I raised from a kitten and thought was going to a good home (more about that later). After my train trip to Chicago I found a place to stay while I took care of my paper work at the school. Everything was verified that I was indeed ready to start the following week. Then a snag came the very next day. I was texted to come to the school immediately. It was discovered that my high school transcript did not have my graduation date on it and I was told without that document I could not attend. Unfortunately my high school in New York is now defunct, and the school now has an office for graduates to call and request their transcripts. At this time the school was closed and would not be open until September. Also the office would have to request info from the state to get that information for me.

Needless to say I am now homeless. Now I live in the elements. What does that mean when you don’t have immediate housing and may have to live on the streets? Actually, when I was asked by my granddaughter if I was homeless I looked at my daughter who was about to cry and said, no, I live in the elements. I then asked my daughter if this sounded better? She replied, yes. The journey will be memorable from how I got here to wherever it takes me.  Family and friends do not keep in touch nor have they come to visit. Lots to think about. But I am a very resourceful person and will definitely make the most of the situation I find myself in.  I will dance through these mirrors and windows and come through stronger and more informed.

•  •  •

A  Good Day

As I listen to a young girl’s poem or spoken word about how she got over her depression, and it being a good day, I thought back to a time that I rarely talk about — the moment I had a dark day.  Although I have never gone to the point of harming or killing myself, I do remember back in the fall of 2012 when I fell into a dark hole and could not climb out.  I actually sought help at a facility in downtown Los Angeles that a friend had recommended.  They had me do different tests and some talking and found that I was basically okay — nothing more, nothing less. But I knew it was something.

I remember it was a Tuesday in November I decided I would Love my depression, yes, I said love it like I did chocolate or a friend or a lover. When it descended upon me I told it, good to have you.  I love you, thank you for being here.  After taking a shower and getting dressed for class I walked to the door and could not open it to go out. I walked back into my room, got into bed and said, I love not having to go out, and I love you warm, cozy bed with my covers and sheets and pillows, thank you, I love being here.

I thanked my apartment and rejoiced in the fact I was in a dark hole loving it as much as I could. And finally one day after two months of this madness I realized it was gone almost as quickly as it came and that was a very Good Day.

•  •  •

Women in the Down Below settle their disputes by being overly aggressive, loud, and squabbling up in each other’s faces.  They put hands on one another.

In the Up Above angry bursts are not as confrontational but are settled by nippy, hurtful and sarcastic statements.

I listened to two young women while I was waiting for my train to arrive.  The women were both Asian and a Caucasian man.  They started talking about a co-worker who had cut and colored her hair.  Their conversation went like this “Did you see her new do?”  Asked one of the women.  The other replied,” Yes, and she was so proud of it.” First woman: “I know. I didn’t know what to say.  So I said, you got your hair cut.  I just couldn’t tell her how bad the color and cut was.” “I know,” replies second woman, “she was so enthused and happy about her hair.”  They giggled and seemed to be enjoying the moment in all its dishonesty.  I watched them and listened intently to them the whole time not caring if they noticed me watching them. I thought, what a sham.

In the Down Below, people are more intense, their anger is explosive but they are very honest in their opinions.  They may be quick to strike out at anyone at any time. At the same time there is so much more living than I’ve ever seen clothes, food, advice to get help and services.  Everyone seems to have a hustle; selling one cigarette for fifty cents, clothing they may have gotten for free goes for one dollar or more; candy and sunglasses even food … Cooking in covered and uncovered skillets. The side of buildings are used without thought for a bathroom while drugs are peddled freely on almost every corner and in front of buildings including the Police station. And trust me, no one does anything about it.

Everyone has a story, some are more horrifying than others. Like the women who’ve told me about their mothers and/or fathers that molested them as children, then put them on the street at eleven years of age for prostitution or the mother that gave her daughter up because she was too dark. All types of people live on Skid Row — educated college professors, business persons, chefs, lawyers, accountants, singers, actors, and of course the Vets, as well as the less educated or non-educated.

At the URM (Union Rescue Mission) where I now reside, I am treated with respect by the other women and the director. Actually, she did something for me she never did for anyone else. I had some boxes that needed to go into storage, and she let me leave them in her office and she personally put them in storage for me.  The women who ran the storage area also made sure my things were not rummaged through, and because my hair was starting to grow back from the chemo they would call me Mrs. Cosby (because of the color). I sleep on the fourth floor. It is like a large dormitory for women, about one hundred fifty, and you are assigned a bed which you get to sleep in every night if you follow the rules.  At night I had women who would ask to sit on my bed and tell me stories about how they were treated as children. Like the mothers and fathers who raped them at very young ages and then put them on the streets to sell themselves at eleven so their parents could have money for the Candy Man.  This revelation was shocking for me because I grew up in a very loving neighborhood where the children were monitored and loved. So this information was new and I began to look at black people in a different awareness always thinking we as a people would never treat our children with little or no respect or regard for their welfare. Another woman revealed to me that she was given up at birth because she was born too dark to a mother that was very fair and had three children before her that were the same color as her mother.  She told me how they were reunited when their mother was dying and asked her to help with the funeral cost and for her church to bury her mother.  And she did even though they, her siblings never communicated with her except at this time.

This is a humorous event that took place at URM, I think so anyway. A young woman comes in and announces she is going on a date with a gentleman she just met and who is really fine, well-mannered and dresses really nice. This young woman is getting ready for her big hot date. She puts on a beautiful frock (the women here have great taste and are very fashionable) and stilettos — yes, they do wear them in The Down below. Her face is made up to perfection, as well as her hair, set in long waves that cover her back, looking like a movie star. She adds one final touch, some bling earrings that dazzle and blind the eyes, then picks up her purse and exits the room. To our amazement, and it’s only been one hour, she is back at the URM taking her shoes off. A friend of hers asks what happened? The young woman starts to tell us that this guy gave her his address, and as she is walking by the tents on Skid Row, she finds it. A Tent, she exclaims, with an address and he is there waiting for her.  With a flourish, he flips open the flap and invites her in where to her amazement are two lawn chairs which she commences to sit on.  She notices that he has two coolers. He asks, “would you like something to drink?” She replies, “yes.”  He opens a cooler with drinks and offers her one which he opens and gives to her.  He then asks her ,“are you ready for dinner?” She hesitantly says yes again, and he opens the other cooler and offers her a sandwich (I don’t know what kind because she never says.) So she eats and drinks and thanks him for a lovely evening and leaves soon after.  After she has lamented about her tale of events she exclaims, at least he lives in a luxury tent and not a pup tent.

There is a white woman that lives on the streets and comes to the DWC called the Judge.  She is filthy and is foul smelling and even more foul with her mouth and manners.  When she enters the building the woman in charge of showers that day immediately takes her and allows her to have an emergency shower.  The shower monitor then rummages through the bins of clothing donations and finds her decent clothes to put on so she is ready to have breakfast.  This woman I am told was once a judge in New York and that someone had killed her whole family while she watched, and then they raped her and left.  I often wonder what she had done to make someone that crazy to do that to her.  I see her all the time now and she looks worse than when I first saw her, almost sickly.

Another white woman that comes in is from a very wealthy family. Being here is an eye opener to say the least, everything takes longer to get done, whether it is housing, medical, or transportation etc.

•  •  •

I am really tired today. I was up at four o’clock this morning. I tried to go back to sleep, but now it is five-thirty.  I take a shower, which I do every morning and evening, especially down here. The filth is so appalling that I feel grimy from walking in the streets of downtown. It’s like if I don’t get that energy off of me I will drown in it.

I am dressed and skipping out the door to the Downtown Women’s Center where I volunteer cooking for over one hundred and fifty women, and I can boil three hundred eggs perfectly with a golden yolk. Actually I went through their Set to Bake program. A group of us baked the goods that went into the DWC’s café.  The program got cancelled and Chef Carlos, told Miss Faye, the director of the day center, that he wanted Theresa, Briana and I to work with him.  When breakfast is over I will catch the bus to The Up Above, Alhambra is where I used to live before coming down here.  I will put some items in my storage so my room at the Russ won’t be overcrowded.  I try to keep things minimal, so far good job.

It is November the weather is still warm on my way home from the DWC.  I can’t believe how time has flown. There is a wedding taking place this evening at the San Julian Park. The cleaning crew has been here all day preparing the park for this momentous occasion.  I guess when you are in a community it can become your home.  My understanding is that the bride and groom met here on Skid Row.

It is seven o’clock at night, the festivities are about to start. I am watching out of the bathroom window of the second floor. A real minister is going to perform the ceremony and the guests are strutting into the park and take their seats at tables set up for this special day.  The groom has arrived with his best man, and the music has started playing. It is soft and mellow.  A songstress steps up to the stage to sing. She has a beautiful voice, full and rich.  The song ends and a pause is felt and walking music for the bridal party begins, six bridesmaids with escorts approach, very elegant.  I wish I had a camera, no one would believe this.  Oh, how sweet, two flower girls with a ring bearer come forward.  A long dramatic pause as the bride arrives and makes a spectacular entrance on the arm of a fine looking older gentleman. It could be her father, uncle, brother, or could be a friend.  Does not matter she is glowing and exquisite — yes exquisite.  It is nearing the end of the ceremony. Bride and groom exchange vows and kiss… The food is catered and smells delicious. The band is setting up, yes, a real band. The party is about to begin.  I whisper to the couple, may God bless you and may your marriage be strong especially in the Down Below. All I can say is this bride has marvelous taste.

•  •  •

This morning I got myself ready — went to the beach. While there I studied for the Food Handling test that was to take place later this week.  It is warmer than I thought it would be.  I saw a beach chair by itself and took it.  The owner, an older woman in her eighties, came back and claimed it. She was really miffed.  I laughed to myself. I knew it was wrong to take that chair.  Saw a sea lion and heard its cries.  Were the waves too harsh?

•  •  •

It is Saturday, February 28, 2015.  This is the last day of the month. This is my six month anniversary for being in the down below.  Still waiting for housing I was promised to move from the Russ to the Rosslyn Hotel.  Leslie, the SRO coordinator, told me that I am moving on January 23.  She informed me that my background check had been lost and they have to submit a new one.  I have waited three more weeks and now it is February 24. Finally, I have met with the  Housing Authority and I am told everything looks good.

I cannot believe that I have been living in the Down Below for two years, so much has happened in a short span of time. People come and go like soft waves, whispering as they touch the sand on the beach, or the touch of fingertips that barely meet.  Here in the Down Below life appears to be tenuous at best. I have my apartment at the Rosslyn Hotel. It was such a big deal to move in here and it turns out not so big.

Walking the downtown section of Los Angeles CA, from Fifth and Main streets to Fifth and San Pedro, can be an experience unto itself which I try to do very Monday, Wednesday and Friday on my trek to the L.A.M.P. On any given day the streets from San Julian to San Pedro can be clean or littered with garbage, urine and or excrement and the odor can knock you into space. Hell you might even see a person you thought was asleep but was really dead.  Sometimes the streets are overcrowded with tents with more women and families are moving in every day and Asians soon will be the new majority in the Down Below.

•  •  •

This morning my sister-in-law Nellie, died from a rare form of cancer, she was sixty-four years of age.  She leaves behind my brother, her husband Albert g. Leigh III, her son Albert G. Leigh IV, his wife Olga and their three children Dyanna, Albert G. Leigh V and Peter. Christina Leigh Rueckner her daughter, and her husband Franz their two children Karsten and Liezel and her youngest son Brian Leigh, his wife Charlotte and their two children Tatiana and Tyler

When my father Albert G. Leigh, Jr.  made his transion, his six children realized we were now the front line — meaning, the next to go.  We also speculated on what would happen if one of us made our transition.  And what it would feel like.  Never did Nellie cross our minds. She was not even on the radar.  She being always healthy and in control. it took all of us by surprise.  How appropriate (relevant) she left on Valentine’s Day with her loving family surrounding her.  Good bye Nellie you are much loved and in our hearts you remain.

My heart is sad.
I missed you before you even took flight.
I knew it was inevitable,
But I prayed for a miracle.
But the heavens wanted you more.
Your job for now was through maybe a lesson or two.
You have made me wake-up to the fact that
tomorrow is now.
Living in the moment and doing what is needed for
me right now—not then, not later.

•  •  •

My heart is sad
            I missed you, before you even took flight.
                                    Knew it was inevitable.
            I prayed for a
                        But the heavens wanted you
            Your job,  for now is through.
                        a lesson too.
                        made me wake up to the
            that tomorrow is
                        Living in the moment
                        what is needed
                                    right now
            Certainly not later.

(poem done two different ways)


For the past three weeks I have been sick with a bladder infection. The first two weeks I had no idea what I had.  Week one could not get out of bed, and the mere energy of the television made me weak as if my energy was being pulled through it.  My favorite shows on PBS are the mysteries and they were a no go.  Very interesting those electrical currents from the television and what they can do to you.  The second week I thought I had contracted African trymarosamiasis.  I somehow mustered up all my strength and dragged myself to see the doctor and found out I had, a bladder and intestinal infection.  Antibiotics were prescribed and the infection cleared up.  I could not even visit the L.A.M.P. and work on my projects which is where I had my first attack of being sick.  The second attack occurred at the Star Apartments’ art show.  Interesting, in this condition I could not see anything surrounding me in this environment — not clutter, dirt, grime or the people piled up in their tents. They are all a blur on my lenses.

In my listless state of consciousness all I thought about was what is really important to me and realized I really wanted to teach meditation. o I proposed this idea to Hayk at the L.A.M.P. and to La Shalle at the Rosslyn where I live. Both classes are scheduled to start very soon. I have recovered from and have a clearer vision and more vitality to do this work.  I am encouraged to move forward and to perform the Forgiveness Meditations to the Earth at the beach.  I have schedule one for the 26th of June at nine o’clock in the morning. Posted it on Facebook. I’ll see what happens.  I am really looking forward to this event.

•  •  •

Another thing that has taken place in my coma-like-state is that I realize my family has never supported me in my endeavors, although I have been there for them.  I am the constant one that makes arrangements to go to everything, including things that their friends might be involved in.  Well, I vowed that I would not attend my sister’s birthday party since she has not come to visit me — not one time.

Saturday, June 18, has arrived. I’m going to the party dressed and heading out the door to catch the Gold Line to Pasadena.  It is somewhat overcast today but warm.  I arrive in Pasadena. It is sprinkling. I’m cheered up even more.  My sister sent Uber to pick me up. We make it to Altadena and it is raining. She lives next to the mountains.  I walk into her house and the setup is magnificent, and my niece has catered the event.  There are so many people I haven’t seen in twenty to thirty years, and they had their children and grandchildren with them.  I had the best time. I am glad I did not sit this one out being stubborn and missing this glorious day.  There were tents set up in case the sun was beaming on us.  It turned out very useful for all this rain.  A trio played music from the ‘70s and ‘80s. People danced while the children got in the pool on huge swans and flamingos floats.  Close to two hundred people came to wish Gloria a happy birthday.  It really shows how much love she has given over the years to so many people.  Thank you for a wonderful day and evening.

•  •  •

Another busy day.  Arrived at the doctors’ office at 7:35 this morning. I hope to be out of here by eleven I have a poetry class in the building next door.  It is now 8:30. I came early because if you don’t you may never be seen by the doctor.  So many people in the waiting room, which is too small for the amount that are here today.  Oh, God, kids are crying and cell phones blare their crazy obnoxious sounds.  There’s a sign that says, no cell phones — turn them off. Otherwise, you have loud and argumentative conversations clamoring all over the room, especially here in the Down below.

Finally, numbers are being called. Oh, yes, you are given a number in order to be checked in.  Of course someone will come and get you take your vitals.  Hoping my weight reflects how my clothes are fitting a lot looser.  It is nine o’clock and I am still sitting, waiting, hoping I am out by eleven. I will be fine. Cheeze they have only called one person’s number and I am number 13.

•  •  •

On July 4, 2016, I awaken several times during the night. Damn those folks with their fireworks. Wasn’t it enough that City Hall had a big splash?  I tried going back to sleep and awoke at 8:30am.  I am late. wanted to leave house at 7:00am to go to the beach.

Oh well, slow start should I go or should I stay?  That is the question. Go get ready open the door step into hallway.  Door closes and locks. That settles it. I make way to the elevator today. It is the express, no stops to other floors.  I have to get out of Down Below, it’s smothering. Up Above is cleaner and cooler.  I make my way to Metro 7th street station and find I have to wait twenty-two minutes for Santa Monica train, and this is not even the weekend. It is 10:00am, and wait, oh good, they are changing the Long Beach train and changing it to Santa Monica, now all those people have to leave the train. Too Bad.

How am I feeling? Not sure I am ready for this. Great, a young black man is arguing with his sister on his cell phone … who wants to hear this crap? Not me! Who cares? He doesn’t have a car and wants someone to watch his children, and man, is he giving this person hell.  Thank God, he and his girlfriend finally depart and it is QUIET!

Okay, here you are — end of the line — Santa Monica Pier. New question: Do I stay here, or catch the 534 bus to Will Rogers Beach? Okay, stay — experience something new in this part of the world. Found a spot to enjoy my time here.

Wow, it’s getting crowded already. Did I make the right choice?  I am finding I do not want to be around a lot of people today, and it seems they are all in this one space near me.  This is a big piece of seashore, why are they converging here?  I am trying to relax and enjoy this moment, but it is busy here. A Mexican woman, brightly dressed, shouts in a  sing song voice — Mango, Mango. Oh man, another vendor, this time it’s a man shouting buy his umbrellas and beach pails and small surfer boards.

What time is it — can I really stomach this?  Relax and breath, that is what I tell myself. At least you are not sitting in that heavy energy in the Down Below.  What’s going on with you? I have to ask. Reflect on what you are feeling. Do you feel like your space has been invaded? I chuckle. Okay, look at all the people arriving now.  Wow, the waves are bigger and people are having fun and enjoying the waves thundering over them, laughing.  The children’s laughter washes over me like the waves they gleefully jump into.

I notice this woman whom I saw earlier with her partner.  The toddler with her is tentative going into the water. She gently leads him in and smiles.  I watch. She is heavy in weight with many tattoos.  Earlier I think, did I judge her? I watch her now and feeling much emotion that the people here are just in the moment not caring about what the television or other media say they should look like or be.  Somewhere deep I feel a connection with humanity so profound it moves me to write, least I lose this ennui.  How beautiful we are when for a few precious moments on, one is thinking about how we are big booty and bust; at this time with the waves thundering against their wonderful bodies they are in the thrill of the moment. I need to get away from the Down Below more often. The reflection they generate is not full and complete. Ha ha, my imposed deadline to leave the beach at 12:00pm has now come and gone.  I am more relaxed now and not ready to leave.

I walk on the sand, happy that the sun is not bearing down and scorching the earth. I walk-on.  Actually, feels kind of cool.  On the train ride back I watch my thoughts and I really don’t want anyone sitting next to me, so I scoot my bag over just enough to make it uncomfortable for someone to sit. Space issue again?  Finally arrive at 7th street. Why am I rushing almost like? (Need to find word).

Trying to get home out of the streets of the Down Below.  Hush, hush, your minds take your time breath.  I noticed the streets are cleaner; what, no urine smell? I glide, taking in my environment.  Today is a good day.  There is peace inside of me.  Lunch is calling what should I eat.


Children run to
Thundering waves
Their laughter and the sound of the surf
Are One

•  •  •

Children rush to the water
         Waves washes over their
         Resounding laughter mingles
         Rushing sounds of the waves
         children’s voices become one
         there is tranquility
         inside of me





Linda Leigh was born in Queens, New York. She enjoys creative writing and poetry. Ms. Leigh now resides in Los Angeles and is an accomplished artist, her works are displayed throughout California. She is also very involved in Social Justice in her community.








The Skid Row Zine Writing Group

Ivy Pochoda Introduction


In 2009 I moved from my hometown of Brooklyn to Los Angeles, a city that is still both familiar and unknowable to me. Accustomed to walking or riding the subway, I found I couldn’t visualize the city’s shape even as I moved along its streets and freeways. I still can’t. But driving to and from my Echo Park apartment back then I was struck by something else that surprised me: all the ways in which people lived out of doors—the tent encampments, permanently parked camper vans, makeshift shelters of many materials all improvised for living in the elements. They made Los Angeles, amidst its evident wealth, even more mystifying, gave it a texture I hadn’t expected, a secret soul.

Two years later I moved just east of Downtown to the Arts District which was just beginning its rapid gentrification. Skid Row sits between Downtown and the Arts District. As I drove or rode my bike past its sprawling community of tents, shelters, medical and social services, murals, missions, and churches the initial impression of chaos eventually gave way to a pattern of communities each with its own character. Here were activists; here were artists; and here were the hopeless and the helpless in various associations of their own. I began to see the shape and depth of the neighborhood though I could not have imagined how much more it would mean to me one day.

One evening I emailed the Lamp Arts Program, a multi-discipline studio affiliated with The People Concern, one of Los Angeles’s largest social services agencies, and offered to give a course in creative writing. I did not know what to expect when I turned up for my first class. Would the participants be lucid, intelligent, capable? The truth is they were all of these things and more. Each of them was on a journey and they each showed up with a story to tell whether it was drawn from experience or summoned by wild inspiration. Their work is remarkable—it’s profound, smart, and quite often funny.

We meet once a week. (I am not always in charge of the sessions these days as some of the participants have stepped up to run the class.) We do warm up exercises and in class writing assignments. Some participants are working on longer projects: chapbooks, one-act plays, essays, and short stories. And out of these meetings, we formed Skid Row Zine—an independent magazine dedicated to the voices and stories of people living in and around Skid Row.


Our first piece from the Skid Row Zine writers group:

UP ABOVE and the DOWN BELOW by Linda Leigh



The Carousel

by Maggie Herlocker



I stared at the wall behind his head, examining the yellowing spots on the once white wall with great intensity. I think I wanted to find shapes, images, anything to distract me from the conversation I knew was coming. I could hear the whir of the air conditioner, but it did nothing to temper the dry, triple digit July air. That whir was the only thing I could hear in the deafening silence.

My father leaned forward, his elbows on the table, his hands folded. I thought of how my mother always scolded me for having my elbows on the table.

“I’m so happy you came.”

I looked at his face, light from the window cutting his face into two. He looked tired, the lines in his face deep with age and weariness. I wondered if he hadn’t slept well, nervous for our meeting today. This was our fourth meeting in the last couple months. He had contacted me back in May. He was going to be doing some business in the Sacramento area and wondered if I wanted to meet up. We got coffee the first time, awkwardly recounted our lives over the past decade.

“I know that I wasn’t really there for you much growing up, and I want you to know how much I’ve regretted that.”

He fiddled with his straw wrapper, rolling it between his fingers. The sound of silence was all that was between us anymore. The screeching of a chair being scooted against the linoleum floor broke our silent battle.



He dropped the straw wrapper and folded his hands again. He sighed. Eyes cast down, he looked almost childlike, a child who knew they’ve done something wrong and are about to be reprimanded.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.


“Come on Samantha, you can do it!”

I thought about this day often, the day at the pool. Pictures from that day show a three-year-old me standing on the edge of the pool, my inflated floaties around my small arms, my red, white, and blue striped bathing suit already giving me a wedgie. It was a hot August day in Roseville, and my mom and dad took me to the community pool to get out of the house and cool off. The pool was crowded. It appeared that many families had the same idea. Other children were splashing around in the pool, many mothers sitting around fanning themselves, tanning, gossiping with each other. My mother was among them, sipping a cold Coca-Cola she had gotten from the snack bar, like she did every time we went to the pool.

I had been to the pool before, but usually stayed in the kiddie pool. My dad had decided that this time I would go in the regular pool with him.

I was scared. That is one thing I distinctly remember.

The water looked so deep, my dad looked so far away. How could I, a very small child, jump far enough to be caught in his outstretched arms? I questioned the buoyancy of my floaties, could they actually save me from drowning?

“Samantha, don’t worry about it, I’m right here. I’m going to catch you, it’ll be okay!” my dad called over the yells of the children playing in the water. He always called me Samantha, never Sammie like my mom did, and definitely never Sam. He was grinning, his tanned arms stretched out to me, his curls of hair sparkling with water. Finally, the three-year-old me took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and jumped.

The water was cold and all around me, but only for a quick second. The floaties did their job and stopped me from going under, and my dad did his job and caught me. My hero.

“See, it’s just fine!” he laughed and I couldn’t’t help but squeal with delight and splash my arms in the water.

At that point, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know that my father, the one who should have always be there to catch me, would disappoint me the most.


I didn’t know what to say. I knew my dad was sorry. I could tell he was genuinely upset with himself for all that he had missed in my life. Since the first time we met for coffee, I wondered if and when he might try and apologize. He’d been trying so hard, asking all the right questions about my schooling, if I had any boyfriends, what my plans after graduation were. But it’s not like one apology and lunch at a burger place was going to fix it.

I knew he had picked this place on purpose. It was our little secret spot. I’d only been here one other time since I was a kid.

It was right before I was leaving college, moving to southern California, going to UCLA on a full scholarship. My dad had sent me a card, congratulating me on graduation, the check inside showing just how much he cared. Part of me wanted to tear up the check and never deposit it. But I didn’t. Instead I deposited all five-hundred dollars into my special savings account that I couldn’t touch until after my college graduation.

I almost turned around that summer day and didn’t go in, but I was compelled to move forward, pushed by some force determined to dredge up old feelings. The food was exactly the same as I remembered it: good but not that special, kept in business because of people like me, desperate for feelings of nostalgia and the past.

Finally, I spoke. “Do you remember the carousel?”


The California State Fair. We went every year, driving from our home in Roseville to the fairground in Sacramento for the event. But this year was different, I was nine years old, and it would be a day I would remember clearer than any other. My mom stayed home with a headache, I later found was faked. It was just me and my dad and I was so excited. My dad had been away a lot lately, I was told on business, so I hadn’t spent as much time with him as I had become accustomed to.

I was too young at that point to see the subtle changes in the way my parents acted around each other. The walking on eggshells, the fighting coming from another room, the days my dad didn’t come home until much later than work would have kept him, if at all. He didn’t want to be at home. At that point in a child’s life, our parents are our whole world, our example of what a happy couple are, what we should aspire to become, to meet someone and fall in love just like your parents. But no one is perfect, especially not your parents.

On that day, at the fair, it had all seemed perfect. We headed out mid-day, blasting the AC in my dad’s car, the temperatures already in the 90s. We listened to a classic rock station on the radio, my dad beaming with pride as I belted out the lyrics with him.

When we got to the fair, it was obvious my dad was spoiling me, but I wasn’t about to complain.  He bought me whatever fried foods I wanted, sharing in the plethora of goodies laid out in front of us that I would have never been able to eat on my own. Corn dogs, fried crispy and perfectly browned, funnel cakes covered in powdered sugar, my fingers sticky from the many times I licked them to relish every last bit of sweet. We shared a large lemonade, the freshly squeezed juice with just the perfect amount of sweet and tart, quenching our thirst.

It was getting late and the hot day turned into a warm evening. Summer in the San Joaquin Valley was always this way, hot and then warm, begging children to keep playing outside, past when the street lights had turned on. My dad and I were both sweating buckets but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything. The sun was setting, a beautiful orange sunset. There were a few clouds in the sky, turned pink, looking like the cotton candy I had consumed earlier in the day.

Stars began to pop up, demanding to be noticed through the electric lights of the fair. They provided a natural magic to the night.

“Alright Samantha,” my dad said, looking at me from across the picnic table, a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. “We have time for one more ride. What’s it going to be?”

I sat there thinking long and hard. It’d be another whole year before I’d get to do this again, so I had to pick just the right ride.

“The carousel,” I decided finally.

He grinned. “Carousel it is then.”

We walked across the field, my sticky hand in his, to the carousel.

It wasn’t the nicest carousel in the world, the paint was chipped on most of the horses, the brass poles tarnished. But I thought it was beautiful. I’d always had a love for old, broken things.

We waited in line behind other fair goers, ages varying from newborn babies to grandparents. Everyone loves a good carousel ride, though no one can really express why. The feeling of being a child, just in the moment. When we finally got to the front of the line, I tried to pick out which horse I would choose to ride. There were many options, but the one that caught my eye the most was one of the more beat up horses. No one was riding it this go around.

The girl operating the ride asked my father how many would be riding and he replied that there were two of us. I was so excited. Something about riding this with just my dad made me feel giddy. Finally, the gate was opened.

I rushed in, making a beeline for my horse.

“Walk, Samantha,” I heard my dad call from behind me, a laugh in his voice.

I approached my horse and got up on the platform. She looked quite disheveled, the paint falling away to reveal the wood underneath. I felt bad for her, this inanimate horse, I’m sure she wasn’t chosen as much as the others. I was relatively tall for a nine-year-old, so I was able to climb up on the horse without assistance from my dad.

He had caught up to me and was getting on the horse next to mine.

“Guess you don’t need your old man’s help anymore.”

He was smiling, but I should have seen then, he was sad. But how could I have noticed in the magic of the fair?

Once everyone else had mounted their horses, the ride began with the classic ring of a bell. As the speed increased and the horses began to rise and fall, I was transfixed by the joy of this, the joy of pure childhood. I looked over at my dad, he was watching me, a smile across his face. I tipped my head back and laughed, the world turning upside down and sideways. I watched the world spin by, the lights of the fair smearing together. The song that was playing was the perfect mix of circus and delight, the old organ music ringing out of crackling speakers. Some of the bulb lights were out but it didn’t matter to me. I was so happy in that moment.

The horses began to slow to a trot and then stopped. My father dismounted first, then helped me down, even though I didn’t need the help. We walked towards the exit with the rest of the elation filled equestrians. Outside the gate, my father took me over to the side. I looked at his face in the light of the carousel. Something in the way his eyes looked at the ground told me something was wrong.


I looked my dad dead in the face, his eyes looking the same way they had the night of the fair. I knew he remembered it. “The carousel at the fair when I was nine,” I reminded him. “It was the last time I remember being happy with you.” I dropped my eyes then. It was too much to look into his deep brown eyes in that moment, they were so full of memory and regret.

He was quiet. I wanted so desperately to know what he was thinking, to know if he realized that I would never feel as joyous as I did that night on the carousel. I still wish I could have stayed on it forever, spinning through life, laughing at the world as it changed but I stayed the same, forever a child and her father.

Finally, he spoke. “I remember that so differently.”

I looked up, surprised. He was staring at me with his sad, brown eyes.

“That night, the carousel, you and I together, I remember that as one of the saddest nights of my life. I knew I was going to break your heart.”


“Samantha, I need to tell you something important.”

I looked up at him expectantly. He kneeled down in the grass to get on my level, to look me in the eyes. A random, cool breeze blew past me and made me shiver.

“Your mother and I, well, we’re not getting along anymore. She wants me to leave. She wants a divorce.”

I was quiet. What was I supposed to say?

“You understand this doesn’t change how much either of us care about you right?”

“Can I go with you?”

My dad looked surprised by my question, but then his eyes softened, his brows coming together, sad and concerned. “No, honey. You have to stay with your mom. I’m moving to Ohio, and I’m going to be on the road a lot for work. You have your school here.”

That’s when the tears came. My world was spinning, the carousel next to me becoming something else, showing my confusion and devastation as a swirl of light and sound, unable to focus and separate my thoughts. Of course. Of course, I wouldn’t be able to go with him. It made sense, but it didn’t make it easier.

“I’ll still be around as much as I possibly can!” Lies. “I’ll call and see you when I’m in town and I’ll take you to the fair next year if you want.” More lies.

I couldn’t stop crying. I remember not being able to breathe, my sobs racking my entire body. Eventually my dad picked me up, even though I was much too big to be carried, and he took me out to the parking lot, to his car, holding onto me tightly the whole time.


Nothing was the same after that. He was gone in the morning when I woke up, gone without a trace.

“Honey, you need to come out of your room, you can’t stay in there all summer.” My mother’s voice came in through my bedroom door. I didn’t want to talk, but I was glad she respected me enough not to come in. It had been a few years since my dad left. I was thirteen now, already an angsty teenager, a stereotypical child of divorce. Over the years, I’d retreated more and more into myself, barely even talking to my mother. School was the only thing that mattered to me. I knew the only way to get out of this place was college and I wanted a scholarship. I didn’t want to owe my parents anything.

“Sammie, please,” I heard a new pleading in her voice. “At least come with me to take the dog on a walk. We don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, but you need to come out of your room.”

I sighed, but lifted myself off of my bed. “Fine, I’ll come,” I called to my mom, still from inside my room.

“Okay!” I heard a new joy in my mom’s voice. “I’ll meet you downstairs in five!”

I lethargically put on my tennis shoes. I wanted to make my mom happy. Maybe she was still hurting too.

I met her downstairs, she already had our dog Timmy on his leash. She was dressed in her trendiest workout clothes, even though we wouldn’t really be exercising that hard.

“Ready to go?” she asked, smiling.

“Yeah, sure.”

We headed out, going down our block to the park that Timmy loved. My mom handed me the leash.

“You’re really much better at walking him.” My mom had never been a huge Timmy fan, she hated how big he was, how much of a nuisance he was. When my dad had first brought him home from the pound she was horrified. Not only was she worried about his size, I was just starting to walk at the time, but of course his fur and drool got all over her pristine house. The real offense. But I loved him so she gave in and let him stay. I realized as I was walking him that my dad easily could’ve taken Timmy with him, but he must have left him behind for me.

“You okay, sweetie?” my mom asked, noticing that I was deep in thought. “Sorry, that was probably a dumb question.”

I didn’t really answer, just kept walking.

“I know things have been hard for you, things that you don’t quite understand. I know I’ve never really explained the divorce to you, but your father and I just could not be under the same roof anymore. And with his job, there’s no way you could’ve gone with him. Plus, I wanted you to stay, even though I know how close you two were.” She looked at me sideways, a small smile on her perfect pink lips. I tried smiling back, but I’m sure I failed.

My mom stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and turned to look at me. “Samantha, I need you to listen to me.”

I stopped, Timmy sniffed some of the bushes nearby as I turned to face my mom.

“I don’t want you to be mad at me or your dad, this isn’t something that either of us wanted. Besides honey, it’s been a few years now, I thought things would be better between you and I.”

I raised my eyebrows.

“Don’t you look at me like that. I know this has been especially hard for you, but I need you to stop being angry.” Like that was so easy to do. “It took a lot for me to ask him to leave, it was not an easy decision.”

“You asked him to leave?”

“Yes Samantha, I asked him. It was just not working, I needed him to go.”

“I still don’t understand, what wasn’t working?”

Now it was her turn to roll her eyes at me. “It’s hard to explain, you’re too young to understand.”

“Try me,” I said crossing my arms across my chest.

My mom let out a sound of frustration, but then took a breath with her eyes closed. “He just wasn’t around enough, with his job, his insane amount of travel was just never what I wanted. I wanted someone who would stay and be a part of the family. And I just couldn’t take it anymore and he wouldn’t budge. This was my only option.”

I listened to what she said, unsure if it really was her only option, and it didn’t stop me from being angry, at her and my dad. Neither of them seemed like they wanted to fight for each other, to fight for me.

When we got back to the house, the phone was ringing. It was my dad, but I didn’t want to talk to him. I was still devastated and now I was angry too. When I did talk to him, it was awkward and sad, neither of us knowing what to say to the other. He stopped calling as frequently after a while and I never called him on my own. All I wanted was to get back on the carousel. I wish I had never gotten off.


I didn’t break eye contact with him as I felt my own brown eyes, identical to his, fill with tears.

“I remember how much you cried, knowing that I was leaving your mother, leaving you. I knew you didn’t understand it, how could you? It must have seemed like it came out of nowhere.”

Now it was my turn to sit quietly.

“I already said I was sorry for not being in your life more. It wasn’t what I wanted.”

“Was it what she wanted?” I said, glowering, my pain turning to anger.

“Who? Your mom?”

“Nancy.” I spit out her name like venom.

My dad looked taken aback. “No, of course not,” he said quickly. “My job is why I moved to Loveland all those years ago. Nancy was just why I stayed.”

I looked at the wedding band on his finger. It was foreign, nicer than the one he had with my mom.

He met Nancy in Ohio and moved in with her only a few months later. I felt betrayed. But he sounded happier than I had heard in so long that I kept those feelings to myself. I was invited to the wedding, but I refused to go. Also, it was in Loveland in October, so I had school, but he didn’t seem to think about that. He seemed hurt that I couldn’t go but I didn’t care. It was my own little act of betrayal.

But that wasn’t even his biggest betrayal, not by a long shot. I could handle Nancy, I got over it, I even met her over Skype once, an awkward affair, all of us strangers. No, it wasn’t Nancy. It was Charlotte. The other daughter.

“Why did you miss my graduation?” I demanded, desperate to make him feel some of my hurt.

“Charlie was in the hospital with pneumonia that weekend, you know that. I couldn’t leave her or Nancy then, she was only five. I thought I had explained all that?”

Charlie. I almost laughed. Of course, she could have a boy nickname from my dad, but I could never be Sam. Over the years I tried the name out, seeing if it would catch on in high school or anything, but I never responded to it when people called out at me. Samantha was my name and there was nothing I could do about it.

I didn’t laugh at him, but I did allow myself to roll my eyes. “Of course,” I said dramatically, “the other daughter needed to be taken care of.”

“Come on Samantha, that’s not fair. You didn’t come to mine and Nancy’s wedding.”

“Yeah but I was twelve and in school. I couldn’t leave to go out of state during the school year, not when school was the only thing I really cared about.”

He was quiet then. “I know. It’s not fair for me to be hurt by that, not after all I’ve done.”

I didn’t answer, unsure what to say at that point.

“Look,” my dad began, “I can’t change what I did or didn’t do, but we can change how we move forward. I want to be back in your life, I’ve already missed so much. But you have to let me.”

I sat there wondering what it was that I wanted. Did I want him in my life? It had been kind of nice seeing him recently, even though we were both shy and closed off. I thought about what it might look like.  He had covered me in so many silly little wounds that I often wondered if they may ever heal. Was he worth opening all of those up again?



“Yes, okay. I’ll give this a try. Just know some days will be easier than others.”

My dad grinned. “Of course! We can take all the time you need!”

I gave him a small smile back.

“Would you be interested in meeting Charlie?”

My smile wavered.

“I think you would get along really well, if you’d give it a chance.”

“I– I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet.”

My dad’s smile dropped. “I get it. No, that makes sense. I was getting too ahead of myself.”

“It’s okay,” I said quickly. “I just think we need to work on what’s going to happen between us first, before I can do that.”

My dad’s smile returned, smaller this time. “Of course, honey.”

“You should come visit me in San Francisco sometime, see my apartment.”

My dad grinned. “I’d love that. I always had a soft spot for that city.”

“Who doesn’t?” I said, grinning back at him. Something felt so right in that moment, us agreeing on something so easy.

A waitress came up to the table. “I’ve got two cheeseburgers, two chocolate chip shakes, and an order of onion rings?”

“That’s us,” my dad said, and she placed the tray on the table and walked away. My dad divided up the food and placed the onion rings in the middle. It was what we always got when we came here.

Watching him, tasting the food, being there, I couldn’t help but smile.




Maggie Herlocker is a first-year fiction writer at the University of New Orleans’ Creative Writing Workshop, on her way to a Master of Fine Arts. Maggie moved from her home state of California to New Orleans in the summer of 2017 and is still suffering from In-N-Out withdrawals. A young woman who never quite grew out of her goth phase, Maggie’s work tends to have a darker side, often disguised in humor. Her short story, The Carousel, won first place in Chico State’s yearly creative writing contest in 2016.








The Swamp Witch

by Megan Parker



It began with a question, a deal, a wish.

A child’s barter—a promise of acorns, of berries, of stolen coin.

It ended, as we never thought, with a sacrifice squeezed of words.


On the hem of town, where dirt married water and clung clay-thick to our bare feet— where years of toes and heels stitched paths through swamp grass atwitch with creatures unseen, and zephyrs green with gas slipped through our hair greasy from unwash, where roots unfurled in secret knots, and fawns flicked their velvet ears against our cheeks—there would we find the swamp witch.

She is magic made flesh, a crone of gator skin and boar resolve, who, long ago, was as human as the rest of us. Her magic shaped destinies, her lips spelled fortune and downfall alike. She was fox-clever, and for generations the town sought her guidance, her destinies of scattered salt and painted cards, until her hair wrung silver.

But time is a giving thief. It cut her tongue sharper, and her spells lost their soft edges. She peered into soul-kept secrets and offered the town truths only guilt would nourish. She became devil-kissed, our parents said, and so the town cast her out to the coniferous muck.

Her bones turned to alder branches, her fingers calcified to cloven hooves. She broke teeth on pebbles in her bread, and animal hide furred over memory too human to preserve. She grew into whispers personified, into bedtime stories told to us by mothers who dried their tears with faded Tarot cards, by fathers whose futures were lost in mirrors of moon and gun smoke and blood.

To our parents, she was as ghost.

To us, she was as real as the wishes we carried.

For that is what we brought her. Our wishes, plucked and braided into wreaths of juniper brambles, into quilts woven with anhinga feathers. These offerings we would present to her in exchange for answers, for truths and salvations only magic could have wrought.

On winter solstice nights, we trekked the forested wetlands to find her lair. Each year, her hollowed tree would move to a spot yet discovered. We used to tie ribbons around pin oaks to guide us between seasons, hoping to see her in spring or fall. When they unraveled on a breeze, the youngest of us would drop painted stones from their pockets to mark the path. These too were lost, consumed by hungry water lizards. The stones rattled in their swollen bellies as they darted through the bog like otters.

The swamp witch had made this covenant with us. Only on winter solstices could she re-form as human and ripple the water for our futures. Only on these nights could we pay her in gifts cast from our own hands, in wishes shaped from children’s dreams. If we were worthy, the swamp would lead us to her and home again.

We safeguarded her secret from our parents, who hung nets of sticklewort across our windows and splashed angelica oil on our door lintels to ward away her ghost-spirit. Devilry, they said of her. She’ll trick your soul from your body. She’ll stitch her lies into your tongue.

Each season our numbers dwindled as the oldest of us stepped into adulthood, and magic was snuffed from memories. Superstition then took root in them, a ghost-chill pimpling grown skin. For that, said the witch, was the cost of adulthood.

The grown were blinded to what they did not want to see.

But we knew better.

We have huddled with the swamp witch around fires dug into silt and clay, flames of blue and green leaping skyward from burning, brackish roots. We have rubbed our fingers over the fleshy undersides of skinned raccoons and rabbits, circling oil with our thumbs to preserve the pelts. We have split the fans of gator tails with stone knives to feast on spines of meat. We have mixed moonbeams with swamp water, have drunk the sky of stars.

We could never tell of these moments.

At dawn, the swamp witch would whisper our wishes against the flat of her hooves and cast them into the vermillion glow. We would follow the rising sun through muck and grass, past trunks of dappled maple and calloused blackgum, until our town shed its foggy cloak. And we slipped between the anointed planks of our homes and into bed, our parents still adrift in dreamscapes.

When breakfast hearths blazed heat for salted pork and porridge, we would hear her on a sigh of wind and knew it was done. Our wishes answered in dried stacks of firewood in wet winter, in fathers returned home in summer from the war, in grandparents’ painless dips into the eternal. In bodies free of bruised beatings when magic slips from our lips.

For years, it had been so, the oldest of us raising the youngest of us in stories of the swamp witch, teaching the tots to seal their lips. And we would have kept our promise always, had the swamp witch not broken bond instead.


On our final swamp solstice, the winter night stretched long as a cat against its bones, and we took turns leading each other by lantern light through the rot-ripe mire. We trailed our palms against the prickled skin of black ash, let beards of moss tickle our shoulders, listened to the hiss of wind-washed grass. The littlest among us sang in nervous whispers behind cupped hands:

Thither flies the chickadee

With a wish for you and a wish for me . . .

Around our necks and within our pockets we carried our gifts for her, little treasures made with hope. We listened for her voice in the rattle of branches, in the reedy clack of cattails against our cottoned thighs.

