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Surprise

by William Cass

 

 

The cabin phone rang just as my wife, Molly, and her parents were heading up the path for their morning walk.  I answered it and called to my father-in-law.  I heard Ralph stop and retrace his steps.  He looked in the window.

“It’s your sister,” I told him.

He made a face and came back inside.  I handed him the phone.  He walked into the kitchen with it after saying, “Yes?”  I turned the stereo down; he’d put on a Mozart CD before they’d left.  I heard him say, “When?” Then, “Shucks.”

So, I walked up the hall to look in on Sam.  He was asleep in his crib, his feed almost finished.  The pump made its soft whir on the pole.  I checked the connection at his G-tube and it was fine.  Molly had left all the parts to his nebulizer scattered about again, so I put them away.

When I came back to the front room, Ralph was just putting the phone back in its cradle.  We stood and looked at each other.  Finally, he said, “Well, my Aunt Ruth just passed.  She was eighty-something.  Sometime in the middle of the night when she was sleeping.  Down near Bakersfield or Barstow in California somewhere.  Where she’s lived just about forever.”

“That’s too bad,” I said.

Ralph looked out at the lake.  The sun had just touched the tips of the tall trees across it on the west side.  “Well, she’s the last one of that bunch.  That generation is gone now.”  We were quiet again.  Then he raised his eyebrows and said, “I’m going to try to catch the girls.”

I watched him pass the window with his tall walking stick and listened to his footsteps go off up the path.  I turned up the music again, but not as loud as it had been.  I poured another cup of coffee and took it out on the front porch.  A squirrel skittered up the side of a thick fir tree.  I could smell the dusty pine, not yet sun-warmed.

After breakfast, Molly stayed with Sam while the rest of us went up Hunt Lake Road to cut down a dead tamarack they’d happened upon on their walk.  I drove the four-wheeler, and her folks rode up in the old powder-blue pick-up.  They stopped just beyond the big boulder at the cut-off to Horton Ridge.  It was near a spot where Ralph and I had ruined a huge tam several years before by hanging it up between two alders as we ran out of the woods carrying the chainsaw and the ropes to escape its fall.

When he got out of the cab, Ralph grinned at me and said, “Did you see the widow-maker?”

“Sure.”  I laughed and shook my head.  “Someday we’ll go back and get it.”

“Not on your life, Paul Bunyan,” he said and lifted the chainsaw out of the bed of the truck.

The tree that day was thin but tall and stood about twenty yards from the road.  Ralph sat this one down perfectly, and we pulled it out towards the road with the come-along hitched to the back of the pick-up.  My mother-in-law, Marilyn, marked fourteen inches along the length of it with the hatchet, then hacked off the small branches and knots ahead of Ralph while he cut.  I hauled the rounds out and tossed them into the back of the truck.

The whole affair didn’t take much more than an hour, but the day had already heated up and we were all wet with sweat afterwards.  We sat on the rear bumper of the truck and passed around a thermos of lemonade.  We looked out over the ridge at the wide portion of Priest Lake below, at the two small islands that sat like gumdrops near the western shore, and the gray-green Selkirk Range that ran into Canada behind it.  A few white clouds high in the sky left shadows on the surface of the lake that otherwise shimmered in the sunlight.

“Maybe it will rain,” Marilyn said.

Ralph looked up at the clouds, then to the north towards Chimney Rock.  He shook his head.  “That would be nice,” he said, “but I doubt it.”

When we got back, I unloaded the rounds, then split and stacked them.  Ralph and Marilyn went down to the cabin because they knew it was something I enjoyed doing myself.  It approximated the kind of workout I might have gotten back in San Diego.  I didn’t like to run on the narrow dirt roads because of the logging trucks, and I wasn’t much of a swimmer.  I was good and tired by the time I’d finished.

I looked at the woodshed with satisfaction.  We’d almost filled it already that summer.  In reality, there was more wood than they’d need in any two winters, but I knew we’d go for more. Maybe a week would pass, then someone would see a dead tam and we’d have a project to fill half a day.  It was sort of like a small hunting expedition at Hunt Creek Lodge, which is what Molly had named the cabin when her parents bought it several years before after Ralph retired from Boeing and they sold their pretend farm in the foothills below Mt. Rainer.  Now they split their time between the lake and a rental near our place during most of the school year when we were both teaching.  They helped out a lot with Sam and all his appointments with the neurologist, pulmonoligist, dysmorphologist, and his other specialists and therapists.

I jumped in the lake, showered, and then we all had lunch on the front porch.  A small breeze had come up, and with it, little waves that Ralph called “sheep running” when they got large enough to crest white.

Sam was asleep again.  I asked Molly if she was able to do his range of motion exercises with him before he went down.

“Yes,” she said.  “And he took care of business on his own.  Ex-nay on the enema.”

I said, “Touché.”  I reached out my glass of ice tea to toast with her, but she’d already turned away.

After lunch, Ralph took a nap while the rest of us sat in the shade on the porch.  Molly did some planning for school and Marilyn did crosswords.  I read a book.  There weren’t many motorboats out on the water because of the chop, so it was quiet unless a logging truck went by up on the road.

A couple of hours later, Ralph came out on the porch carrying Sam, and handed him to me.  He said, “Either I woke him with my snoring, or he woke me with his squawking.”

“Hi,” I said to Sam snuggling him close.  “How’s my buddy?”  I rubbed the flat back of his head.  Sam moaned happily, burrowing into my chest like he did.

Ralph and Marilyn took their daily drive into Coolin for the mail.  I got Sam’s breathing treatment going.  After he was finished, I put him in the backpack carrier and Molly and I walked up to the falls.  We took along the coffee can pails in case we saw any huckleberries only to add small purpose to the outing.  It had been a light summer for huckleberries, and except up high on the north side of hills, they’d almost entirely passed.  But it was a pretty hike up through the pine trees and clearings that had been logged years before and were still full of daisies, lupine, and fireweed.  The breeze had cooled things a bit, especially when the sun hid behind the clouds.

We didn’t find any huckleberries, but on the way back down, Sam began to cry and had a small seizure.  We sat on a log and waited for it to pass.  I held him close and said, “Shh” into his ear.  It only lasted a minute, but afterwards he was wide-eyed, as always, and had that frightened look.

Molly dried the bottoms of his feet and his palms with a bandana.  “That wasn’t too bad,” she said.  We smiled at each other, but in her eyes, I could see the same pallor that had hung over everything since his birth, and, we both knew, always would.  She pursed her lips and blew out a breath.  We both sat up startled as an egret lifted out of a treetop and flew out towards the lake.

When we got back to the cabin, Ralph was coming down the path holding a flat box.  Marilyn walked behind him.

Ralph waved to us and said, “Hey, we have a little surprise.”

They stopped in front of us at the bottom of the path, and Ralph opened the box.  There were homemade brownies inside.

He said, “Linda sent these from Seattle for my birthday.  She’s the daughter who loves me.”

Molly smirked, then smiled.  I thought about early in our courtship when she told me that she’d been treated like a princess growing up, like she could do no wrong.

We went inside, and I put Sam down in his crib.  We all had drinks, chips, and dip on the front porch.  The end-of-summer shadows had lengthened, and a few more clouds had joined together to the northwest, tinged dark underneath.

After a while, Ralph went off for a sail in his little sabot.  The rest of us began his favorite meal for dinner.  I bar-b-qued chicken slathered with extra spicy sauce.  Molly and her mother made warm German potato salad and baked beans.  Sam awoke during his last feed of the day, but then fell asleep again, still listless from the seizure.

After dinner, we went down on the dock while the sun hung reluctantly below the bloated clouds.  We sat and watched it dip quietly behind the tips of the Selkirks just above Kalispell Island.  The sky there was all purple and pink, and those same colors were spread lightly across that side of the lake.  Molly sat next to Marilyn on the edge of the dock and watched her try to get Sam to kick his feet in the water.  Ralph and I were on chaise lounges facing the setting sun.

He said, “Aunt Ruth died early this morning.  She’s the one who lived in California.”

Molly and Marilyn turned and looked at him.  His face was still with the sunset on it.  Molly said, “Are you going down for the funeral?”

He frowned.  After a few seconds, he said, “Nah.  I didn’t know her well.”

My wife nodded slowly, then we were all quiet.  The barge that drove pilings from Copper Bay motored by slowly out in the lake.  It was a big gray metal boat that looked like an angular tug.  It went off past Four Mile Island towards Coolin.

“He’d better trot along before it rains,” I said,

“Let it rain, God,” said Ralph.  “I love a good summer storm.”

Some more clouds had gathered from the north over the upper lake, but were still high in the sky.  I said, “It just might.”

The light fell another octave as the sun crept behind the mountains for good.  The air suddenly had that lick of coolness that was different from what it had been.

Molly said, “Can we please go up now and open presents?”

We had Ralph sit at the head of the table with his gifts in front of him.  The rest of us sat around him.  There was a flash outside and the first roll of thunder tumbled down from the north as he was opening our card.  Inside was a gift certificate from a hardware store in Priest River for sixty-five dollars.

“One for each year,” Molly told him.

“Gee, thanks,” he said.

But I could tell he was pleased.  He opened Marilyn’s gift next, which was a pair of binoculars he’d bought himself in Sandpoint in June when she’d bought herself a salmon-colored cardigan that would be from him for her birthday. The second flash and roll of thunder tumbled much closer up the lake.  Leaves on the willow trees twirled outside.

We turned out the lights, and Sam squawked when we lit candles on a brownie and sang.  Ralph blew out the candles and darkness surrounded us.  Lightning lit the Selkirks once, then again brightly enough so that the lake was momentarily white.  Just after it, came a loud clap of thunder and its roll that jiggled the plates on the table.

Ralph said, “My.”

The first rain fell suddenly and lightly.  We knew then that it would only be a fast-moving shower.  We sat in the dark listening as the rain intensified briefly for a few minutes, then passed.  Molly let me take her hand, but didn’t return my squeeze.   Another scratch of lightning lit the sky and the thunder that followed it had moved south over Coolin.  The next combination was further off towards Mt. Spokane.

Marilyn turned the lights back on and clapped her hands in applause.  I did the same with Sam’s.  His head had begun to bob and his eyes were closing, so Molly took him off to bed.  Ralph was smiling, fingering his gifts.  The air had turned much cooler, a coolness that was at once relieving and caressing.

When Molly returned, we ate brownies covered with vanilla ice cream.  Then Ralph went down on the dock with his new binoculars, and I helped Marilyn clean up and do the dishes.  Molly told us she was going off to bed to read; I watched the back of her go off down the hall.

After the dishes were dried and put away, Marilyn went into the front room to watch television, and I took a bag of trash out to the root cellar.  Ralph was sitting in the old lawn chair we kept near the bar-b-que, the binoculars in his lap.  He had his head back looking up, I supposed, at the stars.  I had never seen him sit there before during the day or night.

He glanced at me and said, “Hey.”

I stored away the trash and stood on the river-rock patio we’d laid together the summer after Molly and I were married there five years before.  I looked up through the treetops in the direction he was.

I asked, “Looking for constellations?”

“I don’t know any constellations,” he said.  “I was going to learn about them, though, when I retired, as you probably remember.  I got that astronomy book a few birthdays ago.  I was going to do that sort of like I was going to learn to watercolor and lift dumbbells.”  He laughed once through his nose.  “Oh, I guess I’m really just sitting here thinking about my own mortality.”

I looked at him then.  He was a handsome man with salt and pepper hair.  I’d always admired him.  I said, “I suppose you’re entitled to do that.”

He was still looking up through the trees.  A few stars were back out after the storm’s passing.  He said, “I had a few surprises today.  Most of them were pretty nice.  That one about my aunt wasn’t.  Life’s full of surprises, I guess.”

I thought about that.  I thought about the spouses of two of our neighbors who had died suddenly during the last year; they were both in their mid-fifties.  I was forty-three.  I thought about Sam and his future, and felt my stomach fall, as it always did when I thought about that.

“Life is full of surprises,” he said again.  It came out quietly.  “I suppose you embrace the good ones and do the best you can with the ones that aren’t so hot.”

I nodded, though I knew he wasn’t looking at me.  I said, “That makes sense.”  Of course, I couldn’t know then that Sam would have all those pneumonias and hospitalizations upcoming, the tracheostomy and other surgeries, the wheelchair problems and round-the-clock care.  And nothing could have prepared me for the day a few years later when Molly would tell me that she’d become involved with another teacher at school, that she was leaving, that she was done settling, done being a martyr.

I heard Marilyn laugh inside at something on the television.  I’m sure Ralph had, too.  There was a faint rumble of thunder, but it was far away now.  The lake lapped at the shore.  Otherwise, it was quiet.  Nighttime there had a special stillness.  It made sleep run deep.  It was something I’d experience for only two more summers, but I didn’t know that then either.

Ralph sighed.  “Another day gone.  All in all, it’s been a pretty wonderful one.”

“Yes,” I agreed.  “It has.”

 

 

BIO

William Cass has had over 150 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as decemberBriar Cliff Review, and Conium Review.  His children’s book, Sam, is scheduled for release in April, 2020.  Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Trainand Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal.  He lives in San Diego, California.

 

 

 

 

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The Ultra Injustice

by Scott Bassis

 

 

Manuela was sketching in Central Park when she received an email from BN&T notifying her that her ePhone Ultra had been delivered. She almost left right away for Andy’s apartment. It was her apartment too, in the sense that she lived there, but Andy paid the rent.

The apartment was in Midtown. From Central Park, she would have to take the C to Times Square, then transfer to the 7. It wasn’t much faster than walking, and it was a gorgeous day. Yet, after the trek, she wouldn’t feel like returning to Central Park. She decided to stay put.

The concierge would hold it for her. Jack was on duty today. He was always pleasant and helpful. There had been some confusion the first time they met. Jack had asked her whose apartment she was cleaning, very slowly. She was carrying a duffel bag; he must have thought it had cleaning supplies. It was the suit Andy had asked her to bring over from her place. Of course, when she said she was Andy’s friend, in perfect English, he apologized profusely. Someone else would have held a grudge. She realized it was a simple mistake.

She sketched on the bench for several hours longer. She was lucky to have fascinating subjects, a sleeping homeless man, an elderly couple reading, a woman with three dachshunds. Unfortunately, a park ranger came on to her and wouldn’t leave her alone. She sometimes felt tempted to grow a Frida Kahlo unibrow just so she could sketch outdoors in peace. After excusing herself to the ladies’ room, she relocated to a rock with a view of the carousel. She was good at depicting children. As an art teacher at Saint Xavier’s elementary school, she spent most of her day with them. She understood how they thought. She appreciated how fragile they were.

Her sketches of children always had a wistful quality. Her own childhood had ended too soon, cut short by her uncle, Victor. He was the one person she allowed herself to hate. Whenever someone offended her, she told herself it wasn’t like what Victor did to her. She could forgive everything except that.

She sketched on the rock near the carousel for hours, until the sky darkened and the attendant locked up. She had a number of good drawings. She regretted not taking photos. They would be useful to reference for a painting. Alas, her ePhone’s camera was broken. The glass was also cracked and the battery shot. Yet, she would return tomorrow, with her new phone. Until September, she would have nothing but time on her hands.

She usually worked retail jobs during the summers to make rent. This year, not only was it unnecessary, it was out of the question. Andy had booked a three-week European vacation in July, one week in Italy, one in Spain and one in France. Their upcoming trip was one reason why she allowed herself to splurge on the just released, thousand-dollar ePhone Ultra. She was lured by the much-touted camera. She imagined snapping pictures of Sistine Chapel frescos, beachgoers basking in the Barcelona sun and sophisticated, cigarette smoking Parisians. Hopefully, she would acquire more than beautiful photos. Something told her that her ring finger wouldn’t be bare on the flight home. Although the school year had ended on Friday, she felt her blissful summer would officially begin tonight, once she had her ePhone Ultra. Her old, broken ePhone was the only blight on her happiness.

She walked at a leisurely pace back to the apartment. Entering the building, she beamed at Jack. He looked surprised. She was usually aloof. Socializing didn’t come naturally to her. She had kept to herself as a child; she still did. She stood at the desk, waiting for him to remember the package.

“Is there something I can help you with, Ms. Cruz?” he asked after a long, awkward moment.

“A package came for me around noon,” she said.

“No, I was here at noon. No package came,” he said confidently.

“I got an email,” she said in disbelief.

“Did you call the company?” he asked, as if that was the normal response, calling the company to make sure the notification wasn’t sent mistakenly.

“Let me check the email again.” She lingered at the desk. She sensed Jack’s annoyance as she pulled out her phone. She had missed it before, but there was a tracking number and a link at the bottom of the email. The link directed her to Express Delivery’s website. Evidently, her package was signed for by P. Chang at 11:46AM.

“Does P. Chang work here?” she asked, frantically. He shook his head, no, politely overlooking the question’s absurdity. The building had a staff of eight, six concierges, the super and the porter. None looked like a “P. Chang.”

“Try 11 West 43rd Street. They sometimes get us confused. It’s that building with the green awning,” Jack suggested. At once, she rushed outside and crossed Fifth Avenue. The building resembled Andy’s. They were both red brick, older construction, with a large lobby. The concierge was a gangly, goateed Latino. He looked about her age, in his early thirties. “Rafael” was printed on his blazer’s name tag. As she stood catching her breath, he eyed her warily.

“My package was delivered here by mistake.” She didn’t know that for certain. In fact, she thought it a longshot. Yet, instinct took over. Rafael grimaced. He, like everyone, especially servicemen in low level jobs, didn’t want trouble. “It was signed for by P. Chang,” she continued.

“Phil left at three,” Rafael said. She grinned. Her ePhone Ultra wasn’t lost now. It was delivered to Phil Chang, the morning concierge at 11 West 43rd Street.

“Do you know where my package could be?” she asked.

Obligingly, he looked around on the desk, the shelf overhead. He shook his head, no.

“It’s not here. When a name doesn’t match, we give it back to the Express Delivery guy. We don’t have it.” He gave an apologetic shrug.

“Okay, thanks.” She left feeling relieved. Her ePhone Ultra was on its way back to BN&T. She would get it eventually. At Andy’s building, she thanked Jack for being helpful. She told him the package was delivered there, but must have been sent back.

“Don’t worry, Ms. Cruz. Most people do the right thing,” Jack said. She smiled and nodded, but his words weren’t reassuring.

As she rode the elevator up, she remembered Lucas. Though it had been three years since he was her student, she still thought of him often. He was in second-grade when she had him. It only took her one class to realize that he was a victim of abuse. He didn’t say a word to anyone. He drew faces crying, a house in flames. He was extremely skittish. Paper ripped from the pad made him jump. Whenever someone approached him, his body trembled.

Undoubtedly, she was not the only teacher to suspect abuse. Yet, her colleagues collectively turned a blind eye to the signs. Of course, his classmates only knew that he was strange. Boys called him “weirdo,” “fag” and “crazy,” hit him for no reason. Girls bestowed on him the nickname “Loco Lucas.” He was subjected to constant cruelty.

She didn’t trust most people to do the right thing. In her experience, almost no one did the right thing. She returned to the apartment. Andy wasn’t home yet. He usually worked until around eight. Immediately, she called Express Delivery’s customer services line. She explained everything to “Kelly.”

“Uh huh, let me put you through to the driver on that route,” Kelly said. Her tone did not strike Manuela as hopeful.

“Yeah,” a gruff voice said.

“My package was delivered to the wrong building. The concierge said he gave it back after he realized it,” she said, blurring the truth a bit.

“He said that? No, it’d be scanned. It’s not scanned. Go back, tell him,” he said, as if he was offering friendly advice, as if the situation didn’t really involve him.

“Why should I go back? It’s not my fault,” she huffed.

“Hey, hey, nothing is no one’s fault. But it’s your package.” He delivered a thousand-dollar device in a BN&T box to the wrong address. Now it was missing, but it wasn’t his fault.

“Well, I didn’t sign for it because I’m not P. Chang. Now go back and get the package you brought to the wrong place!” she snapped.

“I’ll get right on it,” he said. She smiled stupidly for half a minute before realizing he was mocking her and had hung up.

She was getting too worked up. She wished Andy was here. He would calm her down. He was always supportive. She had never been afraid to open up to him about her past. He was older than she was; that was part of it, though plenty of men in their forties had the emotional maturity of a little boy. She called him.

“It’s just a phone,” he said.

“I know,” she said. He was right, of course. Still, even if it was just an ePhone Ultra, it was an injustice. Why her ePhone Ultra, of all the ePhone Ultras that were safely delivered to their rightful owners? It made her think, why Lucas, of all the children who never had to suffer? It was only chance. That was something people never realized.

Once, as she sat in the teacher’s lounge sketching, she overheard her colleagues discuss Lucas. Their voices conveyed a mixture of pity and contempt.

“That boy’s not right. He stares at me frowning the whole class, looking so pathetic. Sometimes, I can see tears.”

“I know. He’s picked on all the time, but can you blame them?”

“You think he’ll grow up to be one of those psychos you read about?”

She felt like stomping over there to defend him, shout, “Lucas could be anyone! He could have been you! He was me!” Yet, that would only make her look crazy, and do nothing to help Lucas.

“It’s just so unfair,” she lamented.

“Do you want me to call BN&T?” he offered.

“I’ll do it,” she said.

“I’ll be home soon,” he assured her.

They exchanged “I love yous.” She hung up feeling better, though it didn’t last long, about twenty minutes into her hold to speak with a BN&T representative. Finally, she relayed the events again to “Tonya.”

“You’ll have to speak to our Stolen Devices department, ma’am.” Tonya abruptly transferred her to more grating Muzak.

That word, “stolen,” hit her like a punch in the gut. Her ePhone Ultra had been stolen. She was the victim of a crime. She had been victimized. It made her sick. It made her furious. It made her feel like crying. She wished Andy was here to hold her.

“Calvin speaking, how may I assist you?” A voice finally said.

“Someone stole my phone. Express Delivery delivered it to the wrong building, and someone there stole it!” she declared.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” His voice oozed sympathy. He must have been experienced in dealing with distraught customers. As he spoke calmly and reassuringly, she couldn’t resist being lulled into complacency.

“So, if within thirty days you fax us the copy of the police report, your driver’s license, your credit card and the signed affidavit, we’ll send you your new device, assuming our investigational team approves your case,” Calvin said.

“Thank you,” she said.

“No problem.”

Only after she hung up, and gazed down at the list of tasks assigned to her, did she become indignant. Yet, she didn’t have the energy to call back, wait on hold, repeat the same story, be transferred to someone else and repeat it again. Resignedly, she slumped down on the couch. Feeling too upset even to sketch, she turned on the TV. She flipped through the channels until she landed on a crime drama.

She watched as the officers heroically tracked down the killer, stopping him before he had the chance to do it again. She knew it was just a cliched cop show, but it gave her hope. She would turn to the law. She wouldn’t be a silent victim, not now. This time, justice would be served.

As the credits rolled, she heard Andy’s key in the lock. She rushed to the door. She gave him a quick hug and kiss.

“I have to file a police report. Will you come with me?” she asked anxiously.

“Sure,” he said. She retrieved her purse, grabbed her phone and put on her sneakers. They headed to the station a few blocks away. As they walked, her hopelessness abated. Taking this step felt empowering.

“Why are you here?” a female officer barked the moment they walked through the door. Seeing Andy’s taken aback expression, Manuela decided to speak. The last thing she needed was for Andy’s snide side to come out.

“My ePhone was stolen. The package was delivered to the wrong building and the guy that signed for it…”

“So you never got it? It’s a lost package,” the officer said.

“Yes, and when I went to the building…” Manuela continued.

“We don’t handle lost packages. You gotta complain to the phone company. You never got it, it’s not legally yours. You don’t got the right to file a complaint.” The officer glanced to a male, forty-something officer at his desk across the room, bent over a file. “Benny, this lady’s phone got delivered to the wrong place and someone there took it.”

“She gotta complain to the phone company,” Benny replied, lifting his head up momentarily.

“Do you think I can just have a report? With that, BN&T says I’ll get a new phone. All of this will be over,” she pled. She smiled, thinking of the moment when she would finally have her ePhone Ultra. For two months, she would have no more worries, only art, travel and romance.

“Sorry,” the officer said. Manuela’s smile collapsed. The officer gestured to the door with her hand.

“This is ludicrous,” Andy scoffed. Glancing at him, the officer had an expression of mocking interest. She placed her hand on her hip, resting it on the handle of her gun.

“You’re a civil servant. My taxes pay your salary,” Andy continued unheedingly.

“It’s okay,” Manuela said, nudging him towards the exit.

“There a problem?” Benny stood up. He was taller than one would assume while sitting, about six and a half feet, with broad shoulders. As he approached, Andy let out an audible gulp. Other officers turned their heads, their attentions piqued.

“Thank you for your help,” Manuela muttered. She started to leave, but Andy didn’t move. She tugged his arm. Stirred from his petrified state, he stumbled outside.

“Unbelievable! They’re just lazy. I should go back and speak with the sergeant,” he seethed. Still, he continued to walk in the direction of home, rather quickly.

“Why don’t we call 311 instead? We don’t know who the sergeant will side with,” she said.

“You’re right. I’ll call as soon as we get back,” he said.

Though she doubted he would get anywhere, at least he wouldn’t end up in a squad car to a Rikers jail cell. There would be more bureaucracy, more hoops to jump through. It all seemed designed to make one give up.

“Let me try the building again. Maybe it’s turned up,” she said. She was wrong to put her faith in the police. She could only rely on herself, like always. When she had needed help most, no one had been there for her. It was why she had felt compelled to help Lucas.

“I’ll go with you,” Andy said. He clasped her hand. After a moment, she slipped her hand free.

“He’ll be nicer if I’m alone,” she said. Andy would be too antagonistic. In all likelihood, the resident at the other building’s corresponding apartment had it. The staff’s loyalty was to the tenant. The situation required delicacy.

“You sure?” he asked. She nodded. At the end of the block, they separated.

Unsurprisingly, Rafael scowled upon seeing her again. The last thing she wanted was to make trouble for anyone, another reason it was better to leave Andy out of it.

“I told you, Phil gave the package back to the delivery guy,” he said.

“I called Express Delivery. No one returned it. It wasn’t scanned.” She stopped herself from saying, “someone here has it,” though that was the logical conclusion.

“Maybe the guy forgot to scan it.” His tone of helpfulness couldn’t disguise the fact that he only wanted to send her off in another direction.

“Is there a security camera?” she asked. He frowned. She could see two, one pointed at the door, the other at his desk.

“Yeah, but you have to be a resident to see the footage, unless there’s like a lawsuit,” he said.

“What documents do I need to provide from my attorney?” she asked. Of course, she didn’t have an attorney. Even Andy didn’t have an attorney. But as a poor person herself, she knew poor people assumed all rich people had attorneys.

“I don’t know. You have to ask the super. He doesn’t work this late. You can fill out the form, I guess, even if you don’t live here,” he said begrudgingly. She realized that the form wouldn’t accomplish anything except to get rid of her. She noticed a neon pink Post-It pad on his desk.

“Can I leave my phone number in case someone brings it down?” she asked. It was possible someone would do the right thing and return it. He or she just hadn’t gotten around to it. It was doubtful, but possible.

“Of course.” He handed her the notepad and a pen. Under the heading “Lost Package Belongs to” she wrote her name, phone number and address.

“I’ll keep it here.” He stuck the Post-It in the center of the desk. He stared at her expectantly, waiting for her to leave. She couldn’t make herself go. She couldn’t give up yet. She may have been victimized, but she refused to end this night a victim.

“Do you mind if I fill out that form too, for the super?” she asked. He sighed exasperatedly. “Wait here.” He grabbed keys from the drawer. He opened the door behind the desk. He disappeared inside a supply closet.

Quickly, she dashed over to the elevator bank. She hit the button. She watched anxiously as the numbers dropped. From the concierge desk, there was a clear view of the elevators.

“Where’d you go?” She heard him exclaim as the elevator arrived. She slipped inside, smiling amiably at the exiting residents. As she rode up, it occurred to her that she might be committing a crime. The indifferent world had left her no choice. It was the same world that allowed innocent children to be tortured. She shouldn’t have been surprised that it would let her ePhone Ultra be stolen. She recalled another time she had been forced to take justice into her own hands.

When a teacher suspected abuse, there was a strict protocol to follow. She was to inform the principal, who would coordinate a session with a child psychologist, pending parental approval. She would certainly be fired for questioning Lucas directly. But she could protect herself, if she needed to. She was adept at lying to save herself, or someone else.

After Lucas had been in her class for a month, and seemed a little more at ease around her, she had him stay behind while she took his classmates to the cafeteria. When she returned, she pulled a chair up beside him. She had made two tuna sandwiches. As they ate, she asked him about his drawing, his other classes. She nodded at his one-word answers.

“Is someone hurting you in a way you find confusing? Is an adult telling you to do things you don’t want to? Things that feel wrong?” she asked. She smiled warmly. He put down his sandwich.

“My stepdad,” he mumbled. He took another bite. She touched his shoulder. He flinched. She expected him to cry, but he didn’t. She shed a few tears. She wiped them away at once. She didn’t wish to upset him. The less memorable this conversation was to him, the better for both of them.

“I’ll get you out of there,” she whispered, despite herself.

The elevator door opened. She marched down the hall. She stopped at apartment 7A and rang the bell.

“Who is it?” an elderly female voice asked. Manuela’s conviction drained out of her. She had no proof that the phone was here. She was acting reckless and crazy. Still, she had come this far.

“My name’s Manuela,” she replied.

“What?” the old woman croaked.

“My name’s Manuela,” she repeated.

“What? I can’t hear you. Hold on…”

Manuela heard the thump of a walker against the carpet. The old woman opened the door. She had pale, translucent skin and stringy hair. She wore a floral-patterned nightgown. The old woman eyed her suspiciously.

“My name’s Manuela. I’m the nanny for your neighbors, the Violets,” she said, inspired by the print on the old woman’s nightgown. “They think a package might’ve been delivered here by mistake. Did you get any packages?”

“Packages? I don’t think so.” She inched the door closed.

“It’s very important. You see, they were expecting several packages. One of them has medication for the baby. They know a package arrived, but it must’ve been delivered to a neighbor by mistake.” Manuela gave a desperate sigh.

“Oh my, come in!” The old woman swung the door open. Manuela followed her through the foyer into the kitchen. The apartment was tidy and clean, which heartened Manuela. Someone must have been checking in on her periodically.

“I put all my packages here,” the old woman gestured to an empty countertop at the kitchen’s entrance. Manuela glanced around the kitchen, which was orderly, uncluttered, and plainly package-free. She stepped back, throwing cursory glances around the apartment.

“I’m sorry. Maybe if you explain what happened to the pharmacist…” the old woman suggested, confusing Manuela momentarily.

“Um, yes, if it comes to that,” Manuela made her way to the door, her eyes still searching in vain for a BN&T box.

“But it’s a big hassle, I tell you. I lost my meds once. The insurance wouldn’t pay for it again. They wanted to charge me ninety bucks a pill. I said what am I supposed to do, curl up and die?” she huffed. Manuela paused, letting the old woman finish her rant. She seemed to be lonely.

“So what did you do?” Manuela asked.

“I asked to speak to the manager of the pharmacy. I told him I never refilled my prescription in the first place. I said there’s a glitch in their computer, or someone working there’s thief. I said if I die, my family will sue SRC Pharmacy for millions. I got my refill. Didn’t even have to pay the ten-dollar copay.” Speaking with renewed vigor, the old woman seemed to grow years younger.

“We’ll have to give that a try,” Manuela said, jokingly.

“In this world, you’ve got to fight tooth and nail. There’s a lot of horrible people out there,” the old woman advised her.

“So true,” Manuela said.

“Good luck,” the old woman said.

Manuela thanked her and left. She headed glumly to the elevator. Tracking down her ePhone Ultra seemed increasingly hopeless. She would return tomorrow, talk to Phil Chang and the super, but she couldn’t imagine it would do much good.

When the elevator arrived in the lobby, she slipped out quietly. She crept to the edge of the wall, adjacent to the concierge’s desk. If she wasn’t careful, she would find herself escorted back to the police station, and the officers would be even less pleasant this time.

She peeked her head out to see if Rafael was there. He was, sitting alone, staring into space. She returned to her position. She couldn’t wait too long. Someone would surely find her suspicious, pressed flat against the wall like a wannabe ninja. A minute later, she looked again. He was texting. Unfortunately, as she was about to sneak out, he put his phone down on the desk.

Before she could duck behind the wall, something caught her eye: a neon pink Post-it in the waste bin. Squinting, she made out her own handwriting. At once, she stomped over to the side of the desk. She plucked the Post-it from the waste bin. Startled, he leapt to his feet.

“Why did you throw this away?” She spoke in the same reproachful voice she used with ornery students. She held the Post-It up to him.

“You disappeared,” he said.

“So?” she said.

“I thought someone probably found your phone and texted you.” He shrugged. He lied with impressive ease. However, he wasn’t as good at it as she was.

“How did you know it’s a phone?” she asked. He breathed heavily. He shot a glance to the exit, as if he was considering bolting. Her eyes searched around his desk, under it, the shelves overhead.

“You said it was,” he said finally. It came off as petulant, like a little boy caught stealing, hiding the toy behind his back. Following her hunch, she walked around to the front of the desk, keeping her eyes fixed on him. He turned with her, but not fast enough. A phone stuck up from his back pocket. His phone was still on the desk.

“Give it to me!” she snapped. The elevator pinged. A resident strode past, ignoring them. As soon as he was gone, she held out her hand.

“Come on, you don’t need it. You live in Midtown Manhattan. Why don’t you just get another, or ask your sugar daddy to buy you a new one?” he sneered.

“You don’t know anything about my life,” she said. She was about to tell him exactly what she had been through, then she realized he wouldn’t understand or care.

“I wasn’t gonna keep it. I was gonna sell it online. I got two boys, six and ten. I was gonna use it to take them to Disney World. If you wanna go to Orlando, you buy a ticket, easy as that.” His voice grew plaintive. She could tell he already knew it was over.

“There’s a camera on us. No one’ll bother watching the footage unless I bring attention to it. I promise, I won’t get you into trouble if you give me the phone.” She used the same even tone she would with a kindergartner who had gotten his hands on an X-Acto knife.

They heard the murmur of voices. There were people just outside the door. Swiftly, Rafael took the phone out of his pocket. He placed it on the counter and slid it across to her. She snatched it.

“Bitch,” he muttered. He glared at her. He really despised her, just because she lived in Midtown Manhattan.

“Goodnight, Rafael.” A couple passed through the lobby to the elevator.

“Goodnight, Ted and Shelly,” he grinned.

She dropped the ePhone Ultra into her purse. She ran out, anxious to get away from Rafael and his resentful gaze. As she headed back to her building, a smile emerged on her face. She did it! She wasn’t the victim now. She was Manuela Cruz, Amateur Detective.

“Thanks again for that advice,” she told Jack. She slipped him a twenty.

“Oh, you don’t have to. That’s very kind. Thanks Ms. Cruz,” he said. She needed to, to reassure herself that he didn’t secretly hate her. She didn’t deserve anyone’s hatred. She had merely fallen in love with a sweet, caring man who happened to be wealthy.

“I got it!” she squealed upon opening the door.

“How?” Andy walked over with an astonished face.

“Well, first I talked to the person who lives in the apartment, a nice old lady. She didn’t have it, but by the time I went back downstairs, the concierge found it.” If he knew the real story, he would be disturbed, not to mention furious at her.

“He found it? Didn’t he look for it when you asked hours ago? It would have saved us a lot of trouble,” he fumed.

“What does it matter?” she said.

“I guess,” he agreed reluctantly. “I hope he was sorry.”

“Very sorry,” she said solemnly. She felt obligated to protect Rafael, even if he showed no gratitude. She left the phone in her purse the rest of the night. She didn’t want to think about it anymore. She snuggled on the couch with Andy, watching TV until they started dozing off, then dragged themselves to bed.

Andy set the alarm for six AM as usual. She rolled over and fell back asleep for a few more hours. The sun shone through the window. It looked like another beautiful day. She couldn’t wait to go outside, with her ePhone Ultra, to capture it. After breakfast, she called BN&T to activate the phone.

“Um, something’s wrong,” Doug in Customer Services said.

“What?” she sighed.

“Did you report the device as stolen?” he asked.

“Yeah, but…”

“I have to transfer you to our Stolen Devices department.”

Abruptly, she found herself waiting on hold. She brewed new coffee and drank two mugfuls before someone picked up. She spent that time coming up with a story that didn’t include a sticky-fingered concierge.

“Calvin speaking, how may I assist you?”

“I spoke with you yesterday, remember?”

“Oh, yes.” His voice conveyed doubt, but he must have been able to verify it. He seemed to be reading off a screen. “Your ePhone was delivered to the wrong address. You reported it stolen. I informed you of the required documentation for a replacement.”

“It turned out it was given back to Express Delivery. They forgot to scan it. Someone looked at the label and realized the mistake. I got it this morning,” she said.

“That’s great news!” he said.

“I know!” she exclaimed.

“Now all we need is the police report, a copy of your ID, your credit card and the signed affidavit we’ve mailed, and we’ll be able to activate your device,” he said cheerfully.

“What are you talking about?”

“The phone has been tagged as stolen. It can’t be untagged without these documents,” he explained.

“How can I file a police report if it hasn’t been stolen?” she asked.

“Of course, I apologize. You won’t be filing a stolen property report. You’ll be filing a lost property report. You should include how you recovered the item,” he clarified. She had lied her way into an old woman’s home, confronted a thief, risked her own safety, to file a lost property report instead of a stolen property report.

“The police wouldn’t help me,” she said. He didn’t respond. “How will I get them to help me?” she asked. The answer was apparent. She had to tell the truth. She had to explain that Rafael stole the phone. He would be fired. He would have a criminal record. He might never get another decent job.

“Once you provide these documents, we’ll be able to activate your phone. Take care and have a wonderful day.” She heard a click.

Flustered, she paced around the apartment. As she weighed her options, her thoughts turned to Lucas.

A week after she called Child Services, she received a memo from the principal stating Lucas had been disenrolled. He was moving to Arizona to live with his grandparents. Child Services must have obtained the evidence it needed; she was never contacted. Sparing him further torture turned out to be easy. It was a shame no one had done it long ago.

Her pride at rescuing Lucas quickly gave way to concern for him. Eventually, he might recover from the abuse, find a job he cared about, someone who loved him. Yet, he would always feel different, alienated from others. People would find him as strange as he found them. He would need to forgive those who were cruel to him. They couldn’t see their own pettiness. He would have to let go of his anger, regardless of how justified it was.

“We’re the same,” she wished she could have told him, wished he would always remember. It would have comforted him to know he was not really alone.

She couldn’t ruin Rafael’s life, though he had wronged her. He wasn’t like Victor. He had a son, Lucas’ age, who he loved and cared about. She would buy a new, junky phone, or maybe Andy could upgrade to a family plan with T-Cellular. She would be his wife soon, after all. He wouldn’t understand her decision, but he knew the futility of arguing with her.

However, she promised to treat herself to a new camera, an expensive one. She would take plenty of photos on her trip, of the magnificent art, the breathtaking architecture, the mouthwatering food. When she dwelled too much on humanity’s ugliness, she forgot all the beauty out there. There was nothing just about this world. She couldn’t let that keep her from appreciating how lucky she was to be alive.

 

 

 

BIO

Scott Bassis is a young writer eager to establish himself as a serious talent. He has had short stories published in Poydras Review, The Furious Gazelle, The Acentos Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, Image Outwrite, Quail Bell Magazine, The Missing Slate, Jumbelbook, Furtive Dalliance, Fiction on the Web and Rainbow Curve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Snit’s Wife

by Phil Gallos

 

 

You never know what’s going to come out of the woods.

It could be raccoons. When we lived at 49 Park Avenue, my first wife and I, we had a backyard like I have now – a patch of less than enthusiastic grass and then the mountainside: trees, boulders, cliffs, ineffectual fences. Florence Fullerton owned the house before she died, and we bought it from her niece. To Florence, the raccoons were neighbors, pets almost. She always had a fifty-pound bag of peanuts near at hand for them. We tried that. We thought it would be fun to feed the raccoons. But there was a dark side. They were pushy, rude. They acted entitled.

Every evening there were more of them. And there was something unsettling about looking up with a flashlight to see a dozen pairs of eyes shining back at us from the limbs and crotches of the beech trees and the maples. Then, later, after we were in bed and sinking into the peaceful embrace of sleep, the sky split by screams and guttural cries – caterwauling coons engaged in orgies of unkind sex.

Oh, sure, they were cute enough, waddling around propelled by their bulbous backsides. And the babies – adorable, I’m sure some would say, though I wouldn’t go that far. I think the word is too often inappropriately used. Nobody told us raccoons are a common vector for rabies. We were young and ignorant and lucky. We didn’t get sick.

In another house – the one I bought with Hanna, around the corner on Baker Street, after the passing of twenty-five years, after the passing out of one marriage into the possibility of another – there was the same kind of backyard against the side of the same mountain, Mount Pisgah, the place from which Moses saw the promised land. And no wonder. How could anyone stand on the rim of the ledges above our house, look out over this blessed valley with its lakes, its river and its verdant forest and believe there was a need to go any farther, even in February under a full moon at forty below when the beauty is the kind that can kill you without even blinking? But Moses had never set foot on this Pisgah, and the Old Testament has nothing to say about raccoons.

#

One warm day in the latter half of August, just before sunset, what came out of the woods was a woman.

I was in the kitchen, the back door open but the screen door closed, when I heard Onyx barking. I stepped out to see what had aroused his interest and saw her stumbling barefoot among the trees wearing something that looked like it must have been a wedding dress, what was left of it. She was also wearing a generous portion of dirt and random pieces of the forest. She wavered for a moment like a guttering flame, then fell.

This is no place to be clumsy or inattentive or exhausted. I’ve been up that hill a hundred times, and I still watch every step. The carpet of last year’s leaves on slanted land conceals mud and roots and limbs that can steal whatever traction you thought you had and send you flying to the side or forward or back; and there are more than enough rocks waiting to crack your skull whichever way you go.

When I got to the woman, Onyx was already there, licking her face. She was sitting where she had fallen, and I put out a hand to help her; but she didn’t want it. She got herself standing and continued down the hill, Onyx leading her toward the house, me taking up the rear.

She staggered into the kitchen, dropped to her knees, and pitched forward to all fours. She held herself that way for several minutes, panting like an old dog on a hot day, arms and legs trembling. Then she vomited onto the floor and passed out, falling face-first into her own mess.

I rolled the woman over, pulled paper towels from the rack, wet half of them, wiped the vomit off her, took care of the stuff on the floor. It wasn’t until I cleaned her face that Onyx began licking her again. It was around the sixth lick that she opened her eyes. She sat up, tugged at a twig that was hanging from her hair. I handed her a glass of water.

“What happened to you?”

She didn’t answer, didn’t look at me. She was looking at Onyx, who had stopped licking her.

“That’s my dog, Onyx. He’s friendly, but I guess you already figured that out.”

The woman put the empty glass on the floor.

“Would you like more?”

No response. I refilled the glass.

“Here. You can just leave it if you don’t want it.”

I set the glass beside her. She drank it dry and put it down.

I said, “Is that enough?”

She looked at me blankly and began to raise herself from the floor. I extended a hand. She ignored it and stood on her own power.

“Your feet don’t look too good. I can take you to the E.R. or to your doctor. Do you have a doctor? You want me to call the rescue squad?”

I could see Onyx was listening to me, but was the woman? It was hard to tell.

“If you just want to rest, I have a guest room. You can lie down there.”

She picked up the glass but didn’t say a word.

“Or you can use the couch if you’re more comfortable with that.”

The woman walked to the sink, put the glass in it. She ran the water and splashed her face. She was tall – five eight at minimum – with the legs of a long-distance runner; not particularly big above the waist but clearly strong: her arms sinewy, an archer’s shoulders. She turned away from the sink and looked in my direction but more past me than at me. She was scratched and cut and bruised and dirty; yet I could see a peculiar, subversive beauty flickering under the wounds and grime. Her hair, full of knots and debris, was a warm brown. Her eyes were large, turquoise, widely spaced; and her face had what a model friend of mine called “good lines” – prominent cheekbones, strong jaw – though the nose, long and a little flattened at the tip, didn’t quite fit; and her wide mouth was bent down at the corners as though the hooks of sadness had caught her there, and she couldn’t get free.

I said, “My name’s Baldr – that’s without the ‘e’ between the ‘d’ and the ‘r’…regardless of what you see on the top of my head.”

My intention was to lighten the mood, but the attempt at humor was lost on her.

I said, “What’s your name?” And, after a pause, “You can trust me,” which sounded absurd as soon as the words left my mouth.

I said, “You’re gonna be okay,” as though I actually knew what I was talking about.

It made no impression. Nothing I said made an impression. She was deep inside herself, her eyes open, the gates behind her eyes closed.

Then something in them changed. It was just a flicker, but I had to avert my gaze. It was like looking off the edge of a cliff, the last cliff in the world, the one you stand on before you jump.

She took a deep breath and moved toward me but strode past me and out of the room. I didn’t follow. It was clear that she needed more space than questions.

A door closed. I heard the toilet flush. Then I heard the shower.

I dug through my dresser looking for something she could wear and came up with a pair of flannel lounging pants and an old sweater that had always been too small for me but that I couldn’t let go because it was the last gift from my Aunt Gertrude. I placed these at the bathroom threshold and returned to the kitchen to assemble a meal.

I didn’t keep a lot on hand, now that Hanna and the boys were gone. There was a small steak in the fridge that I’d planned to eat with some leftover red rice and peas. I decided to give that to the woman. I’d be fine with a can of soup.

She emerged from the bathroom nearly an hour later wearing the garments I had laid out for her. She wasn’t striding now. She was hobbling. The adrenaline from whatever happened to her had waned, replaced by pain. She didn’t even glance in my direction. I watched her make her way through the dining room to sit down beside Onyx on the living room floor. She touched the side of his face. Then they engaged in what appeared to be a series of stare-downs; though they might actually have been talking to each other, communicating in a language that did not require words.

When the food was ready, I went to the living room and saw the woman curled up on the floor, asleep with the one creature in this house – or maybe in this world – she truly could trust. I let her be.

Next morning when I entered the kitchen, the woman was already there, ransacking my refrigerator. I said, “I’ll take care of breakfast.” She didn’t respond but withdrew from the fridge with a carton of eggs in one hand and a packet of sliced roast beef – my intended lunch – in the other.

“Put them on the counter,” I said. “We’ll add some veggies.”

There were seven eggs in the carton. I used them all, adding half an onion, the remains of a red bell pepper, a bit of broccoli, and most of the roast beef. I gave the woman two-thirds of the omelet. When she finished it, she went back to the fridge, pulled the rest of the roast beef, and devoured that, too. Then she downed the better part of a quart of milk.

I asked her, “Are you going to tell me anything about yourself?”

Silence.

“Give me a reason why I shouldn’t call the police.”

Silence.

“I don’t want to call them, but you’re not leaving me much choice.”

Silence. She walked away and curled up on the floor next to Onyx.

I washed my face, brushed my teeth, did the dishes, tried to figure out what to do next.

#

When Hanna left, she took all her belongings with her, perhaps to keep me from assuming she might return without my asking her, which was fair considering I’d been the one to blow it all up. It was about Jonathan, her oldest son. Hanna and I had been sitting on the front porch discussing where I fit in the family that was really entirely hers. She was wonderful; there was no doubt about that in my mind. But when it came to her boys, I had mixed feelings – had them since the beginning, when she was still living in Maine.

Actually, the mixed feelings were as much about myself as they were about her children. Did I have what it takes to navigate the path between the boys and their mother in a way that engendered their respect, if not affection, and protected her love for them – and for me – while maintaining my own sense of sanity? I wasn’t sure I was up to the task with one child involved, let alone three.

So it had come to the crucial conversation on the porch and my unvarnished words. Angelic Timmy was still angelic. Billy, the boy’s boy, was still funny and adventurous and easy to be with. The uncrackable nut was Jonathan: serious, skeptical, leaning hard toward cynical, quick to bristle.

I said, “Frankly, he doesn’t like me, and I don’t particularly like him. I am not going to jump through flaming hoops trying to make him like me. If he has any respect for me at all, that would be a sure way to destroy it.”

You don’t say something like that to the mother of her firstborn son expecting the best of outcomes; and that the discussion on the porch didn’t end in the worst of outcomes is exclusively creditable to Hanna.

She and the boys would leave, go back to York Harbor. She knew what she wanted. She would give me a chance to figure out what I wanted. If I came to understand that I wanted a life with her, she was ready. I had to decide that I was ready, too, and ready soon – not when her boys were grown up and moved away. Hanna didn’t say how long the chance would last, how quickly “soon” would be over.

At any rate, now there wasn’t a scrap of female clothing in the house.

#

I approached the woman lying on the floor beside my dog.

