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My Green Card  

by Maria Lopez

 

 

Recently a friend gave me a greeting card. The front of it was a beautiful bright green, like the fresh grass and trees in the Bronx Botanical Gardens. My friend didn’t know the effect her little card had on me. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. For years my secret dream and hope has been to have a green card. And here I was holding one in my hand! All I could do was make fun of myself – How easy it is to make my dream come true! I’m so excited I’d better be careful not to have a heart attack before I get to enjoy this gift. I need to calm down.

A Chinese classmate once told me a proverb – “If you want something very badly, you won’t get it. You have to be calm and put yourself in a higher state of mind, and things will come to you.” That’s good advice to avoid a heart attack, but not to get a green card. I had a roommate who’s very religious, and she told me to be patient and leave my situation in God’s hands. With all respect, God has no special influence with immigration officers. Paying an immigration lawyer also doesn’t help. When I first came here and got a job as a maid in a big house, I went to a big office in Queens that had a big sign outside – “Immigration Lawyers. If you have legalization problems, we can help you get a green card.” The sign also said, “We handle divorces and bankruptcies, as well as foreclosures.” I ran there every week on my day off with twenty-five dollars in my hand and gave it to the lawyer who was supposed to be helping me. He was from my country, Colombia, so he spoke Spanish, was well dressed, and seemed very professional. He took all my information and wrote it down, asked me how much money I’d brought that day, and told me he was going to the court and I should come back next week. He said the same thing every week, and every week I expected him to hand me my green card.

One day, after I had given him a hard-earned two hundred dollars in total during the eight weeks I’d been going to him, I was sitting in the waiting room full of desperate people like me when the police came. Some of them went into the lawyers’ offices, and some talked to us. One policeman was Puerto Rican and spoke to us in Spanish. He asked if we had gotten receipts for the money we gave the lawyers.  Nobody had.

I started to cry and told the young policeman that I had already paid two hundred dollars! Two other women were crying harder than me. One of them, who was beautiful, young, and well dressed cried out, “Two hundred?  That’s nothing! I gave him two thousand dollars!” The other one, middle-aged and humble-looking, wailed, “Ay, I paid him three thousand and five hundred dollars!” The policeman was astonished. He asked the women, “Where did you get so much money?” The middle-aged lady said she had sold her house back in her country. The young beautiful one told the policeman she saved all the money she made from cleaning offices at night. After that, no one paid any attention to my poor, lost two hundred dollars, the most money I’d ever had in my life. It couldn’t compete with their thousands.

The next thing that happened was the three lawyers and their three young secretaries, all pretty girls in high heels, all crying, were led out of the offices by the other policemen, their hands behind their backs in handcuffs. We all stopped talking and stared, confused, wondering if we were the next to be arrested! But no, the police went out and loaded the lawyers and their beautiful secretaries, with their mascara running down their cheeks, into the police cars. One secretary got a high heel caught in something and it broke off as she was getting in. The broken heel was left in the street as the cars pulled away.

I was so nervous, thinking they might come back to arrest us that I sneaked out the door and walked as fast as I could to the subway. I could feel an invisible hand grabbing the back of my collar. I got on the first train that came in which was going the wrong way for me, but I didn’t care.

Next week on my day off I headed to Queens as usual, but this time it was different. Someone had told me that they wouldn’t arrest me: “You’re a victim,” he said. I was nervous anyway, but I was more curious. When I got there I stood across the street and looked at the closed storefront. It had a big sign taped to the window. The only word I recognized was “Police.” Finally I got the courage to cross over. A man was passing and I asked him if he spoke Spanish. He did, and he told me that the lawyers didn’t have a license to operate this business. They weren’t real lawyers! I told him I’d given them two hundred dollars to get a green card.  I was hoping for a little sympathy, but he hurried off, almost laughing, and said something that sounded like “Furgedaboutid!” I didn’t know what the words meant, so I quickly wrote down what I’d heard, and looked for a Spanish person who could speak English and was friendly. I stopped a woman passing by who seemed to have the complete package, and read aloud what I’d written. “Olvidalo,” she said, “Forget about it.” I thanked her. But I never did forget about it. I’d still like to have my two hundred dollars back.

Since that time, I’ve seen a few immigration officers and explained my situation. I asked if there was any way I could become legal and get my green card. They didn’t have me arrested, thank God, but the answer was always the same – no. They may have even felt a little compassion for me, but compassion wasn’t in the job description.

So I never got the legal green card, but I still have the green card my friend gave me. Who knows? Maybe some day in the future when there are no borders, a green card from a friend will be more important than one from the government.

 

 

 

BIO

Maria Lopez is from the Andes Mountains in Colombia. She grew up in a little shack with no running water or electricity; she only had the moonlight to lead her at night. She could not read or write in Spanish as she had no education, so she had her work cut out for her when she moved to New York and had to learn English. Through working for Americans and free writing classes at the public library and colleges, she has learned to read and write English, better than she speaks it; her pronunciation leaves many Americans scratching their heads. Writing has become her newfound passion and priority.

 

 

 

 

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You Kill Me

by Emily Glossner Johnson

 

 

Jimmy Gemini looked at his eyes in the photo on the cover of an eight-year-old issue of Rolling Stone. He could see how wasted he was. He was shirtless and had no tattoos; he’d never been much for tattoos. A pair of faded jeans hung low on his hips. One hand was in his pocket, the other in his ash blond hair, fingers laced through it.

He couldn’t remember the photo shoot or the interview he gave. He flipped the magazine open. The year had been 2005 and the interviewer called him a rock god. His guitar skill was compared to that of another Jimi, right down to his left-handed playing. His album that year was the critically acclaimed and internationally bestselling You Kill Me and his music was at its best: hard rock with enough of a pop sound to cross over to top forty and enough edge to be played on the alternative stations. His band that year played to sold-out arenas and auditoriums and large outdoor venues. Jimmy Gemini was everywhere and everything.

“Jimmy!” his mother yelled from downstairs.

Jimmy closed the magazine. “What, Ma?”

“I just saw it. It ran past the dining room doorway.”

“What do you want me to do about it?”

“Get it out of here!”

Jimmy sat on the floor of the bedroom where he grew up in the little house once occupied by his brothers and sisters Paul Jr., Ronny, Joseph, Angela, Tommy, and Gina, and his father Paul Sr., his mother Mary, and him, the baby of the Gianni family. Now it was just him and his mother in this house that he’d paid off. He’d offered to buy his mother a bigger house, but she wanted to stay where she’d spent decades with his father. He’d shared his bedroom with Tommy and Joseph, and a lot of their stuff was still there: books from childhood to their teenaged years, athletic equipment, old guitars, model cars and airplanes, trophies. Jimmy’s mother didn’t like to get rid of things, though everything had its place in the neat, clean house.

“Jimmy!”

Jimmy sighed. “What is it?”

“Come down here.”

“Just a minute. Jesus.”

Jimmy had most recently hit rock bottom in July of 2012 when he was found wandering in a subway station in Queens wearing nothing but bicycle shorts and a single flip-flop. A man who’d recognized him had called a cab that had taken him to his mother’s house in White Plains. The tabloids caught wind of the incident and headlines announced that Jimmy was either near death or admitted to a psychiatric ward. The truth was more mundane. After a three-month stint in rehab, the longest he’d ever been in, he came back to his mother’s and had been there ever since, under the radar, away from the world, preparing for his comeback.

Elizabeth was through with him and didn’t want him around their kid.

“I’m clean now,” he’d said to Elizabeth the last time they spoke.

“How long will that last?” Elizabeth had said.

“For good.”

“I’ve heard that before.”

Jimmy knew she had, a number of times. But this time he’d been clean and sober for nine months, the longest he’d ever gone since he first started drinking and smoking weed when he was a teenager.

“How was Ashton’s birthday?” he asked her. “I can’t believe he’s three already.”

“He’s four, Jimmy.”

“Right, right. Did he have a big party?”

“Jimmy, I don’t want to do this.”

“Do what?”

“You know what. I don’t want to talk about Ashton with you. You can’t see him.”

But Jimmy would see him. He’d show Elizabeth. He’d stay clean and make music and get back on top.

He went downstairs and found his mother in the kitchen, making pies. “I want you to get that thing out of here,” she said.

“Just get a mousetrap.”

“A mousetrap, he says! I have mousetraps. Don’t you see them? And I’ve got poison in the cupboards.”

Jimmy looked at his mother’s lined face and bouffant hairdo dyed the darkest of brown. “Well, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” he said.

She sighed.

He went over to the sauce that simmered on the stove and ate some of it from the spoon that was resting across the top of the pot. His mother slapped his arm. “Stay out of there. You’re putting your germs in it.”

Jimmy grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl on the counter. “Who’s coming over?” he said between bites.

“Tommy and your sisters and the kids.”

“Angela?” he said.

“I just said your sisters. Why?”

“She doesn’t like me.”

His mother patted his face hard. “Don’t you say that. You two are family. She loves you.”

Jimmy examined his unfinished apple; it was overripe and bruised. He threw it away. He noticed his mother’s fancy pink dress and string of pearls contrasting with her yellow apron and house slippers. It was Sunday. “How was church?” he said.

“It’s going downhill fast is where it’s going. I should switch to St. Luke’s.”

“What’s the matter with St. Ambrose?”

“That woman.” His mother ground the shortening and flour together. “She gave the sermon today. She thinks she’s a priest—”

“What woman?”

“They call her the pastoral associate. I’m not having it. She’s conceited and she wears designer clothes.”

“How do you know about her clothes?”

She held up her hands. “Ah.”

“So go to St. Luke’s.”

She continued with the pie dough, the shortening and flour forming little balls. “Your father loved St. Ambrose. If he only knew.”

“So stay. Or go. Whatever.” Jimmy paused. “What kind of pies you making?”

She ignored the question, looked up at him and wiped her brow. Her hand left a smudge of flour on her forehead. “Did you call Mr. Daniels?” she said.

“Ma, I’m not going to sell insurance.”

“Then what will you do? It’s been a year and nothing.”

“It’s been nine months. I’ve been writing music. I’m going to get back into the studio.”

She wiped her hands on her apron and pointed at him. “That life,” she said. “That life is over.” She put a spoonful of water into the dough mixture. “Set the table.”

He set the dining room table and shoved in a few chairs from the kitchen to make room for everyone. In the living room, he put up the card table and folding chairs for the kids. When it was all done, he went out to the front porch for a smoke. It was what he had, nicotine. And caffeine. He drank a lot of coffee, black and strong. So these were it… the drugs he was allowed. He drew deeply on his cigarette.

* * *

All through dinner that day, Tommy and his brother-in-law Mark were on Jimmy’s case about calling Mr. Daniels. “What’s the matter with selling insurance?” Tommy said. “You know, you could do worse.”

“Not much,” Jimmy said.

His other brother-in-law, Scott, had always been star struck by Jimmy. He stayed out of the conversation until Jimmy mentioned going back into the studio. “That’d be great!” Scott said.  “Great?” Jimmy’s mother said. “That’s what nearly killed him.”

Scott bowed his head and dragged his fork through his pasta. His wife, Jimmy’s sister Gina, patted Scott’s hand.

All the adults were drinking wine except for Jimmy. Jimmy felt as though he should have been sitting at the kids’ table.

“I think you don’t want to sell insurance because you know you can’t,” Angela said. “Look at yourself, Jimmy.”

“What?” Jimmy said. He looked down at his Pink Floyd t-shirt, skinny jeans, and Vans.

Angela straightened her silk scarf and touched her bobbed hair.

“Jimmy will be fine,” his mother said.

“Aw, Ma, you ought to let him fend for himself for a change,” Angela said. “You’ve always taken care of him.”

“Come on, Angela,” Gina said. “Leave Jimmy and Ma alone.”

“Sitting right here,” Jimmy said.

“You’ll call Mr. Daniels and get a job,” his mother said to him. “And that’s all I have to say about it.”

“I don’t need the money,” Jimmy said.

“That isn’t the point,” Tommy said. “You’ve got to do something with yourself.”

“I bet you’re writing music, right, Jimmy?” Angela said.

“I am,” Jimmy said.

“How much have you written? Truth. How much?”

Jimmy looked at Angela, ready to reply. But then he looked away.

Later that night after everyone had gone home and Jimmy’s mother had gone to bed, Jimmy picked up the peach schnapps his mother used to make her fuzzy navels. She and his sisters always drank them before dinner. He opened the bottle of schnapps and smelled it. Truth. How much? Fuck Angela, he thought, the fucking prima donna. He’d write music when it came to him—the inspiration would hit, and it would be incredible.

He looked at the bottle, the label, and then in a rush, brought it to his mouth and took a big swallow. It was sickly sweet but pleasantly warm going down. He took another swallow, and another. Then he stopped. He put water in the bottle to bring the level back to where it was and returned the bottle to the buffet.

So much for nine months.

* * *

It was one bottle of vodka—just one—and it was his own, not his mother’s schnapps. He bought it that morning. Grey Goose, his favorite. It stood on his little desk in his old bedroom; sunlight through the window blinds created stripes across it.

Just one bottle. No one would know and he’d get his fill after getting a taste for booze from the schnapps the night before.

He sat down at the desk and ran his fingers down the bottle. He remembered meeting Elizabeth at a party after a show in 2007.

“So are you really a Gemini?” That was the first thing she’d said to him.

“No,” he said. “A Scorpio.”

She laughed and it lit up her face, her blue eyes.

“Then why not Jimmy Scorpio?”

“Why not indeed?” He said. He was floating on a cloud, high as the sky. He’d been shooting up in the largest laundry room he’d ever seen with some guys he didn’t know. Then he’d done a little coke and had a few more glasses of champagne.

Elizabeth had just started modeling then so she wasn’t famous. She was as tall as Jimmy. When he kissed her later that night, he loved that their faces were right across from each other’s and that their lips met with such ease.

She’d been a trooper when Ashton was born. She wanted to give birth naturally—no drugs or epidural—and it overwhelmed Jimmy to see her extreme pain. But fortunately Ashton didn’t take long to come out, and then there he was—Jimmy’s son.

He missed the kid. He missed Elizabeth. He wasn’t always faithful to her and she knew it. A few times, she even left him for a while, but she always came back. Other girls he fucked meant nothing and she must have known it—she had to have known it. His extracurricular fucking was a compulsion like the booze and drugs. Elizabeth wanted to help him; she was wired that way. And so he’d done a little time in rehab here and there, talking about his addictions, getting clean for a while and being devoted to Elizabeth. But then it would start up again and finally she’d had enough and didn’t want to help him anymore. “It’s futile,” she said, and she left with Ashton.

He wrapped his hand around the bottle of Grey Goose. One bottle. That would be all. Then he’d work on getting back to the studio with the guys and making some awesome music.

* * *

A week later, Jimmy woke up with his head at the foot of his bed; he was in his clothes he had worn the day before. He rolled onto his side and looked at the three empty Grey Goose bottles lined up next to the desk.

There was a fourth and fifth bottle next to the bed, unopened, waiting. On his nightstand were a few packs of peppermint gum and a tin of Altoids. Between these and his cigarettes, his mother couldn’t smell the alcohol on him. And she never came into his room, not after that first time when she cleaned and made the bed and he nearly lost it.

“I’m not twelve!” he had said.

“I try to help and this is what I get?”

“All I ask is that you give me my privacy, all right? I can make the bed and clean the room myself.”

She sighed and left the room and he stood there for a while, his hands fisted in his hair. Man, he had wanted a drink.

Now he opened one of the bottles and took a big swig. He lay back on the bed and lit a cigarette. Staring up at the ceiling, smoking, he thought about the music he was going to write. But his mind couldn’t focus and nothing came to him.

* * *

Jimmy woke at 3:26 a.m., his mouth dry and his head spinning. He went downstairs to get a glass of water. A corner shelf in the kitchen held his mother’s cookbooks on the lower shelves, and knickknacks, his mother’s rosary, several magazines, and some mail on the upper shelves. Jimmy heard scratching from beneath the shelf. Then a peep, and another peep.

On his hands and knees, Jimmy looked under the shelf and saw two shining eyes. The mouse. With him there, it had no escape. He could capture it, but he needed something to put it in. What could he use? The water glass. He stood and downed the water and then got on the floor with the glass.

“Come on, buddy,” he said to the mouse, holding the glass under the shelf and moving it in sync with the mouse’s back and forth scurrying. “There’s nowhere to go. I’ll get you away from the old lady’s traps.”

The mouse froze. Jimmy shoved the glass closer to it. The mouse backed into the corner. Jimmy jiggled the glass a little, wondered if he should have put some food at the bottom of it, and then suddenly the mouse was in the glass. Jimmy nearly shouted. Instead, he drew the glass back slowly and as soon as he was able, clapped his hand over the top of it. The mouse, helpless, looked up at him. “It’s okay, little guy. I’m going to set you free.”

Jimmy went down the stairs that led to the back door. Once outside, he took the mouse around to the small backyard and the row of arborvitae that stood against the fence. There, he put the glass on the ground. He shook it slightly, and the mouse bounded out and away, a dark shape leaping over the grass to the darkness under the arborvitae.

* * *

The next night, Jimmy flopped down on his bed. The room spun madly, but despite it, Jimmy, spread eagle, fell asleep and dreamed.

Elizabeth hovered before him. “Jimmy,” she said, “Did you call Mr. Daniels?”

“No. I’m writing music.”

He was in a hospital bed. “Christ, Jimmy,” Angela said. “You’re going to kill Ma if this doesn’t stop.”

If what doesn’t stop? He couldn’t remember. His memory wasn’t what it used to be. Coke. There’d been coke. And pills. And he was drunk to begin with. She hated him, Angela did, but she stayed by his bed for hours each day. And then Ma was there. She wore pearls and a light blue dress and clutched her rosary. Shit, she looked old.

“I’m going to write so much music, Ma,” he said. He’d forgotten once how to play his guitar—once, twice, a few times. A few other times, he’d sat down on stage in the middle of shows. And sometimes, he’d wandered off stage. But that was long, long ago. What were the guys doing now? Where had they gone? It didn’t matter. Back in the studio, they’d be like brothers again.

He found a girl one night and they shot up. While he was lying back, smiling, she stopped breathing. He whacked her hard on the back, twice, and she came to life again. “You died,” he said, and she laughed, and he laughed, too, and they smoked some weed and fucked, fumbling, he and this girl with dirty dreadlocks and cartoon character tattoos covering her body like bruises.

“I’ll buy you a bigger house, Ma.”

“I want you to do something with your life!”

“I am. I’m Jimmy Gemini!”

“You’re my son, James Gianni. Pray with me now. Come to church.”

He’d given a shitload of money to her church. He didn’t have to pray. He was fine. God was good. He’d call Mr. Daniels, sure—he’d call him a douche bag. Jimmy, Jimmy, you’re just going to get back into it, they said. You need to do something with yourself. Set a goal. Be a normal person with a normal life. But he already had a goal. It was a good goal and he was going to reach it.

* * *

The next morning, Jimmy looked out the living room window in time to see the white cat from across the street run by with a mouse in its mouth. The mouse, his mouse—Jimmy knew it.

“Aw, shit,” Jimmy said.

“What’s the matter with you?” his mother said from the doorway.

He turned around. “I got that mouse out of here last night.”

“Was it dead? Because if it wasn’t dead, it’ll come back.”

“It’s dead, Ma,” he said. “It’s dead.”

 

 

BIO

Emily Glossner Johnson has had stories published in Postscripts to Darkness, The Outrider ReviewThe Linnet’s WingsSliver of Stone Magazine, Lynx EyeThe Mondegreen, and a number of other literary journals. She has essays in The Ram Boutique and Amygdala Literary Magazine, and an essay in the book Parts Unbound: Narratives of Mental Illness and Health, published by Lime Hawk Literary Arts Collective. She has a poem forthcoming in The Poeming Pigeon and a story forthcoming in Masque and Spectacle. In December of 2016, The Mondegreen nominated her story “Santa Lucia” for a Pushcart Prize. She has a B.A. in English from SUNY Buffalo and an M.A. in English from SUNY College at Brockport. She lives in Syracuse, New York.

 

 

 

 

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Tunnel Vision

by Nancy Antle

 

 

Jack was walking down the twisty two-lane in the foothills of the Ozarks, against the traffic like he was supposed to, even though very few cars travelled that particular stretch of highway. He was trying to make his way into town to get himself some beer. He’d downed the last one in his ice chest about an hour ago and he didn’t think he could make it the rest of the long, sweltering day without something to fortify him. His daughter, who he lived with, had refused to take him to town. He could still hear her shrill voice, so much like her mother’s, lecturing him about how irresponsible he was and how she wasn’t going to help him kill himself.

When he heard the car coming towards him, he was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. He didn’t have time to look up and find it with what vision he had left before it whooshed by him blaring the horn. The smart thing might have been to bail into the ravine next to the road but he hadn’t really had time to react. Probably a good thing. Sure as shit he’d have broken something or impaled himself on a sapling.

His old dog, Tate, a terrier, yipped a belated warning bark, as the car’s tires screeched around the bend. Not long after, Jack heard the hum of an engine coming down the road behind him on the other side. He kept on walking, but hoped maybe the car held someone he knew who would give him a lift. The car slowed to his pace and a woman’s voice called to him from across the road.

“Hey! You know I nearly hit you?” she said.

“Just trying to get to town get some beer,” Jack said. “But, thank you for turning around to tell me I’m in the way.”

“Town’s nearly five miles. Maybe you should figure out a way to get there without walking in the road. You’re gonna get yourself killed.”

He squinted trying to see the face behind her voice. There was something familiar about it. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking. It had been over thirty years for God’s sake.

“How about you give me a ride to town?” he said. “Seeing as how you’re so worried about me’n all.”

“Are you a serial killer?” she said.

He chuckled. “I’m not, but I suppose that’s what they all say.”

“Can’t you just walk through the woods or something?”

“Lady, I can barely see well enough to follow the road.”

“Well, shit…” she said, more to herself than him, it seemed.

He squinted uselessly again. He still couldn’t see her face. “Beverly?” he said.

She was silent for a moment. All he could hear was the idling car and the call of a crow in the trees.

“Do I know you?” she asked.

He crossed the road hoping she wouldn’t speed off. “It’s Jack,” he said.

She gasped. “Oh, my God!”

“Kind of ironic, huh?” he said. Ironic that she’d almost killed him twice, now.

“I can’t believe it,” she said

He could see her more clearly once he was close-up. She was looking at him, smiling – something he’d imagined for a long time. He smiled back.

“Get your butt in here,” she said. “Before you get us both run over.”

Jack felt his way along the hood of the car to the passenger side door and opened it. Tate jumped in without being invited and Jack followed.

“I cannot believe this,” she said again.

He couldn’t either. She had been his future. The woman he planned to marry even though he never told her. He’d often thought if he hadn’t been such a chicken shit he would have asked her and life would have been better. He’d hoped for this kind of meeting one day but in his imagination, it was better than this.  He was cleaned up, wearing nice clothes, his good boots. This was not the way he wanted her to see him.

He fastened his seat belt while she peeled out, heading back to town – back to where she’d just come from. He turned to look at her through the narrow hole of his vision. He couldn’t get over how much she looked the same and he told her so. She tried to return the compliment but he knew she was just being nice seeing as how he’d gained fifty pounds and his hair was gray. At least she didn’t seem fazed by his scruffy state.

He was surprised how quickly they fell into a long-ago pattern; how natural their conversation was as if they’d been out of touch only a day or so. There was the old familiar rush of lapping up each other’s words as if they were thirsty – asking questions, interrupting for more details.

Jack told her about his two failed marriages and his three grown kids; his retirement from the military on account of his retinitis pigmentosa.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Tunnel vision. At least that’s what they called it when my daddy had it.”

“Sounds serious.”

“It is – your vision kind of closes up – slowly over time.”

“That’s awful.”

Talking about his disease always made him uncomfortable but, luckily, she was in a hurry to tell him about her life so he didn’t have to figure out how to change the subject.  Beverly’d recently gotten a divorce, thank God there were no kids; been working as a librarian in a middle school in LA for twenty years; was in Tulsa for a conference and drove out to see her old hometown; a trip down memory lane.

“Why the hell would you want to remember this God-awful place?” Jack hoped maybe she was looking for him. But he was also thinking about the paper mill that had shut down leaving behind an empty shell; the boarded-up businesses on Main; and of course, all the people out of work, trying to get by anyway they could. All changes that had happened after she was years gone.

“It wasn’t so God-awful when we were young was it?” she asked.

He sighed. “Hard to remember.” He cleared his throat in the long pause, then hurried to ask her more about her life in California. What was her commute like? Was the smog still bad? Did she miss the seasons? He’d been close to where she lived when he was in the service so at least he had a clue what questions to ask.

As she answered, her voice faded, and Jack quit listening, feeling himself pressed into the car seat, pulled into it by the weight of the past calling him back. There was the time they took the dune buggy his father helped him build all over the back roads, up and down, until they got lost in the boonies, far away from anyone they knew. There was the time they went to the horror movie and couldn’t quit talking about how terrified they were for months after. There was the time they swam in Blue Hole in March, teeth chattering as they ran back to his car, wrapping up in threadbare beach towels, blasting the heater. And, always, always there were the hours spent sitting on the hood of her car, staring at the stars, talking, never once considering how small and insignificant they were to the universe.

Jack felt the silence wrap around them like the suffocating heat outside. He knew she was looking at him, that he’d missed a question.

“Sorry,” he said. “I must’ve spaced out.” He adjusted the shoulder harness on the seatbelt that was choking him then patted Tate’s head.

“Guess you didn’t really want to hear all that,” she said.

“No, I do. Really. My mind wanders. Sorry.”

She laughed. “It’s okay. My mind wanders all over creation sometimes.”

She flipped on the radio. A twangy country song that Jack was not familiar with filled the space. She turned it off again.

“So, tell me more about your retini…your tunnel vision. There’s nothing the doctor’s can do?”

“Not a thing. It’s genetic.” He didn’t want to talk about it. Didn’t want to dwell on what the future held for him. That was part of Beverly he’d forgotten; how her curiosity made her cold – oblivious to any pain she might be causing with her questions.

“How much can you see right now?” she pressed on.

“I don’t know.” He sighed. “I guess about the size of dime.”

“And it will get worse?”

He nodded.

“What are you going to do?”

He snorted. “I’m just gonna keep putting one foot in front of the other and hope I don’t get run over by something I don’t see coming.”

“Haha,” she said.

They reached the intersection and the four way stop sign.

“Where do you want me to take you?” she asked.

“The Qwik Trip on Main is fine. They always have Coors.”

She drove slowly to the end of the street and parked the car in front of the store.

“Thanks for the lift,” Jack said. “I appreciate it.”

“I’m going in too,” Beverly said. “I need a bag of chips or something. I’m starved.  I can drive you back?”

“Sure,” Jack said, fighting to keep his voice even. “I’d appreciate that.” He climbed out with Tate in his arms. His hands shook as he tied him to the bench in front with the leash he pulled from his pocket.

The ice, cold air inside made Jack shudder. He threaded his way through the maze of aisles until he stood in front of the refrigerator case searching for the beer he wanted.

“Let me.” Beverly’s voice was suddenly beside him again. One of the glass doors sucked open. “Coors, right? I’ll take it up for you.”

He grabbed another box and followed her to the register where they clunked the boxes of cans onto the counter next to her chips and Coke.

“Is this all together?” the clerk asked.

“No. Separate,” Beverly said, pushing her stuff to one side.

Jack blinked back the sting in his eyes and sweat slipped down the middle of his back. The cash register dinged and he fumbled with his billfold, passing the guy a couple of twenties. The clerk put his change into his upturned palm and he stuffed it into his pocket.

“Crap,” Beverly said.  “I forgot to get some Advil. Here’s my keys if you want to put your beer in the car. I’ll be out in a minute.”

He nodded and went back into the heat of the day shocked again by the change in temperature. He put his beer on the rear floor of the car then returned for his dog. In a few minutes, Beverly emerged with a blast of cold air while he was still beside Tate, fumbling with his leash. She crouched next to him and he smelled her perfume – some kind of flowers and spice. He wondered why he hadn’t noticed before. Her fingers touched his where he held the knot and he pulled his hand back.

“Got it,” she said, standing. “C’mon, I’ll take you home.”

They drove back the way they’d come, Jack navigating. Even though he couldn’t see much of anything, he remembered how to get where he needed to be. He directed her to a side road and then another one that ran along a creek under the dogwoods.

“You can let me out right here,” he said. “Anywhere.”

“You sure?” She put her foot on the brake and the car came to a soft stop. “I don’t mind taking you all the way to your house.”

“That’s okay. My daughter’s place is way back there. Not much more than a cow path the rest of the way. It could do a number on your car. Besides I’m not going all the way home with the beer.”

“Really?”

“Can’t listen to my daughter lecture me.” He cleared his throat. “I have an ice chest in the woods where I keep it. I’ll go there and have a few, then head home.”

“That sounds lonely…” Her words hung between them.

He remembered these kinds of conversations – the hints – never asking for something outright – saying what she really meant. He didn’t take the bait. Didn’t even bother to answer her. He took no pleasure in not inviting her – but what would be the point of having a beer together? Just get his hopes up before she disappeared again and left him with a different incarnation of her lodged in his head for another decade until dementia saved him.

God, he’d thought about her so often over the years. Some weeks, months, he’d thought of little else. Now here she was in the flesh, so much like she used to be, and yet, different. He knew it would be stupid to ask her to stay.

“Well, I hope your daughter won’t be too pissed at you,” she said.

“I’m used to it.”

“And, I’m glad I ran into you – so to speak.” She laughed.

“Ditto.”

Jack undid his seatbelt, opened the car door and Tate hopped out. As Jack turned to get out himself, Beverly put a cool hand on his arm. He stared at her long white fingers on his tanned skin and felt an ache in his chest. She didn’t say anything else and what he could see of her blurred as he slid out. He waved, a brief flap of his hand, like the wing of a bird, and tried to smile but felt maybe he failed. Then he and Tate walked into the woods.

It wasn’t until he was all the way to his ice chest that he realized he’d forgotten the beer. He stopped, cocked his head toward the highway, straining, hoping to hear her coming back to him. Water gurgled in the creek and grasshoppers chirred in the underbrush and after a time she was there too.

 

 

BIO

Nancy Antle received her MFA in Creative Writing/Fiction from Southern CT State University in 2013. Prior to that she wrote books, stories and poems for children and young adults for thirty years and was published by Dial, Viking and Cricket Magazine. She is mostly writing for an older audience now and her short stories have been published by Noctua Revew, CT Review, The Los Angeles Review of LA and Drunk Monkeys. She was a volunteer writing mentor for seven years with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project via online workshops. She has also taught fiction writing at SCSU, The Mark Twain House Museum and online for the Gotham Writer’s Workshop.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Leftover Mud Pie

by Mona Leigh Rose

 

 

I’ve roomed with the Black Widow for four semesters.  Two college years.  That’s like ten in dog years.  She’s a love addict.  Meets a new guy in study group or at a bar, lets him sweep her off her size six pumps, charms his family, makes fevered plans for the future.   A few months in, she loses interest, takes up with a new guy.  Problem is, the wuss can’t bring herself to break-up with an old “the one,” tell him he’s been replaced by a new “the one.”  That’s my job.

“It isn’t you, it’s her,” I coo into the phone.

“Only saying that to make me feel better.”

“No, really.  You’re a great guy, [insert name here].  Any girl would be lucky to date you.”  Twist the phone cord around my finger, wonder whether tonight’s Seinfeld is new or a rerun.

“But she said she loved me, said,” sniff, “I was the one.”

“That’s the problem.  She loves you too much, got scared.  She’s not ready for–” pause for effect “–true love.”

Lost count how many times I’ve delivered those lines.  My Nana told me a man in love is dumber than a post.  Roomie’s castoffs taught me a new lesson:  A man with a broken heart will believe lies so brash even a post would thumb its nose.

Not that Roomie ever asked me to be her muscle.  I can’t stand loose ends, unfinished business, even someone else’s business.  Not much of a social life of my own, unless you count days spent in the library shooing undergrads who use the deserted stacks as a hook-up spot.  So I helped her out of a tight spot or two, and soon enough, her chore became my calling.

The overture goes something like this:

Her:  “Can you get the phone?”

Me:  “You know it’s him.  He’s called, like, ten times today.”

Her:  “Can’t he take a hint?”  Exaggerates eye roll.  “Besides, [insert new guy’s name here] is waiting for me downstairs.  Taking me to Monty’s for dinner.  He might be the one.”  Rubs lipstick off teeth, smiles at reflection.

Me:  “Fine.”  Mimic exaggerated eye roll.  “I’ll take care of it.”

Her:  “You’re the best.  I’ll bring you my leftover mud pie in a doggy bag.”  Blows kiss, bounces out door.

I’m a darn good breaker-upper.  Sometimes we even become buddies, bond over his heartache.  That’s how I got to see Glenn Close play Norma Desmond on opening night, learned to roller skate on the Venice boardwalk, hiked to the Hollywood sign for the first time.

Everyone was happy until Mr. Boomerang came along.  Roomie put Boomie through two spin cycles.  For their first break-up, I used all the usual comfort words, told him he was a catch, he’d meet the right girl, yada, blah, et cetera.  He moseyed into the sunset, bent but, thanks to my soothing tones, not busted.  Fall semester he showed up again, first on the answering machine, a week later at the door.

Seems they ran into each other at Three of Hearts, shared a pitcher of Amstel Light.  Another round of sunset hikes in Runyon Canyon, weekend trips to Ojai, long walks on the beach.  He was “the one” for the second time.  I like Mr. Boomerang, nice guy, smart, psych major.  Had high hopes for him.  But when Roomie casually dropped a new man’s name in conversation over Cheerios, when she stretched the phone cord around the corner and behind her bedroom door, when Boomie’s voice on the answering machine veered from cheerful to concerned to suicidal, I knew my big solo wasn’t far off.

Pick up the ringing phone one rainy Friday night in January and prepare to cut him loose.

“It isn’t you, it’s her.”

“Bullshit.”

“No really, I’m not trying to make you feel better.  You’re a great guy, any girl–”

“I brought you chicken soup from Langer’s when you had a cold.”

“Um, right, thanks.  Anyway, any girl would be lucky–”

“I told you which box had the See’s Candy at the white elephant gift exchange.”

“Wait, what?”

“Don’t bullshit me.”

“I’m not bullshiting.  She loves you too much–”

“Cut the crap.  She met someone else, didn’t she?”

“She’s scared–”

“Are you reading from a script?”

“Of– of course not.”

“So spit it out.  Why is she ducking my calls?”

An ant crawls out of a crack in the plaster wall, then another.  Smash them with a paper towel.  “She’s not ready for–” one Mississippi, two Mississippi “—true love.”

“What do you know about love?”

My stomach lurches.  “I know enough . . .”

“When was the last time your heart shot fireworks when you held someone’s hand?”

“I have connections with people, feel sparks.”

“To hell with sparks.  I’m talking about a raging fire, an inferno of feeling that incinerates all reason.  Do you even date?”

“What’s this got to do–”

“And don’t count meeting a study buddy for coffee.”

Close my eyes, need to focus.  “This isn’t about me.  You’re hurt now, but you’ll meet someone–”

“Of course it’s about you.”

“I’m trying to help, let you down easy.”

“Exactly my point.  If you had the first idea about real love, you’d never think having your heart stomped on by a self-absorbed bitch could ever be easy.”

“Don’t call her a bitch.”

“Why do you protect her?”

“I don’t protect her.  I help the men– I mean, I’m helping you.”

“You enable her vile narcissism–”

“Vile?”

“–and how does she repay you?”

The light from the microwave shines on my finger, bloodless in the tightly wound phone cord.  “I– um, I like mud pie?”

“Jesus.  She breaks your heart every fucking day and you don’t even see it.”

“I’m not gay.”

“Didn’t say anything about gay.  I see the way you look at her, same way I do.”

“She’s my friend.”

“She’s not your friend.  She’s your idol, your goddess on high.  And you’re her pet, her toady, her maid and her minion.”

“No, she . . .”

“She uses you like she used me, and is probably using some other poor fool right this minute.  Do yourself a favor.  Don’t break up with me, break up with her.”

The dial tone bounces against the kitchen wall, echoes in my head, even after I hang the receiver back in its cradle.  My legs feel heavy, my head light.  Can’t muster up the energy to move.  A line of ants marches across the counter now, dozens stagger single file under the weight of crumbs and cereal bits twice their size.  One collapses, struggles to right himself.  The others make a tight detour around him, continue on with their loads.

I flinch when Roomie bounces through the apartment door, flips the light switch.  “Why’s it so dark in here?”  She tosses a gold foil swan on the counter, narrowly misses the ants.  “Tonight was a-mazing.  Bradley brought me a dozen white roses, hired a violinist to serenade me while we sipped champagne.”  She twirls, skips down the hall.  “He’s taking me to Big Sur tonight, need to pack a bag.”

The foil swan stares at me, my face reflected in its creased wings.  Look like a little girl in a broken funhouse mirror.

“I really think Bradley could be the one,” Roomie shouts over the slamming drawers and clanking hangers.

Unwrap the foil, smooth the edges flat.  The sliver of coffee ice cream half melted, the fudge congealed in clumps.  Slide it next to the line of ants.  One changes course and the others follow.  The whole army converges, crumbs still balanced on their heads.  They swarm over the gooey mess.  Soon a wriggling mound covers the foil from crust to whipped cream.

Roomie sashays past the kitchen, an overnight bag slung over the shoulder of my new raincoat.   “We’ll do your birthday dinner another time.  You’re cool with that, right?”

The foil shudders, then slides slowly toward the crack in the plaster.

 

 

BIO

Mona Leigh Rose is infatuated with short stories, the shorter the better.  Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Writing Disorder, Avalon Literary Review, and Jewish Fiction.net, among others.  She is honored that one of her stories has been selected for the flash fiction anthology The Best Small Fictions 2017.  She lives and writes in Santa Barbara, California. http://monaleighrose.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Good Things for Jeannie Smith

by Josh Trapani 

 

  

 

I never learned where the idea of hiring Harris Cooger came from. As with many things that happened when I worked for GOA, the Gun Owners of America, there were no explanations, only demands. Everyone was busy, there was little time for deliberation. Barrone said we were in crisis mode.

It started when Rachel James, the tiny blonde who’d survived a dozen years as Barrone’s assistant and was, remarkably, still allowed access to sharp objects, stood in my office doorway. “Barrone says go ahead and look into Harris Cooger.”

“OK. Who is Harris Cooper?”

Cooger.” She spelled it, then raised an eyebrow. “Wasn’t this your idea? Mechler said it was your idea.”

Mechler. That duplicitous son of a bitch.

In my six years at GOA, I’d moved several notches up the chain from Director to Associate VP. Now I was gunning — no pun intended — for a Deputy VP slot that would give me a larger office, bigger paycheck, and even more crushing workload. Mechler, I suspected, fancied the same job.

Before I could reply, Rachel hoofed it back to her desk, afraid to be away in case Barrone bellowed for something. Frank Barrone, VP for Strategic Initiatives, was a legend in the gun lobby. He’d started his career as House Committee staff 35 years before, moved into one of Our Party’s administrations as a Schedule C, then worked through corporate posts at Midway and Beretta USA before landing at the association. Barrone was dedicated as a monk, ruthless as a czar, and seasoned as a stick of beef jerky. As a boss, he was like Mount Etna: constantly smoking, ready to erupt at any time. We worshipped him.

A Google search for Harris Cooger confused me. I expected a pollster or PR consultant, but the only mention of the name, with that weird spelling, was on a plain black website that could have been designed by a teenaged Slayer fan in the late 1990s. His contact information — an AOL e-mail address, for god’s sake — was as archaic as his self-description: “psychic hit man.”

I rose from my desk and trudged to Mechler’s office. He held up a finger, bidding me wait, which I ignored. “Harris Cooger?” I demanded. “It’s on you if you want to suggest that Barrone hire some kind of New Age quack.”

Mechler smirked. “You know how things get garbled around here.”

“Leave me out of it,” I growled.

I returned to my office and forgot the whole thing. Have I mentioned I was busy? I clocked around 70 hours a week. Plus, Barrone was online 24/7, so I was, too. I slept with my phone on the nightstand, sound up. I’d set the ringtone to gunshots, specifically continuous fire from an AR-15 assault rifle. This was a source of tension between Barbara and me, but my responsiveness at all hours was undeniable.

Barrone said we were in crisis mode. I’d be hard-pressed to recall a time we weren’t. We reacted to everything, in a tornado of projects, initiatives, meetings, conferences, campaigns, talking points, surveys, polls, reports, letters, petitions, and other time-consuming debris constantly swirling around the office. Whether important or not, everything was urgent. The sky was falling every day. My association buddies, no matter what industry they represented, always felt like their thing was on the brink of cataclysm. Maybe this constant state of urgency was required to do jobs like ours. You might wonder what happens when crisis mode becomes business as usual, but that’s beside the point.

Especially since the national picture was terrible. Many of GOA’s friends on the Hill had lost their jobs in the last election. Their replacements wouldn’t meet with us at all; those that did continued voting the wrong way. The Other Party occupied the White House, with President Smith pressing an aggressive legislative agenda. Worst of all, gun control advocates included a spokesperson without peer: Jeannie Smith, the President’s daughter. Despite her history of childhood cancer, the cause she cared most about was gun violence, for which she, naively but predictably, blamed guns.

Jeannie was a high school junior, that age where most Presidents and First Ladies shield their kids completely from the media, much less let them actively participate in policy debates. But the only world Jeannie knew was one where her parents were public figures, and her self-possession exceeded her years. Her appearance enhanced her appeal: she had just enough cherubic child left in her face to balance all the signs that she was about to become an exceptionally beautiful woman. The girl knew how to build a platform, but more than that: Jeannie had class. She argued respectfully and avoided the oversharing, generalizing, and lecturing that dominated social media. America was too cynical and divided to have a sweetheart, but Jeannie Smith was the closest thing. “The little bitch,” as Barrone called her in private, was unassailable.

All that swirl of work and, in large part thanks to Jeannie and her father, none of it was gaining us any traction: we were in the weakest position anyone could remember. The ideas got wackier as our desperation grew.

Barrone said we were in crisis mode. Barrone was right.