Suddenly, a fox appeared on the path ahead, brown as dried blood in moonlight. He tilted his head as one does to hear a question. His bright eyes, swollen yellow, never blinked from our faces as he spoke his greeting:

Riddles three answer me,

And I will show you in.

Riddle poor, go forth no more,

Else tricks you’ll find herein.

It always went like this. The swamp witch loved her tests, for how else might she trust us? How else might we prove we were not yet grown, had not swayed in our belief? That we were worthy of her gifts?

The cleverest of us had never failed to solve the fox’s riddles. The first two questions we answered true. But the fox showed us his sharp smile on the last.

I walk afore you every day, but you cannot see me. What am I?

We hunched our backs to him, loomed together our fingers as though we could share our thoughts through touch.

Dreams? we wondered. The wind? Might it be the witch herself?

You are the stars, we said at last, triumphant, who are yet unseen in daylight.

Incorrect, replied the fox. His teeth lengthened like knives. But since you answered the first riddles in truth, I will claim but one of you, and still I will show you the way. Otherwise, return home now without spent wishes. Do you accept my bargain?

The smallest girls and boys, still young enough to feel afraid, shed tears in silent drips, but we nodded our heads. This was the way of things. This was sacrifice. The fox walked up to a girl who had not yet grown into her dress. Her hair, bowed with blue ribbon, curled in a red tail down her back, and when the fox nipped her palm, she didn’t startle.

Wide-eyed, we watched her transform in the shadows of the cypress. Her ears shot past her head in twin points. Her muzzle lengthened, her lips drew thin and black. She shrank until her dress belled like a lily around her, until she pulled herself from the seersucker bodice with four paws. Together with the fox, she trotted the path ahead, and we followed the brush of her tail through inky shadows.

Noises collected within the swamp like fat on milk, thickest on that, the longest night in winter, for the swamp never saw a cold December, and all living things rejoiced in its warmth.

When we came upon a tunnel of trees, the foxes stopped and sat back on their haunches.

This is as far as we can lead you, said the he-fox. Do not tarry within this stretch of wood. Do not let the thorns prick you. And whatever you do, do not eat of the fruit. And he and the she-fox darted into the bristly brush.

Let us link hands, we said, to withstand temptation.

We walked single file on our toe-tips through the soft squish of earth, arms stretched taut as bow strings. The night-creatures’ sounds extinguished as the tunnel folded around us. Nameless trees coiled over our heads, twisting their spiked iron boughs toward our faces. Pricked on their spindly fingers were orbs of fruit, glowing gold and bronze in the shadows of the trees. Punctured on spikes, they dribbled honeyed juice in our hair, slicked our joined fingers.

We are nearly there, we whispered to each other. Steady.

But for the hungriest of us, for him whose father came home from hunts empty-handed, this test proved the most difficult. My wish, he had told us earlier that eve, is for a belly full year-round.

From last in line, he stretched out his unheld hand and captured a palmful of golden juice. We turned to warn him, to remind him of the meat the witch would grant to slake his hunger—but his lips were already aglitter, and we could do nothing as a tree bent toward him. It wrapped him so completely in iron limbs as to make him invisible.

It was not until a strange light burst between the branches that the tree showed us the boy, transformed into a glob of fruit, bronzed and shimmering and too dangerous to touch. Trembling, we left him captured on the bough and slipped from the mouth of the forest onto the lip of swamp.

Whoops and chitters of nocturnal creatures exploded around us once more, and in between their night howls, we heard her speak. Now, for courage. Consume but one, and all may enter.

On a log green with ferns, we found three items with our lantern’s glow: a toadstool of slime, a flower of barbs, and a vial of glass.

We gathered our heads together. Our tongues withered as we deliberated, curling away from taste of slime and prick of barb. We debated so long that the moon slipped in the sky.

Surely, we said, we must choose between the toadstool and flower, for what bravery lies in an empty vial? Besides, what if death pours clear and we make it visible?

Ah, spoke the most audacious, but what better way to test our mettle than with mystery? For what courage can be found in reluctance? And despite our protests, she pressed the glass vial to her lips.

Hands over mouths, we waited for her to wilt like a rose or disappear into nothing. But she bloomed instead, beautiful and unscathed.

A tide of wind gushed through our ears and hair and noses in a torrent, bearing the carrion smell of rotting plants and rodents, the sweet laugh of the witch rising above.

Beside the quiet lap of swamp water, where shadow bent solid and moonlight painted all to bone, we found a massive hollowed tree. And before it stooped the swamp witch.

She had wrapped herself in the quilts and sashes we’d sewn for her from wool and feathers. Her cloven feet churned the muck, and her skin overlapped in iridescent black scales like plates of oiled armor, rippling between patches of silver fur. Horns spiraled from her matted skull, and her hair fell in coarse braids to her feet. As we approached, she watched with eyes elliptical, pupils splitting the blue irises like arrows.

My darlings, my darlings, she crooned through jagged, mossy teeth, Worthy of the world’s wishes.

We slipped our acorn beads over her head, tucked sprigs of lavender behind her tufted ears, and placed rocks of sugar beneath her dry tongue. Two coins of gold the richest of us dropped into the folds of her sash, a request she had whispered to us on yesterday’s wind. She kissed our brows each in turn, her humid lips smearing stardust.

I am afraid, my dears, that this is the end of us, she said, bowing her head. My magic is far too aged. My bones are breaking, my lungs are emptying. I use these coins soon to seal my eyes as I journey to lands unknown.

All of us wept and clung to the folds of her feathers and scales. Do not leave us, we begged. Never leave this world. For what is this world without the magic of you?

I must go, she said, stoppering our tears with her hoof tips. I was never meant to live forever. Your offerings have sustained my magic these years past, but no longer. You must understand.

The swamp lamented with us—the wind a serrated screech through our limbs, creatures keening as we sobbed. She embraced us each in turn, inquiring as to our wishes. But we no longer had wishes to offer. Even she could not undo our misery.

Please, we begged. Is there no magic that can spare you? Is there no wish we might make?

The witch paused, and something unfamiliar flickered in her eyes. There is one way, she said, drawing out each word as we drew breath. One way that your wishes might yet be preserved. And then, as if to herself, But how could I ask this of you?

She gave herself a little shake and halted last before the bravest of us, the lovely girl who drank of mystery. The witch lifted her chin delicately with a cloven toe. An exchange.

The girl frowned. Of what?

We all stood in silence, hearts thrumming like wings in bone cages. Beating, beating with trepidation, with fear that felt like hope—

To preserve magic, the witch said, marking us each with her stare, we must nourish it. Dress it in pure belief, in brazen courage. She looked to the brave girl once more. As I once was called to do, and many before me.

And what part do I play? asked the girl, jaw tight but eyes wide. Willing.

The witch offered a sad smile. The worthy sacrifice.


In winters past, we trapped rabbits for the swamp witch. Sliced the delicate membrane between hide and meat, thumbed gore onto each other’s faces as we laughed. We stretched their hides between branches, watched blades of fur bend like grass in wind.

We had never skinned a fur-less thing.

We had never seen the hidden side of human flesh.

It stretched in the most unexpected way, the skin, at once supple and delicate. We didn’t watch what the swamp witch did with the rest, a ritual of bone and veins and muscle. The swamp erupted in a chorus of howls and hisses, and we squeezed together like fingers around a knife, cutting our pain against each other’s shoulder blades, watching dawn rise like a bloody fist.

Sheaves of light poured over the murky water at our feet, the gold rippling past knee-bent cypresses, floating pads of lilies, the graceful leaps of frogs. When the light shimmered over the horizon and night’s wild threnody died on a breath, we turned around.

The swamp witch stood as beautiful and terrifying as she always had, yet something seemed to stir the air around her. Her scales and feathers glistened with an incandescence we had never seen. We looked at her and felt magic rise like bread in our stomachs, warm and full and sweet. She smiled. Her teeth dripped red.

With purpose comes sacrifice, she said. For youth is but a dying ember, its warmth a temporary balm. But magic— She hesitated, meeting our gazes one by one. Magic ignites. It is the lifeblood of the world, the heartbeat that orchestrates our every breath. It is the dream that soothes nightmare, the hope that launches a thousand wishes. Without it, we drown in mundanity, in hopelessness.

She ran a hoof over her newest hide, sunbeams highlighting its tiny hairs. We felt our skin prickle in response. Do no grieve for what is freely given.

And what of our wishes? we asked, trying to summon bravery. We had never felt fear in her swamp, and now our lungs were wet with it. Might we wish for her return?

Magic may never undo a wish, said the witch. And a sacrifice rejected is an insult to truth.

Her words hummed the air around us like a spell. The witch plucked the golden coins from her sash and returned them to the giver. Your wishes have gone stale, she said. Return home. My creatures will guide you safely from the swamp.

As if summoned by her words, the he-fox appeared at the tree line. He sat in silence, his eyes full of ghosts.

She turned toward her hollow tree, looking once more at us over her shoulder. Remember what was lost tonight in pursuit of desire, and likewise what you have gained. Remember that wishes can destroy as equally as they can save, that to find joy we must be willing to bleed. This shall be our new covenant.

And she vanished on a breeze of fur and claws and feathers. A moment later, the hollowed tree winked out of sight.

We traipsed to the edge of the clearing toward the fox, hand in hand and tongues sour with unspoken words. When we turned around, we saw that the brave girl’s skin was gone too. We tried to ignore the way our shadows stretched with lanky fingers and longer legs as we walked beneath dappled boughs.

We tried to ignore the feast of sorrow that gnawed on our spines, the bodies we stepped out of and abandoned to the moss.

Our last refuge of permanence.




Megan Parker is a mom and freelance editor by day and a devourer of worlds by night. She loves weird stories, especially those spiced with dark and creepy twists, but she’s always amenable to happy endings. Her fiction and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in Harpur Palate, The Sonder Review, FLARE, and Fiolet & Wing: An Anthology of Domestic Fabulism, among others, and her story “A Good Thing” was the tertiary winner of SNHU’s 2016 Fall Fiction Contest. Currently, she resides in San Angelo, TX, with her husband and daughters, where almost nothing of note occurs. You can find her exploring the world via twitter @MegsMcSparren.






In the Kelp Forest

by Rosemary Harp




Tess Chen is in high demand as a pet sitter around Arriba Circle. She can be trusted with feeding schedules and keys. She does not snoop or help herself to popsicles. Since summer vacation began, she has looked after a middle-aged cat, a clutch of frantic and incestuous hamsters, and Jorie Wexler’s black and yellow ball python. The python job was the easiest and the hardest: the snake only needed to be fed once a week but it ate frozen mice the Wexlers kept in a Ziploc bag in the spare freezer in their garage. One week Tess dropped a frozen mouse and the tail broke off the rigid body when the corpse bounced on the concrete floor. Tess didn’t mind picking up the mouse so much—after all, she’d just plucked it from the freezer bag—but touching the lone, fleshy tail filled her with dread, as if the tail might somehow reanimate and begin wriggling between her thumb and forefinger.

Her current job watching Cricket, the arthritic spaniel across the street, is her best yet. At ten dollars a day for three days it’s the most lucrative, and she really needs the money: if she earns $100 by August, she can enroll in the junior scuba course at Sacramento State. She has $60 so far. Tess is going to be a marine biologist. Underwater everything is softly muffled and diffuse; on land, under the pitiless sun, life feels to Tess jarring and amped up. When she can’t sleep at night, she imagines herself swimming through a kelp forest. Scuba lessons are the first step to a refuge among the gently waving kelp and glimmering schools of yellowtail.

Plus, taking care of Cricket gives Tess a legitimate reason to walk past Sven Ragnarsson’s house three times a day. Three times a day she crosses the tarry asphalt in an agony of wondering. Will Sven be standing in his front yard swinging a tennis racquet at nothing? Swimming quiet laps in the backyard? Practicing? When she hears the reedy strains of his oboe seeping out his closed bedroom window over the diligent hum of a hundred neighborhood air conditioners, she knows she will not see him and goes about her business with Cricket more quickly, while still being careful to follow Mrs. Kipps’ instructions.

Stacey Kipps, in Tess’ class at Sutter Middle School, is a cheerleader, but not the kind who shakes a couple perky pompoms and chants, “Be aggressive! Be, be aggressive!” in the direction of a twelve-year-old quarterback. Stacey competes throughout California doing harrowing routines where she tops human pyramids and gets tossed skyward by other tiny but startlingly powerful girls. Tess has seen the cheer team perform on the local public access cable channel.

For years Tess and Stacey scrambled across Arriba Circle, drank lemonade from each other’s refrigerators without asking, whispered urgent secrets into each other’s ears, and once whipped each other into such a fit of hilarity Stacey peed her pants and they were asked to leave the public library, which they did without a trace of shame, still laughing and clutching each other, a faintly swampy scent coming from Stacey’s damp Guess jeans.

Stacey doesn’t invite Tess over anymore. There was no falling out, just a slow attrition Tess had no control over that lasted all of sixth grade. Stacey declined most, then all, invitations from Tess, but for a while returned about half of Tess’s phone calls—a maddening pattern Tess could not decode. After each of these infrequent conversations, Tess lay on the floor in her bedroom trying to identify what she’d said that was stupid or objectionable. When she finally worked up the courage to ask Stacey if she’d done something wrong, Stacey replied in a bright, hard voice that, no, she’d just been really, really busy. Then came the day in seventh grade when the two girls passed each other in the halls of Sutter Middle and Stacey looked away. It was around that time Tess started thinking about the kelp forests with their dappled light.


Stacey cried when she said goodbye to Cricket: apparently this parting was hard on her. She did not acknowledge Tess’s presence in her kitchen.

“You be good while I’m gone, Crickety-crick,” Stacey said and buried her face in the old dog’s liver colored neck while Tess reviewed the details of Cricket’s care one last time with Mrs. Kipps.

Tess wants to be the kind of girl who likes dogs, but she isn’t. Girls who like dogs, Tess believes, hug their friends whenever they meet, even when they just saw each other a couple hours ago. They make colorful bracelets of complexly knotted string, exchange them with each other, and wear them on their bare ankles. They play soccer and have matching shin guards. Tess does not make or exchange—she can hardly bear to call them by name—friendship bracelets. Tess likes making odd little sculptures out of feathers and glue and glossy hard candies. She likes Trivial Pursuit. Tess reads the game cards to herself at the kitchen counter. She is careful to slide the cards she has read into the back of the box so they will not appear during a real game, which would pose an ethical problem.

The air shimmers above Arriba Circle’s asphalt surface. Tess can feel the heat through the thin rubber soles of her sneakers. No Sven. She keys into the Kipps’s house, which is an exact copy of her own and Sven’s and every other house on Arriba Circle: three bedrooms, a combined kitchen-dining room, and a living room, all one on floor. And every house has its own small pool. If you were to fly high above the neighborhood, it would look like that monster from Greek mythology, the one with a hundred watery blue eyes.

Cricket lifts herself one shuddering leg at a time to a standing position, trembles with pleasure, and limps over to Tess. When Cricket approaches Tess with her eager tail and dripping smile, Tess’s limbs go stiff, but not with fear. In the syncopated rhythm of panting and wagging, she hears, “I want, I want, I want.” It is for this open, exposed wanting that Tess cannot forgive dogs.

Tess refills Cricket’s water, places four ice cubes in the bowl, and portions out exactly half a cup of dry food. The dog eats and drinks gratefully. Tess removes Cricket’s leash from the hook by the kitchen door, but does not take Cricket out right away. Instead she walks through the Kipps’s living room and down the long, thickly carpeted hallway to Stacey’s room.

Stacey’s room is pristine. Tess’s room, though architecturally identical to Stacey’s, is always a disaster of shifting piles of books and half-filled diaries to which she has lost the key. Stacey’s Cabbage Patch Dolls and stuffed Care Bears are gone, Tess sees. So is Stacey’s rainbow bedspread, which has been replaced by a grown-up looking mauve one. Lying on the bedspread is one of Stacey’s green and gold cheer team uniforms. Tess holds up the sleeveless pleated dress and for an instant has a wild, un-Tess-like urge to try it on in front of Stacy’s gold-framed full-length mirror. But no, the dress will be far too small. Not for the first time Tess feels the genetic injustice here: she is Asian (half), but it is Stacey (“we might be Irish, maybe?”) who is tiny and lithe.

As she lays the dress back on the bed, Tess sees a matching mauve telephone on the nightstand.  A roaring whirlpool of white noise fills her head as she wonders if the telephone has its own line. The idea that Stacey has her own phone number, one she has never shared with Tess, provokes her to a rage that gets its power from grief.  She lifts the receiver and dials the Kipps family’s number, which she knows as well as her own. She can hear her breath amplified back to her. Sure enough, all the other telephones in the empty house cry out. Tess places the telephone back on its cradle slowly. The urge to destroy something, maybe the phone itself, rolls over her in waves, but as always she swallows her rage, forces it down, down, down until it sits like a sick animal in her stomach.

But then the Ragnarssons’ back door swings open and Sven stalks outside barefoot, wearing white shorts and a t-shirt that says FILA. For the moment, Tess forgets the private phone. Half-hidden behind gauzy curtains, she watches Sven sit on the edge of the pool with his legs dangling in the shallow end. His back is rounded over something. When he shifts position slightly, what Tess sees makes her breath trip in her lungs: the telltale, oblong blue box of Trivial Pursuit game cards. Sven pulls one. Reads. Flips the card. Reads. Flips it back. Here is method—ritual, even. Clearly he has done this before. The sickly weight in Tess’s stomach eases then morphs into a mad flutter.

“Cricket!” Tess calls. “Cricket, come!” She runs down the hall and back into the kitchen where Cricket snores raggedly on the tile.

“Let’s go out!” Tess jerks open the drawer under the microwave and there is Cricket’s supply of chewed-up tennis balls, same as ever.  She shows Cricket a greenish-gray specimen.

“Look! Ball!” she says. “Do you want to play?”

Cricket gazes up at the ball, and at Tess, with a love that is limitless. She thumps her tail twice then stands.

“Good girl!” she trills. She sounds a bit crazed even to herself.

The Kipps’s back yard is shadeless and mostly devoted to cement pool deck, but a strip of grass runs alongside the chain-link fence that borders the Ragnarssons’ yard.

Tess tosses the ball. Cricket hobbles after it and plops it at Tess’s feet.  After a few runs, Cricket warms up and moves more nimbly, like she’s tapping into reserves of youthful zest. When she drops the ball at Tess’s feet, Cricket tosses her head to request another round of the game. Tess looks over at Sven with each toss.  He cannot ignore her forever.  Or maybe he can. He reads and flips more Trivial Pursuit cards.

After fifteen tosses she calls, “That’s cheating, you know.”

Because Tess Chen is innately unable to flirt these words come out sounding less like cute teasing than the scolding of a disappointed librarian.

Sven looks up. He is not a kind boy, exactly, or a warm one, but he is honorable, and any questioning of his honor angers him.

“It is not. I put the cards in the back after I test myself. It’s no different than playing a real game.”

Tess tosses; Cricket runs.

“It is different,” she says. “In a real game you only see one question per card. You’re seeing all of them.” This has just occurred to her and she knows she’s in pot-kettle territory.

Toss. Retrieve. Cricket pants harder.

Sven stands. He crosses his arms over his chest and his legs drip on the patio. The water evaporates so fast it’s as if the dark circles on the pale cement were never there. Almost everything makes him mad, Tess thinks. It’s fascinating to her that such a quiet person should also be so stormy.

“Come play me, then, if you’re such an expert,” he says.

“Ok,” she says, as though this isn’t the single most amazing thing she could conceive of. She walks around to the gate.

Here are the things Tess loves about Sven Ragnarsson: everything. To be more specific, she loves his blonde curls. When they loop down around his ears he will get them shorn off and start all over again. She can predict within thirty-six hours when the haircut will happen. She loves that he wears shorts even on the coldest days in January. She loves that he is descended from Vikings. She loves that he can build or fix absolutely anything. She loves his oboe. She even loves, or maybe she especially loves, that he isn’t very nice to her. Although, and she treasures this memory, when Trevor Dixon called her “half-breed,” Sven clenched his fists and said, “shut up!” with a fury that surprised everyone on the school bus—Tess most of all.

Sven’s parents are a matched set of large, blonde, NPR-listening Minnesotan transplants, the only other people in the neighborhood, besides the Chens, who compost. Her parents privately poke fun at the Ragnarssons for being such square, solid, Midwestern-type citizens.  The Chens pride themselves on being old Berkeley hippies. Like her parents, the Ragnarssons are Democrats, rare in their Sacramento exurb, and this gives Tess a safe feeling of solidarity in this Orwellian election year. Whenever Tess sees Mrs. Ragnarsson she feels a shy, semi-hysterical compulsion to confess: I love your son, have loved him my whole life.

Sven sets up the board on the table by the pool.

“What color do you want to be?”

“Blue,” she says. Sven pauses like he’s about to object, like he wants to be blue or maybe just wants to fight her for it on principle, but then closes his lips over his braces. He selects yellow for himself and they begin.

“What is the capital of Yugoslavia?”

“Who sang ‘My Way’?”

“Who was executed by burning on May 30, 1431?”

“Who created the character Tom Sawyer?”

They move their little pie pan-shaped game pieces around the board. When Sven thinks a question is too easy, an affront to them both, he clutches his stomach and rocks forward groaning. Tess is so charmed by this gesture she considers making up questions like “what color do you get when you mix yellow and blue?” or “what country fought in the American Civil War?” so he’ll do it again.

Sven pushes play on a portable cassette deck and Tess recognizes one of her favorite albums. Tess believes only obscure bands from England with gloomy young frontmen and a heavy dependency on synthesizers are valid. It’s interesting to think that maybe Sven shares this view.

“You’re dogsitting Cricket?” he asks.

“Yeah, they’re away at one of Stacey’s cheer competitions.”

Tess realizes as the words leave her mouth that it was a tactical error to put Sven in mind of Stacey and cheerleaders.

But with a noise like “Mhhh” Sven dismisses all cheer-related activities, rolls the die, and counts out spaces.

“Ha, I can get the green wedge,” he says. But he doesn’t know the name of Jacques Cousteau’s boat and the game goes on. When Tess rests her forearms on the surface of the table, she has to pull them away quickly because the metal is so hot. The needle on the Ragnarssons’ big, round-faced thermometer claims it’s 137 degrees, but the thermometer sits in the direct sunlight and can’t be correct.

“Hang on. My brain is overheating. Ozone layer depletion,” Sven says. He slides out from the table, kneels by the pool, and dunks his head. He rises and gives his curls a doggish shake, intentionally spraying needles of water at Tess, who does not give him the satisfaction of squealing.

She decides to dunk her head, too. She sets her glasses by the pool’s edge and submerges her entire head into that womb-warm, chlorine-blue world. She used to swim here with Sven when they both needed inflatable water wings and he still had an older brother. Tess remembers Mats Ragnarsson only hazily:  a bigger, darker, sweeter version of Sven.  In her memory, he stands on his hands underwater and his long, upturned legs wave in the harsh sun.

“Let’s go,” Sven calls. Tess hears him above the soothing hum of the filter and yanks herself back into the blinding world. In the Kipps’ backyard, Cricket wheezes. Tess sticks her head over the fence. Cricket lifts her head then lets it sink again. Her ribcage rises and falls.

“Come on,” says Sven. Tess turns from Cricket back to Sven.

Three to three, they play on.

In her newfound ease, Tess sings along with Sven’s music, which is also, amazingly, her music.

“You like Echo and the Bunnymen?” he asks her. She detects an incredulous note in his voice. Maybe some grudging respect, too.

Tess nods.

“Most people only know their one hit,” He says.

Tess rolls her eyes to signal her disdain for hits and the people who like them. She is not a habitual eye roller and the operation makes the tricksy little muscles around her eyes ache briefly.

“Who directed the classic thriller ‘The Birds’?”

“What is the chief export of Nicaragua?”

“Who is known as The Belle of Amherst?”

With the Emily Dickinson question, on which Tess doesn’t skip the merest beat, she earns the brown wedge and pulls into the lead.

“Ugh!” Sven says.

In frustration real or playful—he is not a gracious loser—Sven reaches over and yanks her ponytail as he often did five years ago or more. First there is pain and then her body lights up with a million pricks of electricity that surge from her scalp down her spine then fizz like a Fourth of July sparkler in her toes. The pain is like the sudden, flooding memory of an old dream.

Hurting her, she somehow understands, has always been his excuse to touch her. To touch her gently would be against unnamable rules, but to pinch her, pull her hair, shove her is allowed. And to be touched by him is to know why she has skin.

“You have a lot of general knowledge,” he says.


“How old are you now?”

“Twelve,” she says. “but my birthday is in three weeks.”

He should know this, she thinks, because his birthday is exactly two years and ten days before hers and he attended her first eight birthday parties. Sven was born the day of the first moon landing, which seems to Tess cosmically apt—his birth a starry phenomenon, a giant leap for mankind. She wonders why he is asking her age and wonders if maybe he is doing the math on how soon they can get married. If they got married, they could play Trivial Pursuit every day.

“What are you going to do with the money? From all your pet sitting?” he asks.

So he has noticed her, she realizes, going around the neighborhood, unlocking doors, punching in alarm codes, steeling herself for frozen mice. She wants to tell him about the scuba course, maybe even the kelp forest, but also wants to keep it safe and private in case it’s contemptible. But Sven shrugged at the mention of cheerleading, said Tess knew a lot, and asked her age for mysterious reasons of his own. She has known him her entire life. So she goes ahead and tells him.

He rearranges the colored wedges in his game piece.

“Wait, but, are you good at math?”

Tess is not.

“I thought you were more like, I don’t know, creative,” he continues. “You need to be really excellent at math to be any kind of scientist.”

Tess is sinking now; the roaring white noise from Stacy’s bedroom is whirlpooling back into her head. Marine biologists are biologists. She knows that, of course, but at some point the image of herself suspended in the perfect peace of the kelp forest overrode the reality of science, with its calculations and data. Would she really want to study kelp? Or even marine animals?  She’s not that interested in animals.

Then she thinks: Cricket.

She runs to the gate in the side yard that adjoins the Kipps’s yard, where Cricket is lying on the cement a foot from the pool. Tess recognizes the heaviness of Cricket, the way gravity is working on her, and knows the truth. Panic hits, then guilt, then more panic. She wants to call for Sven, but to address him by name, urgently and in need, is impossible.

Without being called, he comes over the fence. A hand flies up to cover the lower half of his face exactly the way her hand is covering the lower half of her face. They stand side by side.

“It’s not your fault. Cricket’s older than me, even. That’s almost a hundred in dog years,” he says.

But Tess is thinking about Cricket’s position by the pool and knows Sven sees what she sees: Cricket died trying to get to water.

“When do they get home?” he asks.

“Late tonight.”

“We have to move her.”

Cricket is not heavy between the two of them, but there is the problem of limbs, the problem of tail. They find their stride. Cricket’s fur is warm against Tess’s bare arms. She remembers the pallbearers at Mats Ragnarsson’s funeral.

“We’ll go through the garage,” Sven says. But the garage door is locked. They shift Cricket’s weight and start again, this time for the back door. Tess slides an arm out from under Cricket’s midsection and tries the knob.  It too is locked. In her excitement to get outside to Sven earlier, Tess locked herself and Cricket out of the Kipps’ house.

Sven swears. Tess has never heard him curse before and it’s a terrible and violent thing, a man’s anger rather than a boy’s. They set Cricket down.

“I can break in through the laundry room window,” Sven says. “I do it at home when I lock myself out. These houses are all the same.” He says the last part in disgust, like the sameness of their houses is a moral and aesthetic insult to him personally. Tess finds that sameness comforting.

He goes to the laundry room’s exterior wall and Tess follows. Sven rattles the window in a series of small, swift jerks until they hear a click. Sven slides the window open horizontally and pops out the screen.

“Cup your hands and boost me.”

Tess does. The weight of him, concentrated in one calloused and dusty bare foot, tugs at her hard. Then the weight disappears; Sven is up and through. He replaces and locks the breached window and reemerges from the kitchen door. They take Cricket once again.

“She usually stays in the kitchen, right?”


They lay Cricket on the cool tile by the refrigerator and survey. There is a crime scene grimness to the whole scenario.

“Maybe you should put some food in her bowl so it doesn’t look like you forgot to feed her,” Sven suggests. “No, don’t.  It should look like she ate well. Stacey will freak out if she thinks Cricket died hungry.”

The mention of Stacey sends all of Tess’s blood to her feet. Dizzy, she plays out the scene where the Kipps family returns home, sleepy but happy, balancing multiple cheer trophies, to find Cricket inert on the kitchen floor. Stacey will gasp then sob. Blame will be promptly assigned. Stacey will never, ever phone her from the private line.

Sven interrupts.

“I won’t tell,” he says.

“I know.”

She does know. That is the sort of boy he is. But she also knows that they won’t ever play Trivial Pursuit again.

“If they don’t pay you I can loan you money for your scuba course.”

“Thanks, but that’s ok,” Tess says. She is genuinely moved by this offer, but the scuba plan feels like something a stranger, or a much younger child, dreamed up.

Sven stares down at Cricket with his fists clenched.

“It’s their own fault for leaving the dog with a little girl,” he says to no one.

Tess wants only to get out of that kitchen, out of that house, but at the same time she knows that once she leaves there is no going back, ever. Sven goes first and Tess locks the door behind them. By the time she pockets the key, Sven is beyond the fence, in his own yard. He disappears through the door, identical to the open door Tess is standing in, identical to the back door to her own house. It’s like he was never there.





Rosemary Harp is a Chicago-based writer of fiction and essays. She holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from The University of Michigan and an M.A. in English Lit from the University of Virginia. Her writing has appeared in Mid-American Review, Motherwell, and other journals. She is working on her first novel.





The Table

by Robert Klose



I first saw the table about ten years ago, while driving in my pickup through Wiscasset, Maine, along the coastal route.  It was autumn, the air aflutter with falling leaves, and I spotted it at a yard sale, off to the side, suggesting it might have been spoken for.  Nevertheless, I stopped.  The table was simple but elegant, its round top made of laminated oak and fastened to a slim, four-sided stem.  The stem itself was supported at its base by a pedestal consisting of four curved buttresses, one attached to each face of the stem.  (Three of these buttresses were in excellent condition; but the fourth was damaged, as if a portion had been chewed off by a dog.)

As it turned out, the table was still available.  The seller was a husky, middle-aged man who blurted, “One hundred dollars.”

“That’s a lot for a yard sale item.”

“It’s hand-crafted,” he said, more in afterthought than an attempt to sweeten the deal.



“I’ll give you seventy-five.”

He was aghast.  “I’d rather burn it than sell it for that price.”

“In that case, I’ll take it.”  After paying the man I threw the table into my pickup and headed north again, ahead of a threatening rain.

I brought the table to my still-almost-empty house and set it down in the middle of my empty kitchen, under a circular fluorescent ceiling light from the fifties.  (The realtor had touted the house as having “charming mid-century touches.”)  Then I surrounded it with what I had for seats — an aluminum lawn chair, a windsor chair, a metal folding chair, and a lobster crate.

I sat down in the lawn chair, looked out over the table — now the only piece of quality furniture in the house — and said, “There.”  I felt that in delivering the table to its appointed place, I was, in a way, inaugurating my new home.

As time went on, the inevitable accumulation of “things” progressed.  Beds, more chairs, night stands, book cases, end tables, dressers and a sofa.  The table, though, remained my home’s stillpoint — a neutron star whose gravity gathered everything unto itself.  In the morning I ate breakfast there; in the evening I opened my mail and paid my bills upon it; when I had guests, we sat around the table; and when I found a baby robin in the backyard, I put it in a shoe box and set it upon the table, where I could observe its return to health under the steady glow of the overhead fluorescent, which bathed the table in a continuous, soft light, like a museum piece.  Finally, in a delicate balancing act, I made love to a now erstwhile girlfriend upon the table, calling out to her in my moment of ecstasy, “My flower!”

In short, I loved the table and sensed that, no matter how my station in life might progress and improve, I would never part with it.



Winter came.  Waterways froze, icicles descended from the eaves, and chimneys puffed peaceably along.  That’s when I saw her.  The Russian woman.  I was driving along the main road through town.  The snow was flying about in periodic gusts, and had been coming down since early morning.  Enough had fallen so that the plows had rumbled it into long, high ridges on both sides of the road.

She was hobbling through the drifts, hunched over old-womanishly, clutching a large paper bag of groceries against the front of her gray wool coat.  She was wearing only flats, and every so often one flew off, so that she had to pause, backstep, work it back onto her foot (along with a dollop of slush), and then press forward again.

I pulled over and rolled down the window.  “Do you want a ride?”

I had startled her.  She threw me a desperate look and barked, “What!”

“A ride?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, matter-of-factly, as if she had been expecting me.  She got into the truck and I could feel the cold emanating from her body.

“Where to?”


“Where can I take you?”


I knew the accent.  “You know…”

“What!”  (It came out as “Vaht!”.)

“We have a growing Russian community here.”

“I know,” she said with something resembling disgust.  “I am part of it.”  And then she asked, crossly, “How did you know I was Russian?”

“Your accent.”

She examined my face, as if I were joking.  “I have no accent,” she said in broad Slavic vowels.

I followed her directions, down poorly plowed side streets and around corners banked with snow.  She revealed herself in snippets.  St. Petersburg.  A research chemist.  A husband, Oleg.  America.  Two sons, Sasha and Timur.  Then no Oleg.  Lost to a designing American woman.  Oleg took Timur.  Now she cannot leave America.  She is here.  She is stuck.  She has Sasha, but other than him, nothing.  Nothing!  “My name is Ada,” she said after taking a breath, as if to punctuate her tale of woe, giving each syllable desperate weight.  Ahduh.

“Here,” she commanded, and I stopped the truck in front of a three-story, peelpaint apartment house.  It must have been frigid inside, because the windows were frosted over, icicles hanging in front of them like bars.  In a second floor window there was a clear patch, framing a pale face, round and searching.  “Sashinka,” said Ada, softly.  Then she turned to me and ordered, “You will come in for tea.”

Having time on my hands, and hounded by curiosity, I followed Ada up the icy front steps and into a dim vestibule which smelled like old blankets.  The wallpaper was from a distant era, scaling off in broad swatches.  I watched as she stepped out of her flats and planted a wet foot upon the first step.  I followed.

Halfway up the stairs there was a thundering from above.  Sasha made a raucous descent, jabbering in an insistent ragtime of Russian.  “Da, da,” said his mother.  “Da.”  They embraced as if the boy had just arrived from a distant journey.

Sasha looked me over, and I him.  He was ten or eleven, blond, with a broad forehead and wide-set, light blue eyes, a narrow chin.  He was, in other words, a Russian.  He put out his hand and I shook it.

Ada shed her coat and threw it over the wooden railing.  Her figure confirmed that she was younger than I had at first thought.  Perhaps forty.  When she took off her knit hat her light brown hair fell forward, plain and straight.

Their apartment was spartan, and cold.  A shoddy card table its centerpiece.  Two wooden folding chairs.  A foam chair/bed occupied one corner, and a canvas cot stretched along a wall, its only gloss a neatly folded, red and yellow afghan.  Between these was a small, overladen bookcase.  The whole scene was austere, Soviet.  Sasha, in anticipation of his mother’s arrival, had already set out tea and a platter of small, plain cakes.  Ada and I sat in the two chairs with Sasha squatting between us on a stool.  She watched as I took my first tentative sip.  “Do you like the tea?” she asked.

“Superb,” I said, my breath visible.

She hauled out the box it had come in.  “Five hundred bags,” she proclaimed.  “And only two dollars!”

More snippets.  She walked everywhere.  No car.  Little money.  Tutored Russian and cleaned the public library at night.  Sasha got straight A’s.  Spoke English like a native.  No, better.  If only Timur…

“Are you cold?” she asked.  This was Sasha’s cue to jump to his feet and scrape an image in a pane with his fingernail.  “It’s colder inside than out,” he announced with a smile, as if to show that they could take it.

“Oil is expensive,” remarked Ada as she cupped the tea in her hands.  Sasha ran back to the table and bumped it with his knee.  A leg collapsed.


I was on my feet, dancing to dispel the pain.  Ada rushed to my assistance while Sasha tried to right the table.  “Go in bathroom and put cold water on it,” she commanded.

“The tea…”


“The teapot,” I managed, still fanning my lap.  “It’s still pouring out.  On the floor.”

Sasha was already there, mopping and straightening while trying to hold the table up with his shoulder.

“Some day,” said Ada to my back as I hobbled to the bathroom, “I will have a real table.”



The first day of spring.  Maine looked as if it had the potential for warmth once again, its ice and snow having been cashiered into rushing rivers and streams, its front yards and fields awash in mud.

Galina Sergeivna called.  She was the linchpin of the local Russian community.  Eighty years old, she had the broad, nesting doll expanse of the older Russian woman, but, having survived the siege of Leningrad and then a trek west with her family into Nazi arms, she also had a broad expanse of will.

Her voice was insistent, urgent.  But this was normal.  Even when she was proffering borscht, her voice was insistent, urgent, as if the fate of the world depended on my lifting a small, red, shriveled beet to my mouth.

“Listen,” she told me, breathlessly.  “Ada…”  The news took wing from there.  Ada’s situation was desperate.  As if I didn’t know.  I had spent the better part of the winter chauffeuring her about and leaving anonymous packages of groceries at her door, which, one day, brought the rhetorical cry:  “If I knew who it was, I would kill him.”


Now her poor situation had worsened.  As a foreigner, she was not entitled to public assistance.  Her tutoring brought her pin money, and the cleaning job in the public library was enough to pay the rent and insure that Sasha always had clean underwear.  But that job had been a risk.  Even in a small Maine town, one can get away with paying someone under the table for only so long.  The director of the library, having visited and fallen in love wth Russia, was willing to do this.  But the new town manager — an old cold warrior — was not.

Galina recited refrain after refrain.  “She doesn’t even have…  She doesn’t even have…”  And then, like a bolt from the blue, it came at me:  “…a table.”

I swallowed hard for the two of us.  “Yes, she does,” I countered, lamely.  “She has a card table.”

“No,” said Galina Sergeivna, rushing to Ada’s defense.  “It broke.  One of the legs bent.”  I could feel her leaning into the phone.  “It broke off.  Gone.”

Did Galina Sergeivna think I had a table to spare?  Did she know that I was the one who had left all those groceries at Ada’s door?  If so, was she now trying to coerce me?  Impossible.  She was the soul of altruism and honest intent.

“I don’t have a table,” I told her by way of preemption.

“You don’t have a table?” she echoed, astonished.

“Well, I do have a table, but…”

“Oh, so you do have a table.  Well, maybe you could give it to poor Ada.  I would give her mine, but one of the legs is bent.  It is only a matter of time before it…”

“Breaks off.”


I didn’t know what to say, yet I knew that any pause with Galina Sergeivna was pregnant with the chance of her inserting a paragraph of design.  This she immediately did.

“Listen,” she said.  “I have an idea.  My son Misha is going on sabbatical.  He’s going away.  In his garage he has a table that his mother-in-law gave him.  He can’t bring it inside yet because he has to get rid of his own table first.”  Galina Sergeivna breathed hard for a moment, considering.  “Well, I could see in my mind’s eye that neither table would fit into Ada’s apartment.  By the way, it’s solid bitch…”

“You mean beech.”

“Yes.  What did I say?”

“You said ‘bitch’.”

“Did I?  Impossible.  Why would I say that?  Anyway, you could take this table and maybe let Ada have your table for a little while.  I was at her apartment the other day and thought that a small round table would be perfect there.”



“Is it really made of beech?”



“Yes, go to Misha and have a look.  The garage is open.  This could work for everybody.”

I went to Misha’s.  The garage was open.  The table was beautiful — a broad, finely finished surface of immaculate bitch.  It would look perfect in my kitchen.  And who knows?  The way these things work, Misha just might learn to live without it.  I made the necessary arrangements with Misha and within the hour the table was standing in my dooryard, waiting.  Fifteen minutes later I was hauling my round oak table up Ada’s creaky, winding staircase.  Five minutes after that, she had adorned it with a lace tablecloth and was filling my cup with steaming black Russian tea.  It was curious that she resented the gifts of groceries but welcomed the table without so much as a thank you, as if she had been expecting it.

“I’m happy to lend this table to you until you can get a decent one of your own,” I said, staking my right to reclamation should it become necessary.

“Oh, yes, yes,” she said, nodding.  “We will take good care of it.”  As she said this, Sasha clapped the remaining three legs of the card table together and brought the shabby thing down to the curb.

That evening I ate supper alone, seated at Misha’s lovely table.



In time Ada’s situation improved.  In a desperate maneuver to remain in the States, close to Timur, she registered as an undergraduate at the university, majoring in political science.  This secured her a student visa and also granted her the privilege of sitting in a classroom with forty American eighteen-year-olds wondering what on earth the course had to do with sex.  By virtue of her Russian Ph.D., she was also awarded a tuition waiver and a stipend of four hundred dollars per month.   In addition, she had five private Russian language students.  On the weekends she and Sasha collected bottles and cans.  During one of my visits she opened a closet packed with plastic bags of returnables.  “Forty-three dollars!” she sang.

“In Michigan it would be eighty-six,” I remarked


“In Michigan they pay ten cents per bottle or can.  So you would get double the money.”

“What a country!” she said, slapping her forehead.

I visited Ada and Sasha often.  Every time I did, Ada waxed poetic about the table.  One day she told me to close my eyes when I came through the door.  “Now open them,” she said, and I beheld my table, but it looked somehow different.  If it were a living thing, I would say that it had been rejuvenated.

“I refinished it,” said Ada, clasping her hands.

“Oh.”  In truth, it looked wonderful.  She had removed the old finish and restained it.  Darker.  Fresher.

Sasha threw himself over the table and draped it with both his arms.  “I love this table,” he said.  “Do you know how to say that in Russian?”

“I had only a year of Russian in college,” I told him.

“That should be enough,” he said, chastising me.  “Try.  Try to say, ‘I love this table.'”

“I can’t.”

Ada chimed in.  “Then say, ‘Sasha loves this table.'”

“It’s no easier.”

“Start by saying ‘Sasha.’  You can say that, can’t you?  It’s the same in English.”

“Sasha,” I said, blankly.

“Now say ‘lyoo-bit.'”

I repeated the word.

“Now ‘etot stoll’.”

I repeated it.

“Now the whole thing.  ‘Sasha lyoo-bit etot stoll.'”

I did as I was told.

Sasha applauded while his mother went to fetch the tea and I sat down at the table, which was redolent with the aroma of fruitwood stain.  As Ada set the tea down, I accessed my dormant Russian.  “Ada, ” I volunteered.  “I think I can say, ‘I love this table too.'”

“Good,” said Ada.  “But first tell me if you want sugar or honey.  And drink the tea before it gets cold.  How are things where you work?”


 * * *


I stayed late into the evening.  When I finally left, toward ten, it was dark.  A solitary streetlamp shed a paltry light.  As I approached my car I caught sight of a moving shadow off to my right.  Who was this? A mugger?  In Maine?  Alarmed, I quickened my steps, but too late.  It was upon me.  I turned and cowered.  “Get away!” was all I managed to cry before a hand grabbed my arm.

“It’s all right,” counseled a man’s voice, heavily accented.  “It’s me.  Oleg.”

I lifted my eyes and squinted at him.  “I don’t know you,” I said.

“Yes you do, although we haven’t met.”

This, then, was Ada’s ex-husband.  As my eyes adjusted I could make him out.  His youngish, boyish face and thick, brown, blow-dried hair brushed straight back.  Like Stalin.  He even had Stalin’s tiger eyes.  “What do you want?”

“I’ll be brief.  I see you’re spending time with Ada.”

“Not the way you think,” I was quick to answer.

“No matter,” said Oleg.  “Things take on a life of their own, even when you think you have control.  I know you gave her a table.”

I relaxed a bit, calmed by his quiet manner, although I remained on my guard.  “How would you know that?”