“I’m going out,” I told her. “I’ll be back in about four hours – maybe five. If you decide to leave during that time, please don’t take anything I haven’t already given you, and lock the door as you go.”

I got the usual nonresponse.

I drove to Plattsburgh fifty miles to go to Salvation Army and Goodwill and to avoid the local thrift stores where people might wonder why I was buying women’s clothing. Then I went to Target and to T.J. Maxx. I came home with six bags filled with shirts, pants, blouses, skirts, shoes, socks, panties. I chose a size that seemed to make sense and bought it and two sizes up and down from there in one-size increments. Bra size I couldn’t even begin to guess. If she wanted one she either would have to go out and get one herself or finally speak to me. Her first words could be 38C. I’d have been satisfied with that. At least she would have said something.

But when I brought the bags into the house and placed them in front of her, there were no words forthcoming. She emptied the bags onto the floor, sorted through the contents, made a big pile of what she didn’t want, put what was left into two bags and carried them away to the guestroom.

“Thank you,” I said, making no effort to disguise my irritation.

She replied by closing the door.

When she came out, the sweater and loungers I’d given her were bunched in one hand. She was wearing red Converse high-tops, black tights, a lemon-yellow knee-length skirt, and a pink cotton blouse over a black T-shirt. She extended the hand that held the bunched clothes, and I took them from her.

I said, “You look smashing.” I wasn’t being sarcastic.

No acknowledgment.

“I’ll get you a bra, but you’ll have to tell me the size.”

The woman sat down on the floor and began communing with Onyx. It was my turn to walk away.

#

The woman from the woods had arrived on a Friday. She spent that night on the floor and the next two on the couch. Monday evening, she was on the floor again, cuddling Onyx, while I sat in my father’s easy chair – my favorite place for perusing the newspaper, as it had been for him – reading page two of the Enterprise. It was the continuation of a front-page story about a missing teenage boy who had left his house Friday on his bicycle sometime between noon and one o’clock.

Some kids shooting hoops at Kate Mountain Recreational Park watched him pass, heading south on Route 3 toward the hamlet of Vermontville. They waved. He waved. A man mowing his lawn noticed him peddling west on Swinyer Road a quarter mile east of Paye Road.

“He looked like he was in a hurry,” the man had said.

I put the paper down. The woman was staring wide-eyed up from the floor. She must have been reading the front page while I was reading the inside.

“Did you know this boy?”

She said nothing, turned her gaze away, got up and went to the guestroom. The next time I saw her was at breakfast the following morning. There would be many more stories about the missing boy and the search for him, but I chose not to mention them to the woman; and she chose to avoid the newspaper, giving it the kind of distance usually reserved for carriers of contagion.

Over the succeeding days, the woman and I settled into a rhythm of approaches and distancings. I would approach, usually during meals, by telling her about myself, about my life and the people in it, past and present. She maintained her distance with silence.

I told her about the women – though not all of them – who had left their fingerprints on my heart and the men – there are only a few – who meant more to me than a quick wave on the street. Mostly I told her about Hanna: how we met at her bagel shop in a small town on the Maine coast where she’d moved after leaving a career as a Wall Street hotshot; how we had fallen in love and she’d rented an apartment in Saranac Lake; how she suggested we buy this house together, and we did; that things began to get tense; that I had issues with the oldest of her three boys; that it was decided I should have some time to myself to sort out my feelings and my priorities, and she and the boys went back to Maine. It had been five months since I’d seen her, though we telephoned and corresponded regularly. And I still didn’t know how I felt or what I wanted.

I thought if I let the woman from the woods know these things, she’d see me more as a real person, as someone nonthreatening, as somebody she could talk to and did not need to fear.

I told her about Saranac Lake, where I’ve lived most of my life: about its history as a lumbering and outdoorsmen’s town transformed into a health resort, a haven and last hope for people afflicted with tuberculosis from the late-19th to the mid-20th centuries. I told her about the famous people who had come here from all over the world and how some of them survived and some of them did not.

I’d insert a question every now and then: ask her where she was born, how long she’d been in the area, did she have a job, who were her friends, what would she like to do with her future – whatever I could think of that might elicit an answer and not frighten her. I might as well have been trying to extract information from my navel.

I told her what I could about the mountains and rivers and lakes surrounding the town and about the forest and the things that inhabited it. My verbal dissertations would usually come to an abrupt end whenever she finished eating. She would rise from the table and leave the room without giving the slightest indication that she’d heard anything I’d said, often terminating her audience in mid-sentence.

The only subject that commanded her attention was Onyx and his exploits. I informed her that he was not a pit bull but a pureblood Staffordshire, that he came from up in Akwesasne – Mohawk nation – sold to the stupid white man who didn’t care that the dog was more inclined to affection than combat and was better at licking intruders than biting them. I told her the names of all the mountains he’d climbed and the lakes he’d swum, how smart he is and how intuitive and observant, picking up on cues so subtle I never noticed myself giving them. It didn’t matter if I told the same story six or seven times. The woman would stay at the table until I finished. Then she would sit down with him and they’d engage in their eye-to-eye communion.

What was I supposed to do with this woman? Why wouldn’t she talk to me? Was she too traumatized to speak, or was she simply a mute? Wouldn’t she at least give me hand signals or write something down? Was she developmentally disabled? Or mentally ill? How could I help her to be whole again? Was that even possible? I wondered what would happen if somebody came to visit me. Fortunately, nobody did. I have my friends, but I’m not what you’d call a big entertainer. And I wondered what kind of trouble I might be making for myself by sheltering her. Was she a refugee? Or was she a fugitive? Each day, these questions arose anew, leading only to unsatisfactory answers.

And so, days became weeks.

#

It had been twenty minutes since I’d let Onyx out. It takes him about five minutes to do what he needs to do. The rest of the time he’d spent snooping around the neighbor’s compost bin and providing a landing strip for deer flies. When I called him to come in, the woman was entering the kitchen.

“Your dog’s white,” she said.

“He is,” I answered trying to be cool, trying to hide my astonishment – elation, really – trying to act as though these weren’t the first words she had spoken in the entire three weeks she’d lived in my house.

“And you named him Onyx.”

“I did.”

“A little obvious, don’t you think?”

“What would you have named him?”

“I’d’ve called him Amethyst.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Onyx for a white dog is too obvious. Amethyst is perfect. But I think I’ll keep calling him Onyx. He’s kind of averse to change.”

“But I can call him whatever I want,” she said.

“Yes you can.”

When she smiled – a smile that was gone as soon as I saw it – I damn near cried.

I gave myself a couple of beats to recover before I said, “So, since we’re on the subject of names, maybe you could tell me yours.”

Bad move. She left the kitchen, walked down the hall to the guestroom, closed the door. But five minutes later, she was back. She took a pitcher from the top of the fridge, filled it, and began watering the plants. During her time in my house, the woman from the woods had taken on more and more responsibility for the operation of the place. Silently, casually, and very competently, she assumed ownership of the chores: dish washing first, then watering the plants, laundry, vacuuming, mopping, dusting, cleaning the windows, the stove, the inside of the refrigerator, whatever didn’t require her having to leave the house. I always thanked her. I told her more than once she didn’t need to do these things, didn’t need to feel obligated. She’d say nothing and keep working. It had reached the point where the only thing left for me to do was cook. She seemed content to let me do that.

The woman was about half done watering when she looked up from a philodendron and said, “My name is Vivian.”

All the time she’d spent in my house, I had never told her my last name. I told her everything else, but not that. I decided to push my luck and ask Vivian hers.

“Unh-uh, Baldr”, she said. “You go first.”

“Dash. It’s Dash. Are you happy now?”

“My God, are both of your parents sadistic or just one?”

“Just my mother. My father is dead. And he was very kind to me when he was alive. So what about yours?”

“I don’t talk about my parents.”

“No. Your name. Your last name.”

“Snit. I am Vivian Snit.”

“You gotta be kidding me.”

Vivian shook her head. “And I don’t have my parents to blame for it, either. I did it to myself. I married Joshua Snit. He asked me to take his name. He said it would be proof that I really loved him. I should have heard that as a warning. I should have known, if he needed proof, I was with the wrong man.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“So am I.”

Vivian went back to her watering.

“So, what was your name before you married Joshua Snit?” I couldn’t help myself. Once I start asking questions, it’s hard to stop. She answered by turning her back to me. How long would she stay silent? I had no way of knowing.

Two days later, at breakfast, Vivian said, “Why haven’t you called the cops?”

“Beats me,” I said.

In actual fact, I knew very well why I hadn’t called the cops and hadn’t told her to leave, either. She was young and strange; and, since the separation from Hanna, I felt old and ordinary.

“That’s not much of an answer. For all you know, I’m a murderer.”

“Well, I’m still alive. Maybe I figured you got enough trouble in your life without me bringing in the law. I don’t know who you were running from when you came falling down the hill out there. Maybe it was your husband. Maybe…who knows? And maybe I don’t want to see you have to go back.”

The flicker of a smile crossed Vivian’s lips again, lingering a little longer this time.

“You’re almost as sweet as your dog,” she said, leaving the table. Then she joined Onyx in the living room.

So this is how it went: brief exchanges every couple of days embedded in a matrix of silence. At this rate, with the backlog of questions in me growing with every conversation, they’d be throwing dirt on my casket before the questions were all answered.

#

One afternoon, hoping to pry the lid loose from her recent past, I interrupted Vivian’s folding of freshly laundered towels with an intentionally pointed question. “If you’re married, where’s your wedding ring?”

She looked at me like I had just asked her to throw herself in front of a train.

“I left it on a particularly sharp stub…on a particularly dead spruce tree…in a particularly dark swamp. I told myself if I made it out of that place alive, I would never need it again. And if I didn’t make it out alive, no one was going to find whatever was left of me with that ring on my finger. One way or another, I would live a free woman, or I would die a free woman.”

She paused a moment, then said, “Do you know what I admire about you the most?”

I was afraid I’d screw it up, so I let her answer her own question.

“You never put Onyx on a leash.”

Vivian resumed her folding. She didn’t say another word for four full days.

#

It was a morning like any other, about two weeks after she’d first spoken. Vivian was washing the breakfast dishes. I was sitting at the kitchen table with my laptop, reading email. She shut off the water – the washing unfinished – turned around and leaned against the sink, hands gripping its edge behind her. I looked in her direction over the top of the screen. The way she looked back at me – well, I didn’t have to be a genius to know that I should shut down the laptop, put it aside, and pay attention. She spoke without any preamble, as though picking up the thread of a discussion after a momentary interruption.

“He got involved with this religious group. The Church of the Holy Procreator, they call themselves. The whole thing revolves around making babies. The purpose of marriage is procreation. They believe a man is like God because he is the one who makes the babies. The woman merely carries and delivers them. The man provides the seed. The woman is the soil into which the seed is planted. It’s insanely patriarchal. I don’t know how Joshua swallowed this. It’s so opposite what he told me he believed when we were dating; but, after we married, he began to change. The church thing was just the last brick in the wall. He became somebody I didn’t know. They called sex ‘doing God’s work;’ and they took all the sex out of it and left the work.

“They’d concocted this bizarre mythology based on ovulation. When I was fertile, I was his bride. It was the wedding night all over again, but better because the real wedding night may not have been the best time for conception. And rolled into this was the wedding ceremony, and part of the ceremony was the wedding dress. That’s where any similarities to our actual wedding ended.

“My first ovulation after we joined the church, Joshua brought my wedding dress out to me. I thought I’d never wear it again; but it was precious, and I kept it stored in a cedar chest in the attic – maybe for a daughter, if I ever had one. He said, ‘Put it on. Nothing underneath.’

“I thought, ‘A little kinky for him, but maybe he’s getting creative. Could be fun. ‘

“He told me to get on the bed. I did. Then he dropped his pants and mounted me. Really. That’s the only way to describe it, like I was a dumb beast. There was no foreplay at all. He didn’t kiss me. Didn’t even hold me. Supported himself on his hands like he was doing push-ups. He humped away until he planted his seed, as he put it, rolled off, wiped himself on a towel he had there, pulled his pants back up, and knelt by the side of the bed like a child and prayed aloud that the soil would be fertile and the seed would take root. I was appalled. I got up, pulled off the dress, went to the bathroom and took a long shower.

“I asked the other women in the church about this, if their husbands were maybe more loving. They said the biological part, the earthly part of conception was gross. The quicker it was done, the better. Nine months of pregnancy, the very earthly experience of childbirth, lactation and breast-feeding, all that biology was fine. No. Better than fine. It was beautiful. But sex, and the bodily responses that went with it, and the emotions that went with it, emotions they apparently did not want to feel – that was disgusting. I couldn’t figure out who was really driving this religion – the men or the women. It was like a symbiosis of sickness.

“Everything is timed around ovulation. Sex became a ritual. I guess for him it was a sacrament. For me it was more like sacrilege. Because there was no loving in it. No passion. No lust.”

“Mechanical,” I suggested.

“Yes, mechanical. And because it had to happen whether I wanted it or not, it was rape. And, as time went on, I wanted it less and less, so I got raped more and more.”

“Did you try to resist him?”

“I did. Sometimes I did. I fought back. But resistance was a sin. If I didn’t help him do ‘God’s work,’ I was sinning; and I had to be punished.

“Joshua raises pigs. There’s thirteen of them in a big pigpen out front of the house. The fence is electrified. You can adjust the juice for the kind of animal you’ve got inside. Pigs can take a lot of juice – enough to knock you on your butt. So that was my punishment. He’d put me in the pigpen and padlock the gate, which was also electrified. It didn’t matter what it was like outside. It could be fifteen degrees and raining bricks. If I sinned, out I’d go.”

I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure if what she was telling me was even true; so, to try to get something more verifiable, I asked, “Where’s their church?”

“It’s in a truck garage way down the Cold Brook Road, maybe three miles east of Vermontville. Joshua’s farm is on the west side of Vermontville, off the end of the Paye Road. It’s about five miles from there to the church.”

“I’ve seen that garage. You could put a couple of semis in there.”

“They fixed it up inside to look like a church should look, and you can almost ignore the smell of diesel oil. The first time Joshua took me there, the leader of the group – they call him Pastor Paul – gave a long sermon about our duty to increase the number of believers in the world. He kept using that word, ‘believers,’ but he never said what we were supposed to believe in: was it God, was it Jesus, was it him, or was it just the need to make more babies, to keep the women pregnant? The rest of the service was very short. It almost seemed like an afterthought.”

“Did you know anybody there besides Joshua?”

“No. They were all strangers to me. I’ve never seen any of those people anywhere else. Later, as I got to know them, I found out they came from all around, but all from tiny little places that make Vermontville look like a metropolis.”

“Such as?”

“Oh, let’s see. How about Sevey’s Corners? That was the farthest away. Inman. Duane Center. Swastika. McCollum’s. Duane’s the biggest. The population there is, what…maybe 65? The thing that struck me was not how small these places are, but how isolated. The county bus goes through McCollum’s and Duane twice a day, but the other places, nothing. They’re like little planets out in space. These women are really in their own separate worlds – literally as well as figuratively. So their interaction with other women is limited. So they’ll stay pure.”

“As in purity of thought? Purity of ideology?”

“Exactly. It was disturbing. Anything I said that came from a different way of seeing the world and a woman’s place in it was met with espousals of how great their lives were. How privileged they were to be doing ‘God’s work’ and to have such supportive husbands to take care of them and protect them. They tried to convince me how fortunate I was to be chosen by Joshua to be the vessel for his seed, that God had smiled upon me, like each of us was an expression of the Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation. It didn’t matter that I had as many lovers before Joshua as he had years in his life. He was living a fantasy – their fantasy – and he was playing it out through me. That was another reason for the wedding dress on nights of procreation. It was always the first time. We women had to be always virgin. We had to be inviolate and inviolable. And the white dress symbolized the purity of our work.”

“Even though it was disgusting.”

“Even though it was disgusting. That was only one of many ironies they didn’t notice.”

“Irony is the devil’s work.”

Vivian smirked, then continued her recollection of the after-church conversations with the women.

“Most of the time, the only thing they talked about was babies – making babies, taking care of babies, making sure there would be more babies, sharing information on ways to make sure conception would take place, to make sure pregnancy would go full term, to make sure birth would be easy. They compared one child’s personality to another in birthing terms: Rebecca was difficult; Jordan was early; Mary was quick – as though the mother’s experience of the child’s birth determined the child’s identity. Once the babies reached a certain age, they were taught to take care of the younger ones. The oldest were nothing short of surrogate parents, sacrificing their childhoods to make it possible for the mothers to keep breeding.”

Vivian delivered the last sentence with a level of venom that was almost physical. I decided never to get her angry at me. I was nearly successful.

“I’m done with them,” she said. “Do you really need to know more? I’ve got to finish these dishes.”

I didn’t want to push her too hard, but I didn’t want to let it drop; so I waited until after lunch when I said, “But you didn’t get pregnant.”

“I still had some freedom at the beginning. I had actually hoped to have children with Joshua eventually, but when he got into the Procreator thing, the idea of making a child with him under those circumstances, those notions of what motherhood should be…I just found the whole thing revolting. So, after that first time, I went to my doctor and got an IUD. And just in case something went wrong, I planted special herbs in the garden: blue cohosh, black cohosh, angelica, pennyroyal. Joshua found out they were abortifacients. He pulled them up and burned them.

“That was the first time he hit me. I hit him back. Split his lip. He couldn’t believe it. He hung his head down, but I could see the tears, anyway. I thought he was crying because he had treated me so badly. I thought he was crying from remorse. I knew it wasn’t because of the pain. He’s very tough. Turned out he was crying because he couldn’t understand why he was being punished by being given such a sinful wife. He was following God’s plan. What had he done wrong to deserve this?

“I told him this wasn’t God’s plan. This was some twisted bullshit make-believe concocted by a bunch of men who were threatened by a woman’s power and enabled by a bunch of deluded, insecure women who were unable to find fulfillment in anything other than making babies – more and more babies – because they had to have something around more helpless than them. I didn’t say that so much as shouted it, spitting out the blood that was running from my nose.

“He didn’t argue with me. He looked utterly shocked, like I’d just kicked him in the balls, which I suppose was my intent. Believe it or not, I felt sorry for him. I went to him, comforted him. I thought I would leave, but I stayed. We slept together. No sex, of course – it wasn’t the right time – but I thought maybe what had happened and what I’d said would snap him out of it. He’d come to his senses. He’d see that the way he’d been treating me was hateful and the things he’d been believing were perverted. I was wrong.”

Vivian bit her lower lip, head bowed, hand against her cheek.

“Do you want to stop?”

“I’ll be alright. It’s just…it’s…. I feel like Persephone returned from Hades.”

She raised her face to the ceiling, took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, looked out the window…then back at me.

“I’d always been able to come and go as I pleased. No questions asked. A couple of days after the fight over the herbs, I said I was going to town for a while. Joshua didn’t say anything. He nodded his head. I got in my car; but, when I turned the key, nothing happened. I took a look under the hood. I thought maybe a wire was loose. There was a loose wire, alright. I could see it hanging where it should have plugged into the coil…because the coil wasn’t there.

“Then Joshua came up behind me. He says, ‘You’re not going to Saranac Lake anymore. You’re not going anywhere off this farm except with me.’

“I ran. He caught me, picked me up – Joshua is very strong – and carried me back toward the house, but not to the house. When I saw where we were going, I started punching and kicking him. He didn’t seem to notice. He opened the pigpen gate, threw me down in the slop, and locked me in…again.”

“I heard pigs are very intelligent animals,” I said.

“They are. I got to know them quite well. At least they treated me with respect.”

Vivian stopped talking. She looked out the window again, her eyes unfocused, as though what was beyond the glass was not what she was seeing.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes.”

I gave her another minute.

“You were talking about the pigpen.”

“Yes. I was. You’re right.”

After another few minutes, she said, “Joshua came back after dark. He pulled off my shoes and left again. I was too depleted to fight him. He didn’t let me out until the following sunset. He said he had a surprise for me. There was nothing creepy about the way he said it, but I was creeped out anyway.

“When we got to the porch, before he’d even opened the door to the cabin, I could smell it. It was like smelling heaven, considering I hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours. I have a high metabolism. I need a lot of food.”

“I’ve noticed that,” I wanted to say but didn’t interrupt.

“We went inside, and the table was set. He had a candle burning in the middle. He’d made it real nice, but I didn’t care about that. I just wanted to eat. Then, when he was asleep, I’d be out of there. I didn’t need a car. I just needed to get away from this madman I’d married. I’d walk to Saranac Lake, if I had to. It’s only thirteen miles. It would take me four hours if I kept a good pace.

“Joshua had made a big pot of venison stew. It was the end of our last deer, something you’d save for a special occasion. It was delicious. I ate two huge bowls of it. I actually started to thank him. Then I passed out. Just before it all went black, I realized Joshua had drugged my stew; and I knew this was only the beginning of the surprise.

“When I woke up, it was after noon the next day. My pigsty clothes were gone. Joshua had dressed me in a clean blouse and skirt. No shoes. No underwear. There was a chain where my belt should be. It was wrapped in velvet so it wouldn’t bruise me or leave other marks on my body. The chain was closed with a padlock that connected it to a cable by a loop made with a cable-clamp. The other end of the cable was clamped around a post that supports the main crossbeam in the cabin. The cable was long enough for me to go anywhere I needed inside the house. Outside, I could get on the porch but not off it.

“Joshua was outside feeding the dogs. They always make a big noise when he comes with the food. There are ten of them. He bred them as hunting dogs for big-game. It doesn’t matter that hunting big game with dogs is against the law. It’s the traditional way; the way things were always done going back to prehistoric times. Joshua insisted there were higher laws. This should have been a signal to me that there was something wrong, that he was not right for me. But, in the early days, he was so kind and so considerate, polite, deferential. And he was handsome and strong and very virile. Inexperienced, but virile. I thought I could teach him how to please me. Even temper his ideas about what he called God’s law, the law of nature. For all my own experience, I couldn’t have been more naïve.

“I looked everywhere for the tools that could set me free. They were gone. No wrench. No pliers. No hacksaw. No bolt cutter. He had taken them all away. One side of the kitchen faces the dog yard. I took a cast iron frying pan off the stove and threw it through the window over the sink. I screamed. Just screams, at first. Then words. Then sentences. I couldn’t seem to stop myself. I cursed him and his church and his God in every way I could think of cursing.

“The front door opened. Joshua stepped into the room. I grabbed a glass from the drying rack and hurled it at him. It would have hit him, but he was quick enough to step behind the half-open door. It shattered against the door frame.

“He said, ‘You can throw everything at me there is to throw. When you’re done, I’ll still come in, and you’ll still be on a tether.’

“The last curse I shouted was, ‘May your dogs rip you apart and feed the pieces to the pigs!’ Then I sat on the floor and cried.

“When Joshua came in again, I didn’t throw anything. Why waste the energy? He cleaned up the broken glass and put a piece of plywood over the window. He said, ‘You’d better start making dinner.’ Very matter-of-fact, like everything was completely normal. When he went to bed that night, I refused to go with him. He didn’t protest. I slept on the couch.

“I got up in the middle of the night to use the computer – an old laptop Joshua had gotten at a yard sale – to email my parents about my situation. They’d always been suspicious of Joshua, and they weren’t afraid of him. My parents and I were not on the best of terms, hadn’t had much contact since the marriage; but I knew they would do whatever was necessary to get me out of there.

“The computer was gone. So were the cell phones – which don’t work there half the time anyway – his and mine both, along with every pair of my shoes and all my underwear. How a bra and panties were supposed to help me escape is something I still haven’t figured out; but it certainly added to the creepiness factor. Maybe that’s what he intended. Maybe he thought that would intimidate me. A kind of passive-aggressive sexual dominance. I tried to call out on the land line. I hoped, if I whispered, he wouldn’t hear me. But it was dead. By this point, I wasn’t surprised.

“The way the chain was wrapped around my waist, it was easy to change blouses and shirts or pants and skirts; but a dress was more difficult, especially the wedding dress with its frills and its long skirt. The space between the chain and my body wasn’t wide enough to allow all that fabric through. When procreation day came, Joshua presented me with a pair of leg irons. I don’t know where he got them. I went nuts. I tried to whip him with the cable, but he got hold of it and wrapped all the slack around one of the bedposts, so I could kick and swing my fists, but I couldn’t go anywhere. Then he explained to me that the leg irons were just temporary, just so he could take off the chain so I could put on the wedding dress.

“He said, ‘Be nice, now. This dress is your purity made manifest. You don’t want to ruin it.’

“I thought I’d kick him in the face when he tried to put the irons on, but then I decided he would eventually get them on regardless. He was so much stronger than me, and I was as likely to get hurt as him in the process. So I stopped fighting it, but I didn’t cooperate. I made him do everything. He took my shirt and jeans off, put the leg irons on, unlocked the cable from the chain around my waist and locked the cable to the chain between the irons. He put the wedding dress over my head, buttoned it up in the back. Then he reversed the procedure with the chains and irons and the cable. He gave me enough slack in the cable to get on the bed. He was pointing at it. I didn’t complain. I got on the bed and assumed the missionary position. I had a little surprise for him. He climbed up from the end of the bed to mount me, and I kneed him in the groin. The look on his face was worth most of what followed.

“When he recovered, Joshua grabbed me by the ankles and slapped the irons back on. He wasn’t gentle about it. He dragged me toward him until my feet touched the floor and pulled me upright by the waist chain. He unlocked the cable. He threw the chain on the bed, unbuttoned the wedding dress and pulled it off.

“I knew what was coming next. I had committed an act of violence against his godhood. Such a terrible crime could not go unpunished. I thought at least he’d give me some other clothes to wear, but he didn’t. He said, ‘The sinner must repent or pay the price of her sin,’ and he pointed at the door.

“I tried to punch him, but he caught me by the wrist at half swing; and, the next thing I knew, my arm was twisted behind my back. I had no doubt he could have broken it if he wanted. He pushed me through the kitchen, opened the door, pushed me onto the porch. When we got down to the lawn, he let go of my arm. He said, ‘I don’t mean to hurt you. I trust you to go the rest of the way under your own control. God loves you.’

“It was those last three words. If he hadn’t said those last three words, I wouldn’t have done what I did next. It was stupid. I knew that even before I did it. I turned around and took another swing at him. He ducked, grabbed the ankle chain, and pulled me off my feet. I landed on my back, and Joshua dragged me across the lawn to the pigs. I thought he’d pull my feet off before we got there. He opened the gate and slid me to the far side of the sty. Then he took his time getting back to the gate, patting the pigs as he went. He knew there was no way I could catch him shackled as I was. He locked the gate behind him and walked away to the cabin.

“It had been raining all day and the temperature was dropping. I sat shivering, naked, covered with cold mud. I spent the night between two sleeping sows trying to keep from freezing to death, thinking I had to be smarter about what was happening to me. I had to be calm. I had to be patient. Sooner or later, someone would wonder why they hadn’t seen me, wonder what had happened to me, maybe come looking for me. Or Joshua would make a mistake. He couldn’t think of everything. He couldn’t control everything. One day or night he’d slip up. I just had to be ready, had to be alert to the opportunity when it presented itself.”

#

Vivian decided she would cooperate. But her body would not cooperate, not with that IUD in it.

“Joshua kept me in the house for almost a month. He only let me out again because people began asking what happened to me, why didn’t they see me anywhere anymore. He told them I was home sick. Then they started offering to come by to visit, to help, to bring meals, that sort of thing. He told me all this. He said, ‘I’m going to have to let you out. You can come with me to Gene’s. You can come with me to Norman’s. You can come to church. But I’m not going to take you to Saranac Lake.’

“He said he couldn’t trust me there. He could trust me in Vermontville at Gene’s. He could trust me in Bloomingdale at Norman’s. But Saranac Lake was the devil’s playground. To him it might as well have been San Francisco. Too much temptation for my weak character. He was afraid if he exposed me to so much sin, I’d become more sinful than I was already, and he’d lose the little progress he’d made with me since the day he put me on the leash – which I was still on except when he took me with him to church or to get supplies – to Gene’s and Norman’s, like I said. But even in those places, he wouldn’t let me get near the door unless he was standing next to me.

“After a few more months, Joshua began to wonder why I hadn’t gotten pregnant. He still had me tracking my cycle, only he didn’t trust me to check my ovulation alone. He had to be there to see the result. Then he had himself evaluated. His doctor said there was nothing wrong with him; he had a healthy sperm count. So, it must be me.

“Joshua didn’t want to take me to my doctor in Saranac Lake. He didn’t trust her. He set up an appointment with a gynecologist in Malone. I said a prayer. The doctor – Garfield Black – must’ve been a hundred years old. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. When he refused to allow Joshua into the examination room, I knew half my prayer had been heard. I told the doctor about the Church of the Holy Procreator and the IUD. He understood. He said not to worry. I didn’t tell him about the leash or the pigsty. I didn’t want to get Joshua arrested or see him in jail. I just wanted to get away from him. He wasn’t a bad person. He was confused. Maybe something would happen to make him see how crazy this Procreator stuff was. He’d come around. And if he didn’t, I’d be gone. Time was on my side. My chance would come. So I didn’t say anything. That was the biggest mistake I ever made.

“When we returned to the waiting room, Joshua stood up and said, ‘Well, Doc, what’s wrong with her?’

“He got corrected immediately. The doctor said, ‘You will address me as Doctor Black, and there is nothing wrong with you wife. She has no anatomical or biological irregularities that would prevent conception. She is strong and healthy. Be thankful for that.’

“When Joshua asked the doctor why I wasn’t getting pregnant when he was doing everything right, the doctor said, ‘It’s not up to you. It’s up to God.’

“I could have kissed that man. You should have seen Joshua’s face. He got me out of there in a hurry.”

#

They went home. The months passed. The leash remained. Though Vivian was uncombative and cooperative, Joshua could not bring himself to trust her. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong with Vivian regardless of what Dr. Garfield Black of Malone had told him. There was something Vivian was doing to sabotage “God’s work.”

“He asked me outright one day – it was in March – ‘have you got one of those intra-uterine devices inside you?’ I said, ‘No,’ without hesitation, looking him square in the eye, doing my best to make a bald-faced lie sound like the truth. He didn’t believe me.

“He said, ‘Here’s the way it’s going to be. You are not pregnant this month, so you are going to be punished for one day. For every month after this that you fail to provide a fertile bed for my seed, you will be punished; and an extra day will be added to your punishment for each month that passes that my seed does not take root.’ I asked him if those days would be spread out through the month or consecutive. He said consecutive.”

Vivian paused, shook her head, lips pressed tight.

“I thought about killing him. There were many ways I could do it. But I might wind up dead also. Nobody but Joshua had come down our driveway in over half a year. It’s not an inviting place. There are five different signs at the beginning of the drive warning that this is private property and trespassers will not be treated kindly. Then there are the gates – two of them – locked at all times. The only outsiders with keys are the chief and the assistant chief of the Bloomingdale Volunteer Fire Department.

“The driveway runs a half mile west through the woods from the end of the Paye Road before it even gets to the first of our clearings, where the garden is. Then there’s a line of trees and another clearing – the old sheep meadow waiting to be a sheep meadow again, except Joshua doesn’t have the money to start a flock because of his 20% tithe to the church. Then more trees and the final clearing with the pigsty and the dog yard with its ten hutches and then the cabin, which was once half the size it is now. Joshua expanded it to make space for the children I was supposed to give him. Its only outside utility is the single telephone line that I insisted on as a condition of our marriage. Electricity comes from solar panels and a small wind turbine. Heat comes from wood. Mail is picked up at the post office in Vermontville. Joshua gets the propane tanks refilled at Gene’s.

“There was enough food in the house for a week. Enough firewood for maybe ten days. The leash wouldn’t let me reach the woodshed. The garden might as well have been a dream. Sure, I could kill him; but, if I didn’t starve to death before someone found me, I’d probably freeze. I put the idea aside. It was just too crazy.”

“By July, it didn’t seem so crazy – or at least less crazy than not doing anything. I was thinking, ‘If I don’t figure out some way to get away from here, I’ll end up dead anyway.’ Two days later, Joshua took me with him on his regular run to Gene’s, and I saw Walt LaVoy, their new employee. The first thing I thought was, ‘There he is. That’s my rescuer.’

“He was tall – taller than Joshua, though not as heavily built. Still, he was strong looking. He was just a kid, really. He told me later he was seventeen. Handsome in a mild sort of way. He lived in a little house on Sink Hole Road with his father and sister. She’s a track and basketball star at the high school. He was very proud of that.

“Gene had Walt stocking shelves, most of the time, so it was easy to talk to him in little bits; and I gradually cultivated a relationship with him. He was not shy but serious and courteous. I could tell he liked me. I’m sure he was flattered that a grown woman would pay such attention to him, relate to him as a man and not as a boy. Maybe he even found it exciting. Maybe he fantasized about me. I was hoping he did. I was counting on him wanting me enough to come to the farm and free me.

“Each time we went to Gene’s, I gave Walt a little more information. After several weeks, he knew where I lived, how to get there, and when Joshua was not around. I made him promise to keep whatever I told him secret. But I didn’t tell him about the leash. That might be too much for him. He might tell somebody. If Joshua got wind of it, I feared what he might do to me.

“I tried to be discreet, but Joshua must have noticed my little trysts with Walt. One day, as we got out of the truck at Gene’s, he said, ‘I want you to behave yourself. If I catch you talking to that boy again, it’ll be the last time you come here.’

“I was desperate. We went into the store. I didn’t go near Walt. When he approached me, I gave him a walleyed look and shook my head. Finally, he went into the stockroom. I took a can of soup from the shelf and tore the label off. Then I took a pen from a spinner rack and broke it out of its blister. I wrote a note on the inside of the label: ‘I’m being held prisoner at the cabin. Come free me as soon as you can. Bring bolt cutters and a pair of sneakers no smaller than size eight.’

“I folded it and dropped it on the floor where Walt had been stocking and said a prayer to the Goddess that Joshua would not see it and Walt would. Then I told Joshua, who was talking to Gene at the cash register, that I wasn’t feeling well and could we go home soon. As we left the store, he said, ‘Not feeling well? Maybe coming on to ovulation time.’

“He was right about that. I ovulated the next day. We did the procreation ritual as usual; but, when Joshua was done, he said, ‘Maybe you’re just odd. Maybe ovulation is not when you’re most fertile. I think we’ll try for a few more days.’ Somebody must have clued him in to the concept of the fertility window. He didn’t ask me why I hadn’t told him.

“That’s how it was, then. Each day, he dressed me in the wedding gown before he went hunting – he was after small game, using a Remington .20-gauge shotgun for rabbits or grouse or maybe a turkey or anything else he might flush…it didn’t matter the season hadn’t started. When he came back, I had to be ready for him to do ‘God’s work.’

“I didn’t know when Walt would come, didn’t know if he would come at all or if he’d even seen my note. And, if he had seen it, did he open it and read it or just throw it in the trash not knowing what it was? I could only hope he saw it and read it and remembered that Joshua always went hunting in the afternoon. That was the safest time to come.

“I didn’t dare change into regular clothes. I thought getting out of the wedding dress with the leash on might be easier than getting into it; but what if it wasn’t? What if I got stuck with it half off and couldn’t get it all the way back on again? If Joshua came home and found me like that, he would be angry. And it could be worse if I succeeded. If Joshua returned, and I was in street clothes, he wouldn’t be just angry. He would be suspicious. I couldn’t risk him thinking I was plotting an escape. For a wife to run away from her husband was the worst sin a woman could commit. No punishment was too severe. I would have to wait for Walt in the wedding dress.

“But Walt didn’t come. Not the first day and not the next. But on the third day, there was a knock on the door. I opened it, and Walt stood there, my young rescuer, with a hacksaw in his hand and a pair of track shoes hanging by the laces from his belt.

“I said, ‘Where are the bolt cutters?’

“He said, ‘We don’t have any. But I got my sister’s shoes.’

“He looked at me like he couldn’t quite figure out what he was seeing. Then he said, ‘I couldn’t get my parents car, so I rode my bike.’

“And then, like what he was seeing finally dawned on him, he said, ‘Oh my God!’ and stepped into the kitchen.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, alright. Oh my God, no bolt cutters. Oh my God, no car. Oh my God, we’re screwed.’ But I said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll be alright, but we have to move fast.’

“I stripped the velvet off the chain with a pair of poultry shears, and Walt went to work with the hacksaw. It was slow going and awkward. There wasn’t enough slack in the chain to put it on the edge of a table or something else stable enough for sawing. We got a piece of furring strip from the kindling pile and slipped it between the chain and my dress. I leaned against the wall and held the chain on the wood above my hip, and he got down on his knees to saw. He had to stop every few minutes to let the steel cool off even though we were lubricating it with cooking oil. It just got too hot to hold in place. He had to cut through both sides of the link. It seemed to take forever.

“While he was working, I told him how brave he was and how glad I was that he’d come, how thankful. He looked up at me like I was Guinevere or something. What a sweet boy. I wish we’d had more time.”

I saw the tears rise in Vivian’s eyes and spill over, silently. I brought her some tissue. She shook her head.

“This face needs to feel these tears,” she said.

Walt cut through the chain. Vivian was free. He unlaced the shoes from his belt and placed them on the floor for her to step into. At that moment, the door flew open and Joshua Snit stepped into the room, the Remington in one hand and no game in the other.

“That was not a good sign. Coming home empty handed? The hunter? The provider? It always made him feel inadequate, and that seriously shortened his fuse. Then he noticed my dress, oil stained and speckled with steel dust.

“I moved over to the sink. Walt was behind Joshua, now, standing between him and the door. His presence hadn’t seemed to register with Joshua, or the fact that I was off the leash.

“’What have you done to your dress?’ he bellowed. He was pointing the shotgun at me now.

“’Is there no limit to your sin? Must you sully everything that is pure?’

“I thought he might shoot me, he was so enraged. But he wheeled around, pointed the gun at Walt.

“’And you,’ he shouted, ‘you trespasser, coveting my wife these weeks! Do you think I’m blind? And so now you’re here to kidnap her? Steal my wife from me? Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you where you stand.’

“Poor Walt. He hadn’t bargained for this. He looked like he had just seen the end of the world.

“I said, ‘Stop it, Joshua. This wasn’t his idea. I lured him into it. I told him to bring the shoes and the hacksaw. Kill me if you’ve got to kill someone. He’s just an innocent.’

“But Joshua wasn’t hearing me. He pumped a shell into the chamber and aimed the gun at Walt’s chest. He said, ‘The Lord giveth,’ his voice rising. I knew where this was going. He was saying, ‘And the Lord….’

“Walt hadn’t moved. It was like his feet were nailed to the floor. I grabbed a pot by the handle – a big, heavy one – and swung it with all my strength as Joshua said, ‘Taketh away.’

“I don’t know what came first, the blast of the gun or the clang of the pot against the side of Joshua’s head. They both fell together. Poor blameless Walt. If you’re that close to the muzzle, it doesn’t matter that the gun is only meant to kill rabbits. When I looked at his face, so full of surprise at his stolen life, I felt a pain like I’ve never felt before and haven’t stopped feeling since.

“And then, before I even realized I was moving, I was out the door.”

#

Vivian ran from the house, left the front door agape and the screen door flapping in the wind. The hogs grunted greeting as they watched her go, her long strides carrying her past their pen and into the second growth forest west of the farm, down a long-abandoned logging road choked with saplings of aspen and birch. She didn’t think about the men she left in the house. She didn’t wonder if Snit was dead, didn’t doubt that Walt-the-rescuer was. She thought about nothing until she reached the Oregon Plains Road where it crossed the old Delaware and Hudson Railroad bed, long ago shorn of tracks and ties, and the logging road came to an end…or a beginning.

She stood for a moment and listened. Nothing. The wind had stopped. Silence, like the world was holding its breath. Then she exhaled and began walking the road south, the empty pavement stretching away before her, a straight black wound in the flesh of the forest; and, this being the Oregon Plains Road, it stayed empty. She looked down and saw the shoes on her feet, the ones Walt had brought. She didn’t remember putting them on.

As she neared the Swinyer Road, she heard her fear for the first time. It barked and bayed. Snit was alive. Would he catch her, capture her? No. He didn’t need to catch her. His hounds would do that. The only thing she feared now more than Snit himself was his dogs, the ones he’d bred to bring down bear.

Vivian froze for just an instant. Then she dove in among the trees off the road to the right, cutting southwest among gnarly Scotch pine, the ruffled skirt of the wedding dress snagging, slowing her down. She stopped long enough to tear it away mid-thigh and continued her flight. When she came to the unpaved swath of Merrill Road, she turned right again and followed it jog trotting over the bridge at Negro Brook. She would have waded part way across and then downstream to cover her scent, but the brook was swollen from recent storms, the water too deep, too swift.

Soon she came again to the old D & H, where she turned left following it south, the hounds distant but still audible even though a breeze had come up, and the trees – they were black spruce and balsam fir and so densely packed that the mossy ground they grew upon never saw the sun – the trees gave the wind a voice. It said, “Shhhhh,” as if instructing the creatures who lived here to tell no one of this woman’s passing.

Where the grade crossed Negro Brook, she stopped and considered, but the flow was even swifter here than it was under Merrill Road. The wind slackened again, and she thought she could hear the hounds closer now. When she stopped at the edge of a beaver meadow which only the previous year had been a pond, she knew she could hear the hounds closer.

She scrambled down the steep embankment to the meadow, thrashed her way across it pursued by emerald katydids and ruby dragonflies, splashed headlong across the small stream at the meadow’s heart, then trudged on through thigh-deep mud that splattered her dress and stuck to her legs like a thick soup and filled the holes she made in it as soon as her feet cleared the surface.

Past the abandoned beaver lodge, its inhabitants having forsaken this place for somewhere less accessible, finally fed up with rebuilding the dam the two-leggeds habitually wrecked, past a pair of overturned pines that had lain on their sides for generations, their naked and upturned roots like signposts to desolation, she floundered into a zone of sphagnum and scattered tamaracks. Was there a better place to fall down? Probably not; so she let gravity take her, then rolled onto her back. She lay there watching the summer clouds blossom in the heat, trying to match her ragged breathing to their smooth unfolding and waiting for the pounding to subside in her chest. She sank slowly into the moss. The cold and acid-clean water oozed up around her flanks, over her arms, between her legs. It soothed her skin, hot from exertion and from the insults of sharp twigs, whipping branches, and the mouths of biting flies.

She closed her eyes and listened to the voices of the hounds approaching. She knew what would happen. She had time now to gather her strength. The barking and baying suddenly ceased, the dogs caught in the maw of confusion, followed by yelping, alarmed and frantic, as they wallowed in muck that darkened the chest of the tallest of them. They would be going nowhere else until their owner rescued them. And how far behind was he? She didn’t dare guess. It was time to move again.

Vivian rolled back on her belly and crawled south across the bog, then up a trickling stream under a screen of spruce to another bog where she knew she could no longer be seen and stood up and marched west across the spongy ground back to the railroad grade, protected from view at that point by an intervening curve. She faced south again and walked.

Five minutes later, she crossed Bigelow Road, dirt surfaced and dead-ended, used by people looking for a place to shoot their guns or dump their trash and by other characters she didn’t want to meet. She quickly came a third time to Negro Brook – still not fordable. Two minutes past that, she was at Rickerson Brook, ponded behind a beaver dam and then roaring under the bridge the snowmobilers had built to replace the trestle the railroad removed for scrap. A minute later, she was standing at the edge of the highway between Bloomingdale and Gabriels. If she waited, a car would come, or a truck, or something, and someone would give her a ride.

But what if Snit went back? What if he’d gathered his dogs from the beaver meadow and gone home and got his truck and was driving around looking for her? What if he was the next one to come down this road?

No. He couldn’t get the hounds out and home and get here that fast. Could he? Better not chance it. Better keep to the old railroad bed.

Vivian dashed across the highway, then slowed to a brisk walk once she was in the shelter of the forest again. She was heading toward the Bloomingdale Bog, a huge boreal wetland and a mecca for birders and rare-plant enthusiasts and folks from Saranac Lake out for an afternoon stroll or bike ride. She didn’t want them to see her, and she didn’t know why. Half a mile south of the highway, she came to a power line. She stood beneath the wires looking east toward a hill, not very distant, clothed in hardwoods. Good shelter there. Easy walking. But she knew that between it and her was Twobridge Brook, to which Negro and Rickerson Brooks where mere tributaries. She stayed on the grade.

Then she heard voices. She ducked into the woods, lay on her belly behind a fallen tree and watched through the mesh of broken branches a family – mother, father, two children – passing northbound on bicycles. She could stop them, tell them what happened. But would they listen? Would they call 911? Would they pedal away frightened, thinking her obviously homeless and crazy? And if they did dial 911, would the authorities believe her? Or had Snit already called and given them some story that made her the villain? Would he do that? She held her breath, though it wasn’t necessary. The family never saw or heard her. They continued on their way.

A quarter mile south of the power line came the bridge over Twobridge Brook, the channel flanked by wide strips of marsh with hummocked grasses and clumps of cattails. Vivian crossed it at a full run, eager to get back to the safety of the trees. Beyond the bridge, the forest was close on the right; but, on the left, there was water, black with bog tannins, twenty feet wide and who-knew how deep, a one-and-a-half-mile ditch cut into the bog to divert water flowing from the east away from the railroad bed and drain it down to the brook. She knew that soon she’d be in the bog proper. There would be no more trees, no place to hide. The ditch was the only obstacle remaining, she thought, between her and the hill with its hardwoods. She knew there would be no bridges across it, but there would be beaver dams.

She chose a dam where the forest on the other side looked driest and the hill beyond looked closest. The dam was high and steep sided, narrow crowned and slippery, but she made it across and quickly found herself in a wooded hell of interwoven spruce and cedar where the only way forward was to crawl and the only thing to crawl upon were the moss-covered roots of the trees emerging from pools of water in which she could see her face reflected as in a dark mirror. After the first reflection, she avoided looking.

At one point, she almost gave up. She had fallen into a hole, the icy water shocking her like a kick to the kidney, and extricated herself only to find the way blocked by a chaos of blowdown. She had finally reached a strip of dry ground, finally managed to stand upright, and here was this wall of shattered limbs and uprooted trunks. There didn’t seem to be any way through. How far would she have to go back into the spruce and cedar hell to get around it? She was shaking from cold and exhaustion. What was the point? She was defeated. There was no escape. If Snit didn’t kill her, the forest would – the forest which had always been her ally and had now turned against her. She might as well lie down and die right here. And she did lie down, and she closed her eyes, and she did not die. She slept.

She awoke to a snuffling sound and a bad smell. She opened her eyes and turned her head to the side and saw the bear, a yearling by the look of it, not a dozen yards away. It seemed to be looking for something along the base of the blowdown. Then it found what it was looking for and disappeared. Vivian followed the bear. There was a way through the blowdown, and the bear knew it. Emerging on the other side on her hands and knees, Vivian stood up beneath the hardwoods and watched the bear humping up the hill until she couldn’t see it anymore. Then she, too, climbed the slope. When she was just below its crest, she turned right and followed it south. The air was warm here, the ground uneven but solid. The trees – maple and ash, beech and black cherry and yellow birch – were large and well-spaced, and what debris there was on the forest floor could be easily avoided. When she had thought she was trapped in a merciless world, the Goddess had shown mercy.

Though there was no trail, it was easy going for the next few miles, with a couple of hills and streams – easily negotiated – then the gradual climb up the long, southwest-trending spine of Brewster Mountain to its highest hump. She covered all this ground in less time than the eighth of a mile between the beaver dam and the blowdown. She rested.

There was no view from the summit, but Vivian could hear the stone-crushers chewing the granite that Greymont quarried from the core of the mountain four hundred feet below her and nearly a mile south. She would stay away from that, keep going southwest.

The descent was more difficult than the climb. It was booby-trapped with broken ledges under a cover of dead leaves and sheets of thick moss, a network of deep fissures, invisible to the undiscerning eye, waiting to break a leg…or worse. Vivian moved slowly. She picked up a stick and used it to test every step for hidden hazards.

Near the bottom of the mountain, she came to a small promontory, and from it she could see the valley that bounded the mountain on its south and the floor of that valley and what waited for her there. She had a choice between another marsh-lined stream or another spruce swamp. To the west of the spruce swamp was a beaver meadow or a bog – it was hard to tell which – turned tawny by the late day light, a place where two dark-water streams met. That was no choice at all.

She headed toward the swamp, aiming for what looked like the narrowest spot, though aiming didn’t guarantee hitting and narrowness didn’t guarantee ease of passage. By the time she reached the edge of it, Vivian had decided where she would go. Up to this point, she hadn’t been planning – just fleeing. She would go to Jenny’s place in town, in Saranac Lake, on Park Avenue. She could trust Jenny. Even though they hadn’t seen each other in years, she could trust her. It didn’t matter how long they were apart. They would still pick the thoughts from each other’s brains when they met again. It had always been that way. She would go to Jenny’s where she could rest, take her time, decide what to do next. And she could get there without much exposure, she thought.