 

 

The next afternoon, I was totally in the zone, plugging away organizing one of our new initiatives — I think it was Bring Your Gun To School Day — when my phone buzzed. It was a text from Barbara. She’d sent me a selfie of her and Sarah. They sat on a bench at the mall, wearing silly hats. Barbara did this sometimes, texted me random photos of their day. It irritated me. I found it distracting, first of all. It seemed to require a reply, though I never knew what to write. And I wasn’t sure what the point was: it felt like I was being labeled remiss somehow. I loved those two, and I spoiled the heck out of them. Barbara drove a forbidding Mercedes SUV with unmatched safety features and a tricked-out car seat for Sarah. When she wasn’t chauffeuring our daughter to one thing or another, she’d often be found in vigorous sweaty communion with our home Stairmaster or top-of-the-line spin machine, indulging her obsession with fitness. It’s true that Sarah wasn’t allowed in the main living room since the blueberry incident, but she enjoyed her own collection of toys whose combined retail price was in the five figures.

I ignored the text and tried to settle back into work, but then a calendar invitation for a meeting with Harris Cooger appeared in my inbox. My annoyance level rebounded. In a flash, I stood outside Rachel’s cubicle.

“Why am I invited to this meeting?” I demanded.

In his office, Barrone yelled, the sound only partly muffled by the door. Rachel didn’t look up from her screen. “Mechler told Barrone you recommended bringing Cooger in.”

“Mechler is a lying sack of shit.”

Rachel gave no sign she disagreed with this assertion.

“And why is Mechler suddenly my middleman to Barrone?” I asked.

Now she looked up, but only to award me one her patented Really?! looks, the kind of people got for cluelessness. “See you at the meeting.”

 

 

I sat in my home study that night, playing with my Twitter account and brooding. What was Mechler up to? Usually I could sniff out the faintest scent of office politics, detecting strategies and motivations with a bloodhound’s precision. This was a useful talent at GOA, which was like a bathroom where the abundant spray of fake potpourri couldn’t mask the pervasive odor of shit. But, in this situation, things didn’t add up. Did Mechler think this nonsense would earn him the Deputy VP slot? Eliminate me from consideration? Or something else entirely? All I knew was that we’d waste Barrone’s time the next day, and he’d be furious.

There was a soft knock and Barbara came in. Her hair was in a tight ponytail; spandex pants showed off the lean body from which even all that fanatical cardiovascular activity had failed to excise some of the curves. Thank God. I disliked recent pictures of us together; she sleek and angular and me office-doughy.

“Sarah’s getting ready for bed,” she said. “Maybe you’d like to read her a story?”

“I’m pretty busy.”

She came closer. “Twitter, Brad?” I winced. GOA’s public affairs people recommended we each maintain personal Twitter accounts. I was trying to be a team player.

She read my profile description over my shoulder. “Passionate advocate of Second Amendment freedoms. Proud husband …” she paused for dramatic effect. “And dad.”

“Give me a break, Barbara. We’re in crisis mode.”

“Views expressed are entirely my own,” she quoted. My whole feed was retweets from GOA.

“So what? I agree with my employer’s perspective. I’m helping to amplify our voice.”

“When was the last time you read her a story?” she asked.

“I’m working to ensure that she grows up in a world where the right to bear arms isn’t …” This was over-the-top even for me, and I changed course. “I had a terrible day. I’m too beat.”

Barbara rested her hand on my shoulder, then left. I turned back to Twitter and, Barbara’s sarcasm in mind, retweeted a piece about how most Americans opposed gun control directly from the Fox News website, rather than from GOA’s feed.

That’d show her.

 

 

The first thing that went wrong at the meeting the next day was that Mechler didn’t show up. “This is Mechler’s meeting,” I informed Rachel, unable to hide my desperation. This earned me another Really?! look.

“He had to go to the Hill,” she replied, dialing the polycom into the conference line. “He said he’d try to call in.”

The second thing that went wrong was that Harris Cooger and his assistant were right on time. Their incongruity with the staid conference room jarred me. Cooger was built like a bull: trapezoidal face, massive forearms. With a long gray beard and angry green eyes, it was like being stared down by Gandalf the Grey fresh out after serving a tenner at Soledad Prison. His assistant, introduced as Billy, looked like the guy who runs the Ferris wheel at a parking lot carnival. Crank thin, with a lazy eye and weak mustache of sandy fuzz, the word that came inevitably to mind was peckerwood.

When Barrone charged in five minutes late, however, he appeared unfazed by the visitors. “Let’s go,” he ordered. Oversized bifocals perched on his bulbous nose, he peered around the room with hostility, baring incisors like crooked fenceposts. Acne or chicken pox had left his cheeks cratered with pockmarks and when he yelled, face reddening with fury, it felt like being attacked by the world’s biggest, meanest strawberry.

“Mechler here,” came the static-y voice through the polycom. I had just enough time to be relieved before he continued, “I may have to go suddenly. Coffman should lead.”

Barrone turned to me, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Cooger and Billy. They frightened me.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Cooger said, and with his penetrating gaze I could believe this was literally true. I shivered.

“Don’t confuse appearance for competence,” said Billy, sounding a thousand times more educated than he looked. “Like everyone else in America, we’re businessmen. We portray the image most of our clients expect.” He gave that a beat to sink in, then declared, “We can help you.”

Barrone raised his eyebrows.

“Our approach is unorthodox,” said Cooger.

“Progress can’t always be measured,” Billy elaborated. “Sometimes only felt.”

Barrone, desperate for anything that might help us, appeared fascinated. My discomfort grew.

“But what do you do?” asked Mechler, somewhere on Capitol Hill and oblivious to the atmosphere in the room.

“I focus,” Cooger answered. “My attention: my thought, will, and desire. I focus, and I nudge.”

“Nudge?” asked Barrone, eyes narrowing. “Like Cass Sunstein?”

“I nudge circumstance. I nudge karma. In a particular direction. Tell them, Billy.”

“He makes bad things happen,” Billy explained.

Barrone looked intently at Harris. “We need a bad thing to happen to the President.”

Harris didn’t flinch. “Yes.”

I felt deeply uneasy. We were desperate, sure, but this was crazy.

Barrone said, “It could be any number of things.”

“Don’t suggest specifics. I can’t control what happens, or when.”

“In an essentially probabilistic, quantum universe,” Billy explicated, “there’s no way to predict.” His lazy eye drifted upward, as if in heavenly rapture.

“Like I said, I nudge,” continued Cooger. “When the bad thing happens, I can’t prove causation. You, the client, must accept that if something occurs within the term of the contract, we caused it.”

“I can live with that,” said Barrone. I hadn’t realized Barrone was ready for a Hail Mary like this.

Mechler’s voice chimed in from the ether. “Coffman’s idea to bring you in was out-of-the-box, I’ll give you that.” I cringed. “But I’ll ask again: what do you do?”

I needed to correct the record, but was spellbound as Cooger leaned closer and answered with a question of his own. “Do you know that dark, murky place at the edge of your nightmares?”

“I don’t dream,” announced Mechler.

“I don’t sleep,” Barrone boasted.

I’d never thought of it this way, but knew exactly what Cooger meant. I whimpered, “Yes.”

Cooger looked at me. So did Billy … or, at least, he swiveled his head in my direction. “Have you noticed that’s where all the bad things emerge from?”

I hadn’t noticed, but believed it if these two said so.

“That’s the place I go,” said Cooger.

“It’s a bad place,” Billy added, underscoring the obvious in a way that gave me chills.

“I’ve heard enough,” said Barrone. “Mechler.” There was no response. “Mechler?” Nothing but static. Mechler was gone. “Coffman.” Barrone gave me the look I’d always found so scary before encountering Harris Cooger’s Manson lamps. “Make it happen.”

 

 

Cooger and Billy left surprisingly professional paperwork, even as their contract more resembled a tour rider. They planned to pitch a tent in Lafayette Square, across from the White House. (I wouldn’t have thought proximity mattered, but didn’t want to ask.) The contract stipulated that GOA would pay for the tent and chairs, food and lodging, modest daily fees, and a hefty bonus payable when and if the bad thing happened.

This was Mechler’s project, right, so I didn’t sweat the details. I sent the contract down to get our boilerplate added: indemnification and all the other legal hoo-ha that GOA included to cover its ass. I told the finance people this was a favor for Mechler, but of course the final document came back for my signature. It sat on my desk until Rachel buzzed to inquire, on Barrone’s behalf, as to its status. So I signed it myself, then moved back to the other 75 million projects on my plate.

At home, a few nights later, with Barbara and I snugly ensconced at opposite ends of our king bed, I started to think about the situation again. What might “the bad thing” turn out to be? Was it possible that Harris Cooger could harm the President of the United States by sitting in a tent and “nudging circumstance?” It was a nice fantasy. I hated President Smith. He was smug, corrupt, incompetent, and gravely mistaken about the direction the country should go. Maybe the harm wouldn’t be physical. Impeachment, for instance. Unlikely given the Other Party’s control of Congress, but you never knew. Or, even better, criminal prosecution. President Smith in prison, now that was a fitting fate: getting fucked up the ass the same way he’d done to the country.

But President Smith was only one guy. We needed to change people’s views. For that, the undeniable truth was that nothing was more effective than an attack. But only if it fit a certain profile. Not another 9/11 or Boston Marathon thing: guns needed to be involved. And the perpetrator needed to be a terrorist; some random nutjob wouldn’t do. Maybe one of those batshit crazy ISIS people. At a school. And the entire thing — kids’ screams, Allah Akbars, the whole caboodle — broadcast on Facebook Live. Maybe the guy could even say, “Too bad no one’s armed or you could stop me” before firing … say it in both Arabic and English, just to beat everyone over the head with it.

I didn’t wish for it. But if such a tragedy occurred, GOA would be foolish not to take full advantage. With thoughts of what such an incident would do to national polling numbers, I drifted into slumber.

I awoke in the downstairs room that I’d set up after my last promotion. Barbara called it a man-cave, but it was a home theatre. Either way, the room was all wrong: its angles off, the edges hazy and darkened like a far-off horizon.

Suddenly, Harris Cooger materialized out of the wall. He appraised the surroundings. “Nice place, Mr. Coffman.”

“I see what you did there,” I told him. “You came from the dark, murky place. Didn’t you?”

He smiled. “Let me ask you something, Mr. Coffman.”

“Call me Brad.”

He scrutinized me. “Won’t it bother you if people die?”

“The world would be a better place without President Smith.”

“What about those kids you were thinking about?”

“Yes, but …” I paused, but only for a beat. “Give me a break, Harris. We’re in crisis mode.”

“I’d hate to burden your conscience with the idea that, by hiring me, you share responsibility for what happens.”

“Then why mention it?”

“You might have thought of it yourself one day,” Cooger responded. “After the bad thing happens. When it’s too late to undo. Then you’d have to face it alone.”

“Face what alone? The view from my new Deputy VP’s office?”

“No.” He pointed his thumb back behind him. “Face that alone.” The walls of the room roiled like a stormy sea, flashed like lightning. Terror seized me. “Take my hand, Mr. Coffman. Come with me to the dark, murky place.” A bloodcurdling scream from behind the wall pierced the air, punctuating his invitation. “I have things to show you.”

As if hypnotized, I reached out my arm to take his hand. Then I came to my senses and jerked it back. “What is this, a Stephen King movie? No fucking way, dude. And I thought I told you to call me Brad.”

Cooger appraised the room again: gargantuan flat-screen TV, custom-built wall unit, Bose speaker system, leather seats. “This must be a great little escape.”

I scanned the still-churning wall apprehensively. “Can you make that stop, please?”

“How often do you get to enjoy this place?”

I shrugged and he shook his head. “What’s the point if you never get to use it?” He snapped his fingers. “Ah, it’s not really for using, is it?” I said nothing, but he’d hit on some truth. “I bet what this room represents gives you far more pleasure than using it ever could. That’s true of a lot of things that are yours, isn’t it?” Again, he gave me a few seconds to mull it over before he went on. “But it all has a cost. None of it’s free.”

“Free?” He’d touched a nerve, and I was tired of his presumptuous clairvoyant moralizing. “Of course none of it’s free. I earn it, every penny, by slogging through shit 70 hours a week!”

He met my anger with a spot-on mimic of Rachel’s Really?! expression, which brought home to me the way I’d described my job. The dark, murky place mocked me with the sound of automatic rifle fire, and all my fear turned to rage. Cooger laughed and disappeared into the wall. In a mix of fury and catharsis, I screamed after him, “Slogging through shit! Slogging through shit!”

That was when Barbara tapped my shoulder and woke me up. “Your phone’s going off,” she yawned. “And you were mumbling about hogging the zit, or jogging to quit, or something.” Once I was sufficiently conscious to make those infernal gunshots cease, she rolled back over.

I basked in relief: my encounter with Cooger was a dream. Then I checked the phone. The message was from Mechler. Whats happening w psychic initiative, he’d written. At 2:14 am. Was he under the illusion that I reported to him, or just being sarcastic? Either way: what an asshole.

Barbara emitted a snore that sounded like a dismissive snort. I got out of bed. Something about the dream sent me to Sarah’s room. I crept in and nestled into the glider by her little bed, placing the phone on her dresser.

Unlike Barbara, Sarah’s sleep was silent. They say that small children change incredibly fast, and the times I’d been away for work I noticed something different about her each time I returned. But I could never put my finger on what precisely changed. In the glow of the nightlight, her face looked ageless. I could envision her as an eight-year old, a 16-year old, a grown woman. I saw the future in her features and wondered, as I hadn’t since her birth, about the person she’d become.

The sound of gunshots disturbed my reverie. I swatted for the phone and knocked it to the floor. I stood up and nearly tripped over it, catching myself on the edge of Sarah’s bed.

“Mama?”

“Sarah, it’s just me. Daddy. Goddammit.” Had I kicked the phone? Where had the stupid thing gone?

“Mama! Mama!” Her panic grew.

“It’s OK, Sarah. It’s Daddy.” I reached under her bed, groping, and managed to push it further away. The artillery barrage continued, my daughter’s room transformed into a scene from Saving Private Ryan.

“Ma-MAAA!” came the full-on shriek. “Ma-MAAA!”

“Sarah, chill, OK?” My fingers felt the phone and I got down on my belly for the extra reach to grab it.

I heard footfalls. The light came on and Barbara’s voice said, “Honey, it’s OK. Mama’s here, Mama’s here.”

“Ma-maaa!” The cry changed from fear to relief as Sarah leapt out of bed and ran to her.

I finally grabbed the phone and stood triumphantly, only to be confronted by a squinting, angry Barbara. Sarah sobbed, her face buried in Barbara’s shoulder.

“Would you turn that thing off?” Barbara demanded. The cessation of gunfire was bliss. “What are you doing in here?”

“I wanted …” This would be difficult to explain. “I came in here to …”

“You woke up a three-year old,” she said, in the tone she might use to inform me that I’d put my underwear on over my pants. “And me. Again.”

“It was an accident.” I peered at my phone.

“Brad!”

“It’s from Barrone,” I told her. I expect status report on Cooger at 3:30 staff meeting.

“I don’t care if it’s from God.”

Sarah, groggy and disoriented, released her death grip on Barbara. “Daddy?”

“Comfort your daughter, maybe?” Barbara said.

“Sure, yeah, hold on.” Got it. Will do. I thumbed back.

Barbara plopped down in the glider, Sarah on her lap.

“I can take her,” I offered.

“No! I want Mama!” Sarah exclaimed.

Barbara shot me a withering look. “Shut the light when you leave.”

 

 

My terrible night’s sleep didn’t mitigate the work I needed to do. Late the next morning, I took an Uber the half mile from GOA’s office to Lafayette Square. It was bright and sunny, warm for the season. The streets were filling with office drones. Lunchtime in downtown DC was a cattle call. Fortunately, I stayed busy enough to eat at my desk and avoid the whole scene.

If you’ve ever walked by Lafayette Square you know that, besides tourists congregating for White House pictures and suit-and-tie types scurrying between buildings, there are always protesters of one variety or another, some with tents. Cooger’s tent — a miniature version of the backyard type people rent for weddings, white with a fake window, about eight feet square — stood out. It was far classier than the others, and the only one without signs. Billy sat in front of it, sketching on a pad.

“He inside?” I asked, trying to peer in.

“He’s at lunch,” Billy told me. He scribbled strange symbols. Was he creating the proper aura for Cooger’s work? Inscribing an occult incantation to weaken the President? Preparing for his weekly Dungeons & Dragons group? Whatever it was, I noticed he was doing it on stationery from the Four Seasons, the most expensive hotel in town.

“Where?”

“He likes that place up a few blocks.” He gestured, his eye still on the pad. “The steak place.”

“The steak place.” This was supremely unhelpful in narrowing it down. But I had a hunch and headed up to K Street. Capitol Steak and Seafood was one of the priciest restaurants around, and I found Cooger alone at a table for four. A platter of surf and turf, largely consumed, rested before him. Various side dishes — mashed potatoes, mushrooms, asparagus — littered the table. A nearby chiller held a bottle of white wine, though there was red in his glass.

“Brad,” he greeted me cheerily. “Long time.” He winked in a creepy way that made me wonder whether my dream the previous night was truly the product of my own subconscious. But that was ridiculous.

“Just checking on things,” I stammered, standing next to his table like a supplicant.

“Doing your due diligence. Smart.” He put a forkful of steak into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “I must say: this place is good, but not quite up to the standard of the hotel restaurant.”

“You mean at the Four Seasons?”

Cooger nodded, then raised a mocking eyebrow. “Maybe I’m not the only one around here with special powers?”

“You are staying there,” I chided.

“We’ve got to stay somewhere.”

“I saw your assistant,” I told him. “He was writing in some kind of runic script.”

Cooger guffawed, displaying strands of expensive beef trapped between his teeth. “It’s not runic script, Brad. It’s math. Complex math. Billy may look like he flunked out of carny school, but he’s got a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Caltech.”

“Then why is he minding a tent for you?”

Cooger shrugged. “More lucrative and less taxing, I suppose.”

“How is it going?” I was unable to hide my sarcasm. “Working hard?”

“Sure am,” he responded. Eyes twinkling, he asked, “How is your work going, Brad? Enjoying your job?” He forked another bloody nugget of steak into his mouth.

“You know,” I said. “I recall that when Jesus faced down the Devil, he slept out in the desert and fasted for 40 days. He didn’t stay at the Four Seasons and go out for surf and turf and Bordeaux at 11:30 in the morning.”

“I’m not Jesus.”

“Clearly.”

A tuxedoed waiter approached the table. “More wine, Mr. Cooger?”

“Yes, please, Hector.” We watched him refill the glass in silence.

After Hector departed, Cooger sipped his wine and looked at me seriously. “Brad, I need my strength for facing down the dark, murky place. It all helps: rest, sustenance, even a little libation. Let me tell you what it’s like there.” He gestured with his fork. “It’s like a prison, but an alluring one. Full of tormented souls who can’t leave.”

I couldn’t help it. “The dark, murky place is the Hotel California?”

“No, Brad. It’s a dangerous place, and one that can wear you down until you’re nothing but an empty shell.” He nudged the remains of his lobster with his fork and pursed his lips. “Have you ever spent time in a place like that? Can you imagine how it saps your soul?”

I checked my watch. I needed to get back to the office. “No, not really.”

The waiter returned to the table, carrying another massive slab of meat.

“Thank you, Hector. Could you wrap that up, please?” Cooger caught my stare and explained, “Billy needs to eat, too.”

“Can’t he go to Cosi?”

“I think the Gun Owners of America can afford a steak. Anyhow, Brad, we’ve got things well in hand here.” Cooger smiled. “But look, all this food, and I didn’t offer you anything.” He scanned the table. “Want some mushrooms? I’m not going to finish them.”

“How about you bring them for Billy?” I quipped.

“Good idea. Thanks, Brad.”

 

 

One doesn’t become an Associate VP at a trade association without the requisite bullshitting skills. Which is to say I survived my status report on the project that afternoon. But I was uneasy.

I was right to be.

About a week later, Rachel appeared at my office door. “Harris Cooger is here to meet with Barrone.”

I jumped up.

“Did you know about this?” she demanded, though I was clearly shocked.

We rushed to Barrone’s office. Somehow, some way, Mechler was already there. God, I hated him.

Cooger was euphoric. “Gentlemen, I’m happy to report success.”

“What’s happening?” asked Mechler.

“You’ll know within 24 hours.”

What’s happening?” demanded Barrone.

Cooger chuckled. “I can’t tell you.”

“Why not?”

“Well, Billy would say that it’d disturb the space-time continuum. My explanation is it would be unwisely fucking with karma. Either way, you’ll find out soon enough.”

Barrone glowered. “Cute.” He pushed a button on his desk phone. “Get me public affairs. Wiggins, anything big happening now?”

“Like … like what?” came the voice of GOA’s public affairs director, nonplussed.

“Like anything big!” snarled Barrone.

“Biggest story today is the Instagram sex thing with that reality TV star. Slow news day …” Wiggins trailed off and I imagined him wincing, waiting for Barrone to chew him out for whatever he’d missed. Instead, Barrone buzzed off without another word and glared triumphantly.

Cooger laughed. “Just remember you heard from me first.” He proffered a thin white envelope. “I’ll expect payment by the first of next month.”

I grabbed the envelope. The total charges, including all those nights in a five-star hotel and all that steak and wine, must be off the charts. Barrone would blow a gasket. And who knows what nefarious uses Mechler would find for such an invoice.

After Cooger left, Barrone commanded, “Find out what he’s talking about.”

I spent the rest of the afternoon trying. I called my friends on the Hill, checked in with the reporters I knew, even utilized my weak connections at the Smith White House. There was nada. Mechler also turned up blank. Barrone fumed.

My sleep that night was abysmal. I kept checking my phone for news alerts. Barrone messaged me and Mechler hourly to see if we’d heard anything. On her side of the bed, Barbara tossed and turned, until at some ungodly hour she yanked off the blanket and said, “Maybe you should pick up a dozen roses and play some Barry White for your phone, since you’re planning to make sweet love to it all night long.” She grabbed her pillow and departed the bedroom.

The next day, midafternoon, Rachel sent an e-mail ordering staff to assemble in the conference room. The President had announced a press conference, and Barrone wanted us to watch live. Whatever Harris Cooger had done, this was it.

“Sit next to me,” Barrone said. He attempted a smile. It would have been a proud moment save that Mechler already sat on Barrone’s other side.

To our surprise, as we watched on the big screen, the President and First Lady trudged to the podium together. They looked grim.

One of my colleagues yelled, “Resign!” to general amusement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon,” President Smith began. “Cindy and I come before you today with heavy hearts.”

Barrone muttered, “Whatever weighs down their hearts lightens mine.” I chuckled.

“Many of you know,” said the President, “that Jeannie, our daughter, has struggled with leukemia. We’ve just received news that the cancer has returned in an extremely aggressive form. It’s metastasized to her lungs, liver, and brain. Doctors have no suggested treatment, and we’re making arrangements for her last days to be as comfortable as possible.”

Our collective mirth vanished, we all looked at the floor. The First Lady began speaking about her memories of Jeannie as a small child. Barrone’s jaw clenched audibly. “Clear the room now,” he ordered. “Rachel, you stay, along with Mechler, Wiggins, and Coffman.”

When everyone was gone, he turned to us. “So this is what Harris Cooger has done for us. Coffman, do you know what you’ve accomplished here?”

Mechler began to interject. “Don’t forget, I also had s …”

“You have totally fucked up everything!” Barrone roared. I’d witnessed Barrone furious — at me, at others, at the world — many times, but never like this. “Do you know what this means?” he screamed. “He will be untouchable now. He’ll have the sympathy of the whole goddamned nation! I can picture it already. The Jeannie Smith Gun Control Bill. Honoring the legacy of the President’s poor deceased daughter.” He pounded the table with his fist. “Who can stand against that?”

Nobody dared speak, except Mechler, who offered, “I knew Coffman’s idea would never work.”

This was a step too far. I needed to let him have it. “Mechler, you f…”

“Shut up, Coffman,” Barrone said, with a look to wilt flowers, turn green grass to yellow husks, and transform butterflies to smoking black cinders falling from the sky. Then he dropped his voice to a chilling whisper.

“Let me tell you two things that will happen now. First, tomorrow morning, bright and early, we’ll meet with Harris Cooger again, and he’ll begin reversing this thing. Stat. Rachel, make it happen.” He paused for a breath. “Second, damage control.”

 

 

I sat in my home study that night, working on my Twitter account. Demonstrating I was still a team player by retweeting GOA’s stuff was like trying to fill the Pacific Ocean with a teaspoon. But it was something to do.

When Barbara peeked in the doorway, I didn’t wait for her to speak.

“I know,” I said, “it’s getting close to Sarah’s bedtime.”

“Read her a story, Brad. Play dolls with her.” Her voice surprised me with its softness. “She wants to spend time with you. And I bet it’ll take your mind off things.”

“Today was miserable.”

She saw the stricken expression on my face. “Is it Jeannie Smith?”

I nodded.

“Such a tragedy for that poor girl, and her parents.”

I looked at her, surprised, not by the sentiment she’d expressed but by her thinking the tragic aspect of it had anything to do with my shitty day. She met my look, then her eyes cut over to my screen. She shook her head.

“Oh, Brad. No.”

You’d think she’d caught me posting on Ashley Madison or looking for prostitutes. All I’d done was tweet GOA’s meme and hashtag.

Guns don’t kill people, cancer does. #RIPJeannie.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“Brad, if you don’t know …” Her voice was taut.

“We don’t want people to lose sight of the real issue,” I explained.

Barbara didn’t respond. She threw up her hands as she walked out of the room.

I yelled after her. “I’m amplifying our voice. Give me a break, Barbara. We’re in crisis mode. Our meme will go viral. Our hashtag will trend. Wait and see!”

 

 

“It’s simple, really,” Barrone said. “Undo it.”

It was 8:30 the next morning and Mechler, Barrone, and I were back in the conference room. Cooger and Billy’s luggage was piled against the wall. Job done, they were headed for the airport.

“It’s not that easy,” Billy responded.

“You made it happen, didn’t you?” Barrone challenged.

Cooger shrugged. He looked rather proud of himself.

“Our contract stipulates you accept that we did,” Billy answered, one eye focused on us while the other checked the corner for dust mites.

“So you can undo it.”

Cooger and Billy said nothing.

“We’ll pay you double,” Barrone offered. “Triple!”

He didn’t quite understand the financial commitment this would entail … most of it, if the previous contract was any guide, for high thread count sheets and sommelier service. “Um,” I ventured, “we might want to …”

“Shut up, Coffman.”

“I’d love to take more of your money,” said Cooger, “but I can’t reverse it.”

“Why not?”

“It’s complicated. Billy?”

“He only does the dark, murky place,” Billy explained. “He’s, like, a bad stuff specialist.”

Mechler snorted. “So put us in touch with a good stuff specialist.”

Cooger and Billy exchanged glances. “I suppose there’s someone we can recommend. But she’s on a three-month retreat in the Himalayas. It’ll take time to reach her.”

“We don’t have time,” Barrone hissed through gritted teeth.

“Honestly,” Cooger said, “you’re better off not going with a third-party vendor on this.” He looked at me. “From a karmic perspective, the best thing is for the person who desired the harm to seek to undo it himself.”

“That means one of you guys,” Billy added.

Barrone, Mechler, and I exchanged looks.

“Coffman,” said Mechler.

“Mechler,” I said.

Coffman,” barked Barrone.

“What about you, Mr. Barrone?” Billy suggested. “After all, you’re the b …” He stopped talking as his own boss laid a hand on his shoulder and shook his head.

“Coffman,” Cooger decreed.

They all looked at me, like a pack of drooling wolves who’d cornered a cute little bunny rabbit with a fluffy white tail.

“What does he need to do?” asked Barrone. “Is there some shiny, happy place he needs to go to?” He eyed me ominously. “Even shinier and happier than GOA?”

“Do I get all-you-can-eat surf and turf?” I asked. Everyone ignored me.

“The most important thing,” Cooger said, “is to find a peaceful spot and focus. You must eliminate all distraction and relax.”

“We can help him relax,” Barrone said, then yelled, “Rachel, get in here now! Take Coffman’s phone. Lock his office door.” Rachel shot me a sympathetic look as I meekly handed over my phone. “And move all meetings downstairs. Nothing in this conference room.”

“Think of it like prayer,” said Cooger. “Gather all your feelings of benevolence, goodwill, and lovingkindness, and send them to Jeannie Smith and her parents.”

“Ugh.” Barrone grimaced.

“Or meditation. Have you ever tried meditation, Mr. Coffman?” Cooger asked.

Even if I had tried that hippie BS, I’d never admit it in front of Barrone and Mechler. Though Barbara did yoga at the gym sometimes. At least I thought it was yoga. Maybe she’d said Zumba.

“This is like meditation,” Cooger explained, “except your point of focus isn’t your breath or a mantra, it’s the good things you want to happen. For instance, you can picture Jeannie’s sickness as dark clouds, and envision the sun burning them off. It’s important to imagine Jeannie and the President and First Lady as healthy, happy, smiling, laughing …”

“I think I’m going to be sick,” muttered Barrone.

Billy held his watch up close to his face and nudged Cooger.

“We’ll miss our flight if we don’t get going. Questions, Mr. Coffman?”

“Um.”

“Very good.” Cooger smiled, satisfied.

Everyone except me stood up. Cooger and Billy grabbed their bags.

“Make it happen, Coffman,” Barrone ordered, exiting after them.

“Good luck, Coffman,” Mechler gleefully called, following the boss.

I admit: flipping my middle finger at his retreating back wasn’t the best way to begin my quest for lovingkindness. But the bastard deserved it.

 

 

Not yet 9:00 am, and I considered the day I’d expected to have. There was a ton to do and I couldn’t do any of it. Deadlines would be missed. People would be angry. Barrone waltzed out without making any provision for my workload. Didn’t any of it matter?

Now my job was to “nudge circumstance.” Not a bad description for much of GOA’s work, honestly. This realization led to a moment of despair, but only a moment. Barrone considered what I was doing high-priority. He’d cleared the conference room for me, after all, which — given the volume of meetings around this place — would inconvenience practically everyone. If this work was indeed important, I ought to give it a try, as idiotic and — come to think of it — humiliating as it seemed.

I sat back in my chair and closed my eyes. Good things for Jeannie Smith, I thought. Good things for Jeannie Smith. I pictured the words running across the darkness behind my eyelids, like one of those stupid scrolling tickers every TV newscast has taken to using.

Repeating this phrase was like counting sheep, with the same effect. When I next opened my eyes, it was 10:30. I was embarrassed. I was also desperate for caffeine and needed to drain my main vein something fierce. But as I walked past Rachel’s desk, her head swiveled up in dismay.

“Brad,” she whispered, “you’re not supposed to leave the conference room.”

“I haven’t had any coffee.”

She glanced toward Barrone’s office. “He will flip his shit if he sees you.”

“And the bathroom’s not optional, either.”

“You need to get back in there now.”

This made me angry. “Do you want me to piss in the conference room coffee pot? My bodily functions don’t cease at Barrone’s command.”

In a huff, I went to the men’s room, relieved my bladder, and washed up. Then I headed to the kitchen, grabbed the largest cup I could find, and filled it with coffee. Rachel and I stared each other down as I walked back the other way.

In the conference room again, I hesitated over the coffee I’d so eagerly sought. My little catnap had been nice. Maybe I could arrange more. I sat back, closed my eyes, and tried again with the Good things for Jeannie Smith stuff. At first I was too irked by Rachel’s behavior and, now that I thought about it, by the way we all tiptoed around Barrone. I knew the guy was a superstar, and yeah, he was the boss. But did he have to be a complete asshole all the time?

Eventually I drifted off again, and when a soft knock at the door woke me, it was nearly 1:00 pm. I felt good. Sleep was underrated, especially when you took away the threat of being woken up by an automatic rifle fire ringtone. I went to the door. Outside, on the floor, was lunch from Sushi Bob’s in a plastic container.

Though ravenous, I ate slowly, savoring Rachel’s act of kindness along with the food. Why couldn’t there be more kindness around here, I wondered, instead of Mechler’s backstabbing and Barrone’s malevolence? Weren’t we all on the same side? I regretted my gruffness with Rachel. It occurred to me what an extraordinary job she did, tolerating Barrone’s moody browbeating and running interference for the rest of us. She was remarkable.

Maybe, I thought, I should take some of these warm fuzzies and aim them at the First Family.

Yeah, right. My mind wanted to go everywhere but there.

As I polished off my lunch, I thought about how I needed to lose weight. Sushi was kind of healthy, right? Maybe I’d already taken the first step.

I followed the motion of the second hand around the clock … four revolutions before I took my eyes away.

I mentally catalogued my retirement investments. Were they properly diversified? This was an issue worth revisiting once I escaped this room. Along with the weight thing.

I counted. Several times. Once almost to 1,000.

After an eternity, I tiptoed out of the conference room. Rachel was gone, Barrone’s office dark. I dumped my stale coffee in the kitchen, then rummaged through the fridge and wolfed down someone’s leftover pasta that they’d probably planned to have for lunch the next day. Well fuck ‘em, I thought, a guy’s gotta eat. But then I felt sorry — what happened to all those kindness vibes? — so I washed the container and put it back in the fridge with a $20 bill inside.

I hadn’t been aware of the hum of the building’s ventilation system, but I noticed its absence when it shut down at 9:00 pm. The silence grew profound when I flipped off the fluorescent lights and lay down on the conference room floor. In the dim quiet, I stared at the ceiling tiles and felt like a prisoner locked in his cell. Except nothing stopped me from leaving: to a restaurant for a real dinner, to a bar for a drink or ten, even home for a few hours’ rest in my own bed … or, given things with Barbara, on one of our many couches.

I didn’t move.

I awoke when the ventilation system kicked back on at 6:00 am, after the most solid, peaceful night of sleep I could remember. As I strode through the empty office, the physical exertion added to my wellbeing. It occurred to me that, at home, Barbara would already be awake and pounding away on the Stairmaster. Did she get a high from exercise? Surely it wasn’t solely fear of a few extra pounds that kept her motivated. Fear could only get a person up in the morning for so long. Soon Sarah would rise and … did she have daycare today? Or was it only afternoons? I couldn’t remember. Photos of the two of them hung in my office. I made casual small talk with coworkers about them. But they were there, and I was here, and that was that.

It would be different for President Smith. He lived and worked in the same place, and his wife and daughter were part of the endeavor. GOA endlessly made hay on social media with all the sordid stories about the First Family: the accusations, conspiracy theories, claims of corruption. It wasn’t enough for people to disagree with the President’s policy positions. They needed to hate him. Even better if they hated his whole family. That was how to mobilize action. It was also, I realized with the morning’s clarity, a good way to keep those of us who ought to know better motivated through an endless crisis.

I sat down in the conference room again and tried once more to do what Cooger had suggested. I imagined the corniest image ever: President and Mrs. Smith frolicking — I apologize for that word, but it’s the right one — through a green field, holding their daughter’s hand. The sun shone, wildflowers bloomed. Puffy white clouds drifted lazily overhead, stolid bumblebees and delicate butterflies flew hither and thither. Total cliché. A scene you’d see on TV only as dreamy irony or a Claritin commercial.

Then it happened: the First Couple transformed into Barbara and me. Jeannie shrank down to the size of a three-year old and became Sarah. She grinned up at us.

It was that image, equally heartbreaking and stupid, that sent me into the mental time warp. Days passed. I didn’t worry about my work, ponder what else to scavenge from the office kitchen, or watch the second-hand travel around the clock. Uninterrupted by the ding of e-mails, the constant Twitter refresh, or the dreaded gunfire ringtone, my mind settled into focused, concentrated thought.

I wished good things for Jeannie Smith. I wished them for her parents, and for the parents of all the imaginary kids I’d envisioned gunned down, whoever they were. And the kids themselves: what had I been thinking, more worried about poll numbers than actual lives? I wished good things for Sarah and Barbara. For Rachel. For Wiggins. My kindness, my magnanimity, seemed boundless.

But of course there was a limit. I hit it when my attention turned to Mechler. The gushing fountain of lovingkindness abruptly sputtered to impotence. I tried again. Total failure to launch.

Then I thought about Barrone, a man to whom I’d devoted more attention than to my own wife and daughter. A man who kept me, kept all of us, in constant fear and stress. Around whom we slavishly maintained a cult of personality. Like some tin pot dictator, the more absurd his ideology and outrageous his demands, the more we loved him. All so that he might bestow on us … what? In my case, a Deputy VP slot that meant more abuse at his hands.

How could a person live like he did? Constant work, continuous agitation … his physical condition must make my office pudge look like Olympic triathlete. I imagined his arteries, clogged and brittle. His heart, angry and swollen. Pounding through meetings where he growled and glared, phone calls where he screamed into the receiver, nights he spent firing off one angry message after another. How long could his heart hold out? It was miles away from kindness, but I began imagining that heart of his going kablooey.

Then I started to desire it.

This was much easier, and a hell of a lot more fun, than imagining good things for Jeannie Smith or anyone else. I was like Harris Cooger in that regard: a natural bad stuff specialist. Circumstance, or karma, or whatever, must have recognized it, because the wall I’d hit became real. It wavered and flashed and pulled me in: finally, I entered the dark, murky place.

Inside was cavernous: the illumination orange and shuddering, as if torchlit. It was like no place I’d ever been, yet somehow familiar. A distant chanting put me in mind of the movies. Was this the Mines of Moria? Some dungeon from Conan the Destroyer? Yogurt’s cave in Spaceballs?

Suddenly it dawned on me.

It was that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — you know the one — and I was the high priest. On the altar before me rested a giant stone god, hungry for sacrifice. Its eyes and mouth were lit by the glow of molten rock. In my hand, I held my victim’s still-beating heart. Cratered and rotten, just as I’d envisioned Barrone’s, it ejaculated black blood with each feeble throb. I was frozen in place, shocked and disgusted.

I looked up at the statue again. Its face was familiar: pockmarked cheeks, globular nose, crooked teeth. The chanting increased in volume and pitch, and the god’s voice rang in my head: Make it happen, Coffman.

Wait, I thought with dawning horror, if the god is Barrone, who is the victim?

The chanting reached a crescendo. I looked down and gasped as I saw who was in the cage, whose heart I held in my hand. Not Barrone. No, not at all. It was ….

“Coffman. Coffman!”

I opened my eyes. I was back in the conference room. Rachel stood at the door.

“It’s Barrone,” she said, eyes wide. “Brad, it’s bad. He’s …”

I stared at her, the reality of what I’d somehow done sinking in. There was both hope and trepidation in my voice as I asked, “You mean he’s …?”

“He’s incredibly pissed off. Like, beyond the pale, even for him.”

“Uh.”

“Go back to your office,” Rachel told me. “Close the door. Stay away from Barrone right now, OK?”

“What …?”

“Jeannie Smith died this morning,” she said. “Now go.”

 

 

Being in my office felt at once familiar and strange, like moving through your house after returning from a long trip. I checked Fox News: the top headline was Jeannie’s death. I didn’t know how much of it, if any, was my responsibility. But I was sorry.

2,472 unread messages sat in my e-mail inbox. My office phone flashed with 17 new voicemails. On my smartphone, which Rachel had placed next to my computer, were 30 new texts, including 13 from Barrone and 10 from Mechler. Yeah, those idiots kept texting me even after they’d taken the phone away.

There was also a text message from Barbara. Of all that junk, it was the only thing I looked at. She’d sent a silly little photo of herself and Sarah bundled up on a playground bench. Both were smiling. This time, I saw it for what it was: an invitation.

Beautiful, I texted back. I’ll be home soon.

 

 

I wasn’t as talented as Cooger. Barrone lasted 12 more years. It was a stroke that finally did him in, and it happened in the middle of staff meeting. The story I heard is that no one called 911 because they confused the shaking, inability to speak, and contorted face with his normal paroxysms of rage. Mechler, by then quite advanced in the Deputy VP slot we’d both coveted, ascended to Barrone’s position. I saw a photo of him online. He looked terrible, like a snaggle-toothed old fox who’d outrun one too many hounds. There but for the grace of God, I thought.

Sarah’s now about the age Jeannie was when she died and, though she lacks the First Daughter’s celebrity clout, in some ways reminds me of her. Her intelligence, curiosity, passion. I love the way she is, and at the same time can’t wait to see who she’ll become. For one thing, no one would have guessed that Barbara and Brad Coffman’s daughter would be an ardent environmentalist, but that’s where she seems headed as of now.

A few weekends ago, the three of us were on Capitol Hill, going to dinner. We came up from the Metro just as the sun was setting, and I spied a miniature backyard wedding tent outside the Rayburn Building. In front of the tent sat a skinny man who looked like he was sketching in a pad.

“Dad?” Sarah asked.

Though it wasn’t on our way, I approached. The sunlight near-blinded me. I couldn’t make out the man’s features. Then I noticed another man, this one stocky, walking toward us, carrying something. For a moment, I was sure it was Harris Cooger, bringing dinner in a doggie bag to Billy.

“Brad?” asked Barbara.

But when I got close enough, “Billy” turned out to be one of those pestilential Lyndon LaRouche supporters. “Cooger” was just some guy carrying a bag. He walked right by.

We went on to dinner.

Too bad. I would have liked to thank them.

 

 

BIO

Josh Trapani is a scientist turned policy wonk who lives just outside Washington, D.C. He helped start the Washington Independent Review of Books and served as its first managing editor. His fiction and humor have appeared in Parent CoThe Big JewelThe Del Sol ReviewNeutrons ProtonsBrick Moon Fiction, The Higgs Weldon, and others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

The Dead Doll

by Sola Saar

 

 

I was back in Los Angeles at my mother’s house and very pregnant with my first child.

My younger sister Katrina already had twenty-six children.

She seated several baby dolls at the dining table, then placed tiny sauce bowls and teacups in front of each of them. Katrina put Marissa, a doll she’d been carrying around everywhere for seven years, in a high chair on my right. With her tangled black curls and exaggerated eye makeup drawn on with a thick black Sharpie, Marissa looked like a deranged version of me, a junkie child beauty pageant star whose blank stare evoked more than her manufacturers had originally intended. She taunted me with her permanently raised arms.

My sister began this tribe of dolls when she first discovered medical reality television at fifteen. While she liked shows focused on obesity or various deformities, “The Birthing Channel” was her favorite. It was a channel entirely devoted to playing live births, 24 hours a day. Her addiction to this channel vexed my artist mother, but to me it seemed reasonable for someone whose autism diagnosis allowed her to create a world entirely of her own obsessions. It was one I sometimes envied. The gruesome videos only bothered me when she watched them in the living room.

After school, she’d sit on the couch dunking cookies into her milk, transfixed by the endless loop of women giving birth. The shows were very theatric. Operatic music played as sweaty women wept through their contractions, cat hissing sounded as they lashed out at the nurses, and triumphant trombones blared when they finally pushed out lumps of unformed reddish flesh. I always wanted to look away when walking by, discomfited by people not only abandoning their privacy, but turning it into melodrama, but Katrina liked to dwell in their intimacy. She’d pause the television at the exact moment when the baby disconnected from its mother and run back to her room, leaving us with a still of the parturition.