Oleg shrugged.  “How did I know you were here this evening?”

“Good question.  How did you know?”

He shrugged again.  “Don’t worry about it.  I’ll bet she told you that I am some sort of monster.  If not a monster, then maybe a Bukhara from Brighton Beach.”

“She didn’t tell me anything.  And anyway, it’s none of my business.”

Oleg smiled.  “That’s a very American thing to say.  In Russia, everything is everybody’s business.  Don’t you want to know why I left her?”

“I’m not the least bit interested.”

Oleg narrowed his eyes.  “That’s a lie.  You’re really dying to know, so I’ll tell you.  We came here with Sashinka and Timurka — our boys — two years ago.  I found that I wanted to stay.  For a man like me, there are more possibilities here.  But Ada longed for St. Petersburg.  What could I do?  We separated and I found an American woman.”

“For the green card,” I said, and immediately regretted it.

“Don’t worry,” said Oleg, sensing my alarm.  “I’m not going to kill you for speaking the truth.  Of course, for the green card.  I don’t love this woman.  She’s too old for me.  And now Ada feels trapped here, because of Timurka.”

A silence settled over both of us.  “All right,” I finally said.  “Now I know more than I knew before, but I don’t see why you had to tell me this.  It doesn’t change anything.”

“I love her,” said Oleg matter-of-factly.  “I just want you to know that.  If I knew she needed a table, I would have given her one.  I build houses, you know, so I could have made her one.  From cherry.  Very expensive.  So then, your table is harmless, but please remember what I said about things taking on lives of their own.”

Having said that, he turned and disappeared into the night.

The next morning, while reading the paper, I was stunned to see Oleg’s name in the police blotter.  He had been summoned.  For assault in a local bar.  Only an hour after approaching me in front of Ada’s house.  He was free on bail.



I didn’t tell Ada about my meeting with Oleg.  Instead, life went on as usual.  I visited her on a regular basis and began to get close to Sasha, who became interested in me when he learned I was a biologist.  I took him on field trips to the coast and found him to be a quick learner with a keen eye for detail.  Between my normal visits for tea and my relationship with Sasha, I found myself at their apartment more and more.  As the weeks and months passed I made fewer references to the table being mine, that concern having been supplanted by a subtle but persistent fear that Oleg was lurking in the bushes.

Still, I felt at ease with Ada and Sasha.  The simplicity and quiet of their small apartment made it seem like some distant place divorced from both Ada’s and my preoccupations.  Now and then, as we drank our tea, I caught her peeping at me.  When I did, she blushed.  Her manner of serving tea was usually brisk and antiseptic, but on one occasion, as I took the cup from her, her hand brushed mine and I caught a flash of heat from her.  She quickly left the table, scurried to the kitchen, and gazed out the window.  For my part, I continued to sip my tea and nibble at my cookie.

One day, Galina Sergeivna called.  As usual, her message was urgent.  Misha had returned from his sabbatical and wanted his bitch table back.  Could I bring it to him that evening?  I asked for a little time to arrange things so that I would not be without a table, but I could hear Misha in the background, whispering to his mother, “Tell him tonight.  I must have it tonight!”

What could I do?  I agreed and delivered the table to him, trucking it over in my pickup.  I returned home to a void in my  kitchen.  Girding myself, I called Ada.  “Do you remember the table I loaned you?” I asked.

“Remember?  What do you mean?  I eat on it every day.  I work on it.  Sasha does his homework on it.  It is the center of our lives.”

“Yes, but do you recall that it was a loan?  The time has come when I need to have it back.”


“Not right away,” I said, wincing, as I did not feel comfortable making the same unconditional demand as Misha.  “Please keep it while you look for a new one.  I’ll even help you.”

I could sense her panic at the other end of the line.  “Oh,” she moaned.  And then, “I’ll give you anything you ask for the table.  We have gotten used to it.  Two hundred dollars!”

“Ada,” I pleaded.  “I’m not looking to sell it.  It…it has sentimental value.”

“Three hundred!”


She slammed the receiver down.  What did that mean?  Was I getting my table back or not?  I called her.  After five rings she picked up.  “I’m comforting Sasha,” she said.  “He loves that table.  He’s used to it.  He’s devastated.”

“Ada,” I insisted.  “Put Sasha on the phone.”

She hung up again.  I decided to go to bed in the interest of letting tempers cool.

In the morning the phone rang.  I steeled myself for Ada’s next assault, but it was Galina Sergeivna.  “Listen,” she said, “we know about the table.”


“All of us,” she said, cryptically.  “And we want you to know that we’re on your side.”  After a pause she added, “You did tell her it was only a loan, right?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Well, then you have every right to ask for it back.  I mean, if this were Moscow…”

“What do you mean?  What if this were Moscow?”

“Well, in Russia we help each other like this.  It’s not unusual to give someone furniture.”

“But I didn’t give it to her.”

“Yes, I know.  But you went there from time to time and had tea on the table, and you reminded her that it was yours?”

“Yes,” I said.  “But were those things I had to do?  Ada says it’s killing Sasha.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Galina Sergeivna.  “He’s a big boy.  What is he, eleven?”

“Twelve now.”

“Twelve then.  Children that age recover quickly.  Well, I just want you to know that we’re on your side.  I had friends here last night and they’re all from Moscow and they all agree that this isn’t St. Petersburg.”

“Ada’s from St. Petersburg.  Maybe your friends could talk to her.”

“No,” said Galina Sergeivna.  “They won’t.”

“But why?”

“Because she’s from St. Petersburg.”

I hesitated to call Ada.  If I followed through and took the table, I would be thought of as cold and uncaring, at least by Ada and probably the other St. Petersburgers in the community.  Perhaps it was best to just let her keep the table.  Could she live with that?

By evening I was still mired in indecision.  I decided to go over and speak to her personally.  I got into my truck and pulled up in front of her apartment, but didn’t get out.  As the vehicle idled I once again considered simply not mentioning the table again, and perhaps the situation would resolve itself over time.  Suddenly I was startled by a tapping on the window.  Oleg.

“You scared me half to death!” I said as I rolled down the window.  “What do you want?”  Then I noticed his bruised forehead and a gash across his left cheek.

“I was in the neighborhood and I saw you sitting here,” he said.

“I’m thinking about taking the table back.”

“Yes,” he said.  “I heard.  The arrogant Muscovites are all on your side, except for Ludmila in the bakery, who remembers the old days and feels that a loan is as good as a gift.  Russian and American cultures are very different.  This is what happens when you get mixed up with a Russian woman.”

“Look,” I said.  “This whole thing is crazy.  I’m not mixed up with Ada.  But now I’m thinking that maybe it’s best if I let her keep the table.”

Oleg grabbed my arm with alarming force.  “No.  You can’t,” he said.  “Then you’ll give her an opportunity to play the martyr.  You must take the table back.”  I tried to avert my eyes, but they became stuck on a black object shoved into his belt.  My God.  A pistol.  I began to stammer.

Oleg smiled, then pulled his jacket front together.  His expression dropped and he glared at me for one, long moment, as if to say, “Now you get the message.”  And with that, he went on his way.  I didn’t go in to see Ada.  I drove home and ate a TV dinner while sitting on the floor.

That night, as I lay in bed, I thought of Anna Karenina.  What was it about these Russians?  In America, people got splinters, hit their thumbs with hammers, and stubbed their toes.  In Russia they rolled under locomotives.  Could an entire country have such an insatiable appetite for drama?  And why were they always at each other’s throats?  Why couldn’t the Muscovites talk to the St. Petersburgers?  Why did both these groups hate the Russians of Brighton Beach?  I could only surmise that, as a result of historical deprivations, they always perceived the pie of opportunity as being too small, even in a land of excess like America.  This made them suspicious of each other.

This led to more questions.  Why did they treat ulcers with vodka?  Why did they curse the lives they left behind, yet weep at the thought of their country?  I was reminded of something Paul Theroux wrote about riding the Siberian Railway.  He reported the grinding monotony of day after day of a featureless, snowbound landscape as the train crawled westward toward Moscow.  And then, after an eternity of unbroken whiteness, the passengers saw a wisp of black smoke on the horizon, emanating from one of Russia’s industrial cities.  At which point a man, a peasant, stood up and recited a poem that went something like, “Even the smell of our industry calls us home to Mother Russia.”

I suddenly felt that I understood why the table meant so much to Ada, as it would to most any Russian.  In a life which offered little variety, much grayness, and little hope of improvement, any gloss whatsoever was a pearl of great price.  As I dozed off I felt that I had reached my decision:  I would let her keep the table, even if she crucified herself as a result.

That night I dreamed.  The image was stark, threatening — Ada with the table slung over her back, Christlike, stumbling along the main road in a driving rain, determined to throw it down at my doorstep, but not until she had fallen three times.  Or was it two?

I awoke in a sweat.  And then I laughed.  Was I becoming Russian?  I rolled over and went back to sleep.

The next day, after work, I stopped at Galina Sergeivna’s house to drop off the quart of milk she had asked me to pick up for her.  I pulled into her gravel driveway and regarded the small, rundown abode which still managed to look fanciful, like a dacha.  It was painted brown and yellow, with a low peaked roof and filigrees about the eves.  Flower boxes brimmed with marigolds.  The shutters had cutouts of daffodils.  As I went up the steps, Glinka, her porch cat, meowed and ran through my legs.

“Oh, come in,” she said with the hint of insouciance that belied, I was convinced, some intent.

I had long since grown accustomed to Galina’s flame red hair and the prominent mole, as big as a marble, that sprouted in the middle of her forehead.  Her fruity perfume wafted in her wake as she moved to the sofa in her tiny living room and motioned for me to take the easy chair opposite her.  It was the perfect old person’s home:  four small rooms, all on the same floor, yet with space for a piano.  Knickknacks abounded, a lifetime of work for a dust rag.

Galina Sergeivna, normally composed and cheerful, seemed uncharacteristically nervous and preoccupied.  “So,” she said, “have you decided?”

“Yes.  I’m going to forget about the table and let her keep it.”

Galina Sergeivna laid a hand across her neck and sat bolt upright.  “Are you sure that’s what you want to do?”

“No, I’m not.  But when I considered all the options, this one made me feel the best.  And it will preserve the peace.”

“Yes,” she said, looking first at the floor, and then heavenward.  “Russians prefer peace above everything.  Even freedom.”  Then an almost beatific smile broke across her lined face as she turned to me.  “But maybe not more than love.”

I thought that an odd comment.  But I disregarded it and continued.  “I think I know how to handle this in a way that will allow Ada to accept the table.”


But I said nothing else, and Galina Sergeivna suppressed her curiosity.  I nodded and got up to leave.  As I opened the door she said, “Please come by tomorrow evening around seven.  There’s someone I’d like you to meet.  It’s very important.  We’ll have tea.”  She would not let me leave until I had promised.

From Galina Sergeivna’s house I went to the florist and bought a lush bouquet, which I brought to Ada’s apartment.  I knocked on the door and it swung open.  When I called out there was no answer.  But there, before me, was the table.  It had been taken apart, its top standing on its side against the pedestal.  Using a coin from my pocket, I screwed it together again and laid the flowers upon it, my peace offering.  Then I scribbled a note:  “I’ve found a table that’s better for my house.  Please enjoy this one in good health.”  Then I left the apartment.

As I came onto the street it occurred to me that Oleg, if he was still lurking, may have seen me.  My God, what would he think now?  And what about that pistol?  But when I went outside all was clear.

The afternoon turned to evening, and still no call from Ada.  And no one answered when I tried to call.  Curious.  The silence persisted into the next day.  When evening came I went to Galina Sergeivna, who was waiting in the doorway, kneading her hands in her house dress.  “I thought you’d never come,” she said.

Galina Sergeivna introduced me to an older Russian woman named Zinaida, who looked to be straight out of the days before glasnost:  her thick, salt-and-pepper hair was held back with bobbie pins; her stockings were as thick as cloth, with a visible seam; she wore a plain beige blouse topping a brown wool skirt.  All of this was in contrast to her brilliant, welcoming smile as she took my hand and rolled it in both of hers.  She spoke no English.

We sat around a card table and had tea and pound cake, Galina Sergeivna translating my every word for her friend.  When the subject of the table came up, Zinaida’s eyes flashed with intense interest.  She asked many questions.  Did I give the table or lend it?  Did I show continuing concern for it during the course of its absence?  Was Ada from St. Petersburg?  Finally, Galina Sergeivna threw me an imploring look.

When I told her about the flowers she put her tea down and swallowed audibly.  Then, clearing her throat, she translated this conclusion for Zinaida, who immediately clucked and then emitted a dense paragraph of rapid-fire Russian as Galina Sergeivna repeatedly chirped, “Da, da, da.”  Then she turned to me and said, “Then you do understand.”

I looked blankly at the two women.  “Understand what?”

“That Ada is in love with you.”

I was speechless.  Of course, I had suspected something, but I was sure I had done nothing to encourage Ada.

Zinaida took a tissue from her bosom and blew her nose.  Her eyes were brimming with tears.  “Zinaida is happy for you,” said Galina Sergeivna.  Then she leaned across the table, not translating, leaving poor Zinaida to fend for herself.

“It was the table,” said Galina Sergeivna.  “Ada told me, very early on, that it was the greatest act of kindness anyone had ever done for her, especially since enduring the hell she has known here in America.  Oleg, Timur, food, money,” she enumerated on her fingers.  “And all the attention you paid to little Sasha.  Now you see why she couldn’t give it up.”

“To guarantee my visits?”

Galina Sergeivna nodded.  Zinaida honked.

“I’ve been trying to call Ada for several days, but there’s been no answer.”

Silence.  Galina Sergeivna’s eyes grew soulful.  “Are you saying that you love her?”

“No,” I clipped.  “I don’t.”

There was a cry like a wounded animal, from another room.

“It’s her,” said Galina Sergeivna, searching the pockets of her house dress for a tissue of her own.  “Ada.  She told me everything.  She came here to seek refuge.”

“From whom?”

“Who do you think?”


Galina Sergeivna nodded.  Then she turned to Zinaida and assaulted her with a tidal wave of Russian to bring her up to date on all that had transpired since the last translation.  Zinaida wept anew into her sopping tissue.  After confirming that her friend would survive, Galina Sergeivna turned back to me.  “Ada told him everything too,” she said.  “Finally.  Just the other day.  He exploded.  Did you know that he has a gun?  He threatened to take Sasha, so that she would be left with nothing!”

I swallowed.  “Where is Sasha?” I managed in a bare whisper, while Ada’s howling continued on the other side of the door.

Galina Sergeivna steeled herself and leveled her gaze at me.  “He took him.”

I splayed my hands out on the table and regarded both weeping women while, in the next room, Ada continued to vent her grief.  “Did she go to the police?” I asked.

Ada looked at me as if I were a moron.  “Police?  What police?  What rights does she have?  Oleg has a green card, a job, an American wife, a big house.  Ada has nothing.  If this was Brighton Beach she would be sitting on a subway grate with her hand out.”

Ada’s cries had become deafening.  I could hear her pacing the floor.  “My heart is bleeding for her,” I whispered to Galina Sergeivna.  “But I just don’t love her.”

“Ach,” she said, sniffing and looking off into the distance.  “Ach.”

“Let me talk to her,” I volunteered.  “I can’t leave her like that.”

Galina Sergeivna waved me off with her tissue.  “No,” she said.  “She has to understand that this is America now and things are different here.  It’s a woman’s job to talk to her, and I will do it.”

“Then I have to go,” I said, excusing myself.  I reached out for Zinaida’s hand, but she was using both of them to clutch the tissue to her nose.  I left the house feeling as if I had committed a murder.  As I descended the steps, I caught sight of a distant figure, a man, coming down the street at a rapid pace.  He was carrying — or rather, swinging — a bouquet of flowers, while inside, the women were squawking like hens.





Robert Klose teaches at the University of Maine at Augusta.  He is a regular contributor of essays to The Christian Science Monitor.  His work has also appeared in NewsweekThe Boston GlobeExquisite CorpseConfrontation and elsewhere.  His books include “Adopting Alyosha — A Single Man Finds a Son in Russia,” “Small Worlds — Adopted Sons, Pet Piranhas and Other Mortal Concerns,” “The Three-Legged Woman & Other Excursions in Teaching” and a novel, “Long Live Grover Cleveland,” which won a 2016 Ben Franklin Literary Award and a USA BookNews Award.









The Bridge

by Trish Perrault



From his apartment above Butler’s Clothing Store, Lloyd had a good view of Main Street. On the sidewalk below his window, mothers and fathers protectively clutched the hands of their children as they hurried across the bridge that led to the brick schoolhouse. As a boy, Lloyd had attended the elementary school, but he didn’t remember his foster mother, Edna, ever holding his hand. Through the closed window, he heard the children’s voices drifting across the river. He watched as they smiled and waved goodbye. Lloyd wondered what it would be like to have someone smile at him again.

Using a hand towel, he patted the thin brown hair that still clung to his scalp and peered down the street at the C&L Market. His mouth opened in surprise when Mable Hastings’s bright pink hair appeared in the early morning sunshine. He’d been expecting Clara Donovan, the owner of the market. Sadie, Mable’s six-year-old daughter, wore bright yellow mittens with a matching hat and rubber boots. Lloyd chewed the soft skin of his cheek as he thought. He did not stock bright colors in his store. Edna had told him solid colors like navy, brown, and gray lasted longer because they didn’t stain.

Lloyd watched as Sadie and Mable started across the cement bridge built as part of FDR’s New Deal back in the thirties. Chunks of ice bobbed in the river below. Mable walked stiffly beside her daughter. Clara had told him that Mable’s ex-boyfriend had shoved her down a flight of stairs a few weeks earlier.

Sadie skipped gleefully into a puddle, splashing her boots. Lloyd’s throat felt tight. He’d never been one for sentimentality, but Sadie’s innocent laughter floating skyward made his chest ache.

Checking the clock, he calculated how long it would take Mable to walk to the school and then to the market to open up the shop. Every morning, Lloyd walked to the market. While Mable assembled his sandwich, she would tell him about her daughter. Lloyd knew that Sadie’s favorite color was yellow, she had a book about kittens in her backpack, and she was afraid of men. What Mable didn’t say he heard through the town of Emery’s grapevine. He knew that the once purple bruises at the base of her neck were put there by her ex-boyfriend, Buck, and that Clara Donovan had driven her to the hospital last week. He’d also heard that Mable and Sadie were living, temporarily, in a one-room studio over the C&L Market.

Mable pointed at something in the water below the narrow bridge. The little girl stood on the toes of her yellow boots so she could see over the railing. Lloyd pressed his cheek against the cold windowpane. A gnarled pine tree, at least a hundred years old, with sharp branches, had fallen across the river. He had seen the dead tree when he’d gone for his morning swim earlier. As a little boy, Edna used to drag him down to the river every morning to swim. Even in the winter. She’d read that ice-cold water helped the immune system and decided the cold water would fix Lloyd, who she complained was too quiet and motionless for a boy. At first, he feared the water. He worried about the slimy fish and river snakes that hid in the rocks, but Edna had made him go into the water, watching him from the riverbank. As he grew, he came to like his time alone in the river. The sound of the nearby rapids had drowned out Edna’s incessant chatter.

Below his window, a red truck pulled up and parked in the middle of the bridge beside Mable and Sadie. Lloyd recognized Buck Tucker as the man swung out of the driver’s side door. He stood well over six feet, much taller than Lloyd and a lot heavier. Buck held open his arms and said something to Sadie. The little girl cowered from him, burying her face in Mable’s jacket.

Unsure of what to do, Lloyd opened the window and bent towards the screen so that he could hear what was being said. He knew that it would take him two minutes to get downstairs – but he was only wearing a towel. His fingers gripped the windowsill.

“Don’t come near us!” Mable screeched as she faced Buck. Mable pulled her daughter behind her.

“What’s your problem? I didn’t do nothing except stop and say hello!” Buck said, stepping in front of the young woman.

Lloyd looked down the sidewalks, but they were empty.

“Stay away!” A green car turned down Main Street and slowed down as it drew past Buck’s truck. Lloyd recognized the four-door sedan as belonging to the Mr. Wilke, the former mayor. Buck swore then stomped over to his truck and opening the door. The truck’s tires screeching as exhaust poured out of the rusted tailpipe. Mable picked up her daughter, cradled her against her chest, and hurried across the bridge in the direction of the elementary school.

Lloyd stayed frozen and unblinking as he stared at the spot where Buck had been yelling at Mable. He wondered if he should call the police, but knew the chief was a distant uncle of Buck’s.

Across the bridge, the schoolhouse door opened, and Mabel came out. Lloyd watched as she crossed back over the river. She hurried down the sidewalk to the C&L Market and disappeared inside.

Lloyd turned away from the window and scanned his cramped apartment. There wasn’t much to see. On his nightstand sat a white alarm clock, a pair of wire-framed reading glasses, and a paperback. Several math and science books were stacked on the table beside a brown recliner. The red light on his answering machine remained unblinking.

Lloyd’s elementary school teachers had told Edna he could learn to be more social; after all, he earned high marks in school. Over time, though, they’d started to see him the way Edna saw him. Lloyd had pretended not to notice their rubbernecking and whispers. As a young man, he’d ignored Edna when she insisted he read self-help books. Most out-of-towners who stopped by the clothing store hadn’t noticed he was quiet. In fact, most outsiders were preoccupied with trying to figure out if Edna was a man or a woman. She used to cut her hair butch-short and had worn the same chinos and button-front oxford shirts that Lloyd wore.

Twice, Lloyd had asked Edna about his birth parents, but Edna hadn’t thought there was much to tell. The last time he’d asked, she took his hand, took her last breath, and died.

This had been six months ago. After the funeral, Clara Donovan had started coming by on Saturday evenings with a casserole and salad that they would share. Sometimes she’d bring a bottle of wine. He supposed she’d felt bad for him since he had no family. Clara helped him clean Edna’s apartment and restock items in the store. He remembered how embarrassed he had been when an order of women’s undergarments came in. Clara had held the pieces of colored silk against her chest for him to admire—slips, pajamas, lace underwear, a selection of brassieres, and stockings with garter belts. He flushed as he remembered Clara buying one of the slips. A peach-colored one with small bits of ivory lace that had felt light as air. His hands had shaken as he folded the silky garment and placed it in a small paper bag. Not wanting her to know he felt uncomfortable, he’d started to dust the shelf beside the register. Clara left the store and didn’t answer him when he said goodbye, slamming the door so hard the windows rattle. After that, she stopped coming by on Saturdays. He sometimes thought about the slip and wondered if she was dating someone, but he never asked.

Shaking off the memory, Lloyd flung open his bedroom closet. Seven carefully ironed white oxford shirts hung on wooden hangers next to seven pairs of pressed, putty-brown pants. He thought of Mable’s pink hair, Sadie’s yellow mittens, and Clara’s peach-colored slip. He decided that today he’d take out the catalog and order more colorful clothing. Maybe light blue.

On his way out of his apartment, Lloyd paused on the stair landing. He’d bought the building fifteen years earlier and made two apartments above the store. Lloyd crossed the hall and opened the door to Edna’s old apartment. The heat from the radiator made the air dry and stale. The one-bedroom apartment was almost identical to Lloyd’s. A white Formica table stood with two chairs next to the kitchen counter. A plaid loveseat sat near the fireplace, a brown recliner near the window. A small black-and-white television with rabbit ears stood in the corner. The only personal item in the room was a set of three framed pictures of some famous actress from the forties that Edna had admired.

Lloyd grabbed an umbrella as he left. He decided to write up an advertisement for the apartment. Tightening his fingers on the handle of the black umbrella, he tried to brush off his discomfort at the thought of a stranger living so close to him.


Twenty-five-year-old Mable Hastings stood at the meat slicer, her arm moving mechanically back and forth as she quickly sliced ten thin pieces of boiled ham. She wondered why Lloyd ate the same thing every day. Since he owned the only clothing store in town, she knew he could afford to eat something different every day of the week. When she said as much to Clara, her boss, the older woman told her to mind her own business.

Mable didn’t want to think about her own business. A lump formed in her throat as she remembered Buck confronting her on the bridge. Her fingers started to reach up to touch the healing bruises at the base of her neck, but instead she grabbed a poppy seed hard roll, picked up a knife, and sliced the bread in half.

“Would you like to try Swiss cheese on your sandwich?” Mable asked. The older man was standing near the candy bar rack, reading the cork bulletin board, which was littered with business cards and flyers. She wondered if he felt lonely living above the store all by himself. Looking at his brown pants and gray overcoat, she remembered that his mother used to wear the same drab clothing.

Lloyd spun in her direction. “No, thank you.” His eyes flickered to a spot over her right shoulder.

“I tell my daughter it’s good to try things when you’re young. That way you won’t stop trying when you get old.”

“Edna used to s-say that.” He looked back at Mable and smiled a little.

Mable stopped slicing a tomato and gave Lloyd a hard look. He usually only spoke in one- or two-word sentences. “My mother died when I was five,” she said matter-of-factly, wondering if he would continue the conversation.

The half-smile slipped from his face. “I’m sorry.”

Lloyd didn’t ask about her father, but she figured he’d heard the gossip. Her father left town the day after she was born.

“Did you see the flyer with the kittens?” she asked. “Sadie and I like the marmalade one.” Lloyd stepped closer to the flyers. “You have a cat?”

He shook his head. “Edna’s allergies.”

Mable said softly, “Maybe now that she’s gone, you can get one.” She placed the sandwich on a piece of plastic wrap.

Lloyd leaned his umbrella against the counter. “Ah…Mable…” She watched his mouth move up and down, but no words came out. Lloyd’s blue eyes met hers, and then he blushed and turned his head. He cleared his throat often. She realized he was eyeing the telephone and wondered if he wanted to use it. “Ah…Mable…”

“Yes?” Mable said, leaning forward.

He inched closer but kept a foot between them. She noticed his eyes were a lovely shade of blue. “The bridge—”

The bell rang frantically at the front of the store.

“Good morning, beautiful.” Clifford Tucker’s voice filled the small store as he entered. Mable anxiously watched Buck’s father, Clifford, stomp towards her in his heavy work boots. She knew Buck, her ex, would be close behind.

Clifford’s face was bloated and red from years of drinking. “Clara around this morning?”

“She’s at the post office,” Mable said. The bell rang a second time, and she saw Buck’s head over his father’s shoulder. The bottles on the shelves clinked against one another as he stomped past them. Mable glanced at the phone on the wall. The last time she’d called the police, Buck’s uncle, the police chief, had threatened to arrest her because she scratched Buck’s face. Clifford had calmed the chief and Buck down, saying it was a lover’s quarrel. That wasn’t the first time Buck had hit her, but that time he’d gone too far. Sadie had seen him hurt her.

“I’m almost done with your sandwich, Lloyd,” Mable said, ducking her head. Buck’s bloodshot eyes glared at her just a few feet away.

“Where’s the aspirin?” Buck asked, rubbing his thick forehead where it met the bridge of his nose.

Mable looked at the shelf and was about to reach for a box of Bayer when Lloyd said, “Above your head.” He swung his umbrella, the tip passing by Buck’s ear, towards the yellow and brown boxes.

Buck turned, his mouth curled in an ugly sneer. “Oh, Butt-ler, I didn’t see you standing there.”

Lloyd lowered his umbrella.

“You still jumping in the river every morning?” Clifford asked. He tapped a greasy white lighter against the counter.

“Yes,” said Lloyd. He leaned his umbrella against the deli case and carefully poured coffee into a paper cup.

“Crazy,” said Clifford, adjusting his belt around his distended belly. “You have to have a screw loose to jump in that water.”

Mable saw Lloyd’s face turn red as he pretended to read the flyer with the week’s sandwich specials. Compared to Buck and his father, Lloyd looked small; he was only a few inches shorter but lean, whereas Buck was already getting soft in the middle.

“Swimming isn’t crazy,” she said, her voice almost lost in the Tucker men’s laughter. She wished she had learned to swim as a child. There had never been time, moving around from one foster home to another.

“You wouldn’t catch me going in there,” said Buck. He slapped the counter with a flat hand.

Mable flinched. Her hand hit the side of a jar of pickles and knocked it over. Buck snickered. She threw the spilled pickle slices away and wiped up the juice. “That’ll be three dollars even,” she said to Lloyd.

Buck leaned a hip against the counter and stayed there. Lloyd reached around him to hand Mable a five-dollar Billy. “Thank you, Mable.”

Mable opened the register and held out the change, but Lloyd shook his head. She tucked the extra cash into her pocket. Lloyd was one of the few customers who tipped.

Lloyd’s footsteps on the wooden plank floor were quiet as he walked away. She noticed he wore old-fashioned rubber galoshes. She wished he wouldn’t leave. She opened her mouth but didn’t know what to say to keep him in the store.

“Bye, Butt-ler,” Buck called as he waved a limp hand in the other man’s back.

“That’s mean,” she said, lowering her voice.

“If you’re weak, you get what you deserve,” Buck said, stepping closer to her. Mable shifted so that her hip pressed against the box freezer.

“Calm down, Buck,” Clifford said, gripping his son’s wrist.

Buck jerked his arm, pulling Clifford off balance. His angry eyes met Mable’s. She turned away and grabbed a broom leaning against the wall.

“I always thought Butt-ler was a pathetic little turtle.” Buck stuck his head out and opened his mouth in a half-smile.

Clifford’s unlit cigarette fell out of his mouth and rolled onto the floor as he laughed. “A turtle—that’s a good one!” he said.

Mable’s heart pounded in her chest. “He doesn’t look like a turtle,” she said, her voice thin. Buck leaned over the counter and winked. Dark stubble covered his face. At one time, she’d thought he was handsome.

“A freak,” said Buck. He grabbed an apple and took a single bite before flinging it into the wastebasket near Mabel.

She stepped closer to the phone, wondering when Clara would be back from the post office.

“His mother got pretty crazy at the end. Not shaving her legs and letting her armpits go…I nearly got sick every time I saw her.” Clifford coughed.

The bell over the door jingled, but Buck was blocking Mable’s view of the door. She remembered Mrs. Butler giving Sadie a cherry lollipop whenever they went into the clothing store. “She seemed nice to me.”

“Edna probably liked you,” Clifford sang. He grabbed a can of soda out of the cooler and walked to the front of the store. “Buck will pay.”

Mable watched Clifford’s wide back on the other side of the glass door, and wished he had stayed. The older man was rough, but he only let Buck go so far. Her fingers shook as she pressed the keys on the register, ringing up Clifford’s soda and the large coffee that Buck was drinking.

“I’ll have something sweet too,” Buck said, leaning close. Mable could smell the sweet apple on his breath. Buck playfully grabbed her hand and yanked her arm.

“Look at me.”

Mable shook her head. “Leave me alone.”

“Look at me,” his voice louder.

The bell over the door rang, and Mable felt a moment of relief, thinking Clifford had returned.

“Pardon me, Mable.”

Mable’s head jerked up. She saw Lloyd standing near the sugar and boxes of cake mix. “I came in to retrieve my umbrella.”

She saw the umbrella leaning against the side of the deli case.

“Here you go, Lloyd.” She lifted the umbrella towards him handle first.

“Thank you.” His face and ears were tinged with red. He stepped closer to the rack with the candy bars and read the notices on the bulletin board.

Buck turned to face Lloyd. Lloyd looked at Buck’s hand on her arm.

“Aren’t you supposed to open the store?” asked Buck, his hand releasing Mable’s.

“In a few minutes.” Lloyd gave a slight nod then took out a pair of slim reading glasses and put them on his nose. She rubbed her arm as she noticed he was studying the flyer with the picture of the kittens.

“Then what do you want?” asked Buck, his voice and body tense.

“Nothing,” Lloyd said, easily.

“Everything all right, Lloyd?” Mable asked, her eyes going from Buck to Lloyd. She looked at the door hoping someone would come in to help her.

“I thought”—he cleared his throat and tapped the tip of the umbrella against the wooden floor—“I thought you might like some company, Mable.”

Lloyd’s light blue eyes met Mable’s a second time. Mable read the uncertainty in Lloyd’s lined face. She blinked, her eyes felt suddenly damp. Then she picked up the broom again and slowly swept the space behind the counter. Her chest hurt as she tried to breathe, but a faint smile had of relief formed on her lips.

“She doesn’t need your company,” Buck said.

“I’ll stay anyway,” said Lloyd. Lifting his cooling coffee to his lips, he watched the other man.

“Thank you, Lloyd,” Mable said, matter-of-fact.

Buck finally left the store. Lloyd stayed, reading cat food labels and browsing the shelves until Clara returned from the post office. Mable saw him return to the bulletin board and take down a flyer and stuff it into his overcoat pocket. When he left, Mable told Clara about Buck and Clifford.

“I am going to ban those two from coming into my store,” Clara said, turning away from the window. She pulled the bag of trash out of the bucket and tied the plastic in a knot.

“You don’t need to do that,” Mable said. Through the tall glass windows in the front of the store, she watched Lloyd walking down the sidewalk in the direction of his store. “It was nice of Lloyd to stay, don’t you think?”

The trash bin’s lid banged shut. Instead of answering Mable’s question, Clara picked up the bag. Her high heels made a marching sound as she swept past her and out the backdoor. Mable knew Clara was angry, but she wasn’t sure why.


Lloyd stepped around the puddles that littered the cracked sidewalks. He walked past Edna’s old house; a young couple lived there now. The Gonzalezes. They had painted the siding a bright yellow, and there was a pink swing set in the side yard. Most people in town didn’t like the couple. Some thought they were odd for boiling bananas; others were annoyed when they spoke Spanish in public. Lloyd decided the house looked better yellow.

Turning back towards the C&L Market, Lloyd saw Clara Donovan step out of the store. She carried a bucket of sand, which she spread across the sidewalk. She was fifty. Seven years older than Lloyd. The sun glistened on her still brown hair. She’d been married once, but her husband had died of a sudden heart attack. Edna told Lloyd it was a blessing, Clara’s husband dying so quickly, but sometimes Lloyd wondered if Clara wished she’d said goodbye.

Inside the clothing store, Lloyd put his umbrella next to the cash register and stowed his sandwich in a small icebox beneath the counter. He brushed a feather duster across the stacks of neatly folded shirts and pants that covered the shelves that ran along the back of the store.

The wooden floorboards were broad and long. Dust clung to the crevices even though Lloyd swept every day. He pulled out the flyer for the kittens and admired the creature’s golden colored fur. Surveying the store, he pulled out a box and wondered if it was the right size for a kitten to sleep in. He glanced at the box off and on throughout the morning as he tried to imagine whether he’d like a cat living with him.

The store smelled of leather boots and the steam that leaked from the radiators. He turned the knob on the radio to a talk program about cars and opened his ledger to calculate the sales for the previous month. The morning passed quickly; the afternoon passed more slowly. He ate his ham sandwich and waited on the customers who came in to buy sturdy flannel shirts, suspenders, handkerchiefs, and cargo pants. Only one woman stopped in front of the cabinet of women’s undergarments. A few regulars stopped in to gossip and talk about their misfortunes while Lloyd nodded and sipped his tea. Because he said little and didn’t tell everyone how to live their lives, people seemed to like to tell him their troubles. Lloyd felt relieved that he’d been spared all their difficult troubles.


After he had closed the store, Lloyd spent an hour at the small library next to the elementary school. He picked up three paperback Westerns and placed them in a cloth tote bag. Down the aisle, he noticed Clara Donovan hunched over a stack of books. She was wearing a slim-fitting coat. Lloyd noted with surprise that on the cover of one book was a picture of a near-naked woman being embraced by a man dressed like a ship’s captain. Lloyd hesitated, unsure if Clara would appreciate him seeing her reading a romance book. His fingers tightened on his book bag. Stepping behind another shelf, he watched Clara pick out several books, quickly slip them into her book bag, and then stop at the librarian’s desk to check them out. In the dim library light, her brown hair seemed darker against her cranberry raincoat.

After she had left the aisle, he passed the table where Clara had been sitting. A light scent of flowery perfume lingered in the air. His gaze followed Clara. She stood at the reference desk talking to the librarian, Mrs. Brogle. For the second time that day, he wondered why Clara had stopped coming by his apartment on Saturday nights. Lloyd smoothed a hand over his thin hair. He needed a new hairstyle. Maybe a blow dryer.

After checking out his books, Lloyd stepped outside. Donald Wilke, the town’s former mayor, struggled to pull a cigarette from the pack in his hand.

“Wish they let us smoke in there like they used to,” Mr. Wilke said, sticking a cigarette in his mouth and lighting it. “The building’s made of brick.”

Lloyd said, “The b-books…”

“They’re just making these rules to get my goat and drive me crazy,” said Mr. Wilke.

Mrs. Brogle came out and lit a cigarette. Clare stepped around the older woman.

“Well, look who’s over there,” Mr. Wilke said, pointing his cane over Lloyd’s shoulder.

Lloyd recognized the dark-haired teenager sitting on the stone retaining wall that curved around the white protestant church. Carter Payne. The boy waved. Only Clara and Lloyd waved back.

“Those teenagers hang out over there and smoke and drink all day instead of getting jobs,” Mrs. Brogle said, taking a drag on her cigarette.

Lloyd saw no cigarette or bottle in the boy’s hands.

“What jobs?” said Clara.

“Speaking of jobs,” Mr. Wilke said, “I saw that girl you hired fighting with Buck Tucker on the bridge this morning.”

“What happened?” Mrs. Brogle asked, her birdlike eyes bright in her tired face.

“She’s going to get herself killed if she goes back to him,” said Mr. Wilke.

“She’ll go back,” the older woman predicted.

“Mable is not going back,” said Clara, touching the heart-shaped pin on her lapel.

“They always do.” A thin stream of smoke pouring from Mrs. Brogle’ sharp nasal passages. “They can’t break the cycle.”

Clara’s hand went to her throat; she reached for a pair of sunglasses and put them on her nose. “Not if I can help her,” she said, matter-of-factly.

Lloyd thoughtfully regarded the sunglasses. He recalled a time when Clara had had a black eye. She had been married then.

Mr. Wilke sniffed. “Bleeding heart,” he said, trying to lighten the tension that had descended over the group.

Lloyd reached out hesitantly as if to brush the fabric of Clara’s sleeve but she stepped around him and his hand fell back to his side. Mrs. Brogle’s head whipped back and forth. Her dull eyes suddenly alert as they bounced back and forth between Clara to Lloyd. Lloyd’s cheeks redden.


Lloyd waited at the crosswalk, he saw Clara drive by in her burgundy car with old Mr. Wilke in the passenger seat.

Lloyd looked both ways before he crossed the street in front of the library. There was no traffic. Down Main Street, he noticed Mable’s pink hair as she walked across the bridge. Her daughter rode a few feet ahead of her on a pink bicycle with training wheels.

Lloyd said hello to Carter Payne as he passed. Suddenly, Lloyd heard the loud, high-pitched whine of a truck’s engine and saw Buck Tucker’s truck barreling directly at him. A hand grabbed Lloyd’s jacket, jerking him away from the edge of the road.

“You okay, Mr. Butler?” Carter asked. His face was filled with angry pimples. Lloyd nodded, unable to speak. Horrified, they watched as the red truck veered across Main Street. Sadie stopped pedaling her pink bike, frozen on the side of the bridge.

Lloyd’s mouth opened. His shout joined Mable’s. He dropped his book bag and umbrella and ran to the bridge.

The truck swung wide, skidding on the ice as it headed directly towards Mable. The wheels spun in the opposite direction, wildly careening across the road. Then, the vehicle crashed, catching the front tire of Sadie’s bike and jerking the girl so hard that her small body was thrown into the air.

Lloyd watched in horror as the little girl disappeared over the side of the bridge.

The bike lay mangled on the bridge’s sidewalk. Mable ran to the side where Sadie went over, gripping the bridge’s railing as she screamed and pointed at the water. Lloyd’s lungs hurt as he ran in the cold air. He searched for the little girl in the dark water flowing around the ice blocks. He prayed she wouldn’t get caught in an ice drift. His legs pumped faster and faster as he neared the bridge.

Twenty feet below the bridge, he saw Sadie clinging to a downed tree in the middle of the river.

“Save her! Please save her.” Mable pleaded, her arms waving wildly. “I don’t know how to swim.”

Buck staggered towards her. Blood ran down the side of his face from a large gash in his forehead. Buck stumbled and reached towards Mable.

“Get away!” Mable screamed, pulling away and turning back to the river. “Sadie. Sadie.”

Lloyd ran to the side of the bridge and started down the riverbank. His shoes slid against the ice and mud. As he neared the edge of the water, he saw that the girl was settled in the middle of the tree. Her mittens clutched the wet bark. If he moved quickly, he decided, he could reach Sadie in time. Lloyd kicked off his shoes and threw his overcoat onto the ground as he flung himself into the frigid water.

His eyes stayed on Sadie, measuring each slip and dip of her body in the fast moving current. A massive sheet of thick ice covered the river behind her. Lloyd knew he’d never find her if she slipped under. He was twenty yards away when Sadie’s fingers slipped; she fell lower into the water. Only her head was now visible. Lloyd remembered how panicked he felt as a boy when he started swimming. Edna had called out to him, telling him to keep kicking, until, finally, he’d pulled himself to shore.

Ten yards away, he made sure Sadie was still hanging onto the tree. The tip of her chin touched the water as she anxiously searched the top of the bridge for her mother. If she made a sound, he couldn’t hear it. He couldn’t tell if she was crying, but he knew she must have been freezing.

“Don’t let go. Hang on,” he shouted as he pushed his body forward. Usually, he didn’t swim this far out. The overflowing river and ice blocks made it too dangerous.

He focused every bit of his concentration on fighting the pull of the water, just as he had that time when he was a boy. When he was ten feet away, he stopped swimming to tread water. Thick pine branches scraped the girl’s chin. He wondered if she’d been hit by the truck. This close, he could hear Sadie crying and asking her mother to help her. Lloyd pushed his body closer and broke a tree branch that was preventing him from reaching the little girl.

“Hang on. You can do this,” Lloyd said, repeating the same words Edna had once said to him. The water pulled at his waist, chest, and thighs.

The girl’s face was white with shock. Above them, Mable’s cries were drowned out by the sound of rushing water.

He inched forward and held a hand out to the girl, willing Sadie to reach out to him. Then he remembered that Mable had told him the girl was afraid of men. “Do you remember me? Lloyd, from the store?”

The little girl shook her head, not looking at him.

“My mother, Edna, used to give you lollipops in my store, remember?”

Sadie remained still. Lloyd inched closer so that he was only an arm’s length away. A large branch lay between them. The tree could sink if he tried climbing over it to reach Sadie.

“I like grape,” he said, not feeling his feet. “What’s…what’s your favorite?”

The little girl turned then and looked over at Lloyd. Her lips were purple against her white face. “Ch-cherry,” she whispered.

“Your mom wants me to get you.” Sadie’s mittens slipped. The girl seemed so small against the sheet of ice next to the tree.

Sadie shook her head and pressed her body against the tree.

He swam closer to the tree just as Sadie’s mittens slipped, and she went under the water. Lloyd dove under, the water pushed him, and he scraped the top of his head. His numb fingers felt for the girl, his body thrashing wildly in the water. Then, his hand grabbed something soft. He yanked the girl against him. Surfacing, he gasped for air. Sadie began choking and coughing. Water ran down her nose and out of her mouth. Lloyd fiercely pulled the small child to his chest.

He thought of Mable standing on the bridge. “I got her,” he shouted. A flash of joy rushed through his body.

“Hold on tight,” he told Sadie. “You’re okay. You’ll be okay.” Lloyd slipped his arm around her chest and kicked his feet against the current.

When they were close to shore, he stood up. His knees buckled, and he almost dropped the girl. He pulled her closer and carried her over the rocks and blocks of ice along the shore. Carter came to Lloyd holding out a blanket. Lloyd wrapped it around the little girl and then scanned the bridge. Clara held Mable in her arms.