Relieved and hopeful, Vivian entered the swamp. It was only a fifth of a mile from one side to the other. When she emerged from it, nearly an hour later, bleeding and bruised, she felt like she’d been flogged. Barefoot now – her shoes pulled from her feet in a pit of black muck – she hadn’t any idea what she looked like, and she didn’t want to know.

She came out at a power line. She turned right, followed the wires to a dogleg left and uphill from there to the back of the Lake Colby substation, its giant transformers humming with an energy Vivian wished she could tap. She ducked away to the left of the powerline into a windbreak of paper birch and quaking aspen that separated the substation from the mowed fields of Snowball Hill Farm. The windbreak ended in a clump of cedars. Fifty feet beyond that, she was crouching at the edge of Trudeau Road. It was an east-west thoroughfare at this point; but, a tenth of a mile to her left, it turned south. To her right, less than a hundred feet away, was a “T” intersection from which Mt. Pisgah Lane also ran south but at a slightly higher elevation.

On the other side of the road was what used to be farmland, now gone to houses. She chose a route below the houses on Mt. Pisgah Lane and above those on Trudeau Road, staying low, threading through tall-grass meadows and patches of third-growth woods. When she stepped into sunlight at Frog Pond, she rested. Beyond a strip of evergreens upslope, she could hear a tennis ball being volleyed on the courts at the Mount Pisgah ski center. Time to move again.

She put the pond behind her, hurried past the million-gallon concrete barrel of the municipal reservoir, and entered the beautiful, old hardwood forest that cloaks the mid-slopes of Mount Pisgah on east and south and west, broken by overlapping lines of low cliffs beneath which lie the backyards of houses on village streets: Old Military Road, Mountain Lane, Cliff Road, Baker Street. Looking down from the clifftops, she followed Baker Street nearly to its western end where there is a gap in the mountain wall, a steep and boulder strewn slope that gives onto a pair of bungalows – the one on the left yellow, the one on the right blue.

Vivian knew where she was, and she knew she should be just a little farther west where she could come out on the far side of the blue bungalow. Then she could run down a driveway to Baker Street, dash across it and sidle along the big apartment house that used to be called the Smithwick Cottage, coming onto Park Avenue directly opposite the place where Jenny lived.

But she couldn’t run down that driveway – couldn’t even walk down it, she was sure. It was paved not with true gravel but with stone broken by the crushers on Brewster Mountain. It was all pointed corners and sharp edges, and her feet would fail her there. They were bruised, cut, swollen; her toes every color but the color toes are supposed to be. They hurt. They throbbed. She would have to go straight down the sloping lawn between the two bungalows. It would be farther on Baker Street to the Smithwick Cottage. She would just have to run until she stopped running.

She was about to begin, to put the first complaining foot forward, when the thought she had least wanted to think forced itself upward into her consciousness. What if Jenny isn’t there? What if she isn’t coming back till late, or until tomorrow? Worse, what if she’d moved? What if someone else answers the door? Or what if she is there but not alone? What if she’s with a man? What if…?

Vivian took one step and felt she would faint. She was dizzy, her mouth parched more from apprehension then from thirst, though she was desperately thirsty. Another step. Then another. She was committed, now, by gravity if by nothing else. Two more steps, the slope steepening. She faltered but regained her balance. Then she started to slide, the soil thin and slick as grease. She grabbed a tree, forcing back waves of nausea, and continued downward like a drunk on a broken stairway in the dark. She heard a dog bark, watched its white body weaving upward among the rocks, biggest pit bull she’d ever seen, closing in quickly, jaw muscles the size of her fists. A door opened at the back of the yellow bungalow. A man’s voice called out, “Onyx! Come!” But the dog ignored the voice.

Vivian slipped again, fell backward, sat, the hillside spinning around her. Then a cold nose probing, sniffing her odors, and a long, warm tongue licking her face, soulful brown eyes telling her there was no need to be afraid. A hand extended toward her, the male voice that had unsuccessfully called the dog saying, “You’re lucky you didn’t break your head.”

Vivian slapped the hand away, stood, slipped, caught herself, stepped forward. She was surprised by how far down she had come. She was almost out of the woods, the dog leading the way, now, around the end of an old, wire fence, across a small yard more shrubs than grass, down stone stairs unevenly placed, through an open door, the man close behind. She pitched forward. She vomited. The room looked like a kitchen, but there was no shotgun and no blood. There was darkness. There was forgetting.

#

Five weeks after she first spoke, Vivian said, “I need to go back to the cabin. Will you take me?”

“Why?”

“Because you have a truck and I don’t.”

“No. I mean why go back? What is it that you need that’s worth the risk?”

“My identity.”

“You can get all that stuff replaced. Credit cards, passport, Social Security card, birth certificate, checkbooks, all of it.”

“I have some personal things. Some things that can’t be replaced. Things I’ve hidden from Joshua. My journals, for instance. Some other things, too; but mostly my journals.”

“But what if he’s there? Worse, what if he’s not there but shows up while we are? Do you really want to relive that horror show? I can tell you, I’m not interested in finding myself at the wrong end of a Remington.”

“It won’t happen that way this time. He’s not expecting anything. He has no idea I’ll be coming back. With Walt and me, Joshua must have expected something. He must have been waiting for days – maybe even weeks – pretending he was hunting but hidden somewhere waiting for Walt to show up, then giving him enough time to come inside and get me off the leash but not enough time to get me out of there. Now there’s nothing for him to wait for. He’ll never know we’ve been there. He’ll be hunting or fishing or laying a trap line. He always goes off into the woods or down to the brook when he’s done taking care of the animals.”

“Unless he’s still waiting.”

“Waiting for a what?”

“Waiting for you. Waiting for you to come back. You may think there’s nothing for him to wait for. I disagree.”

There was silence between us for several minutes while Vivian considered this possibility with pursed lips and a downward gaze.

Finally, she said, “Do you have a gun?”

“I don’t do guns.”

“You should have a gun.”

#

The next day, just past one in the afternoon, we drove to Vermontville. It was the first time Vivian had been outside in nearly two months. It was late October now, the color gone from the trees except for the aspens and tamaracks, the ferns cold-killed, the earth crunchy underfoot in the morning before the sun pulled the frost from the soil.

I parked the truck at the end of Paye Road, and we walked the long and rutted driveway westward to what had been Vivian’s home. I don’t mind admitting, I was scared.

We arrived at the final clearing. The cabin and its outbuildings stood exactly as Vivian had described them. It was warm for this time of year, the sun unhindered by clouds, no wind, the sky a brilliant late-autumn blue; but there was something sinister about the place, and it was eerily quiet. I felt like I’d fallen into an open grave.

“Where’s the truck?” Vivian asked, stopping us a hundred feet from the house. “I don’t like this. It doesn’t fit the pattern. He should be hunting in the hills. He always walks. The truck should be here.”

“Maybe after you left, his pattern changed,” I offered. “Or maybe his truck needed work, and it’s in the shop somewhere. Or he could be hunting someplace farther away.”

“I don’t like it,” Vivian repeated, doing nothing to soothe my jittery nerves. “And where are the pigs? They’re never inside on a day like this. And the dogs. Where are the dogs? They should be making noise by now.”

We advanced slowly, like a pair of wary warriors entering no-man’s land. When we stepped onto the porch, I whispered, “Are you sure you want to go in there?”

“No,” Vivian said more loudly than I would have wished, “but I’m going anyway.”

She opened the door, and we went in. The kitchen was spotless, as though a crew of cleaners had just departed. There was no dust, no dirt, and, most tellingly, not a stain anywhere. Everything was in its proper place. It was hard to believe that anyone had ever lived there, let alone died there. The rest of the cabin was the same – scrupulously clean, meticulously arranged. The woodstove looked as though it had never held a fire. The bed was perfectly made. The bathroom fixtures gleamed. The slants of sunlight falling through the windows were devoid of dust. It was uncanny. How was it possible to make a place so clean? There was no sign of the Remington.

“It’s got stuff in it, but it feels empty,” I said, more to myself than to anyone else.

“After the first few months, it was always empty,” Vivian said, “even when both of us were here…especially when both of us were here.”

She stood very still, then, as though listening to something beyond hearing.

“Go back to the kitchen,” she said. “Keep an eye out the front window. I’m going to collect my things, and then we’re getting out of here. I feel like we’re walking around on the trigger of a trap.”

No doubt about it, the woman had a way of assuaging my fears. I went to the window. She rejoined me a few minutes later, a day pack on her back, a small duffel bag hanging from her left hand.

“Let’s go,” she said.

We stepped out into the warm, still air. Not even a bird moved.

“What did he do with the animals? It’s like it was when I first saw it. Does he still think I’m going to come back? Is that what this is all about? Like turning back the clock? Like if he made it the way it was before, nothing between then and now would have actually happened? It would all be erased? All made unreal?”

Vivian moved from building to building with a purposefulness that made no sense to me. It seemed the plan of leaving immediately had been forgotten. I followed her, partly because I didn’t want to be left standing alone in front of the cabin, partly thinking I could help her somehow if something bad happened, though she seemed to me clearly the more capable of us should the situation turn ugly.

She was in command – maybe always had been, right from the beginning. She had come into my life only because she could go no farther. Yet even beaten and torn, unconscious on my kitchen floor, I sensed she was indomitable. She was more than a person. She was a presence. I had not taken her in out of pity. I had done it because I had something to give – or, rather, something that needed giving. Now, was there anything left she needed to receive? I hoped so. But was it mine to offer?

We passed the woodshed. It was full. Stuck in the top of the chopping block was a three-pound axe, bright as the day it was made and sharp as a razor. We moved to the dog yard. The hutches were all swept clean, each dog’s chain coiled and hung on a nail.

“I don’t understand,” Vivian said. “I mean I understand the pigs. He probably sold them. That’s what they were for. I understand that. But the dogs. The dogs were his pride. What happened to the dogs?”

“Maybe he took them hunting,” I said, aimlessly shuffling up the slope to the edge of the woods, trying to ignore the potential for disaster.

“Is that what this looks like to you, like they’ve just gone for the afternoon?”

I didn’t bother responding. We already both knew the answer. I kept moving upward, among trees, now, the ground covered by leaves still bright with color.

Vivian called out to me, “Up that hill is where I have my altar. It’s where I celebrate the Goddess. Joshua never bothered it. I don’t think he knows what it is.”

That’s when I saw something that stopped me cold, and it wasn’t an altar. It was something creamy white protruding from among red and yellow, orange and gold. I brushed the leaves aside with the toe of my boot.

“You better come up here, Vivian. There’s something you should see.”

When she was beside me, I pointed to the object at my feet. I said, “Do you know what kind of bone that is?”

“It’s not from a cow. And it didn’t come from a pig, I can tell you that.”

“But it’s a big bone,” I said. “And look at those marks. It’s been gnawed clean.”

“Oh, no,” Vivian moaned. “He couldn’t have. He wouldn’t.”

She turned away. “Let’s get out of here. Now!”

“But wait. There might be more.”

“No. I don’t need to see more. I know what I know.”

She was already out of the woods, running down the slope across the dog yard. She waited for me at the woodshed. I covered the bone and ran to join her. I glanced at the axe in the chopping block, the top of the block recently trimmed, the wood fresh as an accusation, it’s one blemish where the blade bit into it, the steel shining like the answer to a question I did not dare ask.

When we got back to the truck, Vivian said, “Tomorrow is Sunday. We’ll come back tomorrow.”

“Wasn’t today enough?”

“Not here. We’ll go to the church. We can hide in the woods across the road. I want to see if he’s still here, living somewhere else but still in the area. He wouldn’t miss church unless he was very sick or very far away.”

#

Sunday morning came without benefit of sleep. We parked on Fletcher Farm Road and bushwhacked an eighth of a mile north to Cold Brook Road, taking position behind some shrubby balsams across from the truck garage the Procreators called their church.

Vivian said, “I’m persona non grata, now; but I still don’t want Joshua to see me. I could do him a lot of harm, and he knows it.”

“Persona non grata?”

“If the wife runs away and doesn’t come back on her own and the husband is unable to retrieve her…”

“Retrieve her? Sounds more like talking about a duck that’s just been shot than about a wife who’s left home.”

“…That’s what they call it – retrieved; and, yes, the attitude is about the same. Joshua didn’t hesitate to send the dogs after me, though I don’t know that they would have retrieved me so much as ripped me to shreds. They were never my dogs, always his. But to get back to your question, if the husband is unable to retrieve his wife and has no contact with her for two full menstrual cycles, she is considered dead. Actually, more than dead. As far as the church is concerned, the congregation – including the husband – it’s as if she never existed.”

“Let me guess. Your second cycle ended yesterday.”

“You’re such a smart man.”

“I do my best. So, what happens then?”

“The husband is free to marry again, and all of the previous wife’s property left in his possession is burned in a ritual bonfire attended by all the men of the church. What can’t be burned is buried. You would be amazed at what they’ve buried – boats, cars, a tractor.”

“Valuable stuff. Couldn’t somebody in the group use a car or a tractor? Seems like a huge waste.”

“They don’t care. It’s evidence that the woman existed. It’s a symbol that a woman has left the fold, rejected them, repudiated their beliefs, their view of the world, their view of God.”

“Can’t have that, I guess. But just because they deny her existence, it doesn’t mean she’s actually gone. She’s still here. You’re still here. (Something in me wanted to say, ‘And I’m glad you are.’ Something else told me not to.) As far as your marriage is concerned, they may not recognize it, but the State of New York does. There are legal obligations, protections.”

“For me, yes, because we married before we became members of the church; but those who married in the church are on their own. There’s no connection with the State. The church doesn’t recognize the State’s authority in family affairs, including marriage. There is no marriage license, no public record. The woman who leaves – escapes is a better word – can make no claims. Whatever she doesn’t take with her, she forfeits; and the man owes her nothing.”

“What if there are children involved?”

“That almost never happens. There are enormous pressures to prevent it. I’ve only heard about it. It never happened while I was there.”

Just then, the congregation began to emerge from the garage. I still can’t bring myself to think of it as a church. First out was a burly guy who looked like he’d spent most of his life stevedoring.

“That’s Pastor Paul,” Vivian said.

“Where is his regalia?”

“They don’t believe in that.”

Then came family after family. There were lots of kids. After them came the couples without children. The last pair looked completely smitten with each other.

Vivian pointed in their direction. “That’s him! He’s here! I should have known.”

“So, I finally get to see this man in the flesh,” I thought. He wasn’t bad looking – kind of handsome, really – with thick, long chestnut hair on a square head that held a not unpleasant face. He looked stronger than anybody I’d want to tangle with – broad shoulders, barrel chest, big hands, one of which was wrapped around the barely visible hand of a woman – not much more than a girl, really: hip-length hair, wavy and golden, peaches and cream complexion, heart-shaped face, bee-stung lips, and with a nose that made me think she could be Cyrano de Bergerac’s kid sister, though it seemed to somehow magnify rather than mar her beauty. She was slender but fully formed; and she was dressed in a way that accentuated her curves, in sharp contrast to the married women and many of the singles. They stepped out into the sunlight like an advertisement for happiness.

“He didn’t waste any time,” Vivian said.

“She looks kinda young. Who is she?”

“She’s young, alright. Sixteen. She’s Melissa Vance – Charles and Rachel Vance’s oldest daughter: one of seven, plus three sons. They live on True Brook Road.”

“Not much out there.”

“That’s the way they like it. Joshua’s had his eye on her for a while. He had to have known I’d get away from him eventually. Look at her. She’s as ripe as a pomegranate. I’m sure she’ll give him lots of babies. They’ll probably tie the knot any day now.”

“But sixteen? If the parents don’t sign off and the marriage is not recognized by the State of New York, that’s statutory rape.”

“Not as far as they’re concerned. Not if no one says anything. And Melissa will be the last person to say anything. She’s got herself a good catch. Her parents won’t just permit it. They’ve probably encouraged it. And, as I said, the State of New York doesn’t matter to them. They’ve got God on their side. Joshua will bring her back to the farm. She’ll have her own garden. They’ll buy some pigs, maybe even some sheep.”

“What about dogs?”

“No. I don’t think there will be any dogs. Not this time.”

I didn’t bother asking why. I was distracted by Melissa Vance.

“Never marry a virgin,” I said. “You may be the first, but you won’t be the last.”

I could see the question forming in Vivian’s face, and I answered it before she could speak.

“Because one is never enough.”

“That’s a pretty blanket statement.”

“Well sometimes I’m just a blanket kinda guy.”

“I have no objection to blankets in the right circumstances.”

“I’m not sure I know how to interpret that.”

“I’ll give you a little time to figure it out.”

As Snit turned his head to say something to the pastor, I could see a swath of hair shorter than the rest.

“Looks like young Melissa’s beau had some emergency work done on his cranium. I wonder if she has any idea how much trouble is heading in his direction.”

Vivian must have been lost in her own thoughts.

“What do you mean?” she asked, though to me the answer seemed obvious.

“I mean he murdered a man, not to mention what he did to you.”

“I don’t think he really understood what he did to me. He thought he was saving me, saving my soul.”

“People will do as much violence to save your soul as they will to damn it,” I said. “Maybe more. And what about your rescuer?”

“I don’t know he murdered Walt. When I hit Joshua with that pot, it was all I could think to do. Maybe he would have killed Walt anyway; but what if he didn’t mean to? What if he was just trying to scare Walt and hadn’t intended to pull the trigger? What if the gun went off only because I hit him? And if I hadn’t hit him, Walt might have lived.”

“If you ask me, you’re giving credit where no credit is due.”

We waited among the shrubs for the remaining churchgoers to come out – those few men and women who were not coupled – and for the crowd around Pastor Paul to disperse and the cars to drive away. Then we returned to my truck and drove back to Baker Street; but, before I started it up, I turned to Vivian and said, “Snit may believe he’s got a winning hand, but I think he lost the game two months ago.”

“I’m not sure I know how to interpret that.”

“I’ll give you a little time to figure it out.”

“Thank you,” she said. “For being who you are and allowing me to be who I am.”

#

If I had thought Vivian’s silences were over, I was wrong. After our exchange in the truck on Fletcher Farm Road, she didn’t say a single word for three days; but she began doing outdoor chores – raking leaves, mulching the rosebushes, getting ready for the long freeze – and she went for walks up the hill with Onyx, often stopping to sit on a boulder about halfway up, staring down at the house sometimes for an hour or more.

The day she spoke again, I had just come from the Grand Union with two bags of groceries. She had been out also, opening the door before I had put the bags on the counter.

She said, “I saw Jenny today, went to her house. She’s still living on Park Avenue. She doesn’t have a boyfriend. She says she doesn’t lock her door. I can come any time I want. Stay as long as I want.”

“Are you gonna take her up on it?”

“Not yet.”

#

Two days later, after breakfast was eaten and the dishes washed, I was leaving the bathroom, having brushed my teeth and combed what is left of my hair, when Vivian stepped out of the guestroom clothed in a garment that covered her body the way a thin haze covers the hills. It was white gauze. It was not a dress or a gown – more like a cape than anything else, tied with a ribbon in a bow at her neck and open below. She stood facing me.

She said, “This is what I wear for my ceremonies in the woods, but I won’t need it for this one.”

She loosened the bow, and the cape drifted to the floor. Then she reached for the top button of my shirt and unfastened it. Then the next and the next. I didn’t try to stop her; and so she undressed me. She took her time, though it seemed there was no time or that time had not been invented yet. When she stood again after removing my socks, we were inches apart. The space went away with the time. I felt the tips of my fingers on the ridge of her cheekbone, then gliding over soft skin to the line of her jaw. Our mouths were ready, lips parted, the slight wind of her breath meeting mine.

What was that? Was that a hand on my shoulder? From behind? I turned my head, Vivian’s lips brushing my face beside the ear. There was nobody in the room but us, only the one man and the one woman. No one else. Not in the room. Not in the house. I knew it. I knew we were alone. But I believed we were not alone.

I looked away from my shoulder, still warm from the touch of someone who wasn’t there, faced Vivian again, her eyes upturned, head back, long neck fully extended and throat exposed. She was open, vulnerable, eager. I could see myself do what I wanted to do, could feel myself do it in the instant before doing it, my lips on the white, smooth throat, tongue touching the yielding flesh, the long journey of kiss sliding to her breasts, to her belly, to the secret below her hips. I could feel Vivian’s fingers in my hair. I could feel her pulling me to her. All before it happened.

I could see it. I could feel it. But I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t real. What was real was a hand that had touched my shoulder from 300 miles away. What was real was the memory of Hanna walking from our home, the door at the front of the house left open, the boys already in her car, and her looking back at me as she descended the steps toward it, looking back through the door she refused to close on me. I could hear her voice over the birds and the wind and the barking of a dog and the squealing of the children next door, though it was the gentlest of voices.

“Come to York Harbor when you’re ready.”

Then another voice, Vivian’s voice this time. “You have ten seconds to think about this.”

I looked at her looking up at me, tried to tell her with my eyes what was happening inside me. She walked away, leaving the gauze garment on the floor. I got dressed, picked up what she had left, went to the living room, sat in my father’s chair hoping it or he would make it easier.

Vivian returned from the guest room dressed to go outside. She had the backpack and the duffel bag. They were clearly not empty. She stood in front of me, lips drawn tight with exasperation, eyes bright with anger.

“Don’t be angry, Vivian,” I said.

“I’m in love with a man who’s in love with a woman who’s not here. What would you expect?”

“I didn’t mean for that to happen.”

“No. You were merely gentle, kind, attentive, respectful, supportive…. And you raised me from the dead. Like I said, what would you expect?”

“If it’s any consolation…”

“Don’t say it,” she cut in. “You’ll only make it worse.”

I wanted to tell her I was in love with her, too. I said, “How can you possibly know what I was going to say?”

“It doesn’t matter what you were going to say. Anything you say will make it worse. Especially if you were to say something utterly stupid like, ‘I’m in love with you, too.’”

I put my head in my hands; mumbled, “I’m sorry.”.

“Oh, shut up,” she said and walked toward the door.

“Are you going to Jenny’s?”

“Yes.”

“Then what?”

“I’m going to get a good lawyer, and I’m going to tell her what happened. Those people, Walt’s family, they deserve to know. I’ve been silent too long. It’s unconscionable.”

I stood from the chair, walked toward her. I wanted to hug her goodbye. She put her hand up to stop me and opened the door.

“Thank you,” I said.

“What for?”

“For the privilege of knowing you, a little bit…and…for reminding me who I am.”

“Go to Maine,” she said, and stepped out of the house.

I followed her, watched her from the deck at the top of the thirty steps that lead to the street. She was nearly at the bottom when she paused. I thought she would turn around, might say something. She started to turn, I’m sure of it; but the movement was aborted. She finished her descent, hitting the street at a half-trot, turned right, and headed toward the Smithwick Cottage without looking back.

I spent most of the rest of the day sitting in Dad’s chair with the newspaper in my hands, it’s words filing by in lines of meaninglessness. I read one paragraph five times before giving up, unable to absorb whatever it was the writer was trying to tell me. I had soup and a beer for dinner, went to bed early and confused, and fell asleep in vague despair, torn between relief and misery, soon besieged by nightmares of someone chopping meat with an axe, the blade coming down, severing flesh, shattering joints, chunks of muscle and bone thrown to the dogs. I could not see who was wielding the axe, not even hands on a shaft. There was only the blade falling, the meat in the air, the sound of the dogs tearing and gnawing. Then, finally, at dawn, a dream, not harrowing but more painful: a gauze cape floating to the floor, Vivian’s upturned face, a hand that wasn’t there touching my shoulder.

It wasn’t until late-November that I saw her again, though there was no indication from her that she’d seen me. I had just left the Blue Moon Café when she came out of the parking lot across Main Street and headed south, toward the Waterhole. She was with another woman – shorter, solidly built, black hair pulled back in a French braid. They walked in synchrony, arm-in-arm, contentment on their faces.

#

New York State troopers and Department of Environmental Conservation Law Enforcement officers arrested Joshua Snit on Thanksgiving Day, part of a larger State Police operation focusing on the Church of the Holy Procreator. He was charged with rape, bigamy, endangering the welfare of a child, and violating various wildlife laws. Other charges were pending the results of DNA tests on evidence recovered from Snit’s farm possibly linking him to the disappearance of Walter LaVoy. Pastor Paul – whose real name was James Polk – along with Charles and Rachel Vance, were charged as accessories for their part in marrying off sixteen-year-old Melissa Vance to a man who was already married to someone else: namely, his as-yet undivorced wife, Vivian Snit.

#

It had snowed during the night, then cleared and become much colder. Typical for mid-December. Now the sun was just rising above McKenzie Mountain, a blinding eye between twin summits. The truck was already packed. I locked the bungalow door, descended the steps to the street, got in, turned the key. No one had removed the coil. The engine started as smoothly as if it had been summer. I sat with it idling a few minutes, thinking about where I had been and where I was going. Onyx shot me an impatient look from the co-pilot’s seat. I said a silent prayer for Vivian, put the truck in gear, and headed east. If the roads were clear and the traffic less than awful, I’d make York Harbor before dark.

 

 

 

BIO

Phil Gallos has been a newspaper reporter and columnist, a researcher/writer in the historic preservation field, and has spent 30 years working in academic libraries (which is more interesting than it sounds). Most recently, his writing has been published in The MacGuffin, Stonecrop Magazine, Carbon Culture Review, Burningword Literary Journal, and Foliate Oak, among others, and is forthcoming in The Wire’s Dream, and Dark Ink Magazine. He lives and writes in Saranac Lake, NY.

 

 

 

 

0

Nothing Comes Back

by Susan Lloy

 

 

Sybil has never been good at letting go. Not her loved ones, not a pair of old shoes, not even a jacket she hasn’t worn in twenty years. So, when she arrived at her new abode she managed to drag loads of stuff that she knew she would never use and was left with the task of not knowing what to do with or where to store all of it. It is a small apartment and space will be problematic. Now that she is retired and free, she feels deflated and confined.

She had never been good at planning her life and fell into a dead-end job with a paltry salary in her early forties after travelling and changing countless meaningless positions. Retirement still seemed a long ways off. Yet, here she is, with scant money coming in from her pension and little savings. Dreams of travel and escape are far out of reach. As she stands with an unpacked moving box at her feet she thinks to herself; fuck… this is what it’s all come down to.

She has returned to her place of birth following forty-five years away and finds it hard to believe that she is actually here. She had always lived to escape this place, but here she is living in a section of the city she always despised. There had been no other choice. This corner of her pocket-sized world is the most affordable, but neighbors are in close proximity, balconies touch each other like shoulders watching a parade.

When she looks at her contemporaries she still feels young, though today, catching a glimpse of her reflection in the harsh afternoon light she knows she is getting on. She has one child, a daughter whom she rarely sees. Antonia, her spawn, has no intention of leaving the big city for a smaller one and isn’t planning a visit to her mother any time soon. They have always had a strained relationship. Not for any particular reason. They are like two opposite forces that repel instead of attract.

Antonia is an artist. A painter, who struggles and refuses to give up her dreams of becoming one of them. She believes she has it, even when gallery after gallery refuses to give her a show. Antonia is striking with an unusual red birthmark on the left side of her face shaped like a seahorse. Her mother always insisted it was a beauty mark declaring it made her special. But, Antonia never bought into it and the mistrust and difficulties began right there.

 

Sybil has never been what one would label joyful. Not as a child, not as a youth and not now in later life. Sure there had been good times, especially when she was tripping in the spring of early womanhood. Now everything seems flat. Expired. Occasionally, when she hears an old loved tune she will perk up. Dance about, remembering a time when things felt possible, yet when the song is finished she is left alone in the silence. A vacuum.

She doesn’t know how her world became this inconsequential. It is down to less than a handful of people. Because of this she has developed an unhealthy addiction to rummaging the Internet, searching out former lovers, classmates and foes.

Sybil lets out a sigh as she examines the unpacked boxes. She has an abundance of photographs. Some of these photos haven’t been looked at in years and she can’t remember some of the people’s names that are in them, but they remind her of a livelier time and this is why she keeps them. However, looking at them now she imagines if she dropped dead this very instant there would be so many things for Antonia to go through. She expels the thought from her mind.

 

The walls are thin here and she can hear the neighbors’ televisions and stereos. The one upstairs is a stomper and she can tell whomever it is wears shoes. She will have to have a word, explaining that she suffers from misophonia and could they not wear them inside. Sybil knows she will hate it here. She stands on her compact balcony listening to a brood of gulls call across the gray, drizzly sky.

One box contains a bundle of cards. Love letters from her ex – Antonia’s father. He is long gone, yet Sybil thinks Antonia will find solace in the words and perceive that she was created within a time of affection. Antonia was young when her father left. It’s part of her bitterness. Her dubiosity.

 

Sybil unwraps one of Antonia’s paintings. She is a figurative painter. It’s a self-portrait with a distorted face somewhat in the vein of Francis Bacon, her idol. It is disturbing to think that Antonia thinks of herself like this, but Sybil hangs it in a prominent spot with a wall all to itself. Her breathing is labored as she examines it.

Life has become small. Sybil isn’t on any social media sites such as Facebook. She has access though, from a time when Antonia often used her computer. It has become an unproductive habit. Looking for old lovers and people she has long lost contact with. Examining their lives, and partners. New kitchens, trips and what seem all the pleasantries of life. Sybil had let friends drop from her life. It seems like her life had been put on hold while others had moved on. If she reached out a reply would come, still it was her that had to do all the reaching. All those old friends in foreign lands had long forgotten her. Or had intentionally ignored her. It was if all the cozy worlds she once was part of had imploded and she was left with only a chill travelling her spine. Correspondence became painful, with the usual – same ol’ at the end of every Email.

She painfully organizes the apartment; however another purge will be necessary. A neighbor’s television bellows through the wall. As she lets out a long sigh, she ponders packing the whole place up and heading to the country. Somewhere rural. Close to the sea. An old magazine lies on the coffee table with a double-spread of the Grand Canyon displaying all its glory. The reds and rusts are warm and inviting and seem to say, what are you waiting for?

 

She doesn’t have money socked away for extensive travels, but a little for one special trip. Sybil had always wanted to visit the Grand Canyon and areas beyond. The desert. It was always near, especially when there was some commercial or film with its uplifted Proterozoic and Paleozoic strata and vividly-hued landscapes. Rivers, rapids, valleys with canyons and walls built of ancient rock. How breathtaking and humbling it must feel to stand within.

She has done her homework and knows it is a relatively short drive through from Vegas. Utah would be next heading to Zion National Park. She extends the invitation to Antonia to tag along, but her daughter declines insisting that she is immersed in a new series of works. It hurts Sybil. This tension between them runs like a fierce river. Unflinching and constant.

For the most part her clothes remained unpacked with fabrics hanging over opened boxes. She still holds on to items that are too small or too young. Nevertheless, she has kept them for her own unsound reasons, a trove of clutter and useless accumulation. She snatches up a flimsy top for the warm weather. Who knows? Maybe she’ll meet someone.

Her flight is the following week. She plans to stay one night in Vegas and make an early start the following morning. The itinerary is well coordinated and would usually take two and a half hours to reach Springdale in Utah, but she plans to stretch it out taking time for rest stops and scenic vistas. When she reaches her destination for the day, she’ll stay a night in Springdale and hike the following day to Weeping Rock in Zion National Park.

Sybil has done a little research and there is something about Weeping Rock that speaks to her. A kindred spirit, so she thinks. It isn’t merely the name, but also the photographs she has examined of the place, where the water continually seeps at the junction of two strata creating an arena of ferns, moss and wildflowers. An oasis on the side of a ridge. She imagines herself being able to breath freely there. Free of confinement and neighborly clamor.

Weeping Rock evokes a consciousness and awakens a part of her being that has been shut down. She feels that she needs a good cry. A release. And imagines she will get it there for the rock is forever wailing, as if its heart has been broken into a million bits.

Her flight is the following day. Most of the packing has been done save for a few boxes. She had put up shelves and arranged books. Hung favorite pieces on walls. It has begun to feel more like her, yet she didn’t see herself here. It’s as if she watches herself from a different sphere. As if she was a character in some film.

 

The heat assaults her as she hits Las Vegas. She has a place on the strip for one night at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino and heads directly to her suite via the hotel-airport shuttle. It is midafternoon and the sun hangs high in the sky, but there is plenty of time to explore the strip, have dinner and play a few slot machines before retiring. Her road trip will commence after breakfast the following day.

It is the first time in her life in a casino. She has fifty dollars to play with. Not a penny more. The minute she sits down she becomes annoyed. There is noise everywhere. From boisterous loud drunks to screaming bachelorettes, bells ring and lights blink. It’s all a bit too much. In spite of she thinks, what the hell, I might as well give it a go. And go it does, on the second try. Sybil pulls the lever and PANG, out comes a ticket with a barcode. I won!

Everyone claps and shouts. Some look on with disdain. Why not me? Sybil turns in her ticket for a twenty-four thousand dollar check. She can’t believe her luck. Not bad for a five dollar investment. She treats herself to a good meal at the casino restaurant and heads back to her room to tuck in for an early night.

She has rented a Volkswagen Bug Convertible for the trip. She wants the wind in her hair and sun on her face. All of her senses opened for unfamiliar awakenings. The car is being dropped off at the hotel’s entrance. It is a shiny dark bronze metallic. It will mirror the colors of the canyon. She has purchased supplies for the expedition such as water, sandwiches and a bottle of good wine.

 

Edwin Smith lives in Wasatch County, Utah on a ranch not far from Salt Lake City. Edwin prides himself on being a direct descendant of Joseph Smith, the forefather of the Polygamy movement. He is not a genetic heir, but offspring of one of his five adopted children, although proclaim has been impossible to prove. Edwin grew up in the faith. As far as he can remember his kin had practiced plural marriage, as does he with his eleven wives, twenty-three children and five grandchildren.

Edwin is in his early sixties and still possesses a good physique, takes pride in his appearance and is a member of the Utah Film Industry. He still works as a grip on films now and again.

He bought this ranch in the early eighties. By that time he had long given up the notion that the more the merrier bought one a ticket to a special spot in the celestial kingdom. No, by that time he simply enjoyed the idea that plural marriage was a good thing. Made a more interesting, spicier life for a man.

Most of his wives were sealed by traditional practice, although there had been no prophet involved. Two of his ladies came from the film industry for Edwin was quite the catch in his youth. The others were locals and an old school sweetheart and had been chosen within a time when he held close to the thought that more kin were the best route to heaven. Through time the group had adjusted to these changes and the departures from the rigid rules of the church, which they had been accustomed to.

Locals frowned upon them and called them the ‘Smithsters’ and thought of them more like a cult than an offshoot of the Mormon faith, who are their neighbors in all directions. Initially, they tried to make a go of it by subsistence farming. Producing cheese, baking their famous Smithster pies, but ranching is a tough trade and because most of the clan has film expertise, they sought out a different direction of income – producing soft porn.

As righteous as folks like to think of themselves around here and beyond, sometimes they need extra flavor added to the mix. Things become rigid and boring. Edwin found a niche in this market and made a tidy living from their film production company. Edwin and his two wives who sprung from film work had educated the others in distribution and marketing. Some were designated to costume design, while others dealt with the children and managed mealtimes and the overall daily goings on about the ranch.

Mostly all of them acted in the films in some capacity, or they subcontracted parts out advertising in open casting calls for adult films or by word of mouth.

Their porn is subtle: naked women bailing hay, selling baked goods at a country fair, frolicking in a haystack, the local sheriff putting on the cuffs.

It draws a special sort of clientele. Country folk and farmers. People seeking a refuge from the Bible Belt dogma, which is the norm for this belief-filled land.

 

Sybil enjoys her road trip and has taken in several panoramas along her route, but now she is in Zion National Park and plans to lunch in Springfield then hike the Weeping Rock trailhead. There are a multitude of places to eat along the Zion Park Blvd, but she settles in at The Spotted Dog Café and has a hearty meal of roast beef, mashed potatoes, grilled vegetables and coffee. She figures she will need it for the trail ahead.

Before she leaves, she writes a postcard to Antonia. Sybil likes this lost world of card sending. Now everything is encased within a phone. She imagines Antonia caressing the image with her paint stained fingers and lovingly placing it a special spot, thinking to herself; I should have gone on that trip. But truth be told, Antonia could care less.

Sybil enters the trail and begins her ascent. Edwin has finished a shoot. He is currently working on a series where multiples of sophisticated and often erotic robots act out individuals’ fantasies in a futuristic theme park. The location is not far from Weeping Rock and is a lovely spot that Edwin finds himself repeatedly drawn to again and again. Sybil has chosen it too, though she is enticed by unknown reasons. They are like two bodies that submit to the force of attraction like sun and earth, earth and moon.

Sybil reaches Weeping Rock and rests her bones on a bench overlooking a carved out valley. The weeping water cascades over hanging gardens, which are moist with lush vegetation. The sounds are gentle and the smells rich.  There are few visitors today and Sybil is happy for this. She is alone save for one or two strays who stroll by every twenty minutes or so.

As she sits here she goes over her life. Antonia is her only kin. She wishes her late sister were next to her. Her ashes lie on a bookshelf in her new apartment. They say a loved one’s remains are a mix of many cremations. She hopes her sister is mixed with fun folk. Sybil watches the water and contemplates; will this be her last trip? Will Antonia get her big break? Will their relationship ever heal? Will she ever get laid again? It’s been over two decades since she has been intimate. It feels like a lost world, something intangible, as if trying to reconstruct a dream after awaking.

 

Edwin arrives soon after his wrap. He has always liked this spot and remembers coming here as a child with his sister-moms and brothers and sisters. They would have picnics and look out over the land believing that they had arrived in heaven, or at the very least, were nearly there. What could be more beautiful than this carved-out landscape? Though truthfully he just wants to get away from all of the hullabaloo at the ranch. With the constant screaming of the youngsters and whose night it would be amongst the wives. The rooster that is eternally argued over.

He sits on an opposite side of the look-out and takes in all of its beauty, letting out a deep breath after reaching this elevation. There is only himself and Sybil who sit staring out at the weeping water at this precise moment. Edwin remembers running around here with his siblings. Youth was a happy time. There was always someone to play with, make a fort or battle off invisible enemies between chores. He has lost touch with most of his brothers and sisters, as they do not approve of the porn.

“Certainly is a pretty spot, don’t you think?”

“Yes. There’s no denying that.”

“Mind if I park next to you?”

Edwin places himself on the bench next to Sybil. She is nervous. It feels like at least five incarnations ago since a man has flirted with her.

“I’m Edwin.”

“Sybil.”

“Well, nice to meet you Sybil.”

Edwin smiles and Sybil notices right away his handsome windblown face, his good teeth and full head of unruly gray hair, which blows this way and that. He is fit without a paunch and she is uneasy and her face is turning red. She feels a hot flash coming on. She starts fanning herself with her empty lunch bag.

“Are you a tourist or from around these parts?”

“A tourist. Your northern neighbor to be exact. Canada.”

“Oh, where there?”

“I left Montreal recently and have resettled in Nova Scotia, which I left just short of a half a century ago. Man! Can’t believe I just said that. How did we get this far?”

“How do you find returning to your ol homestead after such a long time away?”

“It’s quite strange. I’m not at all sure I’ve made the right decision.”

“Well… I’m from this wonderful land. Would you care to visit some other areas of interest?”

“I’m not sure about that. I have a fixed itinerary and my rental car is due back at a specified time.”

“Hey, don’t dwell on simple details. You can save yourself some cash, plus visit some places you hadn’t thought of. Return your car at the nearest drop off. I’ve got some time off. I work in the film industry and just finished up a week’s worth of shoots. What do you say?”

Sybil’s mind is racing. Who is this guy? He could very well be a serial killer, rapist or just a mere kook. Still, there is something in the tone of his voice and the spaces between his words that makes her trust him.

The rental was dropped off in Springfield and she embarks on a tour of Bryce Canyon and Capital Reef. Moab. The trip takes just over three days.

They hunted for fossils and loved the silence amongst the layered rock. Edwin is charming and affectionate. His touch warms her like a fire on a winter’s eve. All those years she remained celibate…sometimes even the massage from the hairdresser’s assistant would fill her being with uneasiness. A mere brush to the body that had been without intimate contact stirred the emptiness inside her.

On their second evening, they slept together. Sybil had been nervous and restrained, but following a couple bottles of good wine she relaxed and melted into him as if she had always been a fit with this man. However, she is no spring chicken and though her joints are not as limber as they once were and personal dexterity has become more challenging, she’s pleased that she didn’t end up in a full body cast with one leg supported by traction, which both surprised and relieved her. On the third evening Edwin proposed. Sybil was about to accept, yet before she can let the word escape from her lips he covers her mouth softly with his forefinger.

“Sybil. I must disclose something before you reply. I’m a polygamist. I have eleven other wives and, if you agree, you shall be the twelfth. We are not fundamentalists. I grew up in that strict world, but our family isn’t based on restrictions. Our values are communal. Shared work ethic regarding child rearing and household tasks, friendship and love.”

Sybil’s mind is racing. What is this? Who is this? What have I got myself into? He could be a proper psycho. Well, hold your horses. We had a three day-fling. We’re not exactly involved…

“Before you make a decision, why not come to our ranch for a visit? Meet the family, have a meal. Try a few days.”

Sybil agrees, though she isn’t sure why. The whole arrangement sounds wildly weird. Nevertheless, she calls Antonia to announce her new plans. She’d met a guy and will prolong her stay a little while. Antonia listens without offering advice or warning or even ‘have a good time’.

“Uh-huh. OK. Till later.”

 

Sybil sits silent for the ride, as they travel to the foothills of the Wasatch Mountain Range. Edwin sings a song and reassuringly rubs her knee. It is a beautiful spread hosting a large main house with smaller homes side by side and what appears to be a huge garage behind. There are goats, chickens, pigs and cows. Horses lazily graze in another pasture. Three barns sit in the distance. As they approach, children run towards the truck laughing and waving eager to greet, Edwin their keeper.

Edwin had telephoned ahead to alert his first wife of his intentions. She was to go down the line informing the other ten wives of a possible twelfth. One by one the women approached, all of varied ages. The youngest three probably in their twenties or early thirties. Sybil is surprised to see that they all look normal. No strange hairdos or pioneer type conservative attire. They wear jeans, T-shirts and Converses. A few with cool summer dresses.

The first wife, Meryl, who is around the same age as herself, comes towards her holding out her hand and welcoming her with a big, toothy smile.

“Hello Sybil. Nice to have you here.”

The others saunter over to make her acquaintance. Sybil makes eye contact immediately forgetting each of their names. Too many, too fast.

“We’ve prepared a tasty meal.”

Sybil is given a tour of the main house, which is clean and simply decorated. Photographs grace the walls showcasing the generations of multiple kin, some of which display 19th century garb and women sporting weird pompadour hairdos. They head out to the back of the house where a handcrafted wooden table roughly thirty feet long is situated with a similar sized table for the children off to the side. The meal is delicious and the atmosphere amicable, although from time to time Sybil catches the leer of a jealous wife sizing her up. Calculating competition.

After three days at the ranch Sybil accepts Edwin’s proposal. She likes the idea of company, not being on her own. Although she could only retrieve a tiny hint of the other wives feelings towards her, she imagines they will warm up to her. Sybil FaceTimes with Antonia and invites her to the wedding, but Antonia declines saying, “Mom! Are you out of your mind?”

They are sealed in an open garden with Edwin leading the ceremony. Not that he holds true in his heart these sacraments. No, he likes the idea of another lady added to the pot. He has not expressed this to Sybil, but her savings and pension must be added to the family purse. While she is having a bath following their two-day honeymoon, Edwin transfers her savings to his bank account. Now that she is married, he contacts her bank informing them all funds and investments must be e-transferred to their joint account. All of her passwords and personal information are easy to find; she doesn’t have the best security money-transfer apps on her iPhone – bank passwords, investments and pension access are easily accessible. Security questions are ready to submit. He had taken a photo of her signature when she returned the rental car. All he had to do was Login, send a false, forged photo of the marriage licence and Bob’s your uncle!

It took Sybil some time before she noticed that something was amiss. She discovered this when attempting to draw some cash from her account after she was handed her measly allowance by Meryl. She contacted her bank immediately, but they assured her that no fraud had taken place. Her husband, Edwin Smith, had authorized the transfers to their new joint account. After all, her status had changed. She was no longer single. Without taking further action, Sybil decides to sit on it for a bit, but tells the bank this is not the last of it. Edwin is now far from her heart. How could he do this without consulting her first?

Before she gets to confront him on the matter, Edwin is off on a film shoot. He will be gone for a few weeks. Sybil is added to the work schedule.

In the days prior to his departure, Sybil was already bounced down on the romance docket. The younger wives given preference. The older wives, including herself, tabbed further down for sleepovers.

Sybil had been allotted a room in the main house. There were ten bedrooms in this roost. It was a bright square room flooded with natural light. When she was given work duties in the house, such as dusting and vacuuming and whenever she was alone in the house, she explored. She examined each and every bedroom. Checked out the attire in each closet. For example, which wife had a better clothes collection and who had better shoes. She formed a hierarchy blueprint of this plural marriage.

 

One particularly warm, cloudless day Sybil heard a commotion. There was a small minibus of young, fit ladies filling the backyard area of the main house. She was curious if these fresh bits of flesh would be added to the fuse. She wandered over to the yard watching the ladies enter the huge outbuilding two by two. Until now Sybil had not been invited to this part of the ranch, but hey… wasn’t she one of them? At least for now.

 

The space is open and grandiose. The minute she entered she realizes it’s a film set. There are lighting kits and booms, video cameras and sets partially built or complete. She spots Meryl and a few of the other wives sitting inspecting the ladies from the minibus. They are instructed to remove their clothing and strut their stuff. Sybil can’t quite grasp the meaning of it all and slowly walks closer for a peek.

“Sybil, come here. So what do you think?

“Of what exactly?”

“These ladies, what else?”

“Well, they’re lovely. But what are they doing here?”

“Didn’t Edwin tell you about our production company? Peek A Boo Films.”

“No. Actually he did not.”

“Well we do pretty well with it. We produce soft-core porn.”

“Oh, do you now?

“The farm can’t run on its own steam, so we stared this about fifteen years ago and it brings in quite a tidy sum.”

Sybil takes it all in all the while fuming at Edwin’s lack of disclosure. First it was her bank accounts and now this. She doesn’t have any moral hang-ups on the subject. Hell, she even danced in an erotic club to pay her way through university once upon a time. Yet, how many more secrets are buried on this land?

 

Nearly one month has passed since she had set foot on the ranch. After the initial honeymoon, she felt familiar naggings and doubts nipping at her ankles. She felt like an outsider amongst the other wives. Fuck, even the children paid her no mind and she was pissed at being left alone following Edwin’s quick departure. Her savings and casino winnings had been swept away in what seemed a microsecond and if her money was simmering in the family pot she was barely getting a whiff of it.

 

She had telephoned and texted Antonia countless times, but typically, Antonia didn’t respond. Antonia had come into some luck. She was to have her own show at one of the city’s big galleries. She had immersed herself in her work preparing multiple large pieces for the exhibition that would open in one week.

She had noticed her mother’s messages, but didn’t want to be distracted by some lament that she expected was to come, for some of Sybil’s texts were dramatic and crazed. Antonia had been working on a portrait. It is her homage to Sybil. It is a large piece taking one wall of the gallery.

Sybil is isolated on a flat background with a distorted face and open mouth suggesting a scream. The face is somewhat grotesque and her hair is swept up over her forehead in an exagerated pompadour. She sports a prairie dress that hangs to her feet. The painting is strange and alarming, with dark pigments layering the canvas. Yet, it demands the viewer to stare. It evokes feelings of confinement and withdrawal.

The portrait sells on opening night to a prominent collector. Antonia sends a photo to her mother with a red circle next to the title, which simply reads – Sybil.

 

 

BIO

Susan E. Lloy has consistently published internationally since 2012. Her short story collection, But When We Look Closer, was recently published by Now Or Never Publishing. Her forthcoming collection, Vita, will be released April 15, 2019. Susan lives in Montreal.

 

 

 

 

 

0

The Harmacy

by Stephanie Mataya

 

 

A scowling kid followed shoppers with a mop as they entered the Harmacy, halfheartedly working to preserve the white of the floor. With specks of glitter embedded in the faux marble, the tile’s effect was gaudy and bizarre, contrasting with the rows and rows of colorful vials, syringes, and bottles of pills waiting to induce some illness or other. The kid looked bored, probably forced to work by parents who thought too much free time was a hazard, like asking for bad habits to form.

People filed in every few minutes with wet shoes dragging in the dirt of the city street. The scowling kid trailed behind each new entrant, pushing that mop back and forth with a lazy energy, leaving a gleaming floor behind, however temporarily. He dragged the soap bucket around with him, one wheel eeking out occasional sharp squeaks that scratched the eardrum.