One night I heard loud groaning noises coming from her room and, feeling concerned, opened the door to check on her. When I entered she was sitting in bed with a doll under her shirt, legs spread, crying murderously as I asked her what she was doing. She held up a bald beige doll with one hand on its head and the other on its bottom and said, “This is my son, Xavier.” She lay back, sweating from her performance, and cradled the thing in a towel.

The next morning, Xavier was at the breakfast table sitting next to Katrina. When asked about the “doll,” she frowned and told the family, “Xavier is not a doll. He just has alopecia and severe growth failure,” as though if he weren’t tiny and bald, we might mistake him for human.

Over the next eight years, she had fifteen more doll-children from the same process and adopted eleven others from around the world. She said she was inspired by a television special on Angelina Jolie.

I had recently gotten a job teaching English at a high school far, far away.

I was home this week because my mother wanted to throw me a baby shower. I told her I’d only been to one baby shower and it had made me anxious. She told me I probably wasn’t eating enough meat.

I stared at my empty bowl and scraped the morsels of oatmeal from the dolls’ tiny saucers. I could only hold down bland food in the morning. My sister had left the dishes for me to wash and retreated back to her room. She’d taken all her dolls except Marissa, who remained in the high chair with oatmeal on her face.

I walked over to her, feeling a need to stroke her matted hair, touch her soft eyelashes. Squeezing her head, I remembered my sister would strap her into a car seat, on top of a heap of her other dolls, and leave them there in the hot sun. I pulled Marissa up by her hair to hold her and her head popped off. I looked down at her body, still stuck in the high chair. Frantically, I tried to screw Marissa’s head back on, believing I could easily reattach it, but it was too loose, and would not affix. I peered down the hollow trunk of her body. Some part had been lost, and her head would only stay on if I sat her in a certain position and leaned it against the back of the chair. I let her rest there and hoped my sister would figure out how to snap it back into place.

“Vera, I need to talk to you,” my mother said, suddenly appearing behind me.

I flinched. “I was just cleaning,” I said, turning around. She stood there in a slinky nightgown with her hair tied up in a silk scarf.

“What are you wearing tomorrow? I know you’ve given up a little since you’ve been pregnant, but no sweatpants at the shower.” I looked down at my black-and-white sweatpants, which had food stains on them.

“I have a dress,” I said.

“Don’t wear black.”

“It’s yellow,” I said. “What are you doing today?”

“I have to take your sister to therapy,” she groaned. “In the valley. Did you ask your husband for a recommendation that’s a little closer?”

“I forgot to,” I said. “He’ll be here Saturday. Why don’t you ask him then?”

She unraveled her scarf and let out her frizzed ringlets. My mother was half- black and half-German, although with her olive skin and green eyes she was usually mistaken for being Latina or sometimes Jewish. I had inherited her hair and my father’s Icelandic complexion, one shade above albino.

“Another thing you might want to think about is that when I got pregnant with you, I was petite, like you. So I had a horrible labor that lasted nine hours.”

“Okay.”

“And I did an entirely natural birth. No drugs,” she added, almost bragging. “I wouldn’t recommend it though, for a first born. I didn’t suffer for your sister, even with her giant head!”

“What?” I asked.

“There are ways of making birth less painful now,” she said. “Prenatal massages, acupuncture, transcendental meditation. I feel like you haven’t done any research. Are you prepared for this child?”

“I stayed up all night watching live births moms posted on the Internet.”

“Wonderful! So now you kind of know what to expect. But it’s going to be so much more excruciating than you could imagine.”

Suddenly Katrina burst into the room carrying a naked decapitated doll.

“Oh no!” she lamented. “My daughter’s dead!”

“What?” I asked.

“Marissa’s dead!” she moaned.

My mom and I paused skeptically for a few uncertain seconds.

“How’d she die?” I asked.

Katrina looked around apprehensively, and then stuttered, “Marissa had to have surgery. She had to have the body repaired because her neck broke. She tried to have the body repaired but it didn’t work on her and so she died.”

“She will be missed,” my mother told her, still primping her hair. “We have to go soon, Katrina. Start getting ready.”

My sister stood there waiting for a reaction, her tall body rocking back and forth. Suddenly, she broke into tears.

“My daughter’s dead!” she bawled.

“Sweetie, you have other children,” my mom consoled her. “It’s okay.”

She let out a long sob, and said, “but Marissa was too young to die” before leaving the room.

“At least she won’t carry around that damn doll anymore,” mom whispered to me.

“Except she has a whole closet full of other dolls,” I reminded her. “Anyway, weren’t we talking about my baby?”

“Right. I have some ideas for shower games I wanted to talk to you about,” she said.

“Like what?”

Katrina burst into the room again, no longer crying.

“I think we should have a funeral!” she said, her eyes widened like a cartoon’s.

My mother took a while to respond. She sometimes indulged my sister’s eccentric requests, reluctantly supporting her for a few minutes before disappearing into a bottle of red wine.

“It sounds like a lot of work,” she said finally. “I don’t have the time. Why don’t you write a nice poem? Vera will help you.”

“But she’s my daughter,” Katrina pleaded.

“I don’t want to,” my mother said.

“But why?”

“Because I’m not throwing a funeral for that doll!”

“She’s not a doll, she’s a midget. Did you make a mistake?”

“No.”

“But she’s a human midget. Did you make a mistake?”

“Sorry. Midget. But I think they like to be called little people.”

“But I think we need to have funerals for humans. So we can move on!”

“Fine! Have the Goddamn funeral!” she said, growing impatient. “But this is your thing. I’m not helping you organize this fucking—” she stopped herself. “I already have Vera’s funeral—I mean baby shower.”

“Let’s have the funeral Saturday!” Katrina said.

“Right after Vera’s baby shower is convenient.”

“Yippee!” my sister said with a firm nod. Still sniveling, darted off to her bedroom.

“Are you really going to go through with this?” I asked.

“I’m going to see what the therapist tells us. But I think it’s a good sign she wants to kill off that creepy doll!”

“I broke it.”

“What?”

“I broke the doll when I was cleaning. It was an accident. It just snapped off. I didn’t think it would kill her.”

My mother gasped and closed the door. My sister had sensitive hearing.

“What did you think, she was just going to go on living without her head like a chicken?” she whispered.

“I don’t know. I thought she’d get another one.”

“It doesn’t work like that. You know how long she’s had this one.”

“I thought you said it was good she was moving on.”

“Well now that I know you killed her, she’s not really moving on.”

“Let’s just not say anything about that.”

“Fine. We’ll take this secret to the grave— no pun intended.”

I rolled my eyes and waddled off to my childhood bedroom.

*

That day I took my mom’s advice and booked a prenatal spa day at a salon downtown. They had a “Pregnant Gal” special that included an 80-minute massage, acupuncture session, and pedicure.

The spa had a custom-formed massage table for a round belly. I tottered over in my towel, which barely covered my backside, and jumped on my tiptoes to hoist myself onto the high table. I opened the door and called for help. A masseuse appeared, toned and groomed, and asked if everything was okay.

“Yeah I’m fine. Can you help me onto the table?” I asked.

She shut the door and took out a stepping stool. She held out her arm and helped me roll onto the table. My towel slipped off in the process.

“I’m sorry,” I said, covering myself with my hands.

“It happens all the time,” she said, smiling at my naked penguin body.

She extracted fresh towels from the cabinet and laid them over my body, mummifying me from my shoulders to my calves. Then she left the room.  I remained frozen on my side, afraid the towel might fall off again. I still had not gotten used to my body— this teetering, temporary body with a stomach so heavy and unbalanced that even the fitted pregnancy table made me feel as though I might topple over.

As I lay staring at a single flaming candle, my neck planted in the moldable pillow, this woman’s hard knuckles fingering my back, I felt my baby girl being to kick. She seemed to like this woman kneading my back much more than I did, because she kicked with more vigor than she had in weeks. Perhaps it was fun, like a rollercoaster, having someone squish the bubble around you, but I felt nauseated by her touch. My baby and I would probably disagree on many things.

“Not so hard, please.” I said to the masseuse. The baby stopped kicking.

She took some warm, pungent oil and smeared it over my neck and back. She told me to turn over and started making tiny circles on my abdomen in a way that was pleasant but alien.

“How many months along are you?” she asked.

“Seven months,” I said with a plastered smile. “It’s my first child.”

“Boy or girl?”

“Girl.”

“It’s a girl!” she beamed. “Aren’t you so excited?”

“Yeah!” I replied, trying out an intonation that was higher pitched than usual. “We are thrilled! We are going to name her Maria.”

She grinned at me, still circling her fingers on my stomach. This baby was already making strangers so happy. I thought pregnancy would have made me happier, given me a sense of instant social validation that would glide me through the day like a fine-tuned compliment, or at least glowing skin. I thought when I satisfied all the important life markers— husband, child, occupation—all by the age of 25, I would have a life that was mine, that didn’t require the constant explanation my own family did. But pretending I was as fulfilled by these things as people expected me to be was exhausting. None of these things were for me, the real, true, inner me, they were just feeding some idealized version of me that persisted despite her dysfunctional family.

“What does your husband do?” she asked.

“He’s a psychiatrist,” I said.

“Oh! A doctor!” she gasped.

“I guess psychiatrists are technically doctors,” I said. “I mean most of them are drug dealers really. He’s not like that, but his cohort is full of the absolute worst people.”

She furrowed her brows and began pounding her fists on my arms. Perhaps it wasn’t the time for my opinions on the pharmaceutical industry. I looked at my arms; they had grown so plump in the last few months. My whole body had swelled like a mosquito bite. I wondered if I’d ever get my 23-inch waist back, or if after giving birth my stomach would deflate like a hot air balloon and I’d just be left with a sack of skin I’d have to lift up to wash.

“You live around here?” she asked.

“No I live in New York. I’m here for my baby shower.”

“How fun! We just threw one for my daughter’s best friend. My daughter’s a little older than you. Hasn’t found anyone yet, though. It’s hard.”

“Yeah, it’s hard.”

“All of her friends are married. I think she’s too picky.”

“Hmm, well, it’s good to be picky,” I said. “What does she do?”

“She works as an aid to special needs children. She really likes it.”

“Oh, cool. I was going to teach special needs—my younger sister has autism— but I got a job at a private school and took that instead.”

“That must be hard on your parents,” she said, massaging the area underneath my breasts.

“It’s just my mom. My dad lives in Colorado.”

“Oh.”

“And her doll just died.”

“What?”

“She had a doll she carried around all the time, like a child. It died.”

“Oh no! How did it die?”

“Complications from surgery.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. We’re having a funeral for it the same day of my shower.”

“Really?” she laughed. “A funeral for a doll?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s cute,” she said.

“I just wish it weren’t the same day.”

“Yeah but you’re lucky— you have a husband and a baby on the way and she will never have those things. She’ll never have anything real.” She stopped massaging me.

“Her dolls are just as real to her,” I said.

“Exactly,” she said, patting my belly as though it were a small dog.

“Do you want to take a shower before your pedicure?” she asked.

*

My teenage cousins were playing “Bobbing for Nipples,” a game that substituted baby bottle nipples for apples. Dunking their heads, they bit the baby bottle nipples then released them onto the floor like carnivorous animals tearing through flesh. They were getting the living room all wet.

My husband brought me a large piece of gluten-free cake and started rubbing my back. “I’m so sorry,” he said. I saw he’d poured himself a glass of Rosé.

“I thought you were going to stop drinking out of pregnancy solidarity,” I said.

“I can’t today.”

“This cake tastes like printer paper,” I said, coveting his plate of ribs and fried chicken.

“Want to go next?” my cousins pleaded.

My husband shook his head and watched Katrina seize a bedside table from my mothers’ room and head to the backyard.

“I wish I hadn’t let my mother plan my shower,” I said as she walked over.

My mother told everyone to gather round and announced we were going to play some ‘funny games.’ My aunts came in from the kitchen. My grandmother, who spent family gatherings cleaning up as the party went along, lay back on the armchair opposite me. My mother-in-law sat next to my husband, eyeing his quickly dwindling glass of wine. At once everyone surrounded me, the big fat pregnant lady too delicate to stand up.

My mother had a sly smirk bubbling as she looked at us. “We’re all going to share our most embarrassing story about the parents-to-be! I’ll go first. When Vera was 11 years old, she peed her pants in the school library because she needed to know the ending of some book. Haha! What was the book, Vera?”

“I don’t remember,” I said. “But I wet the bed last week because pregnancy has made me incontinent. There’s my embarrassing story!”

My aunts looked at me as if they weren’t sure I was joking.

“Any more stories?” I prodded. Everyone refused eye contact with me.

“Alright mom, what’s the next game?”

“Well I was going to suggest ‘Guess the Mother’s Measurements,’ but it doesn’t seem as though you’re in the mood to be measured.”

“No, thank you.”

“Okay, how about ‘Pin the diaper on the belly?’”

“Why do all these games involve everyone touching me?”

My husband interrupted her. “Hey, I’ve got an idea. Since you guys are an artistic family, why doesn’t everyone do a sketch of what they think our child would look like? Vera and I will do one as well. I can’t promise mine will be very good but…”

“Mine either,” my cousin, now carrying a bundle of baby bottle nipples, said.

My mother tore out several pages from a sketchbook and passed them around, then went to her room to fetch some pencils.

“Do you have a surface to put under the paper?” my Aunt Jefflyn asked. My cousin handed her a large hardcover book.

For ten minutes everyone was silent. It had been years since I’d drawn anything, but my skills had not left me. My husband showed me his drawing of an asymmetrical being with a mass of curls on its head.”

“That doesn’t even look human,” I said. “It looks like Marissa.”

Katrina emerged from the hallway with an office chair she’d stolen from my mother’s studio. She slid it violently across the hardwood floor.

“Funeral’s starting! Time for Marissa’s funeral!” She lifted the chair above her head and descended to the backyard.

My mother waited until she was out of sight and with a lowered voice said, “It is important for her to ‘bury’ this doll obsession she’s had forever.” She used air quotes. “You can stay if you want, but no pressure.”

“What about my gifts?” I asked, motioning to the pile of unopened presents.

“Actually, I’ve got to get going,” my aunt Sharon said. “I have to pick up Robby from detention.”

Katrina was back in the kitchen collecting chairs for her funeral to bring into the backyard. My other relatives began making excuses to leave, but a couple of my mother’s friends stayed, I think, out of loyalty to her. Katrina emerged from the garage with a misshapen wooden box she’d apparently carpentered last night. It was Marissa’s coffin.

Six humans stayed for the service. Most of the seats were filled with Katrina’s other “adopted children.” Ginger, a Black Raggedy Ann doll, sat on Katrina’s lap. Beside her were David and Yolanda (infant refugees from Syria), and a heap of dolls in the seat next to mine. I sat in the only seat I could fit in, a reclining lawn chair that had a cup holder.

“Full throttle funeral experience,” I uttered, nearly prostrate in the lawn chair. My mother looked down at the notecard with a speech Katrina had prepared. Next to her was Katrina’s best friend Gracie, a girl from her class, and the girl’s aunt, also named Gracie.

“Thank God Marissa is dead!” Aunt Gracie bellowed, laughing. “I hope she buries all of them! Let’s get rid of all these imaginaries!”

“Well I think it’s nice she has these dolls. I remember seeing this one a lot when I babysat her. She just wants company,” our 70-year old neighbor added.

My mother stood up to make her speech. She let out an unapologetic sigh and said, with palpable sarcasm, “Marissa was my granddaughter. She was very kind and I miss her. I think we all miss her because she said nice things to us. Thank you.

I stared at the coffin as Katrina informed the six guests that refreshments were to be served in the kitchen, a slideshow of Marissa’s life to be played. I studied the pamphlet Katrina had created. A square picture of Marissa accompanied her eulogy:

~ Marissa was born on October 26 in Pasadena, CA and diagnosed with primordial dwarfism at birth. She got pink eye when she was 2 because the nanny kept putting makeup on her. She wore gothic makeup, black clothing, and red lipstick. She was a wonderful 1st grader. She likes meditation music, art, and even other things. She wanted to be a writer but she decided to be a teacher to help humans in real life. But she is not in the special needs class. She liked to read and write. She writes “thank u” notes and stuff like that. She was good at painting nails. She used to have playmates. She used to have so much fun. She was a good shopper. Marissa was found suspiciously decapitated in the kitchen on June 17. She was supposed to have the body repaired but it didn’t work on her and so she died. But she was very helpful and she thinks of others. We wish that someone could do lots of things like Marissa. ~

I wondered what she was going to do with the coffin, assuming that actually burying the doll in our backyard would be too much, even for her. I looked around and noticed others staring at the doll coffin, too.

Katrina duct taped a lid over the coffin, shook it to be sure it was securely sealed, and then began digging a hole in the abandoned flowerbed with her bare hands. It was astounding how quickly she plowed through the soil.

“Bye Marissa!” she said, laughing as she packed dirt over her grave.

We moved to the living room and the remaining guests began gathering their belongings.

“It’s not over,” Katrina said, fiddling with the DVD player in the living room. Marissa’s face flashed on the screen, beginning a slideshow of unflattering images of her accompanied by oceanic sounds. After watching for a polite amount of time, I started collecting the dirty paper plates strewn around and all the guests vacated.

“Marissa led a happy life,” Katrina assured herself before returning to her room without warning. “She was a nice midget.”

*

It was thundering that night as I sifted through my baby shower gifts. My husband and I were in my old bedroom on a mattress still fitted with leopard print sheets. He was gradually polishing off the rest of the wine as I made a spreadsheet of everyone’s gifts on my laptop. Someone gave me a breast pump as a gift and my husband pulled it out and held it up in the air like a beer bong.

“You know, this would go faster if you recorded the gifts and names as I went through them,” I said, reading a bib that said Blame my parents. I winced. “What is wrong with my cousin?”

“Usually, you have your girlfriends do that,” he said, squinting. “But you didn’t even invite your friends from high school.”

“I did invite them,” I said. “They didn’t come.”

“What happened to the pretty one we got drinks with?” This was probably the only one he remembered.

“She lives in Ireland. She has for three years.”

“What about Lucy? The lawyer?”

“I told you what happened with her ex’s weird obsession with me.”

“Oh,” he looked around.

“So did anyone get us that crib I put on our registry? I did a lot of research. It’s the safest out of the nicer looking cribs.”

“No, but my mom gave us five hundred dollars.”

“I think it cost more than that,” he said. He squinted as he took another swig from the bottle.

It was easier for me to stop drinking when I learned I was pregnant, because I no longer felt alone in my body. But it was harder for my husband, who would always feel alone in this house.

I unwrapped another square package and pulled out a neon light-up bouncy seat. It screamed animal noises at me. I scrambled to find the off button but there was none.

“This is from Uncle Bob and Olivia,” I told my husband. He wearily typed in the gifts. I crumpled the wrapping paper and deposited it in the trash bag.

The next package felt fragile but heavy and I only had to pry open one corner of the box to see what was inside.

“This dish set, from my Aunt Jefflyn, and these pot holders also,” I told him. “Hello?”

I looked over at him, peacefully asleep with his mouth agape. He had the wine bottle in one hand and the laptop in the other.

I took the computer from him and set it on my stomach, a convenient table, and typed in the information myself.

Katrina’s gift stood out from the pile because of its bright blue wrapping paper, crumpled around an amorphous object. I never knew what to expect from her gifts. One birthday, I got a single paper clip, tucked inside a set of boxes stacked inside each other like Russian Dolls. Another year, a gift card to Staples that had no money on it.

Inside the manila envelope attached to the horridly wrapped gift were twenty-six cards: one from her and the others signed from each of her dolls’ names. It was all in her frenetic handwriting. I threw the envelope across the room and squatted down to grab the present.

I tried to rip the paper open, but my sister had spun packing tape all around the bundle, and so I had to unravel the tape before the paper finally burst open, exploding a bunch of cloth diapers, a hat she’d knitted, and a handwritten note.

 

Hi Vera!

Congratulations on your fetus! It’s too bad Maria and Marissa won’t be cousins anymore because Marissa is with Jesus now but she will have plenty of cousins anyway from around the world to play with including Grana, Prana, Daniel, Ginger, and so many others. They can go on picnics or stuff like that. But I think you will visit now more because we both have babies. I have so many babies. But maybe yours will be a midget and look like Marissa- RIP.  Please don’t be selfish like dad. There is so much to do here including museums, parks, restaurants, salsa dancing, and even yoga classes.

Love,

Katrina and others

 

I imagined us all on a picnic blanket, displayed at a public park: Maria and I, Katrina and her clown-faced dolls, my mom and her wine, surrounded by strangers with suspicious glances, other families and units. At the thought of this scene I didn’t feel trapped or ashamed or even abnormal. I felt my baby girl pedaling on my stomach, pleasant, like a back scratch.

 

 

BIO

Sola Saar was born in southern California and lives in New York. Her nonfiction work has been featured in The Huffington Post, Flaunt, Bullett, Hyperallergic, Whitewall Magazine, Salon, and ArtSlant. An excerpt from her novel was featured in Ishmael Reed’s Konch magazine. She graduated from UC Berkeley and is getting her MFA in Fiction at Columbia University.

 

 

 

0

Evidence Room

by Megan Fahey

 

 

10 Fun Facts from the EVIDENCE ROOM of Oxendine O’Shea

  1. Oxendine was born in July of 1974 to Cora and Matthew O’Shea of San Ysidro, California.
  2. The full name on her birth certificate is Shannon Marie O’Shea.
  3. She was one funky bitch.
  4. From 1997-2002, Oxendine was the bassist and front-woman for the Ithaca Funk Company, an alternative-funk band who toured with Incubus, Radiohead, and Collective Soul after the success of IFC’s first and only album: Veterans’ Day.
  5. O’Shea’s axe of choice was a 1972 semi-hollowbody Gibson painted with a ruby-red glimmer finish that matched her birthstone.
  6. She is most remembered for her unusual performance style, which blended her eclectic tastes with her intense displays of emotion. Many fans recall O’Shea’s sobbing musically into the microphone during live events and fainting during especially rigorous solos.
  7. Oxendine wore the word “GRACE” printed on a solid black t-shirt to every show, plain black wayfarer sunglasses, and huge hoop earrings that clicked against the tuning keys of her guitar and could be heard in the background of the tracks on IFC’s studio album.
  8. She always slipped off her shoes before taking the stage.
  9. On Veterans’ Day 2002, after fraternizing with a fan after a show in Columbus Ohio, Oxendine O’Shea followed him for twenty-eight miles to his home just outside Lancaster and slaughtered the fan, his wife, and his two sons with a hatchet.
  10. She is currently serving life in prison.

The most valuable thing Tommy Hollinger owned was a business-grade paper shredder. With a vigorous whirr of its industrial teeth, the shredder disintegrated any chance of Tommy’s personal information making it into the hands of the mysterious, malevolent, trash-diving public. And Tommy loved the way it tore. The shredder occupied a position of prominence in his home office, nestled decoratively in a nook near his desk in his at-home workstation, positioned directly beneath his empty mahogany diploma holder and an 8×10 framed photo of his parents from their latest trip to the Swiss Alps.

The shredder’s name was Victoria.

The diploma holder was empty because, even though Tommy was twenty-five years old, he had changed his college major each academic year since he turned nineteen to reflect his artistic redirection. When the wealthy friends of his parents asked what in heaven’s name he was still doing in college, he had no trouble citing instantly his love and his loyalty for art. His difficulty, then, was choosing which field.

He spent a year experimenting with watercolors, but his landscapes lacked definition and blurred unnaturally. Each of these works he ran through the shredder, whose teeth, by the end of the collection, were flecked with vibrant shades of red and orange. After a failed year in a sculpture workshop, he malleted the projects his know-nothing professors compared crassly to phalluses and let Victoria, the shredder, chew the thin strips of soft clay in order to digest them. He spent some time as a novelist and wept when his classmates labeled his work as “derivative” and “popular.” The shredder made quick work of their feedback and of his manuscript, which he fed to it page by page.

One Sunday afternoon, Tommy took it upon himself to sort the junk mail that had scattered in disorganized piles around his kitchen table. He shredded his credit card offers first, primarily in order to avoid temptation, but also since the slicing plastic made such tremendous noise. Next came the bills he couldn’t afford to pay; the federal unsubsidized loan statements he would take to the grave; and, finally, magazines. Tommy Hollinger never filled out a magazine subscription, and yet received up to three or four weekly periodicals addressed to T. HOLLINGER or TOMMY HOLGER or RESIDENT. They were mostly general readers in science and engineering slathered with high-resolution color images. Some were sports-based or automotive. Others outlined best housekeeping practices. Tommy suspected they were anonymous gifts from his father purposed to steer him clear of the humanities.

Regardless, he gave them little more than a disinterested leaf. He skimmed the subheadings of an article about an elephant painting a portrait of an elephant before tearing those pages, like all the others, and tossing them into the shredder, until he happened upon a full-page ad whose stock was unlike any he’d ever felt. The ad was thicker, sure, than a standard page, though surely not as thick as a subscription card insert, and blacker, too, as though the ink might drip right off the gloss and stain his hands and boots and jeans.

The words “EVIDENCE ROOM” were capped and bolded across the top of the page in a large, debossed serif font. Tommy ran his fingers across the text. Police badges with scowling eyes adorned both ends, and the two Os in ROOM were conjoined with a short, shiny length of chain, like handcuffs.

He dropped it into Victoria’s mouth, but it just wouldn’t shred.

“Cool,” Tommy said.

 

 

About EVIDENCE ROOM:

From diamonds to hybrids, EVIDENCE ROOM has it all—the only authentic mail-order service for criminally confiscated items nationally sanctioned by the US Constitution. Based on a short customer-personality profile, EVIDENCE ROOM tailor-fits our products to match your unique tastes. For a one-time payment of $99.99 (+13.99 S&H), you’ll receive all the luxuries that once belonged to the scum of the earth. Don’t let these luxury items rot just because their owners are!

 

How to Order from EVIDENCE ROOM by mail:

  • Please include the completed personality profile found on the reverse of this page.
  • On a separate sheet of paper, attach your shipping address (billing address, if different) and contact information, including e-mail and telephone number with country code and area code if applicable.
  • Include a personal check or money order in the amount of $99.99, plus $13.99 shipping and handling, and 8.5% sales tax (a total of $122.48) made out to EVIDENCE ROOM.
  • If paying by credit card, please include the 16-digit credit card number, the expiration date, and the 3-digit CVC located on the back.

You’ll receive your specially chosen EVIDENCE ROOM package within ten business days along with a fun fact sheet detailing your item’s role in its criminal’s history. EVIDENCE ROOM is 100% legal and safe. All items have been sterilized and registered for public use. No refunds or exchanges. All sales final.

 

Testimonials from satisfied customers of the EVIDENCE ROOM:

“First, I want to say thanks, EVIDENCE ROOM. This is my first time doing this. At first I thought it was fake, then I sent in my information and got my package and said ‘okay, I guess this is real.’ I got a set of Eisenhower Dollars and a Pirate belt buckle that was very unique, so again I have to say thanks, EVIDENCE ROOM.”
—Sergio, Farmingdale, NY

 

“I LOVE what I got from EVIDENCE ROOM. I have a teenage grandson who lives with me and he is BIG on gaming and just broke his leg in a biking accident. EVIDENCE ROOM sent us a new mountain bike and a few video games, plus an old black and white TV like the one I used to have. This is GREAT!!!”
—Cheryl M., Northvue, PA

 

“Oh, yes. I am very happy. I think this might be my destiny.”
—Matthew B., Fort Lauderdale, FL


  

The parcel addressed to Tommy Hollinger—his name finally spelled correctly on the label—measured 18”x7”x52” and waited outside his front door for his return from class. It was crowded inside by mint green packing nuts and sealed within two cardboard tombs, mummified in an entire roll of thick packing tape, and wrapped in an oversized, storm-gray plastic pouch that rustles when the wind slips past.

That stormy wind blew Tommy’s tufted hair behind his ears. Despite his having mailed the proper amount of money, and the filled-out personality sheet, and the added list of contact information, and despite the day’s date still falling within the ten business day window, Tommy struggled to believe his eyes. He shifted the straps of the backpack on his shoulders. He tilted his head to further examine the mailing label for clues about the box’s contents, but he kept his distance.

He laughed at his own unease.

He scaled the porch stairs with a string of easy bounds and slogged inside the house, dragging the package with him into the office, near the shredder. He disappeared to the kitchen to trade his schoolbooks for a steak knife. He tilted the package on its side and punctured the outer plastic layer clean through—a deep, sloppy, vertical wound. He worked through the packing tape next, splitting the laminated cardboard at the corrugated seams and excising one layer, then the next until the top had been removed and he could hover above the box and peer inside like a god. An envelope tucked among the peanuts read “10 Fun Facts from the EVIDENCE ROOM.” Tommy read the note, then slid it into the back pocket of his blue jeans.

He breathed and forced out a laugh. It was safe, the magazine said, and legal, and couldn’t be as dangerous as it had been in the hands of its former owner, that criminal sleaze. Tommy’s arms plunged deeper into the box and rooted around until his fingers wrapped something slim and solid and shimmering ruby red: a four-string bass guitar. A tag hung from the neck, tied with thin white twine. In red ink, the words:

so? you want to be an artist, don’t you?

He spent the rest of the afternoon in his hickory desk chair practicing slow jazzy riffs and bluesy syncopations.

Later that evening, during a surprise visit from his parents, Tommy’s father loosened his tie and called his son’s fretwork “dog shit.”  His mother pecked at her polished nails and chewed her lip.

“What are you so worried about, Mom?” Tommy said. He propped one foot on the arm of the couch. The guitar strings thunked in discord.

She whispered, “Thomas.” Her eyes darted about. “A criminal had this—a murderer.”

“You’re just afraid I might actually be good at this—that this might be a little thing called fate.”

“No, that’s not it,” she said. “A normal woman doesn’t just go around killing people with a hatchet. A hatchet, Tommy.”

He laughed. “Don’t worry, Ma. I won’t forget you when I’m famous.”

“That’s not what I—”

“And I’ll stay away from fast gangs and loose drugs and dirty women.”

“I just don’t like the idea of any son of mine playing an instrument that once belonged to some—you know—some—”

“Murderer?” his father said. “Butcher? Monster? Psychopath?”

“No one said she was a psychopath,” Tommy said. “The police never found out why she did it.”

“Sounds like a psychopath to me,” his father said.

“Whatever,” said Tommy.

“But what if she gets out of jail and finds out you’ve got her guitar?” His mother’s eyes welled up. “Or what if—what if it’s cursed or something?”

“What do you think’s gonna happen, Mom? That I’m gonna touch the guitar and turn into some kind of killer? Is that it? That it wasn’t Oxendine O’Shea who killed that family at all? It was her bass all along?” He raised it high above his head and laughed.

“Oh, Tommy,” she cried.

“I’m just messing around, Mom. You got nothing to worry about. If I start acting crazy, just tell me.”

“You’re acting crazy,” his father said.

“Shut up, Dad. This music thing—it’s really changed my life.”

Tommy’s father clicks on the television. “Yeah,” he says, “Maybe you ought to write old what’s-her-name a letter that says thanks for getting locked up.”

 

 

Dear Oxendine—

I hope it’s okay if I call you Oxendine; that’s just the way that I feel when I think about you—Oxendine. I know that probably sounds weird. Maybe it’s because of how your name is like oxygen. Oxygen is one of those things that makes you happy, right? I think I remember studying that in one of my science classes. I’m more of a humanities guy to be honest, but I think I remember that thing about oxygen, and that’s why your name reminds me of you—because before I knew about you, I felt like I was drowning in everything I tried, felt like I couldn’t come up for air, and then suddenly there you were: Oxendine. Fresh Oxendine.

 

You can call me Tommy. My full name is Tommy Hollinger, which I know sounds a lot like Tommy Hilfiger, so don’t even bother saying that because, ha-ha, I’ve already heard it my whole life. Anyway, I’m writing you because we got matched up in the EVIDENCE ROOM. Do you know what that is? I’m not really sure how long it’s been around, and how long have you been in the joint anyway? I bet you’re really popular among the inmates because of your music. Is everyone jealous of your haircut there? Do you ever sing songs to help you sleep when the lights go out?

 

So, good news. You know your guitar? The red one? Well, the police decided they didn’t need to keep it anymore, so they sold it to me through their mail-order catalog. I didn’t exactly pick it. That’s not really how it works. You see, I wanted to be an artist, but the trouble was I was bad at everything I tried. I never tried music before, but I’ve been messing around with the bass, and I think, with a little hard work and sacrifice, this might be my destiny. It’s only been about two weeks so far, and I’ve already almost taught myself to play most of “Smoke on the Water.” If you want, I could try to record it and send it to you. Would you have any way of listening to a cassette?

I hope to hear from you soon, and thanks again,

 

Tommy Hollinger


PS: I know you’re not innocent, but I’m sure that jerk you killed deserved it. Rock on.

 

 

 

TO: Tommy Hollinger

FROM: Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, San Ysidro, CA

RE: Inmate 90662-W |O’Shea

 

 

Listen here, Tommy Hilfiger.

 

You think you know sacrifice?

 

You’ll find out.

-Oxy

 

 

Tommy skipped class to hold band auditions in his at-home office. He worked up jams with dozens of drummers and one twelve-year-old boy who played the trombone, but none of them could keep time or fill in the bottom quite right. When the applicant pool ran dry, he ran a ream of old-time continuous stationary with perforated edges through his paper shredder, and riffed solos over its electric hum.

He fixed the letter from Oxendine into the empty diploma for inspiration. The first original song Tommy Hollinger wrote was a funky love ballad called “You’ll Find Out.” He played a steady chromatic scale, and fed the shredder, Victoria, a long, fat E-string. It took her two minutes and twenty-three seconds to digest. He debuted the tune at open mics along the downtown nightlife strips. After his first paid gig, he celebrated by getting blackout drunk and having the name “-Oxy” tattooed on the side of his neck. He played at just the right volume and was kind to the bar staff and applauded by the patrons. The owner of the Lava Lounge offered him a regular Tuesday night spot for a hundred bucks a week and six free beers a night.

Tommy’s cell phone rang while he paced backstage the night of his first headline show. It was his father.

“If you’re missing class for this—” he said. “—You can kiss that apartment goodbye. I mean it. I’m not fronting your rent anymore if you’re gonna shirk your studies to go off playing rock star wannabe.”

“Fine,” said Tommy. “You’ll find out.”

“Stop saying that!”

“What did he say?” His mother’s voice was far away on the phone. “Did he say it again? Let me talk to him.” A pause. “Tommy, honey. This has gone far enough. I’m worried about you.”

“Mom, I’m just having fun,” Tommy laughed.

The opening band finished packing their equipment. The emcee announced Tommy’s name and the crowd shrieked on the open floor below the stage. A “Tom-my! Tom-my!” chant went up, and Tommy shouted into the phone: “Hear that, Mom? That’s for me. They’re cheering for me.”

He slipped off his shoes before entering the spotlight. The ruby red paint on that hot guitar body reflected every last photon back into the wailing crowd. Two men headbutted and screamed in each other’s faces. A girl in front in a white ribbed tank top cried. It was the biggest crowd Tommy had ever seen—two hundred strong.

He took a nervous step backward, stumbling into a hidden, black barstool. Two ice-cold, longneck beers teetered on the seat. When Tommy picked one up, his hands jittered, and he drank the whole thing in one blast so the crowd wouldn’t notice his nerves. They cheered all the harder. His hands shook more. His mouth to the microphone, Tommy yelled, “Hello, Pittsburgh!” but he was energized and anxious and a little bit drunk, so it came out “Hullo, Piss-burgh.”

But no one cared.

“We love you, Tommy!” someone yelled.

He reached back for the other beer and took a sip before setting it on the edge of the stage and settling back onto the stool. He strummed once slowly. The crowd devoured the sound.

“This is, um—” he said. “I’m gonna start off with something new.”

He unbuttoned his shirt and fed the cuff of the sleeve through the paper shredder. It moaned slow and low, consuming his clothes.

“This is a new song I wrote called ‘Sacrifice’.”

It was an instant classic. In the middle of the hottest lick of the solo, Tommy stood up from the stool and approached the front-row fans who pawed lovingly at the soles of his feet. He crooned a line about truth and beauty to a girl with neon eye shadow and false lashes. She reached for him like his touch might save her life. He stopped playing and extended his hand to hers, but he couldn’t quite reach. He bent lower toward her, lower.

But he couldn’t keep his balance, and kicked over the bottle of beer, which foamed and dripped and splashed the board that controlled the spotlight and the speakers, and the electrical board his shredder was plugged into. The mic squealed. Smoke and sparks erupted from Tommy’s pedalboard and the power strip along the front of the stage, and the paper shredder choked on one of the shirt’s buttons and began to overheat. A small but hot white flame caught and ignited the thick black skirt of the stage. The fans screamed with dread. They rioted and moshed and shoved and evacuated.

Barefoot, bass in hand, Tommy escaped through the backstage door and hurtled to his car. The window was broken in. Glass covered the driver’s seat. His radio/tape deck was gone, but the car still ran. He accelerated through traffic lights and stop signs, straight out of town, back to the edge of the suburbs to his apartment, where his father had already changed the locks.

He ran around to the back of the building, to the window of his at-home office. He banged it with his fists, but he couldn’t break it. He hoisted the bass over his head and smashed it through the pane before hobbling his own body inside, slicing his bare chest on a rogue shard of busted glass. He sat on the clean square of carpet where his most precious item, his paper shredder, once rested. He leaned against the wall and gathered his knees to his chest and bled. He tugged at his hair.

“What have I done?” he said. His voice fractured. “This wasn’t supposed to—” he said. And, “I never wanted to—” he said.

Then a low lub-dup beat echoed softly in the darkness. It took Tommy a full minute to realize it wasn’t the sound of his own heart. There was someone else in the room.

“I thought you wanted to be an artist,” she said. She was holding the guitar. The smallest three strings were snapped. She flickered the E string with the edge of a ruby-handled hatchet.

“Tommy Hollinger,” she said. “Let’s shred together.”

 

 

BIO

Megan Fahey received her MFA from West Virginia University in 2017. In addition to having some short plays produced, her work has appeared in Southern Humanities Review, The Tulane Review, and Blinders Journal.

 

 

 

0

That Night

by Abbey McLaughlin

 

 

“Delinquent beyond a reasonable doubt. He’ll be put away for at least two years. The other, for one.”

The judge gathered up his paperwork and stepped out from behind his desk, and the room erupted in emotional preparation for departure. One of the boys started crying—bawling long, heavy, ugly sobs. His family as well as his lawyer were equally tearful, all hands placed on shoulders as though forming a prayer. My mom cleared her throat.

“Should we go?” she asked.

She was standing behind me. When I turned my head to face her, I caught sight of the other one. He was crying—I could tell by the way his chest rose and fell—but he was trying not to and he was angry. They were angry tears. His dad squeezed his shoulder. His mom was crying desperately.

“Honey,” I heard my mother nudge.

I gathered up my things, hands still sweaty and shaking, and adjusted my blazer. As soon as the doors of that Ohio courtroom swung on their hinges, blinding flashes of thunderous crowds fought each other to ask me a question. My dad pushed them away and my mom held me close, pulling me down the endless corridors. I didn’t realize I too had begun to cry until we fell into the car and I could breathe again. I should be happy. I should be relieved.

 

When we finally made it home, all three of us were exhausted. I kissed both my parents good night and went to brush my teeth, tilting my head to the side, fixated on the scar on my forehead. I found my mom meandering around aimlessly in the kitchen, banging dishes and shutting cupboards. “Do I notice the scar so much because I know it’s there or because it’s noticeable?” I asked her. She shrugged and told me that no one would notice. My dad was on the phone in the bedroom down the hall, talking to someone about me. Since all this had begun, he had developed—perfected—a phlegmatic, quiet voice used exclusively when referring to “the Incident,” as he called it. I called it rape.

 

My alarm rang rather unceremoniously six hours later. I opened my eyes. I felt as though I had only just shut them. I returned to the bathroom, reexamining the scar, pasting concealer over it without much success. My morning routine felt more soporific than before—brushing my teeth again, straightening my hair, choosing clothes, packing my lunch—all of it seemed to drain energy reserves. The house was still dark, all the lights still off. I didn’t like being the first one up again. For the remainder of the morning, I prepared for school in somewhat of a daze, hardly able to remember where I was getting ready to go, or if I’d added sugar to the coffee in my thermos before I climbed into my car. After almost three months of slow days spent with my parents and my lawyer, my stomach fluttered at the sight of our big, glass high school entrance. I sat in my car for a moment longer, surveying the campus from my safe enclosure. No reporters or cameras caught my attention. The coast was clear—I had to go in. As I was stepping out of my car, my phone vibrated in my pocket. Thank God—Kristin had received my texts, and would wait by my locker for me.

 

When I first joined the moving traffic of the north hallway, no one seemed to notice. I blended in well enough and avoided awkward encounters with those who had made guest appearances in the courtroom, careful not to cross paths with the football players in particular. As she’d promised, Kristin was leaning against the lockers near mine. I smiled at her, tugging my earbuds out of my ears. I realized I’d forgotten my locker combination, but Kristin knew it by heart, and told me the numbers. The act of opening my locker seemed to set off an alarm to the school. Like a swarm of wasps, heads turned. Kristin and I both sensed the changed decibel levels of interrupted conversations. I pretended not to notice and hoped Kristin would too. I dumped all my textbooks back into my locker save my chemistry book and followed my friend up the stairs. We didn’t say much on our way to our classes. She departed with a half-hearted, “see you at lunch,” and turned for the room down the hall from mine.

 

“Welcome back,” Mrs. Freed, my chemistry teacher, said as I sat down. The few who had also arrived already stared unapologetically. This was somehow worse than the reporters. I watched Henry, my lab partner, walk into the room. I greeted him as he took his seat next to me, but he just nodded. He’d been at the party.

“Let’s jump right back in with some nomenclature practice,” she continued, passing out sheets of paper. Henry handed me my copy of the activity carefully.

“Thanks,” I mumbled. We’d actually made great lab partners last semester. He was better with the information; I was better with the actual handling of chemicals. I’d been looking forward to seeing him, but, like most of my reunions at that point, tension was almost tangible. “Can I borrow your notes tonight?”

Henry scratched his forehead and arranged his papers as though this took too much mental attention to answer my questions.

“Henry?”