“She’s okay,” he called up to them. The crowd above him clapped and cheered. A woman dressed in an EMT uniform ran down the embankment. She pulled Sadie from his arms. Lloyd, exhausted and shivering violently, followed slowly behind. Carter ran to get more towels and blankets.

By the time Lloyd reached the bridge, Sadie lay on a gurney in the back of an ambulance. Mable knelt beside her, holding her hands.

The ambulance driver swung the door closed and jumped in behind the steering wheel. Lloyd watched the vehicle, its lights and sirens blaring as it sped in the direction of the hospital.

Buck stood on the sidewalk, bleeding and crying. A state police officer held out a pair of handcuffs and ordered Buck to turn around.

Clara’s eyes were wet and soft as they met Lloyd’s. She wrapped a wool blanket around his dripping body.

“That was brave of you, Lloyd.” He felt the pressure of her strong fingers against his cold flesh.

“It was lucky.” His thin, wiry frame shook as he watched the ambulance drive away. “The water was w-warm today.”


Two hours later, just as the sun was setting, Lloyd noticed a car stopped in the middle of the bridge. He saw Mable’s pink hair. He sprinted down the stairs and called out to her, worried that something had happened to Sadie.


“She was crying for her little bear.” Mable clutched a stuffed bear to her chest. “I almost lost her,” she said, watching a piece of ice break free in the water. Her cheeks were damp. “You saved her.” She rubbed her sleeve against her runny nose. “I don’t know what I would do if something happened to her.”

Lloyd regarded the long building that was his clothing store on the other side of the bridge. He remembered Edna pushing him into the river when he was a boy and how angry he’d been. Today, he saved Sadie’s life. If it wasn’t for Edna, he might not have reached the girl in time.

“You’re doing your best,” Lloyd told Mable, thinking of Edna. Remembering how she’d taken him in and tried her best to be his mother. His throat hurt. The sun shifted in the sky and moved towards the mountains. “Tell Sadie I’ll bring her cherry lollipops tomorrow – if she wants.”

After Mable had left, Lloyd stayed on the bridge, watching her car’s rear lights until they disappeared. He glanced up at his apartment and saw the lights on in his living room. The back apartment, where Edna once lived, was shielded in darkness. He would stop by the hardware store in the morning to pick out some paint. Maybe yellow. Then he’d tell Mable that the apartment was hers and Sadie’s for as long as she needed it. From the pocket of his overcoat, he pulled out the flyer he’d picked up earlier that day. His index finger traced the still damp picture of the marmalade kitten.

Down the street, the door to the C&L Market swung open. Lloyd heard Clara’s high heels on the sidewalk. He pulled his shoulders back, stood up straight, and then turned to watch Clara walk towards him. In the soft, honey-golden light, Clara’s face seemed to glow. As she drew closer, he noticed for the first time that her eyes were the color of field grass in early summer.

She leaned against the bridge’s cement railing, her arm touching his as they stood side by side, gazing into the distance. Behind them, they heard the cars and trucks slowed down as they passed over the cement bridge.

“I wonder what they’re saying about us,” Clara said. She placed a bare hand on the sleeve of his coat.

Lloyd took a deep breath and covered her fingers with a warm hand. She turned her wrist so that their fingers entwined.

“They’re probably saying I’m one heck of a lucky man,” he said.





Trish Perrault earned her MFA in creative writing from Lesley University and works as an adjunct professor. Her stories have been published in Snowbound – Best New England Crime Stories 2017, The Literary Nest and The Lindenwood Review (May 2018). Trish lives with her family just south of the Adirondacks.






A Marvelous Peace

by Joe Fortunato



There is a marvelous peace in not publishing.
—J.D. Salinger


John Malachi flung his pen across his office and sprang to his feet, sending his chair rolling back, crashing into the wall behind him. He bellowed through the open doorway in the general direction of his assistant’s desk. “Any word from Reinhardt yet?”

Cheryl Solanich startled. By the time she looked up, Malachi—coat and tie off, sleeves rolled up, salt-and-pepper hair disheveled—was pacing in front of her desk grasping a fistful of papers.

She took off her black-rimmed glasses. “There’s no need to yell, John; I’m right here,” she said.

“I wasn’t yelling.”

“You know I would’ve put him straight through to you if he’d called.”

“It’s not like him to be late for a meeting.” He sat in the chair by her desk, tapping his feet rapidly. “I’m worried.”

“About him, or the deal?” Cheryl asked with a smirk.

“Both.” Malachi drummed his fingers on her desk.

He cocked his head. “What’s with the new hairdo?”

“I was wondering when you’d notice.” Cheryl gingerly patted her short, pinkish, kind-of-spiky hair. “I had it done Saturday.” She batted her dark blue eyes and flashed a roguish smile. “Like it?”

“I hate it. It’s unprofessional and undignified.”

She swiveled her chair in a complete circle her outswept arm taking in the entire storefront office. “Look around.”

“Well, can’t you dye it brown again, and de-spike it or something?”

“No,” Cheryl said. “Do you want me to call his cell again?” She lifted the receiver of her desk phone. “Third time’s a charm, right?”

“Yeah, go ahead.” He resumed his pacing. “If he doesn’t sign these contracts today, the whole thing goes up in flames. And me with it!”

Cheryl punched Reinhardt’s cell autodial number with the eraser end of a pencil, and, cradling the receiver, glanced up at her boss shaking her head. “Straight to voice mail, like before.”

“Try his office.”

“I doubt he’d be there. He was supposed to come here first thing, right?”

“Do you see him?” Malachi spread his hands and twisted left and right. “Me neither. Call.”

She pencil-punched Reinhardt’s office number. “This is Mister Malachi’s office calling. Has Mister Reinhardt checked in with you? No? Hmmm. Yes, I know, three hours ago. But he hasn’t shown up yet. Well, if he calls or comes in, will you tell him to ring Mister Malachi right away, please?” She half-whispered into the phone, “He’s apoplectic.”

“I heard that,” Malachi muttered.

Cheryl covered the receiver, “You were meant to.” Then, back to the phone, “And if we hear from Mister Reinhardt, I’ll tell him to call you. Okay, thank you.” Cheryl hung up. “No dice.”

“Damn him!”

“His assistant says she hasn’t heard from him since lunchtime Friday. Now she’s worried too.” She added, “About Mister Reinhardt, not your deal.”

The deal. It was a make-or-break arrangement for the tiny publishing house. House? More like hut!

The odds were stacked against Malachi from the start. He was an attorney—and a successful one—who knew next-to-nothing about publishing, beyond having represented an emerging author once in a dispute over royalties. But John Malachi was a dreamer, an idealist.

A little over two years ago, the forty-two-year-old divorcé hadn’t a care in the world. Then, one day, out of the blue, he bought out the contract for his partner-track position at a Philadelphia law firm, emptied his bank account, and cashed in virtually all his assets—house, car, boat, and what remained of some so-so investments—leaving himself with just enough to live on and to pay his ex-wife’s alimony for the next three years.

Malachi used the money to team up with his best friend, Steve Borek, an English professor, to found a small publishing company. Since English professors aren’t celebrated for their colossal salaries, Malachi supplied the lion’s share of the capital, while Borek contributed his expert eye for quality literature. The pair incorporated, and Malachi Borek was born.

The plan was to seek out and disseminate superior works of literary fiction by unknown writers. The fledgling publishers leased a pricey medium-sized suite in a prestigious Center City high-rise, hired a top-notch designer to trick it out with stylish furniture, carpeting, and fixtures, and waited for agents and authors to beat down the door.

The trouble was, most unknown writers stay unknown—and unread—for a reason: they stink! Instead of agents and authors, creditors beat down the door. By the time the endeavor hit bottom, Borek had bailed, and the creditors, particularly the high-priced decorator, had taken the door.

However, Malachi, too stubborn (or too stupid) to accept total defeat, decided to go it alone. Using a little of the three hundred thousand dollars of his own money he’d held in reserve, he downsized the office space to a small drop-ceilinged storefront in a Northeast Philadelphia strip mall and hired his recently-widowed twin sister, Cheryl, as his administrative assistant. The place had been a Laundromat until a few months ago, so in addition to the change machine cemented to the floor by the door, an exposed pipe between Cheryl’s desk and Malachi’s office presented an omnipresent tripping hazard. What passed for his office had no door, and was made of what had to be the cheapest composite paneling available. Cheryl swore the wonky fluorescent lights were sucking the vitamin D out of her and causing her vision to flicker.

To fill the space, Malachi picked up a couple of cheap desks, a few chairs, and a brown metal filing cabinet at a bankruptcy auction. On the walls hung three or four landscape prints, each about a quarter of a notch higher in quality than Dogs Playing Poker and Velvet Elvis. To complete the transition from prince to pauper, he swapped out his leased Claret Mica Lexus GX 460 SUV for a red Kia Rio.

“Maybe he’s dead,” said Cheryl.

“If he is, I might as well join him.”

“God forbid, don’t say that!” She made a sign of the cross. “But he could be. I mean, he weighed at least three hundred pounds and smoked three packs a day. He could’ve had a heart attack. Or been murdered.”

“People don’t get murdered just because they’re fat smokers. And stop talking about him in the past tense,” Malachi said. “Besides, he can’t be dead. He has a contract to sign. After that he can be as dead as he wants.”

“John, he’s only one client.”

Malachi looked at her as if she’d sprouted a turd from her head. “He’s only one client? Cheryl, Reinhardt is my only client. Or would have been if he hadn’t up and died on me.”

“I thought you said he wasn’t dead.”

“Well why else would he be more than three hours late?”

“You always say writers are the most unreliable people on the planet, always acting fickle and changing their minds.”

“Gus Reinhardt isn’t a writer. He’s an agent. They’re a little more reliable. And one of his clients is Paul Quickthorn, the guy who wrote The Nicodemus Pendant and three other best sellers before it. Quickthorn’s not happy with the way his publisher handled the publicity for Nicodemus. He claims they edited the hell out of the thing, and then pushed him too hard with an impossible schedule of interviews, signings, and appearances. He figured after three consecutive best-selling novels, he’d earned the right to rest on his laurels for the fourth.”

“So he’s looking for a new publisher.”

“Right,” said Malachi. “He thinks a smaller house, where he’d be a huge fish in a tiny sea, would treat him with more respect, coddle him. I happened to cold call Reinhardt at just the right time. It was kismet. We talked on the phone, met for lunch a couple of times, and I made some promises. Reinhardt took them to Quickthorn, who liked what I offered, and agreed to sign a two-book deal with me. Gus is supposed to sign a preliminary deal today, and bring in Quickthorn next week.”

“Except now he’s probably dead.”

As the words left Cheryl’s lips, the little bell above the door tinkled and a fat man in a charcoal cashmere coat waddled in huffing, a lit cigarette dangling from his pale lips, an inch-and-a-half of ash dangling from the cigarette. He coughed, and the ash floated to the gray-speckled linoleum floor. The man looked around, and in a hoarse voice asked, “This isn’t one of those non-smoking offices, is it?”

“Gus! No, smoke all you want, my friend.” Malachi rushed to greet him with a hearty slap on the back, pumped his hand and said to Cheryl, “See? I told you he wasn’t dead.”

Reinhardt knitted his bushy grey eyebrows. “Dead?”

Before Malachi could think of a reply, Cheryl came to the rescue. “Can I get you a cup of coffee, Mr. Reinhardt?”

“Yes, please,” he rasped. “Black, one Splenda.”

She grabbed her pocketbook, said, “Be right back,” and rushed out the door.

“Where’s she going?” Reinhardt asked Malachi.

“To the Starbucks across the street.” Reinhardt shot him another quizzical look. Malachi added, “Uh… Our Keurig is in the shop.” He made two mental notes: stop saying stupid stuff, and, as soon as he signs this contract, buy a Keurig.

Malachi put his hand on Reinhardt’s shoulder and guided him to the office.

“Geez, Gus, for a while there, I wasn’t sure you were coming.”

“Yeah, well, I got tied up in some tough negotiations that took longer than I’d anticipated. I’m sorry I didn’t call. My smartphone fell in the sink last night while I was brushing my teeth, and when I went to check in with my office this morning, it kept shutting down on me. Luckily, it’s insured, so I can get a new one cheap.”

Cheryl came in with two coffees, placed them them on Malachi’s desk, gave her boss a thumbs up behind Reinhardt’s back, and walked out.

“So, let’s get down to business, shall we, Gus?”

“That’s what I wanted to tell you.”

“Tell me? What tell me?”

Reinhardt lit a cigarette. “The negotiations I was into today were with Quickthorn’s publisher.”

“Wait a minute,” Malachi said. “I thought I was going to publish him.”

“His almost former publisher, then.” Reinhardt loosened his tie. “You see, John, Quickthorn never really wanted to leave Dolce-Placer. They’d been good to him, put him on the map. He just wanted to shake them up a little, you know, get a better deal, a lighter load.”

Malachi began to see the light. He swiped his hand over his face and groaned.

Reinhardt continued, “When he told them he’d decided to go with a small house, at first they thought he was bluffing. Which, of course, he was, but they couldn’t be sure.”

Another groan, this time from deeper in the throat. “No, please, Gus.”

“Last night, Dolce himself called me and said they were ready to talk in earnest. So early this morning I hopped an Acela to New York, we talked, and I rushed back here as soon as i could. I wanted to tell you in person. I’m sorry we had to use you that way. You happened to call at just the right time.”

The groan had evolved into a growl.

“The clincher,” said Reinhardt, “was that Dolce-Placer just hired a new editor, a guy whose style Quickthorn has always respected. Quickthorn made it a condition that this man would be the only one to edit his material.” He shrugged, “They agreed, and Quickthorn signed a five-book deal with Dolce-Placer. And Steve Borek will be his editor.


“Yeah. You know him?”

With a roar, Malachi leaped over the desk, knocked Reinhardt and his chair backward with a crash and a thud, and stretched his fingers around Reinhardt’s plump neck. The agent puffed and panted, began to turn blue. Malachi released his grip and collapsed on top of him.


The medical examiner determined Reinhardt died of a massive heart attack, probably as a result of the physical assault, with obesity and cigarette smoking listed as contributing causes. Malachi apparently succumbed to a brain aneurysm that burst while he was attacking Reinhardt.

Two days after her brother’s funeral, Cheryl started her new job as a barista at the Starbucks across the street.





A native South Philadelphian, Joe Fortunato taught math and physics for twenty years before retiring in 2014 to pursue writing. Prior to his teaching career, he spent more than two decades as a voice talent and radio personality in New Jersey, Delaware, Philadelphia, and New York City.

In addition to making his debut in this issue of The Writing Disorder, Joe’s stories have appeared in The Storyteller Anthology and The MacGuffin. His hobbies include acting in community theater, and oil painting. Joe lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Deb, their cats, Punkin and Sadie, and a black-mouthed cur named Rufus






Ketchup Sandwich

by Shamar English



Growing up in poverty is phantom pain, it never goes away like hunger. It lingers for seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades and so on. You never forget because you always remember.

You have to devour whatever edible thing you can find. Food fluctuates in my home like the stock market. The one thing I can make and eat heavily are sandwiches. Particularly, special sandwiches since there isn’t always meat.

So, I make syrup sandwiches, sugar sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, wish sandwiches, and jelly sandwiches. Not too many peanut butter sandwiches. I tried a few times, but it wouldn’t stick to my stomach. It smelled like seaweed and paste and tasted like chalk.

But ketchup sandwiches are my satiety. I can eat more than one like a can of Pringles. They get me through the days pacifying my growling belly. It sounds gross, but not when you’re ravish by hunger.

Ketchup sandwiches subdued my impending starvation more times than I can ever recount. So, whenever the refrigerator and cabinets are full of food I go directly for the bread and ketchup.




Shamar English is a budding writer. He has a piece published in literallystories2014 magazine, and another piece that will appear in Better than Starbucks magazine. He’s originally from Santa Barbara, California, but lives in Douglasville, Georgia, with his family and attends Georgia State University pursuing his bachelor’s degree.




Pink Lemonade

by Michael McCormick



Greg, Ricky, Joel, and Sean all left the basketball court and headed over to the parking lot. Three two-on-two games in a row and now everyone was exhausted (particularly Sean, who every one of his friends and family members agreed was a monster on the court). They were now ready for some lunch.

“Where we gonna’ go?” Ricky asked, wiping sweat off his face. “Can we do something other than Sonic?”

“I’m good with anything,” Sean said, dribbling one of the basketballs on the parking lot.

“I just want a drink,” Greg said. “I don’t really care what we eat.”

“How about Luby’s?” Joel suggested.

“I’m not in the mood for Luby’s,” Ricky replied.

“I need a drink,” Greg said. “What are places that I can get a drink?”

“There’s Jack and John’s,” Sean suggested.

“Blegh!” Ricky replied. “Forget that.”

“Why don’t we just get a pizza somewhere?” Joel asked. “Then we can get drinks somewhere else.”

“Can we not make a million stops?” Ricky replied.

“What about Sam’s?” Sean suggested.

“Yes, let’s go there,” Joel said, wiping a bead of sweat on his neck. “Can we get out of the sun already?”

“Yeah, let’s go to Sam’s,” Greg said. “I’m down for some Mountain Sunrise.”

“Ricky?” Sean asked.

“What’s Sam’s?” Ricky replied. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s a steakhouse,” Joel said. “You’ll like it. Come on, let’s go! It’s freaking hot!”

“Alright, whatever,” Ricky said. “I’m okay with steak.”

With that, the four friends hopped in their cars and drove away from the park. Being the very middle of lunch hour, the roads were quite busy. It took nearly twenty minutes for the four to arrive in the parking lot of Sam’s Steak Shack.

Sam’s Steak Shack had been up and running in central Houston for nearly thirty years. While hardly known outside of Houston, the steakhouse was massively popular within the city. Top quality steaks, excellent service, and a clean and relaxing atmosphere made for the perfect spot to eat. In addition, the steakhouse was known for being home to the Mountain Sunrise, a drink that could not be found at any other restaurant. Popular among young males (particularly young males who had only recently become legally allowed to consume alcohol), the Mountain Sunrise had a unique flavor and delightful taste that was very difficult to forget. Most diners who experienced this delightful taste for the first time looked forward to paying several visits to Sam’s Steak Shack in the future for the sole purpose of having the drink again.

After a ten-minute wait, a woman led the four friends to their table in the back of the restaurant. Greg was frustrated that he had to wait so long just to get his drink, Ricky was so hungry that he was about to start gnawing on the table, Joel was just relieved to finally be out of the sun, and Sean had his mind set on taking a thirty-minute shower as soon as he arrived home.

“Next time we play ball, I’m bringing a pack of Budweiser,” Greg said as he sat down. “I hope that isn’t illegal.”

“If it is, I’m not bailing you out,” Sean said.

“It’s okay, his granny will probably take care of it,” Ricky said.

“Shut up,” Greg said with a grin. Ricky chuckled.

“Hey Sean, when’s your interview again?” Joel asked, taking a look at his menu.

“Monday,” Sean replied. “Wish me luck guys. It took me five freaking months to get this interview. If I don’t get the job, I’m probably going to smash a window.”

“Then you’d better stay away from my car,” Greg said.

“Ah, I’m sure you’ll get it, Sean,” Ricky said. “Who wouldn’t hire someone with your smoking hot body?”

“I think it’s going to be a guy,” Sean replied.

“And how do you know he won’t be interested in your hot body?”

“Oh, shut the hell up.”

Ricky chuckled.

Having never been to the restaurant before, Ricky looked around. It seemed like every other steakhouse he had been to before. Walls made of wood, pictures showing the restaurant in its earlier days, pictures of the food served at the restaurant, and several other pictures of the famous Mountain Sunrise. Ricky was quite curious to see what it tasted like.

Greg also looked around the restaurant. Every table was full. Mostly with young men, though there were a few families. Almost every young man in the restaurant had a glass of Mountain Sunrise to their side. Greg could hardly wait to get his own glass of the delicious beverage. He was sure that he was going to have drunk at least three glasses by the time he left the restaurant.

Greg also noticed at least two young men who had glasses of what appeared to be water. Greg was baffled why any man would come to Sam’s Steak Shack and not order the Mountain Sunrise. It was utterly bizarre to him. Water could be found at every other restaurant in existence. Could these men just not see the Mountain Sunrise advertisements all over the walls?

After another minute or two, their waitress returned to their table with a pen and notepad in her hand.

“What can I get y’all to drink?” the waitress asked.

Greg said: “Mountain Sunrise” without even blinking.

Sean, who also had been looking forward to a glass of Mountain Sunrise since Sam’s Steak Shack was decided on, also ordered the drink.

Ricky, although he didn’t know what Mountain Sunrise tasted like, was very curious as to why it was so popular. He also ordered a glass.

Joel looked at the beverage section of the menu. The menu heavily promoted Mountain Sunrise (there was a large picture of the famous drink at the top of the beverage section), but he was not interested. He had tasted Mountain Sunrise before and he wasn’t a fan of it. There was another beverage that he was hoping the restaurant served (he had only visited the restaurant once before). Sure enough, his favorite beverage was written in clear letters at the bottom of the page.

“Can I get some pink lemonade?” Joel asked.

“Sure,” the waitress replied, writing the order on her notepad. “Okay, I’ll be right back with your drinks.”

After the waitress left, Greg stared at Joel with a puzzled expression.

“Pink lemonade?” Greg asked. “What?”

“Umm…yeah,” Joel said, looking at the steak section of the menu. “I ordered pink lemonade.”

“Are you serious, Joel? Pink lemonade?”

“What’s wrong with pink lemonade?”

Greg smiled and chuckled. “Well now I’ve seen everything.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I don’t know. We come to Sam’s, the only place where you can get Mountain Sunrise, and you order freaking pink lemonade. I just can’t wrap my mind around that.”

“Well, what if I like pink lemonade?”

“Honestly, I would be a lot less weirded out if you got water. Freaking pink lemonade. Seriously.” Greg chuckled and looked at his menu.

“Dude, leave him alone,” Sean said to Greg. “Let him drink what he wants.”

“I’m not going to stop him from drinking it,” Greg replied. “I just find it kind of weird, that’s all.”

“How is it weird?” Joel asked. He was feeling incredibly irritated.

“Let me repeat what I said. We’re at Sam’s. The only place where you can get Mountain Sunrise, and you order pink lemonade. You don’t see anything weird about that?”

Joel breathed deeply in frustration. “No, I don’t.”

“It is pretty weird,” Ricky said. “Why would you even get pink lemonade?”

“Because I like pink lemonade,” Joel replied. “Why would you even ask me that?”

Greg and Ricky both snickered.

“He’s probably also gonna’ order a salad,” Ricky said.

“That’s what I was thinking,” Greg said.

The two laughed even harder. Joel was becoming more and more infuriated.

“Guys, knock it off,” Sean said. His tone of voice showed that he was incredibly frustrated. “If he likes pink lemonade, let him like pink lemonade.”

“He can like it all he wants,” Greg replied. “I won’t stop him. But it’s still weird.”

“No, it’s not,” Joel muttered. His face was turning red.

“Hey, let’s go to a bar later tonight,” Ricky said. “Forget beer, let’s get drunk on pink lemonade.”

Greg and Ricky laughed so hard that diners sitting nearby looked in the direction of their table. By that point, Joel was very close to blowing a fuse. Sean had half a mind to break Greg and Ricky’s noses.

“Come on, Joel,” Greg said. “Be a man and get some Mountain Sunrise like the rest of us.”

The “be a man” comment ended up being what completely set Joel off. Without even trying to control himself, Joel screamed: “I don’t like Mountain Sunrise!”

Joel’s scream was so loud that everyone in the restaurant heard him. To many, a negative statement about Mountain Sunrise was practically a crime inside the doors of Sam’s Steak Shack. The diners didn’t seem to approve of Joel’s remark.

“Who said they don’t like Mountain Sunrise?”

“Dude, what the hell is wrong with you?”

“Get the hell out of here!”

The other diners were clearly exaggerating, as a large amount of laughter began to fill the restaurant. Joel, however, was not the least bit amused. He now wanted to get out of the restaurant as soon as possible.

“Did you hear that, Joel?” Greg said with a grin. He pointed his thumb at the other tables. “I told you it was weird.”

Just as Sean was about to stand up to keep Joel from strangling Greg, the waitress returned to the table. She walked up to Joel.

“I’m sorry sir,” the waitress said. “We don’t have any pink lemonade at the moment. Can I get you something else?”

“Ohhhhh,” Greg and Ricky said together. They both started laughing.

Joel looked at the waitress for a moment. He took a deep breath and said: “No, nothing for me then. Thanks.”

“Are you sure?” the waitress replied.

“Yes. I’m fine.”

A confused expression appeared on the waitress’ face, but she just shrugged and said: “Okay then.” She then walked away.

Before he could hear any more negative remarks about his beverage preference, Joel stood up and began to walk away from the table.

“Where are you going?” Greg asked with a grin.

Without even looking at Greg, Joel replied: “Getting pink lemonade.” He then exited the restaurant without another word.





Michael McCormick is a graduate from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where he received his Bachelor of Arts in English. He is currently pursuing his Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. He is an aspiring author, having written stories since he was a child. His prose poem “Eight Minutes”, was published in the UTRGV journal Gallery in 2016. He currently resides in Edinburg, Texas.







Finding Jesus

by J L Higgs



As was customary, Rabbi Zeitel arrived at his office at precisely 9:00 am.

“Good Morning, Mrs. Lieberman,” he said to his assistant, who was seated at her desk in the outer office.

She returned his greeting. Then handing him a note, said,“You have a message.”

Having removed his hat and winter overcoat, Rabbi Zeitel adjusted his yarmulke and scanned the pink slip of paper.

“An emergency meeting of the council?” he said, massaging his beard and furrowing his bushy eyebrows. “He said nothing else?”

“What else should he say to me?” she responded.  “The phone rings, I answer it.  He asks, is Rabbi Zeitel in?  I say no.  He asks I give you a message.” She pointed at the note.

“Thank you, Mrs. Lieberman.”

“You are very welcome Rabbi Zeitel.”  She smiled.  “Would you like some coffee?”

“No thank you, Mrs. Lieberman.”

“Perhaps a bagel or a danish.”

“No, I am fine, Mrs. Lieberman.  Thank you,” he said going into his office.

An emergency meeting of The Interfaith Community Council was unprecedented.  The council promoted respect and tolerance for differing religious views and practices and its next scheduled meeting was only two days away.  Its members were the ministers of the churches on the town’s aptly named Church Street.  On one side of the street, within a few blocks of each other, were a Temple, a Catholic Church, and a Christian Evangelical Church.  Across the street, splitting the distance between the Catholics and the Evangelicals were the Unitarian Universalists.  The Lutherans were separate, about a mile further down the street.

The council had been founded following an act of vandalism to Temple Beth Israel. In a show of community solidarity, the other church congregations had appeared unannounced and helped remove anti-semitic graffiti defacing one of the temple’s walls.

With his colleagues gathered in a circle in the basement of Church St. Christian, Reverend Johnson, a bald, stout, black man with a bull neck, began speaking.  “I’m sorry to call all of you here today,” he bellowed.  “A serious matter has arisen that requires the council’s attention.”

“What’s happened?” asked Reverend Robyn, the height sensitive UU minister, a wearer of always sensible black shoes, flats.

“Well, I’m sure as each of you arrived here this morning, you probably noticed it,” said Reverend Johnson.  “Our nativity scene?” he said to their blank expressions.  “Baby Jesus?  He’s gone from the manger?”

“That’s awful,” said Reverend Robyn, reaching out and touching Reverend Johnson’s hand.  “What can we do to help?”

“I don’t mean to sound insensitive,” said Rabbi Zeitel, “but this is a crisis?”

“It’s probably a prank by one of those teenage juvenile delinquents we see around town,” said Father Omyzanski of the Polish Catholic Church, Our Lady of the Assumption, not to be confused with the Irish or Italian Catholic Churches in other sections of the town.

“We don’t know that, Vincent,” said Reverend Robyn.

“When we were young, something like this would never have happened,” replied Father Omyzanski.  “And if it did?  Sister Mary George would’ve gotten a confession in less than two minutes.”

“Well, that may be true, Oz,” replied Pastor Brown of the Lutherans, steepling his stork-like patrician fingers while Father Omyzanski’s face reddened.  He hated the undignified image it conjured up of him amid a group of gaily attired munchkins.  “But, the facts are the Baby Jesus figurine is missing,” continued Pastor Brown.  “We need to focus on what can be done to find it.  Do you have any leads, Julius?”

“Just this.” Reverend Johnson held up a jaggedly torn yellow paper.  He slid his horn-rimmed glasses down from atop his head and read aloud, “My birthday is not for three more days.  I should not be here.  JC.”

“Well, he has a point.  The 25th is three days from now.”

“That’s irrelevant.  It’s a nativity display for God’s sake!”  shouted Father Omyzanski.  “Sorry,” he quickly added, seeing his colleagues shocked expressions.  “I didn’t mean to offend anyone.”

“Did you notify the police?” asked Reverend Robyn.

“Yes, but it didn’t sound like they considered Baby Jesus’ disappearance a priority,” said Reverend Johnson.

Rabbi Zeitel, who had been sitting quietly, leaned forward in his metal folding chair.  “If I may make a suggestion,” he said.  “The solution to this problem seems rather straight forward to me.  A plastic figurine molded in the image of an infant that has a light bulb above its tokus has disappeared.  We buy a new one.  Replace one tchotchke with another.  Problem solved.”

“Well, it’s not as simple as all that.”

“Please.  What is it I’m not understanding?” asked Rabbi Zeitel.

“We’re talking about something more than a piece of plastic.  The infant Jesus is an important symbol of Christianity,” said Father Omyzanski.

“And Christianity is somehow injured if we replace this symbol with another copy?”

“It’s difficult to explain, Herman, you’re not being a Christian,” said Pastor Brown.

What chutzpah, thought Rabbi Zeitel.  “Bob, Jesus was a Jew.  I am a Jew.  Please.  Explain how not being a Christian is relevant in this instance?”

“Please everyone,” said Reverend Johnson, holding up his hands.  “We need to work together.  Church St Christian has displayed this nativity set every year since its founding.”

“So, you are saying its significance has to do with tradition.  That I can understand.  Tradition is important,” said Rabbi Zeitel.  “Robyn, what do you propose we do?”

“Well, for starters, we could create posters and attach them to telephone poles.  And I’m sure the local supermarkets will let us place notices on their entryway bulletin boards.”

Pastor Brown sighed, thinking – Lost Dog.  Named Fido.  If found please call… “Sounds reasonable,” he said, smiling at Reverend Robyn.  “I suggest we email the members of our congregations and ask if anyone knows anything about the disappearance.”

“It wouldn’t hurt to search the neighborhood,” offered, Fr. Omyzanski.

“Herman?”  asked Reverend Johnson, looking at Rabbi Zeitel.

“I am happy to do whatever I can to help.”

“Thank you, everyone,” said Reverend Johnson.  “With all of us working together, I’m sure we’ll find Baby Jesus before our Sunday School’s Christmas pageant.  For as in Matthew 7:7, ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you.”

The following morning, Reverend Robyn, a skilled organizer of things ranging from protests against social injustice to delivering meals to shut-ins, was in her element.  The UU church basement was full of volunteers creating colorful posters.

At Oakgrove Lutheran, Pastor Brown and the Lutheran Church’s Secretary were reviewing membership lists and composing an email to be sent to the members of all the congregations.

In Our Lady’s parking lot, Reverend Johnson, Rabbi Zeitel, and Father Omyzanski were dividing the neighborhood search volunteers into groups.  Before beginning their mission, Reverend Johnson had everyone join hands.  Then he delivered a long prayer, ending with an emphatic Amen to rousing cheers.

On Thursday, when the council gathered for its scheduled meeting, all the attendees were feeling downcast.

“Are there any positive developments at all?” Reverend Robyn asked Reverend Johnson as he entered the basement meeting room.

“Here,” he said, taking a group of photos from his suit coat’s inside pocket and handing them to her.

Reverend Robyn, thumbed through the photos, confusion etched on her face.  Then she handed them to Father Omyzanski.

“Disgraceful,” he said, handing the entire lot to Pastor Brown after reaching the final one.

Pastor Brown flipped through the photos, his facial expression altering from surprise to amusement.  He then handed the photos to Rabbi Zeitel.

On top of the stack was a photo of the missing Baby Jesus figurine in front of the Eiffel Tower.  Rabbi Zeitel turned the photo over and on the reverse side it said, “Having a great time!”  Next was the Baby Jesus lying at the base of the Taj Mahal and on the back of that photo was the same message.

“Boy,” said Rabbi Zeitel, with a twinkle in his eyes, “that Baby Jesus, he sure gets around.”

Rabbi Zeitel continued through the stack.  Baby Jesus standing alongside a bear skin helmeted guard at the Tower of London.  Lying across the tips of the Pyramids in Giza.  Leaning against the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  And the last photo, Baby Jesus scaling the Empire State Building in New York City.

His head shaking, Rabbi Zeitel said, “Talk about a wandering Jew.”

Pastor Brown burst out laughing and Rabbi Zeitel joined in.  Reverend Robyn, trying to contain herself, covered her mouth with her hand. After a few minutes, Pastor Brown and Rabbi Zeitel regained their composure.  But, when their eyes made contact, they erupted in another round of tear producing laughter.

“Hunh,” grunted Reverend Johnson taking the photos from Rabbi Zeitel.

“C’mon guys,” said Reverend Robyn, her face deeply flushed.

“I am sorry,” said Rabbi Zeitel, wiping tears from his eyes and trying to catch his breath.  “Please.  My apologies.  Let’s continue.”

“You must admit, that’s a great job of PhotoShopping,” said Pastor Brown, stifling a smile.  “But seriously, does anyone have any thoughts on what we should do next?”

“Well,” said Father Oz.  “Perhaps we’ve been overlooking the obvious.”

“Which is?”

“Praying for the safe return of Baby Jesus.”

“That’s a fantastic idea, Vincent,” said Reverend Johnson.  “After all, doesn’t The Bible say we should call upon God in the hour of need?”


“It couldn’t hurt,” said Reverend Robyn interrupting Rabbi Zeitel.  He shrugged his shoulders.

“Fine,” said Pastor Brown.  “We’re in agreement.”

Reverend Johnson immediately dropped to one knee and bowed his head.  “Heavenly Father,” he began, “we come before you, your humble servants, asking for your help in our time of need.  As you know Lord, Baby Jesus is missing.  We’ve done our best to find him and bring him safely home.  Psalm 55:22 says, cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you. That’s why we’re asking for your help.  For The Bible says when the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.  And whatever you ask in prayer you will receive if you have faith.  So, Lord, we’re asking you to please restore Baby Jesus back to our loving arms.  For this, we pray, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”

As he got back to his feet with a big smile on his face, Reverend Johnson boomed, “I feel better already.  How ’bout you, Robyn?”

She nodded.

“Well,” said Pastor Brown, standing up. “I am sorry my friends, but I must leave.  I have promised to visit a member of my congregation who has been ill.”

“A good shepherd must attend to his flock,” said Reverend Johnson, patting Pastor Brown on the shoulder.  “I think we can call today’s meeting to a close.  We’ve done what we can.  Now, it’s up to God.”

The following morning, being Christmas Day, Rabbi Zeitel arrived at his office well before his customary 9:00 am.  He’d expected roadways clogged with holiday travelers.

“Good Morning, Rabbi Zeitel” called out Mrs. Lieberman as he unlocked the office door.

“Good Morning, Mrs. Lieberman,” he replied, bending down to remove his galoshes.  “And how are you on this beautiful morning?”

“Why kvetch.  I am wonderful.  Thank you for asking, Rabbi Zeitel.”

“Mazel Tov.”

“Would you like some coffee?  It will warm you up.”

“No thank you, Mrs. Lieberman.  I’m fine.”

“Perhaps a knish.  I made them myself.  A little nosh is always good to start the day.”

“Not right now, Mrs. Lieberman.  Perhaps later,” replied Rabbi Zeitel as he hung his coat and hat on the hooks outside his office door.

“Rabbi Zeitel,” said Mrs. Lieberman, following him into his office. “I should tell you, Reverend Johnson called just before you arrived.  He said something about a miracle.  God being good. And answering prayers.”

“A miracle?”

“Yes.  He said, when Rabbi Zeitel arrives, please tell him there has been a miracle.  So, now I have delivered his message.  There is a miracle.”

“And he said nothing about the nature of this miracle?”

“No, he did not.  The only other thing he said was that he would appreciate it if you would come see him this morning if that is at all possible.”

“Well,” said Rabbi Zeitel snatching his hat and coat off the hooks.  “We must go!”

“Go where?”

“To see Reverend Johnson of course.”

“But Rabbi Zeitel.  The goyim?” she said shaking her head no.  “I cannot do that.  Why… who will mind the office?”

“Mrs. Lieberman.  No one person or group has a monopoly on God.  Come.  We go now,” he said, holding her coat for her.  Mrs. Lieberman slipped into her coat while continuing to shake her head in bewilderment.

Rabbi Zeitel led the way, taking Mrs. Lieberman’s arm whenever they encountered a large pile of slush.

“Rabbi,” said Mrs. Lieberman.  “You forgot your galoshes!”

“Eh, no matter,” he said, grasping the handles of Church St Christian and pulling the doors open.

As the doors swung closed behind him with a muted thud, Rabbi Zeitel saw that Mrs. Lieberman was not beside him.  He pushed the doors open, took her by the arm, and steered Mrs. Lieberman inside.

“It’ll be fine, Mrs. Lieberman,” he whispered to her.  “They’re all God’s houses.”

On the dais at the front of the church, Reverend Johnson stepped from behind the lectern.  Spotting Rabbi Zeitel, he waved for him to come to the front of the church.  Rabbi Zeitel reassured Mrs. Lieberman that she was safe among the goyim and that he was not meshuggener.  Then he started down a side aisle.  As he reached the front pew, he saw Reverend Robyn, Pastor Brown, and Father Omyzanski seated there.  They each shook his hand as the congregation jumped to its feet,  hooting and hollering.

Leaning over, Reverend Robyn shouted in Rabbi Zeitel’s ear, “He’s back.  The Baby Jesus was back in the manger this morning!”

The congregation roared loudly, drawing Rabbi Zeitel’s attention back to the dais.  There, Reverend Johnson, his entire face a smile, held the Baby Jesus out toward the congregation.  Claps, cheers, and foot stomps erupted.  Baby Jesus was back!





J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American.  The primary goal of his writings is to create a greater understanding between racial, ethnic, and religious groups in America.

He has been published in various magazines such as Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories, and The Remembered Arts Journal.

He and his wife reside outside of Boston.

Drawings as well as URLs to published stories are located at:








The Ministry of Brooms
a Children’s Story

by Patrick Moser



Brad Totenberg will tell you that his title, Minister of Brooms, has no religious significance. His job is to administer. But somewhere along the line the ad dropped out, and now he’s just Minister. He’s fine with it. He has no religious convictions save the usual ones (the Ministry more or less expects them). Brad doesn’t pretend to be a devout man—there’s no special collar or hand signals or anything—but if people believe him to be some kind of religious figure, he doesn’t disabuse them. That’s their right. At any rate, the title makes his job easier.

He travels to areas where people have been swept. They call them “dust-ups.” He offers sincere condolences to the community and monitors reactions. The dust-ups are awful. People get lost. His job as Minister is to remind the people who are not lost that buying brooms is the best way to protect themselves from being swept.

Brad and I have settled into our seats on a commuter jet. We’re flying to Kansas City, an airline hub. From there Brad will take a connecting flight out to the desert where there’s been another dust-up. Fifty-eight people were swept. Our flight to KC is less than an hour, so I don’t have much time to interview him.

“Good morning, Mr. Totenberg,” says the flight attendant. “How’s business?”

“Business is broomin’,” Brad replies.

The flight attendant grins at the line and passes on. Brad takes this hop frequently, so the crew has gotten to know him well. Brad himself doesn’t smile when he uses the slogan. He understands the play on words, of course—he used to get quite a kick out of it when he first started at the Ministry. It’s not that the line has become so commonplace among people outside of the Ministry these days. It’s simply that Business is broomin’ is an accurate description of his job now.

No joke.

“You say you’re writing a children’s story?” Brad asks me.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“You mean it’s for children.”

I shake my head. “No, not really.”

“But there’s children in it, right? I mean, it’s about children.”

“Well, you might say they’re the inspiration.” I reflect a moment. “But there’s not any children in the story, at least not yet.”

Brad nods politely. My explanation makes no sense to him. I imagine his water-cooler conversation back at the Ministry: How the hell can it be a children’s story if it’s not for children and they’re not in it?

The flight attendant walks by again, and I make sure my seat belt is securely fastened. If we hit turbulence, I don’t want to bang my head off the overhead bin or fly into the lavatory. “It’s hard to explain,” I tell him. “I’m not quite sure I understand it myself. That’s why I wanted to talk with you.”

“As long as you’re not one of those broom-banners,” he says leaning toward me confidentially, pushing his shoulder into mine. He’s got the aisle, I’m the window. “We get a lot of crackpots chasing after us.”

I shrug with my right shoulder—he’s got my left pinned. “I can’t vouch for not being a crackpot.”

He laughs. We both settle in now as the crew and plane make final preparations for the flight. I’m not sitting next to an emergency exit so I don’t have to read the special instructions card located by the seat. I don’t have to ask the flight attendant to reseat me because I can’t or won’t perform the functions described on the card in the event of an emergency. I’ve made sure my portable electronic devices are set to “airplane” mode until an announcement is made upon arrival.

The flight attendant begins the safety demonstration. She doesn’t talk or make eye contact with the passengers. A recording provides information as she pulls out various props and goes through the motions of what to do in the event of an emergency. I can’t tell if anyone is paying attention to her. Her face is neutral as she demonstrates how to fasten a seat belt. Mine is already fastened. She indicates the emergency exits (behind me), the oxygen mask (above me), and the life vest (beneath me). I don’t think I’ll need a life vest on this flight since we’re flying over land, but there are some deep lakes between here and KC. In that scenario, I’d be glad to have a life vest and know how to deploy it. I would not inflate the vest before evacuating the plane. Once the emergencies are covered, I’m encouraged to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight. Before we know it, we’re taxiing over to the runway. We’re at a small airport, so the whole process doesn’t take long.

“You sweep yourself?” Brad asks me.

I confessed that I didn’t. It’s silly, but I’m a little afraid of brooms. I’d probably brush myself first thing if I ever picked one up. I’m sure it’s me and not the broom. To ease Brad’s mind I say, “I got my broom safety training pretty young. At camp in the eighth grade.”

He wags his index finger at me. “You see there, that’s the key.”

We zoom up the runway and lift into the air. I ask over the rattle of my tray table, “How young?”

He raises his voice over the engines: “Teachers should be sporting brooms at Daycare. There should be broomories in every elementary school, middle school, high school, and college in the country.” He points his index finger straight up to emphasize his point: “If the first thing a preemie sees from his glass bunker in the ICU is broom bristles, then at least he knows he’s got a fighting chance of getting out alive should some nut job bust in.”

We reach altitude in a matter of minutes and level off. When the flight attendant starts the drink service, Brad orders a soda. I ask for water with no ice. I’ve taken out a notebook and written down “nut job.”

Brad glances down at my pad of paper. “Know what they call a crackpot who works in a big grocery store?”

I lift my head. “No.”

“A wal-nut.”

I smile. “Know what they call a nut job in California?”

Brad lifts his eyebrows. “What’s that?”

“Picking pecans.”

He wrinkles his brow a moment, then says, “Good one.” He’s being nice. I know my nut-job humor needs work. I wouldn’t have Brad’s facility, given his occupation and constant traveling. He takes me under his wing a bit and recites others he’s heard on his latest trips—to Florida, California, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Connecticut. Apparently the jokes are all well known. I’ll just give the punchlines: pea-nut, chest-nut, hazel-nut; and of course, the funniest one: donut.

“The nuts sure add up,” I say.

“A passel.”