The items on the shelves seemed to be organized by color rather than function, an inefficient choice, but aesthetically pleasing, somehow. It reminded Polly of the way she used to arrange Legos when she was a child, small to big, light to dark. She caressed the edges of a particularly brightly colored vial with her fingertips, turning it around to read the highlighter pink details on the backside. FLUretanol: induces feelings of achiness throughout the body in combination with interspersed waves of fever and chills. Relaxing sense of illness guaranteed to last 24-48 hours. Only one drop needed! Handy to-go size! Polly turned the bottle back into place. The scowling kid grazed her shoe with the soggy mop, drenching the side of her sock in an instant.

“Fuck,” she said under her breath, making her way away from him as quickly as possible. In the back of the Harmacy, the shelves were stocked with paraphernalia; pill cases with every possible branding (Ferrari! Louis Vuitton! Peppa Pig!); 10-packs of empty syringes in shades of neon, metallic, and pastel; pill cutters shaped like turtles or Pacman, and one designed as a row of teeth that Polly found especially disturbing. One lone employee manned the counter in the corner, and the line was long; fifteen people, looking bored, waiting for the prescriptions that would grant them a day or two of escape.

Polly had always avoided the Harmacy, thinking herself a pretty content, competent person. She was only exploring because of the insistence of her brother Travis, who sang the praises of the Harmacy. She knew she was strange in her denial; everyone else at her office took at least ten sick days a year. Yet Polly had never taken a day, never took the easy way out by swallowing a dose of pneumonia, gurgling a bit of bronchitis, or shooting up some blood poisoning. Everyone thought she was so old fashioned.

The truth was that Polly liked to be happy and healthy. When people detailed their sick days with glee, she simply couldn’t understand it. While the monotony of the day to day could get tedious, the snotting, vomiting, feverishly shivering alternative was not appealing.

#

“It’s about balance Polly, I’ve told you this,” said her brother Travis, as she sat in his living room later that day. Polly handed him a tissue and averted her eyes as he cleared out his nasal passage with a horrible honk. Smirking, he threw the dirty tissue back at her, and Polly grabbed a magazine from his coffee table and held it up to her face just in time to divert the sticky, crumpled mess.

“You asshole!” she said with a laugh. “That’s disgusting, you know. Ever think about germs?”

“Polly, really? Germs? You know this cold was expensive, they wouldn’t give me germs with it too so I could pass a freebie on to a buddy. Seriously, the way you talk it’s like you’re grandma and you still think that you can pick up a cold on a dirty subway car. Fuck, I wish. These are different times, you know.”

“Yeah yeah fine, but I just don’t get it. You look like shit. Can’t you get ‘balance’ from just living your life, without intervention?”

“Abso—ah-choo!—loutely not. I’m living the life today, total relaxation. Another tissue, if you don’t mind.”

“Get one yourself, you dirty bastard.” Polly laughed and feigned running away out of fear, detouring into the kitchen to grab a glass of water. On the counter by the sink was Travis’s bottle of pills, one left. She read the description on the side: Coldexetrin: catch a simple cold, perfect for a three-day weekend! One pill generates an ideal amount of fatigue to justify a day at home, while leaving you with enough energy for regular mobility. On the opposite side of the bottle was a removable coupon, offering two-for-one boxes of tissues. Travis shouted at her from the living room.

“Don’t you care about your poor, ill, bitty baby brother?!” he added a brief fake cry at the end, a throaty sob that might have had her convinced if she didn’t know him so well.

“You did this to yourself kid, and I’ll never understand it.” She made her way back to the couch, cautiously reentering the line of fire of tissues.  “Anyway, can we refocus, or is there snot clouding your eyes too? We need to make some decisions for this party.”

The siblings had been instructed to plan a “surprise” twenty fifth anniversary celebration for their parents and were supposed to be picking out stationery for the invitations, selecting flower arrangements, choosing a cake topper. Their parents had requested the party.

“Don’t you think it’s all kind of bullshit?” Travis asked.

“No, I think it’s kind of nice, in fact. Celebrating the endurance of love, life, etcetera, etcetera. What’s bullshit about that?”

“Endurance of love, my ass! It’s about flaunting success in front of other people. It’s about winning. Everything is about winning.”

“You’re such a cynic, Travis. I think it’s sweet.” She paused. Even as she said the words, she wasn’t sure if they were true. Perhaps she was old fashioned, but she wanted to believe that the celebration of love was something pure. One pure thing in the world that was increasingly tinkered with, increasingly subject to intervention. Love doesn’t need injections to make it successful, does it? Happiness with another person doesn’t require pill popping, does it? Her parents were happy, they must be. They still held hands when they walked down the street; they still called each other each evening when they were apart. If that’s not love, or at least an effort to maintain love, then what is? She pushed the thought aside and continued:

“Now, which do you think suits Mom and Dad best, yellow or coral?”

“Coral, if you’re gonna make me choose. Yellow is the color that liberal parents paint baby’s rooms. Giraffes and sunshine. Not very fitting for an anniversary show-off celebration, wouldn’t you say?” said Travis, in a moment of legitimate insight.

“I suppose that’s true. Looks like you need another tissue, kid,” Polly said.

#

The celebration turned out to be a modest affair; coral roses set in bud vases, a superfluous number of votive and taper candles. Polly and Travis’s father made half of their guests well up with tears as he gave a speech, thanking their loved ones for their support over the years, and thanking his wife for loving him.

“…and finally, to my Dorothy, for putting up with all of my shenanigans, and my socks all over the floor. For being my alarm clock when I inevitably sleep through mine, for being the mixologist to my chef, and for occasionally being my chauffer—all those scotch nights—am I right boys?! Getting back on track…for all of the beautiful vacations together, and all of the wonderfully relaxing sick days that we’ve enjoyed in one another arms. Sometimes I think those days have been the best of all. Sleeping in, cuddling each other’s feverish bodies. I feel truly blessed that we have been able to be ill together so many times. I never feel closer to you than I do at those times. The way we care for one another, I think it’s beautiful honey, I really do. You are beautiful, and wonderful, and I am so over the moon to shout it at the top of my lungs; we made it! We did it! Twenty-five years together, and happy as ever! We really did it! And one big thank you to all of you in the crowd tonight. We love all of you guys, we truly do. As a final note, the bar is open!”

The finale of his speech was met with a wall of applause, as though the audience was trying to clap away his words, one by one. Smatterings of laughter punctuated the applause, a perfunctory acknowledgement of Dave’s attempts at humor. Polly leaned over to Travis, whispering, “see, wasn’t that adorable? I think they are sweet. I want that someday, don’t you?

“Ha! It was exactly what I expected. The gloating at the end? ‘We did it, we did it! We won, we are better at marriage than all of you chumps!’ Great, really classy.”

“God, Travis, you look at things in the worst way. Is it really so terrible to be self-congratulatory on occasion? Are people not allowed to say they are proud of something they’ve accomplished? Don’t you ever pat yourself on the back?”

“Do you know how many pills Dad is taking?” Polly felt her face go pale; her smile dropped.

“What are you talking about? He seems really great, he’s happy.”

“You’re so fucking naïve, Polly.”

“Yeah, well you are fucking drunk, Travis,” she said, pronouncing his name exaggeratedly, in mockery of his tone.

“So what? He gave himself cancer, you dumb fuck.”

Polly stared at him in shock, not processing what he was saying, how it could be true.

“Fuck you. Go have a cup of coffee and go home.” Polly’s face flushed back to red, her cheeks burning.  She guessed that was the end of their civil period. The two of them never went more than two months in each other’s good graces. The mere fifteen-month difference in their ages meant they were always at each other’s throats. As children, always in competition for attention from their parents, always fighting over friends, always arguing over the differences in their privileges. As adults, it hadn’t been any better. Differences in salary, competitions for the most attractive partners. His cynicism to her optimism.

#

She visited her parents a couple of weeks later, when they got home from their self-dubbed “honey-versi-moon.” Her mom’s skin had taken on a tan hue, camel, nearly matching the leather couch she was sitting on. She radiated health, looking better than she had when she was young, when her face was shredded to exhaustion by the burden of raising two small, feisty children. Her father, conversely, was weathered to the extreme. His eyes looked as though they had deliberately retreated further into his skull to avoid the dangers of the world. There was far too much blue tinting his skin to be healthy. When Polly went to hug him, she strangled the gasp in her throat. She’d seen him so recently, how had he deteriorated so quickly?

“So, how was Tahiti? All beach huts and glass-bottomed boats, I presume?” Polly dialed up the cheeriness in her voice, choosing to ignore whatever was wrong with her father. She hadn’t forgotten what Travis said.

“Oh Polly, it was a dream. Does the sun have powers to reverse aging? I would wake up every day, take a dip in big blue, take a little sun siesta, eat exotic fruits—pineapple, passionfruit, and oh, what were they called, Davey? Oh yes, rambutan! Have you ever heard of them, Polly?” Dorothy laughed at herself, smiling and smiling, dancing as she spoke like a woman from an old film.

“Mom, you seriously look amazing. I think those fruits really worked for you. Something did over there, that’s for sure.” Polly turned the volume up on the TV to drown out the sound of her father retching.

#

Polly was supposed to visit her father in the hospital in the evening. That wasn’t a remarkable fact—rather, it had become the new normal. Wake up, brush teeth, work, visit Dad, order takeout, brush teeth, sleep. Her morning began as her mornings always did, with the alarm blaring, and Polly’s first thought being to change the sound that the fucking alarm made. The thought always left her mind as quickly as it entered, and she never remembered to change it. Plodding through her morning routine, her autopilot was interrupted when she walked into her kitchen with a splash. Half an inch of water covered the linoleum, the dishwater the obvious culprit. After the cleanup and calling the super and changing her socks, Polly’s mood was in the pits, and she was an hour late for work.

Rushing down the street to the office, her eyes landed on the Harmacy. The exterior of the Harmacy was brightly colored, the signage minimal and attractive. The modern design was well thought out, with the angles of the awning original and intriguing, the glass door a hexagon, strangely. Polly wondered how much that custom job would have cost. She was already late and a voice in her head said fuck it and she pulled the door open and stepped inside.

As always, it was bustling, strangers necessarily brushing shoulders in the crowded aisles. She did a lap first, curious. There were shelves in one corner with sliding plexiglass doors, secured with a tiny padlock. The sign on top said “Semi-Permanents,” with small, almost unreadable text below “Warning: overuse and abuse can lead to enduring conditions.” Those protected shelves were full of small vials black with droppers, brightly colored packaging abandoned for the particularly wicked illnesses. They looked familiar.

Polly thought about her evening plans with dread. Her father would be lying in bed, drifting in and out of consciousness, while her mother sat bedside, holding his hand and alternating between solemnly gazing at his withering body and small talking with whoever was in the room as if they were all healthy and hanging out at home. Nurses would enter and randomly prod the semi-conscious man, and Polly would divert her eyes, which only made her awareness of the smell more pronounced. It all felt like such a terrible cliché.  She knew he was dying, that he was nearly dead already, barely able to register the guests that came and went.

Polly left the Harmacy and headed back the way she came.

#

On the day of the funeral, Travis’s eye sockets were rimmed purple, the whites of the eyes themselves streaked with red as the myriad wisps of vein made themselves known. Polly, Travis, and Dorothy sat in the front pew of the church, Travis with a bucket tucked under his spot, just in case.

“I just couldn’t deal with this day with a clear head,” Travis had explained to Polly that morning, looking apologetic. She’d raged at him, pounding his arm in anger at what he’d done to himself. By the time she met his apology with one of her own for lashing out, his bruises were starting to bloom, like a spot on a canvas that a watercolor brush dipped in blue and purple has barely grazed.

In the church, Dorothy was sporadically silent and murmuring versions of “he just wanted a month off…it was supposed to be temporary.” She mostly sat with her head in her hands, until she had to perform the eulogy. Then, she stood, straightened her skirt, patted her hair, and made her way to the podium with shoulders back; suddenly looking more like a woman on a mission than a woman in grief.

“Dave loved life. He loved living every day with joy and finding excitement in everything. He would call me into the yard while mowing the lawn to show me the tiniest of frogs hiding in the grass. That’s a true story, if you’ll believe it. Davey was a soft man, in his heart. But life is hard. Life was exciting when we were young, when the kids were young. Oh, it was exhausting, but Dave loved chasing those kids around. Polly and Travis, your dad loved you so much. We’re so proud of them, and how they’ve gone on to build their own lives. But when they left and moved out, something changed. There was no hustle. No frantic activity. It was almost as if life stopped, in an unbearable way. You have all felt it, the monotony. The unchanging string of days that line up one by one and you can’t remember the last time anything notable happened. Dave was the best man I ever knew, but he was vulnerable to the promise of excitement. Excitement of any kind, anything that made one day look differently than the day before. I know I’m not supposed to say things like this on the day we put him to rest, but my Davey did this to himself. I hope that today you will all honor his memory and think about the fondest times you shared with him, but I also hope you’ll all think about stopping this. We all are doing it, and we need to stop.”

Polly looked down, mourning for her father, mourning for herself. She sat on her hands to hide the tremors that she couldn’t control, letting the tears fall down her face.

 

 

BIO

Stephanie Mataya is a graduate of Western Washington University, and spent her days there writing stories and reading books. She was shaped by her West Coast upbringing, and has taken great joy and inspiration from living in New York, Paris, and currently, Canada. Previous work of hers has appeared in Your Impossible Voice and Scarlet Leaf Review.

 

 

 

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Mr. Whiskey, the Greatest of All

by Evelyn Somers

 

“For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.”

—Christopher Smart
from Jubilate Agno

 

 

Isaac Martin stopped on his way to his dad’s house to pick up the mail. It was his first trip back home to Covington in two months. Winter had slithered away after one last, limp snow, and the grass-tufted tarp of spring was being drawn greenly over the yards in one fluid, fast motion. School would end in three weeks. He had been living in a church homeless shelter in University City, singing in their praise band in exchange for his lodging, and trying to complete his classes remotely, ever since he’d gotten arrested and thrown in jail (first) and kicked off campus (later) for an absurd dorm dispute with a fellow music major, a psycho Maltese percussionist named Den. In the end, the prosecutor said the arrest was ridiculous, and there had been no charges, but Big State U had not welcomed Isaac back. They’d sealed his future with a bogus investigation, and now he was trying to figure out what to do. He felt terrible for losing all his scholarships and ruining his future; though he still didn’t know what he’d done wrong. His sister, Jasmyn, said it was all about money and influence; but it was not just that, and they each knew it. They’d known it since he was nine and Jasmyn was fifteen. Something was right on them, tearing up their family. It wasn’t just him it was after. It was Jasmyn, and his dad. And most tragically, their mother, Adrianna. It had started when she was killed nine years ago. When his dad took to building his barricade and hoarding cats. Sometimes it seemed like only the band teacher, Mr. Wright, was on their side. But whenever Isaac thought this, he remembered St. Tamzin and imagined she was their side, too. Tamzin: a celestial agent of sometimes quixotic benevolence who seemed to reside mainly in and around Covington. Everyone knew about her, and some people called her “St. Tamzin,” though she wasn’t a real saint. No one was quite sure what she was. In fact, most people weren’t sure she existed, but they were afraid to disavow belief and lose her goodwill. Her arch-enemy, from the dawn of time—or, at least, from way, way back—was a she-devil evil bitch-spirit named Mary Black. Mary Black was the “something” that had been tearing up the Martins for years.

The mailbox was an antique cast-iron Victorian postbox that Randall, Isaac’s father, a scrapper by trade, had liberated from a condemned old mansion. The ornate box had a decorative medallion that looked like two lions facing each other, stirring kettle of apple butter. It was mounted on a pressure-treated pine post set out at the end of the driveway. The letter carrier couldn’t get to the Martins’ door because of Randall’s scrap blockade: a barrier of metal bits and appliances that he had picked up and hauled here. Stuff he could have made money off of, if he’d sold it instead of building the blockade. But no one would want the scrap now, and no one tried to steal it, because the cats had coated it with their spray.

Isaac had to juggle his pack and his trombone to get the mail. There was nothing that looked important in the box: a postcard advertisement for high-speed Internet. Then he saw that there was a real postcard stuck to the ad. Isaac had to peel the two cards apart. He gasped when he looked at the second card, the real one. It was addressed to his mother: “Adrianna Martin, Blue House, Pink Elephant Lane, Covington.” No house number. Pink Elephant was an actual road. There was not a blue house there that Isaac could think of, however, and his mother had never to his knowledge lived on Pink Elephant, though she had died there. Who the hell would play such a creepy joke?

But the stranger and creepier thing about the postcard was that his mother’s name and the first address had been crossed out, and above them was written, “No such person anymore.” Then underneath, the new direction, which was to “Mr. Whiskers c/o Randall Martin.” It was the Martins’ street address. There could be no mistake. Yet something about the writing: it was totally readable, but Isaac had not seen writing quite like it anywhere. Just looking at it made his skin prickle. Mr. Whiskers c/o Randall Martin

Mr. Whiskers was his father’s favorite cat.

The picture on the postcard, from the Roman catacombs (cat a combs?), was creepy too: a mountain of skulls in a dank, rock-lined subterranean chamber. The handwritten message, in fine-point marker in the same unusual writing, was on the front, across the photo of the skulls, not on the back, where it should be. It read “To My Darling Mr. Whiskers: ‘What you are now, we once were. What WE are now, YOU will be.’” As if the skulls themselves were speaking. It was signed “Your friend, counselor, and eternal lover,” with eternal darkly underlined.

Isaac read this again with a sensation he’d become very familiar with lately: a sensation that hovered between anger and disbelief. A creepy, anonymous postcard dredging up his mother’s death and threatening the cat? It was the last straw. One of many, since his arrest in February. Jasmyn said that depression was when everything felt like the last straw and your anger never left, just traded places with sadness, back and forth. He had never been depressed before, but she was exactly right. For a girl with only a high school diploma, whose main claim to notice was her breasts, she could startle them all with her wisdom. She’d inherited some of that from their mother, who’d been poor but country smart. The rest had come when she’d gone up on a pillar on the Big State U campus for weeks and become a pillar saint, denying her earthly self so Isaac could receive justice (it hadn’t worked).

He pushed his backpack up on his shoulder and headed for the scrap blockade. Randall had erected the scrap blockade just over onto the county side of their property so the city could not fine them. The blockade guarded the house, such as it was, and the Martins’ possessions, which amounted to nothing. And the cats, numbering a steady fifty. Their census should have waxed and waned: coyotes lurked in the brush, waiting to pick off the old ones. Hawks and owls wheeled above, peering down with accute raptor vision and waiting with infinite patience for the plump kitten that strayed too far from the clowder. Yet no cat was taken. They were not immortal entirely—the old ones died eventually of natural causes, and there were the usual fatal accidents and diseases—but some invisible entity guarded them from predators, at least.

You could cross the scrap line anywhere, but in and around the array of dead dishwashers and piles of old aluminum downspouts and barn roofing were lengths of two-by pried off old houses and barns, nails still poking through, ready to stab a foot. Isaac didn’t chance it. The “gate,” which sat between a heap of guttering to the rear and an overturned washer body in front, was a 1977 blue soft-top Chevy Nova on blocks. He opened the passenger door and got in. There was a terrible, gagging stench. It wasn’t cat pee—it was much worse. He scooted quickly across the seat to the driver’s side to get away from the stench and got out into the piss-smelling yard. That smell, the pee, he could tolerate.

Randall had left several days’ mail on the car’s dash, so Isaac grabbed it as he scooted and added it to the postcards. Before closing the door quickly, to seal in the unbearable odor, he leaned in and gave the horn three quick toots and was immediately swarmed by cats. Tabbies and piebalds and calicos and tortiseshells: they acted starved, though they just wanted attention. Soon more came: a mewling, leg-rubbing sea. When they saw where he was going, they set up a raucous meowing and followed him as he crossed the dirt yard. On the porch, in an old Shop-Vac drum—just the drum, no motor or or hose—a half-grown gray kitten peered over the rim to watch the tide of cats moving toward the porch. Next to the vacuum drum was a white wicker rocker with four cats piled asleep in the seat. They woke and cried drowsily at Isaac. The cats pooled and parted around him at the steps, trained to stay outside. He went up the steps, pushed gently on the front door, and found it unlatched.

Inside, Randall was standing in the middle of the living room eating Wheat Chex. Isaac was accustomed now to community meals at the shelter. He’d forgotten Randall’s solitary art of eating, another habit that had developed after Adrianna died: Gaze into space with a hollow stare. Hum and gulp and commune with the soul of . . . what? He was somewhere else; that was all Isaac knew. Like he was hearing a voice no one could hear but him. Not that they didn’t all sometimes hear voices. It seemed to be congenital among the Martins. Perhaps that was why Tamzin always hovered so near: they needed protection from the bad ones.

The cereal bowl was cracked and chipped. Some milk leaked from the corner of Randall’s mouth, a thick, ivory droplet. Evaporated milk from the food pantry. Randall poured it on the cereal without reconstituting it. Isaac had grown up with this. He used to think it was cream. Randall put it on noodles, too.

“You’re dribbling, Dad,” said Isaac. “And that bowl needs to be thrown away.”

“It’s fine. My dribbling—it’s fine, too. No worse than your trombone spit,” said Randall. He didn’t smile or greet Isaac, even though they hadn’t seen each other in months. He just hummed and finished the Wheat Chex. Then he set the cracked bowl on the coffee table, which was half a door from an old schoolhouse on iron hairpin legs. The knob was still on the door, and Randall used it as a cap holder.

“Why the bone?” he said, nodding at the trombone case.

“I have to practice. And I didn’t want to leave it.”

“Didn’t they kick you out of that place?”

“Yes. No. Not until May. I get to finish the semester. Jasmyn says they won’t risk a lawsuit by expelling me. She says they’ve perfected the art of the legally unimpeachable screw. The lawyer says so, too. Where’s Mr. Whiskers? There’s a postcard for him.”

“Don’t shit me.”

“And something from the vet clinic.”

“It’s his path-ology,” said Randall. “Why do you think I left it in the Nova? I’d rather not know he has cancer.”

Just then, Mr. Whiskers padded into the room, tail thrashing. They’d had him since his kittenhood, when Randall had found him, malnourished and near death, curled up hiding in the engine of an old wreck he was hauling. In the months before she died, Adrianna had fed him formula and brought him back. Later he’d lived mostly outdoors, until Randall had singled him out as a companion when Adrianna died. It was Mr. Whiskers who’d started the outdoor cats pissing on the scrap blockade, and the other cats kept doing it after he moved inside.

He was a truly handsome animal: a gray tuxedo cat, with four white paws, a white “shirtfront,” and a dashing white half-mustache above his mouth. The rest was a deep charcoal. He groomed religiously, and his short, sleek fur was thick and shining. His eyes were full-on green, and he had unusually long white whiskers (the occasion for his name) and eyebrows. His face and nose were long and noble. He wore a perpetual frown and would not tolerate fools or other cats; thus he was the only cat allowed inside. He walked with a sassy strut, and though he had been neutered, his ballsack remained prominent. Nevertheless, he had the dignity of a creature who has traded copulating in the bushes for higher pursuits. His tail and eyes were insanely expressive. The former twitched and switched like a whip; you always knew Mr. Whiskers was feeling deeply when the tail went into action. The eyes were almost human. When he was annoyed, they grew dark and unforgiving. When he was hungry or wanted attention, he stood on his hind legs, paws on your knee supporting him at full stretch, and gazed up into your face, commanding and imploring you. He was like a person in a cat body. In Randall’s estimation, he was the smartest cat ever made.

He was also a biter. Right now, seeing Isaac, he gave a high, wicked meow, flew at Isaac, and bit his ankle.

“Ow!” yelled Isaac and swatted him away.

Isaac had never taken to Mr. Whiskers. For a cat, he was full of dislikes and far too quick to bite, but he had to admit that Mr. Whiskers was very, very smart and loaded with personality. For a cat.

“He looks like he’s gotten thinner, Dad.”

“I been feeding him wet food and lard. He loves his lard. But I knew something was wrong, so Jasmyn took him last week.”

“Do you want me to open this?” said Isaac, pulling out the letter from the clinic.

“In a minute. What’s that postcard?”

Isaac showed him. Randall read it without his cheaters. His eyes were good for a man in his late fifties. For just a second he looked destroyed, and his face crumpled. Isaac wondered if he would cry. He’d never seen Randall cry. “I don’t understand why everything got turned so bad and why—”

“What?” said Isaac.

“Never mind,” said Randall. He took the envelope from Isaac and opened it and skimmed the pathology report. He looked down at Mr. Whiskers, who was lying flat on his side on the rug. “He’s been lying like that lately. I think he has a tumor in his belly.”

He showed the report to Isaac. Isaac read the dread word: Lymphoma. They had the cat’s name misspelled, and all through the report the pathologist referred to “Mr. Whiskey.” Mr. Whiskey presented with lethargy, shifting lameness, and reduced appetite. On physical exam Mr. Whiskey had enlarged peripheral lymph nodes (under the jaw, and by the hamstrings). CBC revealed increased WBC count (36,000 ref. range 5,500-19,500), mature neutrophilia and moderate lymphocytosis. Abdominal ultrasound of Mr. Whiskey shows many enlarged mesenteric lymph nodes throughout abdomen…

 

Jasmyn had had $4200 saved from her job at the nursing home for a Ford Escape, but she’d used most of it to pay for Isaac’s lawyer, and there were several weeks of lost wages from going up on the pillar to be a saint. And now Mr. Whiskers needed vet care, and she’d end up paying for it. But she didn’t say anything. She took Isaac back to the shelter the following Monday so he could focus on his homework and meet his teachers for lessons and his accompanist to rehearse. Before she dropped him off, they went together to the vet with Mr. Whiskers. Randall would not come. The vet had him down as “Mr. Whiskey” in the chart. “We have pretty good results with steroids. Mr. Whiskey would probably have another six months if we do that. With chemo, you’ll have maybe a year and a half,” said the vet. Steroids were $20 for three months. Chemo would cost more than the lawyer, and the cat would have to come back for treatments every week. It was a no-brainer, but Isaac felt sad. The sadness had traded places with anger. If Randall were there, he might have figured a way to barter for the chemo, but Jasmyn, who possessed many skills, lacked that touch.

“We’ll try the steroids,” said Jasmyn, and they were given a pill bottle. The tech had referenced the pathology report while writing the script; or maybe the vet clinic had him in the system wrong, and the bottle label, like the report, said “Mr. Whiskey.”

When Jasmyn pulled into the church lot to drop Isaac off, he asked if she wanted to come in and see his bunk.

“I don’t think so, Icey. I’m so mad about this every day of my life. You’re so smart and good; you’re just different, and no one gets it. I wish Mom were here.

“Does she ever talk to you?” said Isaac. He’d wondered more than once if Jasmyn had seen her when she went up on the pillar and denied herself.

“Does she talk to you?” Jasmyn asked quickly.

“You’re the one who stood on a pillar for weeks and hardly ate anything. You didn’t hear any voices?”

They’d both forgotten about Mr. Whiskers, in his Pet Taxi in the backseat, but now he mewed demandingly.

“Did you?”

Jasmyn said, “I heard things. It’s not what you think up there. I can’t tell you about it.

“Why not?”

“I just can’t. It was pretty rough.”

 

He went back home the next weekend to check on his dad. Mr. Whiskers looked thinner, but that didn’t make him any happier to see Isaac or the trombone. He streaked away when Isaac came in the front door.

But then, a few minutes later, he was hanging outside the living room doorway, waiting to ambush whoever stepped through. Eventually he gave up the ambush and simply strutted in, emitted his spine-tingling apha cat yodel, and bit Isaac’s shoe.

Randall didn’t say much, but he seemed hopeful. The veterinary supply company in the next county that sold him all the vaccine for the cats (in a hauling-for-meds barter, of which Isaac only knew the vague outlines) had given him a case of high-calorie gel. It came in tubes and smelled and looked like sticky fish toothpaste. Mr. Whiskers tried to run away from it, but once you forced him to confront a spoonful of the translucent, tobacco-colored gel, he was mesmerized and compelled by some irresistible quality of the gel to lick, lick, until he cleaned the spoon. Then he worked the stuff around in his mouth like a baby eating a ball of caramel.

“They say it’s a miracle paste,” said Randall. “If he gets fat again, I’ll believe them. It makes him hungrier, anyway. I doubled his lard, and he hasn’t puked it up.”

While Isaac was home, he borrowed Jasmyn’s car and drove out to the high school so Mr. Wright could listen to the pieces he was preparing for juries next week. Mr. Wright looked like he always did. He was balder, and he was growing a spotty beard. He was closer to forty than thirty now, and his wife, Ms. Figueroa, the former assistant band teacher, had just had a baby. First he hugged Isaac. Then he showed him a secondhand tuba in good condition that the band had bought recently. Isaac tried out the tuba. Then Mr. Wright showed him a picture of the baby—a red-haired girl named Veronica. He sang part of the Elvis Costello song about shouting and stealing clothes and the Empress of India. He acted like he always did, which made Isaac want to cry.

“All right, let’s hear you play,” he said, and Isaac got out his trombone and played the two pieces he was preparing, and a third, something he’d been messing around with.

“Wait. What is that? Did you write that?” said Mr. Wright.

“Yes. It’s only a little part. I think it’s going to be a symphony.”

“Man,” said Mr. Wright. “Look at you. Someone knocks you down, and you just get up and compose yourself.”

Isaac looked at him. “Did you really just say that?”

They both started laughing, and they were still laughing when one of the senior clarinets came in with a sack of belated Easter candy and offered them Peeps. Isaac grabbed one and ate it. He felt joy. This was joy. It was like things had always been here, in the band room, where he could imagine that something awful wasn’t eating their family. Isaac whooped and took another Peep and devoured it headfirst, little dot eyes and all, and Mr. Wright, smiling still, delighted to have him back, said, “What did she used to say? Roach-turd eyes?”

Isaac froze in mid chew.

Mr. Wright backpedaled. “I know someone who used to call them that. One of my cousins.”

He was lying. He’d meant Isaac’s mother, and there was no reason he would know what Adrianna used to say about Peeps unless they had spent time together privately, laughed together like he and Mr. Wright had just been doing. His mother was thirty-three when she died, and Jasmyn was fifteen. His dad was a fifty-year-old scrapper who even then was poor and not entirely on the planet. Mr. Wright was twenty-six and single. Isaac realized he had known about his mother and Mr. Wright without knowing. He remembered that Mr. Wright had been nice to him long before he was Isaac’s teacher. He had come to her funeral, and Isaac hadn’t wondered why. He was nine then. He didn’t think about why adults did anything: Mr. Wright had been Jasmyn’s band teacher at the time; it seemed to be reason enough.

Back at the church homeless shelter, he started a list of questions in one of his small notebooks that he used to organize his life and make sense of things. He kept the list with him when he was doing homework and wrote things down as they came to him:

Who sent the postcard to Mr. Whiskers?

Why did Den the psycho Maltese percussionist lie about me?

Was there ever a blue house on Pink Elephant?

Did my mother love Mr. Wright?

 

He finished his music history paper on the Ukrainian dumy, a kind of oral folk epic that in centuries past was performed by men who were disabled, or who apprenticed out as teenagers from poor families who couldn’t afford to help them. Isaac could relate. He went home again the next weekend. Five days until juries. His notebook was in his trombone case. Home felt different now that he knew he was probably never coming back to stay.

When he went through the Chevy gate and tooted the horn, the pee smell flooded his nostrils and cats swarmed him as they always did. It was feeding time, , and they flew away at a gallop when Randall came out on the porch with the food bucket. He walked around the side of the house to the retaining wall and poured a continuous string of cat chow along the top of the wall. The cats ran to it and lined up and ate; tails high, tails low. Fifty of them. So many that you could hear them crunching and purring from yards away.

His father saw him but didn’t wave. Isaac followed him inside and set his ’bone in the hallway. Mr. Whiskers sashayed toward him with a hint of unsteadiness. He was, in just a week, starting to look more like a Flat Stanley cat. Randall had gone in the kitchen, and he came back with a plate of tuna, biscuit crumbles, and lard. He sat and petted Mr. Whiskers in the hall while the cat ate. His callused scrapper hands were large and clumsy, stroking the cat’s side. Every one of the cat’s ribs showed, where his hands pressed the fur. Randall was talking softly. At first Isaac couldn’t catch what he was saying, it was so soft. But then he got used to the cadence, and his ears picked it up “You are the greatest of all. The greatest cat. Mr. Whiskers, you are the greatest of all. There will never be another cat as great as you.”

How could the father he knew be talking to a cat this way, crooning in its ear? The big hands ran over the thin ribs; and when Mr. Whiskers turned away, leaving the food only half finished, Randall picked him up as if he were made of fine blown glass. Mr. Whiskers put his face up to Randall’s and nuzzled him again and again. Randall crooned and Mr. Whiskers nuzzled. Neither of them acknowledged Isaac’s presence. It was love.

Love.

Quietly Isaac unlatched the case and slipped out the notebook and added My dad loves Mr. Whiskey, the Greatest of All, but he’s going to die to his notes.

 

Then his juries were over. They went as well as they could, given that he was depressed and technically homeless. He got all A’s. He didn’t think any of them were out of pity. His affiliation with Big State U was ended forever, and the future was muddy and clod-filled as a newly plowed field after a soaking rain. He could go home to Covington, help Randall pick up scrap. He could work at the bottle factory. He could finish his symphony, but what then? Who would perform it? He had no mentor to connect him with composing connections, no program to support him. Maybe he could start giving music lessons; but he wasn’t sure who would take them. He was not good with kids and had trouble talking to people; he made them uncomfortable. He was not antisocial; he just always felt how much he was out of place. He was not Mr. Wright, who everyone loved.

He decided to stay at the church homeless shelter for a while. There was no time limit for how long he could stay, so long as he helped with the music, and it was depressing to go home and see Mr. Whiskers wasting away. Each time, he was thinner, but Randall was in denial, munching cereal or noodles with Pet milk, humming his communion with the unseen whatever, nuzzling the paper-thin cat and saying that he was looking better, when the cat’s eye had begun to weep and he’d taken to pissing wherever he wanted, all over the house. Mr. Whiskers’s white shirtfront was getting dingy, and he slept twenty-three hours a day and then staggered up and picked at the tuna and lard; he wooled the fishy gel around in his mouth and smacked his gums sadly. His eyes were no less human, though, and you could see that he wanted to be himself and was trying to; his tumor-ridden body just wasn’t cooperating with his desire.

One night after Jasmyn took Isaac back to the shelter and he was lying in his bed, he started thinking about Adrianna and Mr. Wright and his father and the affair that must have happened when he was in second or third grade. He sat up and grabbed his notebook and wrote: All the adults I know have hidden pasts and secret selves, even the ones who are dead. Then he realized that he was an adult, too. My secret self is right here, he wrote. Meaning the notebook, but it was in his symphony, too.

Later that week, in Wednesday night worship at the church, they were singing a song that Isaac did not like because the lyrics were so overblown yet dirgelike. Isaac suddenly couldn’t stand to sing anymore. He kept seeing the cat’s human eyes, looking at him, pleading, in silent cat language, “I don’t want to feel like this. I want to strut around and bite you and be king of the cats, the Greatest of All. Please make this stop happening to me.”

He stopped singing. It took a while for people to notice. They kept on, the pastor playing lead guitar, the worshipers, some of them genuine homeless, all singing, and the other vocalists doing the harmonies, so into it that Isaac’s ceasing went unobserved. And now Isaac could hear another voice, inaudible to everyone but him. It gave him a terrible chill and made him think about the creepy postcard addressed to Mr. Whiskers. And about what Jasmyn had said: that she’d heard things on the pillar that she couldn’t talk about.

 

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
I will harm them, yes I will:
I’ll make them suffer, all.

Each little flow’r that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
I’ll ‘viscerate their colors,
and rip their tiny wings.

 

Who are you? Isaac thought; and in answer he heard, like an intruder in his mind, Ask your friend Mr. Whiskey. Ask your dead mommy. Ask your sister with the big tits. She thinks she figured me out up on that pillar and has me defeated, but she’ll be sorry. Ask Mr. Wright. Ask his sweet little baby Veronica. Ta-ta, Isaac! We’ll meet again, don’t worry.

The next morning he told everyone at the homeless shelter that he had to go home, his father needed him. He called Jasmyn, and she came and picked him up in a 2014 Escape.

“How did you get this?” he asked.

“How else? Dad,” she said. “He made some kind of deal for the down payment, and I can manage the rest.”

“What did he have left to trade?”

“Cats?” said Jasmyn.

They both laughed. But then Isaac had to tell her why he was coming home, and what he’d heard, the shrill singing that had chilled his blood. To her credit, Jasmyn believed him. “It’s Mary Black,” she said.

“I’ve got to warn Mr. Wright to watch his baby.”

But she just changed the subject. This frightened him because she must not understand how serious it was. She turned up the radio and would not say anything until they hit Covington. She took the long way around from the highway, and down Pink Elephant—and there was a blue house. It had been there all along; it was back from the road, amid a snarl of trees.

“Did you ever notice that house?” he said, pointing it out to Jasmyn.

“That’s where Mom died,” she said, and Isaac was silent after that.

They stopped at the back gate of the scrap line—it went all around their property on the county side. Isaac got out and opened it, and Jasmyn drove in, and he pushed it shut and wired it—it was a steel panel of barn roofing fastened on either side with a web of wire. It smelled redolently—the cats had even peed here.

Once the gate was secured and Isaac got back in, she turned to him. “Mary Black can’t get through the scrap line. She can’t hear us now, either. I don’t know why. I don’t think Dad even knows that’s why he built it. Maybe Saint Tamzin was talking to him, the way Mary Black was singing to you. Anyway, don’t tell Mr. Wright the thing about his baby, Icey. I’ve got this. But you can’t tell him.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just don’t. Don’t. Trust me. His baby is okay. You asked me what happened on top of the pillar. Stuff happened. But I can’t tell you. Just trust me. I’ve got this.”

“What are you talking about?” he repeated. “What do you have?”

“Icey, I’ve just got this. Don’t ask me anything else. I can’t help Mr. Whiskers because Mary Black was after Dad, and she knew it would devastate him if the cat got sick and died. And maybe cats don’t count because they don’t have souls or something. But you and I have some protection, as long as we come back here every once in a while. There’s something here, inside the blockade that stops her. As long as we touch the ground here every so often, it seems like we take enough of it with us to keep her away.”

“Mr. Whiskey doesn’t have a soul?”

“I don’t know. He’s a cat.” Jasmyn obviously wasn’t interested in the question; she seemed more concerned about making sure Isaac wouldn’t talk to Mr. Wright. So he said he understood, which he did, up to a point.

But he avoided promising, and she didn’t notice.

 

Jasmyn was living in a duplex with two roommates and trying to save money, but going up on the pillar had changed her, and sometimes she showed up at Randall’s house for no reason and stayed for as much as a week. Isaac was staying there for the short term, singing for funerals at a hundred dollars a pop and practicing trombone and working on the symphony as much as he could. Mr. Wright had helped him start looking into other schools and said he shouldn’t worry about money yet; just see how things went. He decided to sit out a year and take some classes at the community college. He was delivering for Pizza Casa, using Jasmyn’s old car.

They’d all underestimated how long and valiantly a cat with lymphoma could live, how much of him could waste away and he would still be Mr. Whiskers. Randall built plywood steps to everything: even to the sink so the cat could nose around and lick the dishes if he felt like it (he didn’t). Six months passed, and he was still kicking. Then eight, then ten. Every morning when Isaac got up and came out of his room, Mr. Whiskers carefully climbed down the plywood steps from Randall’s bed and scratched at the bedroom door, and Isaac let him into the hall and he ran downstairs, white hocks flashing. How could he even run? There was nothing left. Then Isaac took him in the kitchen and got an energy drink for himself and plied Mr. Whiskers with bits of bacon, salami, butter, mayonnaise: a fatty smorgasbord. The cat would dig in for a few bites, then lose interest and wobble away. If you’d had x-ray vision, you would know that Mr. Whiskers’s bony pelvic girdle was shaped like a fearsome horned mask with two wide, rounded eyes set low, and a vast forehead below the horns. In the center of this massive forehead of bone were two perforations: a pair of angels or winged demons facing each other, bowed in prayer or secret powow. From behind, when Mr. Whiskers walked disdainfully away from his food, these same large bones of his hips jutted side to side in a way that made him look like a stately ship. He wore his imminent death with dignity; but his eyes still held that plea.

The morning came when Isaac got up and let Mr. Whiskers out and he ran with a staggering trot downstairs and would not touch his food at all. “Did you give him his pill last night?” Isaac asked, after Randall came in from feeding the cats and checking the scrap blockade.

Randall nodded distractedly. Someone had left a message on his cell about a refrigerator, and he was trying to figure out who it was.

“He wouldn’t eat at all, Dad,” said Isaac.

Randall shook his head and wouldn’t talk about it. Soon he went off to get the fridge. Isaac went out on the porch and warmed up his voice. All the cats disliked hearing him sing, and they acted out by sauntering over to the blockade and spraying. Then he heard the clang of the barn sheeting being moved around, and soon Jasmyn, who had worked night shift, drove up. He told her about the cat, and they went in and found him lying on the piano bench, sleeping in a way that was new in the last few days: a sleep of resignation and escape, in which he seemed to be pulling away from everything, but especially the pain of his tumors, which must have turned a corner in intensity.

“Poor Mr. Whiskers,” said Jasmyn. “We don’t let them go through this at the nursing home; we just pump morphine into them,” she told Isaac.

She stayed around while Isaac went and did the lunch shift at the Pizza Casa. When he came back, Randall was home. He was sitting in the front room with Jasmyn.

“We set a date,” Jasmyn told Isaac. “It’s next Wednesday.”

That was four days away. Isaac didn’t ask how Jasmyn had made this happen. “Are you going with him?” he asked his father.

“I can’t. Your sister will take him. She says he’s suffering and that we can’t watch him starve to death.” Randall picked up the cat and carried him out.

“Which do you think she wants more? For him to suffer? Or to die?” Isaac asked his sister. They both knew he meant Mary Black.

“I hope I’m right,” she said. “Because if I’m not, and it’s death . . .”

“Will he go to heaven?”

“I don’t know.”

“Mom won’t recognize him. The last time she saw him, he was a kitten,” said Isaac.

“Icey, it’s not actually like that. But it is kind of. I didn’t understand everything I saw on the pillar.”

She added, “I didn’t see Mom.”

 

The last day of Mr. Whiskers’ life, he woke and his bones ached, and the tumors in his throat and stomach gave him excruciating pain if he swallowed and made it impossible to eat without everything burning inside him.

But later the pain lessened. He nuzzled Randall, and for the first time in a while, it didn’t hurt when he was picked up and carried. He had always loved being carried. It was still winter, technically, but the day had turned out to be springlike. The boy who sometimes made a racket with the horn went off and came home smelling like pizza, and it woke his appetite for a second, and he ate some ham, and a few bits of salmon. Then the girl came, who smelled like her mother who’d fed him when he was a baby, and he knew what was going to happen. Tamzin, who watched over all the cats and fought the raptors away, and the dogs and coyotes, had whispered the knowledge into him. “Mr. Whiskers, I made you and now I am unmaking you. Seed to cat, to corse to earth.” He was going to the mother. The mother of the girl, but also the Mother of all.

The boy and the girl and Randall, whom he loved with the greatest love of any cat for any man ever, took him outside. He didn’t know why, but he was the greatest of all, and he had been placed in the engine of a car, where Randall had found him. He didn’t remember how he got there. Just that he was hungry and knew he was dying, but the man picked him up and carried him home, and he didn’t die. He was the first of many, many cats, and after the mother died, and the man started building his wall of metal, Tamzin had told him to piss on it. So he’d pissed and pissed, and taught the other cats to piss there, too. The more cats there were, the more they pissed on it. Mr. Whiskers had taught them, and they passed the knowledge from generation to generation, up to twelve generations (cat generations are short).

Outside now, he trotted a bit, listing to one side. He ate a piece of grass and looked into one of the window wells by the side of the house. The day was strange and new. He was weak, but Tamzin helped him explore.

The scrap blockade was a thing of beauty. Only he knew the secret. She could not abide cat piss. Not even the most imperceptible whiff of it,  picked up on a shoe or a car tire, while crossing the barrier. They were safe here because the cats had sprayed the barrier, every last inch, and Mary Black would not cross a line of cat piss to hunt a man, though she had gotten to Mr. Whiskers long before, when he was still in the car engine, planting a little seed of death.

It was a long way, but he did his best to saunter to the nearest point.  He walked past the pine tree that the woman had planted. Past a mole hill. (Why were the other cats not taking care of these moles?) Past a beetle coming to life in the warmth. He felt the instinct to chase it, but he was too weak.

He was tired when he got to the blockade. But determined.

Then he turned and backed up to it and sprayed with everything that was in him, to remind the others they had a job to do.

All the cats on the property, wherever they were, looked up.

“I’m the greatest of all,” he meowed to them.

The Pet Taxi was on the porch, but he disdained to look at it. He was looking at Randall, the man he loved.  Will I know you when I see you again? he asked.

Randall was asking the same thing at the same time.

“What do you think? Of course you will!” called Tamzin (but she was just a spirit, so none of them heard), perceiving Mr. Whiskers’s meow and glancing down for a second from where she’d been swatting away a hawk with its eye on a thin gray cat that was walking, very slowly, back to the house.

 

 

 

BIO

Evelyn Somers is the longtime associate editor of the Missouri Review and teaches writing and literature. She also serves as a staff writer for Bloom. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Georgia Review, Crazyhorse, the Millions, Florida Review, Southwest Review, South Dakota Review, Shenandoah, the Collagist, and Potomac Review, among many others. Her work in progress is a novel-in-stories about music, magic, and two warring female divinities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Invitations

by Kobina Wright

 

 

October 19th was thirteen days away.  After verifying that Marssarah Rabbat, known as March, had no plans, Bali Favre, decided to gather a few friends for March’s birthday.  Bali had initially planned for it to take place at her house, but it was the day after her gray morning, though she no longer felt the energy sucking dread of it, Bali felt a gnaw at the ragged tail of her mind and asked March, if she minded a change of venue.  March was thrilled, until she remembered Bren’s Sunday night meltdown.  Maybe meltdown was too strong a word, but there was definitely a waddling cycloptic attitude.

“If you don’t mind, run it by Bren before you set this in stone.  She was offended we didn’t invite her to Roman Sports Bar and Grill on Sunday.”  March was on her cell phone in the breakroom at her coffee shop, Steaming Mug.

March glanced up at the clock on the wall in front of her and then out through the small window that allowed her to watch her two employees tend to a short line of customers.  It was the time where morning rush was slowing to a trickle as break-time approached.

“Seriously?  She has to be invited to everything you do?”  Bali was standing at her bathroom mirror applying eyeshadow, then eyeliner with one hand.

“So… I think she’s under the impression that all my friends are her friends too.”

“Really…”

“Oh yeah.  Sunday night when I got home she was all pissy.  Yesterday, she acted like she was so busy she didn’t have time to speak to me.  Not that I care…”  The line was growing in the coffee shop.  The young woman, at the cash register, glanced over and observed March on the phone through the tiny window.  The woman raised an eyebrow and smirked.

“Wow.  Okay.  I’ll call her.  Get her permission to have your friends over to your house for your birthday.”

“Thanks lady.  I’d do it myself, but the line here is almost out the door.”

Bali examined herself for a time in the mirror.  She felt the breath of the troll in her head about to criticize her, so instead of waiting for it to speak, took two steps back from the mirror; tugged at her blouse; patted her butt through her jeans; grabbed her phone and walked away.  She dialed March’s landline.  Bren picked up on the second ring.

“Bali!”

“Hello Bren.  Glad I caught you.”  Bali slid her ten painted masterpieces into a pair of four-inch black suede booties.

In an unlit closet, Bali stretched on tiptoes to the high shelf above her clothes rack for her Mark Cross, python tote.   She tossed the empty handbag onto the bed and retrieved her full butter soft, milk chocolate leather handbag from the chaise near her bedroom window.  She picked up a bath towel from the floor and spread it onto the bed.

“Well, I called because I’d like to host a little shin-dig over there for March’s birthday.  It’s nothing fancy and it’s not a surprise.  I just got the ‘ok’ from March a minute ago, and wanted to call to make sure you’re cool with it.”

There was pause.

“You’re asking my permission?”

“Yes.”

“It’s March’s house…”

Bali thought, yes, girl, I know…  I don’t think you should have any say in the matter either… but to Bren she said, “You live there too, Bren.  I just wanted us all to be on the same page.”

Bali dumped the contents of the milk chocolate leather bag onto the towel and sorted through the contents.  Only the essentials would be invited into the python tote, which was a third of the size.

“Am I invited?”

“Of course you’re invited.  Bring your boyfriend, Alvin.  It should be fun!”  Bali could sense Bren’s eyes rocketing happiness, a cascade of glittery light.

“Okay!  Yeah, we should totally have it here.  We should make it a big party.  She’s got a ton of friends…”

“No.”  Bali stopped the content transfer between the two purses.  “Nothing big.  This will be a small intimate gathering.  Nothing more.”

Another pause.