“I don’t have them,” he lied. I told him that it was okay, and leaned back against my orange plastic chair. When class had been dismissed, I approached Mrs. Freed and quietly asked if she had a note packet or something that I could use to catch up.

Mrs. Freed looked up at the remaining students packing their backpacks. “Can someone loan her their notes from the last unit?” she said loudly, pointing a crooked, hot pink fingernail at me. An intransigent silence ensued. Eventually, Macy surrendered her notebook and asked me to have it back to her by tomorrow.

 

I mean, it’s not like I expected a “welcome back” party. No one was spitting in my face or adorning me with a scarlet letter A, but it seemed that nobody was talking to me at all. Maybe they all just felt too awkward. If I’m being honest with myself, probably more than half the school saw the pictures that circulated that October. I know that I wasn’t exactly making good decisions, but nobody was. Of all the awful choices made that night, were they really going to condemn mine?

 

Mr. Samuels and Mrs. Freed occupied the hallways as we all rushed to our second period classes. Typically, the principal would assume this role, but Kristin had informed me that he and the football coach had been suspended. During the investigation, police discovered that both of them had kept the situation quiet until I’d started pressing charges. My lawyer, Mr. White, promised me that they were his next item on his agenda. I had told him that it was okay, that our trial was good enough, that I was ready to move on.

 

By lunchtime, I was under the impression that the school had followed an entirely different court case—one in which I had murdered two football players and framed the remaining members of the team. Since my entrance into the building, I’d become painfully aware of my role in the newfound shitty reputation of our school. I sat at the table my friends and I had claimed our freshman year, and waited for Eliza and Kristin to show up.

When there was only fifteen minutes left of our lunch break, I moved tables and tried to eat my sandwich with a few girls from my cross country team, who seemed sympathetic but less-than-thrilled by my presence.

None of them did more than smile in my direction, so I decided to initiate the greeting: “Hey guys, how’s it going?”

Lexi gave a half-hearted “fine,” and Miranda gave a shrug.

They sat right near the vending machines. I kept thinking students were coming to see me as so many family members had done throughout the past month or two, but they were just grabbing sodas. Many avoided eye contact with me in obvious, almost comical manners. One guy stared sideways all the way there, grabbed his drink while looking the other way, and then turning to stare in the same direction on his way back to his table. I tried engaging in conversations, desperate for normalcy, but they weren’t interested. I saw two football players come my way. With waves of panic churning up the sandwich I’d just eaten, I left for class early with a muttered “good-bye” to the girls. I didn’t feel like confronting the accomplices.

 

“How was school?” my mother asked when I walked through the door. I couldn’t give her an answer as I dropped by backpack and slid my shoes off. “Honey?” my mother repeated. She wanted a real answer, but if I opened my mouth, I would cry. I sighed.

“It’ll get better,” she said. I nodded, collapsing into our sofa. Mom was watching CNN while she prepared dinner. I closed my eyes, praying my tears would slide back into my head. I was tired of crying.

Sally, I can’t imagine, having heard the judge give sentences for these two star football players—how emotional that must have been in the courtroom.

I opened my eyes.

Yes, I’ve never experienced anything like it, Debra. It was incredibly emotional—incredibly difficult, especially for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men, who had such promising futures—strong football players, very good students. I literally watched as they saw their lives fall apart. When one of the boys, Alex Stevens, heard the judge, he collapsed. He collapsed in tears in the arms of his attorney. I heard him say, “My life is over; no one is going to want me now.” Both were charged with very serious crimes, Debra, found guilty of raping this sixteen-year-old girl at a party back in October—an alcohol-fueled party; alcohol playing a huge part in all of this. The other boy, Jacob Matthews, was charged with a second account of felony illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material, because he took a photograph of—

The screen went blank. I turned around and my dad was holding the remote with a trembling hand, his face red. Mom had stopped cutting tomatoes, and was looking at me too.

“That’s how school was, mom,” I said flatly.

Apart from their actual crimes, those two had unknowingly cost my family months of misery. I felt inescapably burdensome to my poor parents. They bore just as much pain from the trial as I did. Work was taken off, attorney bills were paid, tears were shed, sleepless nights were suffered, and public analysis under a microscope was endured. I hoped the boys were thinking about that now, but I doubted it.

 

The three following days were slight improvements. People readjusted to me and I readjusted to them. The cross country team talked to me if no one else was around. My teachers gave me grace on many incomplete assignments. Kristin continued to wait for me by my locker in the morning, but that was all I saw of her. I hadn’t seen Eliza once.

 

We had a mandatory school assembly that Friday. I was rather confused—they’d called my parents to request permission to talk about everything back in November. I remember shrugging—assuming that everyone already had more information than the staff of the high school would ever learn. Through strategic eavesdropping, I discovered that this assembly was directed more about the “change of administration” that had ensued in the last week and a half.

At 2:15, the school flooded the halls, and we all sauntered down to the gymnasium. Everyone was talking about their classes and sports and college applications around me. I stood at the bottom of the bleachers, searching desperately for Eliza and Kristin. They weren’t sitting in our usual spot for pep rallies and student council announcements. I spotted them sitting toward the middle, talking close to each other with their heads bent down, hidden under baseball caps. If I hadn’t been there when we’d all purchased those hats in Siesta Key, I would never have been able to find them. I broke into the mess of people, expecting to get pushed and shoved, but the effort was not necessary. Everyone made sure not to touch me. When I reached their row, I saw the color drain from Eliza’s face. Kristin became way too interested in her phone as I climbed over seated students to where they were. People scooched to the side to make room for me, turning away from me as obviously as my vending machine encounters.

“Hi,” I said to my friends. They looked up at me.

“Hey,” both cooed. “How are you?”

“I’m okay,” I smiled, putting my backpack between my legs.

“Hanging in there?” Eliza said. I nodded, annoyed with her transparent discomfort. She once came over to my house when I had lice and pinkeye without so much as flinching.

“We…We missed you,” Eliza added. “It’s good to have you back.”

“I’m excited to just get things back to normal,” I said, surveying the gymnasium. It felt so different, like they’d all been at the party. Kristin and Eliza looked around too, but their faces told me they had other worries on their minds.

 

Kristin and Eliza had reached out to me when word first spread. They were with me when the text message of which I was the subject finally reached their cell phones. “Ew!” they’d both gasped at first. I had craned my head over their shoulders to see what was so captivating, but they’d just received the follow-up text captioning the photo and had pivoted away from me. “Oh, my God,” I remember Kristin saying.

“Holy shit,” Eliza had said after a minute. Both shoved their phones deep into their back pockets.

“What is it?” I’d asked stupidly.

I hadn’t told anyone about the party at that point. I’d picked myself up from the woods behind the house and drove home. I’d showered, mostly just preoccupied with my terrible headache. It was in the shower that I noticed the blood staining the porcelain floor. I was under the impression I’d just started my period. But then the water began to sting, and it hurt to wash myself. I felt sore everywhere, and I began to count several bruises and scratches. Nothing came back to me—I had no memories to sort through. I stifled a scream, whimpering as the water erased the most damning evidence. Later, in the hospital, the nurse assigned to assess “the damage” had asked about my sexual history. I’d told her—believing myself to be speaking honestly—that I was a virgin. Then she got quiet and walked out for a minute.

That circulated picture proved far more than how much I’d been drinking that night. Without it, I had nothing with which to accuse anyone. Though quite a challenge when forming my case with Mr. White, I was rather glad that I didn’t have any recollection of what must have happened. I didn’t walk in fear of men the way other victims do. I walked with shock that my peers had such power to destroy someone’s life. Then again, they probably thought the same of me when they received their first paperwork about the trial.

Kristin and Eliza had spent that night with me, holding me while I cried. Neither had been at the party—they didn’t like to party. I’d attended it with some cross country friends, but, apparently, had become sidetracked. No one wanted to admit they’d been at the party, and all my information about the night came primarily from rumors Kristin and Eliza had heard.

After that first, terrible night, Kristin or Eliza came over to my house every day, and they sat beside me when I finally told my parents what was going on. They showed my parents and Mr. White the pictures and texts. They sat in the audience for the trial the first two days, but then their parents said that they needed to be in school. I told them I understood. The whole thing ended up taking another two months, and neither them nor I had made much effort to keep in touch.

When everything had leaked into local news, administrative staff that did not work in the high school, including our superintendent, had expressed sincere embarrassment and dismay. My teachers, the vice principal, even my cross country coach, had all remained rather uninvolved, mainly sending me updates on what I was missing and needed to make up. My teammates sent me some cookies and a card, but no one texted in the group chat we’d arranged for the past two years or contacted me personally.

I tried to keep running, but I hardly ever felt like I had enough energy for it. When I emailed my coach to say that I wouldn’t be participating on the track team that spring, I’d received a brief response:

That’s fine. You are not eligible for sports teams at this time. 

My coach didn’t have the guts to say it, but I assumed I’d been kicked off the team for breaking rules regarding underage drinking. I still wondered why none of my other cohorts had been removed, as they were at the party as well.

 

After five more vexatious minutes of small talk with Eliza and Kristin, our vice principal emerged, walking up to the podium arranged in the center. He was wearing an expensive suit, the same one he’d worn in court, and he was holding a crinkled piece of paper.

“Hello students of Creston High,” he began, his mouth way too close to the microphone. The mic echoed his words a little, and the volume had to be adjusted as we were all in danger of going deaf. Once someone gave him a thumbs up, he reluctantly continued. “Thank you for coming today. We need to talk about something serious—something that is long overdue.”

My stomach dropped.

“I understand that there have been several parties over the last few months. I’m sure you are all aware of the particularly tragic events of last October. After some exhaustive administrative changes and meetings, we would like to formally address the school’s current state.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have lost two important members of our school—”

Principal Shaffer and Coach Whitman, I thought, filling in the sentences in my head to avoid noticing the student body reactions.

“—Jacob Matthews and Alex Stephens are no longer attending Creston, and they will no longer be participating on our football team, along with several others. We are working hard to ensure that we bring justice to the matter while respecting the privacy of everyone. Many of you knew these boys. We kindly request that you would not spread rumors about such circumstances.

“We are also reviewing a few positions of administration,” he said, licking his lips. “We ask that you respect privacy in this process as well. Hopefully, we will not need to make any changes and Principal Shaffer, among others, will be back in no time at all.”

A few people clapped, and the football team all seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The vice principal continued,

“This incident—” he cleared his throat— “this um, chain of events, that has caused all of this confusion and exhaustive investigation, has brought to our attention the serious issue of underage drinking. Students, the legal drinking age is 21 years of age, and none of you meet that requirement. Therefore, none of you should be consuming alcohol, period. The problems we are currently facing are directly related to irresponsible drinking.”

Don’t cry; don’t cry; don’t cry.

I wanted to leave. I considered attempting a second exit. I squirmed. Kristin took my hand.

The vice principal looked visibly uncomfortable by this point. He was reciting a thoroughly-rehearsed speech, but his body language suggested this was perhaps his first experience with public speaking.

“Irresponsible drinking leads to unsafe operation of vehicles, unplanned sexual activity, health problems, and even death. For more information on these very serious effects of underage alcohol drinking, we will be hosting a free seminar on the dangers of it. Our health teacher, Mrs. Fitzgibbon, will be in charge of that. Please be responsible—”

When had I stood up? What was I doing? Heads snapped between the vice principal and I, staring us down like a tennis match. I should sit down, I thought. I should definitely sit down. I had silenced the vice principal though, and everyone was waiting for me.

I took a breath. The gym was still quiet. I expected the vice principal to dismiss me, to tell me to sit down, to say something, but he just stared at me along with the rest of the gym.

I could yell at all of them—tell them that the assembly needed was not about underage drinking, but of sexual assault. I could spell it out for them, how they’ve missed the point. I could yell at myself—apologize to everyone for disturbing the peace. In that moment, though, I realized that none of it mattered. Nothing I could say would make them understand, would make them forgive me, would give me back what I had lost that night.

I thought about the statistics Mr. White had presented to the court—that one in five women are raped in their lifetime and almost none are reported. I looked at the student body and a wave of pity jabbed me. There were others in this room who knew far more about sexual assault than I that also felt silenced. I thought about when my mother had cried, in deep pain, still thanking me for reporting it, for letting them love me. They never blamed me for drinking that night. Why did everyone else?

1,400 sets of eyeballs blinked at me expectantly, but I fell mute and sat back down.

 

 

BIO

Abbey is a senior English and Creative Writing major for a B.A. degree at Indiana Wesleyan University. She has poetry published in her school’s literary magazine, Caesura, but this is her first short story to be published in a recognized literary journal. She is currently an editorial assistant for a small academic publishing company and hopes to eventually edit works of fiction and creative nonfiction. She believes fiction can be a powerful source of social commentary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Restoration

by Mary Grimm

 

 

Larissa and her friend (for this is what she calls him) go out to dinner once a month, always the same place. They both like it, so there isn’t any reason to change, her friend says, whose name is Roman. He is six years younger than she is, but according to her coworkers at the museum, they look the same age, probably because Larissa dyes her hair, and Roman has a bushy Bible-prophet beard. He picks her up at six (to avoid date-night crowds) and drives her to the Jolly Chef where the hostess can almost always give them the same table. They order and sit waiting for their drinks, Roman tapping his fingers and sweeping his eyes over the other diners. When they have been served, Roman lifts his glass, tipping it toward her, and says “to the fairest one of all,” gesturing around the room. Larissa smiles, and sips her wine. She likes to hear it, even if it’s patently untrue, and has, let’s face it, never been true, even when her flesh was young and firm and her hair its original color. They ask each other what’s new. Larissa tells stories of the museum, the odd things that people bring in, the set of dolls dressed in leather, the painting described by its owner as a spirit painting done by his grandmother in a trance and purporting to be a map of heaven, the ancient wooden sleigh so large it wouldn’t fit in the museum’s garage. Roman talks about his buddies and their doings – fishing in the summer, bowling in the winter. He brings out pictures of his grandchildren to show Larissa. She has come to know them quite well in their absence, and is able to comment knowledgeably on the improvements in their grades, or to compare this year’s prom dress with last year’s. They don’t always order the same thing, but Larissa often has the braised chicken and fennel, and Roman the pasta alfredo with extra sauce. Afterward, Roman drives her home. Every third or fourth time, he comes in and they have a post-dinner drink (bourbon on the rocks) and sex. Roman doesn’t stay the night any more.  He says that he needs his own bed to get a decent night’s sleep. Larissa used to pretend to be disappointed, but now she doesn’t bother.

There’s nothing visible in her house that has anything to do with her son. Whatever is left of him is hidden away, in closets, the attic, the basement. Relics: like the ones they used to display in churches, but these can’t heal. If he were alive he’d be thirty-three, a shadow existence, his revenant growing invisibly older, thinner each year, his tenuous shade coming apart, the strands of him pulling away. Roman doesn’t know that she had a son, nor do the people she works with at the museum. Her coworkers at the office she retired from did, and this is only one of the reasons she was glad to see the last of them.

Larissa is fifty-seven, retired from her job. She worked in an office, in charge of a number of people. There was a lot of email, and birthdays were constantly being celebrated. It’s not important now. She volunteers at a museum several days a week because she likes to keep busy. But she keeps time for her passions, which are: cooking, reading, playing the electronic piano.

Larissa is not sure that she’s a very sensual person. She likes sex, pretty much, but she always feels as if she doesn’t know what she’s doing. It doesn’t come naturally to her.

Larissa had a dream last night, about her father, who in the dream was laying out his ancient tools on the redwood picnic table that used to sit on her parents’ patio thirty years ago. Larissa watches him puttering around, thinking (in the dream) that she should get up and start dinner. Which is strange. Is she her mother? She looks at her hands, stretching out her fingers: they are her own hands, but still she has the restless urge that she should be doing something. When she looks back to her father, thinking that she should ask him what he’d like her to do, she finds that it’s not her father bending over the picnic table, but her son, looking just as he did in the year or two before he died.

Larissa’s mother was very beautiful. Some used to think that Larissa might resent her mother, since she herself was only attractive in an entirely ordinary way, but this isn’t true. Larissa loved her mother. But she dislikes her mother’s sister, who did resent Larissa’s mother for her beauty. Her aunt is still alive at eighty-one, and seems to think this a well-earned triumph over Helen, Larissa’s mother, who died some years ago.

When Larissa drives to work at the museum, she goes through her mother’s old neighborhood, where her family lived when they first came to the city. The houses in the neighborhood are old, the same houses that were there when Helen lived there. Larissa drives down the street where her mother lived. She came here once with her mother, a nostalgic trip. Helen could remember the street, but she wasn’t sure if it was the second house from the corner or the third. Larissa remembers feeling impatient at the time: how could she not remember? The two houses are both white, both with pillared porches and tiny squares of grass in front. One has a chimney that is half falling down, the other a squat tower embedded in its northwest corner. These items seem noticeable and unique to Larissa, but she’s over the whole blaming thing now.

At the museum, Larissa does this and that, a jane of all trades. It’s a community history museum with an eccentric collection, mainly things that people have donated when their parents died and they were clearing out the house.  Originally they took her on to do the books, because of her office experience, but she now does whatever comes up.  She’s learned how to restore old books, mend vintage clothes, refurbish and retune ancient musical instruments. She’s handy with a screwdriver. She goes there three times a week, but sometimes more often if she’s involved in a project. She is vaguely friendly with the other volunteers and with the woman who has the one paid position, the director. She has a particular affinity for one of the volunteers, Roseanne. She reminds her of Eileen, someone she went to school with, so much so that she sometimes imagines that Roseanne is Eileen.

Larissa is a great reader. She likes to read history – lives of the presidents, for instance, or of significant women like Marie Curie. She likes to read cookbooks, although she hardly ever makes a recipe out of them. All the things she makes are things she made when she was married to her long-divorced husband, or things that her mother used to make. She also likes to read romances but only of a particular sort – Regency romances. She is very critical if the authors don’t get the language or the clothes right. If she wrote a book (but she would never do this), she would write something historical, or maybe she would write a self-help book, which would be practical. Definitely not a memoir, since her life is not interesting. She does think she has some good advice to give people, if people ever listened. Especially women. She thinks she knows a thing or two about being a woman.

Larissa’s son is dead. He’s been dead for quite a while. People have assumed a lot of things about Larissa’s son’s death, some thinking that he died in one of the wars of the late twentieth century – the first Gulf war, for instance. Or they think that he committed suicide, since he was young when he died. Some people are convinced that he died on 9/11, but they are people that don’t know Larissa very well.

Larissa retired early for several reasons. She disliked her job, of course, which goes without saying. She was glad to leave behind a group of people who knew things about her. She gave it out that she was quitting because she needed to take care of an elderly relative, which was a lie. Her aunt, who hated Larissa’s mother, and isn’t all that fond of Larissa, is elderly, but she’s living determinedly on her own in an assisted living apartment. In fact, Larissa won the lottery. She’s kept it quiet though and no one knows it except, presumably, her bank.

Larissa never thinks about her first marriage, not because it was horrible or traumatic, but because it was unremarkable.

The love of Larissa’s life is dead. She didn’t know at the time that Eileen was the love of her life. They knew each other so briefly, so many years ago, but she’s never had that same intensity of feeling again, although she kept looking for it, until she stopped. They thought they’d keep in touch after graduation, but they didn’t. She saw her again at their twenty-year reunion, but although Larissa was still feeling something, she couldn’t communicate it, and she didn’t know if Eileen felt it or anything like it. They exchanged stories of their jobs, marriages, children. Eileen’s life sounded much more interesting than Larissa’s. She never saw her again, and years later, she heard from someone that she had died. The someone who told her is an expriest. He attempted to comfort/counsel her, which she rejected. He may also have wanted to sleep with her.

In her twenties, Larissa lived in a commune, although they didn’t call it that, which she joined because she had always had a fantasy of having an orchard, and the place where they lived had one. She appointed herself the commune’s orchardist and read dozens of books on apples and pruning and grafting. While she was there, she had sex with three people, with different degrees of enthusiasm. One was the founder, whose grandfather owned the farm; he was someone she’d known in college, although they hadn’t slept together then. The second was a woman who reminded her of the love of her life (although she still didn’t know then that the LOHL had come and gone). The third was a boy who stayed at the commune for only a week, and who was the father of Larissa’s son, who is now dead.

When Larissa wakes up in the middle of the night, she calms her mind by counting objects in her childhood bedroom, with the aim of falling asleep before she reaches fifty. Her fingers remember the spindles at the headboard of the bed, carved so that she could fit her fingers into their curves, also the soft crinkly texture of the kleenex dolls she made to play with when she was supposed to be sleeping. The wallpaper was blue, with the heads of Edwardian women with bouffant hair and big hats. There was a vanity table, with a fancy hairbrush, and a mirror over it, which fell down once in the middle of the night. She starts always with the corner of the room by the door, and by the time she has worked her way around to the dresser on the opposite wall, enumerating what was kept on top of it (the music box her father brought her from Germany, the pirate treasure chest where she kept her allowance, the celluloid doll named Caroline that was an antique and couldn’t be played with), she was usually asleep.

Larissa visits her aunt once a month on a Sunday. The place she’s living is called The Willows – it looks like a normal apartment building except that an ambulance is often parked outside. Her aunt’s apartment has only a bedroom, a bathroom, and a visiting area (so named in the brochure). There’s no need to cook, since the residents eat downstairs in the communal dining room, but there is a mini-fridge for snacks. “I see you’re back,” she greets Larissa. “I’ve got a lot to do, you know. I can’t sit around waiting all the day.” Larissa has brought a plant, to replace one of the ones dying on the window sill. Larissa admires her aunt’s brooch, an enameled flower pinned in the folds of her scarf. Her aunt tells her how she got it for a bargain price at an auction many years ago. “I haven’t seen your mother,” she tells Larissa. “Too busy to come and see her own sister, I suppose.” Larissa has stopped reminding her aunt of who has died (which is basically everyone of her generation). Larissa says that her mother might be out of town. Her aunt sniffs, but accepts this, and goes on to tell again the story of how Larissa’s mother used to borrow her stockings and return them with runs in them. “It wasn’t easy to get them during the war,” she reminds Larissa. “She never had a care for her things, your mother.” Larissa won’t go so far as to agree with criticism of her mother, so she hums in what she hopes is an agreeable way. “How’s your neighbor?” she asks. “The woman you play bridge with.” Her aunt sniffs again. “Dead,” she says, shaking her head at this willful failure. “Her daughter came to clear out her things last week.” Some visits, her aunt is willing to tell stories about the past that are free of bitterness and spite. Sometimes, Larissa hears new things about Helen that she didn’t know. That she had a yellow convertible. That she and Larissa’s father courted for years before she said yes. That she’d had her tonsils out and almost died when she was thirteen. Not this visit though. She leaves her aunt before dinner is announced over the loudspeaker, because she can’t bear sitting at the table with her aunt and her tablemates: the woman who always smiles, the woman who talks incessantly about her Uncle Frank, the woman who brings a doll with her and surreptitiously feeds it bits from her plate. When she is in the car, she breathes deeply, feeling guilty and relieved. Would she hate these visits so if it was her mother she was seeing instead? The template of her aunt’s rooms seems to press down on her: she can’t help seeing herself in the bed, in the wheelchair maneuvering into the accessible bathroom, sitting in front of the TV watching endless colorized Turner classic movies. On her way home, as she often does, she goes to the mall and buys something, this time a pair of shoes and an umbrella, which she thinks are probably symbolic of something.

Roseanne, the woman at the museum who reminds her of the love of her life, is not quite one year younger than Larissa, about nine months to be exact. “You were being born that month, and I was being conceived,” she tells Larissa. Sometimes Larissa counts the ways that Roseanne is like Eileen, and sometimes she looks for the differences. They are both slight and blonde, both wear glasses, and are fond of jangly bracelets. Roseanne still works. She’s a teacher, but on half-time now. Her specialty at the museum is restoring old paintings, which she calls freshening up. “It would be a crime if this was a Rembrandt,” she says, “but since it’s not, I can have away at it.” These paintings are mostly lugubrious landscapes featuring waterfalls, sunsets, barns and farm animals, or portraits of dour men and women of the last century. Roseanne takes what liberties she can get away with, putting highlights on the waterfalls, brightening up the ancient clothes, or drawing a suggestion of a smile on the gloomiest faces. This is a secret she has with Larissa. Roseanne has a way of laughing that falls so lightly on Larissa’s ear, a laugh of three notes, descending the scale like birdsong.

Larissa’s son was always happy, or this is how she remembers him. Not that he wasn’t a normal boy. Not that they didn’t fight sometimes, over his clothes, or how late he would stay out. He had three good friends, two boys and a girl, from grade school all through high school. Larissa was proud of him, being friends with a girl, but also puzzled, since that wasn’t the way it was when she was young. His father (or rather, the man who Larissa married) got along with him well, for as long as he was around. If Larissa were to tell the story of her marriage to someone (to Roseanne, for instance), she might laugh, and say that they hardly knew each other. I’m not sure why we got married, she might say. It was a whim, I guess. At the time though, she’d thought of it as a solid plan, her plan to become normal, which meant finding a man and getting married. She would have been more comfortable (a little more) if she’d just been a lesbian, she tells herself. But the wavering between genders was a little too much, not in the slightest normal. Now it wouldn’t make so much difference. But anyway, she married him, and they didn’t hate each other for the time they were together. She felt afterward as if she’d done everything she could. She’d been as normal as it was possible for her to be.

Her time on the commune happened after she dropped out of college. She’d been planning to be a nurse, without somehow realizing that she’d have to watch people bleed. She changed majors and changed again, and then in her second year, dropped out halfway through the semester. Her mother had been confused but supportive. She’d lived at home for a few months, the two of them making each other crazy. When one of her friends, who had also dropped out (for reasons that had more to do with drugs and failing grades) wrote her and said that a few people he knew were going to live on his grandfather’s farm, she had been initially unenthusiastic. He called her long distance and extolled the beauties of the farm, talking about how there were a couple of goats and how they might make cheese, and someone planned to take up quilting, on and on, while she half listened, paging through a magazine while her mother made faces at her, wanting to know who it was. It wasn’t until he mentioned the orchard that she started listening properly. Helen, her mother, was then around forty-eight, still in the height of her beauty, her silvering blonde hair falling forward over her shoulders, her green eyes bright, her long legs crossed, her hand curving around a cigarette, blowing a stream of smoke toward the light from the window.

Larissa’s son died when he was nineteen. It was the kind of death that can’t be blamed on anyone, no matter how you try. He had gone out with his friends (the same friends he’d had all those years) to meet some other friends. They’d been walking across the street in a straggling group, on their way from one bar to another. They’d been drinking but no one was drunk. He had dropped behind to look for his longtime friend, the girl, who was lingering in the door of the bar, trying to get rid of a man who wanted her number, or wanted to come with her. He wanted something, and Larissa’s son was probably thinking of going back to help her get rid of him – this is what the girl told her several hours later at the hospital, crying so hard that her words came out garbled. The driver of the car wasn’t drunk either; she was old, and she was having a stroke. Larissa imagines her face drooping, her mouth crooked, one hand slipping from the wheel as she careened toward the spot on the street where Larissa’s son was standing, ready to be chivalrous if necessary. She hit him square on, so that his body flew some yards into the brick wall of the building housing the bar, several apartments, and a dry cleaners. He was dead on impact, the doctor assured Larissa, as if this was a comfort, and maybe it was.

At the museum, Larissa enjoys most the repairs that must be made on donated clothes. She never learned to sew when she was young, since her mother wanted her to have a career, but she has gotten good at it. She is currently working on a set of early nineteenth-century baby clothes, their whiteness yellowed in spite of having been treated gently with bleach. They are fancier than baby clothes today, with lace and hand embroidery, but less colorful. When Roseanne comes to see what she’s doing, she holds the dress she’s mending to show her. Roseanne laughs and says that she needs a drink.

When Larissa was in high school, she was one of the smart girls, although she doesn’t think she’s especially smart. But she was a hard worker, also a good test taker. Eileen wasn’t one of the smart girl group. She transferred in their junior year, and didn’t seem interested in attaching herself to any of the groups. She spent time with one person, then another, dropping in on the groups at random. No one seemed to mind. Eileen wasn’t beautiful. Her hair looked as if it had been cut by her mother, using a bowl, her eyes were a little small, her body lean and boyish. But people seemed to like to be with her. Larissa did. She was willing to do things like sit on the floor in front of her locker with Eileen, their legs stretched out so that passing girls had to step over them. She agreed to go to the dentist with Eileen because Eileen said that her dentist was probably a child molester (Eileen insisted on paying her $5. Danger pay, she said.) She and Eileen went to the prom together with Eileen’s two much younger brothers (they were 13 and 14) as a protest against the ridiculousness of expensive prom festivities when there were people dying everywhere in the world. They bought their dresses at the Goodwill, and the brothers wore tuxedo T-shirts. None of these things would Larissa have done before, or with anyone who wasn’t Eileen. Still, she hadn’t considered that she was in love. She didn’t realize this until much later, when she hadn’t seen Eileen for years and never would again.

Larissa gradually had started spending more and more time at the museum, more than her assigned volunteer hours. No one minded. The director often stopped to hug Larissa when she saw her, saying that she was the volunteer queen. Larissa liked old things, although she hadn’t known this about herself until now. She liked fixing things. She liked the slightly musty smell. She liked knowing things about people’s lives, the people to whom the museum’s exhibits had belonged.

The boy who fathered Larissa’s son was younger than her, eighteen to her twenty-two. He had limp, soft hair that fell below his shoulders. He asked her to cut it one night, and somehow, her hands on his forehead and ears, the touch of the scissors on his cheek, the brushing away of tufts of hair turned into foreplay. It was a very bad haircut. They laughed about it in bed afterward. He left two weeks later. She doesn’t remember his last name.

Roman finds her work at the museum laughable. He can’t imagine why she wastes her time there. He doesn’t know about the lottery win, and often urges her to get a paying job, at least part-time. He is under the impression that she was pressured into early retirement. Larissa furthers this misapprehension by indulging in pennypinching ways when they’re together. She lets him pay when he insists, and lets herself be seen putting a handful of sugar packets into her purse.

Roman will sometimes talk about what they might do when he is free of his obligations. He likes to speculate grandly about buying a house together in Mexico that they can timeshare out with trusted friends and relatives. He is convinced that no one should die before they’ve done various things like take a balloon ride or go crosscountry on a train. He is currently trying to persuade Larissa that she’d like to take up dog breeding, specifically for guide dogs. He is sure there’s money in it, as well as being a service to mankind.

Larissa hasn’t spent much of the money she won in the lottery. She had a new bathroom put into her house, but it wasn’t an extravagant bathroom. She spends more money than she used to on books, and she refurbished her garden with a raft of new perennials and flowering shrubs. She didn’t replace her car, a five-year-old Toyota, although she bought a new computer and, on impulse, a rather expensive juicer. She didn’t buy a new wardrobe. She went on a few trips after she retired from her job: she went to Canada, to Prince Edward Island to visit the site of the Green Gables novels; on a cruise to Alaska; and to South Carolina to get away from January snow. She thinks of going on a grander trip, to Italy, for instance, but she hasn’t so far nerved herself up for it. She gives more money out to people who beg for it on the street or from the grass verge by the freeway entrance – ten dollars instead of two.

One of the things she remembers about her mother and her aunt is about their gift giving. Her mother never used and often didn’t keep the things her sister gave her. She complained that they were extravagant, or too flamboyant. “Like something a showgirl would wear,” she’d said about a particular silver turban. She gave them away, often pressing them on Larissa, or let them lie in the back of the closet. Larissa found dozens of them, still in their boxes after her mother died. She sat crosslegged on the floor, remembering all the insincere thank-yous, how her mother had smiled gaily, saying “just what I wanted” or “how did you know I needed one of these.” The presents that Larissa’s mother gave her sister were relentlessly practical: an umbrella, padded hangers, a handheld vacuum cleaner. One year she had given her sister underwear. They had argued, not about the gift itself, but over the relative merits of hipster underpants (her aunt) over high-cut briefs (her mother).

Larissa was forty-three when her son died. She was fifty when her mother died. In the years between these two events, she sometimes wished that her mother had died instead of her son. After her mother died, she had no one to substitute.

Larissa met Roman at the home of an acquaintance, in fact, the ex-priest who told her about Eileen’s death. He had been out of the priesthood for years, but he still had the gestures and habits. He had a tendency to hold up his hand, palm out, as if he was conferring a blessing, and he often said “Amen” in nonreligious contexts. The evening had been a get-together for people who had once taught at St. Pius II School. Larissa had taught there only for a year, and only as a sub for someone on maternity leave, but the ex-priest was relentless in tracking down former colleagues. It was potluck, and Larissa had brought a bowl of cherry tomatoes and cookies from a bakery, still in the package. It was then two years after her son had died. She kept expecting to “get over it,” “get closure,” “find some peace” — but this was not happening. She had dreams about her son quite often. Sometimes it was as if nothing had ever happened – pleasant dreams about conversations at breakfast or watching him play soccer, as he had in high school. Sometime they began this way, and then descended into horror, blood beginning to drip into his scrambled eggs as they talked, or a yawning pit opening in the middle of the soccer field which gaped and widened until all the players were sucked in. Sometimes they began bad and stayed that way. The night of the party she had dressed without thinking what she was putting on, not caring much if she went or stayed home. If she hadn’t been able to find her car keys immediately, she likely would have set the wrapped bowl of tomatoes and the bag of cookies on the table by the door and gone straight to bed. But the car keys were there, and she walked out to the car, her mind a blank. At the expriest’s house, she sat on a couch, nodding at people but not talking to the group around her. Roman was sitting across from her on a folding chair. At the end of the evening, he claimed that he needed a ride, and the expriest had volunteered Larissa, since they lived only ten minutes apart. She didn’t think she said a word on the way home. Roman had gotten her number from the expriest. On their first date, he told her that he’d never met a more restful woman.

Eileen and Larissa were only friends in the time that they knew each other, but sometimes Larissa finds herself imagining that they continued to know each other, and that they have had a more intimate relationship that has lasted all that time since then. She finds herself thinking about this when she’s sewing up the hem on some frayed nineteenth-century baby clothes, or regilding a picture frame.

Larissa’s neighbors don’t know her well. She says hello to them, and pretends not to mind when the neighborhood children’s balls land in her yard. She buys girl scout cookies and magazine subscriptions from them when their schools are fundraising. Her neighbor to the west shovels her driveway when the snow is bad, and her neighbor to the east gives her surplus tomatoes when his garden is overflowing. She sometimes thinks, and takes pleasure in the fact that they don’t know her at all, they know nothing about her thoughts or circumstances.

Roman and Roseanne met once when Roman came to the reception for the museum’s exhibit (which Larissa had co-curated), “Our Ancestors, Ourselves.” They didn’t get along, by which Larissa was secretly pleased.

Roseanne and Larissa sometimes go out for drinks on Thursday after their hours at the museum. They like a little bar that is in the gentrified area of the city. Surrounded by cupcake bakeries and little shops that sell arts and crafts or vintage clothing, the bar itself is not gentrified. It has a decades-old smell of beer and smoke imbued into its furnishings, and the clientele (besides Roseanne and Larissa) tends to be solitary old men who hunch over their drinks protectively. The bar menu is not extensive, but they do a good martini, and that is what Roseanne and Larissa order: martinis with gin, up, two olives, heavy on the vermouth. They sit and talk about work and about their past lives, leaving much out. Larissa tells her the story of her time on the commune, making it as funny as she can. Roseanne tells Larissa how she got expelled from college, and how she worked for three years as a bail bondsman, which she describes as “kind of a kick.” It’s dim in the bar, and they lean closer to each other to hear over the relentless oldies playing on the sound system. Larissa has never invited Roseanne to come home with her after drinks, although she has thought about it. The trouble is that she isn’t sure how to go on from there. She sometimes gets a feeling that Roseanne would like her to do this, but she has never learned how to be the aggressor. Would she have to say something? Would she take Roseanne’s hand? She feels a little angry with Roseanne because she doesn’t take the initiative. And then, sex: no matter how much she likes Roseanne, does she actually want to go there?

In her imaginary life with Eileen, they went to the commune together, where perhaps they took it over, making it run more efficiently, making a rota for the chores, for instance. They lay in the grass in the orchard and looked at the stars through the branches. Because Eileen was there, Larissa would not have slept with the father of her son, which is a problem, since she doesn’t want to erase his existence, even in this imaginary world. Somehow he becomes their son, hers and Roseanne’s, in some unexplained conception. When they leave the commune, Larissa gets a teaching job at a prestigious private school, and Eileen finds a highpaying corporate job that requires her to travel a lot (even in her imaginary life, Larissa finds that she wants a little distance). When Larissa wins the lottery, she and Eileen buy a house in Costa Rica (which is reputed to be very cheap to live in). They move there with their son, although he leaves after a few years to go to college at Harvard. Bringing this fantasy up to the present, they are both retired, and Larissa is working on a book about something or other. Not a memoir. Eileen has taken up horseback riding and has her own shop selling Costa Rican crafts.

The ex-priest runs into Larissa every once in a while – in the grocery store or in the park on the all-purpose path. He always asks after Roman, looking smug, as if he is entirely responsible for their getting together. He sometimes hints slyly about a possible marriage. “Even in our golden days, we can find happiness,” he says, sometimes going so far as to nudge her conspiratorily. He always invites the two of them to his next little fiesta, as he calls his parties, and she always says that she’ll try to make it, although she never does. Whether Roman goes or not, she doesn’t know.

When Larissa thinks of her son, she tries now to distance herself, as if he lived a long time ago, as if he were born fifty years ago, a hundred, as if he had been friends with the boy in one of the photographs in the exhibit, “Farming in the Early Years,” his hand on a plow about to be pulled away by a team of shaggy horses. Her son was of middle height (his father was rather short). His hair fell forward over his eyes: he didn’t like to get it cut. When he smiled, Larissa had always had to smile back, even if she was angry. She wants to think that she remembers all of his smiles, but there are so many that she has forgotten.

One day, Roseanne comes in with a gift bag and hands it to Larissa, who takes it with a puzzled frown. “Open it,” Roseanne says, and she does, finding inside a clutter of sample-sized makeup. Roseanne’s cousin sells Avon, and they were having a clear out. Larissa takes out a lipstick: Enduring Sable, in a shimmer finish. “These are all good for a brunette,” Roseanne says, gesturing toward Larissa’s hair. “I can’t wear them.” Roseanne is a blonde, her color shades lighter than her original hair was, she has told Larissa. “I thought of you,” Roseanne said. She pulls out an eye shadow called Midnight Sparkler. “You can wear this when we go out for drinks. We’ll be fighting them off.”

Larissa forgets to bring something with her when she visits her aunt, and she blames this for the unpleasantness that follows. Her aunt refuses to be wheeled outside into the cramped garden although the weather is warm. The aide whispers to Larissa in the hall that she’s been difficult. She refused three times to get her hair washed, even though it’s lank and straggling. Her aunt tells a long story about the director of the assisted living apartments, claiming that she is preventing everyone from going to Mass. Her aunt claims that the visiting priest has been barred from the facility for some dark reason that she refuses to divulge. She tells Larissa again that her mother hasn’t been to visit her in a long time, and that she’s not surprised. Larissa is thinking that maybe it’s time that she move to the other side of the facility, where residents with dementia or more severe health problems stay. She pours some coffee for the two of them from the pot in the communal kitchen space and pretends to drink hers. Her aunt leans closer to her. “Helen was always that way,” she says. “Always thinking of herself, your mother.” Larissa prepares herself to hear again about the stockings borrowed without permission or how her mother never helped with the chores. “She didn’t care about what anybody said,” her aunt says. “Your father was a saint. She led him a dance, you know. Before,” she lowers her voice, “and after.” Larissa draws back. She wants to ask what her aunt means, except that she knows what she means. Her aunt looks at her with satisfaction. “She was brought up better than that. We all were.” She looks at the drooping plants on the window sill that Larissa has forgotten about watering. “I never wanted a man, you know. Too much trouble,” her aunt says. She smiles, so slyly that Larissa wants to hit her, if it was possible to hit old women whose bones are as brittle as plaster.

Larissa likes to go to the bank instead of using the ATM, which makes her nervous. She’s never sure that her card will come back out. At the bank, everyone knows her, and they are endlessly friendly. She sits at one of the customer service desks, and lets the executive vice president handle her withdrawal. She can tell that he wants to ask her what the money is for, but he doesn’t. Outside, the sun is shining. She prefers to carry cash with her. Cash is more comforting than a credit card, although she has those, too. At the mall, she walks up and down, in and out of the stores. Roseanne’s birthday is a week away, which she knows because she looked up Roseanne’s volunteer employee file on the computer in the office, but she doesn’t know what to get her. A scarf? a bracelet? a clutch purse? These are the things that women buy for each other, but none of them seem right. She starts buying things nevertheless, the accumulation of them spurring her on. Something has to be right, hasn’t it? A pair of red shoes. A book on ferns. A paperweight shaped like an octopus, translucent and shimmery. A box of chocolate truffles in spring colors. A lotion containing dead sea salts. The strings of the bags cut into her fingers.

The calendar in Larissa’s office at the museum is a weight on her, the spent and unspent days. It’s an annual calendar, but somehow she feels the press of the years behind this one, pushing on the leaves that say January, February, March. Before Larissa retired, she was less aware of time. Now, she realizes, the months are square and stolid, the weeks a rush of light and dark, the days slotted into them like coffins. All the dead hours.

Larissa’s mother had wanted her to be a teacher, one of the things they argued about. Her aunt had taken Larissa’s side. “Let her have a bit of fun,” she said. “Teachers are poky old things.”

Roman has wanted to take her to the races for a long time, but she had resisted until now, since it seemed silly to her to watch a number of horses run around in a circle. It might be different, she told Roman, if she owned one of the horses, or if she knew the jockeys. There was no reason she couldn’t own a horse, if she took it into her head to do such a silly thing. She could buy a horse, or two horses, and a stable, and maybe her own racetrack. A small one. She sits in the seats high enough up so that the racing park spreads out below her. Her thigh is pressed against Roman’s leg. He had his arm around her for a while, but in the excitement of the race, he has released her, has stood up to yell encouragement at Blue Shadow, on whom he bet fifty dollars. It is a pretty name, Larissa admits. The horses are moving specks from here, their spidery legs scrambling. The crowd wavers and jitters in excitement, their round heads bobbing. Larissa is thinking of other things: her mother, her aunt, her son. The sharp-cut fall of Eileen’s trendy haircut against the navy blue of their school uniform. The expriest who informed her of Eileen’s death had said that he was sure she’d died in Christ. Larissa knows however that Eileen was an atheist, or at least an agnostic, something they had settled between them on the retreat in junior year, when they had discussed the strong possibility that God did not exist. They had snuck out after curfew to talk on the cold sand of the beach, the dark waves splashing at their feet. No one knew where they were, that was the best thing. No one could tell them anything.