There’s a pause in our conversation that tells me the chit-chat period has come to an end. Brad’s a patient man. He has to deal with dust-ups, after all. And crackpot broom-banners. He waits for me to begin the interview.

I dither with my pen. It feels too soon to ask him my real questions. We haven’t even gotten our snacks yet. I’m not a professional journalist. I don’t interview people for a living. I’m just a writer with an idea for a story that I’m not sure is going anywhere. When you write a story, the reader expects you to have a point and get to it quickly. If I bumble my question to Brad, offend him in some way, it could be a very long short flight. And we’re sitting so close together, as airline space goes these days. If a nut job broke from the galley with an electric broom, we’d all be swept in about five seconds.

I pick up the thread of our conversation before the jokes. “So you want to see brooms everywhere.”

“That’s the goal. A broom in every room. Normalize them.”

“On planes?”

“Planes, trains, automobiles, motorcycles, mopeds, tandem bikes, baby strollers.” He ducks his head slightly, looks down the aisle behind us. “I’d feel a lot less naked, believe me.”

As Brad straightens up to take his soda and bag of peanuts from the flight attendant, his coat pops opens and I see a dark handle sticking out of a shoulder holster.

I’m alarmed. My armpits suddenly feel like someone is pricking them with pins. I lower my tray table carefully, not making any sudden movements. I accept my own plastic cup of water and peanuts. When the flight attendant has left, I nod discreetly at Brad’s holster. In a low voice I say, “Is that what I think it is?” I don’t know what the rules are for Ministers—maybe they’re allowed pack-a-brooms on planes when the rest of us aren’t.

Brad half-grins, the way Harrison Ford does in some but not all of his movies. He slips his right hand inside his coat and whips out a pint-sized lint roller. “I wish,” he says. He runs the roller down his sleeve a couple of times. “Optics are everything. I can’t ever have people seeing dust on me, not even a spec. That’s not going to be easy with this latest deal in the desert.” He eyes his sleeve, scans the front of his coat. Satisfied, he returns the roller to its holster. “Whisk brooms are where the kids need to start. As they get older, you graduate to the mid-range jobs. With the upgrades and converters nowadays, they practically sweep themselves. But all of them, big or small, will protect kids from being swept.”

“Will they?” I ask.

“Absolutely. And they need to know it’s their right to sweep. At the appropriate age, of course. Until then”—he jabs his thumb toward his chest for emphasis—“we’ve got their back.” The gesture is very effective. It gives me confidence in what Brad is saying.

I write down notes, mostly for something to do. I decide there is no good time for me to ask him what I want to ask. I just have to jump in and feel it out as I go.

“The dust-up in Connecticut,” I begin.

Brad nods. “Now that was a real tragedy, pure and simple. My heart goes out to those folks.” He pulls on his bag of peanuts and it explodes. Whole nuts and tiny halves fly into the air. They land on our clothing and down in the seats. Some hit the floor in the aisle where they bounce and scatter.

“Goddamn it!” he gripes. He checks his coat and pants, assessing the damage. “That really chaps my hide. Why the hell can’t they make a bag of peanuts that opens without raining nuts all over the damn cabin. Jesus, is that possible? Just lower the broom on me right now.”

I set my bag of peanuts on his tray table to calm him. “I already ate lunch,” I say.

“Thanks.” He’s gruff, but it’s not directed at me. He flicks the nuts off his lap with his hands, then gives himself a quick once-over with the lint roller. When he’s satisfied there’s no peanut crumbs clinging to him, he returns the roller once again to its holster. The second bag of peanuts he opens more carefully. Once he’s got a couple of them in his mouth, with a swig of soda, he’s back to his friendly self.

A woman walks by, headed for the lavatory. Her heels grind the tiny peanuts into the carpet. The little jobbers look oily, so it won’t be easy to get the stains out. I imagine this happens frequently enough nowadays so the airlines take it into consideration when they design the carpet. It’s probably easier than changing our whole approach to bags of snacks. You never know when one’s going to explode on you, so you simply manage the fallout. If it were me, I’d go with a camouflage design: forest-floor, or maybe hoedown-bar.

I ask Brad, “Do you ever think that we might . . . I don’t know how to say this . . . .” I run my eyes over his jacket. It really is very clean. “That we might be over-brooming?”

Brad chomps a nut. “How’d you mean?”

I let out a breath. “Well, we have so many of them. You’d think the streets would be, I don’t know. Cleaner, I guess. Do more brooms really keep the dust down? Or do they stir it up more? I guess that’s part of my question.”

Brad nods. He points his index finger at his mouth. I give him a few seconds to finish chomping. “I see what you’re getting at,” he says finally. He brushes his hands together a couple of times to clean them. “You have to understand the basic principles.” His voice is calm and clear, a professor at the podium. “You’re mistaking brooms for what they stand for. That’s freedom, which you can never have enough of. Without brooms, there is no freedom. We’d all be swept. So that’s the first thing.”

I’m taking notes, trying to get his exact wording down so that I understand the basic principles.

“The second thing, don’t confuse sweeping with being swept. That’s absolutely the worst greenhorn maneuver there is. They’re two completely different planets. It’s like Venus and Timbuktu.”

I didn’t realize Timbuktu was a planet. Then again, we lost Pluto awhile back, so maybe there’s been a discovery.

Sweeping is for normal people,” Brad explains. “Guys like you and me. It’s our God-given right. Being swept is for the nut jobs. And since there’s always gonna be nut jobs in this world—What are you gonna do?—you have to protect yourself against them. Mr. G-man can’t help you. It’s swept or be sweeped.” Brad stops, shakes his head. “It’s sweep or be swept.” He nods to himself, getting it right. “I hate to say that, and I wish it were otherwise, but that’s the reality.”

I write silently for a minute. “You don’t sell brooms to people on your trips, do you?”

“Me?” Brad shakes his head. “Not me personally. That’s a different section of the Ministry. I just minister. Make sure, as I say, that everyone knows their rights.”

“How is that?” I ask. “I mean, whenever I hear about these dust-ups, I’m shocked. I’m horrified. Afterward I feel numb. I don’t know what to do. I think that’s why I’m writing this story. Somehow it makes me feel less helpless to put words down on paper. It helps me sort out my feelings.”

“Feelings about what?”

“I’m not sure. The people it happened to, I suppose. People sweeping, people swept. I imagine myself in their shoes, losing someone I love.” I turn to Brad. “But you, you actually go to all those places. You see the sites and speak with the people. How does that feel?”

“Feel?” Brad shakes his head. “I don’t meet with the actual people. I’m there post-op. For the clean-up.”

“Making sure people know their rights,” I say.

Brad cocks his wrist and pistols me with his thumb and forefinger. He also winks and makes a clicking sound out of the side of his mouth like he’s calling his favorite horse. The finger, the wink, and the clicking sound all pop simultaneously. Brad’s timing is perfect. The combination is impressive yet folksy, a reassuring gesture.

“Do you ever want to speak with them?” I ask.

The plane bounces roughly a couple of times, and the seat belt light blinks on. A voice over the intercom tells me to return to my seat and keep my seat belt fastened. I’m already in my seat. My seat belt is already securely fastened. I pull my cup of water off the indented circle on the tray table, which is a smart convenience. It’s a very effective use of space, which the airlines are tops at.

“That wouldn’t be appropriate,” Brad says.

I spell out appropriate on my pad of paper. I hope I remember to look the word up later in the dictionary to get all of the meanings. I don’t want to short-change Brad. I know one of the meanings is fitting, which is appropriate in itself given my last observation about the cup holder. Though I suppose there wouldn’t be a connection between Brad’s verbiage and how the airlines go about their business. That would be like two completely different planets.

I take time to formulate my next question, a work-in-progress. “Do you ever feel . . . I don’t know, soiled by it all? I mean, once the dust settles. Do you bring it back with you? Not actual dust, of course, since you have the lint roller. But maybe the cloud of it might be the best way to put it. Because you know there are going to be more dust-ups. More people swept away.”

“There’s always gonna be more dust-ups. That’s a given, God forbid. But you know what?” Brad leans against me again. “The dust-ups energize me. There’s no other way to say it. What your writing does for you? I tell you what, a good broom will do exactly the same thing for people. Makes them feel less helpless. When they grip that handle and know with one little sweep of the arm they can take out a dirtbag, that’s real security of mind. That’s something they can holster and take home with them. Or go shopping, or to the grocery store.” Brad snaps his fingers and points at me. “Your book clubs. People are afraid out there. They’ve got a right to be afraid. That’s what I tell them.”

I write for a minute after Brad finishes. I look over my notes, trying to get the rights sorted out. “People have a right to sweep,” I say slowly. “And they have a right to be afraid. Brooms help them feel less afraid. And you sell them brooms.”

Brad frowns a bit and looks up, like he’s doing math in his head. Only the numbers don’t seem to be adding up for him. He pops another nut in his mouth. “I just let them know their rights.”

It’s hard to argue with Brad’s logic. Brooms carry a lot of power, I admit. Certainly more than my pen. I can’t say I haven’t felt it myself. “You know, I dream of lowering the broom.”

He stops chomping. “On people?”

I nod.

“But bad ones, right?” He shifts in his seat. “You’re not talking about . . . .”

“Oh, no,” I say. “Of course not. Not me. They’re always bad people.”

Brad looks relieved. “Well, of course they are. And you know what? I hear that a lot. It’s perfectly normal.”

The plane is humming along now. No more bumps. The seat belt light blinks off. Simultaneously a voice tells me the Captain has turned off the Fasten Seat Belts Sign. I may now move around the cabin.

“They’re not really dreams,” I say. “I mean, I’m not asleep. It’s just before I fall asleep. Usually it helps put me to sleep. They’re more like . . . fantasies.” I say the word cautiously, like I’m ready to unsay it, depending on his reaction.

Brad nods. “You and me both, brother. There’s a lot of bad dudes out there. It’s not only normal, it’s your duty to lower the broom on them. You need to protect yourself, and your family.”

I sit a moment, trying to sort out my feelings. “I worry that the dreams make me numb,” I tell him. “Or that I am numb for having them. That I’m kind of a nut job myself.” I say these last words almost in a whisper. “I worry that the bad dudes are thinking exactly the same thoughts as I am. That we’re all numb to one another. That we don’t know how to listen to one another anymore.”

“But you don’t act on those thoughts,” Brad says. “That’s the difference. You understand what’s what between fantasy and reality. The nut job, he’s way out in left field.”

“Sometimes I feel like I could cross into left field pretty easily.”

Brad turns to face me now. “You know what’s going on here, don’t you? You’re preparing. That’s what that’s all about. Should you ever need to actually lower the broom on someone—‘cause the bad dudes are out there, sure as shootin’ and God forbid—you’d be ready. And you know what?” He points his finger at my chest. “You’d be a goddamn hero. Put that in your story.”

I stare at my note pad and recite the Ministry’s official slogan, which I’ve written down: “Our lives are better with brooms.”

“Course they are,” Brad says. “Mine is.”

“What about the people who are swept?”

“You can blame the nut jobs for that.”

“What about their lives?”

Who? The nut jobs?” Brad almost comes out of his seat. Then he leans back and laughs. “Now that was a good one,” he says, slapping my arm. “You had me going there for a second.”

Brad checks his bag, but all the peanuts are gone. I can feel us descending already. Following the landing announcement, I make sure my seat back and tray table are in their full upright position, my seat belt is still securely fastened, and that all carry-on luggage is stowed underneath the seat in front of me or in the overhead bin. I actually don’t check this last one since I’d have to climb over Brad to do that, and then my seat belt would not be securely fastened.

“How’s it gonna end?” Brad asks.

“That’s a good question.” I rest my pen. In a few minutes I’ll be using caution when opening the overhead bins as heavy articles may have shifted around during the flight. A bizarre image pops into my head of chubby A’s, An’s, and The’s rolling around up there, one of them tumbling out when I pop the hatch and hitting me in the face. I try not to be alarmed by my own brain. “Endings are tough,” I admit. “They say it’s supposed to make complete sense, and yet still be surprising.”

Brad finishes his soda. He uses the napkin to wipe off any last crumbs on his hands, then wads the paper up and sticks it in the cup. The flight attendant makes a last pass and collects our trash. If she notices the peanuts ground into the carpet, she doesn’t show it. I imagine there’s a crew coming aboard in KC. They’ll hoover up any stray nuts, or blow them so far into the corners that no one will even notice. The cabin will be all groomed for the next flight.

“What you could do,” Brad says, “if you wanted to work a kid into the story. Have a tyke bust out of the broom closet, as they do, pretending to sweep a bunch of his friends, who are play-acting bad guys. That makes sense. But it’d be surprising too, like a little Jack-in-the-Box. If you did it right, you’d scare people. It’d be like Stephen King.”

“That’s a possibility,” I say.

I press my notebook in my lap. The landing gear doors bang open beneath us. I hear the wheels lever down and lock into place.

It’s always hard for me to talk about my stories. They sound dumb when I try to explain them out loud to people. It’s like listening to someone yap about their dreams. Boring.

But Brad is a friendly ear, and I doubt I’ll get the chance to meet someone from the Ministry again. They’re so busy helping people. Even if my ending doesn’t turn out exactly this way, I try it on him for size. I’m interested in his reaction as a Minister.

“What if I had parents standing in a school parking lot,” I say, “waiting for their kids to come out. A siren suddenly blasts, and a mom sees a group of boys running from the building carrying her son’s body on their shoulders. He’s bloodied, but she recognizes his clothes—his red jacket, the jeans, his white tennis shoes with the rainbow laces. Then his hair and face. He’s on his back, lifeless, arms dangling down as they race him across the playground. He’s heavy. His head and neck jerk up and down as the boys run. They’ve never practiced this before. They’re all screaming, except for her son. Other kids are doing the same thing. Running from the building, carrying the limp bodies of their classmates. This mom has her hands to her face. Just as they reach the parking lot, and the mom is running toward her son—she’s supposed to stay behind the yellow tape with the TV cameras, but she can’t help herself—he suddenly springs off their shoulders with a shout of triumph and lands on his feet.”

“He’s alive?” Brad asks.

I nod. “The mom knows this is just a drill, but she breaks down crying anyway. They’ve scared her to death.”

Brad waits for more. When I stay silent, he says: “Doe she die?”

“No,” I say. “Not literally.”

“Oh.” He nods and rolls his bottom lip out. “Does anyone die?”

“Not in this version. They’re just practicing, but they have to act like it’s real. I don’t want anyone to die, not if I can help it.”

I’m saved by the plane bouncing hard on the runway. “I’ll probably change it,” I add. “Go more with the Stephen King idea.”

“No,” he says over the sound of scraping wheels. “It’s real good. I was surprised.”

We deplane and say our goodbyes in the terminal. Brad strides off. I wish him well in the desert and wherever else his travels take him. He waves back, tells me Good luck with the story.

I find my gate and take a seat. I have a couple of hours before my flight back home, time enough to work on my ending. I look up at a television news program. I’m too far away to hear anything. I just get the visuals, four or five separate shots that are repeated so they run together in a continuous loop. They’re at a small-town church somewhere. The newscasters continue moving their mouths, though there doesn’t appear to be any new information. The story is on-going. A woman’s voice, friendly yet insistent, asks for my attention, please. And not just me, all passengers. She tells me if any unknown person attempts to give me any item, including luggage, to transport on my flight, not to accept it, and to notify airport personnel immediately. The message is so important that she repeats it five minutes later.

I look around the terminal to see if I can spot an unknown person who might attempt to give me any item, including luggage, to transport on my flight. If I do spot one, I’d like to report them.

I wonder if anyone else is listening to the woman’s voice.





Patrick Moser has an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona and teaches writing and French at Drury University (Springfield, Missouri). He writes mostly nonfiction about the history and culture of surfing, including essays in Gingko Tree Review, Kurungabaa, Sport Literate, and Bamboo Ridge. He is the editor of Pacific Passages: An Anthology of Surf Writing and has collaborated on two books with world surfing champion Shaun Tomson: Surfer’s Code, and The Code. He is a recipient of the Carol Houck Smith Scholarship at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. This is his first short story.





Happy Home

by Jessica Bonder


There was John the Saint, rescued dollhouse on his shoulder, salvaging the damned from its curbside purgatory. The trash heap cross the street from 24 Cleveland, the punk house John the Saint calls Heaven, for what was a Tuesday, he’d been eying the lot. The amassed sinners—busted electronica, three-legged chair, neck-crooked lamp—spilled out into the street like drunks down an alleyway, unforgiven vagrants. Throwaways. Squatters loiterers deviants weirdos—to the forlorn rejected, John the Saint could relate. The family cross the street, apparently, was moving; or cleaning out their garage; or maybe they died. The dollhouse turned sideways, its insides exposed, gutted and empty. Abandoned memory, it needed saving. It needed a reason.


John the Saint’s legs like exclamation points, skinny and black, exact. Navigating a maelstrom of anarchist artists, girlfriends passed out, stepping over their bodies. A game of tic-tac-toe just to get to the door, the Saint’s paint-splattered Docs tap-dancing through chaos. In the front room, what was once a living room, before milk crates and fixies and a drum kit took over, knelt Tomás at his shrine, his sacred vinyl reliquary, spinning 7-inches. Rad. The latest Meat Sweats, limited edition LP, Do the Shit My Way, Side B. Oh the temptation! To abort the mission, pull up bucket overturned, pop a squat and flood heardrums. Talk shop. But no! John the Saint’s committed—after all, he’s a saint—committed to his calling, his ministry to the lost. Call it recovery. Of the dollhouse he spied, from his perch on the roof, dead leaves mildew cigarette butts pigeon poop. For Luz, he thought, it’ll be a gift for Luz. Mascara plastered procumbent Luz. Luz on the floor on vodka on vicodin. His almost-bride, his last-chance wife. Last night or this morning, they’d had a fight.

Hey John man, where you goin’, que pasó?

Be right back yo, gotta go get somethin’.

Luz had been a lot of places and had seen a lot of things. None had been nice—there’d been no nice things. Even on days blue sky and birds chirping, days standard beautiful, did Luz fascinate the ceiling. Did Luz lay wasted, did Luz lay waste, closed curtains on a sun so badly wanted in. John the Saint met Luz down at Veterans Park, she had been pepper-sprayed, there was a protest. Luz coiled on the ground, tight as a spitball; John a fallen angel, reluctant descendant, apostate apostolic. As it happened that day, Cupid copped the enemy—his bow riot shield, his arrow, baton. Upon John did her immolated eyes first fix, Luz the first thing saying: My name means light.

It was love instamatic, a Polaroid love.

John loved Luz because Luz knew his past. Knew the things he did, knew he wasn’t no saint. Luz had the goods on this stray of a man, his fleas, ticks and bruises. Took him anyway.

Luz coming-to is Dorothy out of Oz, from black-and-white to color, homecoming to night. What is that, she says, scrounging for a ciggy, spoon-banging Mr. Coffee to evict las cucarachas. The machine was infested again. Stuck it in the freezer, doused it with vinegar, Luz tested all remedies, swore nothing worked. God! She hated living here, really she did, this two-story infection, open-plan open wound. So what is that, plays Luz on repeat, fractured princess pointing her rusty spoon wand. Misfit bent permanent. Gone. It’s a dollhouse, says John, and lays it at her feet, her feet bare and dirty. Splintered toes. Scabby bug bites. Half-shell nailbeds coated obsidian, dagger rose ankle—she was no Venus. John says here, it’s a gift for you babe.

I got this for you.

Do you like it.

What sounds a dollhouse before it crashes, prior its defenestration, ruled not a suicide? What sounds a dollhouse launched out a window, when a tiny home humbly meets the sky once? What sounds the site before the asteroid hits, comet of pretend, implodes on the lawn? What sounds a mad girlfriend, storming up the stairs, hated gift piggybacked, she be little but she be strong? What sounds a bedroom door, kicked down and dreams flown, en route to the highest ledge in the joint? From the zenith of despond, does Luz pitch the offering, with a fuck you John, she wants a ring. A ring with a diamond. A ring that is gold. The dollhouse rots, grows dandelions in spring.

What sounds a question asked over and over.

Tell her John tell her.

Why can’t she have nice things?




Jessica Bonder is an American fiction writer. She has published short stories and prose poetry in The Stockholm Review, The Lonely Crowd, The Honest Ulsterman, STORGY Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Black Heart Magazine, The Bohemyth, Vending Machine Press, The Fiction Pool, and Unbroken Journal. Honors include: Nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize by Black Heart Magazine; Longlisted for the 2017 Berlin Writing Prize; Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open (March/April 2017);  Longlisted for STORGY Magazine’s 2017 EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition; Finalist in Split Lip Magazine’s 2017 Summer Mix Tape Flash Fiction Contest; Shortlisted for Short Fiction Journal’s 2017 Short Fiction Prize; First Place in STORGY’s 2015 Short Story Contest.






Sounds of the Alleyway

by Patrick Legay




With no rain for months, the sun bleached the city. But the pear tree got its water day after day, soaking up all of that sunshine and making it green, so now its pears weighed on their branches, and of course the squirrels were after them. One little glutton was there on the ground, eating a fallen pear, spinning it in his paws as he worked his teeth.

Greta had on her gardening gloves to protect her skin if the squirrel struggled. She crouched low to the soil, stepped carefully, looking ahead, focussing through her neon-framed sunglasses. She was old. Her long, gray-black coils of hair were all pulled together at the back by a string tied into a bow. The length of her hair was tucked into her cardigan, for practicality.

She kept on stopping, smiling, cocking her head to the side, clicking her gums, and laughing a little to herself, her eyes following a bug buzzing from to leaf to leaf, or the birds calling across the sky.

Her yard was closed in on either side by tall shrubs with fences running through them, as if the chain-link had grown up with the shrubs. At the top of the fences were jagged loops of barbed wire, connecting along the roof of the garage at the back. From the alleyway, over the garage, through the barbed-wire loops, was the squirrels’ path to the pear tree.

Greta snuck between the tomato plants and the herbs she had growing in her garden. The tomato plants grew well this year. They were as tall as a man.

Something was planted in every inch of the yard that caught the sun. There was a hose set to spurt on a timer to keep everything green. She had punctured a line of holes all along the rubber to the end, and capped it with a wine cork, then crisscrossed the length of it through the garden, and around the pear tree.  The tomato rows stretched just short of the tree. The herbs were on the other side of them. Corn along the shrub/fence. Kale, spinach, collard greens, lettuce, beans, beets, potatoes, carrots. Everything.

Rascal the Cat waddled along behind her. He was a rotund orange tabby. A skirt of fur-enveloped fat was thrown up from his belly as he trotted. He wasn’t crouching like a sneaking cat would. He wasn’t paying any attention to the squirrel. Rascal was watching Greta. He followed her as she crouched along. He waited, watched her move ahead a little, then trotted up to her, and waited again. The soil was moist, and he didn’t like the feel of it. Between trots he flicked his paws behind him. When he stopped, he stuck his nose in her direction, smelling, his whiskers moving, and his eyes closing as his cheeks puffed.

She wanted to show Rascal how to hunt like a cat. It was his job. She made low meowing and cooing noises to him. He meowed back now and again, but he was meowing about the treats in her cardigan pocket.

All the while the squirrel was under the pear tree with his back to them, happily munching.

She was a little girl when her parents lifted it out of the bed of her father’s truck like it was a Christmas tree. They set it down in the yard, and let her unwrap it from the twine and burlap. Mostly her father dug the hole. They only had one shovel. But they each held a branch, each uprighted the tree, and filled in some soil. They planted the pear tree together. She had a photo from that day up in the kitchen. There were pictures all over the house to help her keep her memory. Some they painted on the walls. Her mother guiding the brush in Greta’s hand to show her the strokes.

On this block, in this house, with this yard, Greta Washington had lived. Her parents brought her here when she was an infant, before she had memory, when the house was empty and rundown. Her parents spoke of it when she was older. How the doors were warped and wouldn’t close, the windows were warped and wouldn’t open, and the roof leaked in a different spot each time it rained. Before they fixed it up. When the old, European neighbors cursed them and moved away.

Now she was 76 years of age to be exact. Sure, she smoked the odd cigarette, and drank the odd spirit, but she ate clean, stayed fit, and kept busy around the house.  Yes, she was old, but she did not feel elderly. And she had her home, her place in the world. Being a Detroiter: that was her secret to living.

On her way to the squirrel, she reached up, and squeezed a low-hanging pear. The pears had come early this year. The tree’s flowers had been early too. The tree always bloomed white flowers in spring to tell her when the pears would come.

In his grand voice, her father had threatened to shoot the squirrels for their plundering. Her mother shook her head and called them poor creatures. But, he kept on saying it, that those squirrels should be shot. When he had said it too many times, her mother raised her righteous voice, and told him that there was no reason to be shooting at those poor squirrels.  It wasn’t the time for that. And he should hope that time never comes, “when food is hard to get, and when children don’t play in the alleyway behind our tree.”

After that her father would repeat the threat, but laugh to Greta as if it had always been a joke, and her mother would laugh too, shake her head, and call him a dangerous man.

Greta was in her first year of junior high, sitting in class one day, in one of the rooms with all the windows, watching the teacher write equations on the blackboard, when she heard a bunch of loud, deep pops. Bullets shattered the glass, flew invisibly over their heads, and snapped into the wall. All the kids were in shock. The teacher yelled at them, and they ducked under their desks like they had been taught to do for the bomb. Her seat was close to the window. Glass kept falling, and cut the back of her head.

Her father picked her up in his truck. Across his lap was his rifle — the gun he had brought home from the war. Greta’s head was all bandaged up. He asked if she had seen them. She hadn’t. He told her to sit on the floor of the truck, down on her bottom in the foot space. As he drove, he kept telling her it was alright, that he didn’t see anyone bad. They watched the white hoods marching on the news.

Her father went to a meeting in the church basement. Then he sat in a kitchen chair on the edge of the front lawn, with beer cans and cigarette buts on the grass around him, his rifle held up between his legs, and a newly bought extra-long phone cord stretched out of the house. The phone was sitting beside him on the stepping stool from the kitchen.

Greta’s mind was still as clear as ever, but she had lost her hearing. She had been ignoring it for years. Tens of years. Her ears were so dead now there were times when Rascal would have his claws out, ripping at the side of the couch, with Greta lying there reading, but all she heard was quiet. Eventually, she would catch the blur of orange limbs out of the corner of her eye, mark her page, and get up to spray him with the water gun.

The kettle whistling, her rattling pots and pans, slamming the door, bounding down the stairs two at a time — nothing roused her ears. Day and night, she saw things make noise, and heard nothing but quiet.

Back when she could hear well enough to tell a calamity coming, she boarded up the front of her house with plywood. She already had the fence with the barbed wire and gate, but figured an extra touch wouldn’t hurt. She painted one special board with white primer, let it dry, and then wrote in big letters with a fine brush:

Toxic Breathing Hazard



She painted her best rendition of the biohazard symbol in red (she had practiced it on cardboard) and signed it “By Order of the Detroit City Police.”

Now she couldn’t sleep at night because it was so quiet. Someone could be busting down her door, and she would hear nothing but quiet.

So, before she was after the squirrel that day, Greta went out to the Wal-Mart to see about a pair of hearing aids. She asked the store attendant to lean in close, and repeat himself loudly and slowly. “But, say the same words. I’m no technopeasant,” she told him.

The hearing aids were tiny buds that had these fine little stems on them that you held between your fingers when you put them in your ears. The attendant wouldn’t let her try them out before she bought them. For sanitary reasons, he said. You can adjust all of the settings once you install the app on your tablet.

She bought them with some pension money.

She took her tablet out of its drawer as soon as she got home.

When the app was installed, she put in the buds. At first they only plugged her ears, and felt like they’d let nothing through. She swiped through on the touchscreen, following the prompts to set up the basic settings. She couldn’t quickly figure out what all the bars meant — some went up and down and some went diagonally — and she was impatient to try it, so she swiped each bar to the max, clicked that she was sure about the changes (even though she wasn’t), and put the tablet back in its drawer.

She went out to smoke in the backyard with Rascal following.

The buds let the sound in, and she could hear everything. The spring scraped the bolt in the door. Her sandals squeaked. The tobacco crunched when she pinched the cigarette. The flint scratched and clicked to light. She pulled in smoke, and the tobacco leaves crackled as they burned.

When she was first out there, she stood hearing, remembering, surveying her garden, and smoking in the sun, crossing her arms with one hand holding out the cigarette.

The day the boy next door was born, James, that was her earliest memory. Balloons tied to the mailbox. Everyone shouting “Itsa boy!” She had more memory of his parents than she should. She was still an infant, and she didn’t know them long, but she had seen photographs of them, heard stories, and thought about them a lot when she was older. They were walking on a crosswalk in front of a bus that had been rigged with a bomb. Greta remembered sitting in a scratchy dress on her mother’s lap on the seat of her father’s truck in a line of cars.

James’s Auntie came to take care of him. She was loud and silly. She let teenaged Greta borrow her clothes. She lived with him in the house next door until James was in his 20s, then she moved into an apartment with some younger man she had met when she worked at the grocery.

Greta looked at the pear tree, and the sky. She listened, and was struck by sound. She closed her eyes, and let the sun hit her face. She felt strange about what she heard. Like she heard everything that touched the air. Like she heard more than she remembered ever being able to hear before.

The breeze moved the leaves of the pear tree, but didn’t shift the pears.  Bees and dragonflies did flybys in her garden. There were so many bugs on the air. So much birdsong, from all around and far away, so many different types of birds calling and answering each other. She could hear creatures moving through the weeds, crackling, in the yards around her.

Someone down the alleyway was saying slurs. A bottle shattered, Greta flinched, the birds got quiet, and there were footsteps running off. After a moment, when the steps were gone, the birds got back to their song.

The garage with the barbed wire on the roof protected her yard from the alleyway. It had a little window onto the yard, and she could see her father’s old red pickup, still there inside, tires flat, the hood rusted through, and the innards all dried out.

Annabelle was out dancing with her friends. Demetrius boasted to her and bought her a drink. They dated, in the way that people dated back then. He was drafted, sent to Korea. Greta had found their letters stacked in her father’s dresser. Annabelle’s writing was worried and poetic. Demetrius’s writing was factual and obscene. He asked for pictures. She sent a department store portrait of her with her parents.

Annabelle never went to school but she read a lot. She taught Greta. She worked different jobs, cleaning houses in the suburbs, and when she was older, she worked as a secretary. Greta had brought home a portable typewriter from school, and taught her to type.

Annabelle wore patterned dresses all year round. It was only when she got old, and had trouble with her bladder, that she wore slacks.

Demetrius was first a cleaner in the factory, then did heavy work, and then put together auto-parts. When the parts plant closed, he got a job in another place piloting a machine that bolted the doors on the cars. Her mother said he came back from Korea thinner, quieter, with less of himself. All he brought home was his gun. He took it apart and cleaned it almost every weekend.

After Greta wore her mother down enough to allow it, he taught her how to shoot. He would take her out of town to shoot at garbage.

He wore denim. Polyester shirts. His breast pocket always had the imprint of his cigarette packs. After he got sick and was told not to smoke, he kept a pack of playing cards in that pocket, with half a deck, and a bunch of cigarettes crammed in. He and Greta would sneak a puff when the coast was clear of Annabelle.

He would spend most of his time in the bedroom, listening to the radio, reading sports magazines, smoking, and drinking beer. Her mother couldn’t take it anymore. All the beer cans, and the radio at all hours, all the smoking, the snoring, and the kicking and shouting in his sleep. She had a long list. She moved into the other room, but she still picked up his beer cans, vacuumed, stacked the magazines, emptied the ashtray, made his bed, and picked up his shirts. Greta asked why she bothered, and she said that was the arrangement. She was still his wife.

Demetrius died pretty quickly of throat cancer. Started coughing at work. They made him retire, full pension though. The plant closed not long after.

Then her mother’s health deteriorated sharply, and Greta took care of her. Annabelle lived on too long, bedridden, in that deteriorated state. She couldn’t do anything but eat and sleep, and otherwise she wasn’t herself.

Greta remembered being in the yard, on the grass, before she had the garden, hearing her mother in bed, through the window in the room above, saying something loudly that didn’t make sense, just a jumble of words. But, she was saying it as if someone was there listening. Then she would hiss and shriek as if she was being burned. Greta would check on her, and she’d just be in bed, asleep, nothing wrong.

Greta would read books to her, ones she used to like. For the short bursts that she was awake, Annabelle would repeat the same questions, asking what time it was, or whether the letters had come. Greta wanted to do something, but couldn’t decide if she should, so she didn’t, and then Annabelle passed on her own.

Now for the first time in a long time, the quiet cocoon had been broken.

Greta heard a squirrel jump onto the side of her garage from the alleyway, his sticky fingers gripping the wooden wall. He climbed to the top, went through the loops of barbed wire, and across the roof. She saw him jump into the tree. Rascal was lying in the sun. Greta was still smoking, hearing everything, remembering, and surveying the garden.

Soon the squirrel settled on a branch with a pear in his mouth. She walked towards the tree, and shouted, hissed and blew smoke at him. The squirrel looked ridiculous with his tiny grey head, and his yellow and brown buck-teeth clutching the heavy pear, bigger than him. He looked at Greta a little while, then held the pear in his teeth, and jumped back onto the roof.

But, somewhere in the air, the squirrel lost the pear. It fell to the ground between the garage and the tree. After the squirrel landed without the pear, his little head looked down over the edge of the roof. He jumped back onto a branch, and climbed down to the yard, passing by all of the pears in the tree to go after the one he had dropped.

When Greta was a teacher, it was at the same school with the windows. She’d start the first class every year by stepping outside of the mandated curriculum right away. The boys and girls would come in, some stone-faced and staring, and others hunched over, keeping their eyes down, shifting in their seats. Greta wanted to get them talking about real stuff, so she told them stories, her own stories: What happened to the Fosters next door. What it was like for her when she was in junior high. How there was a man on her street who played the electric guitar — ‘Pinky,’ they called him, because he wore rings on his pinkies. He would sit on his big copper amp and play, making it sound like ten guitars, not one, warping the sound by tapping his foot on something that looked like the pedal of a sewing machine. It was fun to watch his pinky rings wiggle and dance as he played. She could hear his guitar at night and on the weekend. The alleyway would bring the sound to her window. As she spoke, she would watch the faces, and sometimes some of the kids would smile, and say they too heard music on their street.

She would tell them how one day, every summer, her street would be blocked off with cars, and all the neighbors would have a big party. Pinky’s band would play. They would grill food right on the street. They would paint the pavement, Greta with her mother and the other children. Watercolor zoo animals, trucks, trees, flying saucers, an ocean with fish in it, along with some other depictions, very colorful, but hard to say what they represented. If she put enough glee in the telling, sometimes the stoned-faced kids would loosen up, look at each other, and smile sarcastically.

She would tell about the day when she was in grade school. She got let out of school early and told to go straight home, and on the way home, she could hear there was something wrong in the city. She saw smoke. Heard sirens. Shouting. Pops and bangs. Greta ran into her mother along the way, who was sweating and out of breath, saying she couldn’t find her father. They went to look for him. Buildings were on fire. People were running around. They gave up quickly, went back home, and saw him walking down their street with his rifle on his shoulder. He wouldn’t say where he had been. He claimed he had been looking for them. He took them to the church, and they all waited inside while he stayed out front with some others. As she spoke, the class would fall silent, mesmerized.

She would also tell them about the pear tree, what the squirrels looked like when they ate, and that Greta and her mother used to paint things on the walls in their house.  In the kitchen, they painted a mural of their tree, with the squirrels like gremlins gorging on the pears.

It wasn’t long until the students would start telling their own stories: About who their parents were. About snow forts in the winter, and baseball in the summer, and the pheasants, how they would startle and rush out of the bushes if you came upon them. How someone’s brother fell in the river, and another one’s dog jumped up on the kitchen table and their father punched the poor thing in the ribs. About sad things being said or done. Beatings and illnesses. People drinking too much. The stories of living.

Sometimes they told her about things happening, and Greta had to do more. She’d knock on doors, talk to whoever needed talking to, and she’d go to meetings in the church basement. Doing that was what had kept her going.

The squirrel was chomping under the tree. The sound grated her.

Rascal was curled up in the sun, half watching the squirrel. She whispered to him: “We could both afford to be a little more cat-like.” He looked up at her. She reached into her pocket, took out a treat, and let him smell it. He stood up. She returned the treat to her pocket, and put on the gardening gloves. He watched her. Then she snuck up on the squirrel, stepping carefully, in that crouched stance, through her garden towards the pear tree. Rascal followed, sniffing the air in her direction.

The squirrel was on the other side of the tree, sitting there on the ground, filling his mouth luxuriously with pear-flesh. From behind a tomato plant, she peaked around at the squirrel, then back at Rascal. The cat flicked the soil off his paws, and just looked at her. She meowed at him, and gestured towards the squirrel. He looked only at her hand.

The squirrel was aware of the approach of the slender old black lady, and the fat, slow orange cat. He chewed more rapidly, to fill himself — the pear was the most important thing.

Greta heard the squirrel chew, then pause, then go back to chewing, but faster. She looked around the tomato plant again, and watched him with one eye.

She shifted her weight, lunged around the tomato plant and pounced, grabbing at the squirrel with her two gloved hands. But the squirrel had heard her first step. Before she got there, he jumped into the shrub, and climbed onto the fence with what remained of the pear in his teeth. She hit the ground, hands first, in the spot the squirrel had vacated.

She stayed down, rolled onto her back, breathing, and laid there listening to the sound of the squirrel escaping. She took the gloves off, and watched from below as the squirrel climbed up the chain-link, jumped into the tree, and onto the garage. She relaxed.

When Annabelle finally did give in, and allowed Greta to go shoot at the dump with her father, it wasn’t unconditional. “Fine,” she said. “But, don’t kill anything I can’t cook.”

Her father was showing off his marksmanship, and asked, “Think I can hit that gull?” aiming the rifle at the birds swirling above the garbage.

“Can Momma cook it?”

“Nah. It’s just a gull.”

Greta shook her head. He re-aimed and smashed a glass jar.

The squirrel sat on the roof and finished the pear. She heard him, but couldn’t see him from her view lying on the ground.

Rascal waddled over and lied down beside her, sniffing her pocket. She gave him a treat.

She heard the squirrel stop chewing. The pear’s core rolled down off the roof, and bounced on the ground. It tumbled along in the direction of her head, but slowed and stopped just short. She stayed lying there, looking, hearing, but not moving. The squirrel landed on a branch above her, and looked down, sniffing at her. Greta, directly below, watched him, then she closed her eyes.

The wind changed. The leaves fell silent, letting in all of the sounds. Squatters coughing and spitting. Someone snoring. Somewhere a basketball. The sound of dishes clanking. Someone hammering. Drunken screaming. Children throwing rocks through windows as a game.

She heard things moving through the dried up yard next door, James’s old place, all rundown and grown in thick with years of weeds taking over, and new trees planted by the wind. Maybe it was mice or birds, more squirrels, or other little wild creatures.

She grew up beside James, not with him. They were never kindred spirits. He was a few years younger than her and that mattered most when they were growing up.

They went to school together, a couple grades apart. He was always bigger than her. When they were teens, he started paying more attention to her. He snuck up behind her in the school hallway and threw her on his shoulders, spun her around, and said he wouldn’t stop until she said his name. The way he picked her up, the way he held her, she knew he just wanted to touch her. She refused to say it. She would punch him and claw him, but not too hard. He would get tired, and put her down. She learned to steady herself, and not to fall from the dizziness. She would kick him in the groin if she saw him coming. She liked older boys.

She had enough boyfriends. She liked some things about some of them. But, they were never worth the arrangement. She hated the arrangement. It meant doing all the work and making none of the decisions. Getting scolded like a child. She couldn’t do or say certain things, but they could do or say whatever they wanted.

It was her senior year in college when she broke up with a boyfriend, and decided he was the last one. Not the last man. The last arrangement.

She saw James one autumn night. It was late and the band was in full swing. She danced with him. He had been working outside all summer, and his body was lean and hard. He was different. Older.

She made it clear to him there would be no arrangements. He was shocked by it, but agreed. She remembered how he was then. How he moved, how he smelled, how he felt. They went on like this for a while. Years. Living next door to one another. She would come to his place. For a long time neither of them spent time, that kind of time, with other people.

Until she met the new teacher at her school. He wore a jacket and tie, and they talked about teaching. James saw them out together. He didn’t like it, and he told her so the next time she came over. He lost his temper. Greta just went right back out the door, and shut it on him. She hadn’t even taken off her coat.

A week went by until she knocked on his door again. It was Friday. He let her in. She took her coat off, spent the night, and they didn’t talk about it. The next day she cooked him breakfast and told him her doing so was a one-time occurrence. They drank coffee spiked with whiskey, and then just the whiskey. In the afternoon, he took her to a burger joint.

He swallowed down his burger before Greta had hers out of the wrapping. Sitting in the booth, mustard on his lip, he fumbled, held out his mother’s ring, and stuttered through a proposal. She sat chewing, choking. She swallowed. She muffled a laugh into her napkin. But, it couldn’t be muffled. She looked at him, that dumb smiley look on his face, holding that ring out to her in the booth, as if she should throw up her hands and scream with girlish delight. She couldn’t stop laughing. Right from the belly. He shouted for her to stop. She still couldn’t. He slapped her. Heads turned and the place got quiet. She got quiet. Shocked. She swung a punch back at him. He dodged it, laughed at her, and called her a disgrace. He got up, spat, and left.

She walked home, and his car wasn’t there. After that, time went by, neither of them broke the silence, and they settled into never speaking.

A moving truck pulled up to James’s house one day, a small one, but it came full of boxes, mirrors, dressers, and the pieces to a big canopy bed. James’s car followed, and he got out, opened the door for a woman, and got her suitcase out of the trunk. Greta saw them together on the street. One night she heard them shouting next door. After a time, the moving truck pulled up again. The woman moved out.

Greta saw James coming and going, getting older. She heard him on the other side of the shrubs raking the leaves that had blown from the pear tree. She grit her teeth, sucked in air, and went inside. When she began to lose her hearing, she liked it a little. Without her putting any effort into it, a quiet cocoon was forming around her.

Now lying there, eyes closed, with the earbuds, she could hear the squirrel’s sticky fingers on the bark, and the thinner branches bend and creak as he walked along. She could hear exactly where he was in the tree.

The squirrel paused on a branch, then reached up, and pulled on a pear with all of his weight. The pear’s branch bent down, and rattled back when the pear snapped off. Other pears hit the ground near her head.

She opened her eyes, rolled over, moved up on all fours, and stood up.

She went to the house. There was a bucket holding a spade, rake, and other long-handled gardening tools beside the back door. She pulled a garden hoe slowly and quietly out of the bucket. She breathed carefully. The handle of that old garden hoe was heavy red hickory.  She looked over her shoulder at the squirrel, then back. The steel of that old garden hoe had a shine to it. She kept it sharp to cut through the roots of weeds.

Rascal was back in his dry spot in the sun. As she went by with the garden hoe, she touched him with the red hickory end to wake him up. He opened his eyes, and looked at her dazed. She gave him another treat, and whispered for him to “Watch and learn.” Then she moved towards the squirrel with the garden hoe held high, and angled in front of her.

The squirrel was on a branch at about the height of her shoulder. Maybe just above. He was bent over the pear, spinning it, gorging. She could see his neck.

She stopped, and raised up the blade very slowly.

The squirrel sat up. He didn’t run away. He just sat there on his branch, looking at her, shifting the pear in his grasp.

She watched him, and waited for him to go back to the pear and show his neck again. They stood there frozen, looking at each other, the squirrel with the stolen pear, Greta holding the blade of the garden hoe over him. She kept her eyes on the squirrel, but her ears were with the little creatures rustling on the other side of the fence.

When they got the fences and barbed wire, James wouldn’t pitch in. Greta assumed it was because of her. She had gotten a group of her neighbors to go in together so they could all get a better deal. Some of them might not have been able to afford it otherwise. James told the neighbor on the other side of him that he wanted nothing to do with it, and to stop asking. It made it more expensive for them all.