Bali’s firmness startled Bren.  “Sure.  That makes sense.  A small party will make it special.  Who needs all that work planning a big party anyway, right?”

Bali didn’t dislike Bren, but hovered in a magnetic field in which Bren both annoyed and concerned her.  Bali noticed the widening of Bren’s eyes when Bali was near.  She saw the plastered benevolent smile, lips twitching ready to laugh at Bali’s smallest witticism.  Bren was too old for that – but there it was, posted on every corner of interaction.

She softened her tone. “What are you doing today?  I think I might try to find March’s birthday gift.  You wanna come with?”

“Aw!  I wish I would’ve known about your plans yesterday.  I plan to meet Alvin for lunch.”

“He’s not working either?”

“No, his shift ended early this morning.  He’s done for the rest of the day.  I figure I’ll let him sleep a few hours before I bug ‘im, then we’ll have a late lunch.”

There was a weasel in the story Alvin was giving her. It hid a stolen truth in its quiet earthy hole.  It was Alvin’s random work schedule that sounded a silent alarm.  She had no hard evidence, or even nearly opaque circumstantial evidence.  It would’ve been pointless to bring up unfounded suspicions.  She couldn’t articulate her concerns so then wished Bren a beautiful day.

This morning Elias would open the gallery while she drove out to Riverside Art Museum to take a look around in the museum’s shop.  If she had time, she’d have preferred to go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art instead.  Where else could you get a Sister of Arp Coat of Arms scarf and a David Hockney, Expanding: February 1990 print?   But time was short and buying from LACMA’s online store didn’t really fit the aesthetic of the occasion. Buying local was charming, even responsible, she decided.  It was her duty to support the efforts of local artists.  She was a gallery owner, after all, even if it were lowbrow, and sold no art by any locals.

She had no doubt that Elias would open the gallery late, though Bali asked that he do his damnedest to be on time.  It was an issue, one that she didn’t want to knot bricks to.  She tried her best to be concise and professional in her brief speech, pointing out the value of his punctuality.  Without any emotion, he gave her his word.  Done.  The truth was, even if he were a few minutes late, she had no real room to balk.  Elias was remarkably reliable.  His craftsmanship was professional.  He even seemed drama-proof.

When she told him of the incident of the noise outside Saturday; her investigation and the shadow that moved towards her; the police coming by, finding nothing; he raised his eyebrows and mumbled a couple of phrases of disbelief, but didn’t appear overly concerned.  Despite his zombiesque reaction to the episode, he would, nonetheless, feel the ripple from the strange currents.  Yesterday’s three phone hang-ups were surely proof of it.  She felt a tickle of guilt over it.  Calling and hanging up… such a childish thing to do.

Bali picked up her cell phone again. She was prepared to leave a message, but it was picked up on the first ring.

“Hola!”

“Hola! Perdon! Tengo el número equivocado.”

“Wait.  What?”

“Jane?”

“Yes…?”

“Don’t answer the phone in Spanish if you’re not prepared to speak it.”

“Bali!  O-M-G!  I would have never guessed in a million years you’d be calling!  Hold on a sec.”  Jane placed Bali on hold, then picked up again.  “I’m back.”

“Why aren’t you in school?”

“Oh.  There’s no school today.  It’s some kind of teachers’ training or meeting day.  Or whatever.”

Bali remembered her days in school when the announcement came that there was no school on a certain day, for no apparent reason.  She remembered how lucky she felt, like finding a $20 bill on the street.  She reminisced about the feeling of unexpected breaks with Jane, giggling through adolescent spirited conspiracies about what the teachers were really doing on such days.

Before Bali, ran too far down the rabbit hole, she remembered why she was compelled to call.  It was all the ripples.  It was the acrid smell in the air left behind by childish logic.  Remembering her last interaction with Jane, Bali reflected on a silly battle of wills.  An ironic game of chicken played by a teenage girl and a very grown man.  The puzzle pieces from recent events needed further examination to determine if her young friend fit on any side.

“You remember when I introduced you to that guy, Max, at the gallery?”

“The one with the beard?”

“Yes, the one with the beard.  He doesn’t have a beard anymore though.”

“Okay.”

“In the gallery, were you trying to out-stay him?”

“Out-stay?”

“Were you trying to stall and make him leave before you did?”

A smile flickered in Jane’s voice.  “Maybe.”

Bali walked into the kitchen.  She scanned the contents of the refrigerator, pulled a bag of coffee out, then began prepping the coffee maker.

“Okay.  Maybe.  What about yesterday.  Did you call the gallery yesterday?”

“No…”

“Just to be clear, you didn’t call the gallery, maybe by accident… and then hang up?”

“No!  I wouldn’t just hang up like that.  Even if it were an accident, I’d at least say I messed up.  ‘Sorry. My bad.’  Something.”

“Okay.  Just checking.”

“Somebody did that?”

“Indeed, they did, but it was probably nothing.  Stuff like that happens all the time.”

“But not all the time to you.”

Bali smiled.  “No.”  Bali riffled through her cabinets and then went back into the refrigerator and pulled out a small plastic carton of lemon, poppy seed muffins.  She placed them on the counter then popped the lid.

“Since there’s no school, what are you plans today?”

“I don’t have any plans… I figured I’d live atomically today.”

“Atomically?”

“Right.  So atomic living is like, a theory made up by this girl, Kiran Ghandi.  It goes like this: when you have a choice between doing something, like, spontaneous or like, something ordinary, you should always choose the spontaneous one, if the spontaneous thing makes you happy.”

“Ah.  I see.”

“I saw Kiran Ghandi explaining it in a video on the internet.  That’s how I want to live for now on.”

“Interesting.”

“You should do it too!”

“I’m afraid that theory doesn’t quite work as well when you have to maintain a business and have bills to pay.  I suppose, though, it could be applied in small bursts in certain situations.  I’ll consider it.”

“At least I got you thinking about it.”

“In that vein… I’m going to drive out to the Riverside Art Museum Gift Shop today.  You wanna come with?”

“Heck yeah!  See!  Atomic living…”

“Now we just have to get your grandpa’s permission.”

“I’ll call him back right now!”

 

Jane left the house wearing printed jeans and a white pullover sweater.   Her strawberry blond hair was swept up in a top knot, adorned with an artificial daisy clipped to its base.  Jane’s perfume permeated the car with the scent of raspberries, licorice and vanilla.  She held a white handkerchief edged with lace.  Her eyes were watery and most likely red rimmed under her blue eyeliner.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.  I’m fine.  Just tired.  And I kind of feel like a headache is about to come.”

“I’m sorry you’re not feeling so hot… but you look so cute.  And you smell nice!”

Jane beamed.  Jane had worked methodically on acting cool, not wanting her to ever know that she very badly wanted to impress Bali, who was always so impressive to her.  Jane practiced setting her eyes a certain way.  She studied her look, determined to master hanging her lids at the center of her iris to nail the impression of world worn seriousness. Bali, however, was aware of the effect she had on the 15-year-old, and the attention she gave the girl gave Jane a sense of accomplishment.

When Bali and Jane had been on the 215 north for nearly fifteen minutes, Bali’s cell phone rang.  She had been expecting it and had considered letting the call roll into voicemail, but there was an opportunity mushrooming.  She would never admit – not even to herself – the petty enjoyment this call was about to bring her.   It was Bren.

“Hello Bren.”

“I have good news!  I just became free!  I can come with you to shop for March if you like.”

“Sorry.  I’m already on my way.  I’m on the 215 and I have Jane with me.”

“Jane?  Who’s Jane.

“You don’t know her.  She’s a brilliant fashionista who practices Atomic Living.”  Bali glanced over at Jane who smiled back at her.

“Oh.  Okay.”  Bren was afraid she might sound stupid if she admitted she didn’t know what Atomic Living was.  She’d look it up later on the internet.  “Guess I missed my chance.  Maybe I can meet the two of you there.”

“Don’t worry about it Bren.  We’ll only be there a second.  You take care and enjoy the rest of your day.”

Bren sighed heavily.  “You too.”

The phone was not on speaker mode, but Jane heard the exchange clearly as the brown hills in the distance approached and passed, approached and passed.  She felt a tidal wave of disappointment building up, racing towards her in the passenger seat at the thought of someone else butting in on her first outing with Bali.  She exhaled when Bali shut her friend down, and felt the wave recede.  No one as sophisticated as Bali ever wanted to hang out with Jane like this.  Her truth was, she hadn’t even known of anyone else as put together as Bali.  This was Jane’s day off and she got to spend it (at least part of it) with the most bad-ass woman she knew.

“Who was that?”  Jane dabbed at her nose and studied Bali’s profile.

“That was…Bren.”

“A friend of yours.”

“Not exactly.  She’s more like a friend of a friend.  She thinks she’s my friend.  I let her.”

“Why would you let her think she’s something she’s not?”

“There’s no harm in it.  She’s not in a good spot right now.  She doesn’t have a steady job, her boyfriend doesn’t seem to want her around much and as far as I know she has few friends of her own.  She kind of attaches herself to my friend March and her friends.”

“Like a parasite.”  Jane was proud of her quick assessment.  She studied her nails to hide her pride.

Bali chuckled.  “I don’t want to admit it, but that’s actually a spot-on comparison.”

“She sounds like a loser.”

“You shouldn’t call her that.  She’s not a loser.  She’s just a woman who’s just lost her way, I think.  Something has chipped away at her self-esteem.  She has a good heart.  She’s just very needy.”

“So you think she’ll eventually become your real friend…”

On the 215 north, they were passing the grounded airplanes behind the chain link fence of the old Air Force Base.  “I don’t know about that… Bren is a nice person, but she wants something from me that I can’t give.”

“And what’s that?”

Bali’s brown eyes twinkled as she glanced at Jane.  “I don’t know.  I have no words for it.”

The twinkle extinguished into a matted blank stare when Bali noticed, on the side of the road, a great white egret standing on the shoulder, as still as if it were standing dead.  Jane had spotted it too and they drove a half mile in silent reverence until there was another.

“Bali!  Another one!”

The second great white egret stood much like the first but Bali saw it quickly turn its head in their direction.  It didn’t look into the car, but beyond it and in less than a second, the car shot beyond its gaze.  Its lean white body was almost blinding in the desert sunlight.

Bali and Jane saw six more just as the first two, standing still, facing traffic on the dusty shoulder of the 215.  Some looked down at some crawling thing unseen by human eyes.  One looked up at the sky calculating.  Others were just seen, the details of their behavior lost from the shock of their presents and numbers.

Jane glanced at Bali with a mouth shaped like the letter “O.”  Her eyes were wide with the shimmer of a smile at the edges.  If the skies had opened up and suddenly snowed, the effect would have been the same on Jane.

For Bali, the sight of one great white egret would have been an anonymous gift of stolen breath.  The sight of eight was worthy of tears of gratitude, no doubt, but the birds, for Bali, were also a fence that surrounded a dark fog in which she could not see through.  It delighted her just as it had Jane, but it also brought a chill that pulled on the hairs of her arms and made her heart want to look away.  The army of great white egresses were ushering or guarding.  An unknown something was coming. Or maybe it was going.

 

 

 

BIO

Kobina Wright is a second generation California native with a degree in Communications from California State University, Fullerton. Wright is an artist, writer and entrepreneur and is a board member of The G.R.E.E.N. Foundation, an organization that helps to service the community through health education and navigation to support individuals and families to access quality health care.

Some of the publications Wright has written for include LACMA Magazine, The Daily Titan, and CYH Magazine. In 2001 she wrote her second volume of poetry titled, “Growth Spurt,” and in 2004, wrote her third volume titled, “Say It! Say Gen-o-cide!!” − dedicated to the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.

Wright’s work has been published in: The Bicycle Review; Boxcar Poetry Review; Burning Word Literary Journal; Crack the Spine; The Fiction Week Literary Review; The Missing Slate; Orion headless; The Passionate Transitory; Subliminal Interiors, Wilderness House Literary Review,  Blackberry: A Magazine, Blue Lake Review, Extract(s) and SNReview.

 

 

 

 

0

The Plagiarist

by John Mandelberg

 

 

When I was serving time in a California state prison for grand theft, I decided to take an English class from a college correspondence program. Then a woman teacher from a community college came to give a writing class and I decided to sign up. Everybody in the class wrote about themselves and their hard lives, except me. I pretended to, but actually I borrowed the stories of other men’s childhoods and wrote as if they were my own. My real childhood was too empty to talk about. When the teacher found out that my stories weren’t really about me, she was surprised and confused. But then she gave me special attention, because I was more like a real writer.

She was in her late fifties, and seemed very calm and unafraid to be coming into prison. But also she seemed sad and worn-out. I started to talk to her more than I thought I would. She was not attractive or pretty but she had a look of peaceful listening that made me want to talk more. Her eyes were very full and honest. Sometimes when the only guard who did not forbid us to use the copy machine was there, I walked with her to the office down the hall and talked to her while we copied things.

She always answered my questions in a serious and respectful way without talking about herself. Once we were talking about poetry, and she said she had published a book of her own poetry. But she didn’t seem proud of it and didn’t want to talk about it.

After I was released, I went back to Los Angeles where I had lived before. But I had trouble finding a job. I got the idea that I could make money by writing a book of stories. I wrote to that English teacher asking her for advice. For a long time, I did not receive an answer. I thought she probably didn’t want to be in touch with any ex-prisoner. But months later, I got a note from her in the mail. She was now teaching at a different community college, further north in the San Joaquin Valley. She said she couldn’t give me much advice about writing a book, but she wouldn’t mind if I sent her my stories to read.

This letter was the only touch of humanity I had felt for many months. I decided to go visit her, even though I expected that I would frighten her and that I would end up depressed and hating myself.

It took me eight hours to drive up from L.A. to that town, much longer than I expected. It was already getting dark when I arrived. I didn’t have much money so I slept in my car. The next morning I tried to clean myself up and called the community college to find out when she was there. I rested in the city park. Then I went to see her in the afternoon.

I waited on the asphalt outside a bungalow classroom where she was teaching, and met her when she came out. She was surprised to see me, but still seemed calm and patient. She smiled at me. We talked out in the haze, then she invited me to a little office she shared with some other teachers. I asked her if I could see her book of poetry. She hesitated but then pulled it out of a bottom desk drawer. Though the tiny office was crammed with books on all sides, she did not keep her own book in sight.

I don’t remember the exact title of the book, but it was something about smoke, landscape, and a color – like “Smoky Landscape with Yellow” or maybe “Landscape with Amber Smoke.” I looked through it and thought it was interesting at first. But the poems were long and complicated. I had trouble concentrating on any one of them. I noticed that the book had been published twenty years ago. I asked her if she had written another, or planned to.

“No,” she said.

I asked why not.

She sat and thought about it. It was after three o’clock. The other teachers had left, but students were laughing in the hall. She stood up, shut the office door, and sat back down.

 

She said, “About twenty years ago, I was an instructor of English at Cal State University at —. I had just divorced my husband, but I was happy. I had hopes of becoming a tenured professor, I had many good friends, and I had just published this book – my first book of poetry.

“The poems were mostly about a trip to Italy I had taken with my husband while our marriage was strained. I had enjoyed the trip and the beautiful Italian landscapes with such intensity, perhaps because I also sensed that the end of our relationship was coming. I did not write any of the completed poems in Italy, but I was constantly scribbling fragments and phrases in notebooks. Then when I came home, I looked at the California hills and cypresses and olive trees, which kept Italy close to my mind, and I worked very hard at assembling the poems from all the scattered pieces I had collected.

“I had planned to dedicate the book to my husband, because I was grateful to him even if I no longer loved him. After all, he had supported me through college when I was already in my thirties, and he’d taken me to Italy. But after we separated, I changed the dedication to acknowledge a good friend, an old professor of Italian who had helped me a great deal with Italian words and historical references.

“I felt so happy that fall, full of hopes for a good career, proud of my little book, confident that I was now beyond the difficulty of my divorce . . . Then one day a strange woman came to see me in my office. It was late afternoon, just about the time it is right now.”

She looked at the clock for a while, then went on.

“This woman, with thick dark-rimmed glasses and snowy white hair, knocked loudly on my door and came in. She seemed agitated. I asked her, ‘Can I help you?’ I did not recognize her at all. She held out a copy of my book, and I was flattered to think that she might want me to autograph it – she would be my first fan! ‘Is this your book?’ she asked. ‘Yes!’ I said happily.

“Then she said in a cold, angry voice, ‘Do you admit that you have committed plagiarism, that you have stolen every one of these poems?’

“I burst into laughter. I saw instantly that this was a joke or prank, and my mind raced to guess who might be behind it. But the woman only became angrier. ‘Why do you laugh?’ she shouted. ‘I am giving you one last chance to admit you are a plagiarist! Do you admit it?’

“‘No, of course not!’ I said, still laughing. The woman threw a thick envelope down on my desk. ‘I gave you a chance to admit it, and you did not,’ she said. ‘Now you’ll be very, very sorry.’ Then she ran off down the hall.

“I felt puzzled, in a pleasant, amused way. I curiously opened the envelope. Inside was a folded wad of photocopied pages of verse, much of which seemed to be in Italian. When I unfolded the pages like a book, I saw Italian and English versions of poems very similar to my own, on opposite pages. It appeared that someone had made slightly altered versions of my poems and then translated each one into Italian. But each Italian poem was credited to someone named Maria della R—, and each English version was labeled, ‘translated by Ellen T—.’

“I laughed and shook my head in amazement. Someone had undertaken a vast amount of work just to play this joke on me – who could it possibly be? The only person I knew well whose knowledge of Italian could’ve allowed him to do this was the old Italian professor. But he had left after his retirement for an extended trip to Italy. Surely he would not have had time to translate all my poems while preparing for his long-awaited trip, and anyway a prank like this would’ve been completely out of character for him.

“I just sat in my office and marveled at this strange homage to me and my poems. I kept laughing in disbelief. And as long as I sat there, I felt completely sure that it was nothing more than a joke.

“But when I finally stood up to leave, and locked the office and walked down the deserted corridor, I began to feel a little disoriented and frightened. I knew I had written all those poems myself. I distinctly remembered the trip to Italy, the golden landscapes, the cypresses – I remembered scribbling the phrases in the notebooks, on hot nights next to the open hotel windows while my husband called for me to come to bed – and I remembered the months of work I spent back in California, in my new apartment after I left him, staring at the pale yellow-brown hills from my window, going over these phrases again and again, trying to stitch them together – working with iron concentration so as not to think about my broken marriage. How could anyone dare to say, even as a joke, that I had not written every word of these poems myself?

“But – what if I had imagined the trip to Italy, the notebooks, everything? That seemed impossible, but –”

She stopped here, and looked at me steadily.

“Since I am telling you the whole story,” she said, “I should also tell you that I . . . I had mental problems when I was younger. I had delusions, and terrible fears about things that were not true. I was hospitalized when I was twenty. It took me . . . it took me years, to, to feel that I belonged in the healthy world again. So you see, I could not be completely sure that what I remembered was real. In fact, as I drove to my apartment, I thought the appearance of the white-haired woman might have been a delusion, and I expected that when I came home and opened the thick envelope that now sat beside me on the car seat, I would find that it contained course outlines, or tax information.

“But when I opened the envelope again, it still had my poems, slightly reworked in English, then translated into apparently fluent Italian. It was not that a few lines were similar here and there, or that merely the overall narrative or shape of any of these poems was the same as mine. No – every line of every poem corresponded to mine, both in English and, as far as I could tell, in Italian.

“That night I managed to calm myself. Already the strange white-haired woman seemed like a creation of my own imagination, and if that was troubling – but perhaps you won’t understand this – it also meant she couldn’t really hurt me. When I noticed that my eyes kept turning back toward the brown envelope on the kitchen counter, I put it into a cabinet, out of sight. I felt pretty relaxed then, and I slept well.

“But the next morning, as I remembered the woman’s accusation, I suddenly felt a weird sense of dread. I arrived at the campus, and found a note in my mailbox telling me to see the department chairperson immediately. When I went to his office, the secretaries stared at me and whispered, and the chairperson looked very grim. He pulled out a brown envelope just like the one I had been given. My heart began to pound and I saw spots in front of my eyes, and I had trouble hearing what he was saying. It was a very serious matter: I had been accused of plagiarism.

“After that, my memory is blurry,” she said. She looked out the small dirty window, to a sidewalk that crossed the dead lawn toward the parking lot. “I remember vaguely that over the next few weeks, I was interviewed by the dean, by representatives of the faculty senate I think . . . by the vice-president for faculty or someone, and by lawyers for the university,” she said. “They confronted me with a letter, written apparently by the same white-haired woman who had come to accuse me on that strange afternoon. In this letter, the woman, Ellen T—, claimed that she had met me at a specific writing seminar four years ago, and that she had shared with me her translations of an Italian poet, Maria della R—, who died in the 1950s.

“I had actually attended that writing seminar, and admitted it, but I had no recollection at all of meeting Ellen T— there, nor of ever hearing the name of Maria della R—. Someone did some research, and ascertained that Maria della R— was a real Italian poet, known in her own country but untranslated. The name of Ellen T—, who claimed to be a doctoral candidate temporarily away from her studies, wasn’t known to any specialists in English or Italian literature, but that was not unexpected, since she had not yet published any of her translations. There was no Internet yet, it was simply impossible to quickly check out any of her claims in detail. And of course she supplied transcripts and letters and certificates from her college in New England to prove that she was who she said she was.

“Soon I also heard from the small press that had published my book. They had received material from Ellen T— also. They were withdrawing my book from their catalog and threatened to sue me as soon as she sued them.

“The university gave me a hearing, and let me try to defend myself. All I could say was that I had never heard of Maria della R— or Ellen T— before, that I had written all the poems myself, that I had no idea whatsoever who Ellen T— was or what motive she would have for inventing this story, or for forging dozens of letters and documents in order to slander me.

“After terrible indecision, I brought in some of my original notebooks to show them. This was so very embarrassing for me, because those notebooks also contained my, my . . . most private thoughts about my husband and my marriage. But the members of the committee just glanced through the notebooks, looking skeptical. They seemed to think it would’ve been easy for me to have written all these notebooks, just to cover myself, long after stealing the ‘real’ poems – perhaps even in the last few days.

“I was completely humiliated. They suspended me from teaching, without pay, and then cancelled my contract.”

She stopped speaking and sat quietly. She played with a pen on her desk.

Then she resumed in a calm patient voice, “I felt I was in an endless nightmare. It was bad enough to lose my job and my teaching career, but to feel that I had lost my sanity too, that I could no longer be sure what was real and what was not, that my roots in reality, which had once been so difficult to grow, had all been torn away . . . well, I . . . I felt very strange . . . Do you know what I mean?” She looked at me in her honest way.

I said I knew what she meant.

She went on, “None of my new university friends would see me, none of them believed me. I think they had all been surprised by how learned and classical my poetry was, since I’d seemed so dumb and innocent to them at first, and now they felt justified in their earlier opinions of me. I was frightened that I was having another mental breakdown – I can’t tell you how frightened I was. I went to a therapist, and then to a psychiatrist for tranquilizers. I wrote a long desperate letter to the old Italian professor, enclosing samples of the Italian poetry, begging him for help – but he did not answer me. I even went to my ex-husband, sobbing and pitiful, and he would have nothing to do with me. He shut the door in my face.” She smiled faintly and distantly.

“When I told the therapist that someone must want to hurt me very badly by spreading these lies about me, she asked me who that could be: my ex-husband? a colleague? a former student? But I could think of no one. Either I had committed plagiarism without remembering it, or I was having paranoid delusions.

“Maybe I had absorbed all those poems into my mind, blocked out the memory of the woman who had given them to me, then regurgitated them, word by word, on the trip to Italy. But then I had to wonder: did I ever really go to Italy? Was I ever married? Had my whole life been a delusion, and was I still twenty years old and in the psychiatric hospital?

“All I could do was to spend my days in a stupor of psychotropic drugs and daytime television. After a long delay, the psychiatrist was able to get me on disability, but I spent all my savings. I could no longer read, write or think. I was afraid to go to the store, I was hardly eating. Then one day I received a letter from my old friend, the Italian professor. He was back in Sicily, after traveling for almost a year, and had just now found my letter.

“He wrote urgently to tell me that the poetry ascribed to Maria della R— was a fraud. She had been from northern Italy, and the poetry was written in southern dialect and with modern, even americanized slang that she never would’ve used. In fact he suspected these Italian poems were not even written by a native speaker of Italian. He urged me to see a lawyer.

“By this time I was so depressed and numb that I didn’t want to see a lawyer. But my therapist was so surprised – I suppose she had never believed me before – that she finally dragged me to a lawyer’s office herself. The lawyer sent a private investigator to see me, and he said immediately that Ellen T—’s white hair and thick glasses were probably a disguise. When the lawyer received all the papers from my hearing, he noticed discrepancies and repetitions in the phone numbers and addresses Ellen T— had supplied for her references. The stationery from her college in New England was not authentic. And by now nobody was able to contact Ellen T— by phone or certified mail.

“I had saved all my old class rosters and teaching records, and the investigator was able to get additional information from the university. He found out that a certain female student of mine from several years ago had since been arrested several times for stalking an ex-boyfriend. I only slightly remembered this young woman, and had forgotten that she was an Italian major. But I recalled that she had been disproportionately angry at me when I gave her a B instead of an A. She was probably the student whose very hostile anonymous evaluation of me turned up in my personnel file, and if so, then her handwriting looked just like Ellen T—’s handwriting.

“The investigator tried to locate this student,” she continued, “but he –”

Suddenly she was interrupted by the loud ring of an old-style beige telephone, which was on one of the other desks. The coarse buzzing sound startled us. “That phone doesn’t usually ring,” my teacher said. She sounded unusually nervous. She let it ring several times as we looked at it. Then she stood up, picked up the handset and said in a tense voice, “Hello? Who is this? No, I’m sorry. What was the name again? She’s not here. I don’t know. I really don’t know who she is. You’re welcome.” Then she sat back down in her chair. I heard her sigh softly.

“The investigator was unable to find her,” my teacher went on. “She seemed to have vanished along with Ellen T—, and it was reasonable to believe that they were the same person. The investigator’s report, a letter from the Italian professor, and a statement he obtained from an Italian journalist who had known Maria della R— and who said she had never written any poems like mine – all these convinced the university’s lawyers, finally, that the charges of plagiarism were false.

“I quickly agreed to a settlement, since I was desperate for money, and after paying the lawyer and the investigator, I received about $17,000, most of which I paid to the therapist and doctors. My book was never put back in the publisher’s catalog, though. But my mind cleared, and I was able to get off disability, I worked part-time as a cashier. After three years, I was able to resume teaching English, but I have stayed at the community college level since then, mostly here in the San Joaquin Valley.

“I’ve never heard again from the woman who called herself Ellen T—. I think she may be in a psychiatric hospital herself, or dead. But I still feel frightened of her. I like to think she could never find me here.”

The teacher was quiet again. I realized she was done with her story, as far as it went.

I said this ex-student must’ve been obsessed with her.

“Yes,” she said. “I can’t understand why. I will never understand it.” She blinked her calm, full, peaceful eyes.

I asked her if she’d ever written poetry since then.

“No,” she said. “I’d be afraid that it wouldn’t really be mine.”

But, I asked, she couldn’t still doubt that her trip to Italy, her months of writing, her poems and her life were real, could she?

“It’s hard to explain,” she said softly, “but once that fear came back into me, it never went away.”

The haze outside the window was turning to dusk. I thanked her for her kindness in seeing me. I invited her to dinner, as if I had any money to pay for it. But she politely declined. I gave her a folder of my bad half-written stories that I had so much trouble finishing. We said goodbye. I drove back to Los Angeles in the misty night.

 

In a couple of weeks, I received back in the mail the stories I had left with her. She had written nice but very general comments. I was a little annoyed that she hadn’t been more helpful. When I was in her office, I had copied down the number of the office telephone without her noticing, and now I decided to try calling her in the late afternoon, the same day of the week as when I visited her, thinking she would be there. She answered the phone, and sounded surprised to hear my voice. But she agreed to talk with me for a few minutes.

She said she wasn’t really qualified to give me detailed criticism, but she encouraged me to keep writing. She said that it would be good for my imagination, even if I couldn’t get anything published. She said I should not have unrealistic plans to make money from writing fiction, because almost nobody does. And even if I did get something published, it would have to be in some obscure literary magazine which couldn’t pay me anything anyway.

I said that I had been thinking a lot about her plagiarism story. I asked if she would be offended if I used it in a story of my own.

She paused a long time and then said, “No . . . no, I’d rather that you didn’t.”

Why not, I asked her.

“Well . . . because it’s not really finished,” she said. “We don’t know why this former student did what she did, or how she managed to do it, or what happened to her. We don’t know what it means. It’s just an odd anecdote, and it’s not realistic – it wouldn’t work.”

But I replied that I could make up new details if I had to.

“No,” she said. For the first time she seemed a little impatient. “You asked my permission, and I am telling you no. If anyone is going to write about it, I should be the one. It’s really my story.”

 

In a month I decided to call her again. I had finally found a job but I hated it and was feeling a desperate frustration. I needed some goal to desire, I wanted something to want. I told her that I really wanted to get something published, even if I couldn’t get paid for it. But now I couldn’t think of any more ideas to write about on my own. My stupid job was fogging my brain. But I couldn’t stop thinking about her story. I told her I was becoming almost obsessed with it. Again I asked her if I could write it.

“No, please don’t,” she said. “Please. This crazy woman, if she is still alive, could read it and remember me and come after me again. Please – you’re frightening me. Don’t make me feel sorry that I trusted you. It’s my story, it doesn’t belong to you.”

I begged her.

“No!” she said. “Please – I’ve tried to help you. You have to realize that there is nothing more I can do. You have a false impression of me, you think I’m important somehow – but I’m nobody, I’m nothing! Please don’t write about me. To bring up all this humiliation from the past – I couldn’t bear it. I’ve suffered just like you have – please promise not to write about me!”

Now her calm quiet voice was full of anxiety, passion, and desperation.

“OK, I promise,” I said.

But then I decided to write this anyway.

 

 

 

BIO

John Mandelberg’s short stories have appeared most recently in Prick of the Spindle, Beloit Fiction Journal, Santa Monica Review, and Storyscape. Apparently nobody wants to publish his novels but so what, he’ll keep writing more anyway. He lives in Los Angeles and usually doesn’t like any movie made after 1950.

 

 

 

 

0

Let That Be a Lesson

by Linda Boroff

 

 

A couple of scenic, twisting mountain roads link Santa Cruz with Silicon Valley, one maddeningly slow; the other lethally fast. People believe that this difficult commute is all that stands between us and the Valley’s ravening technology guargantuae, straining to spread south and plant their sarmak-campuses amid our beaches and redwoods.

We’re often mocked as throwbacks—Birkenstock-wearing, patchouli-reeking tree-huggers; clove-smoking dietary wackos. But decades ago, a rash of serial killings turned us into the “murder capital of the world.” Even now, suspicions linger that our ferny forests and riverbeds conceal yet more quicklimed horrors. Beneath our vintage hippie brand, a collective neurosis hums like background noise.

I returned here to heal, but that wasn’t happening. When you flunk out of law school, the consequences waste no time in manifesting. My deferred student loans awoke like the Spanish flu virus in that corpse frozen since 1918. A torrent of demand letters found me huddled weepily in my childhood bedroom, watching sitcom reruns. Like bricks, their paragraphs walled me into ruinous debt.

Ghosts of my aborted legal education trailed in my wake. Wherever I went, I spotted “tortious” conduct. Contracts shook its knotty head at every agreement I made. I couldn’t stop spouting half-baked legal advice to friends.

My childhood home soon became more prison than refuge. My parents’ tentative queries about future plans sounded like the mind games of the Spanish inquisitors. My boyfriend requested some space.

Yet, further humbling was in order: my frantic job search yielded just one tepid offer, and that from a law firm. I was to be an “admin trainee;” a serf, performing the most grueling and menial chores in the office. So much for my conquering hero courtroom fantasies.

Demand letter threats playing in my head like a repeating tune, I arrived for my first day. The firm occupied a hacienda style building with a low-pitched, glowering solar roof. In place of a lawn, water-sparing sedge grass with razorlike sawteeth undulated thirstily. A door the color of dried blood proclaimed Holland & Sklar, Attorneys at Law, in haughty gold cursive.

In the waiting room, a lighted case displayed a stuffed owl lashed to a gnarled tree limb, its eyes realistically desperate beneath the taxidermist’s glaze.

At last, a tiny woman nearly buried in a black turtleneck sweater opened a door and cocked her beaky little head at me, sharp obsidian eyes blinking rapidly. I followed her into a large cubicled room whose mushy gray carpet grabbed the soles of my shoes.

“That’s you,” she said, indicating a wooden table and chair wedged between a pillar and the wall. A flat, dusty computer monitor lay inert on the floor, as if injured.

“I’m Edie,” the woman said. “I work for Mr. Sklar. Mr. Holland recently died, and we’re disorganizing I mean reorganizing the office.” She cut off my understanding nod with a knifish glare and turned away.

I hung my jacket on the chair and hoisted the monitor onto the desk. Something about the place reminded me of the aftermath of an earthquake, the wrenched ground shuddering and spasming above broken strata, the air reverberating.

“It’s a pity you’ll never know Harv.” A tall woman in her late fifties was wheeling over an office chair. “I’m Eleanor,” she said, and sat down in it beside me. “I was Harv’s secretary.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, my voice hoarse with disuse.

“He was on borrowed time, poor thing. A heart infection. They cleared it up finally, but the damage was done.” Eleanor tipped her chair back alarmingly to grab a magazine from a file cabinet. “Here he is, the way I like to remember him.”

The magazine was at least twenty years old, judging from its garish colors and wacky typeface. On the cover, Harv as a youthful visionary gazed into the future from eyes of blue agate. Streaked blond hair tumbled to his collar. His smooth, regular features radiated a complacent moral purity.

“He had a golden aura, didn’t he?” Eleanor said fondly, stroking his magazine-

hair. I surveyed the auric Harv and nodded, wondering how he had looked at the end.

A man suddenly loomed above Eleanor, who mugged fear and straightened her back.

“Welcome, Melissa, I’m Tom Sklar.” He grinned at me with perfect but feral teeth. “I’m officially senior partner here now, though of course, Eleanor will never buy that.” He winked at her, and she lifted her chin in mock indignation, exposing a deeply corded neck.

Tom Sklar was one of those men who gets better-looking as he ages; his clipped graying hair flattered him more than the tousled brown mop in the law school picture on his desk. The years had chiseled the youthful pudginess from his face, and his brown eyes were now a steely gray-blue in their tinted contacts.

“Eleanor will welcome another tall gal here,” Tom said.

“Tom loves tall girls,” Eleanor smiled archly. I looked reflexively at the ring on his finger, and he followed my glance, and our eyes bumped and bounced apart.

“I’m sorry to hear about Mr. Holland,” I said, and Tom’s face morphed instantly into practiced sadness. “We go very far back, Harv and I. Eleanor will fill you in on the whole saga.”

“Maybe not the whole saga,” Eleanor replied, and something crackled between them like water hitting hot oil in a frying pan. I felt a sudden urge to run, but the carpet held my feet, and the mantra, “avoid further legal action” recurred in my brain.

Eleanor soon took to hanging out at my desk on the pretext of “training” me, but really for an excuse to talk. She was an encyclopedic authority on all matters Harv, fiercely possessive even of his wraith. The syllables of his name summoned her like a pheromone; so that people across the room had to whisper or cover their mouths when they mentioned him, or else she would arrive and hijack the conversation.

The law was woven through Eleanor’s life like a weft. She had grown up in Live Oak, an anomalous blue-collar neighborhood nicknamed “Live Okie.” Shy and coltishly tall, she grew her auburn hair long; somebody had once called it a river of fire she said proudly. The river was dammed now into a brassy bouffant cone, sprayed stiff and secured with a plastic tortoiseshell dagger.

Her eyes, large and greenish-gray, were still arresting in their iridescent eyeshadow and false lashes, despite the wrinkles. Decades of hurrying from desk to lawyer’s office, to kitchen, waiting and file rooms had given her a stretch-necked, giraffelike gait. As the day wore on, her lipstick would migrate into the vertical creases around her mouth.

Desperate to escape her brawling, hard-drinking parents, young Eleanor studied office skills in high school, winning awards for her shorthand and typing. After graduation, she endured interviews with grim, Dickensian office managers and lordly attorneys—until one banner day, she had broken through, a legal secretary at last.

I suddenly flashed on a disruptive young office beauty: on the gleaming hair and long limbs and riveted gaze; the silky blouses above the sternly fitted pencil skirts; the awe, the vulnerability, and the utter, unquestioning fealty. A wife’s perfect nightmare.

I could guess at the various jobs, the inevitable affairs, the getaways and lingerie and baubles and tears and scenes and abortions. The decades had marched past, and the lovers had aged and retired and some had even died. None had kept their promises. Now she was growing old, cast up like flood detritus on the banks of a river after the storm subsides.

Already a veteran when she joined the staff here, Eleanor had promptly seized the helm; within a couple of months, any competitors or challengers had resigned, retreated or been fired. “I whipped us into shape,” she said. “It wasn’t pretty, but I did what I had to. Harv could never assert himself the way he should have.”

Now, her boss gone, the once office queen was reduced to a ”floater.” Former subordinates ordered her to make copies or coffee, sent her on errands, and pointedly excluded her from smoking breaks and party planning.

I soon realized that the friendless Eleanor had laid claim to me. She hovered with fierce solicitude, herding others away like some secretarial sheepdog. I suspected that she was grooming me to summit the office hierarchy on her behalf. Armed with my college degree, and (nearly) year of law school, I would take power, restore office hegemony, and dispense retribution, while she guided me like some Lord Protector.

But this victory would require the toppling and vanquishing of Edie, the fierce tiny avian who had opened the door for me on my first day. As Tom Sklar’s secretary, Edie had been Eleanor’s chief rival. Harv’s death had catapulted Eleanor from her throne but hardly settled the feud.

The partners were former assistant district attorneys, tough competitors who had teamed up to prosecute one of the county’s emblematic serial killers. The ordeal had forged a bond. They left the DA’s office soon after to form a partnership, fueled by Harv’s popularity and Tom’s slick aggressiveness.

But the competition that the partners had resolved now played out by proxy in their secretaries, and the friction heated up like magma. Eleanor insisted that Harv was the “brains” of the firm, while Edie called Tom the “engine.” Their debates turned into screaming matches. I could imagine Eleanor looming like a T-Rex above the agile, ferocious Edie, feinting and darting and dodging to counter Eleanor’s verbal bludgeons.

Edie, because mere bad luck had taken down her rival, was denied a decisive victory. Even now in her triumphal role of “Administrative Director,” she couldn’t avoid Eleanor skulking on the periphery, watching for an opening. Edie responded by shrinking Eleanor’s duties to the most demeaning, below even mine.

“How can you stand this?” I asked after Edie had set her to cleaning the office refrigerator. Kneeling before a glass shelf encrusted with ancient yogurt smears and desiccated veggies, Eleanor looked up at me, her hands in rubber gauntlets, a damp bronze curl dangling from her forehead.

“Things will change,” Eleanor replied. “They always do, in time. Besides, I know something very damaging about Edie, and she knows I know.”

“What’s that?”

“She’s a witch.”

“Edie’s a witch?”

“She let it slip once; it explains everything. I realized that she’d been casting spells on all of us for a long time. How could I have missed it? I just didn’t put it all together until it was too late.”

“Eleanor,” I said, “witchcraft isn’t real. People pretend to have power…”

“Oh they have power all right, if they’re good. And Edie is good, oh my, so very good. In Harv’s case though, she went too far. And she knows it. She killed him.” Eleanor pried a tiny dried carrot from the glass shelf and examined it, turning it over and over.

I reminded myself that in Santa Cruz, no belief system was too exotic or outrageous to have its devotees; witchcraft was actually quite mainstream compared to some of them. A wave of dismay washed over me: how had I ended up here, babysitting a crazy, superstitious old woman rather than lighting up the law review?

“She leaves things for me,” Eleanor was saying. “Little twisted pieces of hair and scraps of paper with strange words written on them. She plants herbs on the property to use in her spells, so her husband doesn’t find them around the house. She knows I know. She tried to make me drink some yarrow tea once. That would have made me vulnerable. I threw it in the toilet, of course.” I shook my head. “She casts on everybody in the office—not you, not yet. But she’ll try, just watch her, because she knows you’re on my side.”

After this, I did my best to tamp down Eleanor’s obsession, changing the subject or even ignoring her when she presented “evidence.” She showed me a two-inch length of coiled black yarn she had found on the carpet that had not been there the night before. She searched her file drawers each morning and threw out items she swore were new, even an expensive scissors once. A stray push pin, a piece of thread—anything that could bind or immobilize was proof of Edie’s mischief. Eleanor checked the kitchen thoroughly for suspect spices, leaves or roots. She would walk past Edie’s cubicle, catch my eye and point surreptitiously inside, or motion her head to alert me that Edie was concocting spells rather than working on office business.

The magazine with Harv’s picture came to rest permanently in my inbox. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to return it to the dark obscurity of the file cabinet. There was something reassuring in his benign, clueless presence. I would look into the optimistic blue gaze and wonder what he now must know.

Whenever I hear people talking of how children enrich one’s life, it sets me thinking in just the opposite direction—how thoroughly children can destroy a life. The local wisdom was that Harv’s endocarditis was only a secondary cause of his death. The true mortal blow had been struck by Harv’s delinquent son, Erik, age 15.

Harv’s fate was proof that a life well and ethically lived can veer off to an outcome so rotten as to turn people into deep and bitter cynics. Nothing you did mattered because if there could be Erik, then there was no justice, no order. Harv’s fate became a rationale for impulsively ditching a spouse, buying a sports car, or acting on a grudge.

Erik’s latest run-in with the law was an assault on the high school boys’ locker room. He and his accomplice, Fred Pettingast, a judge’s son, were caught in the act by the janitor.

This wasn’t mere drunken teenage vandalism, but an orgy of demolition. Swastikas were etched and painted everywhere, along with anti-Semitic phrases in Gothic blackletter and caricatures of Jews, blacks and Mexicans. They had pulverized the lockers, crumpling and piercing the metal beyond repair. Benches were splintered. They destroyed the plumbing in the showers with corrosive acid, and shattered the tiles into powder. The paint they used in the graffiti was so toxic that it required professional disposal of everything it had touched.

Fred insisted that Erik had been the instigator, while Erik, of course, claimed otherwise. Judge Pettingast must have leaned hard on somebody so that both boys would be undercharged and given probation, and the incident downplayed in local press.

Erik’s locker room exploit was not an isolated incident, though. He invaded, rather than attended school; entrepreneurial talent had made him a drug dealer by his junior year. His grades were good, shored up by cheating, bribery and intimidation.

When it all became too much to take, Harv would drop into Tom’s office and open his heart to the only person he could trust with his anguish.

“The kid’s sowing a few wild oats, so what?” Tom Sklar would comfort his partner. “Hey, I could tell you things I did at his age, you probably wouldn’t want to live in the same town with me let alone practice with me.”

“I couldn’t make it without you, brother,” Harv would choke up.

“Hang in there; you’ll get through this just fine, all of you will.” Tom would come around his desk to give Harv a hug, with a few mutual thwacks on their Barney’s jackets.

Eleanor’s adoration of Harv had spawned a proportional hatred for Harv’s German-born wife, Helga. Her digging into Helga’s background revealed a relative who had been a Nazi official in Bavaria, prominent enough to be hanged by the British after the war. Now, although Helga was a dedicated vegan, grammar school teacher, and Democratic party worker, in Eleanor’s eyes she was the Beast of Belsen.

Helga must have been beautiful once, but life’s stresses were aging her. Her skin was taut over her cheekbones. Her eyes, like Eric’s, which Eleanor described as “Hitler blue,” sometimes widened alarmingly when she spoke, a sort of tic.

“Come with me,” Eleanor said, leading me to the closet of cleaning supplies behind the restroom. She showed me that if you stood in just the right place, you could hear everything going on in Tom’s office. She had also used an ice pick to create herself a neat pinhole for discreet peeping.

“Some hot stuff goes on in there,” Eleanor said, fanning her face. “Helga and Tom. Yes, right under Harv’s nose. For years. They do their nasty here in the office. Tom the big family man. And Helga with her animal rights and eco-activism. Sometimes I was sure they knew I was here. It was like they were daring me to tell Harv.”

“Did you?”

“I had to. I finally couldn’t stand it any more.” A vision of Harv at the end suddenly invaded, the face gaunt with disillusionment and betrayal, the eyes now riddled with bitter self-doubt.

“He got sick right afterwards, one of Edie’s spells I’m sure. She went too far that time. They were all jealous because Harv was a great man. I was the only one who really tried to protect him.”

For months, Harv battled every complication his disease could throw at him. He surfaced at last from an ocean of antibiotics, weakened and wearied. His eyes had gone dull and pale, with brownish hollows beneath; his legs, once firm and tanned from the tennis he loved, were now thin and unsteady. The first thing he did was to file for divorce from Helga. The second was to retire.

To everyone’s surprise, the sickly, divorced Harv took on a sexual allure that the healthy, monogamous version had lacked. Women began to flock, stalk, and proposition him; even women he had once sent to jail offered themselves. Everybody wanted to care for him, to heal him from the inside out. Lock up your daughters, friends would rib him when Harv entered a room. But this stage could not last: like an incandescent bulb, Harv flared into a bright, final burn and then blinked out.

Late last Friday night, the phone rang. I was having a stiff scotch from the bottle of Glenlivet that my parents had bought me to celebrate my getting into law school. I used to tell myself that when the bottle was empty, I could put the whole experience behind me.

“I did it! I’m sorry to bother you at home, Melissa, but I had to tell you. I finally did it.“

“Did what?” My stomach gave a hard jump.

“I told Tom about Edie and her witchcraft. I waited until everyone left tonight, and then I went in and showed him all the evidence. Everything was marked with a date and catalogued. Tom always says the chain of evidence is the pivotal part of a case. Every single piece was there, where I found it and when. Edie was nailed!”

From my bedroom window, I saw a slate-dark, drizzling sky, and for some reason, I pictured Eleanor standing outside in that rain, the upswept hairdo soaked and collapsing of its own weight, sagging comically to one side like a duffel bag, the false lashes flapping wetly above the livid slash of lipstick.

“When you try to straighten things out,” Eleanor said, “and they keep getting twisted up again, you know there’s a powerful force working against you. I told Tom I’d tried to fight it for a long time, but her magic was getting stronger and he needed to take action now or it would be too late, the way it was with Harv. If he didn’t get rid of Edie, she would turn on him too and tell his wife and kids about the affair. Or else try to take you over. Edie is a very dangerous woman.”

I couldn’t bring myself to speak, so I tossed back the rest of the scotch, which seared a raw, welcome swath all the way down, burning through the hopeful lies; the presumptions and facades and well-worn excuses we employ to shore up our collapsing dreams.

“Oh I had her, all right. I even went out in the garden and pulled the plants she uses in her spells—star anise and bay leaves and lavender and rosemary and about a dozen more, and are they ever potent. Let her try to explain that away when Tom confronts her.”

“What did Tom say?”

“He said, “Well, Eleanor, it looks like you’ve done your homework. I know how much you care about the office, and I’m grateful for your work all these years.”

”That’s what he said?”

“Yes, and he should be grateful.”

My silence must have summoned back Eleanor the careerist. “It’s so considerate of you to hear me out, Melissa,” she said. “I apologize for calling on a weekend, but I did this for you too. Things will be different from now on, you’ll see.”

When I arrived at work on Monday morning, Edie met me in the waiting room. The stuffed owl observed us with its clever and knowing stare.

“Melissa, you should know that Tom had to fire Eleanor. So she won’t be here anymore.”

“Tom fired Eleanor?”

“He only kept her on here out of pity long past the time when there was no work for her. She lost important files and client information, and she was a handful for all of us—including you, I’m sure.” Transfixed by Edie’s pointed gaze, I said nothing. “Between you and me,” Edie said, “she was a disaster waiting to happen. I’m amazed at Tom’s patience. He felt terrible, of course, but he had to take the step of getting a restraining order to keep her from harassing us. So you let me know if she bothers you.”

As I turned away, Edie added that despite anything Eleanor may have told me, Tom was the most faithful of husbands and had always been a loyal friend to his partner. She hoped this whole unfortunate incident would not cause me to think of leaving the firm. In fact, Tom had even mentioned sending me to classes that would prepare me for another try at law school.

When my messages to Eleanor’s phone went unreturned, I drove past her small bungalow in Live Oak and knocked on her door. There was no response, though I thought I sensed movement within and I either glimpsed or imagined large, haunted eyes peering from a slat in the blinds.

Last week Edie moved me out of my cramped quarters and gave me Eleanor’s roomy corner cubicle. She and Tom even held a little ceremony with cake and tea to mark my elevation to legal research assistant. They presented me with all new office furniture and a new computer, and Edie even graced my office with a charming miniature spice garden under its own fluorescent lamp.