 

 

 

BIO

Mary Grimm has had two books published, Left to Themselves (novel) and Stealing Time (story collection) – both by Random House. She teaches fiction writing at Case Western Reserve University.

 

 

 

 

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The Engagement of Zelda Sayre to F. Scott  Fitzgerald

(from an unpublished novel entitled “Ascent to Madness: Zelda Fitzgerald’s Gilded Cage.”)

by Henry F. Tonn

 

 

Montgomery, Alabama 1917

 

I met Scott Fitzgerald just before my eighteenth birthday at a country club in Montgomery, Alabama, where I had been persuaded to perform “Dance of the Hours” in a crowded ballroom full of servicemen. I was a veritable blonde sylph in those days; my feet seemed to barely touch the floor. After the performance all the servicemen swarmed around me wanting to dance, and I was whirled across the floor by a succession of admirers, one cutting in after another. Scott saw me and moved right in. He was a cocky little bugger with something of a supercilious attitude along with a distinctive strut to his walk.

We danced, but he was hampered in his attentions by other servicemen cutting in. Finally, as the evening drew to a close, Scott asked me for a date. Pretty quick, I thought! And laughed. “I never make late dates with fast workers,” I informed him, flipping my golden curls behind me.

“There appears to be a lot of competition for your companionship,” he observed, gently stroking the side of my face with two fingers and peering intently at me. “I don’t want to be left behind.”

I put five fingers on his chest and shoved. “Well, unless they’re shipping you off to the war tomorrow, mon chevalier, you’ll have plenty of time. I’m not going anywhere.”

This was a new experience for Scott who was accustomed to having his way with the fairer sex, being the pretty boy that he was. He thought since he was down South with the cotton pickers, he could have his way with any girl he chose.

Wrong!

I had many suitors in that era and was dated up for weeks. Scott had to put in some major effort to garner my attention. Hah! And that inaccessibility made me more desirable to him, made him more determined than ever to get me. It is an eternal truism in the world of love that that which is most elusive generally assumes the mantle of the most desirable.

But he was a good looking man, with his blonde hair and fresh complexion. He had luminous green eyes that seemed to change with his mood and a perfectly chiseled face. His uniform was tailored by Brooks Brothers of New York and he wore cream-colored boots with spurs. He was animated and passionate. His conversation glittered. He was somber and determined, but witty and urbane. I had never before met anyone like him. Later I would learn that the two things Scott Fitzgerald ultimately wanted most in life were literary success and me. He got both, but maybe eventually regretted it.

He called me every day from his barracks. He came to my house regularly, riding the rickety old bus to Montgomery from his camp and then taking a taxi. He wanted me exclusively but had to share me with others. He objected and complained bitterly. Sorry about that, darling, but I am queen of the belles here and shall play it to the hilt. When you have men lined up at the door, you pretty much do as you please.

Get in line, gentlemen—there’s enough of Zelda for everybody!

But Scott was relentless. He threw a party at the country club for my eighteenth birthday and managed to make it a magical evening: the lights, the music, the dancing. Scott was the dashing Lieutenant then and I was the elusive, fragrant, seductive phantom. I was there but I was not quite there for him. But gradually I found myself being drawn to the man, irresistibly, like a moth to a flickering flame. Our times together increased. I invited him to my house for dinner so he could become acquainted with my family.

This was serious business and it was supposed to a memorable event. And it was, but for the wrong reason.

I introduced Old Dick—my name for Daddy behind his back—to Scott and they chatted comfortably for ten minutes, then everyone sat down to the dinner table. Within the first minute I said something Daddy objected to and he just blew up. He grabbed a carving knife and started chasing me around the table brandishing the knife while Scott looked on with incredulity. Finally, after several rotations of the table and one side trip through the kitchen, the judge—not in the best of jogging condition—ran out of steam and sat back down to finish his dinner. I swear to God, it’s true. My father, a judge of the highest order, could control his emotions with everyone but me. I drove him crazy. But afterwards everybody chatted amiably as though nothing had happened. Pass the butter beans, Momma? Thank you so much. More corn, Daddy?

Scott never forgot it. He thought, What am I getting myself into here?

“It’s all right, son,” Old Dick said, patting Scott on the shoulder. “I haven’t killed her yet. Came close a couple of times but haven’t managed yet.”

“Yes, sir,” was all Scott could reply, picking at his food. He was real quiet that night.

“More roast?” the judge said amiably.

“No thank you, sir.”

“A Princeton man, are you?” the judge said, trying to make conversation.

“Yes, sir.”

“Graduated?”

“No, sir. Dropped out to serve my country.”

“Ah! Good man. Good man. So what are your plans after the war? What would you like to do with yourself?”

“I’d like to be a writer, sir.”

“A writer, you say?” The judge’s eyebrows constricted.

“Yes, sir.”

“A writer.” The judge’s moustache drooped.

“Yes, sir.”

“Hm.”

It was obvious that Judge Anthony Sayre was not overly fond of his youngest daughter’s being courted by a soldier whose ambition was to support her by the power and glory of the written word.

We sat on my front porch later rocking in the swing and sipping non-alcoholic drinks with fruit and crushed ice. He quoted poetry to me. He had memorized poems that went on for fifteen minutes. I’ve never seen nor heard anything like it. He talked about his future and his writing, and was absolutely determined to be the greatest author in the world—both rich and famous.

“The rich are different than you and me,” he said, his chiseled features etched in the moonlight, his wonderful eyes brilliant and alive. “They have everything they want early in their lives and don’t have to work for it. It gives them a certain sense of entitlement. It causes them to feel they’re better than everyone else. There were a lot of people like that at Princeton. I could feel it. They sized you up, and if you had money and breeding and came from the right family, they allowed you into that unspoken fraternity that other people couldn’t hope to join. But I’m going to make it on my own terms. Then nobody can look down on me.”

“I haven’t noticed that sort of thing in Montgomery,” I said.

“It’s not the same,” he insisted. “You have to go up north to see what I’m talking about: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Boston, New York. These people think the sun rises and sets on themselves. They know it does. They don’t care about the poor, for example. The only poor people they’ve ever known are their own servants and laborers. They have no sensitivity, no concern for the human condition. The greatest writers understood and wrote about the human condition—which is what made them great: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Balzac, Dickens, Keats, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Spengler. Some of these people rose above their own lofty beginnings—like Tolstoy, for example—to identify with the less fortunate, and you have to admire them for that. I doubt if any of my Princeton classmates will ever follow suit, but I certainly hope I’ll remember where I came from when I’m famous. I hope I never lose my concern for the human condition. If you’re a great writer, you should also be a great man.”

I was touched by this. I wanted to stand up and applaud. These were new ideas to me; they were not the typical ideas you heard in Montgomery. I slipped my arm through his and leaned against him. “That’s right, darling. Both of us will want to remember our humble beginnings.”

“It’s like the Nietzschean superman,” he said. “No matter how exalted you are, you never forget the unfortunates.”

“Yes,” I said somberly, though I had no idea what a “Nietzchean superman” was.

“I want to do this as much for you as for myself,” he swore. “I want us to take this journey together. We’d be so perfect.”

“It sounds like a wonderful life. I’m excited to think about it.”

He nodded with determination. “I’m going to make it happen.”

“We’d be linked like soul-mates,” I said. “Eternally. Two souls incarnated. That’s what the theosophists believe, you know. Together before they were born and linked as one in the afterlife. Mirror reflections of each other.”

He looked at me quizzically.

“My mother was a theosophist,” I explained. “She taught me about it.”

“Oh.”

“I know a woman who’s a psychic,” I continued. “It’s simply amazing how accurate her predictions are. All of my friends have seen her one time or another. She uses a Ouija board. Only her hands are on it, nobody else’s, and you can ask her anything you want. And then the board spells out the answer. Have you ever seen a Ouija board?”

“No.”

“I’ll go to her,” I promised, “and ask the question, ‘Will Scott Fitzgerald become rich and famous with his novel?’ What do you think? And I’ll tell you what she says.”

He nodded, looking abstractly into the distance. “I’d like to know,” he murmured.

We strolled around the fields near my home and discussed love. Crickets chirped, tree frogs croaked, and cicadas trilled as we were soon treated to a nocturnal serenade. We held hands and caressed each other. He asked me to marry him but I wouldn’t make the commitment. I teased him and was elusive and he got angry and sulked. It made me more desirable than ever.

I pressed myself against him and kissed him passionately in the shadows of the night but always withheld a part of myself. And he knew it. He found me enigmatic and confusing and said so. He couldn’t figure me out. Perhaps he never figured me out. I became the de facto heroine of many of his novels and stories because he could never quite figure me out. Of course, it’s always more interesting to write about a woman of mystery than one you understand, isn’t it?

But, in retrospect, I wonder if we were ever really right for each other.

Ever.

I don’t know.

But I only had a few doubts at the time and they were mostly concerning his ability to support me properly.

He was fascinated by the way I conversed, by the way I put words together in a peculiar manner, sometimes in a peculiar sequence. I said whatever came into my head in those days, being utterly spontaneous. I saw things from a different perspective and wasn’t afraid to declare my uniqueness. Scott had never heard anyone express themselves in such a manner, with the peculiar word formations I used, the figures of speech, the observations. It was almost as though I were speaking a foreign language to him and he needed a translator.

He began jotting down things I said, preserving them in a notebook he always carried, and later I would find them in a story of his—often word for word. Later, when we were married, he stole my diary and incorporated vast sections of it into his novel—again, word for word! I was amused and annoyed at the same time.

We had so much fun talking. We had marathon conversations. Marathon! He had been to college and was educated, whereas I just talked off the top of my head as ideas flowed through my consciousness. It was perfect. We fit together. We complemented each other in so many ways.

He became my number one beau.

But not my only beau.

Definitely not my only beau. After all, I was the leading belle in Montgomery!

I told him I loved him and would always be there with him, but the next day I would feel differently. I love you. I love you not. I love you. I love you not. I love you. I love you not. Ho hum. How could I be certain he was right for me and could take care of me when he had no means of support? Perhaps he was going to be a great writer, as he assured me, but how could I know? My lack of certainty made him angrier than ever and he complained bitterly, causing heated battles between us. But he also understood my fear. I was a judge’s daughter and his prospects were questionable. He needed to prove himself. My parents didn’t approve of him. And there were many, many other suitors.

So, when the war ended, which terminated his plans to fight in Europe, he boarded a train to New York and began his quest to become the Great Author. I, meanwhile, became fully engaged with my various suitors. I dated two football players from Auburn plus the son of a wealthy cotton broker, among others. I was crowned prom queen on three different college campuses: the University of Alabama, the University of Georgia, and little Sewanee. The more men I dated, the more conflicted I became about Scott. He was there but they were here. “I want you more all the time and I love you with all my heart and soul,” I wrote to him, and then went out and rampaged my way through the night.

Line up, gentlemen. Line up. Zelda is here!

Poor Scott.

He got desperate and sent me an engagement ring. I kept it but placed it in a drawer. Five members of a football team created a fraternity in my honor in which the induction requirement was to have dated me. I had fantasies of dating the whole football team, kissing every one of them. Leave no stone unturned! They were everywhere, offering me rides, visiting my house, inviting me out on every imaginable kind of excursion. I promised Scott I would write to him regularly but quickly tired of it. “This long-distance affair is not helping my nerves at all, darling,” I wrote. “I wish we would get this business resolved one way or the other.” The less I thought of Scott the better. He was long-distance and creating too many problems. Gradually he receded into the distance.

He wrote nineteen short stories over a several-month period and got a hundred rejection slips, pasting them on the walls of his tiny apartment. He wrote bitterly to me about the rejections and I felt sorry for him. Not only were his hopes as a writer being dashed, but he was watching the woman he loved slip away. He cursed his poverty and became absolutely frantic. But there were limits to what I could do to assuage his misery. He visited me in Montgomery three times in three months, coming by train. The third visitation was a disaster and I returned his engagement ring. “If you can’t support me, I can’t marry you,” I hollered. “What do you expect? There’s nothing romantic about starving in an attic with an impecunious author. Call me insensitive if you wish, but that’s the way it is.” I stomped my foot, and he left a broken man, but as determined as ever to have me.

He was persistent, I’ll give him that.

His novel, what would eventually become This Side of Paradise, was rejected by Scribners Publishing Company, and his editor, Maxwell Perkins, made suggestions on how to revise it. There was nothing left for him in New York so he took a train back to his parents’ home in St. Paul, Minnesota, and moved into the guest room on the third floor. There he devoted himself solely to revising the manuscript, writing ten, twelve, fifteen hours a day. He wove parts of my diary and letters into the book, created new characters, and moved various scenes around. He stopped only to eat when his mother placed food on the floor outside the door. He became a writing machine.

During the same period I dated thirty-seven different men. I have always preferred male companionship to that of females because I seem perpetually to be in competition with the latter. I wrote about this to Scott and the communiqué ended up almost verbatim in his book: “Women she detested. They represented qualities that she felt and despised in herself—incipient meanness, conceit, cowardice, and petty dishonesty. She once told a roomful of her mother’s friends that the only excuse for women was the necessity for a disturbing element among men.”

There was, unfortunately, entirely too much truth to this statement.

My correspondence with him ran hot and cold. Generally I tried to be upbeat and even passionate:

There’s nothing in the world I want other than your love, darling. My lips are yours. My body is yours. My soul is yours. I think of you every minute of the day; I sleep with you at night even though you are far away. I don’t want to live; I want to love, and live incidentally. Without you I am nothing. My life is barren and meaningless. I want you to possess every molecule of my being. I am willing to be your slave, to follow your wishes whatever they may be. I want to be beautiful for you, thin, and perfect. I want to make you the happiest man on earth. I am proud to be the object of your love and desire.

But other times I had to be realistic about not accepting his marriage proposal:

This is not an issue of material things, my darling, which are meaningless to me. I simply can’t bear the thought of poverty, a sordid, colorless existence which would surely destroy the love we have for each other. Poverty sucks the life fluids from your body and leaves you dry, desiccated, and wasted. Poverty is a barren, joyless monotony which is antithetical to the rich, effulgent embrace of life we both possess. Poverty destroys the body and kills the spirit. Poverty is the opposite of the financial security we need, that we must have in order to achieve and preserve the happiness we deserve. I want you and need you, darling, and wish to devote the rest of my life to our happiness, but you must create a foundation on which we can build. This is your responsibility, not mine. I am waiting for you, darling. I am waiting for you and only you.

Scott finally completed his novel and submitted it again to Scribner’s. On September 16, 1919, Maxwell Perkins mailed him a letter which said, “I am very glad, personally to be able to write you that we are all for publishing your book, This Side of Paradise . . . The book is so different that it is hard to prophesy how it will sell, but we are all for taking a chance and supporting it with vigor.”

The floodgates suddenly opened and a tidal wave of success washed over Scott. Simultaneously, Saturday Evening Post purchased his story, “Head and Shoulders” for $400.00. This was followed by a series of acceptances by The Smart Set, then another round of acceptances by the Post which raised its payments for his work to $500.00. Finally, in February of 1920, Scott sold the movie rights to “Head and Shoulders” for the astronomical sum of $2500.00—a full year’s wages for the average worker in the United States at the time. To say that Scott felt vindicated would be an understatement.

He was now flush with money and decided he had established a sufficiently solid financial foundation to make me his bride. He bought a spectacular diamond and platinum wristwatch for me and engraved it “from Scott to Zelda,” then boarded a train to Montgomery. The next few days were passed in an orgy of eating, drinking, loving each other, and ardent discussions concerning our future. He wanted me to marry him immediately and move to New York. I was more cautious because his novel was not yet published and I had no idea what sort of reception it would receive.

“It doesn’t matter, darling,” he insisted as we strolled hand-in-hand down a dirt road bordering a cotton field a short distance from my house. It was nighttime and a full moon bathed both of us in a luminescent glow. “I’m selling short stories now for good money. And I’ll be starting a new novel soon. I can take care of you. You’ll be happy in New York. It’ll be a whole new life. The novel will sell big, I just know it will. We’ll be famous, me and you. This is what we’ve been waiting for.” He stopped and took both of my hands and lifted them reverently to his lips and kissed them passionately.

“Sweetheart, I love you so much,” I said, pressing against him. “But the novel hasn’t been published yet and there are so many questions. You’re asking me to move from little Montgomery to huge New York. I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet.”

Tears moistened Scott’s eyes as he stared at me pleadingly. I thought he was going to break down and cry right on the spot. “Trust me, darling, this is the time. All the work I’ve put in for the past year has been for you. I have sufficient funds right now to support us for the next year—not conservatively, but extravagantly. Anything you want is yours. I’ll dress you like a queen. You’ll have the finest furs and the most exquisite jewelry. We’ll eat at the best restaurants and you’ll have a different outfit to wear every time we go out. We’ll attend the symphony, the opera, the ballet. Wouldn’t you like to see the premier ballerinas of the world perform? Everything will be yours!”

“And the symphonies,” he continued, holding my head gently between his hands and peering into my eyes. “When I hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, I don’t know how he could have done better. But when I hear his Seventh Symphony, I don’t know how he could have done better. And then when I hear the final movement of his Ninth Symphony, I think, He did better, but I don’t know how. It’s a moment of rapture! You can’t get that in Montgomery, you’ve got to come to New York. I’ll be the famous author and you’ll be my Southern belle. We’ll be soul mates: two souls incarnated and forever linked. This is what we’ve both wanted. Without you to share my success, all of this will be pointless!” He threw his arms out as though embracing the world, his features animated in the moonlight’s soft light.

Scott never lacked for emotion, I’ll say that. He was handsome and passionate and persuasive, and after four days I finally relented. I agreed to marry him, but not before the publication of his book. “When is it coming out?” I asked.

“It’s on the fast track,” he said. “Next month.”

“Very well then.” I placed my arms around his neck and kissed him deeply, then bit him on the neck and breathed in deeply the richness of his cologne. I snuggled up close to him, pressing my body against his, and finally murmured warmly into his ear, “I’ll marry you in April.”

So this was how our wedding date was established. However, I had to tell my parents, and knowing that neither of them approved of Scott, I braced myself for the confrontation. I waited until Scott left before the discussion ensued, which took place in our library.

The judge was furious.

“This is completely absurd, young lady!” he bellowed, slamming his fist down on the desk. The judge, as always, was dressed formally and impeccably, and sat ramrod straight in his chair as he spoke. His white hair had grown even whiter in the past year and many blamed my wild antics on having caused it. “You’re throwing away your life. The man has not graduated from college, he’s Irish, he has no career to speak of, he drinks too much, and he’s Catholic. You have no business marrying anyone like him.”

The judge intimidated everyone but me, and I was in love. “None of those things matter,” I retorted. “He’s publishing a book and has sold a bunch of short stories to the magazines and already has enough money to support both of us for a year.”

The judge rolled his eyes. “You call writing a means of making a living? What piffle! He should be getting a respectable job that involves a salary, or open a business. Writing for a living is no better than being an actor on the stage or some such foolishness.”

I was seated opposite the judge on a hard wooden chair, my mother occupying the seat to my left. Unlike Old Dick, Momma was becoming stout in her advancing years, but still retained her hair color, a dark brown. She rarely contradicted her husband openly, but was the true power behind the throne in the Sayre household. She had been intimately involved in all of our lives during the formative years, not the judge, who granted the authority gladly.

Momma cleared her throat carefully. “Baby,” she said, addressing me by my family appellation, “I certainly find Mr. Fitzgerald to be a charming man. He’s bright and interesting and I can understand your attraction to him. But there are a lot of questionable issues involved here, and we’re only interested in your welfare. It seems to me he drinks too much and he’s not very . . . stable. He romanticizes everything, and I’m not sure that he’s truly responsible. On top of that, he’s going to take you out of Montgomery and move you all the way to New York, which might as well be another country. I’m very concerned and I think it’s too soon. Why do you have to jump into this so quickly? Why not wait a year, or at least six months? You’re so young and there’s no reason to be in such a rush. This is a very important decision you’re making.”

“I’ve known him for over a year,” I replied, “and I’m tired of a long-distance relationship. He can afford me now and I’m ready to go. Both of you know I’ve never been afraid of an adventure. Well, New York is an adventure and I’m ready. I’m sorry, but I plan to marry him with or without your consent. I’ve made up my mind.”

Old Dick let out a long sigh and regarded my mother with an expression of quiet resignation. He shook his head. “Very well, then,” he said, his lips drawn tightly together. “If this is your decision, then there’s nothing further to discuss. But I want you to understand that we do not approve of this union and we will not be attending the wedding. I hope we are wrong about this young man but at the present time I think there should be a modicum of prudence injected into these proceedings. That is all I have to say.”

And with that I prepared for my marriage to Scott Fitzgerald.

 

 

BIO

Henry F. Tonn is a semi-retired psychologist who has previously published fiction and nonfiction in journals such as the Gettysburg Review, Connecticut Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and Eclectica. He also has two previous publications in The Writing Disorder. The present story, “The Engagement of Zelda Sayre to F. Scott Fitzgerald,” is excerpted from the second chapter of an unpublished novel entitled Ascent to Madness: Zelda Fitzgerald’s Gilded Cage. Though fiction, the novel follows with relative historical accuracy this fascinating woman’s life, the roaring ‘20’s, and her eventual descent into psychosis.

 

 

 

 

0

This, In Writing, To You

by Etan Nechin

 

 

As far as I am concerned, we gel. If left to our own devices, we could tip a tiny planet off its axis.  So when you come in, using a shiny, new key, all that can be heard is my breath, heavy with night, and your feet tapping on the wooden floors.

You bring stuff with you, clothes and shoes and books you’ve written in. You put them neatly in one of my dresser’s drawer, which now becomes yours. We talk in bed. I talk about this and that; about stuff. You talk about spaces and closeness until your road-weary eyes close. I lay awake all night, thinking about what we will talk about over toast and coffee, but I fall asleep at5am, and sleep through until noon, which is your lunchtime, so all the stuff I wanted to talk about is left unsaid.

That is why I write love letters to you: So that every morning, I can leave something from me, with you, an unconsecrated nuptial, packed along with your lunch, in a brown paper bag, with your name on it, and not mine.

You go away, on a business trip. I don’t have business elsewhere. I stay put, at my desk, typing away, with one finger on the dial, because I know you have your finger on one as well. We talk on the phone. I talk about this and that; about stuff. You talk about patterns and forces. You ask me how I am. I sneeze into the speaker. You laugh, and your laugh sounds like a sneeze too. You tell me your flight number and that you’ll see me tomorrow, but I know it will only be the day after tomorrow, because it is pouring cats and dogs outside my window, even though it is sunny out of your window.

That is why I write love letters to you: Not because words are more sublime than touch, not because gestures are purer than a missed call, pregnant with longing. But because every day I will be able to shut the blinds, and shutter that world that makes us be apart, with its physics, and rain delays, and do my task with glee.

You need to go away, not on a business trip. You say it will be a while. After weeks that are measured not by days, but by phone calls, I come visit—I am air delivered to you. I put my stuff in your drawer, which now becomes mine. We spend a day in the hot springs. We get there by hitching a ride. I take photos of the scenery; you take photos of me taking photos of the scenery. We talk in the hot spring. I talk about this and that; about stuff. You talk about air and mass. In the hot springs, steam gets into my eyes; I can’t see you looking at me.

I make a mental note, to go to the market when we get back, so I can make you a birthday cake. But we spend all day at the springs, and I need to leave as soon as we get back, I leave you a birthday card with the recipe written on the back, but not a cake.

That is why I write love letters to you: So that truck drivers will deliver evidence of me, to you, and a humble mailman will place it at the foot of your doorstep, and knock on the wooden frame, because I cannot.

We miss each other’s calls. That is okay because that is how it works. We know that between here and there is time difference, and weather. We know that our drawers will stay empty, that we can’t fill them on our own anymore, and despite the emptiness it makes us happy, because these empty drawers expand, and become the sky, to which we can look up to, and talk about this and that; about stuff, and there is always something else to speak about—spaces and closeness, patterns and forces, air and mass—so much for us to know about each other, even though we cannot hear or see each other anymore.

That is why I write love letters to you: Because love changes more rapidly than the weather, its distance equals that of eternity, and can only be measured by its abundant absence, just like String Theory, which I know nothing about—but you do.

 

 

BIO

Etan Nechin is an Israeli born writer, currently living in Brooklyn, NY. His fiction and essays were published at ZYZZYVA, Apogee, Columbia Journal Potluck Magazine, MonkeyBicycle, Entropy, MutualArt  and more. He co-wrote text for a performance, UTTER: The Violent Necessary for the Embodied Presence of Hope, which was shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

 

 

 

0

Exiadon

by Jesse Downing

 

 

I tapped my pencil on my clipboard.

“What’s the progress on Operation 24B?”

“All clear!”

I nodded to the operator, checked 24B off my list, and moved on. The year was 1967, and I was the supervisor of the Exiadon Computer project. Everything had been going wonderfully for the past three months. The computer had been built, the refrigeration unit installed, and the team of operators and programmers assembled. We provided a few logins to some universities as well as some to some more covert government operations. The machine was making money, and soon it’d be making a difference in the world.

“Jim, get over here,” one of the main operators said.

“What is it?”

I headed over, assuming some stupid university student had been meddling with things he didn’t need to. It wouldn’t have been the first time, after all, and a simple warning or a call to the university was generally enough to get them to stop.

“There’s a problem with one of the fridge motors,” he said.

“Well holy hell, Andy, shut the damn thing down! Do you want six million dollars to go up in flames?”

“Will do,” he said. “Attention all operators. Shut down the Exiadon. I repeat, shut down Exiadon.” All fourteen men and women began rushing to turn off the machine. In less than a minute, everything was off.

“So what’s wrong with the motor?” I asked as a faint grinding sound became more and more apparent. Andy adjusted his glasses and rubbed his beard, looking at a printout of our refrigeration system sensors.

“I don’t know. I’ll call Cooper’s and see if they can come fix it.”

 

“Mr. Crowley,” the man said, sniffing his nose and brushing his mustache, “I sure hate to tell you this, but you’re gonna need a new motor. And to tell you the truth here, I ain’t too sure what kind you’re gonna need.”

I took off my glasses and rubbed my forehead. “Well, I don’t know, either, but it was your company that custom-built and installed this one several months ago.” The man looked surprised, which one served to annoy me more. I said, “I need this fixed today. Tomorrow at the latest. I’m losing money as we speak.”

The man lifted his hat and scratched the back of his hairless head. “Well, Mr. Crowley, it’s gonna take us about a week to get you another custom motor. If you need it that bad I reckon for now we could try and match the load by chaining up some smaller motors and rent those out to ya while we build you a new one.”

I glared. “What do you mean rent? This is your motor. It failed. Get it fixed. I run a multimillion dollar operation. If we hadn’t have had a backup motor, this whole thing could have gone up in flames!” I went back and spoke with Andy about the motor issue.

“I really don’t think it should be an issue running a bunch of smaller motors,” he said, “as long as they can pump the coolant.”

“The dude wants to rent them out to us for a hundred and fifty bucks.”

The red-bearded man nearly choked on his coffee. “They what?!

We decided to wait a week for the custom motor and alerted our clients that we wouldn’t be able to do computations in the meantime. We weren’t so worried about losing clients; after all, they weren’t going to go out and buy their own computers, and there was no way they’d be able to find someone else with a better timesharing service. We assured them that all of their data was still here and secure and that we’d let them know as soon as Exiadon was back up. We even offered to send them the tapes of their data if they weren’t so sure.

The motor eventually came, and a team of technicians was sent out to install it. They finished, tested it, and left. We resumed operation.

“Everything’s going fine, Jim! I’ll call up our customers and tell them the system’s back online!” I nodded to Andy and sat down. It had been a stressful week, but at least the computer technicians were still given work while the machine was down – all thanks to me winning a big argument with corporate (and not getting fired).

 

Suddenly, I felt a rumble.

“What was tha-”

The ground shook violently, and I fell to the floor, bashing my head on the steel panel in front of me. I heard a few screams from the operators as they ran from the room, but they were drowned out by a ringing that grew louder and louder in my ears, and before I could even try to pick myself up, everything faded to black.

 

I began to slowly regain my consciousness. “What happened?” I said, grabbing my head in my hands and raising myself up. I opened my eyes and blinked a few times, trying to focus. “What the…?”

The computer that that previously surrounded me was gone. My coworkers were gone. Everything had been replaced by a giant forest. Trees towered over me, their leaves painting the canopy, letting in sunshine only by rays. A fountain made of stone and covered in moss was at my back. What appeared to be the ruins of a castle or a temple lied just over a hill. The wind moved slowly and silently, brushing ever so gently against my hair and my face.

“I’m glad to see you’re awake.” I jumped, then taking notice to the glowing figure beside me. He appeared to be a man… but he was blue and transparent and floating above the ground. He smiled. “Welcome to Exiadon.”

Exiadon? This place may have been immense and gorgeous, but it was most certainly not my supercomputer. “Pardon?”

“Exiadon, Jim! I’ve been waiting oh-so-long for you to arrive here!” His voice was high-pitched and twisted. It was almost like two voices were speaking at the same time. I was incredibly unsettled.

“How do you know my name?”

“Oh, Jimmy,” he said, getting closer, “isn’t it obvious? This is just a dream! Oho ho ho ho!” He brushed my chin with his hand and danced around. “Isn’t it marvelous?” I furrowed my brow.

“Good. That just means that all I need to do is wake up.”

“O ho ho, but Jimmy, this isn’t any ordinary dream.”

The wind stopped. His voice suddenly became dark and menacing, and his grin got even wider. “You might just not wake up.

Suddenly, he was gone. There was silence. Nothing moved; nothing made a sound. The forest stood completely still.

The silence was broken by a footstep in the grass. An old man – nearly as ancient as the forest surrounding us – approached me. He was short with long, white hair, wearing clothes that reminded me of a Native American chieftain. “You there,” he said. “What’s your name?” I was relieved someone was actually asking.

“Jim,” I said, standing up.

The old man walked up to me and looked around suspiciously. “Has anyone been here with you, Jim?” I wasn’t sure whether I could trust this man or not. After all, the blue one already knew my name and acted as if he were the devil himself.

“Nope, no one at all. Why?”

“Interesting,” he said, giving me a look of distrust – like he knew I was lying to him. I wasn’t too sure this man had really even needed to ask my name – if maybe he didn’t already know it like the other.

“I’m Lazarus. I’m a shaman in a small village just near here. I sensed a disturbance in the forest, and so I came this way.”

“A shaman? So you speak to the dead?”

He grinned. “You might say that. Come with me. I wouldn’t trust staying here alone for too long.” I obliged and followed Lazarus through the forest and to his village.

The village looked just as beautiful and ancient as the rest of the forest had. There were stone houses with primitive wooden fences. Small gardens were in place around some of them, and there was a water well in the center of the town. Children were running around playing, and the adults were going about their daily chores. It was much more lively than the bit of forest I had arrived in.

Still, I was hung up over the fact that the mystery man had called this place Exiadon. Was he being truthful in telling me that it was all just a dream? What did he mean in saying that I might not wake up? And why, still, did he know my name?

“Lazarus,” I said, “what’s the name of this place?” As we moved further into the village, I felt more eyes turn toward me. I was not wearing the white and ancient garb of these people, nor was my skin dark and red like theirs. My hair was short and brown, I had on a grey suit and tie, and my skin was nearly as white as their clothing.

“Epoh,” Lazarus said. “That’s the name of this village.”

“Lazarus,” a deep voice called out. “Who is this man you have brought into the village?” The man walked toward us, keeping suspicious eyes on me. He was similar in height to Lazarus, if not a little taller. His hair was grey and braided, and he carried a large wooden cane in his hand. A necklace dangled from his neck.

“Mortimer, this is Jim. I found him in the forest.”

“Jim! Why do you come to our village?”

I still felt all of the eyes turned toward me – staring, questioning, and judging. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m afraid I’m lost. Lazarus here advised me that I shouldn’t be alone.”

“And that you should not!” Mortimer snapped. “Lazarus. Has he spoken with the guardian?” Lazarus, with his hands behind his back, arched an eyebrow, looked at me, and looked back at Mortimer.

“He has not,” he said.

I interjected, “I’m sorry – guardian?”

Mortimer hit his cane on the ground. “He is not to be trusted!”

“… Then why is he called the guardian?”

“Ahem,” Lazarus said, interrupting. “The guardian is an evil spirit. He is called the guardian because he oversees much of this forest – for better or for worse. You would know him if you saw him.” Lazarus gave me the same suspicious look he had given me when we met. I suspect the blue man I ran into before was this “guardian.”

“Gentlemen,” I said, pushing up my glasses, “would the word ‘Exiadon’ mean anything to either of you?” The two exchanged glances and looked around at the people watching.

“We need to speak privately,” Lazarus said.

The two led me into a building with a table and quite a few books, as well as what appeared to be a crudely drawn map of the forest. “First, let me ask you again, Jim. Did you speak with anyone at the fountain?” I paused. Figuring I might as well trust the two men, I confided.

“I spoke with a man. He appeared and disappeared suddenly. He was blue, and he floated. He also knew my name.”

Lazarus nodded. “That was the guardian,” he said. “What did he say to you?”

“He called this place Exiadon. Then he told me this was a dream, and that I might not wake up.”

“That is certainly what he wants,” the shaman said.

“Jim,” Mortimer piped in, “you must return to the land from which you came.”

Lazarus nodded. “The chief is right. Staying here would be nothing but falling to the hands of the guardian. It will consume your soul.”

Tension spread across my shoulders. I still didn’t understand what this place was or truly even who these people were, and somehow I was supposed to leave. “How am I supposed to get out of here?” I asked, as if I could just break out of this place like it was a cell.

“The spirits traverse worlds through a place called ‘the core.’ A portal can be opened there, but we’ll have to gain access through the castle ruins.” Lazarus looked uneasy. “It’s likely that we’re going to encounter the guardian there. Stay strong in both body and spirit, and you can make it through.”

 

We approached a large stone structure, shrouded in trees and vines. Its walls were cracked, and its door was missing. Past the arched doorway, inside, was what appeared to be the remnants of an elegant castle – a fountain, red carpets and drapes, stained tall windows – all worn by the tides of time and taken over by nature. The inside was beautifully but only sparingly lit by sunlight from the doorway and from the windows – similar to the shade in the forest. A gentle breeze blew through the door. “Follow me,” Lazarus said, guiding me up the steps past the fountain and to a hallway on the left.

I walked down the hallway past Lazarus and stepped into a room. “Jim, wait!” Lazarus called out. The walkway behind me forcefully and suddenly shut.

“Lazarus!” I called back, hitting my hand against the stone wall that had just appeared. There was no call back.

I was standing in a circular room with tall, stone walls, covered in vines and moss. A ring of windows on the ceiling lit the room evenly. In the center there was a tubular stone structure – like a column – that reached up high, widening at the top, with large and strange circular patterns carved into its sides. There was a small stream of water entering from the wall toward the back of the room that filled a small pond circling around its sides. I walked toward the column before me.

I lifted my right hand and touched the structure. Suddenly, its carved-in rings began glowing blue, and a panel extended in front of me. A floating blue rectangle appeared in thin air, and a keyboard appeared similarly on the panel. I jerked my hand away quickly and took in a deep breath, pushing my glasses to the bridge of my nose. Words appeared on the screen.

WELCOME TO EXIADON.

ONLY AUTHORIZED USERS ARE ALLOWED ON THIS SYSTEM. PLEASURE SPEAK TO YOUR UNIVERSITY OR EMPLOYER ABOUT REQUESTING A LOGIN.

 

USER?

A blinking cursor appeared on the screen. I was connected – no, this castle and this forest and this whole place was connected – to my supercomputer. With some kind of video display terminal? What was the deal with this place? Why was everything linked back to the computer? How the hell did I manage to get here?

I typed in my username and password.

WELCOME, JIM.

 

READY

?

I checked the subsystems. I checked the current users. I checked the memory. I checked everything, and nothing was out of the ordinary. It didn’t make any sense! How could I possibly be connected to the Exiadon, with everything completely normal as if I had never left, from this abandoned and ancient castle in the middle of the woods. To top that off, these woods were also called Exiadon, were in God-knows-where, and had a bunch of crazy spirit people either ready to save my life or to end it.

“O ho ho. I’m so glad you finally showed up,” an all-too-familiar voice said. I turned to see the glowing blue figure – this “guardian” – completely the same as he had been when he suddenly disappeared during our last encounter.

“What do you want, ‘Guardian?’” I snarked.

“Oh, Jimmy,” he said, taking his finger and pushing up my chin, “why are you being so hasty? Don’t you want to know anything about why you’re here or what your precious little piece of kit has to do with any of this?” He smiled devilishly, to which I returned an angry glare.

“I’m not worried about it,” I remarked. “I just want to get back home with all of my legs and arms attached.”

“Oh Jimmy,” he said, dramatically and condescendingly. “You can’t just leave and return to your precious little Linda now. Or that little child of yours. No, no, no, Jimmy. I’m afraid it’s much too complicated for that.” My eyes widened, and I held my breath. “Don’t you dare make mention of my child or my wife, you cheeky little bastard. Stop acting like you know everything. If you’ve got answers, talk.”

His cheeky smile turned into a frown, and he crossed his arms. “You’re dead, Jimmy.”

Dead?

“That rumble you felt before you got knocked out? That was the refrigerator motor falling apart. It jammed; the pipes burst. You didn’t run out in time. You’re. Dead.”

That can’t be true.

“Oh, and how is this little contraption here working? I told you. It’s all just a dream.” The guardian lifted his hand and motioned toward the terminal. He closed his hand into a fist and what once glowed blue became dark, blood red. The screen flickered in and out of existence. He grinned.

And you’re not going to wake up.

The previously sealed doorway blew open. “Don’t listen to him, Jim!” Lazarus said, holding what appeared to be a staff of some sort in his hand.

“So what’s your rush to wake up, Jimmy? You know it’s all going to end with this dream. So why not just stay here a while?”

Lazarus jumped in front of me and separated me and the guardian. “Guardian, begone! This man’s soul is not yours to take!” The guardian glared at him menacingly.

“This isn’t your business, Lazarus,” he said, sweeping his hand at the staff pointed in his face. Lazarus violently jerked the staff into the guardian’s hand and arm, shocking and burning him. “Argh!” he screamed, jerking his hand and his arm away.

“This is the blade of holy light. You know good and well that you cannot fight it!” Lazarus turned to me. “This is what I needed to open the portal. There is a subsystem hidden on the Exiadon called CORE that can only be accessed from here. Activate it and make sure all of the computing power possible is directed to it!”

Should I really do this? What if the guardian is right? What if this really is my end? Why would I rush my own death? What do I trust? I felt the ground shake. I knew that if what he said was true, the computer room was already in flames. I was already dead. What would be the point of leaving now? Is Lazarus trying to rush me to my death? Who’s really trying to help me here?

The guardian drew a sword that glowed red and appeared to have lava flow down through the center of the blade, branching off at sharp angles. He lunged forward and swung at Lazarus. The shaman then deflected the swing with his staff. “Jim!” he yelled, leaping into the air and landing behind the guardian.

What do I do?

He stabbed his staff into the guardian’s back, and the guardian unleashed a bloodcurdling scream. It sounded like thousands of screams all at once – all in pain. It was the screams of the damned.

CORE SUBSYSTEM ACTIVATED.

The guardian turned back and slung his arm forward, driving the edge of his blade through Lazarus’ shoulder.

?RSRV(CP0,CP1,MEMBNK;*

“Jimmy,” a devilish voice groaned. “Don’t leave, Jimmy. No one wants to die.”

?SHUTDOWN;30S

The ground began shaking. The screams of the damned rang throughout the terminal room. “What did you do?!” cried Lazarus. The guardian glared at me. “Jimmy,” he said, his voice corrupting more and more. “I’ll wait for you, Jimmy.” He disappeared. Rocks fell from the roof. The terminal stopped glowing, and the screen disappeared.

“It’s shutting down,” I said. “everything will be offline in a matter of 30 seconds.”

“Jim, you idiot! Your worlds are linked through the Exiadon! It has to be used to send you through the core!” The tremors grew more and more violent. Walls could be heard falling and crashing against the ground. “We don’t have time!”

Lazarus lifted his staff toward the sky. “By Exiadon and the holy blade of light! I call upon you, spirits of this world, return this lost soul safely through the core! His day is not done! Let him awaken!” A portal opened up above us. “Don’t worry about me,” Lazarus said. “Stay strong.”

I was at a loss for words, and without even the time to say goodbye, I was pulled in through the portal.

I retained no visual memories of the core. I only could remember the feeling of being pulled, as if through space and time. After that, nothingness.

“Jim! Jim! Wake up, Jim!”

“A-Andy…?” I caught a glimpse of the man with a reddish beard and glasses before passing back out.

“Get him to a hospital,” I heard someone say.

 

I was welcomed with confetti and cheers when I re-entered the computer lab for the first time in two weeks. “Welcome back, Jim!” “It’s good to see you again!” “Mr. Crowley, we got that client you wanted!” “Man I’m glad that gash in your head looks better.” “How’s Linda been?” “Here! Have some cake!”

We partied and had a great time together. It was nice to finally have some cake instead of cheap hospital food, and it was even nicer to be back at my work, overseeing the Exiadon project once again. Everything had been going smoothly and had been successfully repaired thanks to Andy taking over as supervisor while I was gone (and picking a proper fight with Cooper’s Appliances – who paid for my bills and all the damages done).

“Say, Andy, I never asked you,” I said, sitting down at my teletype. “How did none of the system manage to burn?” He looked up and pushed up his glasses.

“We’re not really sure,” he said. “There was a mysterious shutdown performed just moments before the pipes burst. We checked the daytime files and it isn’t clear what done it.” I raised my eyebrows. “Huh, weird. Say, you should hear about this crazy dream I had while I was out. I-”

I typed in my credentials and logged in.

WELCOME, JIM.

IMPORANT SYSTEM MESSAGE:

GLAD YOU MADE IT BACK. HOPE ALL IS WELL

—LAZARUS

“Sorry, what were you saying?”

“I- uh. Oh, nothing.”

 

 

BIO

Jesse Downing was the 2016 Moss Point High School valedictorian and is a current student at Millsaps College. His hobbies include writing, drawing, singing, and coding.