She hosted the party after the fences were installed. Her neighbors from both sides of the street were in her backyard, eating ice-cream cake on paper plates, lamenting the cutting of Greta’s shrubs. Saying nothing about James. They talked about how strange all their yards looked with the chain-link and barbed wire.

The shrubs grew back, but those neighbors were long gone. Moved away. Got sick and died. Or just disappeared. James’s car was gone and never came back. His place got all grown in, got condemned, and boarded up from the outside. That was before the city went bankrupt.

Greta was the lone holdout of the old neighborhood. But now the place around her was something else.

She held up the blade of the garden hoe. The squirrel still had his head up, listening. Squatters were shouting by one of the houses down the alleyway. Pounding on the door. The squirrel turned his head a little. A woman’s voice screamed hysterically from inside. “Don’t you dare,” or something like that. “Don’t” something. Another voice yelled back. Then someone hit the door with something big. And hit it and hit it. The door came down. A bunch of voices laughed and hooted. The woman screamed something back. There was a gunshot. Greta flinched, the garden hoe dipped slightly. The squirrel looked up at it, then looked away, and turned his ear back to the sounds. They heard the woman scream something more. Then some sort of scuffle. Another shot. Something fell. The woman laughed, spoke, and then it all fell quiet, peaceful. Just the bugs and the birds.

The garden hoe was getting heavy.

The squirrel went back to the pear, hunched down over it, eating and spinning it. She adjusted her grip. The squirrel ignored her. She turned her head for a moment, and looked at Rascal, who had darted back near the door of the house. He was sitting motionless, wide-eyed, watching her.

She shook her head at the cat, then turned back to the squirrel, lined up the blade, and chopped it down, hitting him on the neck, taking part of his head off. The blood, the body, the partly chewed pear, and some of the branch fell down onto the yard.

Rascal shrieked, jumped into the air with all fours, and puffed up to triple his size.  He clawed at the seams, trying to get in the back door, but it was closed.

Greta put down the garden hoe, and went after him. Rascal didn’t run from her. He waited facing the door, and she picked him up. He tried to get away but didn’t scratch her, then went limp in her arms. “I’m sorry my scaredy cat,” she told him. She pet him, hugged him, kissed his head, and laughed at him. He dangled in her arms, puffed up with his limbs sticking out like he was a balloon in the Thanksgiving Day Parade. She pet his neck and his ears, and he stretched up to her, rubbing his forehead on her chin.

She put him down, and gave him a treat from her cardigan. He ate it, still puffed up a little. She showed him another treat, and backed up with it. He followed. She gave him the treat. He ate it, then looked up at her. She showed him another treat, and moved back through the garden. He followed, pausing to flick dirt off his paws. She held the treat closer to him. He reached his mouth out. She led him a couple feet more to the pear tree, and he followed with his mouth open, trying to take the treat. She put the treat down near the squirrel’s partially beheaded body. He ate the treat, and sat down on the spot, sniffed at the body, then settled there with each ear sticking up and moving independently of the other. The cat was listening to the sounds of the alleyway.

Greta picked out a spot near him, and carefully sat down on the ground.  Both of them were listening, heads-tilted in the same direction.

They sat there well into the afternoon.

Then she was at the kitchen counter, putting some foil on the cutting board. She brought out the knife, and watched a YouTube video on how to skin and clean a squirrel. She went through the steps, wearing yellow rubber gloves, cutting under and pulling the skin, pinching and pulling out the bones. The squirrel’s cheeks and stomach were all full of mashed up pear.  Rascal meowed at her, and laid over her feet. She heated a pot of water on the stove, dropped the squirrel’s meat in the boiling water, cooked it, and rinsed it in cold water.

She put the meat in Rascal’s dish. He trotted over. On the side, his dish had a little painted depiction of the fat cat himself. He smelled the meat, licked it a little, and then gulped it down with only a few chews.  She ate a salad with kale, cubed beets, shredded carrots, and thinly sliced pear on top, unripened and bitter. It was all glazed in balsamic. Greta was a vegetarian, but Rascal was not.





Patrick has been writing since he was a child — his first work of fiction being a brief supernatural detective story that had something to do with voodoo in New Orleans. He was born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In most of the candid childhood photos, he is wearing a green Robin Hood costume, which he sewed using a pattern his mother ordered for him from a catalogue. Sometime after the costume no longer fit, he moved to Toronto for school, but stayed to do human rights and pay equity work with university unions. He now lives and writes by the far ocean in Victoria, B.C. pdlegay@gmail.com





Free as the Ocean

by Rae Monroe



The screen door slapped shut behind her as she crossed the porch. She stepped onto the sand and walked to the water’s edge.

The waves beat her backward and forward. She walked until her feet lost touch with the sand and she began to swim. Salty spray hit her lips as the current grew rougher.

Ahead of her she saw only the cloud-filled sky and undulating ocean. A tiny fish brushed by her foot; she giggled with appreciation. Her head sank back and her legs lifted until she floated. Her copper hair caught the light of the setting sun, flashing fire above the water.

“Maeve! Maeve!” her husband screamed from the shore.

She heard splashes as he ran into the water, but of course he wouldn’t catch her, she was far away, so far away, too far away. She was free…


The Coast Guard looked grim as he pulled her up from the coal-black water. The ship’s spotlight had nearly blinded her, but now that her eyes adjusted, she could see her husband, standing by the railing with crossed arms. He shoved her into a hug as soon as her feet landed on the deck. He still wore his work clothes, and when she leaned back, his carefully ironed suit and tie were wet. He grabbed her cheeks with both hands, pulling her to him again. He pressed his forehead against hers like he was trying to keep her there.

She hadn’t realized she was cold until he touched her. But his fingertips seemed to have brought sensation back, and she started shivering. The Guard wrapped a heavy blanket around her and put her in the cabin, where a floor heater glowed red. Carson sat beside her and cradled her icy hands.

He didn’t speak. After the third incident, he never said a word at all.

The boat hummed as it sped through the water that she was just a part of.


At home, she collapsed onto the couch and wrapped her fingers around the coffee the Guard had given her. A residual chill remained, and she fumbled for the blanket Carson’s mom had knit them last Christmas. The yarn felt like shackles, but it warmed her.

Carson got ready for bed after failing to persuade her to eat. She couldn’t eat. She didn’t know if she ever would again. She hated that she’d left her true home for this dry cage. Her body still drummed with the rhythms of the waves.

In baggy boxers and a stained T-shirt, Carson knelt in front of her and smiled limply.

“How are you?” he asked as he tucked a strand of damp hair behind her ear.

“Fine,” Maeve brought herself to answer. “How was work?”

“The usual,” he said, scanning her face worriedly.

“What did you eat for lunch?”


He wouldn’t stop staring at her like she was likely to disappear.

“Are you coming to bed?” he asked.

“In a bit.”

“Do you need anything?”

She shook her head and he nodded stiffly before sighing and standing.

Just before he left the room, she said, “I’m pregnant.”

He froze, his every atom seeming to still.

She wasn’t sure how she expected him to react. Maybe anger or horror, after her behavior today. Maybe disappointment, or worse, sorrow.

Finally, he faced her. She prepared herself.

“Pregnant?” he repeated, like he’d forgotten what the word meant.

She nodded.

His face struggled with emotions before lighting up with joy. The stress and confusion of the evening dissipated. She answered his avid questions: five weeks along—we won’t find out for a while—of course we’ll name it after your Uncle Ben if it’s a boy.

They talked until he fell asleep on the couch next to her. A cool breeze rustled past her from the open window and she turned to gaze at the churning ocean. She felt it calling her.

Carson’s hand was warm on her stomach, where her new anchor was growing.


There wasn’t another incident. Carson hoped preparing for the baby would distract her and for a while, it seemed to. She started walking, stopped smoking, worked more. In fact, was more productive than he’d ever seen, finishing a painting nearly every week.

Despite the incident, Maeve seemed genuinely eager to learn as much as she could. Their end tables were overwhelmed with baby books: How to Name Baby, How to Feed Baby, How to Make Baby Sleep.

Yes, he thought things were better. But a couple of weeks after the incident, he found bits of paper in the sea oats by the back porch. They were covered with words written in Maeve’s handwriting, and they were all the same word, “free”.

He worried. He knew she had a difficult childhood—her mom was crazy and believed the whole of Ireland conspired against her, so she and Maeve lived alone, in a cottage, on some godforsaken corner of the country. Carson thought Maeve’s occasionally erratic behavior was due to the trauma she’d endured then. She refused any kind of treatment, though; therapy was laughable and she had no need for “crazy pills”. And nothing she had done was ever dangerous enough to justify his intervention.

And she wasn’t doing anything dangerous now. She was better, she had to be, because in the evenings, they sat in the sand, Maeve sipping tea, Carson sipping wine, and they would talk of the future. And Carson swore she was happy.


While Carson was at work, Maeve would sit before the ocean like a worshipper before a throne. She thought about how it was always changing, always shifting…Its restlessness was addictive.

“Salt water runs in our veins, baby,” she would whisper. “They say we can never leave the water. I could never leave it. And now, neither will you.”

“My mum would carry me to the top of the cliffs,” Maeve told her baby, “so high I couldn’t see the shore, just the water and grass. The wind was so loud, it hit the cliffs like the waves.” She whispered, “But home made me feel stuck. Nowhere to run, no room to breathe…”

Carson gave her room to breathe. Ever since he met her. He gave her everything, in fact. Everything except the ability to leave.

Her fingers caressed her ballooning stomach with love.


A month after he found the bits of paper, Carson pulled into the driveway. He saw Maeve’s shadow on the living room curtains, moving about sporadically. As he got out of his car, he heard music.

He walked up to the house hesitantly. When he opened the door, the music amplified, and his head began to pulse with the beat.

His wife twirled in the middle of the living room. Her hair swung out and whipped her neck, and her fingers trilled in the air. She wore only a polka-dot bra and striped underwear, and her bare skin shone with sweat.

A battered record player stood on an end-table, spinning a record with dizzying speed. Speakers screamed an old rock song.

The end-table was the only piece of furniture left standing. The other end-tables, the coffee table and the bookshelves were smashed, both couches were overturned, and the lamp lay on the ground. Wood splinters littered the Oriental rug.

Carson!” Maeve cried. She hurried forward, hair and breasts bouncing. “Oh, Carson, it’s the Eagles! The Eagles!”

She was stupidly gleeful, her eyes and smile too wide. Mascara tear streaks ran down her face like claw marks.

“What happened?” he shouted, but Maeve laughed and tugged him toward the chaos. He tripped over a broken chair.

“The Eagles!” she cried again, throwing herself into a freewheeling turn that knocked her into a fractured bookshelf.

“Love, let’s—“

He shut off the record player. Ears still ringing, he grabbed Maeve’s hands and tried to pull her back to reality.

“What don’t you like ‘bout the Eagles?” she asked.

“What’s happening? What are you doing?”

“The dog dances to jump, Levy,” she said, suddenly serious. Her gaze shifted to the front door, her face as blank as a sheet of paper.


Her eyes focused on him and she grinned.

“Pizza’s for dinner, Carson, love. Are you deaf?”

She flounced out of the room, Eagles forgotten.

Carson fell onto the upside-down couch, shaking. Somewhere in the distance, the back door slammed shut.

Carson hadn’t experienced this kind of fear before. He didn’t know what was happening to his wife. And he didn’t know what he could do about it.

He stumbled to his feet and began to pick up the mess she had made.


A few days later, Maeve wandered out onto the sand. A storm was about to hit, so the waves threw themselves onto the shore with renewed violence. She felt the ocean’s rage, its mounting fury.

Maeve climbed to the top of a dune, where the wind’s arms caressed her. She closed her eyes and the arms were her Mum’s.

“I counted out his money and it made a pretty penny…”

Her mum’s arms carried her home to the peeling wallpapered walls and the bitter tea when Mum forgot to buy sugar, and the sting of her fingers during one of her uncontrollable spells.

Maeve reached out her hands and lifted her voice to the heavens, singing:

“But I couldn’t shoot the water so a prisoner I was taken…”

Maeve screamed to the dunes, to the wind, to the ocean, to anyone who would listen:





The last word trembled in the air before finally extinguishing like an exhausted flame, and she collapsed onto the sand, musha ring dum a doo, dum a da.


“Where the hell are my fags?”

Carson woke up. He was nearly nose to nose with his wife, who leered over him like a vengeful god.

“What?” It took him a minute to remember to his Irish wife “fag” was “cigarette”.

“I said where in the actual hell are my fags?”

He pushed her away and sat up.

“You’re pregnant,” he said. “You can’t smoke.

“We discussed this, Maeve. You decided—“

“You don’t understand!”

She collapsed onto the carpet, her fingers tugging at her hair.

“Help me, then.”

“I can’t—I can’t even think. I could think before, I was okay…”

He rubbed at the sleep in his eyes and tried to concentrate through the haze of exhaustion.

“Smoking helps you think?”

“Smoking helps me live.”

“Love, I can’t let you smoke when you’re pregnant. It will hurt our baby.”

“One fag! Just one, so I can think!” She quickly stood and grasped his sleep-swollen cheeks.

“I’m not letting you,” said Carson, his lips squished and his words distorted, “because I love you and our baby.”

It took her a moment to switch tactics.

“I can’t believe you,” she said. She clenched his face harder, then tossed him aside. She crossed over to the dresser and dug through the drawers.

“Your cigarettes are gone, Maeve,” he said, rubbing his throbbing jaw. He had decided to take precautions after the night of the Eagles, since he couldn’t predict her behavior.

And why would she want to smoke? She had seemed intent on having the healthiest pregnancy.

“You think you can take my things? You think you control me?” Her voice broke, as if it couldn’t handle the injustice. “I’m my own person, I—I control what I do. Not you.”

He took a weary breath. A storm front loomed before him, and all he wanted to do was sleep.

“I’m your wife, not your—your slave,” she said. She yanked a drawer our and it fell to the carpet with a dull thud.

“I’m taking care of our baby—“

“How? By taking away my rights? I’ll call the cops. I’ll tell them you won’t let me think.”

“You can think without cig—“

I have my rights!

She tugged out another drawer and tossed it in his direction, clothes flying. He threw himself out of harm’s way. “I deserve to be free! Free.”

She stilled, suddenly lost in that idea.

“Free,” she whispered.

Carson looked up from where he cowered by the nightstand.


“Free from you!”

She came to life again and tripped over her feet as she ran out.

He stood and followed her to the living room, where she was throwing couch cushions into the air. He eyed the furniture worriedly; it had taken hundreds of dollars to repair the damage she’d done last time.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m getting the keys. I’m gonna buy me some fags.”

“The keys aren’t in the couch,” he said, aghast. The keys were on the dolphin hook by the front door, as always.

She started towards him.

“Taking away my rights is not enough? You want to take my car?”

She headed towards the back porch, fumbling with the door latch before stumbling outside. He followed her, the porch’s wooden slats cold and sandy under his feet.

“I want to help you, Maeve, I do,” he said. “But I won’t let you hurt our baby, don’t you see?”

They were among the dunes now, her hair twisting about her in the night wind. Her eyes burned at him in the darkness as he followed her farther and farther. She reached the surf, but kept going until the cold water was up to his waist.

“I thought you loved me,” she said, turning towards him.

“I do.”

“Then let me think. It’s all too much—too much—I can’t get away—”

“I know this is scary,” he said,  “but we’re meant to have this baby. We can do this. But we have to protect our baby. Together.”

Her gaze slipped from his. The water seemed to have captured her concentration. She smiled wistfully, and he ventured close enough to grasp her hand.

“Maybe the conch will hold the burger in,” she said. “You know?”

“Yes. Yes, love, I know.”

He led her back inside.


She began to draw up plans, in her head. Never on paper, where Carson would see and get upset. He wouldn’t understand her reasons. His love for her blinded him to truth. The baby was most important; the baby had to be saved.

She set a date. She prepared with all the care of a woman for her wedding day, rubbing on lotion, shaving her body, getting her hair styled.

She took the large cleaver they used for chopping meat and hid it under her pillow. During sleepless nights, she’d touch it longingly. She’d slice her fingertips, she stroked it so hard.

The pain made her smile.


Carson began to think his wife didn’t just have residual trauma.

He researched mental illnesses during lunch breaks and slow afternoons at work. One, schizophrenia, stuck out at him. Some of its symptoms were nothing like Maeve, but others were so exact that he grew a chill. One scientific article mentioned “word salad”—when someone with schizophrenia spoke in grammatically correct sentences, but with nonsense verbs and nouns. Maeve had done that more often than he liked to recall.

But Maeve always corrected herself. She was going through a lot with the baby; it was just stress.

Then Carson remembered the look in her eyes the night she approached him about her cigarettes and the ruined living room in which she danced as carefree as a child.

Carson didn’t want her to be sick, but something was wrong.


Maeve made a resolution: she was going to teach her baby all she could, while she could.

One day she dove into a wave, the current knocking her backwards and pushing against her striving muscles. When she emerged gasping, her feet finding the sand, she whispered, “And this, Baby? This is life.”

As she painted, sometimes she pressed her paintbrush against her stomach and whispered, “And this, Baby? This is escape.”

At night when Carson and Maeve were huddled on the couch watching TV, she whispered, “And this, Baby? This is love.”


Carson made an appointment with a psychiatrist. He described Maeve’s behavior, and admitted his fears. The psychiatrist wanted to see Maeve immediately, so Carson arranged an appointment for Monday. He’d tell her they were going out to lunch, baby clothes shopping, out for damn ice cream—anything but the truth.

On Saturday night, when Maeve was twenty-nine weeks along, they washed the dishes together. Maeve was quiet, ignoring his attempts at conversation. When they were done, he left for the bathroom, and as he turned to go, she gripped his arms.

“I love you, Carson,” she said. There was a desperate urgency he couldn’t understand in her words.

“I love you, too, Babe,” he said, but she didn’t seem comforted.

Later, as he washed his hands, he remembered the psychiatrist’s instructions: “If her behavior changes at all, call me. Cases like this are unpredictable.”

Carson dialed the psychiatrist’s number, but he wanted to check on Maeve before he called.


He searched the house futilely, then ventured onto the porch and scanned the shore. It was dark, but he didn’t see her. He stepped onto the sand.


He heard distant singing of an old Irish song. “Whack for my daddy, oh, whack for my daddy…” He followed her voice, praying to every god he knew that she was alright.

She was several houses down, almost to the pier, on a high sand dune. Her figure, silhouetted against the streetlamps, stood tall and alone. Her restless hair blew in the wind, and one hand occasionally reached up to wipe the strands away from her face. The other hand held an object that flashed with the light.

It was the knife that had been missing from the kitchen for weeks, and it was pressed to her chest.

Carson ran towards her until she screamed at him to stop.

“What are you doing?” he yelled. He was close enough now to see her features. Her eyes were hooded by knit eyebrows, and her lips shook with each breath she took. Her nostrils flared and the veins in her neck tensed.  Here was his love…his love turned monster…

“It’s too late for me.” Her voice drifted down to him lazily, like moonlight through half-open blinds.

He fumbled with his phone, erasing the psychiatrist’s number and dialing 911. He said it was an emergency and named the pier.

“Just—stay, okay?” he asked his wife as he hung up.


The sudden shriek made him jump, and the very leaves of the surrounding trees stilled.

“No, don’t you understand?”

“Make me,” he pleaded. If he could just keep her talking until the police came…

“I’m not good. No matter what happens—I can’t be good. My mind…” She sobbed, and he watched her pride break as she confessed, “I’m sick.”

The waves were calm and constant behind them. Maeve’s eyes lifted to them and a glimmer of a smile lit up her features.

“There are people who can help you—us,” Carson said slowly, taking advantage of her change in mood. “You can get better.”

“It will never get better.” Maeve’s face closed and her gaze fell back to the knife in her hands.

“I love you.” Carson’s voice broke, his desperation choking him. He couldn’t risk running to her, but every fiber of his being longed to. “This sickness…we can get through it together. But right now, you need to put down the knife.

Police sirens blared nearby. They were going to make it. Everything would be okay—

“I can’t, Carson.” She said his name as if it pained her. “I love you, but I love our baby more.” She whispered, “And this, Baby? This is death.”

She plunged the knife.


Maeve opened her eyes. She was in a beige room, fluorescent lights flickering above her. There was an IV in her hand and a machine beeped beside her. Her head felt thick, her mouth dry.

A young woman came into the room, smiling at her condescendingly.

“Feeling better, Ms. Cole?”

She unlooped a stethoscope from his neck and pressed the cold end on her sweaty chest.

“Where’s my baby?”

Because only then did she realize the large bump on her stomach was gone. And no longer could she feel the fluttering kicks of her child inside her, the constant companionship of pregnancy.

“Your baby was successfully delivered while you were unconscious, Ms. Cole,” the doctor said.

“I was in-induced?”

Hope sprang. This was what she had wanted. It had all gone to plan…except waking up. That was unexpected.

“We had to save the baby.”

“Where’s my baby?” she asked again, floundering in the bed, like it was somewhere in the blankets.

“Your daughter is in NICU.”


“She was two pounds and two ounces, which is healthy for a baby that premature. You’re very fortunate.”

“And my husband?”

“He hasn’t left your baby’s side.”

Maeve leaned back in the bed, stiff hospital pillows against her back. Knowing her daughter was safe was good. Yes, she might be cursed, but if Maeve wasn’t in her life, she wouldn’t be stained by her like Maeve was by her own mother.

“Can we discuss what happened?” the doctor asked.

Before, her pain had always been internal. She’d envied the violence her mother unleashed; it seemed to relieve the pressure inside her. For the first time, Maeve had experienced that relief when she had stabbed herself, and she craved it again.

“Your symptoms resemble those of schizophrenia.”

Maeve eyed her stethoscope, limp around her neck.

“We have several psychiatrists available to advise you. We’ve filled a prescription for pills I feel you’ll benefit from.” She held out a bottle helpfully.

Maeve took a deep breath to prepare herself.


(Seven years later)

Carson sat down on the sand. He set his coffee and her Coke beside him.

“Saoirse,” he called.

“Dad,” she said when she walked up, her tiny figure black against the setting sun. “You said you’d try out ‘Sarah’.”

“I’m sorry, love. But you’re not Sarah.” He reached out and tugged on one of her copper curls.

She shook him off, took a sip of Coke and said, “I’m not Saoirse, either, at school. I’m Sao-Shay or Sway-shay or soy sauce.” She glared at him over the edge of the can. “I want a normal name.”

“You should be proud of your name. It’s Irish, like you. And your mom chose it,” he said, “because it means ‘freedom’.”

She grew quiet, like she always did when they discussed her mom.

“How about you show me how many seashells you can find?” he asked.

As she left, he surveyed the horizon. The ocean was different here, in Maine: greyer, colder. He wondered if Maeve would have liked it, then remembered that he, like Saoirse, couldn’t think about her. It only reminded him of that hospital room, the strangled doctor on the floor, Maeve peaceful on the bed, purple half-moons under her closed eyes. She’d overdosed on the medication the doctor had filled for her schizophrenia while he’d been down the hall, baby Saoirse’s fingers wrapped around his thumb.

Now, his daughter’s hair flew as she spun in the sand. She dropped the seashells she was holding and spun faster.

“Look, Daddy!” she cried, the inadequacies of her name forgotten. She reminded him of Maeve, the way she did that—moved so fast past things, like they had never happened. “I’m the wind!” Waves crashed behind her, splashing her legs. This seemed to inspire her, and she laughed, “I’m the ocean, Dad. I’m as free as the ocean!”

“Yes, love, you are.” Carson smiled.




Rae Monroe is a short story writer and aspiring novelist. Born in the South, she has since lived all over the world. She has taken writing courses with Stanford University’s gifted youth program, and her short story “Marie” is pending publication with Banyan Literary and Arts Magazine.







How Not to Come Undone

by Richard Thomas



The family heard that the meteor shower would be visible from the cornfields of northern Illinois, just twenty minutes away from their sedentary suburban bliss, but Robert had been sleepless for weeks already, images flickering across his dreams—shadows and voices, a burning sensation running all the way to his core. They were mother and father, sister and brother—nothing special, rows of houses the same, but in blue, or yellow, or brick. But the boy—half of a set of twins, all the magic and wonder resting in his cells—the darkness and vengeance in his sister, Rebecca. So as they snuffed out the lights of the family sedan, hand in hand down a dirt path the boy had mapped out, trust so easy to come by in this family—the girl sparked danger in her squinting eyes, as the boy’s ever widened to the stars, and possibility. Fresh cut grass lingered under buzzing power lines that disappeared as they stretched out to the horizon, a moist smell ripe with cleanliness and godliness—a hint of something sour underneath. The girl grinned as the rest held their noses, so eager she was to embrace death.

There was little talking, words so often failing them—the father full of muscle and pride, a quick arm around them all, a comforting presence on most days. The mother overflowing with worry, her long black hair often charged with static, as if thought and trembling nerves bubbled up to the surface of her pulsating skull. They did their best. And as the dry grasses and weeds rose up around them they held hands again, as the twins parted, spying each other, mother and father taking a breath together, searching for peace. They had spoken of meteors, talked about aliens, listed off planets—space so wide and unforgiving. Such potential, still, and yet, so much that was unknown, unimaginable. In each of them a different static, signals from far away mumbling welcome, whispering promise, giggling failure.

At the top of a hill they stopped, a blanket unfurled, some of them sighing, others grimacing in pain. The questions they would ask themselves on nights like this, and were in fact contemplating at this very moment, ran the gamut from inspired to self-destructive. Why me? Why not me? What does it all matter? Why are we here? On the darker nights when children lay healing, or feverish, or sick with disease, the father might pray a little—ask for the burden all to himself, willing to eat such pain with hardly a hesitation. On the darker nights the mother asked for forgiveness—somehow feeling that it must surely be her fault. Both asking quiet gods to pass over their twins, to find their sacrifice elsewhere. The boy might lie staring at his sister, the room black around them but for a singular bulb in the closet, her eyes as dark as coal, yet shimmering all the same.

“Becca, don’t,” he’d say.

“What?” she might reply.

“Any of it,” he whispered, pausing. “All of it.”

But he knew what she was, what she would become, and no matter his hope, his spark, there was little he could really do.

Or so he thought.

In the grass, on the hill, they scanned the sky for falling stars, for meteors, bits of fire and light and danger. The father fell asleep first, one last deep breath, searching his mind for the answer to so many questions, unable to quite figure it out before he went silent. It was like this on most nights—but then again, some evenings he solved many a riddle. The mother felt her husband go, and let it happen, the weight of it all just too much to carry, letting worry run off of her like rain on a slicker, giving in to weakness, expecting only the worst. But it rarely came. The girl had been waiting for this, the parents to slip away into slumber, for the darkness was calling to her, from every corner of the field.

“No, don’t,” the boy said.

“What?” she laughed.

“Any of it,” he sighed. “All of it. Please. No. Let it be.”

She batted her eyes, as if confused, and then lowered her gaze, incantations slipping over her lips, as the wind picked up, fireflies dancing on the breeze, a faint brush of lavender from the bushes back by the car.

But the boy was curious, and so he propped himself up on his elbows, the night full of so much curiosity—why not her? Maybe he was wrong. He could be wrong.

She found a stick and broke it into pieces, quickly stacking the twigs on a flat rock that sat exposed to the moonlight, forming the wooden splinters into a triangle, and then a pyramid, crossing one over the other, pulling a clover with four leaves from the grass, running a sharp thumbnail over her scarred palm, drops of crimson falling to the stone.

“No,” Robert said, standing up, his parent oblivious, as if spellbound. “Not like that.”

“This is the moment you always get queasy, brother,” she whispered. “Not all that glitters is gold,” she said, staring at the moon, baring her long, white neck as the boy took a step toward her.

“Must it always be death?” he asked.

“No,” she said, bowing her head, as if that was the only trick she knew.

A flash of light overhead and his eyes shot toward the heavens, black felt dotted with pinpricks, slashes and sparks darting right to left, right to left, disappearing and fading over the hills and into the distance.

“So it begins,” he said, embracing what she’d set in motion.

“I don’t think that’s me, brother,” she laughed.

He spread his arms wide, as the stars fell around them, filling the sky, but so very far away. To the horizon it was as if they might land upon them, but no, that wouldn’t happen. Couldn’t happen.

If she had asked for death, then what had he asked for?

Evoking a crucifix he open his palms, and stardust fell upon them, as their eyes grew wide, a distant spark growing closer and closer until it lit up the field, the two of them trembling, his right hand catching something red.

He brought his hands together, the left hand over the right fist, a heat inside, bouncing and struggling, his hands glowing yellow beneath the flesh, orange seeping out, the girl coming closer, smiling wide, the boy trembling, skin gone pale, sick and uncertain.

What had he done?

“Open your hands,” she asked

“No, I can’t,” he said.

“You must.”

And so he did.

It glowed and pulsed, voices like underwater mumbling, a dark sphere spinning and rolling, spilling into itself, some sort of question being asked—forgiveness, perhaps, favor maybe, unable to breathe, his mouth open wide.

Without thinking he swallowed it down, hands to his mouth, as it burned and healed down this throat, burned and sealed as it descended, as it burrowed deeper, filling his body with light, rays pouring out of his mouth, his nostrils, his ears, leaking out of his eyes—arms wide, his sister stepping back in horror, his chest thrust out, neck bent back and then it was over.

Darkness again.

The boy collapsed.

The girl grinned.

And the parents woke up.

It was only the beginning.




After that, things were different.

The summer unspooled like a giant ball of twine, the boy glowing everywhere he went, his skin tan, eyes sparkling, his brown hair more blond every day. And the girl, just the opposite, pale to the point of translucence, her eyes two black orbs, her fingernails bitten to jagged daggers.

As long as they had been aware of each other, and possibly even before that, the twins had balanced each other out in so many different ways—yin and yang, dark and light, day and night. Things were more established now, nearly teens, the concrete nearly set, but it hadn’t always been that way. The balance, it had been fluid. When Robert was joyful, Rebecca became angry. When the boy fell ill, the girl danced around the house, trying to cheer him, full of life. The best they could wish for was a rare neutral state where neither was happy or sad, just present—equal. And that was no way to live a life. Was it?

The family didn’t talk about the meteors, the light show, what might have happened. It was a buried secret that no one ever brought up. Partly, the parents felt responsible, no surprise, and partly they didn’t believe. But the twins knew, and their eyes lingered on each other, opening their mouths to speak, like baby birds eager for a worm, only to snap shut. Quiet. Uncertain.

More and more the boy would find himself sitting on the front porch of their house, Chicago brick, split with wooden frames, windows facing out in all directions, enough of a yard to run around. Rebecca would find him sitting with his legs crisscrossed, applesauce, eyes closed, open palms resting on his knees, a smile filling his face. Oh how she hated him then. The stories he told now, about what he could do. Had done.

And the she saw it with her own eyes—the boy so still, for so long, that a gimpy squirrel approached him, sniffing out the acorns he had placed in each open hand, its hind leg crooked, fur missing, a scar running across the mottled flesh. The little creature took first one acorn, and then the other, chewing at the shell, getting to the meat, finally resting in the boy’s lap, against all odds—taking a well-deserved nap. The boy stroked the animal, gently, his hands resting on its hindquarters, his face rippling in pain as if he’d found a tack, and not soft fur. Her blood boiled. She opened the door, and shooed the creature away, its gait no longer hesitant or slow, bounding to the nearest tree, and up it in a flash.

When the boy opened his eyes and turned to her, she scowled.

“Did you see?” he asked.

“No,” she growled.

“You did. I know it.”

“There is nothing special about you,” she whispered, her dark side of the scale dipping lower, as his face shone brightly in the sun.

It had come to this.

The rest of the summer would find strange cars parked in the driveway, bikes tossed to the grass, neighbors wandering over to return borrowed power tools, each of them pausing to say hello to the boy. They made it a point to shake his hand, slowly, to grasp them both, to hold them a little bit longer than necessary. He knew. And he smiled. Sometimes they gave him a hug, and he would hug them back, fearless, hands on their shoulders, sometimes moving lower to where a kidney might reside. Eventually he set a basket on the edge of the porch, so the giving would be less awkward, the words needed to explain, to thank, to rejoice now left on quivering lips—this would be their secret as well. The basket filled with candy and toys, with crumpled up dollar bills, jars of fruit preserves and plates of homemade cookies—whatever they had to offer.

Robert was not blind to Becca’s descent, it had been up and down as long as he could remember, but there was so much darkness now, so much pain. He felt that he had driven her there with his joy, his love of life—and his gift.

He offered her a deal, but she refused. She hated him now. Perhaps it was too late. So he decided to trick her.

On the next full moon, when the parents were asleep, they went out to the back yard, behind the pile of wood for the winter, past the birdhouse swinging in the breeze from a rope tied to an ancient oak tree, past the pet cemetery down by the azaleas, to the makeshift altar the girl had built.

“What is it you want to see?” she’d said.

“Any of it,” he whispered. “All of it.”

She smiled in the darkness. She’d been building the shrine for days—the sticks, the feathers—the twine. There were acorn husks, a rotten apple, and a handful of writhing earthworms. There was paint in complicated hieroglyphics—stars, and circles, and lines. When she chewed at her ragged fingernail, pulling away a bit of keratin, blood blossomed to the surface, running down her finger, a single red coin landing on the rock below.

He acted quickly.

Robert took her hands, as she gasped and tried to escape, holding them tight, his own fingers now slick with her blood.

“You will not come undone,” he said, anger flushing to the surface, a truth that danced across his skin, his eyes fading, his skin dulling. He pulled her close and held her tight. She struggled at first, and then realizing how strong he was, gave in. Her pain and suffering, it quieted for a moment, the voices dissipating, her tension unwinding into his frame. They met somewhere in the middle, brother and sister. A single cough, and the last of the glow escaped from his mouth, now a dancing firefly, heading out across the yard. As one lost its shine, the other filled with light, and as the moon overhead sat witness to it all, a shooting star ran across the sky, a spark of hope to all that saw it.





Richard ThomasRichard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), Transubstantiate, Staring into the Abyss, Herniated Roots, Tribulations, and The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). His over 140 stories in print include Cemetery Dance (twice), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he writes for Lit Reactor and is Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.






The Wine Sniffer

by Alexander Carver



“Perhaps you would care for a table upstairs by the window,” the maître d’ said, blocking our pathway into the dining room after a few words of French had sputtered from our mouths.

“Upstairs?  Well…sure,” I said, a bit confused because all the tables on the first floor were available, save one.

“That sounds lovely.  By the window would be lovely,” my new bride said, injecting her usual enthusiasm into the moment.

It was the end of our first full day in Paris, and Eva and I were trying our very best to play the role of the good Americans.  Happily honeymooning, well-behaved, notably courteous and conforming, good Americans.  We had just enjoyed a bottle of wine on the patio at Les Deux Magots, and felt that the waiter had rewarded our polite behavior, and attempt at speaking French, with a small bowl of pretzels.  Sure, everyone else had been treated to the pretzels, too, but at least we hadn’t been denied them for being suspected disciples of Donald Trump.

Upstairs at Brasserie Lipp, we were escorted to a corner table next to a narrow, dirt-streaked window, which would have looked out onto the bustling Boulevard Saint Germain, if we could have seen through it.  About twenty minutes after the maître d’ handed us our menus, the waiter made his first appearance.  I’d never thought of France as being a nation of giants, but this man was a six and a half footer–almost as wide as he was long—with big, dark, hostile eyes like 8-balls, which caused me to drop mine towards the table when they fixed themselves on me.  I was already tense because I’d left my wallet back at our Airbnb and was being forced to live off my new wife for the evening.  Though I rationalized my dependency by reminding myself that only a few days earlier, Eva and I had vowed to share all our worldly possessions–which technically included the contents of her purse.

Taking our order, the waiter switched from exemplary French to stilted English when we came up lame in his native tongue.  I selected the second least expensive bottle of Bordeaux on the menu and the least expensive entrée, the pâté en croûte pistaché salade.  Eva ordered the filet de boeuf en sauce béarnaise, the most expensive item on the menu, winning her sole attention from our massive waiter, who ignored me and my friendly smiles throughout the rest of the meal.

Before departing to place our order, the waiter grabbed the half empty basket of bread from the deserted table next to us, set it down in front of me, turned on his heel, and pranced off towards the kitchen.  I examined Eva’s astonished expression, then peered into the depleted bread basket to find three remaining slices from a no longer fresh baguette.

“Did he just give us someone else’s used bread?” I said.

“Yes, he did,” she responded, leaning forward to get a closer look inside the tainted basket.

“Well, what was that about?”

“I don’t know.  I’m kind of in shock.”

“Do you think maybe that’s a thing here?  Everyone shares everyone else’s bread?” I said.

“No.  I don’t.”

“So, you think he was just being a dick?”

“I think he was just being a dick.”


I was starving, having only had a few pretzels at Deux Magots, so I reached into the basket and pulled out a slice of bread.

“Do you want a slice?” I asked Eva.

“I am not eating that bread,” she responded.

The anger and repulsion in her tone told me that I shouldn’t eat it either—so I dropped the chunk of bread, picked up the basket, and set it back down on its original table.  An action that changed Eva’s expression from someone who was etching a strike in her mind against the character of the man she had just married, back to neutral.

The Brasserie Lipp had been a big haunt of famous American expatriates in the 1920’s, and an even bigger haunt of American tourists ever since.  Wide-eyed, loud-mouthed state-siders, looking to lasso the spirit of Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and the rest of the once in a millennium gang.  A legacy that helped me understand, if not condone, the anti-American sentiment at such a celebrated restaurant, where the wait-staff was afflicted with unilingual American tourists at lunch and dinner every day of the week.  Another, and possibly even greater contributor, was the fact that waiters in Paris don’t work for tips.  Tips are factored into the bill.  So, there really is no incentive for them to pretend to like anyone, much less the dreaded American tourist.

Attempting to shake off the Lipp experience after dinner, Eva and I strolled down the cobblestoned alleyways of the 6th Arrondissement, and like good little tourists, sought out Pablo Picasso’s studio at 7 Rue des Grands Augustins.  We snapped iPhone pictures of each other hamming it up beside the commemorative plaque on the wall, and then continued down the exclusive street, peering into the gallery windows to find out what art was fashionable in Paris that spring.

Fearing our blood/alcohol level was dropping, we ducked into a trendy little watering hole a few blocks from Picasso’s pad called Prescription Bar.  Inside it was candlelit and dark, other than the abstract paintings hanging on the walls of an unnerving green subject matter, reminiscent of plasma, you wouldn’t want to contemplate twice before bedtime.

The alcohol count for the newlyweds at that point was two beers with lunch, a 4 o’clock bottle of wine at Deux Maggots, and a second bottle with our begrudgingly served dinner at Lipp.  Figuring we had already gone that far with our drinking, we decided to go the distance.  Like most weddings, ours had been stressful, and our frayed nerves required a slightly higher alcohol intake then they did during any other week.  At least that’s how we justified all the empty bottles we were leaving behind us.  Deciding to take it up a notch at Prescription Bar, we asked the young, smiley-faced bartender if they served absinthe.  He laughed for some reason, probably another American tourist thing, then told us they didn’t serve it straight, but that they made a cocktail with fruit juice that had absinthe as one of its ingredient.  We nodded eagerly when he asked if we’d like to try it, then drank it down quickly after it arrived in tall, narrow glasses, featuring wedges of pineapple, harpooned by tiny umbrellas.  The cocktail possessed an obscene amount of sugar, but otherwise tasted innocently enough, though we knew from what we’d read about absinthe, that it would creep up on us eventually.

“Is it me or do the bartenders in Paris pour a ton of sugar in their cocktails?” I asked Eva, whose eyes looked as dazed as mine felt after we’d downed our drinks.

“I was just thinking that.  There’s an inch of sugar at the bottom of my glass.  I need a spoon to finish my drink.”

I laughed.  “Not the worst thing in the world.”

“No.  And with all the walking we’re doing the calories will just drop right off.  Do you wanna get one more?” Eva said, as she used her tongue to scoop out the sugar she’d worked to the top of the glass in a method not lost on the bartender.

“No, let’s hit the streets again,” I said.  “We’re only in Paris a week and I don’t think we should repeat an experience when there are so many more experiences out there waiting for us.”

“That sounded very writery,” Eva said with a laugh.

“What did?”

“What you just said about experiences.  Is that a quote from something you wrote?”

“No, I just came up with it.  Why?  You think I should put it in something?  What was the quote again?”

“Something about repeating experiences.  Can’t remember.”

“Well, it couldn’t have been that good if you don’t remember it and I just said it two seconds ago.”

“I guess I just I don’t feel like trying to remember things right now,” Eva said.  “I feel like doing things.  You’re right, there are experiences out there waiting for us, and all we’re doing is sitting here with empty drinks talking about them.”

“Oh, now you remember what I said.  When it suits your argument.  Okay, let’s hit as many cool bars as we can…until we can’t anymore,” I said.

“I’m game,” Eva said, placing a handful of euros on the bar.  “We can always come back here another night if we want another one of these sugary absinthe drinks.”

“No, we can’t!  One and done, remember?”

“Oh, right.  I forgot.  One and done.”

We slid off our barstools and headed for the door.  Before stepping outside, Eva turned back towards the bar and said, “Goodbye, Prescription Bar.  Sorry, but we will never pass this way again.”

I laughed.  “Nice exit line,” I said, taking Eva’s hand and leading her up the art gallery lined street.

Eva and I don’t remember the name of the bar we entered next, probably because the absinthe had already kicked in, making us less aware of physical details and more aware of emotional ones.  But I do remember that the first thing I noticed was a red sign above the bartender’s head advertising bottles of wine for 20 euros.  The previous bottles we’d purchased that day were in the 30 to 40-euro range, and so I happily ordered a bottle with two glasses that Eva happily purchased.  I couldn’t recall ever buying a bottle of wine in a bar in America and I liked the novelty of it, along with the price.

With the open bottle in hand, Eva and I sat down on a pair of wood block chairs, at a wood block table, which made me feel like an actor in a low budget play back in Los Angeles.  The dim lighting, set design, and staging, all appropriate for the surreal scene we were about to act out with the young French couple that sat down next to us…

The wine glasses the bartender gave us were as small as they come, like shot glasses with stems, and after we drank our first glass, a tall, handsome Frenchman with a face as unshaven as mine, sat down at the wood block table next to us with his equally attractive blonde-haired date.  I say date, instead of girlfriend or wife, because unlike me, he wasn’t wearing a brand-new wedding band, and because there was a stiffness between them that implied a lack of familiarity and comfort, like two people on a first date.  Apart from those observations, it was soon apparent that he was trying to impress her by what he said to me after sitting down and eyeing our bottle of wine.

“You are American, no?” he said.

I laughed.  “Yes.  What gave me away?”

Ignoring my question, he pressed on with another one of his own… “Did you purchase bottle of wine here?”

“Uh…yes.  Right here at the bar.”

His questioning the obvious confused me and I wondered if it was due to his lack of familiarity with the English language.

“This is not the place to order bottle of wine,” he said, turning a bright white grin towards his blonde date.

“Oh, well…we’re not from around here,” I said.  “The wine’s actually not too bad.  Right, Eva?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty good.”

The Frenchman eyed Eva incredulously and then eyed his date again.  The date seemed bored by the topic and kept her eyes averted from us, looking out through the open doorway towards the street.

Attempting to extract myself and my new wife from the conversation, I pivoted my body away from the annoyingly handsome Frenchman and squared it with Eva’s.  I smiled at her and then moved my shoulders to the beat of “Pump up the Jam” the 80’s techno song playing in the bar—an action I hoped would convey to him that we wanted to be left alone.  Eva laughed tensely at my attempt at physical comedy, then tried to make me laugh at her own funny dance moves.  A few moments passed before the Frenchman inserted himself back into our evening.

“Do you mind if I look at it?” he said, reaching towards our wine bottle.

“Uh…no, go ahead,” I said, gesturing politely with my hand.