Shortly afterwards, my once boyfriend called to ask if would consider giving our relationship another chance. He sounded more ardent than he ever had.

As I drive to work, it occurs to me that each street, house and building in town has its own story, and that these are sometimes very bizarre ones. I remind myself  that this must be true of every hamlet in the world.

 

 

 

BIO

Linda Boroff graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Guardian, Hollywood Dementia, Drunk Monkeys, Word Riot, Hobart, Ducts, Blunderbuss, Adelaide, Thoughtful Dog, Storyglossia, Able Muse, The Furious Gazelle, JONAH Magazine, The Boiler, Cold Creek Review, and others, including several anthologies. 

She was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart Prize for fiction, and she won first prize in The Writers Place short story competition. She has written one feature film which played in theaters and festivals in 2010. Her short story published in Epoch is under option to Sony and director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer). She wrote the script for the upcoming biopic of film noir actress Barbara Payton, Fast Fade, currently casting with producer Don Murphy (Transformers).

 

 

 

 

 

0

Disposal

by Zachary Ginsburg

 

 

Bethany ended the phone call with her husband and slid the kitchen knife back into its wooden block on the countertop. She tossed the unopened package of tortellini into the fridge and poured the boiling water into the sink. The sink flooded, and bits of soggy organic matter floated out of the drain and cavorted in the hot water like nudibranchs. As she reached to switch on the disposal, a small round object glinted in the basin. She fished it out and held in her palm her husband’s wedding ring.

“The hell?” she said aloud. She dried it off and laid it on a paper towel. On second thought, she slipped it into the pocket of her shorts. On third thought, she placed it back on the counter, because her shorts were pretty short and things tended to fall out of her pockets when she sat on the couch.

With her legs tucked under her on the couch, she gazed out the window across Lake Shore Drive at the boats bobbing in Belmont Harbor, thirteen stories below. Then she picked some gunk from underneath her fingernail and wondered why her husband had been so careless with his ring. By nature, he was a clean and organized person, even to the point of OCD. Everything in the condo had its proper place, from the leather box that held the TV remotes to the nightstand that stored his earplugs, sleeping mask, and Vaseline. When she would forget to use a coaster, he would lift her glass, slide one underneath, and remind her of the woodgrain. When she would forget to lay a towel down before sex, he would lift her ass, slide one underneath, and remind her of the eighteen-hundred-thread-count Egyptian cotton.

She kicked her legs up on the walnut coffee table and opened her laptop. She was in the process of designing a website for a nail salon. It featured a lifelike hand of adjustable skin tone, which would allow users to preview different polishes. Her clients expected this level of ingenuity from her. She made bold claims on the bulletin boards of Chicago coffeeshops and damn well lived up to them.

When his key jangled the doorknob, she closed her laptop and walked into the kitchen. He stripped off his sport coat and carried the smiley-face bag of takeout to their round oak dining table. Bethany handed him a plate.

“Check it out,” he said, nipping his chopsticks at her nose. “I’m getting better. Pretty soon I’ll be able to lift a grain of rice.”

The sweet garlicky smell of her pad thai made her stomach rumble, and she shoveled the entire plastic container onto her plate. “How was bowling?”

“Shot a two-twenty,” he said casually, scooping noodles into his mouth. “New personal best.”

“Did you win?”

“Oh, babe. This wasn’t league play.”

She chewed hard on a peanut. Did he really need to practice for his bowling league?

“Your ring’s on the counter,” she said.

He peered at the tan line on his finger. Then he scratched his stubbly chin, as if contemplating the best way to word it. “See, I’ve been taking it off, to bowl. But I thought it was in my work bag. Where was it?”

“The sink actually. The disposal.”

“You’re shitting me.”

She grabbed it off the counter and placed it on his napkin.

“It must have been when I was loosening it with the dish soap.” He rolled the platinum band around in his fingers and slipped it into the breast pocket of his checkered shirt.

“How was work, I mean, have you finished that new website?” he asked.

She burped softly and pushed the bean sprouts to the edge of her plate. She could hear the wheels spinning in his head: she’s getting quiet. I’ve done something wrong. Well, at least she hoped he was thinking this. He had done something wrong. She just didn’t know what it was yet.

 

It happened again a couple days later. Bethany was sitting in the kitchen, half working on her client’s website, half reading a news story about a missing woman from their neighborhood, when her husband called saying he would grab takeout on his way home from practice. She dumped the pot of water she had been heating and watched the nudibranchs dance up from the disposal and shake their tentacles. Amidst the merriment, Bethany spotted something shiny and lifted a ring that was not her husband’s. It was an engagement ring, with an awfully large diamond sparkling wet.

Her heart sank, and she plopped on the couch, clenching the ring in her fist. With her other hand, she teased the tassels on a throw pillow. Something about the innocence of the tassels, their simple purpose of adorning the pillow, made her want to cry. She pinched her thigh and wondered if she should have gone to more spin classes.

An hour later, he walked in the door, stepped out of his loafers, and crossed the beige handwoven rug they bought at Crate&Barrel. The smiley-face bag in his hand smelled sweetly of pad thai. Had she known “takeout” meant the same meal from two nights ago, she would have cooked the damn tortellini.

She marched to the table and set the ring on his placemat. “What is this?”

He turned it over in his fingers and raised one of his caterpillar eyebrows. She usually enjoyed this fuzzy expression but now analyzed it for discrepancies.

“Tiffany’s?” he said.

“Who?”

“I meant the jewelry store. Whose is it?”

“You tell me,” she said, dropping into the seat across from him.

Both of his eyebrows shot up as if the caterpillars were stretching their backs.

“What are you accusing me of?”

Bethany did not know the answer to this. Deep down, she felt he was having an affair, but why would it end with both his and her rings down the drain?

“Has anyone been here that I don’t know about?”

“You’re the one who works from home,” he said, hunching over his noodles. “I’m never alone here.”

“That’s not true. I go to coffeeshops. I go out with friends.”

“When was the last time you did either of those?”

“I went to my mother’s last weekend.”

“Your mother,” he said, spearing a piece of beef with his chopstick. “Are you going to call her after dinner? Tell her I’m having an affair?” His eyes hardened, and the muscles in his face tightened. “Are you two going to whisper behind my back?”

A flare-up. It was as if a switch flipped inside him. This was how she described these episodes to her mother, who often responded by calling him a “hothead.” She would never forget the first one, in college when she asked about his ex-girlfriend, and he spent the next hour ranting about how much he hated her, using insults she tried to wipe clean from her memory. Back then, she would offset these flare-ups with the reasons she loved him: his laugh, his caterpillar eyebrows, the way he would wait for her outside of her classes, the way they would talk until dawn, wrapped in each other’s arms. But tonight, she was having a hard time retrieving this affection.

“Goddamn it!” he yelled after dropping a saucy piece of beef in his lap. He stood, and it flopped to the floor, leaving a dark stain on his chinos. He snapped his chopsticks in half, stormed to the sink, and wet the orange dish towel. Nothing infuriated him more than stains.

A wave of schadenfreude lifted Bethany out of her despair. She tossed her unopened container of pad thai into the fridge and slunk to their bedroom. She decided against calling her mother. He wouldn’t win that easily.

 

His bowling league was the following night. He returned late on these nights after drinking with his friends, so she figured it was finally safe to cook tortellini. She had been brooding all day as she worked on the website and poured herself a glass of chardonnay. She considered reading The Art of Happiness, which rested on the coffee table for when she felt out of sorts, but the day had been taxing and reading seemed laborious. As the water heated, she watched the news, but this only made her feel worse. They ran a story on the missing woman she read about yesterday. A photo showed her smiling with thin eyebrows and highlighted hair cascading over her right shoulder. She was pinching a lock of it between her red fingernails, as if twirling it.

“Thirty-two-year-old Samantha Rogers was last seen at Diversey River Bowl, where she works as a bartender,” the newswoman said numbly.

Bethany turned off the TV and reached for the book. The doorknob rattled, and she jumped, imagining a burglar trying to pick the lock. She glanced at the knives on the counter, but before she could move, the door swung open. It was only her husband, carrying a bouquet of purple tulips.

“You may want to put on something nice,” he said, handing her the flowers. “I made a reservation at Mon Ami Gabi.”

This was her favorite restaurant. She breathed in the fresh tulips and searched his gray-blue eyes, finding them pleasant like the lake on a calm day. “What about the league?”

“I’m sorry,” he said, “for acting like a jerk. Can I treat you to salmon tartare?”

She took another whiff of the bouquet. “I’ll be right back.”

She chose her green dress, leaving the lavender one on its hanger. He didn’t deserve her best, at least not right now. It would take more than one dinner for her to put on a show. Still, she wished she’d known in advance so she could have painted her nails.

After she retrieved her phone from the kitchen counter and zipped it in her purse, she noticed the front door was open.

He must be waiting in the hallway, she thought, annoyed by his sudden impatience. This night was supposed to be about her, right?

She stepped into her ballet flats but remembered the pot of water boiling on the stove. She dumped it in the sink and hovered over the nudibranch dance party, scanning for rings. She found none but spotted a pale shrimp-like object rolling along the basin. She reached her hand into the hot water and pinched its squishy middle. When she breached the surface, droplets of water dripped off the red nail. She was holding a severed human finger.

Her arm spasmed in a reflex of terror, flinging the finger into the sink. She did not hear the thud she must have made toppling to the floor. After righting herself to her hands and knees, the kitchen spun as if their whole condo were spiraling down a drain.

The missing woman on the news. Could her husband have possibly…?

She pulled herself up by the counter but lurched back when she saw her husband blocking the doorway.

“You look pale,” he said, his hard unblinking eyes trained on her. “Have you eaten today?”

“Not a thing,” Bethany said, glancing at the knives. A last resort.

“We should get to the restaurant.”

“Will you pull the car around?” she asked. “I just need to make a quick call.”

“A call?”

“To a client.”

His footsteps died down the hallway in the direction of the elevator. She grabbed her phone out of her purse and dialed 9-1-1, but her finger hesitated above the green call button. Her husband, the man she’d lived with for the past seven years, the boy in college who made her laugh until sunrise. Could he really have murdered someone? She deleted 9-1-1 and dialed her mother instead. Her mother would be too shocked to say, “I told you so.” That would come later. But in the present moment, her mother would guide her out of this disaster. She would rattle off a list of instructions like a recipe, with safety popping out at the end.

 

 

BIO:

Zachary Ginsburg was born and raised in Chicago and worked there as an educator. He is currently pursuing his MFA in Fiction at The New School.

 

 

 

 

0

I Know

by Laura Fletcher

 

It was a fine, large-windowed restaurant she led him into, their heads already a little light from the martinis at the first bar. She wore a dress that brushed just the top of her knees, and fit pleasingly over the parts of her body that were beginning to warp with age. His shoes were shined and his blazer was well-tailored over shoulders that seemed used to stooping. He was holding her hand; her laugh was just a bit breathy.

A gentleman led them to a booth by a broad window; she pulled her wrap around herself as the outside chill seeped in through the glass. She paused for a moment on her reflection, her eyes deeply shadowed. Through the dark pane of her face, she could see flakes of snow lazily swinging their way to the ground. Her breath caught in her throat as she came to herself. Her hand squeezed the inside of her opposite elbow, the nails biting the flesh. She did not cry. She turned back to the gentleman, her eyes shining, and ordered a Manhattan. She would try not to resurface again.

Her husband regarded her, his brow furrowed, lips poised for a smile, hoping he could smile. She turned back to him. “What? We’re celebrating. And we’ll get wine, too!” she said, her eyes bright; her jaw set. He smiled a little pityingly, looking down at the table. “Yes, celebrating. Yes,” he replied; he paused as she smiled back at him, glad, but not showing her teeth. He continued: “It is a big, big deal. You should be proud.”

“We’ll pay off the house, and Cameron will be set for college, if tuition hasn’t tripled by the time he gets there.” She was ever practical in the face of transformative things.

“Even if it has, he’ll still be covered. And we could move – find somewhere bigger, by the river.” His eyes began to grow a little misty, the two martinis helping him see a back porch overlooking a gentle, green slope, a little dock, the constant, quiet hum of the water, of things that do not end.

“You know I won’t leave her house,” she said, low and direct, bringing him back to the tablecloth, the candle, how it shone on her hair. “Of course,” he said. “I know.”

Her Manhattan and his gin and tonic arrived. She thanked the waiter in a throaty way, making her eyes luminously grateful as they met his. He nodded curtly, but flushed a little. She found herself smiling – these moments of radiance were so few and far between now. She cherished them when they did arrive; she felt herself swelling with potency and potential, with power, as though there might still be things ahead after all. She took a long sip of her Manhattan, as though it could keep her there in that emitting state.

“So, what do you think; are we going to retire?” her husband asked with some joviality, as the warmth of his wife’s glow seeped into his fingertips. She bestowed her shining gaze on him and laughed, “Jonesing to be a house husband?”

“Jonesing to be a man of leisure!” and the little dock came back to him, evening, himself in a white Adirondack chair, bourbon, a book, Cameron.

They laughed together.

“$41 million…” he said, shaking his head. “It’s remarkable. You are a remarkable woman.”

Now she blushed a little, looking down, a rushing in her ears, her fist clenching below the table, every sense on high alert. And then her husband touched her other hand and she was back, dimmed, but present again. They looked at each other. He could sense tremors that perhaps she herself did not even feel yet, and scrambled to draw her gently away from them.

“Have you told anyone at the firm?” he asked, pointing towards what he hoped was a safer harbor.

“Just that we won, not how much or anything – that seemed gauche. Well, Amelia asked specifically so I told her, but that’s all.”

“It’s lucky for us they’ve been so supportive.”

“It’s counting as pro bono hours for them, so everyone’s getting what they want,” she replied. A tremor. Her eyes dropped to the table, hearing her own words, her throat catching, her eyes welling suddenly as she looked back at her good, kind husband and he, having been poised at the ready swiftly took her two hands, pressing her palms together and casing them with his, murmuring in as deep a voice as he could muster, “I know, Turtle. I know.”

“I don’t want this,” she whispered, her lashes glittering.

“I know. Me too. Me either. I know,” he whispered back, his own breath catching in his throat, leaning in as he pressed her hands again. They breathed together for a moment, then she pulled back, shaking her head, touching the corner of her eyes. “Okay. It was for Cameron. This changes things for him.”

“For us,” her husband interjected, touching his own eyes.

“Yes. Ok, yes. For us. This was for us.”

The waiter glided up to present them an amuse bouche from the chef, and to take their order if they were ready but there was no rush. They needed a moment to look over the menu.

He swallowed whole his spoonful-worth of whatever it was in one gulp; she perused the menu silently, decided, and sipped her spoon, watching him closely, still curious after all these years. He held the menu flat on the table and leaned over it, seeking without scrutinizing the first acceptable option he could find, which she already knew was the portobello ravioli.

She would test herself. “What do you think?”

“Ravioli.”

“It was the first thing,” she laughed, right again, the corner of her mouth twisting. His smile was wide, sheepish, caught.

“It was the first thing.”

They linked hands across the table, as though he were going to kiss her fingers, swear fealty to her. He met her eyes, “You’re still my first thing.”

She pulled her chin down, almost blushing. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

The waiter returned. Their hands slid back to their respective sides. He took their order and departed. She sank back in her chair, staring somewhere past the top of her husband’s head. She slowly turned her glass, with just the tips of her fingers. She had meant to say something, there had been something…but the space before her eyes wavered towards its center, her head was light, her arms felt heavy. She drank half her water and contemplated the final mouthfuls of her Manhattan. Her stomach rose a bit toward the back of her throat as she thought of the wine that was already on its way. She sipped her water again and excused herself to the ladies’ room. Her husband grabbed her hand as she passed, and she leaned down to kiss him, touching his face.

 

He waited as she walked away, then gently touched his temples. His throat constricted suddenly; his eyes watered. His breath came out in a tight cough. His hands came together, covering his face for a moment, then pulled down to his chin as he took in a deep breath. He blinked hard, and busied himself with stirring the end of his drink.

 

She was leaning forward over the edge of the sink, observing herself in the mirror. She reached to smooth the makeup that had caked slightly in the line from her nose to the corner of her mouth. She thought again how she looked like her mother – not the way her mother looked now, but the way her mother looked when she thought of her, how her mother would have been about her age when she looked like this. And in a rush, she felt herself stretching back along the chain of mothers and daughters that led to her, the final, broken link, limp with disconnect. Her face contorted horribly as she ran the water to drown it out, but it came anyway, her mother’s voice on the phone, first with extreme pathos, then rising with hysteria, “What? She…what?” and her own inability to repeat the words, forming them with dry, heaving sobs, her mother slowly joining her as the infidelity of death settled over them both. Like a malevolent, runaway train, there was no way to stop this once it had begun – it just had to be ridden out. She clung to the sides of the sink, eyes pressed tight, until the many-fingered demons clutching her heart and lungs began to relax their vicious grip.

She shook her head, patted a wet towel to her cheeks and chest, and pushed through the door to her husband.

 

The back of his neck came into view first: a patch of clean skin above his stooped shoulders, and she would have briefly hated his bad posture and misaligned collar if they were not so familiar to her, and she was ready to accept anything recognizable, solid, distracting. She ran her hand over his shoulder as she passed him. He started, looking up at her, and beamed. She smiled as she sat across from him, her lips pressed together. She looked down until he broke the silence welling up between them. “We could talk a little about her.”

“What else is there to say? We’ve told every story.” Her voice was like sandpaper over skin.

“Well…we could retell our favorites…” he stumbled, “and maybe there are some we haven’t told – I just…I was just remembering what her sneeze sounded like, just a huffy little cry and not a real sneeze, just a little baby sneezy sound.”

It had been just like that. This little bundle of miraculous continuity she had not even been sure she had wanted, but who had arrived and who could sneeze. It had become as familiar as an old cardigan, this vertigo sensation, as her stomach dropped and she curled in on herself, her shoulders wrapping forward like inverse wings. She knew that if she let herself contract, if she could bite the inside of her lip and twist her toes uncomfortably against the inside of her shoes and squeeze her eyes shut, it would pass – it would wrench through her, her grief a medieval torture device, and then it could be contained and then she could return to the world. He was right. She had not thought about that little sneeze. What a gift, what a precious gift: a sneeze, a rough pearl to add to the string of others rubbed to a bright polish with remembering.

She laughed, a small, genuine, grateful laugh, and began to decontract. “Yes, okay, yes. Let’s talk about her a little.” Her mascara had smudged in the corner of one eye, and he stared at it, suddenly fixated on how she was always like this, how so much armor had so many cracks, how it just took one good pry to pull the whole thing apart, how she was infuriating in her righteousness but also sometimes had smudged mascara and he just wanted to cup her cheek and rub it away with his thumb.

The wine arrived. The bottle was good. The waiter poured, and departed.

“So, what else have you got? What else have you been keeping from me?” she asked laughingly, trying to bring some brightness back to her eyes. His face fell as though struck, shoulders stooping even more.

“You know I don’t keep anything from you.” His voice was hurt, quiet. He was looking down.

“Oh Turtle, you know I didn’t mean it like that!” She floundered, “I didn’t mean anything – I know you don’t.” She reached across the table, opening her hand for his. “I’m so sorry…I just want more…more of her…and her sneeze,” her eyes welled, she sniffed, “that was so good, such a good one. I just want to talk more about her.”

He laid his hand in hers. She gripped it. After a moment, and without looking up yet, he gripped it back.

“I have another – it was before you went back to work – maybe one of the first times we all got out of the house, and it was just going to the diner, and she was asleep and Cameron was being good and when we got there, he wanted to push her stroller.” He had been speaking with his eyes half-closed, methodically but with vague anticipation, until here where an electric shock went through them both. He snapped to face her, his eyes wide. “It wasn’t that one, it was the old one. Cameron’s old one.” They both relaxed, imperceptibly. He pressed on. “He just wanted to push it, but he was really too little, and you stood behind him and had your hands over his hands on the handles and I was walking a little ahead and I just kept looking back at you and him and her and I just kept saying ‘This is my family, this is my family, this is my family,’ and you know I almost cried in that parking lot with my heart fit to burst?”

“This is your family,” she said, her voice tight and tender.

He looked up at her, reaching his other hand up to grip hers with both. “Yes –” he blinked hard. “I love you.”

“Always. Through everything.”

“Yes.”

They sat quietly for a moment, seeing each other. With a squeeze of his fingers, she leaned back. “I have one.” She twisted her wine glass in her fingers, then sipped it. “It was Christmas,” she paused, her breath caught in her throat, her face crumpled. “Her only Christmas….” He dropped his head too, wrung his hands while she raised her napkin to her face. They were both quiet for a moment, composing themselves. With an audible heave, she began again. “It was Christmas, and she was down for a nap…it must have been Christmas afternoon…I guess everyone was napping, because I’d fallen asleep in that big arm chair in her room. I came to with these quiet little sounds nearby – it was your dad. He was standing over her crib, holding her feet while she kicked, singing these little songs to her and she was, you know, making those little happy sounds back at him, and then I realized he’d pulled a blanket over me and I just thought ‘Oh, he’s a good protector. He’ll protect her.’” She swallowed hard, her voice cracking again. “And I didn’t say anything and I kinda smiled a little and went back to sleep thinking…thinking how…how safe we were.”

She sniffled lightly, glancing up to see the waiter gliding to the side of the table, plates in hand. She looked to her husband, his face inscrutable, trying its best to rearrange itself now that a stranger had shattered the thin, glass bubble they had blown for themselves, where they imagined themselves invisible, or at least alone, the sounds of the world muffled, they the only real things, the protagonists.

“Madame, your risotto, and sir for you, the ravioli.”

“Thank you…thank you, it looks lovely.”

“Our pleasure. Is there anything else you need at the moment?”

“No, thank you…no, that’s all.”

“Enjoy!” He glided away.

They were both quiet as he faded, each touching their forks but not eating yet.

“That’s what they were doing, you know.” He was now staring at her intently, gesturing slightly with one hand. She furrowed her brow. “They were keeping her safe. It was supposed to be the safest stroller in the world.”

“Mhmm.” Her voice was flat, but her chin raised slightly, edging it with challenge. He held her gaze, then sat back, slightly stunned. “You blame them. You still blame them?” He shook his head. “I don’t believe it. You still…do you?” His welling fury passed suddenly to the pleading of a small child. “Do you?”

He hunched forward, his shoulders round, his mouth open. He scrutinized her bowed face. He spoke haltingly, like a growl. “As far as anyone knew, it was the safest stroller in the world.”

Her eyes were squeezed shut. Her lips were thin. The floor seemed to tilt below her and she shook her head ever so slightly. “It wasn’t, though,” she barely whispered.

“Of course it wasn’t, of course. They just paid us $41 million because they were cheats and liars, and in this one, single, devastating case, murderers. But my parents did not know that,” he was almost shouting now, his face red with grief, indignation, wine. “They didn’t know; of course they didn’t know; no one knew…no one knew.”

The bubble that had ballooned around them faded again. Other tables came slowly into focus, sounds became louder, or more particularly, the immediate quiet surrounding them became louder, until they were forced to look around, to glance momentarily at the couples trying not to glance momentarily at them. His face reddened more deeply. She found his gaze, held it, hardening herself against what she was about to say. He waited, the hairs on the back of his neck rising in panic, in protest.

“Our baby is dead, and we are getting paid for it.”

She said it like it was something he did not already know. With complete clarity, he felt himself hurling his glass to the ground, enjoying the sharp shatter, shoving the table and all its contents into a magnificent and representative heap, he heard himself screaming that she was not the only parent, that his grief was also a pit that reached from his stomach to the center of the earth that no houses by the river or gin and tonics or other children could fill or close or even lessen – that he knew and he knew and he knew.

He convulsed from everything it took to control himself, and then his slumped shoulders slumped yet again toward the still-intact table. She waited, not sure if she was poised for fight or flight; the table, a tangle of plates, and one small, mangled body the only things lying between them.

He found he was still clutching his fork, and he gently laid it by his plate. He laid his hand beside it, his fingers lightly splayed. “I know,” he said, staring at the empty space in the middle of the table. “We could donate it all away, we could get divorced, we could take it out on Cameron, we could cut ties with my parents, we could commit suicide, we could both join a monastery and never speak again…and it won’t bring her back. It won’t make her even one tiny little bit less dead than she is now.”

She regarded him levelly, her chin jutted forward, her arms crossed. And then it was her shoulders that slumped, her cheeks that grew hot. There was nothing to fight, or to flee. “I know.”

He reached his hand across the table, asking for hers again. She stood instead, swinging around the table and sliding into the booth beside him, crushing herself against his wrinkled suit, his warm side. She turned her face up to his, the corners of her mouth raised in a question, an apology. He smiled back, touching the corner of his eye and reaching his other arm around her shoulders. He kissed her forehead, then adjusted his plate and, one-handedly, began to eat. She pulled her plate across the table and, between small hiccoughs, almost like a baby’s sneeze, began to eat too.

 

 

BIO

Laura Fletcher studied creative writing at Princeton University; her work has previously appeared in The Nassau Literary Review and Wax Antlers. She has been an educator, entrepreneur, consultant, product manager, and apprentice baker, though is happiest when she is a writer. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado and finds the mountains a great comfort.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Deus Ex Marina

by Megan Mooney

 

 

The fearsome Captain Longbeard stared dramatically into the roiling waves flowing around the back end of his ship’s keel. One does not generally think of graceful when imagining a sea-roughened pirate, yet the term easily applied to him. Longbeard held his figure in such a way that denoted his quiet agility; one that had either manifested from training in the deadly arts of the sword or perhaps it was that his mother enrolled him in ballet starting at the age of seven: an action that definitely didn’t lead to bullying and self-esteem issues. But the latter is obviously too specific to be true. Longbeard doesn’t even like ballet… that much.

That’s a bit of a tangent though, where was I? Right, got it. Draaama.

Captain Longbeard’s long silvery beard shone in the moonlight that peeked intermittently through the sheet of grey clouds above. It waved in the wind much like the pearly seafoam below that crests upon the waves and–

“Aaagh,” cried Captain Longbeard.

The first mate, Kyle (poor thing, really, awful name; got him beat up many times as a kid), ran up to him from the deck after hearing his cries, “What is it, Captain?”

“Pfft, pfft! Me damn beard got stuck in me mouth again when it was waving in the wind, much like the pearly seafoam below that crests upon the waves and– pfft!” The wind blew his beard into his mouth again. “I swear ye darn thing, I’ll cut ye off the next time this happens!”

“But Captain…”

“Whaaat!?”

“Ye name is Longbeard…” Kyle began.

“Ye point?”

“Well, ye might look rather silly without a beard.” At that, the Captain began stroking his beard with his wooden hook.

“I suppose thar is some truth in that.” He thought for a moment and continued stroking his beard then held the hook up to the moonlight and gazed at it. And it is in that moment,  in which Longbeard was staring at his hook of mahogany and Kyle just standing there awkwardly while his captain has a moment with an inanimate piece of wood, that it’s time to cue the tragic backstory.

* Ahem *

On a moonlit night, much like this one, Captain Goldenhook (as Longbeard was once known) stood at the stern of the ship, one leg up on the railing and his one good hand propped regally on his knee. His chest was puffed out and his hat was jauntily askew in the manner he had heard made you look was in fashion, but it’s not like he cared about that kind of thing because he had a big ship and treasure on four islands and certainly doesn’t care that his dad left him when he was young and basically has no insecurities to speak of at all. It’s possible the Captain revealed a bit too much of his past when the crew stole a few casks of whiskey.

There he stood, the picture of incredible Captainness (it’s a thing trust me), his velvet coat hung off his slender yet capable shoulders and several rings glimmered from his hand. The expression on his stubbled, but not as of yet, bearded, face turned into one of amused delight as he pondered his recent victories over several militaries and a few smaller pirate gangs. Treasure had flooded his hull so that his ship was slower than normal, but they should be safe, only a night’s travel from their island harbor. In the morning they would dock and unload their newest plunder and then depart to new adventures across the Seven Seas––        

Screeeeechh! Something scraped along the underside of the hull. The vessel leaned dangerously to port. Buckets, ropes, and other equipment could be heard sliding across the deck, and a few sounds of splashing could be heard soon after, one sounded suspiciously too large to just be equipment.

The Captain fell off balance and rammed into the railing, his hat tumbling off his head. At the last second, his hook, golden and really, really shiny, caught it by the brim. He placed it back atop his head. Tilted it to just the right angle, then went about yelling and stuff.

“Aye, crew!” What in the depths is going on down thar?!” Goldenhook lumbered  down the steps to the lower deck where his men were scrambling, some running around with ropes trying to secure anything left untethered, while others just kind of ran around screaming. “Blimey! Control ye’selves! I asked ye all a question, now what in Davy Jones is happening!”

Kyle ran up to the Captain and saluted him before addressing him very seriously, “I have no idea!” He paused and Goldenhook raised an eyebrow at him. “Captain!”

Screeeech! This time the sound had come from the bow side and it lingered longer. There could be no mistaking it this time. It was the Shirley.

[Sidenote: The Shirley is the most fearsome creature of the deep. It has never been seen before. Some have called it a kraken or a shark of enormous size. Others call it the physical embodiment of a nightmare. Therefore, the name–Shirley. We all know one.]

Captain Goldenhook rushed to the deck with the rest of his crew and watched as the enormous body of an enormous creature rose out of the boiling water and blotted out the moon. The men caught in its shadow were stunned into silence.

Then they screamed.

The silhouette of the creature lengthened towards the heavens and part of the silhouette split off from the rest and the shadowy stripe zipped across the sky and came smashing through the ship, cleaving it in two. The enormous mass reared back up revealing itself to be one of the Shirley’s enormous tentacles before cracking the main mast with a single swing. The scout at the top of the mast clung to it until it fell over into the cabins where the scout jumped off breaking their left leg.

The men scrambled for safety as the two sides of the ship were gradually swallowed by the waves and dark depths beneath. Other tentacles flashed up and grabbed onto a few of the men as they tried to escape. Their screams were muted by the sound of the crashing waves and the timber tearing apart.

Captain Goldenhook clung to the railing as he watched in despair at the state of his precious ship. The horror! He was considering the sizeable portion of the treasure it would take to make the repairs and replace the crew when he felt a tug on his coat. A tentacle had slithered over the deck and wrapped itself around him. He felt himself lifted into the air. He felt majestic and weightless like a bird. He didn’t scream. He accepted his fate. At least, that’s what he said afterwards.

He found himself dangling in front a gaping black maw. The tentacle’s grip tightened on Goldenhook and then thrust him towards the terrible, sharp beak of the Shirley.

The next day he awoke to the most terrifying sight of all. Not only was the majority of his crew missing, his treasure sunk, and ship drowned– but his golden hook, his namesake, was gone.

The Captain sustained no actual injuries, just the hook and its attachment were lost. He quickly got over the loss of his crew, treasure, and even his ship.

But damn it, if he didn’t really, really like that hook.

So he grew a beard and changed his name. He sought out new crewmembers and a new vessel. Luckily, Kyle had survived so he wouldn’t have to find a first mate that suited him. He also got a new hook, but this one was simple, plain mahogany, its nondescript nature a constant reminder of his great loss and a motivator to plunder more and more. With the treasure he bought more men and a ship more magnificent and powerful than any before, until he was absolutely certain he could never be overtaken again.

And that is what brought the Captain back to the scene of that fateful night, where he stood in front of a confused Kyle and stared at the ugliest piece of wood formed into a hook he could imagine. It mocked him. He squinted at it. Kyle squinted at it, too, not certain if that was what he was supposed to do or not.

“Captain!” a voice sounded from far off on the ship. Captain Longbeard realized it came from the scout on the main mast. The very same that had survived the destruction of the first ship. “The Shirley! It has been spotted!”

“Then make way for it! The monster is mine!” cried the Captain.

Captain Longbeard felt his long wait come to an end as this moment came to a head. His vengeance would come. He had stored the newest and most powerful cannons below decks, explosives and all other manners of warfare were strapped down on the main deck, the men working furiously to ready them for the inevitable battle. The Captain hobbled to the bow as the waves became more choppy. They followed a melodic rhythm not unlike that of a huge beast swimming in the depths and changing the tide. He smiled.

That is when he felt the ship lift up beneath him, he whipped his sword out of its sheath and prepared for the tentacles to start wrapping around the sides of the ship.

But they didn’t come.

Captain Longbeard walked with trepidation to the railing where he could see that the ship had not only been lifted off the sea, but now floated a good distance above it. SO far above the sea were they that the Captain could see the full massive silhouette of the Shirley below them, its tentacles thrashing at the place that the ship had just occupied. He then looked closer at the ship itself, to the hull where seawater streamed off and revealed barnacles that had been clinging to the ship below the water’s surface. Yet he spied something less expected, they looked like pale tentacles perhaps, yet they had nails on the tips of them? He could see four of these long appendages on the side he was on and then turned around to see that they were in fact attached to a … forearm?

“Look!” Kyle shouted, “It’s the Hand of God!”

He wasn’t wrong.

Captain Longbeard looked to the heavens and saw that the clouds swirled around a massive, tastefully hairy forearm. The hand it was attached to held the boat in its massive grip. It illuminated the night, like the moon come to rest on the terrestrial plane. They had been saved!

This really annoyed the Captain.

“Blimey! Stop that now, would ye?!” the Captain’s veins bulged as he shook his fist at the much larger one.

“Behold, I, your God have come to– wait, what?” the voice of God shook the deck as mightily as during any great thunderstorm.

“Ye are ruining my vengeance!” the Captain shouted back angrily shaking his wooden hook toward the sky.

“You do realize, you were going to die, right?”

“SOOOOOOOOOO??” the Captain really wasn’t a fan of backtalk, “I’m about to miss my chance to fight the Shirley.”

“I know. I know all. But you were definitely going to die, though.”

“No! What was going to happen was–”

“Umm, excuse me, Captain.” Kyle interrupted as the rest of the crew gathered nervously around the Captain. They were slightly perturbed by the disembodied voice that caused the deck to vibrate every time it sounded, but truly afraid at seeing the curvature of the Earth. They had always presumed it was flat. Then Kyle turned to the clouds above that were separated by the massive arm. “Are we definitely going to die, or are we only going to die a little bit?”

“How–How is that even possible? I mean really, how do you die just a little bit?” God, apparently, was a little sassy.

“You know, like when you wake up with a really bad headache.”

God was silent for a moment. There was a slight shift in the breeze that could have been caused by massive fingers pinching the bridge of an equally massive nose annoyedly, but one can never be certain about these things.

“That’s–that’s not anywhere close to dying. You know that, right? Maybe try drinking some water and not just rum all the time, Kyle.”

“Oh my God! God knows my name!” Kyle shouted and thrust his fists into the air then turned to get high fives from the excited crewmen around him.

“But yeah, you definitely would have died.” The crew stopped cheering. “You were all going to rush the Shirley and it was going to eat you. Like, all of you.”

“So, like, eat us a little bit or…”

“Completely! It was going to eat you completely!”

The crew were silent for a moment, considering this new information.

“Well, that’s not ideal,” said one of the crew in the back.

“No, which is why I came here to save you! You may not know it, but some of you could be the ancestors to some of the most important people in history! For example, you, Killian.  Your great-great granddaughter will discover the cure for cancer and save millions of lives!”

“Grand-daughter?” muttered a confused Killian, “ But women can’t do anything important.” He paused. “And what’s cancer?”

“Goodness, nevermind. Just know that despite your current station in life, all of you could hold great importance for the future of this world. Well … except for Jerry. That’s my bad, I guess. But because of the whole “free will” thing, I need you all to agree to be saved. If you all so choose, I can whisk you all away to a safe beautiful island full of food and drink–”          

“And women!?” shouted a member of the crew.

“Well, no, not really. It’s a deserted island, but–”

“Aaaah,” everyone in the crew except for the scout, who had one magnificent eyeroll, groaned, although Kyle did so halfheartedly.

“Well, well, can’t just force us into your little scheme, huh, God? If that is your real name!” cried the Captain.

“Well, it’s not my name, more of a title, really. My name is actually–”

“Don’t care! Me vengeance won’t be deterred by some silly cloud liver like you! Now men, let’s put it to a vote, who wants to be a man and fight the Shirley with ye Cap’n?! And who wants to be remembered as a cowardly, black-spotted, nattering wretch?!”

The scout’s hand raised. “Cap’n I think we should go with God’s plan, seeing as he is all-knowing and such, and knows that we shan’t live.”

“I should’ve known the woman would be the one to cower from glory! Any other cowards among us?!” the Captain shouted vehemently. Some of the crew members grumbled, but then the Captain continued. “I asked ye, are thar any more cowards among ye?”

“NO, CAPTAIN!” all of the crew except for the scout shouted. They quickly set their faces to their meanest expressions, saved for ransacking villages and or invading ships. All except for Kyle, poor thing, he really couldn’t tell his mean face from his constipated one.

“Good!” the Captain swaggered over to the railing and polished his hook victoriously against his velvet coat, then placed it against the railing near God’s glowing forearm. “Well, then, I suppose we’ll be having our fight after all. Set us down, God!”

“You’re an idiot.”

“Well, that’s me own choice isn’t it!” the Captain yelled back, shaking his fist to the sky.

“Unfortunately.”

The Hand of God gradually lowered the ship back down to the sea, the curvature of the earth gradually receding into its apparent flatness. The ship plopped the last few feet into their beloved watery depths and the crew cheered in a very pirate manner. The crew hurried back to their posts and readied the cannons, all except for one. No one noticed but the scout had meandered over to the railing closest to the Arm of God and she jumped to its safety.

“Well, have fun, I guess,” muttered the Voice of God as his arm slowly receded into the cloudbank and took her along with it.

“We will! And another thing…” the Captain continued shouting arrogantly into the night even as it returned to its regular moonlit-ness and not its previous holy lit-ness, until he had sufficiently gotten what he considered the last word. He then lowered his voice somewhat to address just the crew and not so many immortal beings. “Haha, he thinks we’re the idiots, well, we’ll show him won’t we, men!”

The Captain turned around and saw the deck was strangely empty.

“Men?”

The Captain did not see the tentacle slither over the deck railing behind him, but he did feel as it gripped onto him in a way he wished he had forgotten.

“Perhaps, the scout was ri–” his words were cut off by his being dragged under the surface of the waves.

It may go without saying, but Captain Longbeard and his crew did not get their glory or their revenge or anything else for that matter. Perhaps, they would have if they had listened to me. The Hand of God carried me off to a safe land, but I am still stuck with the same lame leg as I’ve had since the first Shirley attack. It reminds everyday to pass on this story to other women I encounter. Perhaps, one day they’ll believe me when I say they needn’t live to benefit another, when they have the power to change their lives all on their own.

 

 

 

BIO

Megan Mooney is a recent alumni of Miami University where she studied Creative Writing. As an aspiring humorist, Megan likes to inject her comic wit into stories that seek to subvert clichéd storylines. Like many people her age, she enjoys traveling and seeking outdoor adventures. Exactly where she will end up in her career still remains a mystery to her. She currently resides in Lafayette, Indiana, with her family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

The Exorcism of Ecphora

by Annie Blake

 

 

I wasn’t sure who kept switching on the lights. The house was supposed to be empty. I waited for him to come home because I needed some reassurance I wasn’t losing my sanity. He came home.

***

But I’m sure I switched off all the lights after everyone left that morning.

***

When I was alone the next day, I could hear footsteps outside my room.

***

The more my ears open, the more my voice shuts down. It’s automatic. Sometimes I become a mute. The steps outside are full of water. Insidious seas. The opening of the door is an apertural view of a shell. But I am like a camera with an aperture stop. My room is heavy with empty.

***

I didn’t want to look at the door.  The knob was a potential bomb. But my hands turned and wrung me out anyway. I was under water. Fog can weigh you down under water. Sink you like a rock.

***

I could hear a ship sounding her bells in a storm. The kelp was the only thing alive in the sea. Even the fish were dead—upside down and gummy; sliced palms of haddocks. My hair and the kelp—how land and water marry.

***

I swam through one eye and then walked through the other.

***

Someone has left the light on in the dining room. For fuck’s sake. How many times have I told them to save electricity? I saw Keren approaching the stairs. I forgot he lived here. He looked a little like my son. Sometimes he looked like a native and other times he looked Russian. He didn’t look at me much. He was an introvert. It must have been him. He’s the one opening all the doors. I’ve told him before. He says he’s cold. All he wants is heat.

***

But I was his mother. Too young to know anything about estrus. The mind has a way of adjusting its aperture stop. A room surrounded by curtains susurrating with the floor—a scrambled view like egg battered in a jar. The wind bubbling at their hems—they are stage curtains all around. I’m in the middle—wind around my ankles and my heels—buzzing around like bees.

***

I obsessively worry about four things. I alternate them like the blades of a fan—the gentle suppleness of knives. How they spin through fingers and umbilical cords. How they promise the ooze of overripe summer.

***

When I stop at a red light I notice a line of cars in the rain. The dissonance of their wipers. The sagging rhythm everyone tries to keep in time with. Ridding the windshields of rain.

***

When you lose your ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, you have nothing else to lose.

***

I told Keren I was an empty offering. The two bells on my body; feeling the firm curvature of fruit; milk of its figs. Here are the divides of our tongues—the longing of their sweet juices. His hands were more bone than fat, for he always ate grainy bread. His hair was as alive as kelp. A regenerative sauna. The body I was in—white and damp on the snow. Feeling the pleats of our moist skins like slithers of consciousness. Like the flash when a photo is taken. When I feel like I’m in a wound that tightens like the waist under a woman’s corset, I know I have to climb up its ribs again. When I feel like I’m in a widening wound like the hips of a rainforest, I know I’m heading the right way.

***

The laces of my dress are ribs. I held him. His breath bathed in the fermentation of fatigue. His fingers were long and could play the piano. His purpose was to evolve beyond onanism. My mother and father taught me to look for bean clams in the sea. Just under the sand. We dig with our fingers. The arperture of his nails—eggy salty pus. Clitorides. Eating raw; the wounds of our eyes.

***

The hair on his hands. The growing fibers of his arms. Fingers looking in the mud. For the twist of the umbilicus—the dark purse of her lips. A borehole. The four costae of the Ecphora. The easy snapping of ribs—the relief of his fingers like the tearing of threadbare fabric. Handfuls of eternal ash. The opening of the dry earth for mouths—the lifting of the gullet. The thawing of white on the field. He cleans the interior of the white buffalo. I learn from the divine licks of his teeth.

***

The bells were ringing to call the child who died. My body was turning over like red meat in the mist. Town criers are ringing their bells to summon me. It is the end of the war and there will be a holy wedding.

***

When children climb into a dry carcass of a buffalo, they must first eat what fills it. Then there will be the adjustment of their bodies inside by the unwinding of their joints. All children need shelter from storms. He scoops out the dust of burnt bodies; the cracked shells of the vase.

***

When children are spoilt with bruised fruit, they will break everything you have.

***

I am still an animal. He still wants me so he crawls inside my craw. He holds onto my entrails for he doesn’t want to feel disconnected. He is heavy. I unlatch my body. His arms outstretch—as well as his legs. Branches instead of switches, to keep me erect like a memento mori photograph. Like a hallway coat stand laden with coats. We can open more doors this way. Keren’s round parts are bulbs. He is growing. I can feel him. He builds a fire in my body for the extrusion of his bones to take place. We rise like the unmistakable mast of a ship. Even in the storm, camisoles are billowing. Lucent—a scintillating lighthouse.

***

I am standing in our body. I am russet. The color of potato when it is pulled from the earth or an Ecphora—my hand that spiders out of the sand. For I come from the earth; from the water first.

***

For posterity’s sake.

***

The ox is ploughing the earth, making furrows in my body with his plow. He made goblets out of his horns.

***

Menstruation is circular. I mistake it for the putrefaction of fish. Sometimes I smell the exploitation of fish at the marketplace. Their high protein content makes my body able. I drink from his horns. He explains they are aphrodisiacs. I eat croissants for breakfast because they look like horns and the croitre of moons. Made of glass. Air. Viennoiseries with laminated dough.

***

I’m sick of sitting in the dough of the unknowables—their knuckles knocking, kick-starting me like the manufactured steel of automobile parts. In grade school, I cried because I didn’t want my mother to leave me. When she left, the teacher took me outside. She told another teacher she was looking for lice.

***

She wasn’t looking for lice. She was pulling my hair.

***

 I stopped squalling. Fear and silence hold hands instantaneously. Sometimes the only way to make someone love you is by tip-toeing in their shadow.

***

Walking in front of them is harder than letting yourself hang.

***

Keren swims inside. He pulls the nails out of my hands. I unknit my web because when I was young I wore lace veils to church; a lace dress up to my chin. My finger nail catches on to the lace.

***

She shakes like her gallows. Her legs are her last.

***

 It is walking into the fall—the unmasking of our leaves. And feeling this time, I will live to bud. The gentle creak of the doors in the hallway. The lights divulging all my rooms.

***

The pigeon is fixing a nest on my balcony. It was winter— its winds untying its cries like the primitive crimes of animals. It is a large bed I sleep in for he could not bear the crying of newborns.

***

Maybe he carries the cries of his mother. Of himself.

***

I remember my mother’s silver coins splashing like paint against the wall. The cooked spittle of her belly. Simmering; how it curdles into maggots in the sink. I watch while she strains the tubes in her throat.

***

His father’s exquisite concentration of his fingers while loading his gun. Her tuft of red hair—whatever is left under his fingernails. The hot blood-speckled skin of a pecked buffalo. The fur is taken off when the circumference of skin tries to hold the weight of a metal bullet. Blades for a tongue. The licking of blades. Shining silver swords.

***

His hands are sewing me. My father’s noose. His dollar bills and his will—he lets loose from his wrists. His fingers, though work-stained are lissom when tying rope. I am tightening up my daughter’s ballet bun so her wisps of hair are bent back. The elegant twist and overlap of a hair net. A stiff coat of hairspray. She is taught there must be no deviation from the steps she is taught. The rope’s final rip through the well floor. The bucket tapping against the floor—breaking dark red coral.

***

The blood-run snow—welling in the deep wrinkles of her skin.

***

My son tells me I’m so nice now. He asks, Were you angry because when I was small I was bad? We hold each other like red ribbons around a gift. No, I say. It was all about me.

***

I can now throw my voice like a dart.

***

When she awoke her skin was unrippled like she had been sleeping in a glass box. The scales of my shells are opening. I have learnt to break open the clam by unjamming its hinge ligament.

***

Rain is sweetest under the dry fan of eyelashes. On top of the cracked egg of snow. The mouth is a clam. Teeth—a wreath of diamonds. The tongue a live mollusk. My hair—a curtain of herb in the spring air.

***

My body green and sown in the field.

 

 

 

BIO

Annie Blake is an Australian writer, thinker and researcher. She is a wife and mother of five children. Her main interests include psychoanalysis and metaphysics. She is currently interested in arthouse writing which explores the surreal nature and symbolic meanings of unconscious material through nocturnal and diurnal dreams and fantasies. Her writing is a dialogue between unconscious material and conscious thoughts and synchronicity. You can visit her on annieblakethegatherer.blogspot.com.au and https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009445206990.

 

 

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Baby Fever

by Pascale Potvin

 

“We need an ambulance! My friend’s been stabbed and she’s pregnant! Uh … uh … four months!” someone’s cry pierced through my dizzy fog. That’s when I noticed everyone in the kitchen and that they were staring at me. Overwhelmed, I looked down, still clutching my burning belly. My hands were red. Oh.

#

TWO MONTHS EARLIER

“How far along are you?” asked Trish, looking up again from across the table. Her gaze pushed into me like a bulldozer. I leaned back into my chair, insecure about my answer.

“Eight weeks,” I said.

The three women attacked their notepads with their pencils.

Their names were Olive, and Kate (I think), and, in the middle, leading the interview, sat Trish Barton. That woman was all I’d heard her to be. She was blonde, with great skin, and so petite; you could have never guessed that she’d had two children. Nor that they’d been home births. Her kids (a boy and a girl) would probably grow up to be as small as her, too, since she was raising them vegetarian. Basically, she was everything that every Elk Creek mother wanted to be. Already she intimidated me, and she was five years my junior.

“And you’re married?” she asked, with a smile as perfectly tight as the rest of her face.
I’d been expecting to be asked a lot about my living situation.

“Yes,” I answered. “As of recently, uh, his name is James.”

“Oh, congrats. How did you meet?”

“Four years ago,” I said. “He… was at a bar where we were having a company party. I didn’t- uh, I don’t usually go out, and he could tell. He stole me away”. I thought of it, of that image of James in his striped button-up. He’d pulled his sleeves up as he’d approached me, as if telling me he was determined to seduce me–though he’d probably just wanted to show off his arms. I still couldn’t believe I’d fallen for that overgrown frat boy. I chuckled to myself, thinking about it. When I looked back at Trish, though, her face hadn’t moved.

“What do you do?” she asked.

“Uh, I was an accountant for a car company,” I said. “I’m looking for a replacement.”