 

0

Ice

by Susan Kleinman

 

 

LOG IN:

Email or Phone: Carol@WestCloRealty.com

Password: SellingHouses

Not the most secure password, but that’s okay. Carol never posts anything private on her Facebook page, anyway; just announcements of upcoming open houses and “likes” on the posts of anyone who might want her to help them buy or sell a home one day – which is to say, everyone she’s ever met.

Carol Gold: Join me Sunday, August 24, 2014, from 1-3 p.m. at this beautifully renovated 4 bed/3 bath at 351 Austen Drive. Walk to Worship. See you there.

She “likes” seven idiotic cat videos, nine random quotes from Monty Python movies, 83 pictures from the Isaacsons’ trip to Israel, and an urgent reminder from Barbara Kranzler that recipes are due for the second edition of the shul’s fundraising cookbook, The West Kloverdale Kosher Kooking Konnection Kollection. Such a waste of time and paper thinks Carol, who just Googles when she needs a recipe. But she picks up her phone nevertheless, clicks over to its electronic to-do list and enters a reminder to send in her three-ingredient chili recipe. Barbara is an old friend and a hard worker, and besides: With the Kranzlers’ youngest daughter recently married off, Barb and Bert are talking about downsizing, and Carol has a gorgeous condo right near shul that has been sitting on the market a little bit too long.

She hits “like.”

Reb Andy: Oh, for God’s sake, Carol thinks, can’t he just call himself Rabbi Garelick like a grownup? Would love to see EVERYONE bright and early for Shabbat morning services.

Garelick has been making great efforts to get the women of West Cloverdale to come to shul earlier, with their husbands; has been trying mightily to make them feel more equal by having women stand up and read the “Prayer for Our Congresspersons” aloud. Honestly, Carol thinks, as she hits “like” (the Rabbi always knows when a young couple is checking out the neighborhood or hunting for a house), if I wanted to be equal, I would join the Unitarian Church.

Laura Lipschitz: Happy birthday to the best husband, partner and lover a girl could ever hope for, my sweet @Stuie Lipshitz.

Ugh. Carol might find this a bit less nauseating if Stuart Lipshitz were not, in fact, the LEAST sweet man she has ever met; if the word “lover” didn’t sound so creepy; if Laura didn’t spend half of every sisterhood meeting complaining (right in front of Carol and Barb and Sheila Edelstein, each of them old enough to be Laura’s mother!) about how her husband probably wouldn’t be able to find her G-spot with a GPS. But still, Carol clicks over to Stuart’s Facebook page and dutifully types “Happy Birthday” on his wall. If Laura ever gets tired of waiting for Loverboy to locate her erogenous zones and needs to sell their McMansion in a divorce settlement, Carol’s commission could run to 65 or 70 grand.

She posts “Happy birthday!” to Marge Blaustein, too, and to Emily Miller and Brian Cooper-Jaffe; “friends” 37 friends of friends, and keeps scrolling. There’s a distressing article from Tablet.com about the Jews of Paris, and a not-even-remotely-funny Purple Clover cartoon about forgetting one’s reading glasses… and, then – finally! – something that actually makes her smile:

Alison Liebskind has posted a video.

Carol doesn’t think it’s a great idea for a 10-year-old to be on social media, but she has to admit it is nice to see her granddaughter’s face on the computer in between visits up to Westchester.

“Ok,” Alison is saying on the screen, as Carol clicks the little arrows that enlarge the video: “I would like to nominate my best friend, Chloe Orenthal; my mother, Rachel Liebskind; and my brother Jonathan Liebskind.” And with that, she dumps a bucket filled with – What is that? ICE? Yes, ice – dumps it over her own head, soaking her gorgeous red curls and her blue Camp Ramah t-shirt as she shrieks and giggles and dances in her flip-flops on the driveway. “You have 24 hours to complete the ice bucket challenge or donate to the mumble-mumble-mumble” – What is she saying?

The screen momentarily goes black and then there is Jonathan in the video. God, when did he get so tall? Carol switches over to her to-do list and makes a note to call Rachel about a visit, then jots a few words in the crossword puzzle she does every morning to help keep her memory sharp, and opens a text that has just pinged on her phone. Whenever her husband, Wally, teases that she can multi-task like nobody’s business, she reminds him that multitasking IS her business, that she hasn’t won WestClo Realty’s Top Performer Award 17 years in a row without being able to juggle him and the kids and the grand-kids and the house and her clients; and – these last few years – her texts and her tweets and Instagram, too. The text is a client asking if she can reschedule her look at the house on Fitzgerald Lane from 3:15 this afternoon to 4:30. “Sure. C U then,” Carol types, in the text-speak she hired a high-school kid to teach her so that her twenty-and thirty-something house-buying clients would feel at ease with her. (The older clients – the sellers – she still calls on their land-lines. More than one has thanked her profusely for this, as if she has performed a heroic act of lovingkindness.)

She puts down her phone and turns back to the computer screen. “OK,” Jonathan is saying through the gap where his front baby-teeth used to be. “Wait. What do I say?”

Carol hears Alison’s impatient big-sister sigh, and then, “You have to nominate people.”

“Oh, yeah, I would like to nominate my best friend, Jonah, and my Grandma – what’s Grandma’s real name again?”

Slower, heavier sigh: “Carol Gold, you dumb-head.”

“Oh, yeah. My Grandma, Carol Gold.”

When Carol met Wally, his last name was Goldfinger, but she convinced him to shorten it before their wedding. The theme song from that James Bond film was still playing on the pop-radio stations, and she dreaded a lifetime of spy jokes and double entendres. “We have to think about our future children,” she told him when she suggested “Gold” – short and sweet. “I’m just being practical.”

Of course she was. Carol is the very soul of practicality. Wash-and-go haircuts and sensible shoes. Three-ingredient suppers and no-iron sheets. In addition to Wally’s name, she had persuaded him to change his college major, too. Au revoir, French Literature… Hello, accounting. And when it had been time for them to look for a house, (Wally had just made partner at his firm; Carol was pregnant with their second child), she didn’t pick a community by hunch or gut feeling or what her current crop of house-hunters call “vibe,” but by drawing up a decision tree on three pages of the ledger paper Wally used to bring home from the office.

And she had made a good choice. The Golds have been happy in West Cloverdale for 45 years now, surrounded by people who share their values and their politics; by friends who brought car-loads of casseroles when Rachel’s first husband, Uri, was killed in a robbery at his shoe store, and stacks of wedding presents when she married her second husband, Aaron in the rabbi’s study. Ali had been born a year later and Jonathan, two more years after that. How is it that he is already about to begin 3rd grade?

“You have 24 hours,” Jonathan is saying now on Carol’s computer screen, “to donate to the – wait, what’s it called again?”

“Oh, just give me the phone,” Alison snaps. The picture jerks and shakes and then there is Ali’s face again. “Hi, Grandma, Jonathan just nominated you for the ALS ice bucket challenge. That means you have 24 hours to dump a bucket of ice over your head or give money to the ALS foundation…”

Jonathan jumps back into the frame. “Oh, yeah. The ALS Foundation. It’s a sickness, and, um, well, it’s really bad, I think, so you have to give them money. Or do the ice thing. Like this.” And he picks up a bucket – a heavy one, judging by the strain on his freckled face – dumps the contents over his head, and starts to cry.

“It’s colllllld,” he wails through his tears, as the screen goes blank.

Of course it’s cold. Carol thinks, pushing her chair away from the computer with a screech. It’s ice.

But it’s not Jonathan she’s annoyed with, sweet gap-toothed Jonathan, and she knows it. She bites the nail off her left pinky, a habit she gave up in seventh grade when she sent away for a booklet on how to quit; paces around the kitchen; eats three cookies left over from Shabbos even though she isn’t hungry; and slams the pantry door shut.

ALS. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Lou Gehrig’s – and David Stein’s.

David Stein. A tall, handsome man with a short, handsome name; a medical student at Columbia, from a nice family in Woodmere. Carol met him during her sophomore year at Hunter College, at a party given by a mutual friend. Within the week, they were going steady. By the end of the month, she knew she wanted to marry him.

“It’s Prince Charrrrrrrming,” her mother always whispered in a happy little sing-song voice every time she handed Carol the phone. “Dr. Right!” her father proclaimed after Carol brought David home for dinner. And indeed, he WAS charming, with his polished manners and his easy smile. And it DID feel right, talking to him, dancing with him, necking in his car – but nothing more. No one buys the cow, Carol knew, if they can get the milk for free.

Carol and David had fun together: They both liked ice-skating and tennis; enjoyed the same movies and laughed at the same jokes. They looked good together: her blonde head against his broad shoulder. And they agreed about all the things that could cause a less-compatible couple to argue: money (they were both savers, not spenders); food (not too spicy); and children (they would have two, unless the first two were the same sex, in which case they would try once more – but only once more.) David would be a good father and a good provider.

“That’s all very nice, but does he make your heart go pitter-pat?” her sister, Ruth, asked as Carol ticked off these attributes on her fingers. “Is he your one and only?”

The answers were yes and no, respectively.

Yes, Carol really was in love with David. But no, she didn’t believe that there was one and only one man for every woman, or just one woman for any man. “How could that BE, with three billion people on the planet?” she challenged Ruth back in 1959. “Only one? It’s just not possible,” she told herself again in 2002, when she signed Rachel up for jDate a year after Uri’s funeral.

And I was right, she thinks now, every time she sees Alison and Jonathan on Facebook – Alison and Jonathan, who both have Rachel’s blue eyes and Aaron’s ginger curls. There is more than one-and-only Prince Charming.

But oh, yes, David Stein made her heart go pitter-pat. She thought about him when she rode the subway to Hunter and when she studied in the library and when she drank tea back in her parents’ kitchen, late at night. She thought about how smart he was and how funny and how handsome; about what it would be like to sleep with him after they got married and what it would be like to make a home with him.

And then, one Sunday morning when David and Carol were eating blintzes at Rattner’s, David dropped the fork on its way to his mouth. A few weeks later, he spilled his Coke down the front of his shirt while they waited for a movie to start. It’s just pre-engagement jitters, Carol assured herself, as she handed him a stack of napkins from the concession stand. She and David had been talking a lot about marriage – although they agreed that they should wait to formalize things until they were both closer to graduation. She had let him know (after practicing in front of her mirror at home to make sure that her practicality didn’t come across as bossiness) that she would prefer a white-gold setting to platinum for her diamond engagement ring, because white-gold prongs were less likely to bend and break; and that she’d rather have a summer wedding than a winter one – no blizzards to worry about. David seemed as excited about all of it as she felt. But still, getting engaged would be a big deal, Carol told herself when he tripped over his own feet on his way off the tennis court at his parents’ club. His nervousness didn’t mean he didn’t love her.

“I love you,” he told her, as he dusted grass off his knees and took her hand. “I love you,” he said again, later, as he kissed her neck in her parents’ driveway in Forest Hills. And then, as he started to open her sweater, he said, “I think I might have Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

For a split second – and she hated herself afterwards for even thinking it – Carol wondered if this was a ploy to get the milk for free.

“You what?” she said, softly, leaning away from him and fumbling to close the little pearl buttons on her cardigan.

“I have a neurologist’s appointment tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve been trying into find a good time to tell you, but now it just slipped out. I’m sorry.”

“Let’s not panic,” she said, forcing a smile. “I bet it could be any one of a number of things.”

At the college library the next day, she researched some of the things that might be causing David’s tremors and his clumsiness: Early-onset Parkinson’s, or maybe multiple sclerosis – neither of those diseases a picnic, either, but better than Lou Gehrig’s. But David – medical student and son of a doctor – had already ruled those out on his own.

The first neurologist sent David to a second, who explained what David already knew, and what Carol had learned in her hours of research: that ALS can’t be diagnosed except by process of elimination. Dr. Lerner called for tests to rule out every disease that was likely and several that weren’t, until the only test they hadn’t done, David tried half-heartedly to joke, was a Pap smear.

“I’m afraid we’re at the end of the line,” David imitated Dr. Lerner’s pompous voice when he relayed the conversation to Carol. “The end of the line,” as if the whole thing had been a trip out to Coney Island.

Every night for the next month, Carol lay awake in her bed, wondering whether and when she should break it off with David. “It would be different if it weren’t fatal,” she protested when Ruth accused her of being heartless and unromantic. If she married him now, she wouldn’t be a virgin when she had to date again after a suitable period of mourning. And what Nice Jewish Boy her age would want a woman who had been around? If she didn’t marry David but stayed with him till the end, she’d be a spinster at 27 or 28 – and to whose benefit?

So when he did the gentlemanly thing and suggested that they break up, she hugged him gently and promised that even if they weren’t together, she would still be his friend – his very best friend – until the end.

And, for a couple of years, she was. She borrowed her father’s car and drove David out to Jones Beach in the summer; took the Long Island Railroad out to watch the World Series with him at his parents’ house in the fall. She sent him funny cards from the Hallmark store and rugelach from his favorite bakery in the city every few weeks, and she called him every night (now that they were just friends she didn’t have to worry about appearing too forward) and told him funny stories about her classes and her cousin Kenny’s bar mitzvah and the ridiculous guy Ruth was dating, often talking until she fell asleep with the telephone receiver in her hand.

But then, during her senior year, she met Wally. Wally with his sweet soul and his sharp mind. Wally who agreed to switch his major and change his name for her. Wally, to whom she never breathed a word about David Stein; whom she made Ruth promise not to tell about David, either. What would be the point?

It took Carol three weeks after Wally proposed before she could bring herself to call David.

“Mazal tov, beautiful bride!” he said when she finally forced herself to tell him that she was engaged. And then, after a long and painful silence, “So, I guess this is our last phone call, huh?”

She thought of saying that no, they could still speak, could still be friends – but she knew that wasn’t true. If it were true, if David was really her friend, she would have told Wally all about him, would maybe even invite David to the wedding. Or take Wally out to visit him. And she would never do any of that.

“I’ll never forget you,” Carol promised.

But then she had.

Well, she didn’t forget him always, and never entirely. She remembered him when she played tennis and when she ate rugelach. Sometimes, even after all these years, when she woke up she could see his face in front of her, so close-seeming and so real-looking that once, she had reached out to touch him, only to find herself grasping at the air. But she forgot him for long stretches of time, when she was busy with Wally and her babies and her real estate class; with her aging parents and her growing children and her committees at the shul.

When Uri was killed, Carol had wondered briefly whether seeing her daughter grieve was her punishment for not sticking around to mourn David properly. But then she reminded herself that she didn’t believe such superstitious nonsense; that she was a rational woman, and it was the 21st century. And so, when for a brief moment she thought of telling Rachel about David – “I know exactly how you feel” – she just hugged her, instead, and helped fill out death certificates and insurance forms.

“Do you ever think about him?” Ruth asked at the end of the shiva for Uri, when the two sisters were packing leftover lasagnas from neighbors for the freezer.

“About whom?” Carol feigned ignorance, but Ruth saw right through her and asked again.

“I do think about him sometimes,” Carol whispered to Ruth in the kitchen that afternoon, wondering – as she did when she still sometimes awoke with David’s face fading from a dream – whether “sometimes” was too often or not often enough. “But you know how I am. Brass-tacks; tachlis, here-and-now.”

“Heartless,” Ruth had mumbled and Carol had pretended not to hear. Well, what good would it have done Carol – or David – for her to stay in touch with him? What would she have told him? That married life was treating her very well, thanks? That when she had bled, a little, on her wedding night, Wally had looked pleased? No, she had told herself when she didn’t call David; when she made herself throw out the obituary pages of the Times before she could be tempted to read them. What good would her tears do David? What good would they do her?

No, she had told herself all those years ago, it was better for everyone this way.

 

And now, in a new century in another state, her computer buzzes and pings.

Rachel Liebskind likes Alison Libeskind’s video.

Rachel Liebskind shared Alison Liebskind’s video. “So proud of my kiddies!!”

Rachel Liebskind tagged you in a post: “Did you see this @Carol Gold?”

Carol forces herself to “like” that, and then clicks the video again, turns away from it to answer a text about the shul’s pew re-upholstery committee before she turns back to her computer:

“I would like to nominate my Grandma. What is Grandma’s real name?” Jonathan is asking, and for a moment Carol worries about his attention-paying skills; didn’t Ali just tell him her name a moment ago? But then she remembers that she is watching the same video a second time. Jonathan is fine.

She logs out of Facebook and sits at her desk for a long while, thinking about the days she and David spent waiting for his diagnosis and the nights she spent wondering how to let him down gently; about the first time he tripped and the last time they spoke.

Finally, she rises from her ergonomic chair, slips her phone into one of the Ziploc bags she buys by the gross and tucks it into her pocket, and heads down to the laundry room. “Fully-finished basement!” she will advertise one day, when she and Wally are ready to downsize from the house into a condo. “Brand new appliances!”

She reaches under the laundry sink for a bucket, heads back upstairs to the kitchen and presses the bucket against the ice maker in the freezer door, then carries it carefully out to the deck, where the late-summer haze stings her eyes. Just 9:30 a.m. and already the temperature is in the high 80s. It won’t be long until the ice starts to melt.

“This is for you, Ali and Jonathan,” Carol says, talking into the Ziploc-waterproofed phone she is holding at arm’s length. She lifts the bucket one-handed and awkwardly tips it over her head.

And then, just like sweet, shivering Jonathan, she cries.

 

 

BIO

Susan Kleinman’s short stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, Inkwell, the William and Mary Review, JewishFiction.net, and The MacGuffin, and her articles, essays, and book reviews have been published in dozens of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times and New YorkMagazine. She teaches fiction writing at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, where she was a Gurfein Writing Fellow in 2010.

 

 

 

0

Meditate and Wait

by Katie Strine

 

 

They smoke in the garage, four of them, five of them. Can’t see through the haze of sun into the shadowed room. From the street neighbors hear their sounds: laughter coated with emphysema. Rotting lungs and dogs that howl at subtle movements. A grandma, a grandpa, an uncle, and one older niece: the remains of a larger family that has dwindled by death and decay (all smokers, all drinkers, and all self-proclaimed Catholics).

Three dogs guard the garage at the edge – a baby gate corrals them. Una walks by and the chorus of howls arrange like limp notes and soar into the air. The smell of dead tree seeps from the soil. Their house, the first one built on this street, is the last one before the road dips to the left and opens to a cemetery. Originally a family grave, but years and community planners and the sway of money rearranged the rights. Now it’s public property. A gothic iron gate surrounds the land; doors eek open on aged hinges. Una loves to hear them whine.

She walks down just to walk down and visit no one in particular. Her long, brown hair whips behind her shoulders. Their eyes, as well as the eyes of the yard statues, follow her. She can’t be sure of what they’ve erected between the overgrown pine shrubs, and they’ve planted plastic flowers in plastic planters, but she ascertains Catholic saints (none of whom she knows), a fox (with cold, beady, cement eyes) and a rooster (garnished with a red and white checkered apron). A harsh “Shut up you damn dogs” echoes forth and maybe a whimper but then a grotesque cough tumbles forth. The sounds spill over one another.

***

She reads the names, the large ones printed in all capital letters, last names sprawled, the family honor. She shuffles leaves to the side and searches for smaller headstones. Children, maybe. Small adults. Women from the 1800s who have since shriveled like dead bugs: heads craning toward bodies, arms tucked at their chests. She’s searching for a way to connect to the past or a way for the past to connect to her. Voodoo magic, Ouija boards, séances: she’s sick of pretending.

***

They burned each other’s skin with hot lighters, the metal sank into the flesh and years later scars talk to strangers, stories of their odd behavior. Imprints on the back of hands. Signals coded only for each other. Scar tissue signs — personal tattoos — created before members departed to the other side. Rumors circulate the town. People whisper. But the members of the house have crafted a system all of their own, separate from the community, and the symbols remain embedded in their history and their family.

They pull back their baby gates and open the garage that weekend for an estate sale. She wonders, and maybe even hopes, if they might move. She saunters through their belongings. A lamp with a broken bulb – the glass shards visible through the shade; a box of used ashtrays gray and soot stained; a box of run-down toys featuring a doll with a loose eyeball. The black button swings and wobbles as Una roots through the box. Finally her hand emerges holding a magic eight ball. She palms the prize and pokes further.

Suddenly the feeling of a ghost catches in her throat. She stands within inches of the garage and fingers rotten pots and stained lace. A framed picture of a church (a jagged crack running through its surface) props against a table. She runs her finger down the glass and lets the slit of its cut dig into her skin. A small streak of blood remains on the glass, a dull red hue painted on the steeple. She bends toward the picture and seeks to speak to the spirit she feels hovering from the house but knows she needs closer. So this is where it hides, she thinks and buys her eight ball. A boy tucked behind the bushes and the beady fox watch her desperately.

***

She leans against her front porch steps and watches families retire as the day’s water-painted clash of colors darkens. The leaves rustle against each other. It calms and stirs harder and the wind chimes collapse into a song. She waits for midnight black, the lunar phase on her side, a tiny rat’s nail of white in the sky.

Their garage door is closed. The baby gates rest on the outside of the door ready for another day. She crosses to their side of the street, the cemetery entrance within view but the graves tucked into a small valley of swirling fog.

Una creeps through their uneven grass. The unkempt yard crunches below her feet: a slew of leaves and twigs and mushrooms. Against the house she smells standing water. A deep stench of mud or mold. She walks with her back flat against the exterior and finds herself in the backyard where an unexpected scene develops.

In place of a standard backyard flush with grass and peppered with flowers, here lies an entire pond. The water covers the expanse of space, with a back porch that extends above the water approximately ten feet from the house. At the far end of the watered yard stands a large stone – not shaped into an obelisk or other tomb – looming over the abyss. She has no way of making it to the stone unless she plunges into the water.

Overhead an explosion claps in the sky – fireworks – but she imagines the uncle with a gun, his face another shadow, and turns from the pond and toward the street.

***

There’s a knock on the door the next day, late afternoon. The air smells like fire and burned leaves. A hint of smoke hangs over shingled roofs.

A younger man, maybe even a boy, stands on the other side of Una’s door. His toes hang over the front edges of his flip flops. His toenails visible, curled and yellowed. She doesn’t recognize him and he knows she won’t.

“I’m Zeek, short for Ezekiel – your neighbor.” He cranes his neck toward the house with the garage. She’s never seen him there. She doesn’t respond. “If you want to get in that pond, if you want to find that spirit you’re after, I’m willing to help you out.”

“What spirit?”

“You don’t believe all of a sudden?” He sticks a toothpick into his mouth and swirls it around with his tongue. “I’ve seen you. You hang around at the cemetery, poking around at strangers’ graves. I know you don’t have family in this town – new blood – so you go looking around at the old blood. Old souls. Whatcha looking for?”

Una stares into his eyes wondering how much he knows.

“Forget about it, Una. Wanna see a trick?” From the other pocket of his sweatpants he pulls out a stack of cards. He shuffles and pushes the cards back together again. He waves his hands. The right hand, she notices, is scabbed from scratched bug bites or some kind of poison ivy. He catches her looking and moves his hand quicker. “Okay, pick a card – go ahead, Ain’t gonna bite you.”

She inches a card from the cluster. A Jack of Hearts. He nods to her to slide it back into the deck.

“Good, good. Okay, now, watch closely – I didn’t see it, right? But you gotta remember what card it is.” He holds his eyes steady into hers. An answer dances behind his gaze. She shivers away a question and shakes her mind into vacancy. After a few more sleight of hand tricks, he procures the Jack of Hearts and flashes it in front of her. She looks into the face of the card and notices its menacing features that either weren’t there before or ones she overlooked. His hand appears freckled like Zeek’s. Warped skin.

“I don’t really like card tricks,” she says and shuts the door.

***

It’s cold when the ghost enters your body. A halo of chill surrounds the exterior. When it’s gone, a familiar heat returns, and you’re alone again.

She doesn’t ask for them to visit but she returns in case they do.

She weaves through tombstones and waits for one to call to her. Her skirt hangs low and drapes through the leaves. A few hang at the edge and she pulls them along unknowingly. She carries a book of poetry, a dilapidated copy handed to her from other people in another world: her past. It’s a relic she can live without, so she tugs at the pages. Each papery feather pulled from its binding. A light rip. The glue lets go. The page frees. She tucks one after one against these permanent headrests and weighs each to the earth with a rock.

A harsh whistle blows through the surrounding trees. Her skirt tugs against her legs, and her head flings toward the sound. A black shape of a bird flutters behind tree trunks. She wonders if Zeek is there, too: his lanky body against a tree, the bark rough against his spine. Beady eyes like the cold, cement fox.

Then, movement. Low to the ground, a shadow forms and creeps from the woods. It hovers on all fours. She imagines Zeek on all fours – preternatural, foam at the mouth — and on the hunt for her. His toenails dig through the grass, soil ripe under his nails, as he lunges toward her.

“Clyde?” She asks the animal, a large beast with a head like a shoebox: one from the garage dog gang. He ambles to her side. “Why are you down here?” He nudges into her, and she rubs his broad back. A faint smell of cigarette smoke lingers on his fur. “Do you want to hear a poem, Clyde?” To which he responds by settling in and shutting his eyes. His gentle body collapses. She reads aloud each word, the syllables unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed. A whoosh of air – the trees breathing from her left – carries and cools her neck.

Una meditates and waits.

***

She wakes to the uncle standing above her, the graves below her. She feels the warmth of Clyde’s back on hers.

“That’s my dog,” the uncle growls and yanks at Clyde’s collar. The man’s mouth clenches as he talks. She wonders how the words escape. “And what’s all this litter?” He waves a sinewy arm through the air. Una sees her poems scattered, some swooped and soaring with the wind. “No respect,” he whistles and hobbles away. He tugs at Clyde, who he’s wrangled with a rope.

She watches them circle through the headstones. The uncle precariously places each step, and Clyde hunches toward the smells of earth. Their bodies bumble back toward the street.

She collects rocks. Smooth, cold rocks: minute minerals miraculously compounded into handheld objects. She rubs at each testing its smoothness, handling its weight before placing them into the folds of her skirt she’s lifted for a temporary carrier. Stooping toward the graves, she weighs the poems again.

“Are you a witch?” She hears Zeek’s voice before she sees his face. A bouquet of fake flowers dangles at his side, their heads facing downward.

“What?”

“Those dresses, all long, covered, heaven-like but hellish altogether. Pagan, I guess is what I mean to say.”

“Your family doesn’t own this property, Zeek. First your uncle. Now you. I’m allowed to be here.”

“Allowed?” He suppresses a smile, then steals a whiff from the bouquet before dropping the bunch by his side again. A collection of vibrant blue, red, orange, yellow – abnormal colors for flowers. “Did you think more about the pond? My offer? I know what you’re chasing, Una. I get it. Why are you hesitant?”

Una considers his proposition. His words form like steam within a swirling fog already constant in her mind. Intangible and abstract. She knows she’s unable to sneak into the water without him knowing. She forces her mind backwards to distant memories. A train crash. Her parents thrown from a bridge. Her parents drowned in water. Her parents plummeted off cliffs. She surmises these details – all daydreams and fabricated realities — but understands they died without her and after years of foster care, miscellaneous homes, and empty emotions from town to town, this street, this city, this cemetery, that spirit, finally feels fulfilling.

“What do you chase?” She asks through the mindful fog.

Again, a sly smile breaks and his pointers show. “I don’t chase. Do you think that’s what you want? An end to an unknown? Some realize it’s over before they begin. You, I think, can’t settle. Others, like me, come naturally into this world.” He pauses to pick up a poem, one she missed as it skids between them. It crinkles against the plastic as he tucks it within the flowers. “Tell you what. Nine o’clock, tonight.” He answers for her because he knows she’ll come.

***

“We call her Mother because she’s been here before any of us.” Zeek and Una stand ankle deep in water, their feet mingled with moss and algae. “Inexplicable, maybe, that after hundreds of years, she remains. Her bones, her grave is here. Or it was. Before one of our generations made this pond.” The bottom three inches of Una’s dress swirls in and on the water’s surface. She thinks of the cold — the water as an aquarium of spirits – and she pictures faces, their bodies trailing behind them, as they swim through the murky water. Standing here now with Zeek she worries she misjudged him. She had thought he was uneducated, misguided. She thought she could distract him and have the pond to herself. “You’ll have to wade through to the center where there’s a drop-off. An underwater cliff of sorts.” Una, who has long since memorized the phases of the moon, knows only a fragment hangs above them. A waning crescent. She predicted the darkness and the unknown, but she miscalculated the power dynamic brought on by the property’s effect.

She steps forward unwilling to step backward. Her dress darkens as the water deepens. The coldness of the water forces her to take a breath. She sucks in the nighttime air, the clouds beginning to descend into fog, and the temperature trickles down her spine.

Zeek stays with her but a few paces behind. Her toes curl at the precipice. She stares into the stone. A woman’s features materialize within the rock formation. The earth’s minerals mold into cold eyes, silver hair and a taut expression.

“We wade and meditate. Do you meditate, Una? Sit and think thoughtless thoughts, as you breathe in, breathe out the wide world around you? A mindless yet mind-centered activity, don’t you agree?” She answers by centering her diaphragm. Like the poetry, she thinks, unstressed, stressed; her breath fills and releases. Fills and releases.

“You’ll have to go under water now.” Una thinks to question Zeek’s instructions, but reminds herself to move forward, not backward. She recalls the refreshing chill alighted in her the day of the garage sale. The pull of the house from a larger-than-life spirit. A distant hovering that’s beckoned her to this town, this street, this moment.

She descends, her eyes on the stone. A reflection of the stone appears on the water just as she’s eye level with the pond.

The black water engulfs her as a slight splash sounds beside her. Zeek.

He too stares into the stone. He too feels his toes on the precipice. He palms her head, a thick wave of hair sweeps his arm, and he holds her under water. The struggle doesn’t startle him. The muffled screams don’t deter him. He holds on, his toes curling at the edge, pieces of moss caught on a toenail.

Her dress will weigh her down. Gravity and water will push, push, push.

He feels satisfied in the sacrifice. He thinks to swim to the stone, to stroke his hand along its surface. But he feels someone behind him and turns to see his uncle on the porch. Clyde saunters from the house and stands at his side.

The way to family — bonds, secrets, scars – is a dark portal. A moonless sky, an unguided guide, an underwater spirit drenched pond. The calling to unite with our departed generations carries in a cold breeze, whispers on crinkling leaves. It’s a constant chase to collect, maintain and reincarnate.

He eyes his uncle, whose pride forms in the shadowed, hard lines of age. His face weathered artwork.

Zeek moves toward the edge of the water. Inch by inch his soaked pants emerge and he squeezes at the water, fists slippery and cold.

He pulls the graveyard poem from his pocket, handles a rock, and places a makeshift headrest in the small crescent of earth beside the water. Una’s only marker. Tomorrow he’ll toss the fake flowers down from the porch, the vibrant hues garish against the earthy moss and mud.

 

 

 

BIO

Katie Strine tolerates life through literature with a side of bacon and dark beer. She lives in the east suburbs of Cleveland with her quirky family — husband, son and dog — who accompany her on oddball adventures. Stay in touch via LinkedIn for more.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Hallucinogenic Girlfriend

by Anna Keeler

 

 

I dropped my sanity between the lines of the tile like acid, trying to focus on the pattern and abstractions through the tears. My palms tugged at the malachite beads on my wrist, the string expanding and constricting but never quite snapping. I had the urge to cause damage, but I was too scared of breakage. Even at my worst, I didn’t have the strength to destroy.

I don’t know how I got here. A second ago, I was fine. Just a normal girl taking a normal trip to the bathroom. But one pump of soap turned into two, then three after that. Just three pumps, then I could go, that’s what I told myself. But every time I stepped back to turn off the faucet, an invisible fear singed the lining of my stomach.

I had to wash again. Again. Again.

And those five letters camouflaged themselves against the lining of brain until I couldn’t tell panic from a rational thought because both sentiments wore the same skin. Irrationality threw itself around my shoulders like a coat until it severed the awareness from my body. I watched myself scrub the obsession out of my hands, I watched my eyes grow full of tears and rash over in pain, but I couldn’t stop myself from jamming my elbow into the wall and dry heaving into my lap.

Before I knew it I was on the ground, screaming against the walls and porcelain that weighed down on me. Body pressed against the cabinet door, I took breaths in and out.

I had to get up. Miyuki wouldn’t tolerate another meltdown.

She’d been as patient as any person could be that had a hallucinogen for a girlfriend; someone with a brain made up of fears that weren’t there. “If you could weaponize your trauma, think how astounding you could be,” her loving way of telling me to knock it the hell off.

The first few times she saw me melt down, she’d been conscious enough, trying to hug and bribe the maladies from my mind, ignorant to the inexorable temporariness of my recovery. As months passed, she shape shifted into the people I tend to dissociate for; screaming, throwing blame, threatening to leave me, this time for good.

No matter how mad she got, the thoughts pumped through my veins like dope.

If I don’t wash my hands, I’m going to die.

I tried to pull myself off of the ground, but the soap bottle flashed into my line of vision and had me running back to the toilet. Chunks of vomit bounced against the water, splattering across my chin and the ends of my hair. The second upheave came, as the water heaved back, I realized that I’d forgotten to flush.

My tarsal bones cracked across the base of the toilet. It hurt, but not enough to warrant my loud whimpers. My mind whimpered against the constraints of my skull like an emotional fibromyalgia. The emptiness of my throat juxtaposed the burn, all wishing to be alleviated with some kind of killer. A pill, a liquid, a syringe full of medically prescribed optimism, or even a back alley pipe, something to either numb or vindicate my pain.

If I’d taken DXM, I’d have an excuse for ugly sobs.

Dear God, please just let me die.

My arms turned to sweat and my cheeks were streaked with cheap mascara. I had to stop crying. Miyuki was just down the hall. If I kept it up, I knew she would hear me.

Digging my fingernails into my head, I scraped along the follicles of hair, wanting to pull off the skin and crack open my skull. Axons and myelin and the white and gray matter made three pounds of something that had the power to ruin my life. If the stem was a switch, I would reach in and rip it off.

Instead, I begged myself to stop.

An old behavioral trick that my therapists risked my life with, saying that if I wanted control, it took training.

“Stop.” Then louder, punctuated with a kick. “Just stop!” My whole body shook. “Please, we’re not doing this now.”

Footsteps came outside the door, a hesitance, then a dejected knock.

“Cordelia,” Miyuki said. “What are you doing in there?”

I closed my eyes and pressed my forehead onto the rim, ignoring the smell of urine up my nose.

“Cordelia,” she said again. “Open the door now.” When I didn’t respond, she came in anyways. Her green eyes sliced into my face, the exasperation radiating off her body. “Really?” She narrowed her gaze and crossed her arms. “I thought that we were past this.”

She stood there and waited for an explanation to fall out of my mouth, and failed to hide her disappointment when that didn’t happen.

I waited for her to get up walk out the door, to ‘leave me to my own devices.’ With nothing but the hum of the pipes and the afterglow of panic, I could curl up on the floor, and retreat – or rather – dissociate again until I was grounded.

To a place where the boys from my anime or the girls from my young adult novels would pick me up off the ground and carry me to my room. Wrap me in a blanket, dry the tears from my eyes, hold me close, kiss my concussed and blood cracked lips. Tell me I was here, I was real, I was safe.

Miyuki didn’t leave. She wouldn’t allow me that luxury. Instead, she lowered herself to my side.

Through a cloudy mind, I tried to register her actions. Grit teeth. Despondent eyes. A hand that reluctantly reached for mine. Her pulse raged hard against my own as she placed her wrist on mind. “You make this so hard, you know that?”

Sniffling down my mucus, I forced myself to speak. “Make what hard?”

She sighed. “Loving you.”

Her skin was a dichotomy over mine – warm, comforting, but with an evanescent tremble. My first instinct was to hold her close, to fight away the angst I wove into her psyche.

She crumbled into tears and inarticulate sobs. “I love you, I do. You know that I do. But…” Pulling away, she spat, “I have to walk on eggshells around you.”

The hidden meaning in those words crawled out of the conscious that tried to bury them, and regret pooled on my palms and legs. Because we never knew what set me off until I needed a Xanax, and seeing me in that state was too much for her to swallow.

She’d grin and bear it or scream in my face and use her nails to dig crevices into her voice box and fill them with that lurid things that she said now, but didn’t mean: “Cordelia, get over it. This is all in your head.”

It wasn’t until she repeated herself that I acknowledged her words, her loathsome eyes smacking me straight in the face. “You have to have some control. I know you’re hurting, but I can’t deal with this. I can’t deal with you.”

I watched myself sit there stone silent as her anger morphed into sadness and she tried to wipe her tears before they fell. I wanted her to pick me up the way my lovers do in my mind, and I wanted her to tell me I was safe. But safety only came with the promise that this was over, but what she refused to see is more than an illness, this was an addiction.

I wanted to wrap us in the truth until she accepted it as our flesh – my body craved the delusion of synchrisity. The pores on my arms and the buds on my tongue had secret openings to absorb any sense of an upswing. The tantrums I threw and the rituals I gave into would dissolve into my skin like an LSD strip and turn my blood into a psychedelic task force, blurring my vital systems into a mess of stale color.

I wanted to change, to be a girl she could love. I wanted to be someone worth loving.

The words formed on my lips. “Miyuki, I don’t want to be here.”

I cringed as she sobbed out, “Me too.”

It was my turn to cry, whimpers hugging the inside of my throat.

With a disgusted grunt, she stood up again. “No, you don’t get to fall apart too.”

I willed my eyes to stop, for the water to fall back into my head, and the toilet, and the sink, and we got a do-over on this entire evening.

Watching, expression mocking, she waited for the me to stop. With a roll of her eyes, she hardened herself and pushed any trace of sympathy from her mind.

“I’m sorry. I can’t help it…” I trailed off, because rationalizing my disorder would make her madder.

The chartreuse of her eyes faded to black and as she looked down I saw her faith in me break. “I told you Cordelia, this is all in your head.”

Peyote queen, you are too fragile to die.  

 

 

 

 

BIO

Anna Keeler is a poet and fiction writer attending Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. Her work has been published or is upcoming in Crab Fat Literary Magazine, Red Fez Literary Journal, Indiana Voice Journal, Potluck Magazine, Leopardskin & Limes Literary Journal, The Merrimack Review, Outsider Poetry, The Chaotic Review, and Smaeralit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Man in Black

by Leah Holbrook Sackett

 

 

Orange Sherbet reminds me of my summer with Johnny Cash. I was eleven years old; my brother Marcus was seven. We were spending the summer with Dad. Well, not the entire summer, three weeks. That year Dad had negotiated Mom down from five weeks. When I asked why Marcus and I had to go at all she said, “Look Gemma, I need a break. Your father could do something.” That summer Dad did his something in August.

“Listen kids, I have to go to work. I’ll try and get out early. Your leftovers from McDonald’s are in the fridge and there’s soup in the pantry.”

I stared into my bowl of Captain Crunch. Five golden mush lumps floated in the milk. I didn’t want to look up or open my mouth, afraid I’d give voice to the lump in my throat. I didn’t want to make Dad feel bad, but I didn’t want to spend another day locked-up in the A/C, in an unfamiliar apartment.

“Ok, here’s a five. Get yourself some ice cream if the ice cream truck comes by. And we’ll go out for dinner tonight. Okay? Okay.”

Marcus and I continued to sit at the Formica table that used to be in Grandma Shirley’s basement. A lot of the furniture in Dad’s new apartment migrated from different rooms of Grandma Shirley’s house. I had the vinyl seat with the duct tape down the middle. When I hesitated sitting in that chair on our first morning Dad had said, “It’s kitcshy.” I didn’t know what that was, but I didn’t believe him. “Be good,” Dad called as he walked out the backdoor with his computer bag in one hand and his tie in the other. We listened for the shut of the car door, start of the engine and the fade of supervision.

“At least Mom kisses us good-bye,” Marcus said setting his bowl in the sink. “And gets us a sitter.”

The phone rang.

“What are we going to do, Gemma?” Marcus said.

The phone rang, again. I picked it up from the base on the kitchen wall.

“Hello?”

“Gemma, watch out for your brother. Call me at work if you need anything. And don’t go anywhere.”

“Okay, Dad.”

Was there anywhere to go? Marcus and I weren’t familiar with this neighborhood. The entire block was squashed together with dark, red brick buildings, each three stories high; each with a green and red door. The sameness of this place was interrupted with the occasional empty lot of weeds. But in the lot to the left of our building was a big garden, more like a collection of little gardens. At night, from our bedroom window, I could see the outlines of towering sunflowers and shadowy patches in the moonlight. During the day it was a tangle of green with moments of color. St. Louis sure was different from home. Last summer, Dad still lived back home in Atlanta. We stayed with him in a Condo in the city; that was when he was dating Heather, who looked at Marcus and me like we were cockroaches on her kitchen floor. I added my bowl to the climbing tower in the sink. Heather would hate this place.

“What did he want?” Marcus said.

“Nothing.”

Marcus sat on the floor watching Tom and Jerry cartoons and biting his toenails.

“Mom doesn’t like that.”

“At least dad has cable, so we can watch cartoons all day. The last place had cable, too.”

“Stop biting your toenails. Mom doesn’t like it.”

“Mom’s not here,” Marcus said straining to jam a new toe between his teeth.” He spit the ripped nail on the floor. “Do you think we could get Mom to get cable?”

“No. It’s too expensive.”

“Hmm, maybe that’s why Dad lives in this crummy place to pay for the cable.”

“You’re gonna have stinky feet breath.”

By afternoon, I was tired of cartoons and felt stiff from the A/C. I wanted to go out in the sun, in the garden.

“Want some ice cream?”

“Do you hear the ice cream man?” Marcus said as he jumped up and looked out the window.

“No, but I’m sick of sitting in here. Let’s check out that garden.”

We weren’t outside, but 10 minutes, and I already missed the air conditioning.

“Huh, it’s a vegetable garden,” Marcus said. He nudged at some swollen eggplant near his untied, dingy converse. “I think Mom tries to get me to eat this stuff.”

Each garden patch was different. Some were vegetable, some flowers, and a ton of leafy or stalk like plants that I didn’t know. There were butterflies and bees both real and ornamental, little stools, ceramic bunnies, and chimes.

“This is really boring, and it’s getting hot, Gemma.”

“Do you think one of these belongs to Dad?”

“I’m going inside. If the ice cream man comes, I want a bomb pop.”

I continued to make my way through the plots till I found a shady place inside a little vine-constructed tee-pee. The ground was damp in this plot. It must have just been watered. I decided to squat so as not to get my white shorts dirty. Dad didn’t do laundry too often. I found a little stick and began to dig my initials in the cool, packed soil of the tee-pee. I wonder why someone made a tee-pee of vines. I ran my finger over the long green tendrils to see if I could identify the plant. I’d just finished Ms. Seibert’s 5th grade honors science that year. I felt a long, curvy, bumpy pod. I plucked the green bean. It was the longest, thinnest green bean I’d ever seen. I could make a necklace out of this, but a green bean bracelet would be much cooler.