He grabbed the bottle by the neck, held it to his nose, and sniffed the contents.  Then, offended by its bouquet, he made a sour face, set the bottle down, and without another word to us, stood up, and ushered his blonde date over to the bar.

I turned and looked wide-eyed at Eva.  The anger over what the Frenchman had done having yet to seize me.  Disbelief is always my first reaction when cruel people treat me cruelly.

“What was that all about?” I said to Eva.

“He was just trying to impress that girl,” she said.

“So, he sniffs our wine and then scoffs at it?”

“I guess so.”

“What the hell?” I said, eyeing the wine sniffer, now leaning against the bar.

“Let it go, Andrew.  It doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t matter?  That guy just tried to make a fool out of me.”

“Okay, calm down.  He’s not worth getting upset about.”

“Of course he is.  I’ve had it with these French people.  They don’t like Americans?  Well, fine, I don’t like them either.  Screw it!  I’ve been defending these French pricks for years, saying they’re not as bad as they seem–and this is how I get paid back for it?  By some pretty boy sniffing my bottle of wine and then making a face at me?!”

“Lower your voice, Andrew.  We’re not in America.  People act differently here.”

“Do you know what Ernest Hemingway would’ve done if that wine sniffer had done that to him?  He would’ve taken him outside and kicked the shit out of him.”

By that point my anger had been fully realized.

“Well, thank God you’re not Ernest Hemingway.”

“Yeah, thank God for that asshole!” I said, gesturing at the Frenchman.

“Please lower your voice.  I don’t want to have to bail my new husband out of a French jail.”

I reached for the bottle the wine sniffer had so vehemently objected to and filled my little glass to the rim–all the while keeping my eyes trained on the bar.

“It almost feels morally wrong not to do something about this.  At the very least I should go over there and tell him he’s an asshole,” I said.

“Please don’t.”

“No!  I should go over there and grab his beer, take a sip, and make a sour face right back at him.”

“Please don’t do that either.”

“I’ll take a sip of his beer and then spit it in his face and tell him that the next time he sniffs someone’s wine and makes a face, I hope the guy’s in the Mafia and he ends up at the bottom of the Seine.”

“I don’t think they have the Mafia in this country.”

“Of course, they do.  The Mafia is everywhere.”

“Okay, I think it’s time we go to the next bar,” Eva said, reaching for her little black purse.

“Not until I’m finished drinking my bottle of shitty bar wine,” I said.

I chugged my little glass of wine, grabbed the bottle in question, and filled the glass back up to the rim.

“Well, I’m going downstairs to the bathroom.  Could you please try and cool off before I get back?”

“Eva, I don’t think you quite understand the lack of civility we just experienced.  It’s not the kind of offense someone just cools off over during the course of a two-minute bathroom stop.”

“I understand that, but you have to try and get over it.  Because I’m not sure you understand that you can’t get into a fight in a foreign country, where the judicial system will be heavily biased against a belligerent citizen of a country they unanimously despise.”


“Getting there…”

“Hey, you’re the one who’s getting belligerent.  This little incident is not going to end up in Federal court, so you can just calm down about that.”

“Look–I’m just saying that if you start a fight it’s going to be everyone against you.  And the French police will come in here and ask what happened and everyone will say you started a fight for no reason and you’ll get arrested…and, yes, probably end up having to defend yourself in court because you can’t afford legal representation because we’ve spent all our money on our honeymoon.”

“Okay, please go to the bathroom.  I want to be alone so I can finish my shitty wine in peace.”

When I’m good and angry and at war inside my head, I tend to turn on even those I value as my most beloved and trusted allies.  It’s an odd and inexplicable tendency.  A need to cast everyone aside with a few harsh words, so I can brood by myself in some sort of self-destructive, go-down-fighting-alone impulse.  It’s not rational.  It’s not healthy.  It’s not effective.

While Eva was downstairs, I sat at our cubed little table looking towards the brightly lit bar trying to will the wine sniffing Frenchman to look my way.  But he never turned his head.  I could tell he was aware of my psychotic stare by the way he was overacting his role of fascinated listener as his date regaled him with her words, but with impressive poise–which I envied–refused to acknowledge my attempt to reengage him.  Soon, Eva returned and took her seat next to me.  She, too, was angry by that point.  Angry at the Frenchman.  Angry at the interruption of our magical day in Paris.  And angry at me for not having the emotional self-discipline to shrug it off and go back to having a fun night.  Discovering the wine bottle was empty, Eva reached over, grabbed my full glass of wine, and drank it down in two gulps.  It was a dramatic move for which I was quietly impressed.

“Okay, let’s get out of here,” I said.

As we walked out of the bar, my eyes stayed fixed on the wine sniffer’s face, but he went right on enjoying his evening, more so now that he had ruined ours.

Heading back along the sidewalk towards Picasso’s, I recited aloud for Eva the litany of offenses we had incurred that day–from being treated like 2nd class citizens (or 2nd floor citizens) at Brasserie Lipp, where we were given another table’s used bread, to the unnecessary cruelty of the wine sniffing Frenchman ridiculing my choice to purchase a bottle of cheap wine at a dive bar.

“Andrew, I’m not going to let you turn our honeymoon into a war against the French Republic,” Eva said, after I’d finished the list and thoroughly psychoanalyzed the rude behavior of some of its contributors.

“Hey–you’re acting like I’m the one misbehaving here.  All I’ve done—all we’ve done–is smile and be friendly, while sitting there taking one slap across the face after another.  It’s obvious that whether it’s Trump’s fault for the way we’re being treated, or not–the majority of the French people hate Americans and are finding every opportunity to let us know just how much.”

“Well, let’s face it, Trump is a prick, and you can’t blame them for holding it against the Americans for electing him!” Eva said.

Immediately after she said it, she looked like she regretted it.  I spotted the look of regret, but like anyone who wants to win an argument, I pounced anyway.  The absinthe was now working together with the cheap wine and the French people to ensure that enough gas was thrown on the fire to produce a significant explosion right there in the 6th Arrondissement.

“Wait.  Are you taking sides with the French against me?!  Against your husband?!” I said.  “Okay, that’s it.  I need to be by myself.   I need to take a walk.  I need to take a walk by myself.”

“What?!  It’s midnight.  Where the hell are you going to go?”

“Don’t worry about it.  Grab an Uber and I’ll meet you back at the apartment later.  I need to be alone right now.  It’s my right as an individual human being to be alone if I want to be alone.  Marriage doesn’t change that!”


Drunk and irrational, I started down the sidewalk at a quick pace, turning to give Picasso’s studio another glance as I passed by it.

“Do you even know how to get back to the apartment?!” Eva shouted at me, with a touch of irony in her voice.

“I know the address: 15 Rue Paul Delong!  2nd Arrondissement!

Lelong!  Not Delong!”

“Paul Lelong!  I know!”

“Andrew?  ANDREW?  Do you really know your way around this city?”

“Of course I do!  This is my 5th time in Paris, remember?!”

The truth was I knew all the tourist haunts on the Left Bank in the 5th and 6th Arrondissements where Hemingway had once lived, like the Dome, the Closerie des Lilas, Notre Dame, Shakespeare and Company, but we were staying in the 2nd Arrondissement, on the Right Bank across the Seine, far away from anything I remotely recognized, and it took me two and a half hours to find my way back to Eva.

Of course, there were other complications.  I had been too cheap to purchase an overseas cellphone plan, rendering my iPhone useless for navigational purposes.  Also, as I said, I had forgotten to bring my wallet, so even though I knew the address on the Right Bank where we were staying, the taxi option to transport me there was unavailable to me as well.

At first it was thrilling to be lost in the most charming and beautiful city in the world, in the middle of the night, drunk, and getting drunker, as the cheap wine continued to infiltrate my bloodstream.  It was like being in a giant labyrinth, where I couldn’t find the end, but thought I recognized several locational clues, which didn’t turn out to be clues at all.  After an hour of stubbornly thinking I could find my way back to the apartment without asking for help, I finally gave in and began asking other late-night carousers if they knew how to get to Rue Paul Lelong.  The darkness, my poor French, their drunkenness and mine, all working against me.

It worked like this… I’d step in front of someone and blurt out: “Rue Paul Lelong?  Rue Paul Lelong?”  And then, when they shook their heads uncomprehendingly, I’d mispronounce: “Rue Montmartre”.

To which they would inevitably respond: “No, no, I am sorry,” and quickly shuffle away.

Eventually, I resorted to yelling: “THE LOUVRE!  THE LOUVRE!”, which I knew was fairly close to our apartment, and someone would give me complicated directions in broken English, which I was too drunk and too navigationally challenged to follow.

It was the dead of night and there were only so many people who appeared in front of me, not one of them American.  Soon, I began to panic, thinking that Eva was back at our Airbnb worried out of her mind.  Thankfully, I had worn my red New Balance sneakers that day, so I decided to turn my nightmarish predicament into an opportunity to get some exercise, and began jogging down street after street, stopping to peer up at the little blue signs on the corners of the buildings revealing the name of the street and number of the arrondissement or district of the city.

My jog took me from the 9th Arrondissement to the 3rd to the 4th to the 2nd–where I must have been close to home–then back to the 3rd, and somehow all the way back to the 9th, where, when I saw that the little blue sign above read: 9 Arrondissement, I collapsed on the curb and broke down in tears.  Like many lost and helpless people, I then turned to religion and accepted God back into my life after a decade long hiatus, promising that if He got me out of this jam and safely back into the arms of my beloved wife on the 5th floor of an apartment building on the elusive Rue Paul Lelong, I would never drink again…at least not absinthe.

Finally, somewhere in the 3rd Arrondissement, I asked a young, dark-haired woman walking her dog, if she could direct me to Rue Montmartre, the main thoroughfare that ran perpendicularly to Rue Paul Lelong.  Like the others, she didn’t recognize the name of the street due to my horrendous pronunciation, but wisely handed me her cellphone, so I could type it into a Google search.  She then found a map and gave me directions for the half mile distance home.

“You see streetlight at end of the block where big statue is?” the woman said.

“Yes!  Yes!  I see it!  The big statue!”

“Go to light and then go left and then go for five minutes and then you will take another left and then you will find Montmartre,” she said.

I thanked her profusely and gave her a hug, and she seemed charmed by the plight of the desperately lost, cellphoneless American, and I thought: “Well, she certainly makes up for all the other French assholes that led me here tonight.”

When I arrived back at the apartment, I raced up the four flights of stairs, and opened the door, expecting to be greeted by my devastated wife, only to find a single light burning by the window and Eva upstairs in the loft, sleeping.  Apparently, the absinthe had been bad for some things and good for others, like putting Eva soundly to sleep, free of worry.  I stripped off my clothes, crawled into bed next to my bride, wrapped my arms around her, and slept until noon.

A few days later, when we were back to being best friends, Eva and I decided to make a return trip to Brasserie Lipp–one for which, this time, we, not the French, would set the terms.

“Let’s go back there and really American it up,” I said, as we sat on the rooftop patio of our Airbnb, drinking wine, and listening to the sentimental playlist from our wedding.

“But, I thought we weren’t going to repeat any experiences in Paris,” she said.

“That’s true.  But I think this experience needs to be repeated so we can both feel better about it years from now when we’re reminiscing about our honeymoon.”

“Okay,” Eva said.  “And maybe it’ll be good for me to try and be a little less nice for a change.”

“You could probably benefit from being a little less nice…yes,” I said.

To appear as American as we could, we both wore our bright red Phillies baseball caps, flannel button down shirts–rolled up to the elbows–blue jeans, and the his and hers cowboy boots (a wedding gift from my Colorado cousin) we had lugged all the way from L.A.

To the chagrin of the same Maître d’ we had experienced during our first visit to Lipp, this time I insisted on a table on the first floor, and vehemently pointed to an available one facing the entrance of the restaurant.  After our assorted cheese plate appetizer, Eva confessed to me that she had never eaten squid ink pasta before, one of the specials that night, and I insisted she try it.  I ordered the same, and when the mounds of pasta arrived on large oval plates, she was baffled to discover that squid ink meant actual ink.  Black, teeth-staining ink.  After I had twirled a length of pasta onto my fork and shoved it into my mouth, she looked across the table and saw that the ink had turned my front teeth black.  Realizing that her teeth were likely mirroring mine, she wiped at them with her napkin after each bite, and later swished water from her water glass as well.  As she wiped and swished, the uptight, middle-aged French couple seated next to us watching her performance, whispered back and forth to each other in exasperation.

After dinner, while we waited out on Boulevard Saint Germain for our Uber to arrive, I said to Eva:

“You were really working that napkin at dinner.  And all that water swishing, too.  Did the squid ink really bother you that much?”

I was legitimately worried about the newly introduced neurotic eating habits of the woman with whom I had agreed to spend the rest of my life.

“No,” she said.  “I just noticed that the French couple next to us were disgusted by it–so I kept doing it more and more to gross them out.”

“Wow.  I had no idea you were like that.”

“Well, I am,” Eva said with a grin, as the white Prius we were waiting for came into sight.

“That’s fantastic!” I said, grabbing her hand and leading her into the backseat.

“Take us to the Eifel Tower please,” Eva said to the driver.  “We’re Americans and it’s mandatory that we get a picture kissing in front of it at night.”

The driver laughed, completed a harrowing U-turn, and then drove the Americans off to get the money shot that would hang in their bedroom for the next 40 or 50 years.




Alexander Carver’s stories have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Foliate Oak, The Satirist, The Southern Pacific Review, and Dark Matter.  His story “Uber Trouble” was a prize winner in the Razor Literary Magazine short fiction contest. As well as being an author, he is also a produced playwright and screenwriter.








by Briana Morgan



Mom says hi to the army man at the front door. I’m playing with my model T-Bird (the one me and Pop put together before he went to war). Me and Pop like making models. He and Grandpa used to put them together when Pop was my age, so Pop says me and him are “carrying on tradition.” I asked my teacher what tradition is, and she said it’s something to be proud of.

I’m happy me and Pop have something to be proud of.

I’m playing with my car on the living room floor when Mom tells me to go back to my room. I don’t want to. Mom has lots of stupid rules. She tells me to do things that don’t make sense. Pop always makes sense, so I listen to him.

I go to the kitchen instead of my room. There’s a window over the counter, and I can peek out without being seen.

The army man isn’t talking anymore. He must be waiting for Mom to say something. It takes her a long time to talk. She says bad words I’m not allowed to—words she won’t even let Pop say in the house.

“You’re shitting me,” Mom says. Shitting is a very bad. Pop uses it all the time, but Mom never uses it unless something goes wrong.

My tummy feels wobbly, like something’s crawling around inside.

Did something happen to Pop?

The army man shakes his head. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Pearson. That’s all we know right now.”

“What the hell does missing mean?” Mom asks. “How can you lose an entire human being? He’s not a set of keys!”

Hell is another bad word. Mom’s using so many off-limits words, she must be worried about Pop. She says something to the army man that I can’t hear because her voice is tiny.

The army man says sorry again. Mom shuts the front door in his face. She closes the blinds and pulls the curtains together, blocking out the sun. When she walks past the kitchen, she doesn’t see me. I must have turned invisible.

Mom goes to her room and shuts the door.

The house is quiet forever. I’ve been sitting so long that my butt is sleeping now. I’m not supposed to say butt, either, but it’s not a bad word like shitting or hell.

I slide off the counter and tiptoe down the hall.

The door to Mom and Pop’s room is still closed, and it’s so quiet. The cool doorknob twists easily under my fingers. I slip into the room and shush the door for making creaky sounds. Mom must have turned invisible too. I can’t see her.

I trip over the stupid rug and fall flat on my face. Even though I’m so big now, I’m crying like a baby. Sticky blood runs from my nose and stains the clean carpet. I’m scared that Mom will spank me for the mess—so scared I don’t feel the pain in my face.

Mom comes out of the closet. She hasn’t turned invisible. Her eyes are red; her nose is running. Instead of being mad, Mom hugs me and tells me she loves me.

“I love you too,” I say, “but why was the army man sorry?”

“We’ll talk about it later,” Mom says.

Why can’t we talk about it now? Too many stupid rules.

“Was it something bad?” I ask.

“I said later, Johnny. Let’s get you cleaned up.”

Mom cleans me off in the bathroom. Her wedding ring gets covered in blood as she wipes my face, and I feel a little bad. I don’t cry anymore. Mom tells me I’m brave and touches the flag pin still stuck to my shirt somehow.

“I’m not as brave as Pop,” I say.

Mom doesn’t say a word.


The next thing I know, it’s Sunday. I sit at my desk working on a plane that Pop and me started before he went away. Mom rests on my bed while I work. She’s too long for my mattress, so her feet hang over the edge. I laugh at that.

Mom doesn’t laugh. She hasn’t laughed in a long time.

I stick my tongue out (it helps me do better) as I squeeze the tube of glue. I’m not allowed to glue stuff on my own, so I can only work when Mom sits in the room with me. She isn’t watching me put the model together, but it’s still okay. She doesn’t make sense—not like Pop does, anyway. Pop always knows what’s all right and what’s bad. Pop knows everything in the whole wide world.

Mom doesn’t even know when Pop is coming home.

“When will Pop be back?” I ask.

“Did I say we would talk about this later?”

“No,” I say, “you said we could talk about the army man later. It’s later.”

“You wouldn’t understand,” she says. “I’ll tell you when you’re ready.”

I don’t have anything to say because I’m ready now. I want to know what the army man said to her. I want to know about Pop. I don’t want to make Mom mad, though, because then she might go back to the closet and cry, and then I won’t know anything.

When Mom says nothing else, I go back to making the model. I’m squishing the tube of glue, but no more is coming out. There are still a lot of pieces to put on, and Pop isn’t home. “You said he’d be back before I ran out of glue.”

“He will be,” Mom says.

“No, he won’t,” I say, “because the glue is all gone.” I get up from the desk and drop the tube into the trash can. Mom is sitting up on the bed. I go and sit beside her.

Mom sighs and ruffles my hair. Her eyes are red like she’s been crying for a year, and maybe she has. “You can’t be out already, dear. He’s only been gone for a couple of months. We got that before he left, remember?”

Pop’s been gone forever. “There’s no more, I promise. Can we pretty please get some?”

Mom scrunches up her face, and her hand falls from my head. “That glue’s expensive, Johnny, and the store is closed today.”

“Tell Mr. Slattery it’s an emergency,” I say.

Mom chews on her lip, and her voice sounds dreamy. “It doesn’t work that way, but it won’t hurt to call him.”

I pretend I’m in the army while Mom talks on the phone. My imagination turns the chairs into trees. I crawl through Vietnam on my hands and knees, looking for that guy named Charlie. The grown-ups in town talk about Victor Charlie. I figure he must be a really bad guy.

After Mom hangs up the phone, she tells me to get in the car. I run back to my room first to get my flag pin off the desk. Mom’s fingers fumble to stick the pin to my shirt. Her wedding ring glints as she fusses over me.

“You miss Pop,” I ask, “don’t you?”

“Of course I do.” Mom steps away from me and smiles, but her face looks hard and scary. Her skin’s pale like this morning’s oatmeal. “Let’s go.”

The hardware store is locked up when me and Mom get there. Mr. Slattery opens the doors for us with a big grin on his face. I grin right back at him. He’s a nice man even though he limps. It isn’t his fault he got shot in the war—the one I’m too small to remember—Coreeea, Pop calls it.

Mom says that life isn’t fair. She means people get hurt for no reason sometimes.

Mom and Mr. Slattery talk about the weather as they go off to find the glue. Mom tells me to wait by the register. She doesn’t want me touching anything. She thinks I’ll break something, but I won’t. I do what she tells me anyway, and she and Mr. Slattery disappear behind the shelves.

The lights in the store are turned off, so it’s dark. I’m scared without Mom nearby. I have what Pop calls heebie-jeebies. I glance down at my flag pin and try to be brave—as brave as Pop is for fighting in the jungle. I want him to be proud of me. I want him to know how brave I’ve been, and how grown-up I’ve gotten while he’s been away.

Something runs across the floor behind me, and I don’t want to be alone anymore. I forget about being brave, and the heebie-jeebies take over. I don’t know where Mom and Mr. Slattery are, but I go running down the aisles. My feet make a lot of noise. I wait for Mom to yell at me and tell me to be quiet.

Mom and Mr. Slattery are in the middle row of shelves. By the time I find them, my heart punches my ribs. I have to stop to catch my breath. They still haven’t seen me. Maybe I won’t get in trouble after all.

Mom’s back is touching the shelves. Mr. Slattery stands in front of her, leaning on his cane. Mom says something I can’t hear because she’s still so far away, and Mr. Slattery smiles. He reaches over her head to get a tube of model glue that looks just like the one I threw away. Then, he holds it out to Mom and smiles even bigger.

I’m happy Mr. Slattery found the glue. I can finish the plane before Pop comes back home. He’ll be so proud and so will I—the plane is my tradition. I close my eyes and see Pop’s face inside my head. He’ll be so happy when he sees what I’ve done.

I open my eyes. Mom’s hand touches Mr. Slattery’s face, and she leans into him. I think she’s going to whisper something in his ear, but her lips land on his mouth instead. They’re kissing and it’s nasty, but I can’t believe my eyes.

She’s kissing Mr. Slattery like she kisses Pop, and I feel sick.

The oatmeal from breakfast wants out of my tummy. I bend over and puke on the shiny gray floor. I feel wetness on my face. I’ve been crying. I’m crying and I smell like puke and I taste oatmeal and I want to go home. I just want to go home.

Mr. Slattery looks sad and scared at the same time, just like I do when I get caught stealing cookies. He’s leaning on his cane again. “You said you’d tell him, Debbie.”

“I didn’t want to upset him,” Mom says. “He doesn’t even know about the telegram. I didn’t have the heart to tell him.”

I don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t like it when grown-ups confuse me. My tummy is still doing flips, and I hate that even more.

“I want to go home,” I say.

Mr. Slattery sighs. “Use the bathroom in the back, all right? But we need to talk about this soon, Debbie. I mean it.”

Mom cleans me off in the hardware store’s bathroom. She lays her wedding ring on the sink while she wipes my face again, and it makes me cry. I can’t stop crying. She touches the flag and tells me to be brave. That makes me think of Pop, and I’m crying even harder.

Me and Mom leave without buying the glue. She doesn’t say goodbye to Mr. Slattery. We go straight to the station wagon and drive away without cleaning my puke off the glistening floor.

We’re halfway home when I remember that Mom left her ring in the bathroom. I tell her through my tears that we have to go back so she can get it. If she puts the ring on, everything will be all right.

“Don’t cry, please,” Mom says. “Your father’s been gone for a long time now, Johnny, and I don’t know when he’ll be back. Mike’s a nice man, you know. He wants to take care of us.”

I touch my flag pin without saying a word, because Pop’s taking care of us too.


It’s Thursday, forever later. Mr. Slattery is at the house when I get home from school. He and Mom sit at the kitchen table. They’re drinking coffee. Mom looks at me when I walk inside, but Mr. Slattery stares at his cup.

“How was school?” Mom asks.

“Boring,” I say, even though it really wasn’t. Some girls were making a big fuss over Elvis, and this boy named Nathan danced around with his hips. Everyone thought it was funny except Mrs. Harper. She sent him to the office.

“Sit down, please,” Mom says.

There’s an empty chair between her and Mr. Slattery. I sit and scoot the chair over so I’m closer to Mom. I’m still mad at Mr. Slattery. I hope he knows it too.

“Mr. Slattery brought you some more glue,” Mom says. “He remembered that you needed more. Wasn’t that nice of him?”

“I don’t want it,” I say. I don’t like Mr. Slattery, and I don’t want his presents. Pop’s the only one allowed to get me presents. Mr. Slattery isn’t my Pop, and he never will be. My Pop is the best man in the universe.

“Use your manners,” Mom says.

I try again. “No, thank you.”

Still, Mr. Slattery doesn’t look up. “I knew this was a bad idea. He hates me now.”

“He doesn’t hate anyone,” Mom says. “He’s not even allowed to use that word. Isn’t that right, Johnny? You don’t hate anyone, do you?”

“I don’t want to answer,” I say.

“Johnny,” she says, “that’s no way to behave. Why don’t you show Mr. Slattery your models?”

“I don’t want to show him my models,” I say. “I just want to go to my room and play with them all by myself. I want Mr. Slattery to leave. I hope he never comes back.”

I get up from the table and run all the way back to my room. I sit against the wall on the other side of the bed. No one will see me in the corner.

As I sit on the floor, I get madder. Mom knows the models are for me and Pop only. I don’t want Mr. Slattery to touch them. If he touches them, I’m scared they won’t be special anymore.

It feels like years before Mom comes in. Mr. Slattery’s walking stick thumps into the room. That makes me so mad, my face feels like it’s burning. My eyes are hurting and I really need to cry, but I can’t cry right now. I have to be brave—brave like Pop is while he’s fighting off the bad guys.

Mom’s feet stop at the edge of the bed, and I crawl under it before she can see me. It’s cool and dusty under the bed. The springs squeak as Mom sits above me.

“Johnny, I’m sorry, but Mike makes me happy,” she says. “God knows I need some happiness right now.”

“Make him go away.”

“That’s not fair,” Mom says. “You don’t understand how I’m feeling right now, Johnny. Grown-ups have needs, and sometimes, when those needs aren’t met—”

“Debbie,” Mr. Slattery says as he thumps into the room, “You should tell him what happened to Tom. The boy deserves some honesty.”

Mom sighs long and loud before she answers, “I suppose.” She gets down on her hands and knees on the floor and reaches out to me under the bed. “Can you come out so I can talk to you, please?”

“I don’t want to come out.”


“No way.”

“What would Pop say if he saw you like this?”

I feel sick inside at the mention of Pop. He doesn’t like it when I don’t listen to Mom, and he spanks me whenever I talk mean to her. It’s safe under the bed, though. I don’t want to come out. I don’t want to talk to Mom. “Is this about the army man?”

“Yes,” she says, “it is. Now could you please come out from there?”

I crawl out wiggling like a worm because I want the truth. Mom pulls me onto the bed and holds me on her lap. My feet are dangling in the air. I look at them instead of Mom.

Mr. Slattery stays at the edge of the room. He leans against his cane without saying anything. He’s waiting. I glance up at him and look back at my shoes.

“The officer the other day was here to give a message about Pop,” Mom says. “I sent you to your room because I didn’t want to scare you.”

“I hid in the kitchen.” I look up at her. My fingers brush the flag pin. “I was trying to be brave.”

Mom’s mouth tightens, but she doesn’t get mad. She just goes on with her story. “Your father’s all right, but the telegram said that he’s missing in action.” She waits for a minute to see if I understand, but I don’t. She says more. “That just means the army… doesn’t know where your Pop is right now. He got lost is all, Johnny.”

“That might not be bad,” Mr. Slattery says. “Your father and I knew men in Korea who went MIA and were found alive later.”

Mom shoots him a mean look that I’ve never seen before. When she looks back at me, her face is hard. “The army doesn’t know where he is. They’re looking for him, but… they might not find him. Understand me?”

“He might never come back,” Mr. Slattery says. “This guy Tom and I knew was taken prisoner, and he never—”

“I think you should leave.” Mom is madder than I’ve seen her in a while. The tone of her voice makes me feel really sick. My stomach drops into my bottom.

“You told me Pop was coming back,” I say.

Mr. Slattery shakes his head. “You shouldn’t have told him—”

“Get out of here,” Mom says, and it’s clear she really means it.

“He could’ve gotten killed,” Mr. Slattery says. “The boy needs to know—”

“Get out!

Mom pushes me off her and drops off the bed. She rushes toward Mr. Slattery and knocks the cane out of his hands. The attack makes him lose his balance, and he grabs onto Mom’s shirt. She falls with him. Then, she’s screaming in his face and scratching at him and it’s so scary that I want to cry.

I don’t even want to be brave anymore. I rip the flag pin off my shirt so fast that the back of it falls off. I yell at Mr. Slattery and tell him that I hate him. The pin flies out of my hand and across the room before I know I’ve thrown it.

It hits Mom’s cheek. She freezes.

I can’t hold the anger and the fear in any longer. I cry and can’t help thinking Pop won’t like me when he comes back.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m so sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean to hit you.”

“It’s okay,” Mom says. I don’t believe her.

Mr. Slattery sits up and puts his arms around Mom. He holds her as she cries into his shoulder. I can’t hate him—I can’t hate someone who makes Mom happy. I’m not mad at him either. I’m mad at the war. I’m mad at the war for taking Pop away and not letting him come home yet.

After Mom gets quiet, I walk over and pick up my flag pin. The sharp part sticks my hand. Mom wipes her face on my sleeve and looks confused when I hold the pin out to her.

“I don’t deserve this. I stopped being brave.”

“Oh, Johnny,” Mom says.

Mr. Slattery picks up the back and takes the pin from my hands. He motions for me to come closer. I have to step over his cane, and I feel bad that Mom knocked it over.

Mr. Slattery is close enough to touch me. He pulls the front of my shirt away from my chest and holds the pin in his right hand.

“You’re still being brave,” Mr. Slattery says. “Even soldiers still cry on occasion.”

My tears splash against his hand as he puts the pin on me. As I glance down at the little flag, pride fills up my chest. If what Mr. Slattery’s saying is true, then even Pop cries, and he’s the bravest man I know. I don’t feel bad about crying now. Pop would still be proud of me.

Mr. Slattery reaches into his pocket and takes out a silver tube full of model glue. Then, he holds it out to me. “This is for you, if you want it.”

The silver tube is shiny. I reach out and I take it.




Briana Morgan is a thriller, crime, and horror writer who loves dark, suspenseful reads, angst-ridden relationships, and complicated characters. Her interest in Jay Gatsby scares her friends and family. You can find her in way too many places online, eating too much popcorn, reading in the corner, or crying about long-dead literary heroes. She currently resides somewhere near Atlanta, Georgia. For updates on her work, visit her website, http://www.brianamorganbooks.com.








Alien Honor

by Richard C. Rutherford



Marge likes to look in windows. When she does, she talks about the things she wants: food, clothing, furniture, cars, a house, a husband, but especially food. Just inside the window, people are eating. Marge gets irritated by the way people eat.

“Look at ‘em in there, Runt. They get a piece of meat on their fork and they just start waving it around like it’s some kind of magic wand or something.” She put her face close to the glass and yells, “If you’re gonna’ eat, eat.” The lady with the fork looks at us and shakes her head, so maybe it isn’t food.

Food is nice, but I like to look on the surface of windows. My reflection is on windows. I’m still getting used to the way I look. I have a blue hat that I can rotate to shade the sun. My coat has a collar that turns up around my ears. I would have preferred a smoother texture. This material gets snagged easily and the stuffing comes out. But it has big pockets and I like green.

“Yeah, bitch, I’m talking to you.” Marge pokes her finger on the window. “Eat your food.”

A man opens the door and tells us to move along or he’ll call the police. Marge tells him to have sex with himself and starts walking. I turn my head, but keep my eyes on my reflection. Marge has a small nose. Mine is much bigger. I practice a smile. Smiles feel different than they look.

I’m lucky I found her. I know all the definitions, but Marge knows the applications. She knows the rules. She blends in. She has command of her body, moving with ease, lifting her feet just enough to take the next step. She tells me I walk like I’m marching and that I draw too much attention to myself. Marge keeps her head still, shifting her eyes instead. She says I talk too loud. Marge can mumble.

I catch up, dragging my heels. Marge turns down an alley. She says, “You’re not going to shit your pants today, are you?”


“You better not. I can’t have no man shits his pants.”

I liked those pants. They had big pockets.

I’m still surprised at the difference between the fronts of buildings and the backs. In front, you have to pay money for everything you take out. But in the back, everything is free. On sidewalks, you have to be in a hurry, but in back you can take your time. Privacy is easier; two nights ago, I watched as this body I’m wearing rolled out of a moving car. I had time to repair the liver and fix the puncture.

Marge stops. “Whoa. I smell fries.” She leans over a dumpster and sniffs. “Runt. Get in there and get me those fries.”

I stand on my toes and look in, smelling for fries. She sniffs again. “No stupid, over here. Get in there.” I put my hands on the edge, jump up, and swing a leg over. Marge pushes me in. “Right there. In that bag. Give it to me.” I crawl over, find the bag, and hand it out. She snatches it from me and starts eating, talking about French fries and ownership.

Since I am in the dumpster, I look around for anything useful. I find a flat magnet stuck to the side, a small battery containing some electricity, and a narrow cardboard tube about the size of my little finger. I put these tools in one of my coat pockets, find three loose fries and eat them before Marge can take them from me. I stand up. In the dumpster, I am taller than Marge.

“Marge, there’s never any money in dumpsters. Look at all the stuff people throw away.” I push some bags around. “But there’s never any money. Seems like there would be some old, used money in here. How come people don’t throw away their old money?”

She stares at me but doesn’t answer. She doesn’t answer a lot of my questions. She looks into the empty bag, hands it to me, and walks away. I catch up with her at the sidewalk and remember to drag my heels. I don’t want to tell her my secret: I want to surprise her. But my time will run out; there are things I don’t understand and I need help.

“Marge, you probably noticed that I’m different from other people.” She keeps walking. I manage to keep up, side-stepping while dragging my heels. Two men are coming down the sidewalk, but they don’t look at me.

“See Marge, I was on this ship,” I wave my hand at the sky, “in space. Naturally it matured, outlived its usefulness, and ejected me.” She doesn’t respond. I say, “So here I am.”

Marge stops and put her hands on her hips, leans over. “What are you talking about?”

“I need to build another ship and get back out there.”

People don’t like it if you stand in the middle of the sidewalk. It makes me nervous and I know Marge is upset. I say, “I’m an alien. I can’t stay here. I need money to build a ship.”

“Get a job.” She starts walking.

I have my first laugh. I call to her, “I’m not gonna work.”

Someone walking past me says, “No shit.”

When I catch up with her, I say, “Look Marge, everything I need is at K-mart. But they won’t let me have it without money.”

“You’re building a spaceship? You need a lot of money. Rob a bank.”

Of course. Some of the simplest solutions don’t occur to me. That’s why I need Marge. Okay, I am making progress. I hadn’t thought of that.

When I catch up again, she iss mumbling something. “What?” I ask.

“You don’t have a gun.”

“Simple. I’ll build one.”

She seems like she is trying to look tired. “Out of …?”

I trace my memories back through trash piles and dumpsters. “I’ll see you at the soup kitchen this afternoon. And, I’ll have a gun.”

“Well, don’t leave for outer space without me.”

“Marge. I’m taking you with me.”

She mumbles again and walks away. I turn back for the alley.

In a trash pile, I find something I can use. A bathroom scale. With both hands, I hold it in front of me and squeeze. The gauge registers pounds of pressure. Perfect. I find an empty bottle and break the thick bottom out of it. I need some adhesive and a grinder, so I head back to the sidewalk. There is a good spot by an empty storefront. I sit down to build my gun. It is easy.

I’ve been a crystal maker for six generations. The bottle bottom was the key. I hold it up to the light and calculate the angles. Then I use the cement curb to grind the edges into facets.

I peel gum from the sidewalk and chew them together for adhesive. I break my magnet in half, connect it to the battery with aluminum foil, and use the gum to attach them, the crystal, and my small cardboard tube. With a nail, I bore a hole in the front edge of the scale. I line the tube up with the hole, pull a hair from my head and calibrate the gaps. Then I carefully reassemble the scale.

I look around. I am concerned about having a weapon in public. When I stand up, I feel conspicuous. Covering the gun with my coat, I hurry to meet Marge.

She hasn’t waited for me. Inside the soup kitchen, I find her hunched over her food like everyone else. I try to shuffle, but I am excited. “Marge,” I pull my coat back slightly, “Look.”

“Bathroom scale.”

“Not anymore. C’mon. I’ll show you.”

“I got you a job,” she says through her food. “Get something to eat, sit down.” She gestures to the line. “Get some food.”

“Marge.” I nod down at my gun. I whisper, “I can’t sit down. It might go off accidently.”

“Everybody!” She speaks in her loudest voice, waving a piece of bread. “Everybody get back just a little. My boyfriend here has a bathroom scale. It’s loaded and it could go off at any moment.”

I tuck my head and brace myself. But when I look around I see only the shapes of people eating. Still, I feel they might suddenly grab me. I back up to the wall, then slide along the side of the room to the door and out.

I pace the walk outside. Finally, she emerges. I hurry up, but before I can speak, she says, “Be here tomorrow at three o’clock. You pass out food, then do the dishes and clean up. We get five dollars and all we can eat.”

It is going to be dark soon. I am walking backwards in front of her. “Marge, I have to show you how this works. Come on.” I turn into an alley.

“Okay, little man.”

Behind a building, I find a dumpster filled with trash. Looking around, I see no one, and pull the gun from my coat.

She breathes out. “Look, you little weasel. Tomorrow you’re gonna work at the soup kitchen. I can’t have no husband of mine hanging around alleys, shootin’ off bathroom scales.”

We are about ten yards from the dumpster. Husband?

“Marge. Watch.” With both hands, I hold the gun out before me, aim the opening, and squeeze twenty pounds of pressure. A thin beam of light shoots out, hits the side of the dumpster, creating a small dark circle, which starts smoking. Then it burns through, superheats the contents, and they blow up, splitting the sides of the dumpster and knocking it over.

I look over, smile, and raise my eyebrows.

“Do that again.”

The dumpster’s contents are strewn around the ally, burning. “See, Marge. And that’s just twenty pounds’ pressure. But now we have to go. The police might come.”

She nods. “Uh-huh, do it again.”

I aim at a garbage can and squeeze five pounds. It explodes, blowing the top off, sending shrapnel flying. I hear a siren, distant, but approaching.

“Marge, we gotta go. Now.”

I put the gun back under my coat and start walking. Marge hurries up beside me. “How’d you do that?” She pulls my coat, “Where’d you get that?”

I walk without my shuffle. Marge hurries beside me. I say, “Tomorrow morning, we’re going into a bank and get some money. Then we’re going to K-mart and buy the material we need.” I walk faster. She keeps up. “Then we’re going to that empty building on Third Street, we’ll seal it up, convert it, and,” I wave my arm at the sky, “we’re out of here.”

I pat the gun. Marge follows, breathing hard. I feel like a policeman.

The next morning, I pick out a nice bank and sit out front by the fountain. I am calm when the security guard opens the doors. I have my gun under my coat. Marge has a plastic bag to put the money in.

She can’t stop talking. “I helped my dad rob a 7-Eleven once.”


“Okay. Well, not actually rob the place. But I did stand lookout while he got a whole case of beer out the back.”

“Marge, please.”


“Let’s just think about what we’re going to do.”

“Okay. I’m just saying. If you’re worried about me or if you think I can’t handle this or if you think I’m nervous—” She lifts her head and looks down the street. “—I’m cool as a cucumber. When I helped my dad that time— “


“Okay, okay.”

I stand up. I know what I am going to do. I know just how to do it. I say to Marge, “Okay, let’s go get some money.” My liver is beginning to leak again.

I lead us into the bank with Marge stepping on the backs of my shoes. I look up at the high ceilings, feel the spacious expanse, wishing I could convert this building instead.

I step up to the first teller, flip my coat back, showing her my gun. “I need some money.”

She is arranging paper, looks up and laughs at me. “What are you going to do with that?” I don’t have an answer. She turns away, saying, “Get help, and get a bath.”

Quickly, I side-step to the next teller, pulling my gun out. “I want money.”

She puts both hands on the counter. “Clyde, you better get your ass out of this bank. Now. And take Bonnie with you.” I look back at Marge. Bonnie?

The next teller doesn’t give me a chance to speak. “Walt!” She calls over our heads, “Get these bums out of here.”

Marge has been standing motionless. She is beside me in an instant, takes the gun, backs up to the center of the floor, and carefully sets it down. She says, “I weigh over two hundred pounds.” She shakes the bag and holds it up. “If you don’t give us all your money—right now—I’m going to weigh myself.”

I hold my hand up to her. “Marge, no.”

But the security guard tackles her from behind, knocking her down. They slide across the floor. She struggles with the guard, but he twists her arm up behind her, grabs her collar, and starts dragging her to the door.

I pick up the gun, and as I follow them, I pop the top off and removed the crystal. I look at it sparkling between my fingers, then throw it in the trash.

The guard is having trouble getting Marge out the door. She has hold of his pant leg. “Shoot him, Runt! Shoot the son-of-a-bitch!”

The scale hangs loose in my hand.

I am out of time. I will have to get in with Marge.





In 2016, Richard C Rutherford had work accepted by Fiction Southeast, Stone Coast Review, Hypertext, Red Fez, The LA Review, Squalorly, and The Tishman Review. Upcoming in Visitant. For thirty-seven years he raised cattle at the edge of the desert. He supports local bookstores and reads DeLillo when he needs a dose of humility. He has daughters, so he’s a feminist. He has a large collection of stories.






Hail Mary

by Erin Smith



During my two seasons on the show Peter’s Rule, I played little Bobby Van Camp—the adorably witty next-door neighbor to the McMahon family—and I said his catch phrase eighty-one times. This is especially impressive given there were only twenty episodes in each season.

Bobby was brought in as a last-ditch effort when the once-popular show started tanking in its fifth season. The writers tried to save it when Peter, drunk, flirted with a secretary at his company’s Christmas party. They tried to save it when Peter’s teenage son got with the wrong crowd and smoked weed.

When none of that worked, the writers brought in me, Bobby Van Camp, the kid from across the street. I had the cutest dimples, an infectious laugh, questionable parental oversight, and a no-nonsense attitude to give Peter’s Rule the kick it needed.

But it didn’t give it the kick it needed. Those things never do.

I didn’t know that, of course. For me, it was my family. Off set, I played in my room alone at home, but here I need only walk into the McMahon kitchen to see my playmates, Chris and Trisha. Off set, we hadn’t received child support from my dead-beat dad in more than five years, but here I had Peter, seated at the kitchen table, dispensing honest, helpful advice.

After Peter’s Rule my gigs dried out. I had my growth spurt; my voice changed. I had acne and limbs that seemed too loose, too long. The last three on-air roles I played under my stage name, Ray Goodman, were junior high and high school bullies, one uncredited. I felt like a lesser Anthony Michael Hall from Edward Scissorhands—the Geek from Sixteen Candles still trying to be relevant.

With the gigs went the money and I dusted off my given name, Ray Carter, and enrolled in public high school. Life went on.

When I was in college, an agent from the studio called to see if I’d be interested in resurrecting the role and doing a guest appearance. The money was so good I kept doing it. I retained her as an agent and she booked me gig after gig on the touring circuit.

And don’t I look cute! Thirty-three year old Little Bobby Van Camp! I sign posters and say the line that made me briefly famous: “Ain’t that what family’s for?”


I watch the line of impatient patrons snake back from the ticket stanchion into the lobby, where those entering the theater—shivering against the cold—must thread through a wall of people in their Sunday best.

Gladys is at the stanchion, fiddling in vain with the ticket scanner. Her brow is crinkled, her shoulders hunched. I watch from my place near the emergency exit and count to ten in my head. When I get to eight, I start to panic that I might have to step in and do something. But finally, mercifully, Gladys puts down the scanner, stubs the tickets and smiles cluelessly at the red-faced couple standing in front of her.

“Your seats are two floors up. Enjoy the show.”

The old bat has worked for the Broadline Theatre for over thirty years and refuses to be told how to do her job. It’s nothing personal. She treats everyone like they’re just a young punk usher and no one of any consequence. I started at the Broadline seven years ago as an usher earning a little over minimum wage and now I’m a manager. But still no one of any consequence. I haven’t been anyone of any consequence since I was Bobby Van Camp.

Here, I’m Ray Carter. My fellow ushers know who I was, but it’s brought up so rarely, and never by me. When I first started I begrudgingly signed a few autographs. But I don’t do that now.

“This is Janine calling Ray,” the voice crackles over my earpiece.

I push the button on my cheap radio and say, “Go ahead Janine.”

“Ray, there’s some vomit in the vestibule, near the trashcan.”