“And your husband?”

“Yes. He got a job at a hospital in the city, um-”

“Oh. Nice.”

“He’s a doctor.”

Her mouth opened the tiniest bit before she went back to her notepad. I tried to peek.

“And where are you living now?” she smiled up at me.

“It’s a house on Collingwood Street,” I said.

“Oh, so you’re the new owner,” Her high-pitched voice flapped its wings excitedly. Her face had opened up now. A little weird. “Well, lovely, lovely. Will you have transportation?”

“Yes, we have a car.”

“Okay. And how are you liking Elk Creek?”

“We love it,” I said. “We wanted to go somewhere family-oriented. And this was worth leaving, like, everything behind in Michigan.”

“So you understand the purpose of Elk Creek Mothers’ Association?”

I nodded. “Keep the community safe and organize events for moms and kids,” I said.

“And what will you contribute, if you’re chosen?”

I paused, massaging my hands together. Secretly, I hated questions like this; the job hunt was going to be a pain.

“Well, I love children more than-” I started. I was about to say anyone, then I realized that that might not be the best idea, considering who was interviewing me, “-anything. More than anything, I’ve always known I’ve wanted to be a mom, and…” I realized that I probably shouldn’t focus on myself, but on the benefits for the kids.

Trish and her vice-presidents wrote as I spoke. I couldn’t, despite trying, read their notes or their faces.

I told James all about it over dinner. We sat across the width of the dining room table, as the other way might have required us to cup our mouths and yell. I didn’t know why he’d gotten us such a big table, but I supposed that the room allowed for it.

“I’m not gonna get it,” I said, twirling my spaghetti on my fork, then sticking a load into my mouth.

“Of course you are,” he said. “It’s a volunteer position.” He stabbed into a meatball.

“One that everyone wants,” I mumbled, covering my chewing with my hand. “Why do you think I had to do an interview?”

“Is it really this elite thing?” he asked, chuckling and looking up at me. James had blue/green eyes; their color shifted like the tides. In this light, now, they looked a pale, consuming green. He was still so handsome to me with his short, curly brown hair; his thick eyelashes; the quirky asymmetrical-ness of his rectangle face. “But it’s called Ec-ma. Ec-ma,” he continued. “They couldn’t have a prettier name? Makes me think of eczema.”

I laughed until my phone started vibrating on the kitchen counter. I jumped upward, gulped down my noodles and jogged to it.

“Pregnant,” James reminded me.

I ignored him. “Hello?” I answered, in a semi-strangled voice.

“Hi. Lillian? This is Trish, from ECMA,” she said. “I’m calling to offer you membership to our group.”

“No way! Oh, my gosh. Thank you so much!” I exclaimed, looking back at James. He did a double thumbs-up.

“You’re welcome,” she said. “Do you accept?”

“Yes, for sure.”

“Great. Are you available this Thursday at 7:30 PM for our monthly public safety meeting?”

James would be back from work by then. I’d have the car in time.

“Yes, that’s fine,” I told her.

“It’s at the police station. Do you know where that is?”

“Yes,” I lied. I’d figure it out.

“Perfect. See you then,” she said. “Bring a notebook.” And she hung up.

“Told you you’d get it,” James said as I put the phone down. “They loved you.”

I strode back toward him, grinning.

“I admit, I got you something to celebrate,” he said, opening the glass door to the liquor cabinet. I squinted at him as he took out a bottle. “Non-alcoholic cider.” He pointed at the label.

I came closer and kissed him. He kissed me back, grabbing at my arm. He tasted like tomato sauce, and his stubble scratched at my face, but the moment was still nice.

We each had a glass and then we had sex.

When I got up the next morning for the bathroom, I found some blood in my underwear, which James had said was normal for pregnant women after sex. I filled the sink to soak them and then also drew myself a bath. I was nervous for my meeting that evening and I wanted to relax (also, the big tub, with jets, was one of my favourite features of the new house). I sat for a while in the hot, bubbling water and thought of baby name ideas. I’d been thinking of suggesting Madeline if it was a girl, which I was sort of hoping would be the case. Madeline sounded like a girl who’d laugh fervently, who’d love hugs and who would have her father’s eyes.

The meeting went fine, though I was exhausted by the time it ended. I wasn’t surprised; wanting to impress the group was probably piling onto my recent moving stress and crushing me. I went to bed before James that night, but still woke up late the next morning. When I went to the bathroom, I found more blood. Bleeding was normal at this stage, I assured myself. So was the pain in my abdomen. It had happened before.

Unfortunately, both symptoms continued sporadically for the next week, and pretty much non-stop the week after that. The exhaustion was the same.

“Would you be able to get me an ultrasound? For, like, as soon as possible?” I called James on his break the day I decided this was a problem. We hadn’t yet managed to procure a new family doctor, so he would have to play that role for now. I was grateful to have him.

“Of course. How you feeling today?” he asked. I could hear him close a door.

“The same,” I said. I hadn’t left the bed. “I officially think I’m gonna miscarry.” I was going to cry. Neither of us had yet said that word.

“Please don’t worry yet,” he told me in his most caressing voice. “It’s probably stress.”

“It hasn’t been that bad,” I argued, turning onto my side and sliding further under the covers.

“Yeah, but this started as soon as you joined the group,” he said. “That can’t be a coincidence. And…”

“…Yes?”

“I don’t know. Something about that group just kinda weirds me out,” he admitted.

“What do you mean?”

“Like… come on. Everyone here just worships those women. Plus, they’re making you do their bidding, for free, just for the honour of it?” I tried to intervene, but he continued, “You sure you haven’t accidentally joined some sort of cult?”

“In small-town Wisconsin?” I scoffed. Fuck, it hurt to do that. I rolled onto my back, holding myself. “Everything’s normal. Come on. It’s for the community.”

“The way you describe them, they just sound creepy. Are they not?”

“It’s not that bad,” I repeated.

“Really? You sure you’re not hurting and bleeding ‘cause they turned our baby into a demon baby or something? Rosemary’s Babied you up-”

“Stop,” I held back my laugher by the belly. Laughing wasn’t a good idea, either.

“Okay, but admit it. You’re taken by the elitism,” he said, his voice now dipping a little, like a frown. “And that’s what’s weird to me, ‘cause you’ve never seemed to care about that kind of thing.”

“I’m just trying to make new friends here, James. Mom friends. I’m bored and I’m lonely.”

“I get it. But you can do that without this Trish woman, can’t you? How old is she, again?”

“Twenty-eight.”

“Right,” he said. I realized that she was a full decade under him.

“I guess I want my kid to have a good social standing,” I finally admitted. “You know I was bullied.”

James took in a harsh breath. “I understand,” he said. “And I think that’s great that you’re trying to give that to our children, but I think maybe you’re putting too much pressure on yourself. On top of looking for a job-”

My insides fell. “Are you asking me to quit the group?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t do that,” he said, quickly. “Actually… eh, I was wondering…”

They hit the ground. “If I shouldn’t get a job?”

“You’ll be on mat leave soon enough, anyway,” he finally said. “And you know I can support us both.”

I didn’t answer. I only swivelled my jaw.

“Then, maybe later, we can reconsider if you wanna work or not,” he said. “I don’t know. Think about it?”

“Fine,” I said. “But, please, get me that ultrasound.”

James was able to schedule me one for five days later–a Saturday. Unfortunately, I felt exponentially worse by the day. By Friday morning, it was like I had a hole tearing through me. The demon baby theory didn’t seem so implausible anymore.

I wept on the bed, leaving phone messages for James. I took my usual (maximum) dose of Tylenol, and then upped it a bit, but still, not much changed. When I finally struggled my way out of bed, I noticed that I’d left a bloodstain. I went to the bathroom and took off my clothes. I felt so weak and vulnerable, even nauseous, so it took a while. I ripped the pad off of my underwear–which, along with my pajama pants, had been stained, nonetheless–and threw it out. At least none of the blood seemed clotted.

I managed to make myself a hot bath, with jets. Once I got in, it helped the pain, a bit, but it worsened the nausea and the exhaustion. When I got out and checked my phone, it was still only nine o’clock. I had no idea if James would get my messages before his break.

I went back to the bed, in my bathrobe, to sit and try to think of what to do. If we’d been back home, I would have called a cab to the hospital, but there were none in this puny town. I could call an ambulance, as it’d come faster than a cab would from the city, but that seemed excessive. I would just have to make it a few hours. There was no way I was contacting ECMA, either; they couldn’t know that this was happening. I had just been accepted. I’d already forced a smile and gone to the last two meetings.

I changed into new underwear with a new pad, and new pajamas, then lay back down. Just a few hours.

It was easier thought than done, though. I held myself on the bed and cried for about thirty minutes until I gave in and lugged myself to the dining room.

“Forgive me,” I rasped, pulling out a bottle of scotch and a glass from the liquor cabinet. But she was probably already dead. I poured myself a glass then the contents down my throat. The burning it caused distracted from the burning in my abdomen. I poured another.

I was disoriented when I heard James yell, “What the fuck is this?!”

I lugged my head up from my arms, wiping my mouth. I looked at my hand. My saliva was brown. I looked to my right. James was standing next to me. I was still sitting at the dining table. I’d fallen asleep. I’d never fallen asleep at a table like this.

“Is this why this is happening? Is this what you’ve been doing during the day?!” he continued. I looked up at him. He was sneering, his eyes burning hell into me. I’d thought that I’d already seen him at his angriest, but apparently I hadn’t even seen him close. “What kind of mother are you?!”

“No,” I groaned. “Have… you found me like this before?”

“Well, I don’t know,” he said, leaning down further into me. “You’ve been really emotional-”

“Because I’m in fucking pain and I’m fucking losing my baby,” I said. I strained myself up straighter, but my head was spinning. “I need the hospital.”

He stared into me for a few seconds. His eyes had gone paler, colder. “No,” he said.

My heart jump-started. “What the f-” I tried.

“You’re not going anywhere. They can’t see you like this. Even if you’re not a drunk, they’ll think you are.”

“It’s… not… optional.”

“Sure it is,” he said. “Didn’t you want a home birth so bad? Like what’s-her-face? Have a home miscarriage.”

Then, he passed me for the kitchen. I put my head back on the table and cried again.

The pain woke me up before James the next morning. I heaved myself over to the bathroom–a ritual now–and the usual blood was there. I started to undress when I was taken by nausea.

I sensed James walk in behind me puking.

“Hungover?” he snarked.

“Please,” I whimpered.

I got changed, and he drove me, in silence, to the hospital. It was in the car seat that I started to really feel the bleeding. Feel it get thicker.

After the painfully long drive, I was given away to a Dr. Schuster, a middle-aged black woman with black ponytailed braids. She helped me put on a hospital gown, and she set me down on the plastic bed. I was shivering. I covered my eyes as she checked me. I felt her clean me. It was cold. But there was no colder feeling than the one in my belly–and, though I knew that it was just fear, it also felt an awful lot like a dead baby.

“I’m so sorry. You did have a miscarriage,” she said, standing over me, dropping each word down gentler than the last.

But it doesn’t matter how gently you drop a child’s corpse onto her mother’s face.

She might as well have dropped a boulder on me, I thought. And, in that moment, I wondered what my daughter looked like. She’d probably resembled red, thick lava when she’d been ejected from the center of my core–but now I was a volcano with no purpose left, and now both of us were cold.

“I’m gonna give you an ultrasound to make sure there are no further complications and that you’re safe,” Dr. Schuster said, and I grimaced. I was grateful, at least, to have her instead of James.

“It still hurts,” I grumbled, lips dry.

She had me open the front of my gown. She put the ultrasound gel on my belly then felt across it with the stick.

“Is it all out?” I muttered.

“Actually…” she said, her voice shaking now, “I’m going to have to put you into surgery.”

“Why?” I rasped, sitting up quickly and wincing.

“You’ve had an ectopic pregnancy.”

I hadn’t heard of that before, which wasn’t a good sign.

“Your egg failed to travel through your fallopian tube,” she explained. “Your foetus has been growing in there, and now it’s burst it. You’re bleeding internally and… your other tube might have been damaged, too. I’m going to have to go in to try to save it.”

Everything, then, felt like it was spinning and shifting. Probably because everything was. I erupted, again, this time with tears.

When I woke up in a hospital bed, I tried to shoot up straight. My abdomen cried out in pain, and so did I. I remembered that I’d had surgery. A nurse called for Dr. Schuster, who entered shortly after.

“Can I have kids?” I mumbled.

“I’m so sorry, Lillian,” she said, her face struggling to stay adrift. “It’s not likely you’ll be able to conceive. Your tube was badly ruptured, and your other one was…”

I tuned her out, then. I retreated all the way under the covers and closed my eyes.

When I was more awake, she gave me and James the instructions for my care.

“No working for eight weeks,” she said. “And absolutely no sex.” Her expression had finally given up and died now. So had mine. It had gone down with my baby.

My baby had died and taken the rest of my insides with her.

James took my hand in his. It was stiff. I looked up at him. He was pale and frozen over. Definitely also dead.

“Again, I’m so sorry for your loss,” Dr. Schuster said to us. “Take your time to grieve, but remember that-”

“Thank you,” James snapped, which made me cringe a little.

And the drive home felt like the one there.

“I called Trish,” he said, breaking the silence, keeping his eyes on the dark road ahead. “Begged her to keep you in the group.”

“Of course she’s not gonna keep me in the group,” I grimaced, picking at a cuticle. “It’s a mothers’ association, and I’m no longer a mother.”

“Well, she said they’d discuss it.”

“I could have done it myself,” I argued, pausing to clamp my teeth together. “It could’ve waited.”

“I thought you might be embarrassed.”

Something about that rubbed me the wrong way. It even struck me.

“Why would I be embarrassed?” I asked, then, in a weakened voice. “…Because it’s my fault?”

He didn’t answer.

“For drinking?” I pushed. “Or for putting too much stress on myself? Daring to look for a job?”

James let out a dense exhale. “I didn’t say that, Lil,” he muttered.

It wasn’t a denial that he believed it, though.

“I can’t believe you think that.” My voice was shaking. “You did this to me, not me.”

At that, he pulled the car over and turned to look into my eyes. But he kept his grip on the wheel. “Excuse me?” he growled.

“You’re a doctor. You know what an ectopic pregnancy is, James. You know it was failed from the beginning. When your sperm entered me and ripped me up slowly from the inside.”

I watched the anger bubble up inside him, then. “You don’t mean that,” it finally escaped as a chuckle. “You still have those hormones going.”

“Hormones?! I just lost my purpose in life.”

“So did I!”

“But you’re not the one who had to just go through that,” I screamed, the hairs on my arms rising with my voice. “Have some humanity! I just want my husband to comfort me right now, not fucking attack me!”

But all he did was turn back toward the wheel. He stared again at the black nothingness ahead, and it reflected in his eyes. We sat there, listening to our own hard breaths, until he finally spoke again.

“Humanity is defined by the ability to reproduce, isn’t it?” he said, and he turned the car back into the road.

I was too stunned to even respond. Had he just implied what I thought? Had my husband just diagnosed me with not being human anymore?

I was taken by rage. He had done this to me.

The continuing, torturous silence was shaken, thankfully, when my phone vibrated at my feet. I struggled, aching in every sense of the word, to pick up my purse and retrieve it.

“Hello?” I groaned.

“Lillian? This is Trish,” came Trish’s glossy voice from the other side. But she also sounded a bit more genuine, more normal now. “I wanted to say that I’m so, so sorry to hear about what happened. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”

I know you can’t, I thought.

“Thank you, Trish,” I said. “I appreciate it.”

“Do you need some time to yourself or do you have it in you-”

“Just lay it on me.”

“Okay. Well… we talked about it for a long time. It was difficult. Because we could really feel how passionate you are about the association, and we’ve appreciated having you so far. So… we actually came up with a possible compromise, if you’ll accept it.”

I felt the littlest fragment of life return to me.

“What kind?” I asked, leaning against the window.

“So, we have an official Facebook page, you might know. I like to keep it active, to attract attention. Like, post some content a couple times a day. But I wouldn’t mind that job being taken off me, if you want it,” she said. “It seems perfect for your… situation. You’re homebound, correct?”

“Right.”

“Well, since it’s online,” she said, “You won’t have to leave home to do it. And… since you’ll be behind a computer, and no one can tell who’s posting, anyway, no one will tell that you’re…”

“Not pregnant,” I said. It was such a pity offer, but I still appreciated it. I couldn’t believe that Head Mom Trish Barton was being more forgiving than my husband. “So… I just have to post as if I were pregnant? Or a mom?”

“Uh, exactly.”

“Well, okay,” I said, and then took in a cold breath. “Thank you… so much.”

“No problem. I’ll e-mail you more details in the morning, and you can let me know when you’re ready to start. For now, get some rest and feel better.”

“Thanks.”

The next morning, I went to the office computer and indeed found an email from her.

Hi Lillian, it said,

If you go to Facebook you’ll see I made you an admin for our page. That means you’ll be able to post to it under our name. Take a look at the past content, if you haven’t already, to get an idea of what kind of stuff is good. Articles about parenting are great, as long as it’s not ‘disciplining’ tips or anything too aggressive like that. Also please look for funny ‘memes’ about motherhood. Basically just fun, light-hearted stuff. Oh, and add appropriate captions, please.

Posts should go up once every morning and once every afternoon. You can start whenever you feel ready. Just let me know when that is and I’ll leave it to you 🙂

Take care,

TB

I can start today, I wrote her, or I may die of boredom.

I went on Google and looked up ‘parenting article’. I clicked on a page titled What to Expect When Your Child Starts Kindergarten.

It opened with an image of a mother and daughter smiling together.

Oh … god.

  1. You’ll want to keep track of all of the school activities and meetings and help out when you can, it said.
  2. Making friends with other parents will be a huge stress-saver.
  3. Your child may cry because they’re scared or because they miss you, but that doesn’t always mean that they don’t want to be at school.
  4. Your child will be a lot more tired than before. They may start to fall asleep in weird places. It will be cute.

As I read, the pain where my baby used to be flared up like a phantom limb. I couldn’t do this. I hadn’t realized how difficult this would be.

ECMA definitely didn’t realize it, either, though. They had been so kind to find this job for me. If I didn’t do it, I had nothing left.

I decided to just try a different route. I exited the article and Googled, ‘Mom memes’.

The first image was a simple illustration of a woman, accompanied by the text, That moment when you’re checking on your sleeping baby and their eyes open so you run before you make direct eye contact.

My eyes swelled and my hands contorted. Just hurry up and post it, I told myself, then you can go wallow under your covers again. I saved the image and put it up on the Facebook with the caption, Haha, I hate when this happens!

Pressing every key was like stabbing myself over and over.

I was still under the covers that afternoon when I heard James unlock the door. Thankfully, he fussed around cooking in the kitchen for a while before approaching the room.

“Lil?” he mumbled. “I made dinner.”

My brain foggy, I forced myself to get up and follow him to the dining room. He helped me sit down at the table. He’d set out steak and potatoes for us. Plus, a bottle of wine, with wine glasses. He offered me one.

“Thank you, the food looks amazing,” I said, “But not right now.”

“Why not?” he asked, uncorking the bottle. “You can drink it now.”

I stared into my lap and ran my tongue between my teeth. “What is this?” I finally asked, my voice sharp.

He sighed. “I wanted to make it up to you, after last night,” he admitted. “You were right. I shouldn’t have been fighting with you.”

I sighed, too, nodding. I was still hurt by what he’d said, but I didn’t want to bring it up. Clearly, he didn’t either. So we made dull conversation about his day as we ate. I avoided talking about mine.

When we finished, he took away the dishes and I went to the living room couch.

“What are you up to tonight?” he asked, entering from the kitchen behind me. “Want to see what’s on TV?”

“Could you get me my book?” I countered. “In the bedroom?”

“Sure,” he said. Then, “Why don’t you read in there? You’ll be warmer.”

“I guess, but I’ve been lying there all day.”

“I could help entertain you,” he said. He came up behind me and rubbed my shoulder.

I turned, looking up at him with a grimace. “You know I can’t have sex, James.”

He chuckled. “I mean, it’s actually not that big of a deal-”

“Except I’m really not up for it. In any capacity.”

He paused. “Okay, okay, just trying to be close with you,” he grumbled, before walking away.

Of course, I was going by what Dr. Schuster had told me–and James, as her peer, should have known better–but, in truth, I was most resistant for my own reasons. I just could not get that image of James’s invasive, destructive sperm out of my mind. I did not want his semen anywhere near me anymore, after what it had done to me. I was disgusted by it, by the very idea of sex with him.

Unfortunately, throughout the next few weeks, James continued to try to initiate it with me. And, as I continued to say no, he continued to get grumpier. Funnily enough, I couldn’t remember him ever being this horny before. It was interesting that he wanted to fuck me the most now that he didn’t consider me human.

Eventually, he got the message and he stopped pushing. In one sense of the word, that is. Instead, he began to push himself, sometimes, onto my healing abdomen while we were cuddling… to even, some nights, knee it in his sleep. But I suspected that he wasn’t asleep.

When I would go to the computer to post for ECMA, in the morning, I also started to find paused porn videos left open on the computer. I understood that James needed to get his urges out, somehow, but, like the kneeing, it happened just a little too often to seem truly accidental. This was another expression of frustration at me, then. James was rubbing in my face that I wasn’t satisfying him. He was showing me exactly who all of the younger, hotter women were that were getting him off.

I only really started to become afraid when the porn started to get violent. I would go to the computer to find images of women–though that wasn’t what they were being called, in these video titles–being stepped on, hit with things, choked. Their faces always showed distress or discomfort, and when they didn’t, it was because they were being shoved into a bag, trashcan, or toilet. At that point, I shouldn’t have been surprised that this was the kind of thing that James was into. But I felt that this porn might have become more than just a taunting… had it also become a threat?

I cried a lot during those weeks. Fearing for myself, what he might do to me in my sleep, I locked myself in the bathroom at night and slept in the tub. Weirdly, he never challenged me for it. He acted like everything was normal. He’d ask me how I was feeling. I would tell him everything was great, and he’d smile.

When I went in for my first check-up with Dr. Schuster (Aileen, she said to call her), she told me that I was behind in my healing. It was most definitely the kneeing, I knew. But I realized what I had to say.

“We had sex,” I told her. “I’m sorry.”

She shook her head. I felt a heavy shame for disappointing her, even though it had been a lie.

“I understand you want to try again,” she said, sitting down at her chair across from me. “It’s common for couples in this situation to have trouble dealing with it, at first.”

I wrung my fingers.

“I hope this isn’t intrusive for me to say, but… your husband has seemed depressed lately,” she continued, her wide face dipping a little. “He’d mentioned how many kids you two wanted… so I wanted to ask you how you’re doing, mentally.”

I looked back into her eyes. James and I had never actually talked numbers. Both of us adored kids, of course, but it had made sense to me to just take it one at a time.

I almost said nothing. “How many kids did we want?” I decided to ask. It came out grumbly.

“Pardon me?” asked Aileen.

“How many did he say we wanted?”

“Well… he’d said at least eight.”

I felt so heavily confused and disturbed, in that moment, like I could fall over–like she’d reached out and slapped me. Eight kids? Eight? Where the heck had he gotten that idea? My personal limit would probably have been half that number; why did he go around saying something so outrageous, when we’d never even discussed it?

I had an itch of a thought, and so when I got home, I did my own personal Googling. One of the results included a page in a women’s health blog, What is Reproductive Coercion?. I dismissed it at first, but the title kept chipping at me until I went back and clicked on it.

Have you ever heard of men obsessed with getting and keeping their partners pregnant?, the author wrote. Chances are that you haven’t. However, new studies have found that this form of domestic abuse is almost as common as are bruises and broken bones. Whether subtle or forceful, it is just another form of power and control that a man can exert over a woman’s body and life. He may be performing reproductive coercion if he:

  1. Sabotages your birth control. Maybe he’s lied about having had a vasectomy, or he ‘accidentally’ keeps ripping the condom, or he tells you that your birth control is making you fat. He might even escalate to doing something like rip out your contraceptive ring.
  2. Isolates you–limits your access to money and transportation. It may also be a strategy to prevent you from acquiring birth control. Or maybe he wants you to quit your job so that you can focus on being a mother (and be totally dependant on him). Isolating you can also prevent you from getting refuge from your family or friends.
  3. Verbally, psychologically and/or emotionally pressures you into having sex and/or getting pregnant.
  4. Uses violence or threats of violence to pressure into having sex and/or getting pregnant.
  5. Wants you continuously pregnant. He may attempt to make another baby either directly after you give birth (or miscarry), or as soon as your previous child begins kindergarten (and your schedule opens up).

A stinging, tingly feeling surfaced in my limbs as I read. It gradually got stronger, then moved to my core.

I sat, paralyzed, thinking back to the beginnings of my relationship with James. He’d been upfront about his traditional leanings, his need to get married and to have kids. I’d found it endearing, romantic—as I had his eventual suggestion that we run away together. Men with a passion for children are attractive to many women, including myself. And, because I’d shared his passion, I suppose that I had never had to face his wrath. Until now.

As Aileen had suggested, he was probably refusing to accept that I was now infertile. His obsession with sex was probably a desperate, delusional attempt to get me pregnant again. Either that, or he was panicking and trying to control me in other ways.

I almost scoffed at the predictability when I came to the computer, one morning, and found ‘pregnant woman porn’. Of course James had this fetish. And of course he was going to go down this road; this was the ultimate taunt, the ultimate display of what I could never be for him.

I should have grimaced and closed the tab as quickly as possible, of course. That was what I usually did. This time, though, something different happened. I stared at the image. Really stared at it.

The woman was leaning on all fours, her eyes jammed shut and her mouth agape, her inflated belly dangling pathetically. Her hair, a mess, fell partially in her face and was pulled partially back by the man fucking her from behind. I hit play on the video. The words suffer, you pregnant bitch clotted together in my mind.

When I finally did close the tab to get to my Facebook responsibilities, my bitterness lived on. It always did, when I did this work. This time, though, it was even more intense. It filled the room, now. Plus, now that it knew what revenge felt like, it wanted more of it.

I had a few notifications from comments on my latest pregnancy meme–one that had especially made me feel like killing myself. They were idiotic, tart messages like ‘sooo truuueee’ and laughing faces; god, I pitied these women’s children. Rage spiralled in my stomach, flashed underneath my skin as I stared down their profile photos in the same way I had the woman in the video. Their big bellies and smiling husbands made me wish upon them the same fate. I wanted, so horribly, for them to feel that humiliation for being pregnant. That trauma.

I realized that maybe I could get them close.

I logged out of Facebook and created a new account under the pseudonym Joe Coen. I then went back to the ECMA page and to the profiles of frequent commenters. I composed a message, which I sent to all of them:

Here’s where I’d like to see you soon 🙂

And I attached the porn link.

A few hours later, I received a call from Trish. When she said we needed to talk, my inner sanctum–the satisfaction I’d made for myself–imploded on itself. She knew that it had been me. Somehow. How? It made no sense how she would. Yes, I controlled the Facebook page, but it was also accessible to everyone. And the world was not short of misogynistic men who sent messages like that.

It was probably a coincidence, then. This was about something else. Still, the worry would keep me up all night if I didn’t talk to her today. I asked her to come over, preferably before my husband came home.

The low look on her face, when I opened the door, made my worry flare up worse. I invited her over to the kitchen. Her steps were careful. I was definitely in trouble. My mind ran in zig-zags, debating what to do.

I offered her a seat at the counter, and, when she denied a drink, sat across from her. I forced a smile. I decided that unless I was offered undeniable proof that she’d tracked me down, I would do just that–deny.

“So,” she said. She was still avoiding eye contact. She rested her French-tipped hand on the counter and cleared her throat. “I don’t know if you heard, but a lot of women from our Facebook received a really nasty message this morning.”

I widened my eyes and gasped. “Oh no,” I said. “Did you want me to do something?”

“That’s not why I came, no,” she said, and she finally looked back at me. “I’m here to ask you to tell me, completely honestly, if it was you.”

Her eyes pressed into me like a drill, making me shake.

“W-why would you think it was me?” I responded. Acting had never been a thing of mine.

“Because I had a miscarriage once,” she said.

My shock, then, was real.

“Surprise,” she chuckled, baring teeth. “Yes. I was pregnant once before Noah, and no one knows except my husband.”

“I’m sorry-”

“Don’t. I’m just trying to make a point,” she said, resting both arms on the counter now. She was shaking, too. “I had become such a mess, y’know. I hid it well, but I was super depressed for about six months, and… angry. Like, I hated pregnant women… moms in general. I had thoughts that… and, my therapist–yup, I have one of those, too–told me that that can happen when you miscarry.”

I swallowed, gripping my shirt.

“And so I can’t imagine how much worse it might be, for you, because…” she continued, pursing her lips and speeding up her blinking. “I thought about it today, and maybe having you do the Facebook may not have been the best idea. Right?”

I put my head down and nodded.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked. “If it was too much-”

“Because… I need… “ I struggled, putting my face into my hands.

“Do you have a support system?” she asked, quieter now. “Your husb-”

“Is that a line from your therapist?” I retorted.

“Maybe,” she said. Do you want his number?”

I looked back up at her. Chuckled. “Maybe,” I said, crossing my arms. “Now that I’m out of the mommy group. Now that everyone’s gonna hate me.”

She shifted in her seat.

“How about this?” she said. “I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.”

I found myself leaning back toward her. The heavy look in her blue eyes was filling me with some hope.

“And… I understand that you need friends right now. So, even though I’m gonna have to kick you out of the group…” she continued, “You can still come to our social events.”

“…Do I have to pretend to still be pregnant?”

She paused. “No,” she said. “That would be cruel. And… weird. And people would figure it out. Besides, they’ll understand. I’ll just warn them about your situation, if that’s okay, so that they don’t say anything… uncomfortable. But we’re capable of socializing with people other than mothers. We could even use it.”

I thought about it. “I don’t know if I’d be able to handle it, honestly,” I said.

“Well, you can leave if you really need to. But I really think that if you get to know them, you’ll hate them less.”

“Is that what worked for you?”

She nodded. “We’re having bake sale Sunday afternoon,” she said, then. “I could use some extra hands. Would you be able to help, or are you still out of commission?”

“I should be, but I really need to get out of the house.”

“Great.” She actually smiled. “Most of the women you sent those messages to will be there. I hope that you can make friends.”

That hot, sunny Sunday afternoon, I drove up to Trish’s place early. It was tall, multi-sectioned, with lots of big windows and a fancy BMW parked out front. As soon as I saw it, I sped up and drove down a couple of blocks to park. Then I remembered that I was also driving a BMW. I took several deep breaths.

Once parked (closer, now), I reached, with some pain, for the pan of date tarts in the passenger seat. I strained my way with it to her door. I had been expecting to see a table or two on her lawn for the bake sale, but there were already several rows of tables propped up, ready to be used. This might as well have been a baked goods convention.

The door was partially open, but I knocked anyway, and soon heard the approaching clacking of what sounded like wedges.

“Lillian! You came,” she exclaimed, with her IKEA-white smile. She was wearing a purply sundress and had done herself up all nicely. “You’re the first one here. Come in!”

I handed her the pan and she thanked me and led me to her kitchen. “I’m about to start putting things out,” she told me. I walked behind her through her large, wood-and-stone living room; her little boy and girl were playing quietly in front of the fireplace. Seeing them gave me a flash of cold.

The kitchen was more modest and cozy. The floor was yellow tile. To my left was a wooden table cluttered with baking supplies. Trish went around it to the counter against the wall. A multi-colored curtain hung on the window next to her.

“Oh, good, Rick put in the muffins,” she said, peering into the oven. My body tensed.

I got worse as more mothers arrived. Trish figured that I should be sitting down, because of my healing, so she set me up at one of the tables to sell things. That meant that I was approached by all of the moms wanting to offer something and those wanting to buy.

I tried to make conversation, and get to know them, like Trish had suggested–I really did. Unfortunately, my anger rattled so loud in my brain that I could barely hear anything that they said. When I tried to talk about myself, my jaw remained so tense that it barely even worked. It was pathetic, trying to speak. The woman across from me would always end up walking away in silence. That made me more irritated, though. Trish had told them what I was going through.

So, like the nauseating smell of the melting icing, every new addition to the party further constricted my throat. Every new belly, every new child on that lawn took more air out of me. The sights became too much. The conversations–about the school, about bedtime routines, breastfeeding–circled around me like hyenas. The laughter–fuck, especially when it came from a child–sounded like the ugliest cackling.

I found myself wishing agony on the pregnant women, especially. Stretch marks, saggy breasts, vaginal stretching–things that could lead their husbands to cheat on them. That cheating would mess up their children so bad that they’d become drug addicts and criminals. Yes. That would make me feel better.

The baby in my belly had, at this point, been officially replaced by a solid mass of pure fury. And, unlike my baby, this fury had a heartbeat, which I felt pulsing hard through my body. Unlike my baby, it was twisting, crying, and kicking.

“Are you doing okay?” Trish’s voice came floating above me. Suddenly I was back in the world. Self-conscious again.

“Yeah,” I managed, looking up at her.

“You don’t look it. No offense.”

That’s when I realized how sweaty I was. And also that I was shivering. Like a sick woman.

“This may have been too much too fast. I’m sorry,” she said. She waved me up and then led me back into the house. “Eliza, can you take over for Lillian?” she yelled. Once we were out of the sunlight, and away from all of the bodies and voices, I found myself gasping for breath.

“Do you need to lie down?” she asked me.

“No. Let me do something else,” I pleaded, heaving. I was still holding onto a stupid slice of hope that I could make it back into the group, one day. I needed to prove that I was still mother material–not just another child to be taken care of.

“Okay… well. I just made another cake. Maybe you can help me decorate it.”

I nodded, but cringed a little when we found Kate in the kitchen. I knew her from the group and from Facebook. She was young, Italian looking. Thick eyebrows, small belly.

“Hey! Glad you could make it,” Trish said to her.

Kate nodded. “I was just looking for you,” she said. “Sorry I’m late.”

“Right. How dare you have an ultrasound?” Trish giggled. Her smile then left and she got quiet.

Keep cool, Lillian, I thought. Please.

Kate looked at me. “Is everything okay?” she asked. “You two kinda rushed in here.”

“Uh-huh,” said Trish. “Lillian was just overheating.” In a sense, not a lie.

Kate and I smiled at one another, but as her eyes dug into me, my embarrassment deepened. She was definitely wondering if this had something to do with my miscarriage. There was nothing I could do to stop her from wondering it. I looked away and focused hard on the wall above the stove.

Trish walked to the oven, then, to take out the cake. She moved it from its pan onto an embroidered plate and then placed it on the table.

“It’s strawberry shortcake,” she said. “Just needs some whipped cream and strawberries.”

“Do you need any more help with anything?” asked Kate.

“Don’t worry,” said Trish. “Unless you want to help me clean up.”

Kate did. The women cleaned, chatting, as I sat silently decorating and trying to recover. Now that I felt like I had some breath back in me, my inner fire had, thankfully, blown out. The foundation to it was still there–a gaslight that could easily ignite another flame–but, for now, I was sane enough to question all of those horrible thoughts I’d been having. I held back tears.

“Lillian?” Trish ended up saying. Fuck, she’d noticed. “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” I tried to say.

“Do you want to call your husband?”

“No,” I demanded. Too quickly. A tear finally escaped. Child. I was a child. “He’s busy,” I said, in a diluted voice.

“Is that why you didn’t invite him today?” she asked, taking the seat next to me.

“Yes,” I managed, standing up. The cake looked good enough now, but I needed something else to give me an excuse not to look her in the face. I grabbed a knife from the other side of the table and started to cut it up.

“Lillian,” Trish protested, placing a hand on my arm. “If something was going on at home, you could tell me. That’s something we do for women here. We help. You know that.”

I stopped moving but the knife shook hard in my hand. Hers felt like soft tissue. I found myself turning towards her.

“Is it okay if Kate stays?” she asked me, slowly.

I nodded, swallowing some tears and snot. I had to accept it. I was still that sad little girl who just needed some friends.

Kate approached me with softened eyes.

“Sit back down, love,” she told me, placing a hand on my shoulder. “Tell us what’s wrong.”

I nodded again. Sniffing, shaking, I started to sit, and I reached to put down the knife.

“Have a piece of cake,” Trish told me.

“Yeah!” said Kate. “Or- I brought madeleines.”

 

 

 

 

BIO

Pascale Potvin is from Toronto, Canada, and has been writing since childhood. She is currently working on a budding book trilogy. She has also just received her BAH in Stage & Screen Studies from Queen’s University, where she has written a few award-winning short films. Some of her blog pieces can be found at onelitplace.com, where she works as an assistant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Countercurrent Me

by Mike Yunxuan Li

 

 

Movement I: Pre-Industrialization

 

1

After coming to Higher’s Private High School for just a few days, I noticed people here were essentially the same. Although they looked different, dressed different, came from different backgrounds, they all became indistinguishable from one another under the directional selection of job security. They were all “chill” and “easygoing”, they all laughed at the same memes, they all pretended to care about stuff, they all had this self-centered image of themselves, and most importantly, they all desired similar futures. Sadly, the things I thought were important for individuality, especially in this country: ability, self-actualization, and the courage to execute risks, were simply not visible in them. And yes, personality was not on my list. To me, personality was like DNA. Every cell in the body has the same DNA, but not all cells necessarily express all of their genetic information.

Then there is Epigenetics.

However, I couldn’t really judge these young adults too harshly because I was just like them, in a fundamental manner—well at least, until one day, something reminded me of that morning in the Pacific.

Kien was perhaps never as developed, and probably would never be as developed, but there was an inherent herby essence to it, a taste unique to Kien and me. The night was always filled with the brightest and loneliest stars, and from the top of our Kraser hills, we could see them twinkling above our heads, as if telling us they would always be there and our time together would forever lag. The walk from school to the mall and from mall to the subway station always felt sweaty in the breezy summers when lightning was imminent amidst the humid air molecules. The streets in the village were always lit with something. The areas that were dark felt just as creative because someone was with me, and together, the night transformed into a stage that simply served to highlight lights. Someone was always with me, and together we would look up to the blue ceiling, peek through street lights, explain road directions to foreigners, converse about anything, and through moments like these, memories were created, and now it hurt. It didn’t hurt because they were memorable. It hurt because they were only memorable.

That morning, 5 rows of Pexler tanks vacuumed our plantation. Pexler was like Ford. You knew where it came from just by looking at it. Our neighboring island, Kurston, wasn’t simply declaring a war on the state of Kien. They were sending a message—a message of completed industrialization and initiated New Yorkrization (westernization on steroids). I knew it would happen one day. The strong would be foolish to not swallow the weak.

Before the sun fully resuscitated from the seals of morning frosts, father jetted into my room. He had to be worried. Father rarely ran. He took my hand, and together, we scuttled out the back door into a nearby Kan forest. When we looked back, our mansion was gone. Bricks of black and white subordinated under the wheels of Pexlers. 20 acres of cash crops microwaved on the spinning plate of Kurston advances.

He put his hands on my shoulders and confronted my pupils with that once in a lifetime father to son seriousness, “We didn’t lose everything. Half of my wealth is in your mother’s house. Remember I’m the wealthiest farm owner in Kien? They only want me.”

The scent of his vinegary sweat, our kind of medicine boiling on stove, titrated by dirt in the smoke, was for a second the only vision of home and for a while, the only thing I could remember.

Bullets started raining down the forest. Long-tailed widowbirds woke up from their bowled nests and flopped into the air. Some got shot and fell to the forest floor. Others got injured and screamed like cats. Most escaped the forest only to be vaporized by the blue sears of Kurston flamethrowers, so horrifying yet hypnagogic, almost like a nightmare in a VR video game. Seconds later, the remaining strands of black tails realized their disconnections from bodies that no longer existed, and drizzled down one by one like kites whose strings had been cut—things that one would only see falling from the clouds in the obsolete tales of 2012 and the like. The volume was a long blackness that slowly encased Kan. Lines of professional K soldiers marched towards our direction.

He pushed me west.

My legs moved.

They paused behind a coconut tree.

He stepped out from the pile of banana leaves. The leader, dressed in grey cotton cloth, holding a fencing sword on his left hand, holstered his revolver and took out this photo from his front pocket. He placed it next to father’s face and smooshed his face with a magnifying glass over to the photo.

The first ordinary person that actually had an interesting story to tell was unfortunately not part of my first week at Higher’s. And that was a major problem. The seat across from me in chemistry class had been empty for days—the consequences of which was our group only had three members, a big reason for our snail-like progress on the project.

Just as I thought the seat would be empty forever, the unexpected happened. Ten minutes into class on Monday, the chemistry teacher spoke up for the first time since the initiation of our projects. “Guys, I want you to stop whatever you’re doing for a second.” His voice was extra smooth, like a mellow drumstick on timpani, which surprisingly produced pitch, which made me expect something. The classroom returned to its orthodox organization. I placed the periodic table in front of me in its default setting. I took off my steaming goggles and pushed the beaker aside with extra caution.

Inside the beaker was the essence of our project, the subject worthy of a Nobel Prize, the 7 inch Aplysia, a ditto looking sea slug, which I named Innocencie. Nobody really cared what it was called. It could be dabplysia and no one would give two dimes. Apparently, a professor from Columbia named Eric Kandel had done some extensive research on Aplysias half a century ago and used this little creature to show how memory and learning worked. In the past few days we’d been squirting water relentlessly on its siphon and repeatedly shocking its tail with voltages that were oftentimes uncomfortable even for us in order to examine the degree to which collateral axons had retracted or reframed. Long story short, the whole project was basically about torturing Innocencie on a daily basis to gauge out some numbers on a grid that had already been figured out by the Eric Kandel guy 50 years prior. I poured in a cup of sea water to keep Innocencie strong.

“I almost forgot, today is Remembrance Day. Let’s all close our eyes for a brief moment and remember all the loved ones in our lives,” he announced.

Someone raised a hand in the back. “When is the next legit holiday, like a day when we actually don’t have school?”

“The next staff development day, Justin,” he responded, which was basically a nicer way of rephrasing the legendary “furlough day.”

Tony shot me a glance from across the table.

Anna covered her face with her slender fingers.

Innocencie crawled a few inches upward like a slimy Virginia Creeper, his head breaking open the water surface, as if he wanted to participate in the remembering of someone too. Another cup of seawater went in and he retrieved to the bottom. Sensitization got him.

I closed my eyes. The taste of the ocean was at the tip of my tongue once again as Innocencie continued to exhale. Bubbles jazzed inside the beaker.

It was dusk when I reached mother’s place on the southern end of Kien. News of Kurston’s temporary occupation of the north had already spread like wildfire across the waterways of the commercial south.  The government was actively setting layers of defense lines near the Kranel Strait that divided Kien into palpable halves with the capital, Kannonbalver, situated conveniently on the southernmost tip. As our boat lumbered through the floating bellies of random carps, scratching foams against mountains of dying Warty Venus clams—a perpetual noise that could be felt through the vacillation in my shoelaces, I remembered seeing bridges incinerating in rainbow, from lipstick red to pumpkin orange, aloe green to death charcoal, the smoke overlapping all natural scents of sea urchins and abalones in the thin ocean breeze, boiling a family of seafood raw like a damn steam pot. The water was completely drenched in oil as if it was never an ocean to begin with.

The officers escorted us, the northern refugees to their main camp in Krunen, where we would sign a few papers and stay until jeeps could be arranged for our departure. While waiting for our rides, they greeted each of us individually, assuring that Kien would fight until its last soldier to preserve the holy capital from Kurston contamination. The president even burned all of Kien’s 132 steamships to manifest his determination in defending his citizens, whom he called sons from a different mother. I felt secured. In fact, most of us did. The Kranel Strait had been an insuperable natural barrier that coated the heart of Kien for the past however many years that Kien had remained an independent state. There was every reason on earth to believe we still had a decent shot. I mean who would not be optimistic when lines of blue-coated soldiers aligned the strait, converging Russian machine guns on that one port the Kurstons could possibly board from, when imported cannons dotted the shore, determined to dissect the bastards that took father into their atomic components, when the waters had been trapped, stockpiling potential energy to repeat the glory of the Battle of Red Cliffs, when the president was dedicated, ready to sacrifice his own life for ours?

I could still recall that moment of astonishment when I opened the door to her apartment. A man in grey uniform shoved a booklet up my face. “Passport United States of America,” it read. Before I could grasp it, something thunderous went off in the distance.

It came.

I dived forward, landed flat on the cold concrete when a zoom of light skidded down the lane, blowing a neighboring bungalow into ashes of rusts. I braced myself as a second rocket zipped along the adjacent driveway, liquidating the already rotted ashes into protonic particles of invisibility, as if killing a house once was not enough. The cochlea were unwiring their snaily shells, pupils in my eyes bleeding from the lights, and every major lobe in my brain hallucinating, and yet I remembered the lady in that house, who was no more innocuous than a single mother working 4 shifts for the sakes of 4 children, half of whom probably would have graduated from middle school next year. A wind blew, dusts whirled, rearranging shape of the bungalow, and a moderate photo of purple and yellow managed to escape into the open air of brown snow. It must’ve been her graduation photo—her smile, wide and innocent, as if she’d already found the media naranja of her life.

And then, it deteriorated in the already microwaved air, the air doing nothing.

The sky had its belly cut open by then. Blood falling, in sheets, clotted the only layer of ozone visible from here. Missiles and meteors and objects beyond recognition showered down the village, a tad syncopated, captured through the retinas like lenses of a slow motion camera, as if meant for Kien to witness the bullet down its own throat, through the esophagus, across some tubes, into the capital, and death. It was tragically beautiful like those constellational portrayals of heavens in animes and tear-inducing like those technological depictions of air-strikes in Hollywood films with melancholic orchestral backgrounds, except minus the melancholic orchestra in Kien. In the horizons, rows of familiar dots treaded over the sun-set plastered cornstalk shadows. They were headed for the capital.

I felt a tuck on my shoulders. Tony gave me a quick wink and closed his eyes and the guy in uniforms was still standing there with the Passport United States in his hands with his hands still on my shoulders. A scent of feminine pheromone brushed my cilia as the footsteps of milk dabbled inside the dark hallway. Go, she said. I looked up.

Precisely a week ago we were having coffee by the Kinanel Beach with me complaining just about everything in life, and a week later she still appeared calm and contained when our nation was literally on the countdown to death, when father was literally—

I hopped forward and clenched her legs. Father, I breathed. She stopped me. She told me she knew. The president was still here, the capital was still free, the thousands of blue coated warriors were still willing to die for us, and the Kraner Strait was still intact. Yes, the president had boarded Helicopter Plasma 1 for Keren, yes the capital was captured, yes Kien soldiers could not fight for us, because yes the Kraner Strait no longer mattered. The Kurstons had boarded from the south sea.

The smell of Innocencie’s jizz returned. The past, not in complete scenes, flashed through cortex like car lights through freeways captured from space.

“Mansen?”

“Sorry guys I forgot my makeup this morning. I look like complete shit right now,” she said. A sweet scent of perfume blew in our faces. The smell of the sea faded.

Every syllable in her voice was the Earth—distinctively feminine at the core and gradually more Justin Bieber masculine as it echoed to the crust. Lights and periodic table stood nice and firm in front of my fovea. Something, either the direction of the voice or the unforeseeable activities beneath the table, told me that the seat next to me had been filled. Our fourth member was here.

My eyes focused on the periodic table, zoomed in on H and He like they were her eyes. They frowned with such sorrow, pronouncing curls of eyelid doubles, as if I’d just heard the most Hollywood memory-loss tragedy. “Well, if you look like shit without makeup, then maybe that means you DO look like sh—” words found their ways out of the memory.

There was a second of silence. Actually no. There was a sharp inhale (indicative of speech), but she didn’t let it out. I understood. It wasn’t that she wasn’t mad, for she had to be mad. It was just not considered “chill” to be argumentative in a place where 30 self-conscious young men and women aligned themselves for judgments.

Tony nudged me from the side, “Bro, I think you went a little too far. I don’t think that’s…”

Seriously, she’d let us down for two whole days, and yet the first words she blabbered out had no “sorry” in it? Nobody cared about your little looks; we just needed your beautiful mind to contribute its beautiful worth. Plus, I didn’t even say shit! And also, people here are more sensitive than rabbits. Any comment slightly out of the ordinary will raise eyebrows, implying the typical “Huh? That doesn’t make any sense” in such a sassy and judgmental manner, as if they’re the ones that founded the magical wonderland of common sense itself.

Then there are only 3 forms of young people English: American’s sassy tone, English’s classed sound, and just the bleak inferiority of everything else.

Tony wasn’t a bad person, so I let go of the periodic table and said, “OK.” This little feud wasn’t really between us anyway. However, I was wrong about one thing when I turned to face this girl for the first time.

 

NOTE: This self-contained excerpt is from his novel, Countercurrent Me.