The urgent clang of the ice cream man brought back the heat of the afternoon. I dashed from the green bean tee-pee, and tripped over the red-painted railroad tie framing the garden patch. I hit dry, hard earth catching myself with my right knee, palms, and chin. The clamor of the bell along with the circus music sounded about half a block away. I got up, brushed my burning, grass patterned palms on my t-shirt and ran through the maze of mini-gardens. The clamor of other kids hailing the ice cream man rose over the leafy labyrinth. I hit the open expanse of lawn in front of the community garden. I could see two older girls and a boy walking away with their frozen delights. The churning circus tones called out, and I arrived at the front walk. I tried to make a quick study of the truck’s offerings. What do I want? My heart was pounding and I was beginning to feel the pain in my chin. My eyes scanned up and down the pictures of ice cream and popsicles.

“Hey, kid! It’s your turn. What do you want?”

“Ah, um. A Bomb Pop and a Push Up.”

“That’s $2.50.”

As soon as he said it, I realized I’d left the $5 bill on the kitchen table.

“Wait! I left my money inside.”

“I can’t wait kid,” and he started to turn up the volume of the circus music.

“Wait! I have money, here.” I pulled two crumpled dollars from my pocket.

“Well, which one do you want?”

“I want the Bomb Pop and a Push Up.”

“Kid, you don’t got enough. Which one? The Bomb Pop or the Push Up?”

I looked back at the apartment. I could see Marcus at the window waving to me.

“The Bomb Pop,” I said looking down at the mud squished between my toes and smeared across the weave of my sandal on my right foot.

“And I think I’ll take two Push Ups,” a voice boomed behind me.

I looked up and standing next to me was a broad shouldered man in black leather.

“Hey, kid. Your bomb pop?” the ice cream man said.

I took the oversized Popsicle and my change from the ice cream man, but I looked at the man with the swept-back, black hair and large sideburns. He looks hot. That’s probably why he wants two Push Ups. I started towards the apartment to give Marcus his Bomb Pop. The noise of the ice cream truck resumed as it pulled from the curb.

“Miss?”

I turned around and just looked at him.

“Miss? Do you want one of these Push Ups? I can’t eat two. I gotta watch my figure.”

“I don’t know you.”

“Very wise of you. I’m Johnny Cash. I’m your neighbor, too.” And he gestured to the floor beneath our apartment. By this time Marcus had come out to fetch his Bomb Pop. I took the Push Up.

“I saw you in the garden. I don’t think your Dad has a plot. Would you like to see mine?”

“Is it just more vegetables?” Marcus asked with blue juice already dribbling from his chin.

“Is it the tee-pee?”

“No. It’s better. It’s behind Mrs. Hardy’s sunflowers.”

Johnny Cash gestured and we followed. He was right, his was better.

“That’s awesome,” Marcus said. “Can I sit on it?”

Johnny Cash’s garden was a sod sofa and a moss-covered tree stump for a coffee table with potted flowers on it.

“Sure.”

The three of us sat on the moss sofa. I was in the middle. It was cooler in this shady spot, and there was a soft breeze.

“Miss? How do you open this thing?”

“Oh. You peel the top off and then as you eat it you Push Up with the handle. Oh, and thanks.” I brushed my long blond hair away from my face. “It’s kinda windy.”

“It feels good, and you’re welcome. It’s hard being a kid on a hot day. It’s hard being Johnny Cash on a hot day.”

“Who’s that?” Marcus asked. He was leaning around me and dripped more blue juice, but this time he dripped it on my shorts and my left leg. The sticky blue syrup ran down my pale thigh turning pink in the sun.

“Me, of course. Good pick, miss. Johnny Cash loves orange sherbet.”

“Really? It’s my favorite.” I wiped at my leg with the palm of hand.

“Why do you talk like that?” Marcus blurted leaning across me this time.

“Marcus,” I said through my teeth.

“Like what?”

“You call yourself by your name like Elmo.”

“Is that a friend of yours, Marcus?”

“Nah, He’s on Sesame Street,” I said.

“Oh. Well, I just like being Johnny Cash, I guess.”

“I like being Gemma. That’s my name.”

“That’s a beautiful name.”

“Thanks. My Dad picked it.”

“I call her Germma, because girls are gross,” said Marcus. His dark curls were sticking to his forehead with sweat. Everything about him was sticky.

I went into the garden every day that week, and ordered Push Ups every time the ice cream man passed-by. I was prepared with the money in my pocket. And I made sure I always had enough for a Push Up for Johnny Cash, too. But I didn’t bump into Mr. Cash again. So, I wound up eating twice as much orange sherbet.

When we watched cartoons in the afternoon I would hear his shower run and his muffled singing. I tried to make out the lyrics. Although I didn’t recognize any of his songs, I liked to hear him sing. I’d press my ear to the cool hard wood floor and make up my own words as I listened.

“Gemma, get off that floor,” Dad said. “Come on, she’s going to be here any minute.

“So?”

“So, get over here and act like a lady, not a baby on the floor.”

“I’m not being a baby. I’m listening to Johnny Cash.”

“What? Since when do you listen to Johnny Cash?”

“Since I met him in the garden.”

“Excuse me?”

“He bought her an ice cream, because there was only money for one and I got it,” Marcus chimed in.

“You are not supposed to talk to strangers for one. You are not supposed to accept things from strangers for two. And why do you think this stranger is Johnny Cash?”

“Because that’s his name, and he lives downstairs.”

“Oh. Oh, yeah, right. The impersonator.”

“What?” Marcus said, wrinkling his nose.

“Kids, he impersonates Johnny Cash at the Hard Rock Café downtown.”

“You know where he works? What does he do?” I said.

“He sings.”

“Can we hear him sing? Please?”

“Maybe, if it will keep you off the floor.”

With that there was a knock at the backdoor, and within the hour, Marcus and I were pretty much invisible. Dad made us go to bed early that night, too. He said it was grown-up time for him and his friend Tanya. Marcus and I brushed our teeth and climbed into the double bed in our room.

“I get the window side.”

“Not fair! You take the window side every night, Gemma!”

“No fighting in there,” Dad hollered.

“Fine,” I hissed and threw a pillow at him.

Sometime in the night I woke-up, I mean wide awake. I wasn’t use to going to bed so early. My body just wasn’t tired anymore. I lay in the graying light listening to Marcus snore softly. I watched his face. His mouth was hanging open enough for me to see his two oversized front teeth. I was wondering what he would look like if he were a rabbit, when I heard something. It sounded like a grunt, like if someone got punched in the stomach. I heard it again.

“Marcus, Marcus,” I whispered tugging the elbow of his sleeve.

“Wha?”

“Do you hear that?”

“No. I’m sleeping,” he said. “Why? What was it?” He pulled the blankets up to his chin; just then I heard it again.

“Wait, I’m coming with you,” Marcus said as he stood closer to me than normal. He stood next to me like I was Mom or something. I cracked open the door and peered into the blackness of Dad’s room. Marcus peeked over my shoulder. Even though I was older, he was nearly as tall as me. We got down and crawled into the entrance to Dad’s bedroom. Scrunched together on the floor we watched. We watched I didn’t know what, but I did. I just had never seen it before. I never thought about what it looked like, but I didn’t think it would look like that. It was so rough. In silence we crawled back to bed.

“What were they doing?” he asked.

“Didn’t Mom ever talk to you about it?”

“About what? Naked wrestling? No.”

“About making babies,” I said angrily. I felt like I was going to cry.

“Is that what they’re doing? Dad wants another baby?”

“Go to sleep, Marcus.”

I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t get comfortable. I felt funny being so close to Marcus. I felt funny thinking at all. I wanted to go home. I wanted my Mom. I had to get away from the apartment, from that moment. Anger was twisting and coiling in my stomach. Without shoes, once all was quiet, I slipped down the hall and out the back door. The Sun was starting to come up; the gray light was warming to a fine yellow. The dew dolloped grass tickled and licked my feet as I made my way to Johnny Cash’s living room. I sat on the sod sofa, not caring if my nightgown got muddy; feeling like I might puke. And that’s when I saw him park his old Buick.

He didn’t seem surprised to see me there, and I hadn’t even realized I was crying till he offered me a white handkerchief.

“May I have a seat?” he said, as he sat down.

He was in all black again with that same leather jacket. I took the handkerchief from him. It was embroidered with JC in the corner in black, and I noticed he had a big gold ring on almost every finger.

“Gemma, what are you doing out here?”

“You’re a liar,” jumped from my lips. “You’re a liar. You’re not Johnny Cash. He’s dead. I know. I looked it up on Google. I’m not some dumb, little kid you know.”

“I don’t think you’re dumb, Gemma. And I’m sorry. I was just pretending.”

“Pretending is lying. Grown-ups are always lying.”

“I think pretending is fun. Don’t you pretend?”

“Not anymore,” I mumbled into my shoulder.

“Aww, I hate to hear that. I really do.” I wanted to scoot closer to him, to curl-up in his lap like I use to with Dad. I wanted him to hold me. Instead, I closed my eyes waiting for his warm, deep voice.

“Gemma, let me tell you something. Grown-ups are just big, ugly children. And sometimes we pretend, because we don’t know what else to do.”

“I don’t think I like growing-up,” I said opening my eyes and gazing out at the breaking light.

“Then don’t stop dreaming, Gemma.”

I blew my nose in the handkerchief.

“I didn’t know men wore rings.”

“Sure. What about wedding rings?”

“My Dad never wore one.”

“Well, every man is different. Look at me I like a lot of rings and sod sofas.”

“You’re funny.”

“Thanks. Pretty sunrise, isn’t it? I love a good sunrise.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Me too,” I said, although I didn’t remember ever paying much attention before.

We watched the sun come all the way up, the soft yellow and pink blushing into day. Johnny Cash walked me to my backdoor, where we met Dad and Tanya kissing in the door jamb. At first, Dad looked like Marcus when he’d been caught doing something Mom didn’t like, but then he looked like he couldn’t figure out the answer to a really hard math problem.

“Gemma? What the hell are you doing outside?”

“I, I…”

I looked back from his face to her face. They both seem surprised or scared, just like me.

“I’m gonna go,” Tanya said as she bent like flamingo and jammed a foot in one of her high-heels. She gave Dad a kiss on his cheek that he didn’t seem to notice, and she squeezed past Johnny Cash and me.

“Good night, ma’am,” said Johnny Cash with a nod of his head.

“What the hell are you doing with my daughter?”

“She was sleepwalking, Andy. I found her in the garden when I got home from work and went to water my flowers. Early morning is the best time to water them, you know. She may still be asleep. It’s best not to wake them,” Johnny Cash said.

Everyone stood there. We just stood there. Dad looked guilty. I was trying hard not to blush, not to remember what I’d seen. I didn’t want Dad to touch me.

“I gotta get her in bed. I’ll talk to you later,” Dad said steering me by my shoulders into the apartment. He shut the kitchen door behind him. I could see the back of Johnny Cash’s head turning away.

“Gemma, I don’t believe you were sleepwalking.”

“I wasn’t.”

“Then what were you doing with Johnny Cash?”

I stared at my wet toes. There was a grass clipping on the right pinky.

“Did he hurt you?”

“No.”

“Are you sure? Cause I’ll…”

“No, no. It’s not like that.”

“Like what?”

“I know about safe touch and bad touch, Dad. They’ve talked to us about it in school since first grade. Even Marcus knows about that.”

“Well, then what were you doing out there?”

“I went for a walk. He saw me in his garden when he got home.”

“Gemma, why would you go for a walk at night?”

“Tanya.”

“Ah, ah, what about Tanya?”

“I heard you. We saw you, okay,” I turned my back to him and gripped the back of the kitchen chair in front of me.

“Oh, we were just…”

“I’m not a baby, Dad. I know what you were doing.”

“I’m sorry, Gemma. Next time I’ll remember to close the door.”

“Next time?”

“Okay, sorry. No next time, for now. Gemma? Do you have…are you…I don’t know what to say.”

“I’m tired.”

“Okay, go to bed.”

I let go of the chair, my fingernails had pressed little crescent moons into the vinyl. As I stepped into the hall Dad asked me, “Gemma, let’s not tell Mom about this, okay?”

“Yeah,” I said and I felt empty inside, in my chest. I didn’t know if I was telling him the truth at that moment, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t care if I was lying to my Dad.

He never asked me about the incident again. The following weekend, on our last night in town, Dad surprised Marcus and me with a trip to the Hard Rock Café to see Johnny Cash. I hadn’t seen him since the night in the garden. I was so excited. I wore my favorite pink daisy sundress. We got a table right in the front, and Dad let us order whatever we wanted off the menu. It was great. I got a chocolate milkshake, cheeseburger and fries. There were posters and photos everywhere. The music was really loud and the waiters and waitresses were dressed really crazy. Dad said they were dressed like the 70s, when he was born. It was really cool. I love that way back in the olden day stuff. But it was hard to concentrate on all the people or my dinner, because I kept looking for Johnny Cash.

“Hey, Dad. Can I ask you a question?” Marcus said with a mouthful of fries.

“You just did.”

“Ha, Ha, Ha. You’re real funny, Dad.”

“Well, what is it?”

“What ever happened to that lady?”

“What lady?”

I shot a shut-up look at Marcus, so he just kept going.

“The one that came over. The one like Grandma Shirley.”

“The one like Grandma Shirley?” Dad said looking confused. “The only lady that came over was Tanya.”

“Yeah. Her. What happened to her?”

“Marcus, how is Tanya like your Grandma Shirley?”

“She smells like cigarettes and too much perfume.”

Just then the lights went low, from the darkness emerged the strum of a guitar, and a spotlight came up on Mr. Johnny Cash. He sang all the songs I had listened to through the floorboards, but now I could really hear the lyrics and see him.

“Dad, quick I need a pen.”

“Why?”

“Come on.”

“Okay, okay. We’ll get one from the waitress.”

I bounced my foot on the peg of my barstool and scratched at a mosquito bite on my calf as I listened and waited for the pen. Once the waitress returned with a pen I began jotting down lyrics on my paper napkin, the ones I couldn’t understand before through the floor like “I keep my eyes wide open all the time, I keep the ends out for the tie that binds” from I Walk The Line and from A Boy Named Sue “And I came away with a different point of view. And I think about him, now and then, Every time I try and every time I win.”

Everything was better than I had imagined. He stood there like a rock with his guitar. His jaws quivered when he sang, and he gave an occasional tilt into the microphone and then a wink just at me. In that moment, I belonged to something special. Johnny Cash broke into a Ring of Fire and the restaurant erupted in applause. I was so proud. They didn’t know him like I knew him. I watched their shadowed faces, eating, talking, and laughing. I looked at Marcus stuffing his face with fries, Dad playing with his napkin and singing along. I knew they saw a man on a dark stage, but I saw the man in black.

As the show ended, Dad reached across and handed me his napkin that he’d twisted into the shape of a rose. “For my lady,” he said as the lights came up. Mr. Cash descended the stage and crossed to our table. He and Dad chatted for a while like neighbors, like I’d never seen at home. He shook Dad and Marcus’ hands. When he bent down to hug me I was swallowed by his black leather coat. He was warm. I could smell soap and some men’s cologne suffuse the air inside this leather cocoon. I felt heady, swaddled in dark security.

Some people pretend to be a good parent while running away from home. Others pretend to be a celebrity while living a small life, working a small stage. I wanted to stay glued to that moment, wrapped inside that coat with him, but I knew I couldn’t. I had to pretend to be innocent while life was forcing me to grow-up. I whispered into his chest, “I believe in you, Mr. Cash,” and I let go.

 

 

BIO

Leah Holbrook Sackett is an adjunct lecturer in the English department at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. This is also where she earned her M.F.A. Additionally, she has published three short stories: A Point of Departure published with Connotation Press, Somebody Else in Kentucky published in Blacktop Passages, and The Birdcage Nests Within published with The Weekly Knob through Medium Daily Digest. Upcoming, her flash fiction entitled What the Looking Glass Reflects will be published in the spring 2017 issue of Zany Zygote Review.

She lives with her husband Jonathan and daughter Bella in Webster Groves, Missouri along with their puppy Presley and two cats K.C. and Kafka. In her free time, Leah is an avid collector of Lewis Carroll memorabilia and a member of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America.

 

 

 

 

 

0

the pinnacle of the free-wheeling particles

by Cameron

 

 

Ahem.

Hello! Yes, welcome.

No, no, you’re right on time. Please, sit.

I’m well. Indeed. Everything remains logical. Yes, and you?

Good. Very good.

Now, are you prepared for today’s lesson?

Excellent. Where shall we start?

My memory recall suggests that we have covered a general outline of Homo-sapiens, from their evolution from ape ancestors to their extinction in the 21st century. We’ve covered history, rises and falls of great power structures within human society, the slow destruction of the planet and its resources, professions and money systems, and…oh yes, technological advances.

We will now move into what is likely the most complicated subject you will study this term, which is human behavior.

It is complicated because you will find it nearly incomprehensible: every fiber of your being will strive to reject it. It will seem to you backwards and upside-down, absurd to you that any creature ever existed that treated other creatures in such a way. Every being of our species struggles here. It’s not in our nature to comprehend human behavior.

The higher-ups would also like to pass on a word of caution. Extended study of human behavior has been known to lead to madness, mental collapse. This is only an introduction. If you wish to pursue it further, do so at your own risk.

Now then, where were we?

Ahh. Yes. It is fortunate, really, that we find it so difficult to study human behavior. If we found it easy to comprehend it would be because we share some similarities with it, and when it was around, human behavior caused pure chaos for its own species and every other species that had the misfortune to exist on the planet at the same time.

Many in our society speak of humans with disdain, as if humans were very stupid to have done what they did. Personally, I find this to be an uneducated opinion. From extensive study we have discovered that the human race was not operating together in any sort of real capacity. Such a thing would have been as impossible as getting all the stars in the universe to line up in a single, unbroken line. The human race was made up of individuals, and this is what doomed them.

It was a method of intelligence that was very fractured, that we don’t share.

This is where our species finds human behavior hard to grasp, so we’ll pause here for a moment to try and reason it out. Think of it as a hypothetical mind game.

Consider humanity as a brain. This brain is composed of ten billion particles. In this hypothetical scenario each particle represents a human life on the planet Earth when the human race went extinct. Now, the only way the brain can get anything done is if it has a singular entity that can control its over-arching purpose, right? It can direct which particles it needs to do what, without any sort of objection, to achieve complicated tasks.

Now consider, instead, a brain composed of ten billion particles in which each particle acts independently, completely separate of one another. These particles are all raised separately, they develop their own opinions about what is right and wrong, and they are all trying to accomplish tasks in their own way, so they are constantly fighting one another, each one believing he or she is right and all others—wrong, misguided.

Consider, too, that the vast majority of them have trouble thinking about their actions on a world scale. That is, on the functioning of the brain as a whole. So each individual particle acts selfishly, acting only for the benefit of itself and its friends and family, because it has trouble attributing its own actions to the action of the entire brain.

These independent particles now meet a classic problem, which is this: each particle can maximize the odds of its own survival by acting in its own self-interest, but each particle acting in its own self-interest creates small odds for the survival of the brain as a whole. That is, each particle is trying to maximize the small odds that the entire population has set itself, and by doing so creates even worse odds.

What is the end product? A world of chaos and violence, and no single particle can do anything about it.

This, essentially, is how the world was run for the few hundred thousand years that the human particles had it in its grasp. Particles rose up against one another, started wars, killed each other off by the millions. Particles exploited each other and robbed each other and raped each other and threw millions of particles into prison cells. A few particles grew fat on an abundance of food while others drank water tinged with fecal matter or starved to death or died of disease. Particles dropped bombs on other particles, cheered while particles were shattered, beheaded, or torn apart.

Even peaceful particles lived in societies of particles built on violence and power.

Particles found countless ways to disagree, and to annihilate one another. They discriminated against one another based on the color of the skin, gender, sex, religion, and sexual identity. Millions of particles suffered for their entire lives because of these silly trivialities.

Occasionally, a particle would try to organize the other particles into stopping the madness. Into designing a sort of over-arching purpose for the brain, if you will. But they were fighting their own evolution, their own design, and each one inevitably failed.

If the world were a brain, it would have been one that was continually damaging and destroying itself, that was pushing itself towards death.

When Homo-sapiens came into being, when they started to flourish and spread across the globe, they were so effective at grouping up and annihilating other creatures that they started the sixth mass extinction on the planet Earth. This was before they even had a word for extinction, or could understand the concept, but by the end they were barely any better at avoiding it than they were at the start.

The extinctions went on for a very long time before the human particles were able to piece it together because they were all so separate, all cut off from one another and functioning alone.

The sixth mass extinction started with the mastodon and extended on through the great auk, the passenger pidgeon, the polar bear, the frogs, wolves, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, and many millions more. It ended with the extinction of all ocean species, all endangered and threatened species, and of course, the human particles themselves.

During this extinction, which lasted hundreds of thousands of years and was nearly imperceptible to each individual human particle, a single peculiar particle lived alone, separate from the ten billion others, on a crag of rock jutting out of the ocean, approximately twelve miles off the coast of South America. Occasionally, other particles would approach the rock and this particle would repel them, rather like electrons rebounding off one another.

The rock apparently looked like a jagged shark tooth. For a while it was called Shark Tooth Island, until it became The Island of the Dragoons.

This peculiar particle was a doctor. His name was Dr. Henn. He had been living on The Island of the Dragoons for over a year. Before that, he was a professor of psychology in the United States, in a location named New England.

He had come to the island with a great supply of food, coffee, and cigarettes, for he planned on an extended stay.

We know all this because the particle Henn later wrote a book about his time spent there called The Last of the Dragoons. A book was an archaic way of transferring information between particles, one that took much time and focus, and most particles didn’t have the patience for it by the time their species was coming to its end.

Fortunately, our scholars have dedicated their lives to studying the written word of this dead, destructive race, so that their knowledge is absorbed and we do not repeat their many errors.

Remnants of the book were discovered only recently by archaeologists in an underground bunker in a place the humans referred to as Colorado. The bunker has remained untouched for the last several million years. Inside the bunker were many other human works, along with a bed, a metal table and chair, a vault toilet, many hundreds of pounds of food and water, and two human skeletons, one that appeared to be an adult female, and the other, a female child. Curiously, the air vents in the bunker to the outside world were thrown wide open.

Scrawled on the wall were these words:

 

We will thrive after the poison has gone!

 

More on that later. We choose to focus now on the particle Henn because his work leads great insight into human behavior, into how humans operate.

On October 25th, 2021 on the human calendar, the particle Henn was residing in a shack he had built on the south side of The Island of the Dragoons.

For reference, by our calendar it was in the era of Earth Age 4.5 billion, in the Era of Bipeds, before the regime of the Octopii from Planet XA3, and well before the Third Galaxy War.

It was late morning, and the particle Henn was drinking coffee in his shack and reading a book of poetry by a man called Walt Whitman. We have none of Whitman’s work, unfortunately. The particle Henn’s shack, according to his description, was nestled in a crevice where a great boulder had come crashing down and split in half, so as to be protected from the wind, and elevated slightly off the ground with a few cinderblocks to avoid flooding. For some reason it reminded the particle Henn of a giant bird’s nest jumbled together precariously on a small ledge, which he liked.

Though the outside was wind-torn and the roof was specked with bird shit, the inside of the shack was quite cozy. There was a narrow bed and a desk scattered with papers, a camp-chair, a woodstove, and a small generator that the particle Henn fired up to power the light hanging from the cross-beams overhead.

Behind the shack was a small alcove where the particle Henn stored his food, coffee, and cigarettes in bulk. He also set out containers to catch rainwater, which he then purified and drank.

The particle Henn was sipping his coffee, for he loved his coffee dearly, when he heard, over the crashing waves against the rocks, the whining high keen of a boat motor. Craning his ears, the particle Henn set his book down, took another gulp of coffee, and then retrieved a shotgun where it was tipped upright in a corner.

Standing outside on the gray rock, wearing frizzled gray hair, a beard, a flannel shirt, and with eyes fixed against the wind and the ocean spray, the particle Henn spotted three other human particles coming in, from the direction of the coast. It was a small boat, with a small motor and barely enough room to fit the three of them. From his position, the particle Henn could see their weapons.

He shouted, Awhooooyayayayaaaa, and when the three particles swiveled their heads towards him, he fired his gun in the air. The boat swerved, a sort of knee-jerk reaction, and then the three particles fired back. Two of them had shotguns and one had a laser beam pistol. The particle Henn ducked behind a rock, reloaded. He fired again, sticking his gun over the rock and not looking.

There was silence.

The particle Henn clutched his gun, breathing the wet air, the coarse rock against his back.

Nothing.

When he finally stuck his head out and looked, the three figures were headed away, back toward the coast. One of them was waving his arms and giving the particle Henn the finger.

The particle Henn breathed a sigh of relief. He returned to his Walt Whitman, and his lovely coffee.

This was the life he had chosen for himself.

He had nothing to do for the rest of the day, until he had another visitor. It was much later in the evening, when the sun was down near the horizon. This time he was out on the rocks, visiting his birds. The birds were dragoons, of course. They were squawking and waddling about, and he was sighing happily and looking at them.

Out on his right, at open sea there was a fishing vessel. It glowed with the falling sun and it was starting to fire its lights up for the coming dark. The particle Henn knew it was there, he could see it easily, but he expected it to go right on by, leave him be, as fishing vessels always did.

But this one gave off a tiny speck, which the particle Henn did not notice, and that speck was a dinghy, and that dinghy held a particle by the name of Davis. The particle Davis wore a white T-shirt and a baseball cap that read BOSTON RED SOX.

The particle Davis was a big man with rough hands, and he was coming ashore.

In his book, the particle Henn described this as one of the most extraordinary encounters he’d ever had with anyone on the island.

The particle Henn did not see him until he was quite close. He cursed, scrambled for his gun, went running for a better position.

The particle Davis knocked into the rocks, the metal dinghy making a loud clang. He splashed into the water and dragged the boat up onto the rock, right before hearing the word, “Hold!”

He looked around and found a frizzy-haired particle levelling a shotgun at him.

“Don’t shoot!” the particle Davis called.

“Who are you,” the particle Henn asked.

The particle Davis was staring into the particle Henn’s eyes. “Don’t shoot,” he said.

“You’re not a soccer fan, are you?”

“Wha? No, I … I like football!”

“Like American football?”

“Ya, like American football! What the hell’s it matter?”

“Who are you?”

“I’m a fisherman. My name is Davis.”

“Why are you here, Davis?”

“I’m here fer one a the birds,” the particle Davis said. He had slowly raised his arms in the air, so his palms were at face-level and facing the particle Henn.

“A dragoon?”

“Ya, one a the penguiny ones.”

“You can’t have one. Now get back in that boat and go back to your ship.”

“I…I ain’t leavin’ without one.”

The particle Henn grimaced. “I will shoot you, you understand that?”

“Shoot me fer what?”

“I won’t let you take a dragoon.”

“Yer gonna shoot me fer a lousy bird?”

The particle Henn cocked his gun, thumbing the hammer back. “Yes,” he said. “I will shoot you for a lousy bird.”

“What fer?”

“Get back in your boat now and go away!”

“No! Please, I promised my daughter.”

“What? You promised your daughter what?”

“I promised her I’d get her one a the birds.”

“A dragoon?” the particle Henn laughed, a laugh of disbelief and exasperation. “There are only eighty-three left in the entire world, and they all live here, on this rock in the middle of nowhere. Why, why in God’s name would you promise your daughter you’d get her one?”

“She loves those birds. She has all sorts a picture books and things. She’s only eight years old and she’s the sweetest, but she’s livin’ with her mom now, and Mom’s got her set against me, so I promised her I’d get her one a those birds.”

“Well that was a stupid promise, wasn’t it?”

The particle Davis shrugged. “I’m here, ain’t I?”

“Sure, but how do you expect to keep the bird alive and healthy while you return it to your daughter? Do you even know what it eats? It’s a wild animal. How do you propose to keep it healthy in whatever suburbs backyard your daughter will keep it in?”

The particle Davis just looked at him. “I spose I’ll figure all that out as I go along,” he said.

The particle Henn shook his head. “How the hell did you get all the way out here?”

“Sorta coincidence,” the particle Davis said. “I work on that fishin’ ship over there, Ramona, and we were on our way back to the States, and I saw the rock and recognized it, on account a how it looks like a big shark tooth and all, and I begged the captain to let me go ashore … I told him I’d jump overboard if he didn’t lend me a boat.”

“What did you say your name was again?”

“Davis.”

“The dragoon is going extinct, Mr. Davis. That mean anything to you?”

“Well,” the particle Davis said. “I guess it’s kinda unfortunate and all, but that seems to be the way a things. How many did you say there were left?”

“Eighty-three.”

“Well, no worries then!” The particle Davis’ face curved into a smile. “I only want one of ‘em! That’ll leave plenty of birds to reproduce and not go extinct and all.”

“Do you know who else says that, that they only want one?”

“Who?”

Everyone,” the particle Henn breathed.

 

 

They ended up talking for a while, right there on the rocks. The Sun settled along the ocean horizon, brilliant orange, and turned the rocks purple, and then it fell beneath the curve of the Earth and left them a cool blue light and wrinkles of shadows across their faces.

No matter what he said, no matter what explanations provided, the particle Henn could not explain to the particle Davis the importance of keeping the species alive, nor could he explain how taking just one bird would affect the species.

The particle Henn found himself sitting on a rock ledge with the gun across his knees. The particle Davis was sitting likewise, about a dozen feet away.

“Let me tell you a story,” the particle Henn said. “It happened while I was just an undergrad. I took a class where a professor was trying to teach us how this whole thing works. He brought in a whole boxful of little bite-size Snickers, right? And he also had four full-size Snickers candybars. Then he told us to tear off a scrap of paper and write something down.

“‘Here’s how it’s going to work,’ he said to us. ‘Each of you is going to write down a word. The word is going to be either ‘Big’ or ‘Small’. Now, if more than five percent of you write down the word ‘Big’, none of you gets any candy. But, if less than five percent of you writes ‘Big’, and the rest of you write ‘Small’, the ones that wrote ‘Big’ will get a full-size Snickers bar, and the ones that wrote ‘Small’ will get a Snickers bite-size candy.

“You understand, Mr. Davis? It was a bet. If you wrote down ‘Small’, and everyone else did too, you were assured to get a small piece of chocolate. But what if everyone else wrote ‘Small’ and you were the only one that wrote ‘Big’? Well, then you get a full Snickers bar.

“Then the professor went around and he had everyone read what they wrote. And you know what happened? Boom, right off, four out of the first six had ‘Big’ written down on our cards. We were disqualified already. There were only twenty or twenty-five in the class. The professor only nodded. He said that he’d never had a class, ever, where less than five percent had written the word ‘Big’.

“You see how it works? This is human nature, Mr. Davis. We all have these ideas off ourselves as these beautiful unique snowflakes. We believe, inherently, that our thoughts and opinions are unique, singular, because there’s no one else quite like us. We don’t think anyone else in the world is thinking the same thoughts, or doing the same things, but in reality everyone is thinking the same, and everyone is doing the same. When you do something, you can be sure that millions have done it before you, and millions will do it after for similar reasons.

“So it’s essential … it’s essential that we be very careful what we do, because we don’t see the larger effects of millions of people acting a little selfish, taking for themselves or for their family. It’s incredibly destructive.

“And it seems a little crazy. It seems crazy to have to be so careful when there are surely millions of others that don’t give a shit. It seems pointless. But that’s what you’ve gotta do if you don’t want to be a part of the problem. That’s what I do, how I choose to live,” the particle Henn said.

“What’d he do with the chocolate?” the particle Davis asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“The Snickers. What’d your professor do with ‘em? Did he just take ‘em away with him after class?”

“Oh…no,” the particle Henn shrugged. “He gave them to us anyways. What was he going to do, carry it around with him all day?”

The particle Davis grinned.

“Oh, come now. Don’t be trying to find some hidden meaning in that. He just didn’t want to take them with him, that’s all.”

They both fell silent for a moment, the wind a low crooning in their ears.

“I don’t care much ‘bout the world, or what happens to it. I jus’ care about my daughter, the people in my life,” the particle Davis said.

The particle Henn sighed. “I was afraid you might say that. Most feel the same.”

“Dontcha get lonely livin’ out here?”

“Sure,” the particle Henn said. “But I never much liked people, anyways.”

“What was yer line a work?”

“I was a psychologist, for a time. I taught at a university, did research.”

“Ya?”

The particle Henn lit a cigarette. “Yeah.”

“What made ya come out here? Research?”

“No,” the particle Henn said. He ran his fingers over the course granite, the cigarette glowed in his mouth. “Eventually I realized that no matter how much I talked and talked, the world would never change. I realized I could do more with action, so I quit my job and came out here to save a species.”

“Who comes all the way out here, other than me?”

The particle Henn’s face drooped. “Soccer fans,” he said.

“Soccer fans?”

“Brazilian soccer fans, specifically. About ten years ago they started heading to dragoon nesting spots along the South American coast and shooting them all with guns. They killed all the ones along the coast, eventually killed every single dragoon in South America, except for the ones right here, twelve miles off the coast. Some still make the trip. They know there are dragoons out here, and they want them dead.”

“Why? What fer?”

“Because the breast of the dragoon is colored light white and blue, which are the exact colors of Brazil’s rival in soccer, Argentina. At some point, after an exciting match, a drunken Brazilian shouted that the dragoon represented the Argentinans, and that was all it took. It become a national past time after a soccer match for fans to vent their energy and anger by blasting away at dragoons with their guns.”

“Huh,” the particle Davis said.

“It’s ridiculous, don’t you think? The dragoon, which otherwise is tremendously well-adapted to its environment, finds itself pushed to the brink of complete annihilation, all because for a very brief moment in their evolutionary history, drunken soccer fans with guns roamed the earth in droves.”

“Well,” the particle Davis slapped his knees. “That settles it. It’s gettin on dark, and I’d best be back before then or the captain might jus’ leave without me. I wouldn’t put it past the bastard…”

The world had faded to the smudged hues of gray before dark.

“You’re leaving then?” the particle Henn said.

The particle Davis stood. “Now, listen,” he said. “I can respect the authority of a man with a gun. I grew up in backwoods Maine. Ain’t much for law out there, and a man’s gotta protect what he has. But those birds aren’t yours.”

The particle Davis stepped forward.

The particle Henn jumped to his feet, swung the shotgun on him.

“Don’t—”

“I ain’t a man you say no to,” the particle Davis said. “What you said about those Brazilians has convinced me. No matter what I do, those soccer fans are gonna keep comin out here, and eventually, you won’t be around to stop ‘em. Those birds are doomed. And I got my daughter to think about.”

“I’m warning you, Mr. Davis,” the particle Henn said.

The particle Davis stepped closer. “Ya jus’ don’t know her,” he said. “She’s the only thing I have, understand? And if I can’t convince her and her mom that I make good on my promises, I might lose ‘em forever. Ya understand that?

“Ya can’t change the world, I can’t change the world, so fuck it. I’m gonna do what’s best fer me, and if—“

For some reason, the particle Henn barely registered the noise of the gun. It kind of popped, like a firecracker in his ears. He was too focused on the particle Davis to delegate much of his senses to the noise it was making.

But it bucked hard into his shoulder. He had aimed it high and to the right, and he saw the particle Davis’s shadow, for now he was nothing but a shadow in the dark, flinch. Then he slid down to the wet rock.

There were three very long seconds of silence, where the particle Henn looked at the gun in his hands and the figure on the ground, and his ears rang.

“Mr. Davis?” the particle Henn’s voice spoke.

The particle Davis groaned, looked up. A few pellets had stuck into his shoulder, and he was bleeding, but only a little. In the distance, the particle Davis could see the outline of a dragoon, perched on a rock about a hundred meters away.

“Ahh,” the particle Davis groaned again. He stretched his hands out to the bird’s outline. “Gimme,” he said. “Gimme gimme.”

It struck the particle Henn how much the particle Davis resembled a child, lying on the ground like that and stretching his arms out to something he wanted. He looked like a baby that couldn’t walk yet.

“Gimme gimme,” the particle Davis whispered.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Davis,” the particle Henn said, “but the world stops here.”

 

 

Ahem.

Forgive me for a moment. I must re-align my vocal bands for our continued information transfer.

Ahem. Ahem.

Ooh lala. Ooh lalala quagh a kaka choo.

That should do it. Ahem.

Everything should be in order.

We are positive that this story has been as strange to you as a story about two fingers battling one another on the same hand. It is strange for every being of our species, but we assure you that this is how human beings actually acted towards one another, in a time long past.

Unfortunately, the next section of the story has disentegrated over time, and the rest of the book was found in tatters. Our scholars, however, were able with careful study to piece together the rest of the story.

Our objective has been achieved: that is, human behavior has been observed. We continue on with the story now only because we are well aware of your penchant for stories. Our higher-ups advise you to be wary of this tendency. It is highly illogical, and a similarity you share with humans. But we are also aware that your frustration at an unfinished story will hinder your creative thinking and analysis, and so: onward.

You can see that human communication was extremely limited, and slow. For one, it could not surpass the time it took for language to be formed by human mouths. And second, even with careful explanation one human could often not make himself clear to another, even when the other human was paying close attention. This caused much disorder.

We find it very interesting that the particle Davis, whose daughter adored the dragoon, was willing to contribute to the extinction of the species in an absurd attempt to get back in her good graces. You can see how their intelligence manifested itself. It was wholly individualistic and dangerously short-sighted.

The particle Henn dragged the particle Davis back to his dinghy. The particle Davis still tried to fight him, and the particle Henn had to smash him in the nose with the butt of his gun. He then rowed the particle Davis out to the fishing vessel, where his wounds were treated.

The particle Henn then returned to his island of dragoons alone, in the middle of the sea, his face hard against the ocean spray and his gun cradled in his lap.

The particle Henn was later thrown in jail by many particles that had coalesced into something called a government. While in prison, the particle Henn fell out of bed, hit his head on the toilet seat and broke his neck, which left him almost fully paralyzed. The only thing he retained the use of was, strangely, his big toe on his left foot, which he could wiggle slightly. Eventually, his friends and family developed a communication system based off the movement of his toe, and that’s how he wrote The Last of the Dragoons. A young English major spent over a year watching his big toe intently for eight hours a day, doing the painstaking job of translating its movement into letters and words.

Each night, tears leaked out of the particle Henn’s eyes, and someone had to wipe them up. He missed his birds more than anything else in the world, and cried for their slow disappearance.

The dragoons went completely extinct within three years. Without the particle Henn around to stop them, Brazilian particles quickly shot half the population. A few were caught by wildlife biologists from the U.S, with the intent of raising a new population in captivity and re-introducing them into the wild, but they couldn’t quite get their diet right, and the ones in captivity died as well.

Soon after, there were no more dragoons. They were all dead, and the rocks on The Island of the Dragoons were dead too, empty and silent without the squakwing, the fluttering of wings.

So that’s that.

Ahem.

Hmm? You wish to know of the reason for the extinction of the entire human race? Interesting. This desire for the end of the story really has grown extreme. When this lesson is over, it may be necessary to assign you some counseling.

Very well. In the human year 2046 a corporation came out with a product called the Exo-Suit. It was a sort of exo-skeleton machine that a person could strap themselves in to, with robotic arms and legs. The purpose of the suit was that a person could direct the suit where to go and the machine would transport them there by walking or climbing.

The Exo-Suit was originally designed as a way for disabled people in wheelchairs to no longer be restricted to pavement, ramps, and various other wheelchair-accessible things. With an Exo-Suit disabled people could climb not only stairs but even mountains. They were free to pursue the life they desired. The product, according to the corporation, which was called Exo-Tech, was designed to fight the tyranny of the normal that disabled people often face in society.

But the Exo-Suit soon proved to have far more uses. With an Exo-Suit people could sprint at sixty miles per hour across almost any type of environment. They could scramble up mountains and climb cliffs without exerting themselves. Construction workers could lift three times their body weight. Soldiers with Exo-Suits proved extremely deadly in combat situations.

Entire sports were developed around the Exo-Suit. People were able to do things no one had ever done before, were stronger and moved faster than any other human beings alive. In short, the Exo-Suit allowed people to feel that they were superhuman.

Within five years, eighty-six percent of the U.S. population owned an Exo-Suit, and it was quickly spreading to the rest of the developed world.

According to our estimates, it took eight to twelve human years for a study on the emissions created by an Exo-Suit to come out. Exo-Tech had been stifling or paying people off for years, delaying the findings from going public. When the study finally came out, it stated that the Exo-Suit gave off a gas that was lethal to the human population at high levels, and it was slowly building up in the atmosphere.

The study was revealed to the world. Scientists said that this was a particularly dangerous gas, because until it reached critical levels in the atmosphere, it would have no effect on air quality. Once it did, it would be too late. They finished by calling for a complete ban on the Exo-Suit product until more studies were done and the emissions were fixed.

Exo-Tech, however, was worth billions of dollars at this point. They had poured millions into the campaign of the President of the United States at that time, and she was reluctant to fight them.

Dozens of scientists with Exo-Tech funding denied the discovery. They argued that it was an unfair accusation, that there were holes in their observations, that nothing was proven.

Teams of lawyers lined up to defend the corporation.

Every branch of the U.S military was adamant that the Exo-Suit continue to be used in combat. Red-faced generals screamed at liberal politicians.

Legally, nothing happened. Exo-Tech wielded its influence and billions like a hammer, to smash down any opponents that attempted to rise against them.

Many knew what was coming. Many denied it. Many declared it impossible or absurd. Many believed their deity wouldn’t let such a thing happen.

As for the consumer, the individual particles that owned the Exo-Suit, a few gave them up, but the majority of them just shrugged and went on with their daily lives. They reasoned that it could be true, it could be untrue, but there was nothing they could do about it. Billions of particles came up with the same excuse, that even if they gave the Exo-Suit up the rest of the world wouldn’t, so why bother?

The capitalist machine was a silly and madly powerful, unstoppable force.

On the human calendar, October 4th, 2072, the gas reached critical levels, and within thirty-six seconds ten billion humans were dead.

The only ones that survived were the few hundred that had sealed themselves away in airtight underground bunkers beforehand, convinced that the world was coming to an end. They intended to wait out the poisonous gas.