“This is Ray calling housekeeping . . .”

Along with vomit in the vestibule, there’s magic in the air. It’s always there in the moments before the show starts. I see it on the patrons’ faces as they shuffle through the thinning lobbies. The real world is put on pause. Something better than real is about to begin. It’s like the magic on the set before the director shouts “action.”

Those are moments I remember on the set of Peter’s Rule.

Between takes, I would sit at the McMahon kitchen table. I’d go over my lines in my head, but I’d think so hard about them that they would move on my lips, then whisper out.

“Relax, sweetie” Alexandria—Wendy, Peter’s wife—would say.

The cameraman would take his place. The director would lift his microphone.

All was quiet on the set.

All is chaos at the Broadline Theatre.

I reach the First Mezzanine as the two-minute fanfare sounds. Jodi, a Level Supervisor, walks toward the patrons standing by the windows, wine in hand, staring out on the park below.

“Two minutes, two minutes folks,” she’s saying over and over.

As I approach her, I’m trying to look like I’m here to do my job. I’m holding up my fingers in the peace sign, waving them around to anyone who comes near me as they make a mad dash for their seats. My mouth is even moving, but I’m not saying anything related to a two-minute warning. I’m rehearsing my lines. I’ve been thinking of them all day, so hard they are appearing on my lips, unbidden.

They start to whisper out as I follow Jodi to the Center Mezzanine doors and the theater turns to black.

“. . . coffee sometime . . . something to eat maybe?”

We close the last door, locking the magic in with over three thousand people. Soon, the conductor’s baton will drop, the orchestra will strike their first chord. But this is the moment before, the moment of greatest anticipation.

“Thanks for helping,” Jodi says.

I nod, the words still swimming in my brain, willing my tongue to form a sound.

The usually awkward usher uniform—knee-length skirt, white button-up shirt under a gaping-open black coat lined in bright red with yellow rope-like trim—looks good on Jodi’s slight frame. Her body type, shared, I’m sure, by less than five percent of the US population, was what the makers of the uniforms had in mind. On me, the pants hang a little low, my belly pokes out over my belt, accentuated by the obscene openness of the coat. I could stand to lose ten pounds. This uniform reminds me of that every time I put it on.

Jodi adjusts her radio, unclips it from the top of her skirt and clips it in a different location.

“Ray, can I ask you something?”

“Yes,” I say, sucking in my belly and thinking of my lines, now caught in my throat.

“Would you be able to cover my shift tomorrow night? Something came up.”

Some directors don’t mind a little ad lib, as long as you capture the intent of the lines.

“Uh,” I manage to say.

“If you can’t it’s fine . . .”

There’s a long pause. I feel like someone should be feeding me a line. In slow motion, words and thoughts pass through my mind. Coffee. My calendar hanging in my kitchen. Date. Is there something written on tomorrow?

“It’s fine,” Jodi says, walking away. “Think about it and get back to me. I’ve still got John to ask.”

I watch her leave and feel the lines slipping away.

In the glare of the light, behind the camera, I can almost feel the frustration of the director. I was only seven. I was bound to forget some lines now and again.

I’m not sure what my excuse is now.


My agent calls.

“Twenty-five years,” I repeat back to her. “Wow.”

If I could low whistle under my breath like they do in the movies, I’d add that in, too, for effect.

She charges ahead. “Clear your calendar. Reunion episode will be filmed late next month with a Christmas release. Then things get really crazy. I’ll email you details when I get them.”

I go to my wall calendar as my agent hangs up and look at the empty square that is today. A day off. Me in a bathrobe in my cramped high-rise with Flintstone, my tabby cat. Why didn’t I say I would take Jodi’s shift? She’d already found John by the time I recovered enough to say yes. With a heavy sigh, I flip the calendar to November.

Flintstone rubs against my leg. As I draw a long, red line from the middle to the end of the month, I make a mental note to ask my neighbor to stop in a few times while I’m gone.

Red on the calendar is for Bobby. It’s mostly for the area Cons (ValleyCon, RetroCon, StaticCon) where Peter’s Rule is a mainstay. I’m at every one of them. There’s red writing on Friday.


The white space flashes by in a blur of Bite Squad and binge watching, and then I’m there.

On the stage, a table is set up with four chairs, two bottles of water at each station, labels facing out. The forum is sponsored by Krystal Water Corp, and the backdrop of the stage is a sign with their logo—blue waves with the words “Feel the Kool.” I remember hearing they’re currently in a copyright lawsuit with the cigarette manufacturer.

I’ve spoken in front of more depressing backdrops. Three years ago, StaticCon was sponsored by a denture cream. Last year, ValleyCon was sponsored by a drain cleaner.

I wait in the wings with Valerie Sweet—Trisha, Peter’s daughter. I look at her now and I don’t see a speck of that scared possibly pregnant girl on the screen, holding her stomach in the bathroom as her dad pounds on the door shouting that other people live in this household, too, you know.

Now, Valerie is old like me. Older. She keeps her hair pinned back around her oval face and when I look at her, I always think she’d look better with bangs, like she had on the show.

Valerie catches me staring at her forehead and purses her lips at me.

“You ready for November?” she asks.

I shrug. “Rough schedule.”

“Not when you’re used to it,” she says and does this thing where she touches the back of her hair, gives it a little bounce. She looks away, not just looks away, but physically turns her body away from me. I’m so busy noticing this—noticing I’ve always noticed this—that I hardly feel the sting. I have to remind myself she’s insulting me, but I just keep thinking twenty-five fucking years I’ve had to deal with this bitch.

I could say so many things. Like, how was the schedule for the incontinence medicine commercials you did? I could remind her she hasn’t been in a single successful sitcom since Peter’s Rule except for Swiss Queen and she was killed off in the middle of the second season.

I could say so many things, but Valerie’s back is to me now and she’s right. The bitch is actually right. I sleep until noon and go into the theater four days a week around two in the afternoon. It’s been so many years since I’ve worked in the TV industry that I have no idea of the demands of the schedule anymore.

“Where are the others?” I ask.

Valerie shrugs, her back still to me. “They have three minutes to get here. Relax.”

The other two on the panel are Ms. Alexandria Deacon—mother Wendy—and Caleb Wilson, who played little Chris, the boy who got pressured to take a puff off a joint. Ironic, considering that I’d caught him smoking a joint in the back of the studio long before his on-screen character was tempted by older classmates. The little sociopath offered me a puff.

I was eight!

Caleb looks good in an expensive suit and struts onto the stage with all the vigor of a game show host—which is what he’s been doing for the last ten years. I think of that moment behind the studio sometimes when it’s late at night and I’m flipping through channels and see Caleb, microphone in hand, encouraging beautiful co-eds to take their time at whatever game they’re playing.

Alexandria looks polished and dignified as always. She smoothes out the skirt of her grey suit and smears a dab of Vaseline on her teeth before she takes her seat.

The panel host tells a joke and opens it immediately for audience questions.

There’s two dozen or so people peppered on folding chairs. A gruff looking man in flannel takes the mic.

“Is this thing on?” he asks, tapping the microphone. “Can you hear me?”

“You’re good,” the host says impatiently.

“Okay, well, I just wanted to know what the cast knows about the twenty-fifth anniversary reunion episode?”

Alexandria leans into her microphone and answers, smile absolutely gleaming. “We’re all going to be there.”

Valerie nods vigorously. “And we’re all really excited.”

After the panel discussion, I wander through the convention hall past the 20th Century Fox booth and a statue of the MGM lion.

“Mr. Goodman, sir?”

The voice comes from behind me. I turn to see a man, maybe a decade older than me. He has a camera around his neck and he’s wearing a button-down Hawaiian T-shirt.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but can I have your autograph?”

He holds out a headshot. I take it, along with his sharpie.

It’s a familiar image: young Bobby Van Camp, smiling into the camera. I remember the day they took it. I remember the way the photographer looked bored, saying over and over, smile. Smile.


I frown, thinking how I didn’t even need to hear it. The smile came so easily, photo after photo.

I scribble my signature across the upper corner, last flourish crossing my little forehead.

“Thank you, sir,” he says. “This sure means a lot. I remember watching the show when I came home from junior high, every Wednesday night. My dad wanted me to join the baseball team but when I learned practice was Wednesdays I said no. I don’t think my dad ever forgave me for that,” he adds sheepishly.

I pat him on the shoulder and turn to go, think better of it and turn back.

“Ain’t that what family’s for?”

The look on his face makes it all worth it.


Inside the hall of the Broadline Theatre, three thousand people are tucked into the dark, watching the magic unfold. On the lit stage, for eighty-seven minutes before intermission, the actors sing and dance and deliver their lines seamlessly, something that stresses me out to comprehend. On the set of Peter’s Rule we were averaging four takes per scene. I have that to look forward to next week when we begin filming.

During the first act, I make my rounds and go to the bar to get my complementary beverage.

“Diet Coke,” I say to the bartender. I’m watching my figure.

At the Gallery Left doors near the bar I hear two ushers talking.

“It’s her mom,” one usher says to another. “Cancer, I heard.”

I know they’re talking about Jodi. Everyone knows it, though she hasn’t made any formal announcement. This is our theater family. We know everyone’s business. And Jodi has seemed off her game lately.

I wander down to the Second Balcony and see Jodi sitting on one of the blue couches. She has her legs crossed tight, this way she does where she can wrap her foot back around to the other side of the opposite ankle. I’ve seen this for the last seven years, wondering if it’s the length of her legs or something else—flexible muscles, supple connective tissue. I try not to think about it too long, try not to stare at her legs. Most of the female friends I’ve had throughout the years have told me they can sense within a millisecond if a man glances at their chest. Are legs the same?

Jodi is looking down at a sheet of paper, maybe the usher position sheet, but she’s really studying it, like she’s never seen it before and she needs to wrap her head around it, which makes no sense because Jodi has worked at the Broadline longer than I have, going on ten years, I think.

Right before I get to her, she flips the pages, held together by a staple in the upper left hand corner. I see a glimpse of it as the page turns. Looks like graphs.

She looks up at me and I get the feeling I’m seeing something personal—something I shouldn’t be seeing. Like Jodi coming out of the shower, reaching for a towel. Jodi on the toilet, turned slightly, caught mid-wipe.

I shake these thoughts from my head and clear my throat, ready to deliver my line. The script would go something like this:


How many late seaters?



But I see those graphs and I can only imagine what they are—white blood cell counts, clinical cancer staging, insurance Explanation of Benefits—and I want to break from the script.

“How’s your mother?” As I say the words I know I’ve chosen the wrong ones. I say them with what I hope is tenderness, but Jodi looks like I’ve slapped her all the same.

“She’s dying, Ray. How do you think she’s doing?” Jodi says, folding the pages in half and tucking them next to her. Her legs are uncrossed now, both feet planted firmly on the floor.

She delivers the line like a bad actress, her face flushed, her eyes dead. She sounds like she’s reciting lines she quickly memorized off stage. She looks like she was given the line with absolutely no context and is now trying to look convincing.

This line is to be delivered with anger, the director might have said to her.

“I guess I was really asking how you were doing,” I say, my calm voice hiding my panic.

Jodi has felt it, too; that I’ve seen her vulnerability. She stands abruptly.

“Five late seaters,” she says, getting us back on script, where we belong.

“Great,” I say, writing a small “5” on the upper corner of the paper I’m holding. I look at it after I’ve written it for a moment too long. What I’m really looking at is the flyer I’ve written it on.



It’s not the official event report. It was my idea of a distraction for Jodi, perhaps well-intentioned, but not well thought out.

I fold the flyer in half and stick it in my jacket pocket.

“Thanks,” I say and walk down the stairs to the First Balcony. When I get to the bottom of the stairs, out of view, I lean against the wall by the women’s restroom and take the flyer out of my pocket.

One last look and I pitch it in the trash. Without a script, my timing is horseshit.


I’m horseshit with a script, too. We all are with this one.

“Alright folks,” the director yells. “Let’s take a five-minute break.”

It’s day two of filming. Shooting for the The Peter’s Rule Reunion has been slow. Turns out there was enough interest to make it into a three-night special. Each special is an hour long, or about 44 minutes of screen time. Each ten-hour day on set gives us an average 16-24 usable minutes of film. We’ll have all three episodes done in nine days if all goes according to schedule.

Between scenes, I sit at the McMahon family dining table and study the script and think of the last time I watched an episode of Peter’s Rule. I was in public high school. I’d gone to the home of a girl in my English class to complete a project. Her TV was blaring in the living room as we sat at the dining room table, A Separate Peace and notebook paper spread out before us. I glanced at the screen every few minutes, each word my classmate said drowned out by the laugh track.

I pull my phone out of my pocket. I text my neighbor and ask how Flintstone is doing. He answers in pictures—Flintstone on the bed, Flintstone eating.

I glance around the studio.

Caleb is on his phone, pacing and talking too loud about funds and timing. Valerie is in her makeup chair, reading a magazine. Alexandria disappears to her room and Oliver Thomas lumbers over to the table, struggling to breathe. He grabs the back of the chair and it groans under his weight. With a rush of air, he sits and stares straight ahead. I don’t think he’s had any acting gigs since his cameos on Law and Order.

It’s hard for me to separate our scripted and unscripted moments together. Peter and Bobby sat at this table twenty years ago just as Oliver and I are sitting now.

“I love you like a son,” Peter once said to Bobby.

“Your character will resonate if you call on your personal experience,” Oliver once said to me.

But so much of my personal experience was here, at this table. That’s why it’s painful to see Oliver this way. I focus on the wood grain while I listen to his breathing settle to a low rasp.

None of us has said an unscripted word to each other in two days. But I have the urge to say something to him now. I glance at the script, look at the wood grain, think of Jodi.

“I’ve been practicing my line,” I say.

He jolts to attention like I’ve shocked him, but he recovers and smiles at me.

“Oh, yeah?” he asks

So nice. He’s always been so nice.

“It takes me a little longer to remember them now,” he says.

There was an episode of Law and Order where Oliver played a grandfather who is wrongly accused of a crime, convicted and sent to prison. I remember the scene when they gather the proof of his innocence and rush to the governor’s office to exonerate him. He dies at the end of the episode, right before they arrive. Shanked in the lunchroom over a stupid argument. His dead body is uncovered just long enough for the detectives to see his face and shake their heads.

What a shame.

I feel like I’m looking at that man now, laid out on the table. Oliver’s mouth hangs open slightly.

“That’s the funny thing,” I tell him. “I’m fine with all the new lines. I just want the old one to sound just right.”

He nods like he understands but doesn’t say anything. Instead, he traces an imaginary line on the table with his fingernail.

“I guess we all have our lines,” I say, keeping the conversation moving, unsure how or if to stop.

Oliver looks confused.

“Alright, places everyone,” the director calls.

Oliver doesn’t move.

“This isn’t the table, you know?” he says, and I’m not sure I hear him correctly over all the commotion around us. “I wonder what happened to our table?”


It’s December and the big advertising blitz for the The Peter’s Rule Reunion is in full swing; I mute my TV when the promos come on. I brace myself for awkward work conversations. Criticisms. Or, worse yet, compliments.

While I was in my red Bobby bubble, the real world kept going. The Broadline is training new usher hires. Flintstone is happy to have me home.

Jodi’s mom is dead.

I got the mass e-mail from work while still on set. Please pass on your sympathies, it said. I don’t call. I don’t e-mail. I stop by the Broadline to get my check and ask Eric at the Stage Door if he’s seen her around.

“Who knows?” he asks, exasperated. “Do you see all the people coming in and out, man?”

The crew of Wizard of Oz is loading out. The crew of White Christmas is loading in. The stage door is chaos.

I wander into the empty auditorium and stand in the dark at the back of the Orchestra section. The stage is completely empty, the curtain is up. The floor looks scuffed and I can see little x’s of tape here and there.

After a month long run, those actors know each blemish on that stage by heart. Just as Oliver knew the McMahon’s table. I didn’t say it to Oliver, but I was sure the table, the couch, the beds, all of it, the whole set of Peter’s Rule was taken out to the dumpster after it was over.

I don’t know how long I’ve been standing there when I hear the inner door softly close. It’s Jodi, wearing a heavy coat wrapped around her body protectively. She’s looking up at the empty stage. For a second, I think she doesn’t know I’m here.

Then she walks over. “Eric said you were looking for me.”

“I just wanted to say I was sorry.”

Jodi dismisses me with the wave of her hand, but she doesn’t move, just stays with her eyes glued to the stage.

“We never really got along. She was always broke and borrowing money. Never paid it back. Her insurance didn’t cover everything, so I know where this is going,” she waves her paycheck. “And that’s on top of the cost of the cremation.”

I open my mouth to speak but realize I’m just going to say “I’m sorry” again and I think how worthless that would be. I need something meaningful, just that perfect line to make everything better. I dig deep inside myself, feeling this is my only chance. My Hail Mary. I call on the spirit of Bobby Van Camp, the little boy with the big heart.

But Jodi beats me to it.

She shrugs and says, “Ain’t that what family’s for?”

I’m horrified. But then she laughs. It’s an honest laugh that fills the empty theater and ricochets off the rafters and catwalks far above us.

“I’m sorry,” she says with a grin that tells me she is the opposite of sorry and it’s so good to see her smile, even if it is at my expense. “I was so young when that show was on. I remember the reruns, though. I never told you when you started that I always wanted to punch that kid.”

I let out a rush of air, strange relief washing over me.

“When I got older, believe me,” I say. “I did, too.”

Her smile softens to a worried frown and her eyes return to the stage.

“I just saw the ad on TV last night . . .” I cringe and wait for her to go on. “And I couldn’t stop laughing at the irony. And at the fact that yo . . . that he was right. I mean, isn’t that what family’s for? Leave you broke and broken hearted. No answers. Leaving you alone?”

In the semi-dark of the theater, I see a tear streaking down Jodi’s cheek.

On the stage, housekeeping comes out with a broom and starts to clean away the Wizard of Oz and that’s when it hits me that the McMahon table probably wasn’t thrown in the garbage. It was more likely cleaned up and taken to storage to be picked out by another set designer on yet another sitcom where another father-like character dispensed advice and where another child sat between takes, practicing his lines, wanting so bad to make his TV family proud.

I love you like a son, Oliver said. Or was that Peter?

Jodi sniffles.

I turn away from the stage.

The last page of this script is blank. So I write it.

I reach out and take hold of Jodi’s hand, gently. She looks over at me, surprised, but she holds on, then squeezes my hand back as we stand in the empty theater.




Erin Smith is a writer, funeral director, and shiatsu therapist living in the Twin Cities. A transplant from the South, she’s seen her O’s lengthen in her fourteen years in Minnesota and has learned to love All Wheel Drive. When she’s not writing, she can be found with her cat, Chloe, on her lap. Erin has been published in Liars’ League NYC, Mount Hope Magazine, Here Comes Everyone, Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine, Strange Mysteries, TWJ Magazine, Anotherealm and Mortuary Management Magazine. Find her at www.erinsmithwrites.com.









by James Mulhern



“I need to get that chalice, Aiden. The Boston Globe article said some people think it has curing powers. I don’t know if I believe it, but I hope so. The chalice is a replica of a sacred relic from the Middle Ages. If I have your mother drink from it, maybe she’ll get better and come home to us. Won’t that be nice?” She rubbed my head gently and smiled. We were sitting in her Blue Plymouth across the street from Mission Church in Boston. An old man pushed a lady in a wheelchair up the ramp to the front door.

“Won’t God be mad?”

“I’m going to return it, sweetheart. We’re just borrowing the chalice to make your mother well again. I think God will understand. Don’t worry.” She rubbed my cheek.

We crossed the street and entered the musty darkness of the church. The smell of shellac, incense, and old-lady perfume permeated the air. Bright light shone through the stained-glass windows where Jesus was depicted in the fourteen Stations of the Cross.

“Let’s move to the front.” My grandmother pulled me out of the line and cut in front of a humpbacked lady, who looked bewildered.

“Shouldn’t you go to the end of the line?” she whispered. Her hair was sweaty and her fat freckled bicep jiggled when she tapped my grandmother’s shoulder. The freckles reminded me of the asteroid belt.

“I’m sorry. We’re in a hurry. I want my grandson to get a cure.”

“What’s wrong?” she whispered. We were four people away from the priest, who stood in front of the altar. He prayed over people, then lightly touched them. They fell into the arms of two old men with maroon suit jackets and navy blue ties.

“My dear grandson has leukemia.”

The woman’s eyes teared up. “I’m sorry.” She patted my forearm. “You’ll be cured, honey.” Again her flabby bicep jiggled and the asteroids bounced.

When it was our turn, my grandmother said, “Father, please cure him. And can you say a prayer for my daughter, too?”

“Of course.” The white-haired, red-faced priest bent down. I smelled alcohol on his breath. “What ails you young man?”

I was confused.

“He’s asking you about your illness,” my grandmother whispered.

“I have leukemia,” I said proudly.

The baggy-faced priest recited some mumbo-jumbo prayer and pushed my chest. I knew I was supposed to fall back but was afraid the old geezers wouldn’t catch me.

“Fall,” my grandmother whispered. “Remember our plan.”

I fell hard, shoving myself against the old guys. One toppled over. People gasped. His friend and the priest began to pick us up. I pretended to be hurt badly. “Ow! My head is killing me.” Several people gathered around us. My grandmother yelled, “Oh my God” and stepped onto the altar, kneeling in front of a giant Jesus nailed to the cross. “Dear Jesus,” she said loudly, “I don’t know how many more tribulations I can take.” She crossed herself, hurried across the altar, swiping the gold chalice and putting it in her handbag while everyone was distracted by my fake moaning and crying.

“He’ll be okay,” she said, putting her arm under mine and helping the others pull me up.

When I was standing, she said to the priest. “You certainly have the power of the Holy Spirit in you. It came out of you like the water that gushed from the rock at Rephidim and Kadesh. Let’s get out of here before there’s a flood.” She laughed.

The priest frowned. The lady who let us cut in line eyed my grandmother’s handbag and shook her head as we passed.


That night I slept in what was my mother’s room. As often happened, I awoke to the sound of my grandfather’s voice.

Whenever he visited, the bedroom glowed with tiny white lights, illuminated bubbles floating in the air. My face and ears became hot and red, and I heard a buzzing noise that eventually stopped. I had confided to my mother about his visits, but no one else. Her claim of hearing the voices of dead people and her ‘visions’ led to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. My grandmother and father had her declared mentally incompetent and she was committed to a psychiatric facility. Nanna was granted guardianship of her, and me as well, because Dad said he couldn’t handle a child on his own.

“I’m not happy with you, Aiden,” my grandfather said. “Why did you allow your grandmother to steal the chalice from the church? Tis an awful thing to do.”

He sat at the bottom of my bed, wearing black bottle-thick glasses, his dark hair a curly mess.

” ‘Goodness is the only investment that never fails.’ A smart man by the name of Toreau said that. You must return the chalice to the church.”

“Who’s Toorow?”

“You’ll learn about him in school. Mr. Toreau is a famous writer who lived about a half hour away from you, in Concord.” My grandfather was an autodidact. He never went to college. He couldn’t afford it and wasn’t allowed admission because he was an Irish immigrant. My grandmother and he, though they did not know each other, emigrated from different parts of Ireland in the late 1930’s. With hope in their hearts, just a few belongings, I’m sure, and not much money, they journeyed to the promised land of their imaginations.

When they first arrived, it was difficult to get good jobs. People hated the Irish. He dug graves during the day and hauled large bags of mail onto the trains at South Station during the night. She was a maid for the rich protestant Brahmans on Beacon Hill. Eventually, attitudes changed, my grandmother was able to become a licensed practical nurse, and my grandfather, well, he died.

“Aiden, your mind is wandering. You need to listen to me.”

“Yes, Grandpa,” I said.

“You must get your mother out of McCall’s.” McCall Hospital is the largest psychiatric hospital in the Boston area. “She needs to live a normal life. And you must be with her. Every child should be with his ma. The shower of savages at that hospital are pumping her up with all sorts of terrible medicines.” His voice cracked. “Like you, Aiden, she has the gift, and it is horrible that she is being punished for it.”

To me “the gift” seemed like a curse, a burden.

“It’s not a curse,” my grandfather said, reading my mind. “Second sight is something that has been in your family for years. Your grandmother’s mother possessed it, and she, too, was demonized. Of course, it was different in Ireland. Many believed her, but still there were those who acted cruelly. There are always people who are blind to the gifts in others.”

“What do you mean, demonized?”

“Treated badly. Laughed at. . . . Terrible thing to do to another human being. People said she was tick.”


“Stupid. Even your grandmother thought her ma was out of her head. The story goes that your great-grandmother retreated into herself. Once, she was joyful, envisioning life’s possibilities, but slowly she withdrew, hurt by the malice of others.”

“What happened to her?”

“She dropped dead while lifting a bucket from a well. Tumbled right over the stonewall she did. And the night before she had heard the banshees.”

“What’s a banshee?”

“You ask a lot of questions.” He laughed. “A type of fairy or spirit. Her entire family listened to the wailing. Then, in the pitch-black of that windy night, they heard three knocks on the door, which means someone is going to die. The next day your great-grandmother was bloody dead, her body covered in green muck. All for a bucket of water.”

“Did they believe her then?”

He laughed, somewhat bitterly. “Yes, Aiden. But what good did it do the poor woman. Dead she was. . . . Aiden, most people are afraid to believe in things they cannot see. It frightens them and they become nasty. This is why you must keep your secret for now. Think of a way to free your ma. I don’t want Laura to suffer like your great-grandmother, driven to despair.”

“What I am I supposed to do?”

He told me a secret that might convince my grandmother.

“You’ll figure it out, son. I’m counting on you.”

“Grandpa?” I called a few more times, but the bubbles of light faded and he was gone. I went to the bathroom and positioned my face under the faucet to drink some water. In the mirror, my cheeks appeared sunburnt. The color would fade by the morning, as it always did.


Nanna’s back was to me when I entered the kitchen. The table was set—one white plate, a green paper napkin, and silverware.

“It’s about time you woke up, sleepyhead.” She smiled and brought a red mug of coffee to the table, then opened the refrigerator and passed me the cream before moving back to the stove.

“Over hard, as you like them.” She flipped an egg and wiped some grease off her pink nightgown. Rollers dangled precariously atop her forehead.

“Thanks, Nanna. . . . I was thinking.”

“Here we go.” She laughed. The bacon sizzled.

“Maybe we should return the chalice?”

“Hand me your plate.”

She put two eggs and three strips of bacon on it. The toaster popped.

“Grab the bread, and butter it while it’s hot.”

She poured herself a cup of coffee, black, sat down and faced me. Nanna rarely ate breakfast. She preferred to smoke and drink coffee, sometimes with whiskey in it. She lit a cigarette and exhaled smoke from her nose.

“Now why would we do that?”

I put three sugars and cream in my coffee, looking down while I stirred. “Because it’s wrong to steal.”

She laughed. “Phooey.” She waved her hand at me. “I told you we are just borrowing the chalice.” She put her hands on her hip. “I think God is happy we are helping a sick person. We are doing Christian work. Like those missionaries in Africa and China.”

” ‘Goodness is the only investment that never fails.’ ”

Her face blanched and her large hazel eyes widened. “Where did you learn that?” She looked behind her for a second, as if someone might be there.

“I read it in one of Grandpa’s books. It was underlined.”

Her face relaxed and she spoke softly: “I can’t tell you the number of times I heard your grandfather say that. And a bunch of other malarkey.” She laughed. “He had another favorite expression.” She tilted her head and laughed. ” ‘If it was raining soup, the Irish would go out with forks.’ ”

“That’s funny.”

“It is and it isn’t, which gets to the heart of this conversation, Aiden. People need help. That chalice may cure your ma. Stealing it was only a venial sin, not a mortal one.”

“What’s a venial sin?”

“A minor sin. Like a white lie.”

“Is lying about leukemia to make people feel bad and distract them a venial sin?”

She sighed. “Yes, Aiden.”

She turned on the faucet and looked out the window. “Everybody lies. You need to get used to it. The sooner, the better.” She rinsed my plate. “It’s going to be a beautiful day.”

Through the glass, beyond the oak trees, the blue sky was filled with cumulus clouds, a foamy ocean above us. “What’s a mortal sin?”

“It’s more serious, a grave violation of God’s law.”

“Was stealing the chalice a venial or a mortal sin? And how do you know the difference?”

She turned towards me. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Don’t think about things so much.” Like my grandfather, her “th” often sounded like “t” or “d.” “Now go get ready.” She brushed me away with her hands. “Scoot.”


The drive to McCall Hospital took a half hour. Located in Somerville, just outside of Boston proper, you reach the entrance after winding up a slope of lawn to a sandstone Admissions building. Beyond that structure and throughout the large campus are several brick edifices with classical flourishes, such as gabled roofs, Roman columns, and ivy-covered walls. Large oak and birch trees, like sentinels, line the knolls, where dormitories from a bygone era stand, rooted in stability, a quality the clinicians nurture in their patients. We knew the place well. Nanna drove the circuitous road to my mother’s building, a ward of approximately twenty-five patients, all with a variety of illnesses: schizophrenia, mania, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and borderline personality. Above the entryway the limestone sculpture of a woman wearing a tunic stood with one arm resting on an anchor.

Just inside the doorway, on the left, was the nurses’ station, and across from there, the patient lounge with an old television, a scratched pool table, and shelves of tattered books and games. My mother’s room was at the end of the hall on the right, a coveted spot.

“Can I help you?” a short, small-framed nurse with over-bleached hair and gray eye shadow greeted us.

“We’re here to visit my daughter, Laura Glencar.” My grandmother motioned to me. “This is her son, Aiden.” She puckered her lips. “I don’t think I’ve met you. Are you new?”

“I started last week. My name is Nancy. You can call me Nurse Nancy. Let me find out who’s taking care of your daughter. ‘Maura Fender’ you said.” She turned to look at the white dry-erase board with patient names, room numbers, and nursing assignments.

“Laura Glencar!” Nanna rolled her eyes at me. “This one’s a tool,” she mumbled.

“She’s new, Nanna. Give her a chance,” I whispered.

“She’s not new to hearing,” she whispered back, then smiled at the nurse.

“Oh, it’s me!” Nurse Nancy said.

“What did I tell you?” she said, a little too loudly.

“Right this way.” Her hips swiveled in front of us.

“We know how to get there, Nancy Nurse. You don’t have to bring us. I think your time would be better spent, memorizing that board, don’t you?” Nanna smiled at her.

“Oh, but it’s policy.”

“Must be a new policy. Never happened before.”

Nurse Nancy fingered her gold necklace. “I want to do things right.”

“I can understand, dear,” my grandmother said.

“You have some lovely visitors,” she announced to my mother, who was seated by the window looking at patients walking across the lawn. She turned and smiled gloriously, as she always did. My mother was a very attractive woman: thirty-four years old, wavy auburn hair, light green eyes with specks of gold, and fair skin sprinkled with tiny freckles across the bridge of her nose.

“Give me a hug.” She extended her arms. Nanna sat on the bed next to her and plopped her handbag near the pillow. I embraced her, loving the familiar smell of her Avon perfume.

“Thank you, Nancy. You just made my day.”

Nancy beamed and left.

“She’s a dumb girl,” Nanna said. “Didn’t even know you were her patient. Can you imagine that?”

“Ma, don’t be so hard on her. She just started working here.”

“That’s a poor excuse, but never mind. Aiden and I have something for you.”

My mother clapped her hands and smiled. Outside the window, patients walked in circles, hands behind them, not talking with one another, lost in thought, some muttering to themselves or moving their arms in strange ways.

Nanna reached into her handbag and carefully placed three items on the tan bedspread: the gold necklace and cross, a small jar of red wine, and finally, the golden chalice, which sparkled in the well-lit room.

“Mom, where did you get that cup?” Her eyes widened. “It looks like part of the Queen’s crown jewels.” She laughed.

“A friend of mine loaned it to me.” She warned me with her eyes.

“Who?” She giggled and raised the chalice. “Such beautiful stones. This must be worth a fortune. Do you know a museum curator?”

“You could call Joshua that. He works for a very reputable institution. Started it from the ground up. The building is as grand as a temple.”

“Where is it?” Her eyebrows squished together.

“Jerusalem, New York. He’s visiting some relatives in Boston.”

“Jerusalem?” She laughed and folded her palms over the chalice in her lap. “I think you’re telling me a fib.” She raised the cup in a beam of sunlight. “It’s beautiful, but what am I supposed to do with it?”

“Drink this wine. Joshua says the cup has healing powers. I hope he’s right.”

“It’s gorgeous. Thank you.”

“I have to return it, Laura.”

“I figured that.”

“Will you drink from it?” My grandmother’s eyes pleaded.

“There’s nothing wrong with me.” She folded her arms. “But if it will make you happy, I will. Pour some, but be careful not to stain the bed.” Her shoulders drooped.

As my mother sipped, Nurse Nancy came in.

“Hey. What are you drinking?” She looked at the small jar, which my grandmother quickly shoved into her handbag.

“Cranberry juice. It prevents urinary tract infections,” Nanna said.

Nurse Nancy’s eyes squinted. “I hope that’s all it is. Laura is on medication and alcohol could interact in a negative way.”

“Of course it’s not alcohol,” Nanna said. “I’m a Christian woman. Today is Sunday. In our family, we abstain from alcohol in reverence to Our Lord Jesus Christ. I’m insulted that you would suggest such a thing, Nancy Nurse.” She wrapped the chalice in a cloth and placed it in her handbag, then clasped the gold cross around my mother’s neck.


The next Saturday, my grandmother announced at breakfast that we were returning the chalice.

“Do you think Mom’s cured?”

“God works in mysterious ways. I’m not sure that a sip of wine from that beautiful cup performed such a miracle, but I pray that it did.” She wiped her hands on her apron and hung it on the wall. “I often doubt the possibility of miracles, but then I find myself thinking that every moment is miraculous. Do you know what I mean?”

“Like just being alive?”

“Exactly.” She threw my crumpled napkins into the wastebasket. “We make our own miracles. There’s a saying from the old country, ‘It’s the good horse that draws its own cart.’ We must make things happen on our own instead of sitting on our arses waiting for Jesus to put the world right.” She smiled and motioned for me to get up from my chair. “That’s why we will do what needs to be done. Now go get dressed.”


In less than an hour we were in front of Mission Church. My grandmother always had the hardest time parallel parking.

“Get out,” she said.

I stood on the sidewalk and shouted, “Stop. You’re gonna hit that car.”

She bent over the seat and looked at me through the passenger window. “How much room do I have?”

“About two inches.”


She extended her arm across the top of the seat and turned to look behind her before reversing and smashing into the white Ford Mustang.

“Shite.” She glanced around to see if anyone was watching. Everyone was inside, listening to the Mass.

After rolling up the windows and locking the car, she stood on the street, opposite of where I stood on the sidewalk.

“You smashed the bumper.”

“How do you know it was me? Look at the scratches on the door. Obviously, this individual doesn’t know how to drive.”

I joined her and traced my fingers along the scratches.

“Don’t do that.”


“You’ll leave fingerprints.”

I laughed. “You think they’re gonna dust the car for prints?”

We watched two cars pass. My grandmother waved at the drivers. “Let’s get this over with.” She straightened her blue dress and grabbed my hand. “Hurry and cross.”

“Do you have the chalice?”

She patted her handbag. “It’s inside my bag. I had to remove my makeup and a brush to make room. The sacrifices we make.”

We both laughed. I opened the large carved wooden door for her. She looked at the white Mustang before entering and whispered, “We’ve got to make this fast. Before the Mass ends. I don’t want a scene with the owner of that car.”

The air was musty, warm, and dark. It took my eyes a few moments to adjust.

The priest said, “A reading from the first Letter of Saint John. . . .’Beloved: See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are.’ ” People turned in the pews to look at us walking down the aisle. My grandmother bowed to them. ” ‘The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now.’ ” He paused and looked at us as we climbed the altar, then continued reading, half-watching us. ” ‘What we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’ ”

My grandmother pulled me to a bench at the side. We sat down. The cool stone felt good against my back. The priest stared at us. People in the congregation were moving in their seats, whispering and watching us.

My grandmother put her hand in front of her mouth and whispered, “I have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. Sounds like a bunch of palaver.”

“Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.” The priest held up his index finger and smiled, then walked over to us and whispered, “Can I help you?”

“Yes, Father, like you were saying, that bit about ‘bestowed’ and ‘God’s children now.’ ”

“I don’t understand, my friend.” The people in the pews were talking louder.

A man shouted, “Is everything okay, Father?”

“Yes. Yes,” he called back. “I’ll be right with you.” Again he held up his index finger.

I pulled the chalice out of my grandmother’s handbag. “It is revealed!”

“Where did you get that?”

“A homeless man on the Boston Common was drinking beer from it. I recognized it as the stolen chalice, Father. I read that article in the Boston Globe,” my grandmother said.

“He was all dirty and sad-looking. I think he needed some healing,” I interjected.

“We prayed with the man and asked him to let us return it,” my grandmother said. “I told him, ‘God will forgive you because we are all God’s children’ and some of that other stuff you were just saying.”

The priest’s face lit up. “It’s a miracle,” he hollered to the congregation, holding the chalice above his head and walking to the center of the altar. “Thanks be to God.”

The people repeated, “Thanks be to God.”

My grandmother pulled me from the bench. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” she whispered.

People clapped as we hurried down the aisle.

“Wait,” the priest said. “We don’t know your names.”

“I’m Elaine, and this is my grandson Galahad.”

We ran out the door and across the street.

Her hands shook as she tried to unlock the door. “Aiden, you’ll have to do it for me. I’m a nervous wreck.” She handed me the keys.

An elderly gentleman with a cane yelled, “Yoo-hoo. Come back. We want to speak with you.” He teetered on the steps, clasping the railing.

“Yoo-hoo,” my grandmother answered and waved. “We’ll be right over.” Then to me after I unlocked the door: “Hurry up. Get in the car.”

I ran to my side. We slammed our doors at the same time. My grandmother rolled her window down. “I’m terribly sorry. My grandson is hyperventilating. He gets nervous around crowds.”

I breathed hard, as if on cue, and waved to the man, then held my chest, pretending I was going to die.

The man started down the steps with his cane, holding precariously onto the railing.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” my grandmother said, “Let’s get out of here before that buttinsky falls!” We swerved into the street and sped off. “Who says ‘yoo-hoo’ anymore? He must be demented.”

“Where’d you come up with those crazy names?” I had my hands pressed against the dashboard because she was driving so fast.

“Something I read. Probably one of your grandfather’s old books.”


When we pulled in the driveway, I said, “Grandpa will be happy.”

“What are you talking about?” She scratched her head.

“Grandpa likes when we do the right thing. He wants Mom to come home.”

“Of course, your grandfather would want Laura to leave that sad place.” She opened the car door. “Let’s go inside.”

I followed her across the front lawn and called out, “He’s very upset she has to stay there.”

She turned and stared at me. “Your grandfather is dead, Aiden. Stop your foolishness.” She shivered. “Let’s get in the house.”

In the living room, she sat on the couch and patted the spot next to her. “Come sit with me.”

“Aiden, lots of people have dreams about people they’ve lost. I’m glad you dream about your grandfather. He was a good man. You remind me of him.” She wrapped her arm around me and kissed me forehead. “Would you like some tea?”

“Sometimes Grandpa visits me at night.”

“I sometimes dream of him, too. What good times we shared.” She stared into the shadowed room, then turned on the lamp.

“He told me to tell you that it was not your fault that he died.”

“Of course it wasn’t my fault.” She puffed on a cigarette, eyeing me suspiciously. “I’m tired.” She rubbed her temples and closed her eyes.

“Then why do you cry at night and ask God for forgiveness? Grandpa says he’s in the bedroom with you. He wanted me to tell you he’s sorry. He said he was always ‘full as a bingo bus,’ whatever that means.”

Nanna’s face quivered and she put her cigarette in the ashtray.

“Where in God’s name did you hear that expression?”

“What does it mean?”

“It’s an Irish saying for very drunk.”

“He said you should stop blaming yourself for leaving him in the chair that night when you went to bed. It’s not your fault that he choked on his vomit.”

My grandmother shook and tears streamed down her face. I wrapped my arms around her. “Grandpa loves you, Nanna, and I do, too.”


The next week, we went to McCall’s again. Nurse Nancy smiled. “Laura is doing great today. She’s been busy drawing. Quite a talented artist.”

“She gets that from me. I studied at the Louvre in Paris.”

“Really?” Nancy cocked her head. She led us down the hallway.

My grandmother asked, “You think I’m too dumb?”

Nancy laughed. “Not at all. It was a stupid thing to say.” She turned. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“No offense taken. Next time I’ll wear a beret and carry a paintbrush.”

“Here we are,” Nancy said outside Mom’s room. She smiled, picked lint off her white skirt and blew it off her finger, then leaned into my face. “I bet you’re excited to see your mother.”

“We’re good now. You can go,” my grandmother said.

When she had gone, I said, “I didn’t know you were an artist, Nanna.”

“Don’t be silly, Aiden. That was blarney. Nancy Nurse is a bit too uppity for my taste.” She pushed me forward. “Go in. Your mother will be so happy to see you.”

“Hi Mom,” I hurried to her bed, where she sat drawing in her sketchpad. She wore a green dress that accentuated her eyes.

“I want to eat you up.” She kissed my face and hugged me tight. “I’ve missed you so much. There’s no one to talk to at this place.” She looked past me.

“Aren’t you going to give me a kiss, Ma?”

“You need to visit with Aiden. I have to use the ladies room. That will give you alone time.”

“Ma, that’s not necessary.”

“My taking a pee is necessary.”

We all laughed.

“Enjoy your visit. I’ll be back.”

My mother asked about my favorite subjects in school, my grades, my teachers, and did I have a girlfriend.

In a few minutes we heard loud voices in the hall. “I’m taking her home, Nancy Nurse. I have every right to. I’m her mother and I was appointed guardian by the court. So mind your business. Haven’t you got a bedpan to empty?”

They entered the room.

“Let me at least get in touch with the psychiatrist on call?”

“That won’t be necessary. Nothing he says will change my mind. . . . Laura, pack up your things. You’re coming home.”

“Please give me a few moments to collect the paperwork, Mrs. Mulroy. You need to sign her out A.M.A. That means against medical advice.”

“I know what it means. I’m a nurse, too. And I’m familiar with the procedure. Do what you must. That will give us time to get organized.”

My mother and I were already packing her suitcase.

“I’m sorry for bringing you here,” my grandmother said to Mom. “You should be home with Aiden and me.”


Nanna signed the necessary forms and we left. Before getting into the car, both my mother and I saw him. My grandfather was sitting on the grass beneath a tree. He smiled and waved to us. One star shone in the twilit sky.

“Hurry up you slowpokes,” my grandmother said, then turned towards the tree. “What are you looking at?” She followed our gaze.

“Hope,” my mother said, laying her arm over my shoulder and guiding me into the backseat before closing my door.

When they were inside, I said, “How can you see hope?”

My grandmother started the car and looked at my mother. “Hope is sitting right beside me.”

Mom touched the back of my grandmother’s neck. The car moved forward.

I opened my mother’s sketchbook, which she had placed in the back seat. A paper image of a painting fell out. She had begun copying it, using different shades of pencil. A blindfolded woman wearing a green gown sat atop a light brown globe, her head bent to the left as she played a lyre with a single string. In the background, one star shone in the gray-blue sky. Printed underneath the reproduction was “Hope, 1886, George Frederic Watts.”

I thought of the chalice, the wine, and the revelation of God’s pure love. But mostly, I cherished hope.




James Mulhern has published fiction in many literary journals and received several accolades. Three stories were selected for different anthologies of best short fiction. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a full-paid writing fellowship to study at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. He has also received other awards. His novel, Molly Bonamici, and his collection of short stories, Assumptions and Other Stories, received favorable critiques from Kirkus Reviews and are Readers’ Favorites. The short story, “Blindfolded,” is an excerpt from Aiden’s Secret, a paranormal mystery in progress, soon to be completed.