 

BIO

Mike Yunxuan Li is a rising junior at Cornell University majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Creative Writing and Spanish. he wrote his first YA novel, which is still in progress, right after graduating from high school. His poem, “Borrow,” recently appeared in Autumn Sky Poetry Daily and Better Than Starbucks. Through writing, Mike hopes to break down what we think of as “human nature” and “common sense” under the microscope to explore what’s actually logical from the habits we inadvertently exhibit as humans. Outside of writing, he loves playing Go, an ancient strategic board game, and classical music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Unconscious Authorship Inc.

by Cal Urycki

 

 

The rattle of fingertips on keyboards echoed in his head, like the pitter of fat raindrops against a window pane. He could tell by the tempo of the quiet clicks what sort of sentences were being typed: a long one filled with clauses, with short miniscule pauses whenever someone hit the comma button, followed by rapid rat-a-tat’s as the rest of the sentence materialized on the imaginary page in his head, one letter following another in quick succession. He could hear the lack of surety behind others, with long, languid pauses followed by even faster key strokes, trying desperately to make back up the time lost contemplating the next few words. His own sequence was a well-oiled machine. He had long ago eliminated the small pauses after periods, instead pushing onwards as if the sentence. had never actually stopped but was all one continuous thought one line of consciousness that could not be halted. by any amount of punctuation.

His only pause was a brief breath in and out after an indented line, a quick moment to refresh and then continue. He sat in a cluster of workspaces, each one only 5ft by 5ft, just enough room for a chair and desk with a keyboard, surrounded by high walls that prevented him from seeing anything beyond his square area. He had no screen to see the words he typed, he was only to continue and not stop until he was told otherwise, and he was good at it. He had found that special trance state in which his fingers moved without any thought. The movements had become completely involuntary and unconscious; his eyes would dart across an imaginary screen before him, looking far beyond the gray wall of his workspace.

Sometimes he imagined what sort of art he would create, was creating. He would, of course, never know if it was him or someone else that wrote the words that were eventually assembled, but he held on to the belief that he was responsible for some of the words, some of the bits that were called especially extraordinary by critics. It was April 27th, and a new text was due out in three days. He resolved to pick up his already blistering pace in hopes that some of his words might make the final cut and find their way into the text. He pushed his dexterity even further, eliminating punctuation altogether at times in hopes that maybe by producing a large volume of words he might increase his chances that one of his would be selected and eventually he heard a steady tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap and he knew he was repeating words which happened sometimes but he was never supposed to do on purpose in fact he was never supposed to type on purpose at all just move his fingers however they felt like moving and leave his brain out of the equation completely but he thought maybe now if there was a tap in the April text it might be his and he might finally have some proof that he was contributing more than the monkeys around him that just typed aimlessly without regard for pace or structure or beauty. He finally caught himself and stopped for a brief moment and shook those thoughts from his mind. He was supposed to leave the thinking to the Assemblers.

The texts each month were said to be amalgamations of all the sequences being created in the warehouse, but he had no way to really verify that, as neither he nor his coworkers knew what they typed, unless they tried to remember. Trying to remember often made one type with a purpose, which was one of the first rules of the job: don’t think. The Assemblers cut up long transcripts of endless walls of text that he and his coworkers created and stitched them into the most beautiful, definitive texts that he had ever seen. He read most of them, that is, he skimmed them enough to see that none of his passages had made the final cut and then put it up on shelf, never to be opened again. If he were being honest he hardly understood anything that came out in the publications. The punctuation was sometimes in odd places, thoughts seemed to run on forever, and there was never a concrete grounding, nowhere that he might find some footing as a reader. As has already been mentioned, even remembering what one typed was a dangerous proposition, given the chance that the text might become too self-aware. Each day a section of text was selected randomly by the Checkers, and should your text be found in violation of company rules, your job was the least of your worries.

He had seen employees removed from the typing floor by Checkers, and the looks of dread he saw on their faces were all that he needed to understand the dangerous risk he took by remembering his words. He thought they could never prove that his text was aware if he never admitted to it. What could they possibly point to in any of his texts and prove guilt? He was typing unconsciously for all they knew, and even unconscious words can become aware on their own, it didn’t mean that he did it on purpose or that he even knew that it happened.

Maybe the point was moot. Even if one day the compendium contained his words and his words alone, he could never take credit for his creation. He could never admit that he knew that they were his words, or how he knew them to be his. He wouldn’t even receive a pay raise. Many of his coworkers speculated that the monthly texts, given their continuity, were taken from the same handful of Typists each month, but giving out a pay raise would alert them to the fact that their words were being selected, and the knowledge that their words were being selected would spoil the magic of unconscious typing, a magic that the company was founded upon, a magic that had eliminated nearly every other mainstream publisher. The monthly compendiums contained more truth, more insight, more experience than any one author or group of authors could hope to muster on their own, even when working with a purpose. The numbers alone were too great to overcome. He slowed his pace back to its normal humming drone and continued, working hard to switch his brain back off and just type mindlessly, to ignore the record of text he knew he had just created and the danger it posed to his job and his well-being.

As the rattle of keys lulled him back into his comfortable trance, he heard a small discordant change in the sea of keystroke sounds. It started with a sudden stop in someone’s sequence, followed by rapid typing, panicked typing, typing that didn’t even care if it formed words anymore. That change sent waves across the sea of noise and others began moving more frantically, their pace desperate, pleading for something to rescue them from- he heard a noise that was not the deep methodic breathing of his coworkers or the chatter of keyboards. He heard the soft footfalls of rubber-soled shoes on the cold concrete floor of the warehouse. The same panic found his fingers as well. They moved as frantically as the others around him, trying to blend in with the others, give those shoes no reason to enter his square. As the footsteps grew nearer, their pace slowed, and he knew they had come for him. He had gone too far, and his remembering had finally caught up with him. The footsteps finally stopped, and he knew they were standing at the opening to his square, but he did not dare look behind him. He squeezed his eyes shut and continued to type, praying, wishing that they would just move on and go away, that they would see how quickly he typed and how many words he produced even if they were never that good and decide that he wasn’t worth the trouble.

He felt a cold hand on his shoulder and froze.

“I’m with the Checkers, you need to come with me.”

It wasn’t a question or a request. It was a precise command to be followed. He stood from his chair and turned to see a tall man in a dark suit standing behind him, stone-faced, eyes obscured by thick black glasses. He felt a lump in his throat and nodded. The Checker turned and walked back the way he had come, errant Typist in tow. The Typist peeked into the long rows of squares they passed while they walked. Everyone sat perfectly still, typing less frantically now. To those attuned to the tempo of keystroke clicks, an allegorical sigh of relief could be heard in the light taps as their fingers flitted from key to key without a care in the world. The Checker had found his mark, and it wasn’t any of them.

The Checker led him to the western wall of the warehouse, to a small inner building sectioned off from the rest of the warehouse floor: The Checkers’ room. Inside it was painted the same gray as the rest of the warehouse, but the desks didn’t have the same tall walls surrounding them. Men dressed similarly to the one that had retrieved him sat at the desks and pored over wide sheets of paper covered in miniscule letters. The men at the desks read the letters with apparent ease. He guessed that the thick black glasses they wore magnified the words somehow; no ordinary person could read words that small without straining their eyes.

“Go to Room C, I’ll be there in a moment,” the Checker said, pointing to a large ‘C’ painted over a doorway at the far end of the room. The Typist walked past three rows of desks towards Room C. It occurred to him how few Checkers there were. He thought there must be at least half as many Checkers as Typists, how else would they check all the words that were typed? Especially if his coworkers typed anywhere near as quickly as he did.

The door to Room C was open, and he walked inside, where he saw a metal table and a chair on either side. He took a seat at the far end of the room. It looked like the interrogation rooms he saw in crime dramas. Two Checkers would come in and do the good cop bad cop routine but as long as he played dumb he would be okay. He might still lose his job, but maybe that would be the worst of it if he didn’t reveal anything incriminating.

The Checker that removed him from the warehouse floor entered and pulled the door shut behind him. He had a manila folder bulging with papers in his hand. He dropped it on the table with a loud thud and sat in the chair across the table.

“You’re pretty quick, aren’t you?” the Checker asked, staring at the Typist with those impossibly dark glasses. Those glasses made the Typist squirm. In obscuring his eyes, the Checker appeared to the Typist something inhuman, separate from him, indifferent to his troubles. The rest of the Checker’s face betrayed no emotion, the Typist felt as though he was speaking to a machine, a vessel that was there to do a job, that never wondered or dreamed of creating art, of doing anything other than checking long pages of text.

“I don’t know how fast I type. I don’t really think about it,” the Typist replied. He gave himself a mental pat on the back for his response. He had to be extremely careful- revealing that he had any inkling of what he produced could be the end. The Checker stared at him for another long minute with a perfect poker face. He reached into the folder and removed the tall stack of papers. He glanced over the first one, following the lines with his finger.

“Sometimes he imagined what sort of art he would create,” the Checker read aloud. The Typist held his breath, trying to conceal any expression that might betray his recognition.

“Who do you think wrote that?” the Checker asked.

The Typist thought for a moment and then shrugged. “I guess it could have been anyone. That’s the point of unconscious writing, right?”

“So it could be you?”

“There are hundreds of us in that warehouse. It could be anyone.”

The Checker offered him a half grin and put the paper down. “I’m gonna level with you, if that’s alright.”

His breath smelled like a freshly burned cigarette, it reminded the Typist of smoldering ashes. He nodded.

“This sort of thing happens. It’s natural. We understand that. Our job here isn’t to hurt anyone or get people fired.” He rose from his seat and slowly paced from side to side as he continued. “I have a pile of proof in that folder there, and it doesn’t look good for you, buddy.”

The Typist squirmed in his seat.

“There’s two ways we can do this. You can refuse, and the company will sue. You’ll never work here, or anywhere else again.” He turned and leaned over, his hands on the table, his smoky breath less than a foot away from the Typist’s face. “Or you sign a confession for me now, and we make this problem go away. You go back and do your job, and don’t cause any more trouble.” He finally pulled away and sat back down in the chair. “It’s your call, bud.”

He removed another paper from the folder: a long, small-font legal document with a red ‘X’ beside a line that the Typist knew his signature was expected to appear beside. The document text was around the size of the pages he saw Checker’s poring over in the front room. He couldn’t have read the words even if he tried. The Checker handed him a red pencil, something that he had never seen in person. He took the pencil and clutched it clumsily, staring down at the document. He would be forfeiting his innocence, but in a way the document asserted his ownership of his words. They legally belonged to the company, of course, but he would have some sort of final proof that they were his words. Maybe they’d even appear in the Compendium. He wanted to ask if the confession excluded his work from publication, but decided against it. He pressed the pencil into the paper and scrawled an ugly squiggle of a signature, or what was meant to be a signature.

The Checker took both the pencil and the document from him and packaged it all back up in the folder.

“Is that all you needed?” the Typist asked.

The Checker reached into his jacket pocket and removed a thick set of black glasses and set them down on the table. “Put these on for me. I’ll be in to check on you in a few minutes.” The Checker turned and left Room C, shutting the door on the way out.

The Typist gingerly picked up the glasses and stared at them. They were impossibly black, and heavier than he expected. They weren’t made of plastic like other glasses, and he could hear a slight whirring of mechanical movement coming from inside them.

He took a deep breath and put them on. The material grew colder when it touched his skin, and all he saw was blackness. Eventually a small light grew in the corner of his vision and images flashed rapidly before him. He saw dozens of warehouses like the one in which he worked, all slightly different than the one before. He saw endless rows of square writing spaces, and then he rushed past them all, soaring just above the ground. He looked into each square and saw himself staring back, sometimes waving, sometimes smiling, sometimes crying. He felt his head throb as the images continued to flash across his eyes. He cried out and tried to pull the glasses off his face, but to no avail. They had fastened themselves the moment he put them on, and they didn’t so much as budge as he tore at them. He saw torrents of words, line after line of words that made sense, words that meant nothing, words that belonged together and words that he didn’t even recognize. They flew past him before he could read them, always averting his gaze just enough that he couldn’t see what they said, what they were trying to tell him. His head throbbed, and even when he tried to shut his eyes the images persisted, refusing to leave his senses alone. The pages eventually returned to black, to the nothing he saw when he put the glasses on. He sat, slumped in the chair, unconscious. The glasses slowly slipped from his temples and fell to the metal table below with a loud clatter.

***

            His heart raced as he typed faster than he ever had before. The words just came so naturally to him that it was as if he was transcribing something that he had heard a million times before. Each word knew which word was to follow, and so did he. He sped along, filling up imaginary page after imaginary page. He was sure he was finally creating something worthy of the Compendium, something he would be able to say was his own creation, even if only to himself.

He broke off the thought and during the pause he heard something he had never once heard in the warehouse: silence.

He paused again to confirm and indeed, it was completely quiet in the warehouse when he stopped typing. He thought to stand up from his chair and look around, but knew how obvious it would be that he was violating the rules if someone saw his head poking above the barriers. He glanced around his square and saw nothing out of the ordinary, but felt a paranoia creeping in. I appeared, for the first time since he had started the job, that he was actually alone. The calming drone of keystrokes was gone, like a white noise that had suddenly stopped. He heard soft footfalls on the warehouse floor. The footsteps finally stopped and he knew they were standing at the opening to his square, but he did not dare look behind him. He squeezed his eyes shut and continued to type, praying, wishing that they would just move on and go away, that they would see how quickly he typed and how many words he produced even if they were never that good and decide that he wasn’t worth the trouble.

He felt a cold hand on his shoulder and froze.

“I’m with the Checkers, you need to come with me.”

 

 

 

BIO

Cal Urycki is a young author from Central Illinois. He is currently attending Southeast Missouri State University where he is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing. He enjoys reading and writing fiction, as well as competing and training on the SEMO Track and Field Team. After graduation in 2019, he plans to attend an MFA program and continue writing.

 

 

 

 

0

Invasions

by Robert Douglas Friedman

 

 

I started my first real job the same year that Argentina invaded the British Falkland Islands.

My own invasion of New York City had thus far been a spectacular disaster. Base camp was the crusty kitchen table of a sublet apartment in Hoboken, where I sat circling want ads with increasing desperation. Every morning I would rise and prepare for a fresh assault across the river, my target visible beyond the sagging rooftops and rippling clotheslines of that scenic slum.

The defeats were piling up and a full retreat was imminent. Then I had one of my rare moments of luck. Which my new boss, Jonathan the news director, enjoyed pointing out.

“Know why I hired you?” he asked

We were in Jonathan’s office. It had glass walls that looked out over the perpetually frantic newsroom. A leather bullwhip hung on the wall behind Jonathan. He sometimes swung it above the heads of staff writers and editors.  More often, he cracked it against the door that led to the business department.  Jonathan didn’t like the business department.

He straightened his tie in the mirror behind his office door. “Because when I threw all three hundred resumes in the air, yours fell on this side of my desk.  Hand me that tie clip, will you?”

I tossed it to him.  It was a Mickey Mouse tie clip.

“What do you think?” he said as he fastened the clip. “Does it make a statement?”

“A clear one, yes.  It’s crooked, though. So you were swayed by my impressive qualifications?”

He straightened the clip and settled back down into the big leather chair behind his desk.  “Good.  Then I’m ready for my meeting with the advertising department.  Your qualifications?  Absolutely. I studied them day and night. What’s your name again? Ed?  Ted?  Fred? Doesn’t matter. You lost Dickensian waifs are a dime a dozen. We pay you with loose change from the vending machines.’

“Speaking of which, can I have a raise?”

“Yes – on the day after the day hell freezes over.”

“Sounds reasonable. Thank you for your continuing cooperation.”

Jonathan was the best part of the job.  He seemed more fictional to me than real, a New Yorker character brought to sudden life.  Jonathan ate at the Algonquin Hotel and the Russian Tea Room, was married to a beautiful French woman, commuted daily to his Connecticut home. He spoke fluent Russian and French, the result of his years spent as a foreign correspondent in Moscow and Paris.

Most amazingly, he liked me.

“Stay on top of this Falkland Islands thing for me,” he said, suddenly serious, his sharp gray eyes fixed on mine. “Monitor the newswires, keep an eye on all the telexes, read every newspaper and magazine. You’re my point man on this thing.”

A glorified copy boy was more like it. But it didn’t feel that way.

“This is a hot story. Pay close attention and learn, Douglas. It’s a great opportunity.”

 

Opportunity: that was the word I kept hearing. Mindy Lowenthal used it as she showed me around the newsroom. Mindy, an office temp, was in her late 20’s. She had long black tangled hair, a warm smile, and wore subtle perfume that lingered.

“Okay, listen closely,” she said. “This is your opportunity for a grand tour before everyone else starts showing up late as usual.  Over to your left are the clocks.  It’s part of your executive position to make sure they’re all on time.  You know, like when daylight savings comes.  Assuming you last that long.”

I looked at her. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

She shrugged. “You wouldn’t be the first person bounced out of here.  Or the last.” She pointed at the wall. “As you can see, we’ve got clocks for everywhere there’s a Global News bureau or correspondent. London, Tokyo, Moscow, Sao Paulo, that’s in Brazil in case you don’t know, Mexico City, Paris, and Geneva. I was in Geneva during my junior year abroad. Did I mention that I went to Vassar?  I’m beautiful and bright.”

“You forgot self-effacing.  What’s that window under the clocks?”

“You’re quick. I like that.” She leaned over and slid the little window open. “That leads to the telex room. The telex guys pass messages and news from the Associated Press through it all day long to Marcia and Tim, the domestic and foreign editors, who edit and rewrite the copy. You met them on your interview.” Mindy looked around and dropped her voice.  “Marcia’s a sour mean old witch and Tim’s a prissy little wuss.”

“Is that in their personnel files?”

She laughed. “It should be. You see that weird looking door in the wall behind your desk?  Under the big map with all the pins?  By the way, the map shows where all two hundred of our correspondents are located.  It’s been there forever. Some of those guys probably died during the War of 1812. That door is for the pneumatic tube system. Part of your job is to take the copy that Marcia and Tim churn out, stuff it into tubes, and send them through the system to all the different magazines in the building. You know – Business Day, Chemical Monthly, Aviation News, etc. And, of course, since your title is research assistant, your job involves a fair amount of research. The company library is downstairs on the 7th floor. You’ll get very familiar with it.”

I sat down at my desk. “How come you know all this stuff if you’re a temp?”

She fluffed her hair and noticed me noticing. “Oh, I used to work here.  I was Jonathan’s assistant. I quit to work on my Master’s at Columbia. I told you I’m bright. I come in whenever they need me. Like this week, they wanted me here because you’re starting.  Jonathan’s secretary, Debra, doesn’t have the time to train anyone, but really she doesn’t have the personality. You’ll see.

“Who else do you need to know about in this place?  Lisa is sweet but very conservative. She turns bright pink if you swear around her or talk about sex, so I do both. Victoria, she’s friendly but ambitious, though I think her main ambition is to snag herself a lawyer from the legal department on the 15th floor. She gets off on that floor by accident at least three times a day. Barbara, their boss, is a little ogre. She runs the business department like a feudal lord. Jonathan hates her. And Judy is her right-hand henchman.  Befriend them at your own peril, young knight. Did I mention that I’m in a Renaissance group?  I’m Lady Jane. No need to bow but please remember that I’m royalty.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.”

“Barry the photo editor is out today but you’ll meet him tomorrow. That will be an experience.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll see.”

“That sounds ominous.”

“Barry is unique. That’s probably all you need to know for now, except that if you ask me out for a cup of coffee after work, I’ll say yes.”

“I see. Well, thanks for the tour. I really appreciate it. And I look forward to that cup of coffee.”

She smiled. “Me, too. Glad to be of service. It’s always interesting to see how long the next one is going to last.  I give you maybe six months.  Possibly eight. Welcome to Global News.”

I had a new job and a potential date. Maybe my luck really was improving.

 

Debra also used the word opportunity during lunch.

“You’ve got a real opportunity to prepare for your retirement here,” she told me.

“But I just turned 22.”

“You’re right.  Maybe it is a little late. But you still have some time left.”

We were sitting across from each other in the break room eating Japanese food. Debra, who was dressed in black, had a Yukio Mishima novel in one hand and a pair of chopsticks in the other. She had barely finished the tiny portion of noodles in front of her. But then Debra looked like she rarely ate very much.

“I only read Japanese literature,” she said, “because their stoic sense of fatalism appeals to me.” She absently straightened her short brown hair.  “And my own highly developed sense of fatalism tells me that one day you’ll be old and sick and unable to work, so you should begin preparing for it now.”

I took a bite of my chicken teriyaki. “Can I finish lunch first?”

“Sure.  Don’t let me bring you down.  I always see the cloud inside any silver lining. And don’t bother to joke with me. I don’t have much of a sense of humor. Jonathan always tries to make me laugh but it never works. By the way, sooner or later, Jonathan gives everyone nicknames.  Want to hear mine?”

“Sure.”
“Charon. You know, from Greek myths.  The one who ferries the dead across the river Styx. Speaking of Jonathan, he wants to see you right after lunch. Remember to start your pension plan as soon as possible.  You’ll thank yourself later.”

 

Jonathan was hanging a basketball hoop on the wall as I entered his office.  It was a genuine hoop. A regulation-sized basketball sat on his desk.

“There he is.  Thank God I brought you on board. Your assistance in our organization is critical.  How are you at drilling?”

“I’m quite expert, sir.  My father is a dentist.”

“Excellent, Jeeves, excellent.  Drill me a fresh set of holes, will you?  I’ve never been good at these menial proletarian tasks.  I think I hit some wiring earlier.  Be careful, though.  I felt a distinct shock. I’d hate for you to become collateral damage on your first day. It could take hours to replace you.”

I drilled. We hung the hoop.

Jonathan stepped back and ran a hand over his balding head. “Looks good.  Looks straight. You may turn out to be invaluable. Now talk to me about the Falkland Islands.”

I sat down in the chair across from his desk and gathered the notes I took earlier in the library. The basketball flew past my head.  It made a satisfying swish and fell into the open file drawer beneath the hoop.

“First sighted by Spanish and Portuguese seamen in the 16th century,” I began, “the Falkland Islands were visited by a British expedition close to 100 years later and claimed for the crown.”

Jonathan closed his eyes, lowered his head, and pretended to snore. “Fascinating.  Wake me when you reach this century. Always remember that nobody wants old news, Douglas. Hence the first three letters of the word ‘news.’ Pass me that ball.”

He caught the ball one-handed, spun his revolving leather desk chair around, and tried a backward shot over his head. It bounced a few times on the rim and then went through the hoop.

“Nice shot.”

“Of course. Continue.”

“On April 2 in  this year of our Lord, 1982, the Argentine navy landed on the Falkland Islands with thousands of troops and seized control.  The underlying goal may have been to distract everyone in the country from their economic troubles. Inflation is over 600%.  Manufacturing is down.  Jobs are impossible to find. There’s growing civil unrest, mass union demonstrations, etc. For obvious reasons, the military junta is not very popular, and their political opponents seem to disappear on a regular basis.”

“Not the site for my next vacation, in other words.”

“Seems like it might be an acquired taste.  On April 3, the Argentineans seized two associated groups of islands, South Georgia and the Sandwich group. Also on April 3, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 502, which calls for the withdrawal of Argentine troops from the islands and an immediate end to hostilities.”

“Which ain’t happening.”

“No, sir, it is not.”

“And that’s where we stand today?”

“It is.”

“Your assessment?”

“Imminent war.”

“I agree.  You’ve done your homework, Douglas, and quickly.   Good job.  I’m quite serious. I’m impressed. I’ve already dispatched one of our most experienced correspondents, Dan Burke, to cover events down there. Your research confirms that I made the right decision.”

I felt like cheering, or at least grinning from ear to ear.   I did neither.  It would lack coolness. Instead, I  picked up the basketball and took a shot from the corner of the room.

I missed, of course. I was not Jonathan.

He shook his head and frowned. “Better practice that jumper, Corporal, or we’ll never have a chance against Navy next week.”

“Will do, sir.”

 

Marcia, the foreign desk editor, was not pleased about Jonathan’s new pastime.  She and Jonathan shared an office wall.

“What the hell is he up to now?” she asked.  Her voice held the raspy memory of many cigarettes.

The wall shook as Jonathan took another shot.  “Jesus Christ,” she muttered.  “The shit I have to put up with here.”

She turned to me and forced a yellow smile. Marcia was probably in her 40’s but looked 60. She had bad skin and a worse dye job.

Spread out on her desk were dozens of index cards with contact information for foreign correspondents. Marcia had indecipherable handwriting so she was the only one who could read whatever she wrote. I believe she viewed this as a form of job security.

“Well, Douglas, how are things coming along?”

“Fine,” I replied.

“Are you enjoying your first day here?”

“I’m glad for the opportunity.”

My answer seemed to please her. “Keep in mind that you can learn a lot. And not from Jonathan. It’s people like me in editorial who can teach you what you need to learn.”

“Sounds great,” I told her.

“Here’s the first thing you should learn.” She looked around to see who might be listening and gestured me nearer. “I don’t like Tim,” she whispered, “and he doesn’t like me. So even though we sit next to each other, I’ll need you to deliver the notes I write him. Just take them from my outbox and put them in his inbox. That way he and I never have to talk.”

Amazing. “Okay. No problem.”

She looked pleased. “You’re adaptable. I like that. I think we’ll get along just fine.”

 

Barry, the photo editor, did not feel the same way. He looked me over from head to toe the next morning as I entered the office and hung up my raincoat, an expression of angry contempt on his bearded face.

Barry was about a foot shorter than me and at least fifteen years older.  He looked like an outraged leprechaun.

He continued staring as I sat down at my desk with my morning coffee and bagel.  You could buy both from a café called Fritzl’s on the first floor.

“How old are you?” Barry demanded.

I unwrapped the aluminum foil around my toasted bagel. The cream cheese was nice and creamy.  “Twenty-two.”

“Nobody’s twenty-two.”

“Okay, fine, I’m not twenty-two.”

“Glad to see you have the courage of your convictions.”

I took a bite of the warm bagel. “Hey, I’m just being agreeable.  I don’t like to upset my feeble elders.”

He glowered at me and then grinned, running a pale hand through his ginger beard.  “Heard you were a smartass.  Okay, I like smartasses.  Even if I do have socks older than they are.”

I washed the bagel down with some coffee. “You might consider shopping.”

He snorted. “And you might consider where I was when I was your age.  I don’t like you for it.  I resent you.  I truly do.  You’re a smartass, I like smartasses, but I resent you. You might as well know it.”

I wiped some cream cheese from my face. “Thanks for the update. Where were you at my age?”

“I was hauling my skinny ass through the jungle while the Viet Cong tried to kill me in fifty different ways.  Bombs, bullets, bungee stakes, you name it. I was infantry. No college deferment for this poor boy from the Bronx. Nossir. Just basic training and then a swift trip to the heart of darkness.”

“Conrad.”

“Yeah, you’re right, Joseph Conrad. A reader, yet.  Probably have a friggin’ English degree. I used to read a lot, too. Sometimes I’d even take a day to read when I was on R&R.  After all the drinking and whoring I’d sit down and make my way through Tolstoy, Hemingway, Crane. I read about war.  Then I lived it.”

I finished the first half of my toasted bagel and started the second. They’re best when still warm.

“One time,” he continued, staring into the distance, “I went back to base camp, and I was all clean and shiny the way you are now, fresh from my time off, relaxed, you know, I’d had my ashes hauled and had this calm demeanor, and I saw this guy, a buddy, Earl was his name, we were in basic together. Earl. Earl from Alabama.  Fucking Earl. He was sitting there drinking his coffee, just like you are right now, and eating something, just like you’re munching on that bagel, and we were talking, and the next thing I knew old Earl’s head had blown up and his brains and skull and blood were all over my clean uniform, it was some sniper out there in the shadows and no more Earl.  So long Earl. Dirt nap for the Earlster.”

I put down the bagel. My appetite was gone.

Barry grinned at me as the rest of the department started arriving.

“Remember, I don’t like you,” he told me.

“Got it,” I replied.

 

What did I think of these people?  Like Jonathan, they all reminded me of characters I had met before in a novel or a movie. So did the other residents of our 50-story midtown building. Global News was just one department in a huge multimedia conglomerate that was more like a Wall Street firm than a publishing house. I was surrounded by carefully groomed executives wearing custom-made Italian suits, elegant women of independent means who worked just for the fun of it, scruffy foreign correspondents with their ties undone and rumpled Burberry raincoats casually tossed across their shoulders.

The correspondents would visit from Nepal, Burma, Egypt, Peru and other exotic locales and sit in Jonathan’s office sharing news and gossip in equal measure. I would watch as he smiled, shook their hands, and sent them off to cover breaking stories in Rome, Jerusalem, or Helsinki.

I was nothing like any of these people. I was from a small town and had attended a small state college. If they thought of me at all, it was as a  recent graduate with a typical corporate future. But I knew that I was different, and young, and that my future would be my own. Meanwhile, I studied them like an anthropologist doing field work in the wilds of Borneo.

 

Mindy was right about Tim, a slight, fastidious man who seemed frightened of Marcia despite his earlier experiences as a foreign correspondent in war zones. I didn’t blame him. Marcia scared everyone but Jonathan, who delighted in annoying her.

Mindy was also correct about Barbara, who ran the business department with an iron fist and was prone to sudden bursts of rage. “A thousand dollar expense I can hide!” she shouted at her assistant Judy one day. “But not five thousand dollars! What the hell was Jonathan thinking?”

I knew what Jonathan was thinking because he told me. We were in his office during this outburst and overheard every word.

He shrugged. “What can I say?  It costs money to cover a war. The bribes alone are a fortune. Burke is doing a great job and we can’t leave him high and dry.” He took a deep breath.  “Okay, bring me up to date on this nasty little confrontation, Steinbeck.”

Jonathan had learned that I enjoyed the novels of John Steinbeck. My official nickname was now Steinbeck. I admit that I kind of liked it.

Every day, I reviewed the Associated Press newswire stories as they printed out from the teletype machine – literally hot off the presses – along with dozens of newspaper articles and magazine stories in the library downstairs.

I also read Dan Burke’s informative dispatches from Argentina. I was really starting to like Dan, who wrote with clarity and compassion about both sides of the worsening conflict. Dan had a feel for everyday people and how traumatic events affected them. He was only five or six years older than me and taking risks that I wasn’t sure I would ever be brave enough to take.

I cleared my throat. “On April 25th, British forces retook South Georgia Island and captured an Argentine submarine. They also sank an old Argentine battle cruiser, General Belgrano, with a nuclear submarine. Fierce battles broke out between the British navy and the Argentine air force. On May 4, yesterday, the Argentine forces sank a British destroyer, the HMS Sheffield, but Dan estimates that Argentina has lost 20-30 percent of their air force. The main British forces are on their way across the Atlantic.”

“In other words – escalation,” said Jonathan. “Prediction?”

“Argentina is about to get its ass kicked.”

“Agreed. And so are you if you don’t get out of my office. I need some alone time for my afternoon nap.”

“I’ll try and keep it quiet out there.”

 

Hoboken’s future looked a lot brighter than Argentina’s. Gentrification was in the air. Old brownstone buildings that you could buy a few years earlier for $20,000 were  getting snatched up for six-figure sums. The fruit trucks selling fresh produce on side streets and the old Italian delis and the barbershops and the shoe repair stores and the pizzerias were disappearing as law offices and condo developments sprang up. On Washington Street, which ran through the heart of town, sleek late-model Saabs and Honda Preludes were replacing the clunky American junkers that once filled every parking space. Maxwell’s – a hot new club where you could eat a bad meal while listening to indie-rock bands like the B52s, REM, and the Feelies – was turning away eager customers.

Even the drug dealers who did business around the Steven’s Institute campus every night could feel the change as a flood of new customers increased demand and diminished supplies. My downstairs neighbor, a drug dealer named Raymond, was not happy with the situation.

“Those yuppies are a pain in the ass, man,” he told me, scratching his neck. “They want designer goods and the profit margin on that product line is minimal. I’m starting to wonder if I took the wrong career path.”

“It’s a possibility,” I told him.

In the mornings, I would walk the cramped Hoboken streets from my apartment to the bus stop as the intoxicating smell of chocolate hung over the city. Sometimes I followed my nose to the source, Lepore’s Home Made Chocolates, where they crafted delicious candy fresh every day and you could get a warm breakfast croissant with dark chocolate melted inside.

My regular bus driver was an aspiring stand-up comedian who tried out jokes on his passengers every morning. We would boo or cheer each joke as he took notes on our responses.

“Thanks for your help, everyone,” he would announce over the sound system as we arrived at Port Authority Bus Terminal. “Come by and see me this Saturday night at the Improv.” But we already knew his whole act, so why bother?

 

Hoboken was changing and so was I. Within a month, I fell into a work routine that felt like I had followed it for years. I would hop off the bus and walk across town past the porn shops and bait-and-switch electronics stores to our building at Sixth Avenue and 48th street, weaving my way through the sidewalks crowded with other morning commuters. The women all wore sneakers and carried their dress shoes in shoulder bags, and the men all had newspapers folded under their arms. Homeless people rummaged through garbage cans, waved their arms, muttered, shouted, and begged for cash. Cabs accelerated into turns and pedestrians scattered like schools of frightened fish.

I would pass the High School of Performing Arts, where students often danced and sang for passers-by just like their fictional counterparts did in the movie “Fame.” Then I would march north through the perpetual wind tunnel of Shubert Alley where bright playbills left behind after last night’s shows fluttered and circled in the breeze like lost tropical birds.

My work day began at 8:30 am and ended at 4:30 pm, and every day was pretty much the same in our dysfunctional office. I now understood why nobody lasted in this job. It wasn’t the work. It was the vicious bickering. On Fridays, the staff would adjourn to a local Irish pub called Molly Bloom’s for drinks and more drinks, but I always politely declined the invitation. Eight hours a day with this crew was more than enough.

The stressful daily grind that had become my life was disrupted one Wednesday afternoon when my parents dropped in from New Jersey for a visit. They were the last two people I expected to see strolling into the lobby. I was on my way back from delivering a package to the basement mailroom when I spotted them, my father towering over everybody else and my mother smiling beside him. My mom wore a new black dress and my dad a blue blazer with gold buttons. They were holding hands.

“Hello there, young man,” my father said. “Surprised to see us?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Shocked, actually.”

I was also shocked by how glad I was to see them. “What are you guys doing here?”

My mother’s smile grew bigger. “You look so professional in your business clothes. So grown up. We’re going to see a matinee of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Your father thought it would be nice to see where you work.”

“How about it?” my father asked. “Embarrassed to be seen with your old parents?”

“Speak for yourself,” said my mother. “I’m not old.”

“It’s a figure of speech,” my father said.

“Well, you figured wrong,” my mother said.

I laughed. Surprisingly, I was not embarrassed by them at all. Maybe I really was grown up.

“Come on,” I said.

We rode the elevator to the 37th floor while my father rattled off statistics about my employer. He was a business teacher and always did his research. My mother the nurse was fascinated to hear there was a fully staffed company medical office on the 12th floor.

Everyone was very gracious in the newsroom and my parents were duly impressed by the clocks on the wall, the big map, the constant clattering of typewriter keys. Jonathan, who was taking a phone call in his office, waved through the glass and then finally emerged to shake my father’s big hand.

“We’re very lucky to have Douglas here,” he said. “I just wish he’d stop stealing from the pension fund.”

My father laughed. “I think I like this guy.”

My mother turned to me. “I’m very disappointed in you. Didn’t I raise you not to get caught when you steal?”

This time Jonathan laughed. “I see where Douglas gets his sense of humor.” He gently shook my mother’s hand.  “Your son learns fast, gets along with everyone, and will go far.”

My parents were thrilled with this glowing report and went off to their matinee in high spirits. I sat down at my desk feeling better than I had in a long time.

Barry looked up from the photographs he was reviewing and grinned. “Your folks seem like nice people,” he said. “I’m adopted and never knew mine.  And I still hate your guts.”

“Understood,” I replied.

 

I didn’t feel good for very long. Dan Burke was missing.

“Needless to say, I’m deeply concerned,” said Jonathan at our weekly staff meeting.

British forces had landed on May 21, which was also the last day we received a dispatch from Dan. It was now May 23 and the ground fighting had grown intense.

“There goes five thousand bucks down the drain,” muttered Barbara.

Jonathan turned to her. “Excuse me, Barbara? Did I just hear you correctly?”

She hesitated. “I certainly hope Mr. Burke is alright. But the cost remains an issue.”

I’d never seen Jonathan angry before. “I sent him down there and I hope like all hell that he’s okay. So please spare me the callousness and sarcasm. This is a man’s life we’re talking about here.”

“And spare me the condescension,” said Barbara. “I’m trying to do my job and keep this department financially solvent despite constant undermining. I’ll be in my office if anyone needs me.” Nobody else said a word as she slammed the door behind her.

Jonathan stared at her closed office door for a long moment and then shook his head. “Marcia, please reach out to our contacts in Argentina and see if we can get any word about Dan. Ask them to check all the local hospitals. Meanwhile, we have a coverage vacuum. Any suggestions?”

Marcia frowned thoughtfully, although it was hard to tell since frowning was her usual expression. “I’ll look into it and see if anyone is available.”

“Please do. Thank you. That’s it for today’s meeting, everyone. I’ll keep you all informed as we learn more.”

 

Dan Burke wasn’t the only person missing. Also off the grid was the woman who sublet me her Hoboken apartment, a former NYU business major and apparent criminal who was nowhere to be found.  Unfortunately, she had not forwarded my rent payments to the landlords, Ernest and Catherine, who lived on the first floor and until now had been very friendly. They were so friendly that I always snuck past their doorway to avoid getting dragged into a conversation with this pair, who addressed me endlessly about different exciting topics like the weather while ignoring each other.

Ernest and Catherine were no longer friendly. In fact, they were now threatening to evict and sue me.

“That’s rough, man,” said Raymond the drug dealer when I ran into him one morning. I was on the way to my job and he was on the way home from his job. “But I’ve always liked your apartment more than mine, so it could be good news for me.”

“Thanks a lot,” I replied.

He smiled and yawned. “Hey, I’m just busting your balls, dude. The rumor is they want to sell the place fast and cash in on the big real estate boom. That’s pretty funny since they had seventeen fire violations the last time the building was inspected.  It’s even funnier since Ernest used to be the fire captain. The point is, they’re eager to get rid of us both. If I were you, I’d use this information to arrive at a mutually satisfactory resolution to your dispute. I plan to do the same.”

“I appreciate it. I will.”

Mindy was missing, too. We never got together for coffee because she met someone in her Renaissance group who quickly became her new beau. He was an earl or maybe a duke. Whatever his title, he swept Lady Jane off her feet and they were now probably living somewhere in a drafty castle on the Scottish moors, or maybe in a one-bedroom coop in Flushing. Who knew?  Who cared?  I was worried about Dan Burke.

The Falkland Islands war was no longer a distant geopolitical event with a wide range of contributing factors for me to research and discuss with Jonathan. It was real. Dan could be horribly wounded or dead along with thousands of others. I hadn’t given mortality a whole lot of thought before but I was starting to understand the brutal fact of it. Dan’s parent’s phoned every day and Jonathan took those calls. He looked somber and drained every time he got off the phone with them.

Mortality didn’t seem like much of an issue to Tim the domestic desk editor, though, who had volunteered to replace Dan in Argentina and was now winging his way south. Tim was an experienced correspondent, spoke fluent Spanish, and was willing to report from a war zone rather than continue working with Marcia and the rest of us here in the main office. I didn’t blame him.

Jonathan asked me to help cover the domestic desk until he could find a replacement for Tim. This new role involved greater interaction with Marcia. Her limited tolerance ran out almost immediately and it wasn’t long before she was sending me notes via her outbox rather than talking to me. This was not a great loss.

Finally, after some very long weeks, word came about the fate of Dan.

 

“I have some great news to share,” announced Jonathan as he emerged from his office with a big smile. “Dan Burke is alive and well.”

The office erupted in cheers. Even Marcia looked happy. I was surprised to feel tears in my eyes and roughly brushed them away before anyone else noticed.

“He’s currently being held in a British detention area,” Jonathan continued. “Apparently, he lost his press credentials in the middle of the fighting and was captured along with thousands of Argentinian soldiers. He suffered minor injuries but is otherwise no worse for wear. The U.S. State department has contacted his family and is arranging for his release.”

Jonathan paused. “While I have everyone’s attention, I’d like to make another announcement. As some of you know, I was recently offered the opportunity to take over as the editor-in-chief for one of our magazines, Business Management News, which is headquartered in London. I’ve accepted the offer and will be leaving at the end of next week. It’s been an adventure working with you all. Thanks so much for your support and hard work, especially during this difficult time. Douglas, do you have a moment?”

I followed Jonathan into his office and closed the door behind us.

“I know my imminent departure comes as a bit of a surprise,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, “it sure does.”

My tone of voice gave me away and Jonathan looked at me. “I was sworn to secrecy, Steinbeck. Only a few people in the business department were informed.”

“Okay. I understand.” But I didn’t really. He had hired me while knowing that he was about to leave. That wasn’t exactly a crime but he could have told me the truth. I was trustworthy. Besides, I thought we had a mutual respect thing going on.

“Good. The reason I asked you in here,” he continued, “is that I’d like to make you an offer. You’ve done an excellent job filling in after Tim’s departure. So how would you feel about taking over the position of domestic desk editor?”

“You mean keep working with Marcia? How much of a raise are we talking about here?”

He didn’t smile. “Unfortunately, our budget doesn’t support a raise. But, of course, a promotion like this would put you on a great career path.”

“And what if I chose to remain in my current position?”

“It’s no longer an option. We’re combining the two roles.”

“I see.  Twice the workload, no extra money, and I’d have to work closely with Marcia? That’s quite a path.”

“It’s still a great opportunity, Steinbeck.  And, yes, you would work closely with Marcia. I know she can be difficult but Marcia is really rather knowledgeable. You could learn a great deal from her.”

I couldn’t believe he was saying this stuff to me, or that he was handling me in the same smooth way I’d seen him handle other people. But then Jonathan was a company man and leaving behind a fully staffed department would make him look a whole lot better to upper management.  So would the cost savings of using me at the domestic desk instead of someone more experienced and expensive.

“Yes,” I said, “her people skills and patience are legendary. Maybe I should have gone to the Falkland Islands with Tim. A war sounds like more fun.”

Jonathan frowned. “Think seriously about this offer, Douglas. You have a few days to decide. Bear in mind that it’s career suicide at this company to turn down a promotion.”

“Understood,” I said. “I’ll give your offer all the consideration it deserves. Thanks very much for thinking of me. I really appreciate this potential opportunity. And congratulations on the new job.”

Jonathan wasn’t the only one around here who could handle people.

He grinned. “Thanks. This has been in the works for a long time and it’s a challenge I look forward to taking on. Plus, on a personal note, my wife’s family is in Paris so we’ll be just a hop, skip, and a jump away from them. Happy wife, happy life, Steinbeck.”

“Good to know.”

What could I say?  Don’t go because it’s been great fun working with you despite the fact that you were playing me the whole time?  Stay here because Marcia is the midnight spawn of Satan and working with her will destroy my mortal soul?  Life was too damned short to worry about any of it.

I picked up the basketball and took a final shot at Jonathan’s hoop. The ball swished through the net. It felt good to be on target for once.

“I’ll get back to you soon,” I told him but I already knew my answer was no.  I had been invaded. It was time to beat a hasty retreat before I got captured.

 

 

 

BIO

Robert Douglas Friedman’s short stories and humor pieces have appeared in Story Quarterly, Narrative, The Satirist, Boomer Lit Mag, Jokes Review, Penny Shorts, Literally Stories, and many other publications. He is the founder and president of Raising the Bar Media. Robert lives and works in New Jersey.

 

 

 

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Lightning

by Cleo Egnal

 

7 September, 1940

She drummed her fingers softly on the worn oak of his writing desk. It belonged to his father, he had mentioned that once, but the details and context of the conversation were lost to her. She tapped rhythmically, playing out a tune that got itself stuck in the recesses of her mind. A sharp pinch of memory reminded her that he hated when she did “that blasted thing” with her fingers when she was nervous. Out of belated courtesy she folded her hands together and rested the shape in her lap, trying to keep her buzzing body steady. He wasn’t there, of course, to reprimand her absentminded habit, but she thought it polite, regardless, to cease her nervous tapping. Maybe she was worried he could hear it, wherever he was. Maybe they were that connected.

The tune, faded and distant and blurry, somehow, continued to dance around in her head; she tapped (her foot, this time) in time with the nonexistent music as she blocked the sounds of sirens and checked the clock again. He was late. And bombs were falling.

They had spoken earlier that afternoon about what to have for supper, but never decided. The thought, when it occurred to her, prompted her to move from where she had been sitting, sorting through mail like she always did right before he came home to her, and make her way to the kitchen. The sirens grew louder (or had she just started really paying attention?) as she made her way without thinking through the flat.

As she stared at the empty plates set out on the small square table in the corner of the kitchen, trying to orient herself and remember what exactly it was she came into the room to find in the first place, she thought about whether or not he was hungry. They usually ate together at six-thirty; they were both punctual about things that way. Well, she only was when it came to food. He could have been made of gears and ticking clocks, though, the way he navigated time effortlessly and always managed to arrive exactly when needed, or intended. She constantly found herself wanting to be somewhere and only arriving when the odd workings of the universe finally allowed her to find her left shoe. He wasn’t like her in that regard. So it was odd, terribly odd, that at eight-fifteen the plates were empty and the kettle was screaming and her reliable clock was broken.

She snapped her fingers as she recalled her purpose for venturing into the kitchen; she meant to turn the kettle off before heading down to the shelter. It was shrieking, the kettle, that was what reminded her; it was a miracle its voice didn’t get lost in the droning sirens. She wondered why the sirens had to blare on so incessantly. Surely one or two warnings would be enough. But no, it had been going on too long and her ears were ringing and as she turned the knob on the stove all the way to the right, and as the kettle began to quiet and all that was left was the slight sizzle of boiling water, she wondered what would happen if she just stayed. He would be confused, after all, if he wandered in and she was nowhere to be found. She couldn’t very well duck into the shelter without him, he wouldn’t know where she’d gone. He’d be standing in the foyer, absolutely muddled.

Of course, this was all fanciful thinking. He could hear the sirens just as clearly as she could (although she wished sometimes she couldn’t, they were completely bothersome at times) and would know immediately where to find her. But something about him coming home to an empty flat made her incredibly sad, she didn’t know why, and so she contemplated staying. She could make them both some tea — after all, the kettle had been prepared — and reheat dinner and he would come home to a warm meal instead of wondering if she was still in one piece. She supposed that was what she was wondering, at the moment. If he was in pieces somewhere, bits of him scattered throughout the city. She imagined a corner of his ear carried by the wind through Trafalgar Square, right by his office, while his ring finger headed south along the dusty streets toward Whitehall. She imagined his pinky toe sauntering off to Charing Cross to catch the train home, unaware that it had lost the rest of him. She imagined this all somehow detached from the idea that it was entirely possible he wasn’t, at the moment, whole.

Her instincts for self-preservation proved stronger than her worry at him coming back to an empty flat. After a few more moments of wandering around, waiting for him, she grabbed the basket filled with snacks and knitting and old magazines she had begun keeping by the door, threw the first thing she saw on the coat rack over her shoulders, and headed out toward the building’s air raid bunker. She brushed aside the creeping heat of fear that was making its way up the base of her spine and turned her thoughts instead to whether or not she would be able to carve out a comfortable spot for herself among the thirty or so others she predicted were already there.

The sirens continued and the night wore on, seemingly endless, occasional shudders racking the brick wall against her back. A single bulb rattled overhead, swinging ever so slightly, a present reminder that the earth above them was turning to rubble. She passed her time knitting the beginnings of a scarf and tapping out music on the concrete floors. No one asked her to please stop doing “that blasted thing,” and somehow the lack of reprimand struck her harder than if the action had been met by communal disdain. The quiet of the bunker, louder almost than the sirens, hummed like electric lights, the very outsides of it electrified by such intense fear she wondered if they would all simply perish from that. The inside of the silence was vast, dark, terrifying. It was so loud, all that quiet, she pressed her hands against her ears to try to block it out but all she heard was muffled sirens screaming from all corners of London and some occasional sobbing. She couldn’t tell from whom it was coming; it might have been her.

For seventy six more days, each time she made her way to the bunker, she couldn’t shake the feeling that he would suddenly walk through the door, expecting his tea and supper, and she would have to explain that she was terribly sorry, but preparing a meal had slipped her mind in all the chaos, and would he be opposed to eating out just this once? He would wrap his arms around her and say no, he didn’t mind at all, and he would take her by the hand and they would walk together through an unbroken city, without worrying about anything but rain falling from the sky.

 

BIO

Cleo Egnal is a fiction writer with a B.A. in Written Arts from Bard College. She currently resides in Los Angeles, California, where she spends her days dreaming of the English countryside and working on her novel. She has been published on The Other Stories and Ranker. Besides writing fiction, she is also passionate about Victorian history, fashion history, and music.

 

 

 

 

 

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