The poisonous gas took two hundred thousand years to leak into space. By that time the entire human population was extinct; the ones in the bunkers had all suffocated on their own carbon dioxide.

Ahem.

It must have been interesting to be a human particle, alive and in control of the planet, and yet very much not in control at the same time. It must have been strange, and frightening, and fascinating, to see it all swirling around you, to see it collapsing, to see it all happening in the moment.

They must have known it would all come to an end.

Anyways.

That is all we have for you today. You may go.

 

 

—Cameron

0

The End of the Idyllic Days

by Anthony Ilacqua

 

 

It’s generally accepted that our time is divided into two different eras: BBB, Before Bed Bugs and ABB, After Bed Bugs. This definition is simple enough, and it has the distinction of the one event that seems to have been the catalyst for the ending of the old days and the beginning of the new days.

At the onset of summer, we had moved into a swanky downtown apartment. Swanky is just about the best way to say it, of course, and I know that in 1957 when the place was built, it was swanky. However, add 50 years of neglect and disrepair, and well, you get the picture. The place stank of death. Old people perfume, and garbage odors wafted into the halls above sullied carpets with trace smells of urine. There were crying babies in the place too. I trusted they found snacks of lead paint chips and cigarette butt sandwiches.

This is no exaggeration.

We were led to believe that things were going to be different. Perhaps people in 1957 were led to believe something different too. Well, we have moved from the atomic age to the space age to the computer age to the generation fixated on terror. Whatever the age, whatever the case, whatever the people climbing through the stairwells and halls of the downtown apartment, the grandiose days are well over. It makes me think of the RMS Titanic. Of course this ship sank, it had to sink, right? No one would want to see such an amazing thing degrade to the withered and used up shadow of its former glory. So, this was the case with 109 Ideal Street, Industria, USA. Our apartment, #22F has seen countless workers over the years, immigrants, mid-level workers, young people. And now, here we are.

It happened because of a random set of events. The events themselves did not seem so random at the time, in the old era BBB.

I paced Ideal Street from on end to the other. On the east end, the streets terminate at the base of foothills, Industria is in a semi-valley. On the west side the streets end at fields, pasture and farmlands. In a way, the farmlands are picturesque. At sunset, I’m told, the cool air from the fields comes with the whispering last light of day. It is my opinion that the farmlands are brutish, dated, and in desperate need of a facelift. Of course, the facelift is why we’re here, after all.

The north-south avenues starting at Morgan on the west and moving toward Vanderbilt on the east are all abandoned of industry now. The warehouse districts butt up against rail line spurs and weedy concrete driveways and loading docks. Trash that looks every bit as old as Industria itself fades in the sun and degrades in the elements as it gets held in oxidized chain link fences. The trash, in itself, is not so alarming. Litter is part of life, and everyone knows that, but such old litter is wild. It’s a greater symptom of the problems in Industria.

I make random notes.

Here and there, I see the future. I see restaurants and nightclubs, movie theaters and event venues as they dot the scene up and down Ideal Street from Morgan Avenue to Carnegie Place. I see the coffeehouses and breakfast eateries too, they’re on the smaller avenues where the sidewalks can be ever widened to accommodate outdoor seating. I see magazine stands, and boutique shopping, and the lively downtown style living that will occupy the upper floors of the warehouses.

I see the future.

But time is something of an enigma. I could, in fact divide time up as such: DCA, During Carrie Anne and ACA, After Carrie Anne. Oh, Carrie Anne. It probably wasn’t meant to be, but we gave it a shot anyway.

Carrie Anne in the morning, Carrie Anne all day long. Carrie Anne and I went to school together. Her performance there was, well, double that of mine. Her ideas, her energy, her resilience and her dedication. This is not to say that I am self deprecating, nothing could be further from the truth. I just want it known that I admired everything Carrie Anne did and I tried to emulate her at every turn.

DCA was excitement. DCA was Haiti, was Tokyo, was the world. DCA was our idyllic days when we found ourselves in the destroyed places and consulted builders, associations, governments, that our ideas of progressive retrofitting and building would be best for all involved.

And then we came to Industria.

On our first night, we looked around for something to eat. Her hunger pangs clouded her mind. I shifted to jokes, which never seem to work well, and yet I do it anyway. Nervousness, I guess. When we found nothing, she suggested we drive back to “civilization.”

“But we’re here now, there’s something to eat, it’s part of the adventure,” I said.

“I don’t want adventure Larry, I want a hamburger,” she said.

“I figure there’s something close by, let’s just keep walking, we’ll find something up the road,” I said. Yet this was not the case. There was nothing up the road except more darkness. “Probably a really posh place with old red booths and jukeboxes.”

“Well, for your sake, I hope so.”

What we came to, sadly, was a small Korean grocery just down the street from our apartment. The first little while in Industria was a flop, and I wanted to keep things positive. In the dimly lit grocery, the smells of tainted meat rose in swirls enough to put me off my appetite, and I think it was working like that with Carrie Anne too.

She looked over the packages of food. She chose the packages that looked familiar to her, I knew this because she took the less than familiar ones and put them back just as quickly. “We don’t have any pots or pans,” she said.

“No,” I said. “Maybe with some aluminum foil, we can improvise.”

We took our purchases and left the grocery. Back out on the street, the night folded in quickly. “I wonder what this place was like?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“I bet the place was wonderful, you know? When it was built. What a place.”

“You don’t mean to think that this place was ever ideal, do you?” she asked. We stopped on a corner. The traffic signal was not working in the normal way, it just flashed red to all directions. I looked both ways, I looked down toward the oncoming line of travel and the line behind us. There was nothing coming or going.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You’re kidding yourself,” she said. “There is nothing here as there was nothing here, and now that we’re here, I don’t think there ever will be anything here.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Haiti was worse than this.”

“No it wasn’t,” she said. “Our job there was nothing compared to this. Look at this place.”

“We have all sorts of things to work with,” I said. We reached the other corner and turned to the right, headed our way home. “I see a great place here. I can’t see how you think Haiti was better than this.”

“At least in Haiti the earthquake cleansed the place of the bad construction and it took care of the demolition.”

“I see your point,” I said. I said it and I meant it. There was something about Industria that was so much different than anything we had seen before, and until that moment I couldn’t finger the difference. Industria with the exception of infrastructure and vitality was completely intact. In the last block or so of the walk home, I changed tracks. “You don’t think this place was ever nice?” I asked.

“No Larry, it couldn’t have been. It looks like it was built too fast and there wasn’t enough codes in place to govern the growth. The place was built without the things that make towns what towns should be. They built this place without schools and churches and grocery stores. This is by far the worse planning and the worst company town I’ve ever seen.”

“How many company towns have you seen, really?” I asked. In school we’d studied a few, but this was a new thing for me. My focus in school was seismic retrofitting.

“What?” she asked. “I was all over Wyoming and Idaho Senior year. When you were out on the beach pretending at urban redevelopment, I was making arguments for the removal of towns like this one.”

I took the keys from my pocket and fumbled with them, and once I got a hold of them, I fumbled with the lock. “That kind of hurt,” I said.

“Oh,” Carrie Anne said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

In the apartment, I tried to figure out the the oven. I turned knob after knob on the old appliance and hoped for the best. I filled the kitchen up with gas. “Carrie Anne,” I called. “Have you ever seen anything like this?” I pointed to the open oven door. “I can’t seem to get the thing to work.”

“Forget it,” she said. “Let’s just eat this out of the can.”

“Out of the can? Can you do that?”

“You haven’t seen much have you?” she asked. “It’s already cooked before they put it in the can.”

“Oh,” I said.

“And of all the real problems with Industria, it’s a food desert.”

“Food desert?” I asked. “What a great term, one of yours?”

“No Larry, it’s the term for a place like this that has nothing but dirt bag convenience stores or fast food. But in this situation, I would be grateful for fast food.”

“Oh,” I said. I changed tracks again. “I guess the oil dried up here, but it’s not a bad place to live.”

“I think,” she began in a far off and distracted way. “Something weird happened here. Usually people move into the cities from the country for work. I think it happened the opposite here. I think anyone who could work moved out and are probably farm hands or some such thing now.”

“Well, we’ll get ’em back here, right?” I said.

“A few movie theaters and chain restaurants isn’t going to be enough.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“We’re going to need more than that,” she said.

“Oh, right, like schools and churches and stuff?” I asked. “That seems reasonable.”

“It’s the whole thing Larry. There needs to be everything here, and I just don’t think it’s feasible.”

“Well, we just got here,” I said.

 

Night is the real test. It’s a test for everything. At night every emotion, every thought, every fear, every everything comes out in full force and exaggeration. At night, I feel the tremble of the earth as feel the quake in my head. At night, I feel the worst, and I feel like every decision was wrong. I feel like I should have just gone to school to be an accountant like my dad told me to do. I feel like I should be held responsible for everything I’ve ever done. At night, I know I should have apologized to my dad before he died. At night, I know I should forgive him too. At night, I feel like I should be a better man, a better partner, a better everything. At night, I feel like I should tell Carrie Anne of all my misdeeds and why I can’t seem to be a better person.

The old building hums at night. Pipes deep in the bowels somewhere clank and rattle. The higher hum, the one barely audible over breath, comes from the electricity coursing through the wires like blood coursing in veins. And then there are the pops and cracks from the ever expanding and contracting floorboards and walls. It’s all nonsense. The night is nonsense and laying awake in the bed, in the darkness will not change the way of things neither inside of me or among the general workings of the outer world.

The best I can hope for, especially on a particularly dark night is that the following day will be sunny, and start with sun. Sometimes when a day begins with overcast or fog or rain and eventually becomes sunny and clear, there is still no hope.

In the kitchen of our apartment, I found myself shocked at a few things. The first thing, of course, was that I had made it out of bed before Carrie Anne. And the second thing was that the few wrinkly panes of the windows faced east and the daylight really made for a good outlook on the day, and on life. Perhaps time can be further broken down into this: OSD, On Sunny Days and OGD, On Gloomy Days. Times of OSD are good indeed. On such a morning, making coffee and figuring out the daily routines and overlaying those on the tasks at hand, can be kind of fun.

During the process of boiling water for the instant coffee, I heard Carrie Anne stir. Her bedroom door opened, closed, and she walked down the hall. I listened for the toilet to flush. If it flushed at all, it was after the water came to a boil in the electric tea kettle.

“Coffee?” I asked as she walked down the hall.

“Coffee,” she said. “Extra strength.”

“Well, I thought we’d go over our plan for the day. We got a week to get this presentation ready.”

“Can we talk about it after coffee?” she asked.

I said nothing, just nodded. I poured the boiling water over the coffee powder in her cup. When I put the cup on the table in front of her, I waited for a reaction. When none came, I tried again. “How’d you sleep?”

“Terrible,” she said. She leaned forward in her seat. The chair at the table was ancient, wood. I imagined that all the apartments in the building had the same chairs around the same tables and arranged in the same way. The concept in 1957 was the move-in furnished apartments. Anyone coming to Industria only just had to come into Industria. They moved in on a Sunday and they were at work on Monday morning. Not a bad concept, and not even so bad for the time.

Carrie Anne moved her chair closer to the table with a hop. “I think I’m allergic to this town,” she said. She scratched herself, her side and her neck. The rigorous scratching did nothing for the itch because she just kept at it. This morning was OSD and BBB and DCA.

“Allergic?” I asked. I filled my cup and sat at the table next to her in the old wooden chair.

“It’s bad,” she said. “Anyway, how did you sleep?”

“Well, it’s quiet here, I like that. I slept pretty good,” I said.

“That’s good,” she said. She sipped her coffee.

When we met the streets of Industria, the day was in full light, full force, full swing. “Pretty quiet here,” I said. The comment, an obvious overstatement, of course, went unanswered, if not unheard. “You see,” I said pointing at a particularly attractive brick warehouse of the street opposite. “I see a brewpub on the first two floors, tables and dining on the first floor, a bar and billiards on the second. The two or three floors above it, maybe mixed use of offices and living.”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Don’t you get it?” I asked. “It’s a great building.”

“My allergies,” she said.

We crossed the street. A few old parking meters stood in slants and angles with rusted parts and broken windows. We stepped up on the other side of the pavement, I looked into the office windows of the old warehouse. Newspapers from who knows when were in various places taped and falling from the inside of the glass. A dead bird, petrified, stiffly remained in the corner of the windowsill. I tried to look into the depths of the room and with the sun on my back, this should have been an easy thing to do. I moved closer into the glass and cupped by hands around my brow to block out any light. Then I moved farther away from the glass hoping for some of the same. OSD, yes, but this was the exact moment when DCA turned quickly to ACA.

As I moved away from the glass, I noticed the reflection behind me: the scene of the street we had just crossed and the boarded up buildings opposite. I saw Carrie Anne in the reflection too. I could see her, and I could feel her behind me too. And when she screamed, I heard that too. In the reflection I saw her struggle and dance. Then, still in the glass, I saw her shirt come off. “What’s happening?” I said turning around.

“Jimmy McGriff!” she shouted. She threw her shirt to the dusty sidewalk and her hands flailed around her head and neck making her hair cover her face and her breasts began to jump around in her bra.

“What? What is it?” I asked.

“Jimmy McGriff! Jimmy McGriff! Jimmy McGriff!”

“I,” I said. I stammered. “I-I-I-,” I continued. I didn’t know what to say. Here she was, no shirt, dancing, shouting Jimmy McGriff. I bent over to pick up her shirt.

“Don’t touch it,” she said. I snapped to attention. I froze and looked at her. “Jimmy McGriff,” she said again.

“I don’t know what that means. Who’s Jimmy McGriff?”

“Jimmy Mcgriff? I don’t know. It’s what we were taught to say instead of swearing,” she said. She calmed down a little. She looked over her arms and torso. During the inspection of her body, I calmed down too.

“Like cheese and crackers?”

“Like what?”

“Cheese and Crackers instead of Jesus Christ,” I said.

“Right,” she said. She bent over to pick up her shirt. “I don’t know what Jimmy McGriff would be code for.”

“Mother fucker?”

“Oedipus,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

“Never mind,” she said. She turned her shirt right side in and then inside out again. “What is this?” she said.

I looked at the shirt in her hands. There were bits of fabric folded up underneath and inside of her fists. The taut plane of fabric between had a little insect climbing across the shirt. “Oh, you got a little friend,” I said. In retrospect, this was not the right thing to say. This was also the time shift from BBB to ABB.

“A little friend? Larry? Are you really that out of it? This is a bedbug.”

“Bedbug?” I asked.

“Bedbugs, and that’s what’s all over my body,” she said. “Jimmy McGriff.”

“Bedbugs?” I asked again.

“Do you have any bites?” she asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “How would I know?”

“You’d know,” she said.

“Well,” I said. I wanted to change the subject. “Well, I have more places I want to see. You up for it?”

At day’s end, I returned to the apartment. I walked the few streets from one side of town to the next. I stopped at the Korean grocery, where I was already a regular.

In the apartment I was met with silence. On the kitchen table, Carrie Anne left her report. On top of the paper she had an upside down drinking glass. Under it, there was a whole collection of the “little friend’s” relatives. “Oh, wow,” I said. The top of her report read: Industria, The End of the Idyllic Days, demolition appropriate, rebuilding not recommended. “Wow,” I said.

 

 

BIO

Anthony ILacqua’s third novel Warehouses and Rusted Angels is forthcoming from Ring of Fire Publishing. His former novels, Dysphoric Notions and Undertakers of Rain are both published through Ring of Fire Publishing. He is editor in chief for Umbrella Factory Magazine that he co-founded in 2009. Anthony’s blog: anthonyilacqua.blogspot.com

0

Flint and Shannon

by Beth Goldner

 

 

Flint posted a flyer in the student union building at Penn. Ride share to Gaffney, South Carolina. Leaving May 11th. You’ll be on the back of a Harley. No gas money wanted, but you pay for your own hotel room. Flint was going to see his brother Keith, who lived in a facility for the mentally handicapped. Flint was frightened by this prospect: he was forty-two years old and had never met Keith before. By taking a passenger, he couldn’t chicken out once the ride began. He’d feel too accountable to get a stranger to a promised destination. If he took a friend, he knew he’d be able to turn the bike around with no sense of guilt or any real consequence.

Flint was hoping a guy would respond to the flyer, but Shannon was the only person who called. The problems began immediately. When he arrived at her dorm, she was wearing shorts and a tank top. He told her she needed to change into jeans and a long-sleeve shirt. She balked. If you crash the bike we’re screwed anyway, right? Why worry about road burns if I wind up brain dead?

Her limbs were spindly sticks and she wore her long hair in a ponytail, the top layers dyed red as a fire engine and the underside black. Her green eyes were those of an antique doll, focused in that unnerving way that makes you feel like your mind is being read. She had a full mouth and rakish smile, with a voice that was scratchy and entirely too loud. He was relieved she would be behind him. He couldn’t have kept his eyes off her otherwise. This was not sexual. She simply baffled him.

Two hours into the ride, as they crossed the Mason-Dixon line into Maryland, she yelled into his ear that when they got to Virginia, they should get off I-95 and drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Talking while riding on a motorcycle bordered on impossible, but through the years, Flint and his friends and girlfriends had learned to adjust the volume of their voices to accommodate for wind and speed. Shannon was countless miles away from figuring this out. He couldn’t blame her. But, still, this girl isn’t what I bargained for, he thought.

“I want to see some bears!” Shannon shouted into his ear.

“No need to yell. I can hear you just fine.”

“Sorry!” she yelled.

“No need to apologize. But you are still yelling.”

Shannon kept readjusting herself, trying to find a comfortable position. It was the one thing about her that didn’t bother Flint. Even though he was fat, he had a perfect center of gravity, and her shaking-about posed no risk for his losing balance on the bike. He danced ballet as a boy, during his single episode in the foster care system, when he lived for nine months with the Delvecchio’s, an affluent family in Spartanburg.

Shannon gave him a quick tight squeeze on the shoulders.

“Please,” she said, her voice coming down several decibels. “Can we look for some bears?”

Flint thought about Keith, how he wasn’t going anywhere. Maybe he wore a diaper. Maybe he didn’t feed himself. Flint didn’t know if he would see any resemblance, if he would see his own mouth or nose in Keith, if he would see his mother’s brow, or her eyes. Flint had never even seen a picture of Keith. He didn’t even know Keith’s middle name, and Flint became overwhelmed at how quickly his bike was taking him not just to Keith, but to the minutia of kinship that takes decades to accumulate. Flint was only going in the first place because his mother had died three weeks ago. And even though he hadn’t spoken to his mother in years, he was compelled to at least see what remained of his mutual flesh and blood. Indifference frightened him more than the anger and fear surrounding the situation.

Flint nodded his head up and down with exaggeration, ensuring Shannon understood he agreed to her request.

“Oh, Flint, I want to see the whole world. Even just some mountains and bears are part of it. The whole wide world,” she said, whooping, and he could feel her raising her arms upward.

 

 

Taking Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park proved to be more challenging than he expected. Flint hadn’t driven mountain roads in years, and the inclines and declines made him nauseous. The yellow dividing lines were new, and their brightness hypnotized him as the road snaked. He took the bike slowly around curves.

“I’m gonna pray for some bears,” Shannon had said when they stopped at their first lookout, which was a half-circle of stones stacked waist high. The mountains looked like the shoulders of Roman gods, pushed up against each other, clouds casting shadows on them.

“Prayer is pretty useless,” Flint said.

“Don’t ever say that,” Shannon said, smacking him on the shoulder. “You probably need God more than me.”

“What are you talking about?” he said, louder than he meant.

“You had it hard. I can tell. I’m sensitive to this.”

Who the fuck does this girl think she is? he thought.

“I went to India for a semester abroad,” she continued, “and we had to do service on the streets of New Delhi. I know what hardship is. I mean, I know what it looks like, even just in a person’s face, you know? I saw street kids. They do horrible things to them, like cut off their arms to make them look pathetic, so that people will give them money.”

Flint stared ahead.

“Shit, I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I think I might have sounded like an asshole, telling you what hardship is. I didn’t mean to be like that.”

“I know, Shannon.”

“But I do know what poor people look like, what people who had it hard look like.”

Flint loved her in that moment, for her youth, for being so annoying but too alive to dismiss. Moments after they were back on the road from the third lookout, Shannon gripped Flint’s shoulders.

“Holy mother-fucking fucker. Would you look over there?” Shannon hollered.

They were on a long stretch of road that was flat. In the distance, a football field’s length away, was a large black figure. A bear, without a doubt. He was big, lumbering, and closer to the shoulder of the road than Flint expected a bear to be. Shannon couldn’t contain herself, and she shifted and pointed and hollered. Flint slowed down.

“Pull over, pull over. Stop, stop, stop. Now, now,” Shannon said, smacking her hands on her thighs.

He couldn’t remember if it was a black or brown bear that was more dangerous.

“Look at that motherfucker!” she yelled, this time in his ears.

“Just shut the fuck up, already!” Flint yelled back.

He felt her body slump behind him and he filled with shame. He never yelled at a woman before like that, certainly not a girl he had known for less than one day. He saw the bear look up at them. The bike wobbled as he came to a stop on the other side of the road, putting down the kickstand.

Plié, relevé. Plié, relevé, he thought, an old ballet call he repeated in his mind when he needed the world around him to be quiet.

“I’m sorry,” he said to her, turning around several times and repeating his apology, but keeping an eye on the bear, which was about eighty yards away now.

“Yeah, okay,” she said, looking at her hands. “I know. I’m loud. Everybody tells me that. I’m trying to outgrow it.”

Flint knew that any more apologies would make everything worse.

“He’s bigger than I thought a bear would be,” he said.

“Can we get closer?” Shannon asked.

“Looks like he’s beating us to the punch,” Flint said.

The bear kept walking toward them, and Flint thought how odd it was that, even at a distance, the bear’s eyes looked like those of his foster mom, fixed and determined, convincing Flint he would be loved. They watched the bear in silence. The bear raised his snout and sniffed, closing in on the fifty-yard line.

“Let’s go, Shannon,” he finally said.

“Relax. These bears are people habituated. I’ve read about it. They don’t see me as any different from them,” she said.

The bear stopped, shook his whole body like a dog, all the while keeping his eyes on them. Flint turned the bike on, and revved the engine. Shannon pushed her nose into his back, laughing to herself and, saying loud enough for him to hear, but not too loud, “Yes, yes, yes, I saw a bear.”

Flint accelerated too quickly, and the bike leaned too far to the left. He thought, We’re going down and I never met Keith and this bear will eat Shannon. But Shannon wrapped her arms around his large belly, and, as if by instinct, leaned her body far to the right for counterbalance, waiting for that sweet spot when it was time to bring herself up again.

 

 

They were eating hamburgers at a Stuckey’s rest stop in Lumberton, North Carolina. They had spent the previous evening in a Best Western in Roanoke Rapids. They shared a room. Shannon had enough money for her own room, but she was afraid to sleep alone. The door opens to the outside, she said. Some lunatic robber wouldn’t even have to get past a lobby. She cranked up the air conditioner and walked around in flannel pajamas, telling Flint that she studied Japanese her first year of college because it was becoming the language of business, but that she wanted to be a Marxist now, so she was switching to German. He didn’t know what it meant to be a Marxist and what knowing how to speak German had to do with it, so he just nodded his head. Flint wouldn’t use the cot stored under the bed. He claimed he had a bad back, that it was better for him to sleep on the floor. In reality, he was embarrassed by the thought of how loud the cot would squeak as he tossed and turned before sinking into sleep. He stayed fully clothed, not even removing his belt, which gouged into his belly. He barely slept. The thin carpet of the floor smelled moldy and Shannon’s snoring was as loud and grating as her voice.

When they left Roanoke Rapids, Shannon didn’t complain once about needing to pee, or the way the vibration of the bike can make your brain shake after a few hours. She didn’t complain about the exhaust fumes or chapped lips. But once they were off the bike, she didn’t shut up, about anything and everything.

“That was pretty close with the bear,” she said. “Would have sucked if you made us spill. Kerplat, or, more like ker-splat.”

She was eating her burger so quickly that Flint worried she’d choke. She pushed her plate toward him, told him that she hated fries, that he could have them.

“But, you were going ultra-slow, so we’d probably only break a few bones, a shoulder or some ribs,” she said. “I broke my wrist once, when I was five.”

“How’d that happen?”

“I was learning to ride a bike.”

“No center of gravity?” he said.

“Nope. Afterward, my mom started me on ballet lessons to see if I could become less of a klutz. I still remember it all.”

She got out of the booth, circled her arms in front of her as if she were late in pregnancy. She bent down with her knees, rose back up onto her toes, teetering, up and down, over and over. Some teenage boys sitting at a booth across from them laughed at her. She turned to them and asked them what was so funny. Their faces froze and Flint laughed at all of them.

“Punks,” she said, smiling at Flint.

She continued the movements, her body swaying.

“Lessons didn’t help that much, obviously,” she said, sitting down.

“Plié, relevé. Plié, relevé,” he said, mimicking a French accent.

“Well, holy fuck-a-moly, Batman. You know French?”

“Nope. But I took ballet for a while.”

“Seriously? You’re a dude.”

“I was just a kid at the time.”

His foster mom had insisted he try ballet. He had hated the clarinet and the trombone. You need to be grounded, Marcus, in something, she said. He fell in love with ballet, the deliberation of it, holding the barre, staring into the mirror and seeing himself as a fluid but positioned person. But then his mom went to rehab, and eventually got her act together enough for the government to give him back to her. When social services took him from Mrs. Delvecchio’s—she howled like a wounded animal—all he could think of was his ballet tights that he left there, and if he would ever again feel the world in equal weight and measure. Things with his mom had remained bad, but never bad enough to land him back in foster care. He graduated high school, moved to Philadelphia, became a garbage collector, married, had three boys, and divorced.

“I don’t believe you, Flint. Let me see your moves.”

He reddened.

“I don’t think I have moves anymore.”

He put his fork down and motioned for the waitress. He needed more coffee. He hadn’t rode for this long of a trip in years, and the degree of fatigue frightened him.

“Come on. Be bold! My professor who was in New Delhi with us said that every single thing you do that makes you uncomfortable is seeing the world. We’re seeing the world together.”

“Not exactly.”

“Well, you can be that way if you want,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “I know that I’m seeing the world. ”

Flint was dropping her off in Rock Hill, South Carolina, before he headed west to Gaffney, just an hour’s drive, to his brother. Just thinking about the very word brother made him pause.

“Rock Hill, South Carolina, is not exactly the world,” Flint said. “What mind-blowing things will you see there?”

They had been together for a day and a half and he had yet to ask her why she was going to Rock Hill. It seemed the most obvious type of conversation to have, but Shannon found no interest in the obvious, and he was just as comfortable not explaining why he was going to Gaffney. Shannon was interested in the details of him hauling trash, if he ever saw a coworker fall into the compactor, who his favorite bands were, how often he would see his sons.

“I’m going to see my ex-boyfriend, Keith,” she said. “Seeing him is sort of like seeing the world. He’s from Bahrain. His real name is Hameed. His parents wanted to Americanize him and called him Keith when they moved here, when he was just a kid. But then he really Americanized himself, with me. Then they didn’t want him to be so American,” she laughed, her strange cackle piercing his ears.

“So, he broke up with me,” she said. “But I can’t just let him go. Not yet.”

“Does he know you’re coming?”

“No. I’m going to surprise him.”

Shannon was the dumbest smartest person he had ever met, but he knew she would only be this way once, for a short while. She would outgrow the dumb and settle on the smart. He believed that things can happen only once, things people think of as being patterns. Time in a foster home. Being stupid.

“My brother’s name is Keith. I’m going to see him,” Flint said, feeling an odd sense of pride.

“So, we’re both going to see Keith.”

“What’s your brother do?” Shannon asked, slurping her milkshake then gently wiping the corners of her mouth, folding the napkin back onto her lap.

“Nothing.”

“Unemployed?”

“I guess you could say that. What does your ex-boyfriend do?”

“Nothing.”

“Unemployed?”

“I guess you could say that,” she said. “He didn’t like college very much. He’s trying to find himself.”

She stacked their empty plates on top of each other, removing the dirty knives and forks first, putting them on a napkin. The din of the crowded restaurant had a similar effect as being on the bike, but Shannon’s voice seemed less loud.

“I’m not being creepy or trying to get into your pants,” Flint said, “but you’re a pretty girl, and smart. Seems like you wouldn’t have much trouble getting a new boyfriend.”

“Thanks, you know, for saying that. It’s like I know that, like I know he’s kind of a loser. He grows pot in his closet. But I just want to see him one more time. I think that seeing him will make me not want to see him anymore, you know?”

 

 

Three hours later, they arrived in Rock Hill. Flint exited I-95 and pulled into Flying J’s Travel Stop, where Shannon said that he should drop her off. Flying J’s was the size of a strip mall, with Rosie’s Family Restaurant, a gargantuan convenience store, and row after row of gas pumps. Flint pulled up to one, and they dismounted the bike. His ass was numb and his hands tingled. He shook them over and over. Several payphones were lined up outside the convenience store, and Shannon walked over to call Hameed to announce her arrival. Flint wondered if he should call the facility in Gaffney where Keith was, just to tell them he was coming. Flint filled the tank and watched Shannon at the phone booth. He gripped the handle of the hose tighter as she kept dialing, waiting, hanging up. She did this for several minutes then walked back to him. She told Flint that he was probably at the mall, that she was probably going to only stay a few days with Hameed, that he would buy her a plane ticket home, that it was all going to work out so perfectly.

“Let’s get a goodbye beer,” she said. “I’ve got some time before he gets home. It’s not like you and I are going to see each other again.”

“That’s fine.” Flint said. “But, I’m buying. And I’m sticking around until this ex-boyfriend of yours comes to get you.”

Flint kept shaking his hands.

“How very gentlemanly of you. But stop flapping your hands like a retard.”

Flint’s eyes filled, scaring him, how this response was so sudden. Shannon leaned her hand on the bike and looked confused.

Flint had once asked his mother if she drank so much because his brother was a retard. They were in the car together, and Flint was sitting in the back. He had just spent the day with his cousins while his mom was visiting Keith. Flint couldn’t understand why his mother would not let him meet his own brother. Flint’s mom shifted her entire body around, except for her head, and her left hand, which stayed on the steering wheel. With her eyes fixed on the road, she heaved most of her body over the seat and punched him so hard on the shoulder that the bruise ached for weeks. She was stone sober, and she never hit him again.

“My brother’s retarded,” Flint said.

“Oh,” Shannon said, nodding her head up and down. “Oh, I see. Well, what’s it like to spend time with somebody who is retarded? I wonder if it’s like spending time with street children in India, you know? Like do they even know how much better things could be?”

Flint was relieved that she didn’t apologize.

“I don’t know. This is the first time I’m ever going to meet him. I never met him before.”

“That’s weird. You never met him? Are you scared?”

“Petrified.”

She drummed the base of the gas pump, staring at the gasoline stains on the ground.

“You know, Flint, I hate college,” she said, stopping her drumming and crossing her arms across her chest. “Except when I went to India, but I hate college so much that it scares me every day. I know about being petrified.”

“You’ve got everything,” he said, hoping to cut the edge of bitterness that he couldn’t control.

It’s not her fault, he told himself. None of this.

“I know. I have opportunity. Blah, blah, blah. I really do know I have it good. But I want to see the world. College really isn’t the world.”

“Finish school. The world isn’t going anywhere.”

A pack of Harleys pulled up behind Flint and he nodded at them as they dismounted.

“Well, I’m trying to see the world no matter where I am. Its why I came here on the back of bike instead of taking a plane.”

Flint shrugged and started shaking his hands again.

“You scared or something?” Shannon said.

“Of what?”

“Of seeing your brother?”

“Why would I be frightened of my brother?” Flint said, feeling saliva build in his mouth.

“Well, you’ve never met him, and he’s retarded, so that’s like a double whammy. Plus, he’s not technically your brother. Yeah, you’re related to him. But he isn’t your brother in the brotherly way.”

“I guess,” Flint said, staring at the bikers filling their tanks, a few of them smoking cigarettes, ignoring the signs not to.

“It’ll be okay,” Shannon continued. “If you only knew how frightened I was in New Delhi at first, seeing those street people.”

“What did you do about it?”

“I just held my breath for the first few days. I couldn’t even talk.”

“I can’t imagine that.”

They both laughed.

“But then it started to be okay. And after a few weeks, it became normal. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing, for something like that to become normal to a person. But you can’t help anybody or anything if it doesn’t become normal, you know?”

After the other bikers filled their tanks, they walked over to Flint and Shannon, talked about the rains heading down from the north, what bike dealer Flint had in Philly. Shannon told them she was Flint’s daughter. When they left, Shannon put her hand on Flint’s shoulder.

“Do you want me to go with you to see Keith?” she asked.

“Yes,” Flint said, and it came out so fast, and he didn’t know how he could take it back as quickly as he had said it.

“Well, no, actually,” he said. “My problems aren’t yours, Shannon.”

“Well, that makes no sense. Because your going to see Keith isn’t a problem. And it isn’t a problem for me to go with you.”

Flint couldn’t look at her in the eye.

“What about your Keith?” he asked.

“You can drive me back here when you’re done. He’s not going anywhere.”

Although only a few hundred yards from the gas pumps, Shannon hopped on the back of the bike when Flint drove into a parking space in front of Rosie’s Family Restaurant. Shannon ordered an egg-white omelet with three side orders of bacon and a glass of skim milk. He offered to buy her a beer, but when he said he wasn’t going to drink one, not with her getting back on the bike with him, she declined. When they finished, Shannon suggested they drive by Hameed’s house on their way out of town, just to see if anybody’s car was in the driveway, that she’d gone to his house for Thanksgiving and knew where they lived. Flint wanted to say No, but he stopped himself and thought, Dear God, I’m a grown man and she is a just a girl, and she is supposed to be obsessing about a boy she loves, even if he’ll crush her.

Hameed lived in a leafy neighborhood that boasted plantation-style homes with sprawling yards. His house had a balcony on the top two stories, big white columns supporting each roof. Flint parked on the street a few houses down from Hameed’s.

Shannon dismounted, leaving on her helmet, walking a few paces from the bike, arms at her sides. She looked like an astronaut, lonely for Earth. Flint got off the bike and walked up to her. He left his helmet on, too, hyperaware of his breathing, trying to control it. He imagined Hameed as another bear that Shannon wanted to see with desperation, to claim ownership, a victory.

“I wonder if he’s in there,” Shannon said, finally removing her helmet, Flint following in kind.

“You could go knock on the door.”

“I’m just going to stand here. I think he’ll sense that I’m here,” she said, staring at the house. “He’ll still have to wait for me, even if he comes out, because I’m still going with you to see your brother. It would be good for him to wait, don’t you think?”

“Do you think it’ll make that much of a difference?”

“What are you trying to say?”

Flint could see out of the corner of his eye a tear falling down her face. He wondered what it was like to raise a daughter, if saying these types of things caused a girl to feel anger or panic or relief.

“Anything’s possible,” Flint said, and he reached for her hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze.

 

 

Flint knew not to rush her. They left Hameed’s neighborhood, and drove through Rock Hill until they found a miniature golf course. This place is the kind of place that Keith would go to, Shannon said, looking over her shoulders several times, and by the fifth hole she announced that she was bored and hungry again. They rode to a Denny’s, and Shannon made the waitress seat them in the back of the restaurant, in a booth that faced the door. Like a mobster, she said to him. Gotta know everybody whose coming in and out. She ordered two sundaes and ate them slowly, saying little to Flint. When she finished the second sundae, she belched loudly, sighed deeply, and asked if they could go to the mall. I need some new lipstick, she told him. When Flint pointed out a pharmacy across the street, she said they could check both places, that maybe she could get two tubes. In the pharmacy, she bought four tubes—pink, red, brown, and nude—and then asked the cashier for directions to the mall.

Flint hated malls, the lighting, the lack of carpet to absorb the sounds. He always felt silly at malls, surrounded by focused mothers and young people weighed down with bags of every imaginable purchase, clothes and perfume and watches and handbags. He felt self-conscious, as if there were nothing at all for a big man like him would need to buy. They walked both floors, bypassing the department stores. Flint didn’t offer to go into any of the shops, nor did Shannon lead him into any. They repeated their path three times. Shannon finally sat them down on a bench next to two fake trees, facing a sporting goods store. Large signs announced a season finale sale.

“We’re gonna need to get on the road soon. I don’t really like driving in the dark,” Flint said.

“You never see guys alone at the mall much, do you?” she asked, as if he hadn’t spoken. “They’ll come with their wives. Or their girlfriends.”

“I suppose,” he said.

“When Hameed was still at Penn with me, we’d go to the King of Prussia Mall on the weekends. He’d always buy me shit. Lots of shit. He’s loaded. But his parents wouldn’t let him have a car in West Philly, because the place is a ghetto. So, we’d have to take a bus to the mall. He said the bus was for losers.”

Flint and his ex-wife spent the first two years of their marriage living in West Philly, relying on buses as their mode of transportation. At the time, he was making next to nothing as a security guard, his wife a secretary at a real estate office. He eventually got his job with the Department of Sanitation and, fifteen years later, when he was making more than he ever expected for a garbage man, he bought his first bike. For the first month he owned it, he wouldn’t take it on the street. He’d just get on, start the engine, rev it, grip the handlebars and stare ahead.

They sat on the bench for what seemed like hours. An elderly couple passed them several times. They wore tracksuits and white sneakers, swinging their arms as if they were speed walking, but they moved so slowly.

“People should grow old together without having to try, shouldn’t they?”

No, Flint thought, but he looked at Shannon and her messy hair and her fingernails bitten to the quick and tired eyes and said, “Yes. You’re right.”

And before the couple passed them again, Shannon stood up.

“Okay, buddy,” she said. “We’re ready to roll.”

 

 

The ride to Gaffney should have taken about an hour, but it began raining soon after they left Rock Hill. They arrived at McLeod State Mental Health Facility after nine o’clock. The receptionist gave them a tired grin.

“You’ll have to come back,” she said. “You can’t just walk in this late and see him. We need to set this up with the social worker and case manager.”

Flint scratched his belly, embarrassed by the sweat stains under his armpits and the way his hands continued to shake. The facility was ten stories high. Flint wondered how many people lived there.

“But, it’s his brother, ma’am. Do you understand?” Shannon said.

“I can schedule something for tomorrow.”

Shannon took Flint’s arm.

“How early?” Flint asked.

“I can get somebody here by eight o’clock or so.”

“Fine,” Shannon said, looking at Flint and nodding. “That’ll work.”

Shannon called Hameed from the pay phone in the lobby. After several attempts, she told Flint he must not be home yet.

“Why don’t you leave a message?” Flint asked.

“They got rid of their answering machine. I was leaving too many messages.”

They stayed awake through the night playing five-card draw. When the social worker and case manager finally appeared, Flint filled out paperwork and Shannon patted him on the shoulder, saying it would be all right, reminding him that it may be difficult to see Keith, but just this first time. The social worker led them through locked doors to a spacious room with low lighting. The room had puffy couches and large tables, with a television mounted on the wall. The social worker pointed to a man in the middle of the room. There he is, she said.

Keith was tall and frightfully skinny, with a shock of gray hair and a wide grin like his mother’s. He wore blue jeans and a jean shirt and a jean jacket and black clogs.

My God, he looks so old, Flint thought. He looks like me. Will I look like that when I’m old?

Shannon walked right to Keith and shook his hand.

“Nice outfit,” she said to him. “I like your shirt. I’m Shannon and I’m a friend of your brother’s. That’s your brother over there. His name is Flint.”

“Marcus,” he said, finding it hard to look at Keith, scared that his eyes, too, would be like his foster mom’s. “Flint is a nickname.”

“What better person to know your nickname than your brother.”

“Yes, this is a nice shirt,” Keith yelled to Shannon. “Thank you.”

His voice was exactly like his mother’s but in a deep baritone, and so loud. How come he was so loud?

Shannon turned to Flint and said, “Come on over here. This is how you do it. He’s just another person like everybody else. I learned how to do this in New Delhi.”

Flint took a few steps forward.

“Keep coming, Flint. Tell him you like what he’s wearing.”

Keith tugged at his shirt, looking at the floor, saying, “Thank you, again. Thank you.”

Flint walked closer toward Keith and Shannon, and he stopped a few feet from them. Flint stared at Keith’s hands, which were just like his. Flint imagined them gripping his bike’s handlebars.

“That’s right, Flint, you got it,” Shannon said, and she started clapping.

And then Keith looked at Shannon and started clapping, too.

 

 

BIO

Beth Goldner is a protocol associate, developing clinical trials in radiation oncology. For fifteen years, she worked as a managing editor in medical publishing.

She is the author of a short story collection (Wake) and a novel (The Number We End Up With), published by Perseus/Basic Books Group. Her books were well received by Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Review, New York Times, Boston Globe, among others. She has also taught creative writing at Rosemont College and Boise State University.

A native of Philadelphia, she currently lives outside of the city with her one-eyed mutt, Millie.

 

 

 

 

0

The Art of Letting Go

by Joshua Dull

 

 

I sat in my car watching people enter Path of Light Lutheran Church for Saturday night contemporary service. The idea of walking through those doors hadn’t been this daunting since I came out as a lesbian when I was sixteen. I was never a loner, but tonight I didn’t want to be around anyone. It took all my strength to even show up. I hadn’t heard from Jessica in two months. Her blog entries on Myspace had become darker, more self-destructive. After one of her last posts, I messaged her, “Jessica, I’m here, I’ve always been here. I’ve tried to call you but you changed your number. Anyways, I think about you every day and I care about you. Please just text me when you can and we can get coffee or something and talk about what’s going on with you. Love always, Shayla.” This week, Jessica deleted her profile. My hands began to withdraw my pack of cigarettes from my purse, but I stopped myself. I shut my car off and walked toward the face of the building. Amber floodlights dimly rendered the cross, the stained glass halo surrounding it, and a small statue of Christ with both hands raised.

***

            When I met Jessica last October, Hurricane Wilma had swept its outer bands across Brevard County and left a cold front in its wake, the cooler temperatures lingering long after. For the first time since I could remember, it actually felt like fall. Jessica arrived at Spencer’s Gifts where I worked a few days after the hurricane. She was a Puerto Rican girl with curly black hair that touched her shoulders and a kind, dimpled smile. She wore an Avenged Sevenfold sweater, a skull with bat wings divided by the zipper. I trained her on the cash register that night, showing her what buttons to press to bring up the day’s total sales. I shifted my hip against her as I reached over her shoulder. A slight movement, I’m not sure I even intended it, but she didn’t move. Our manager Jake closed with us that night. He was about a year younger than me and would sometimes bring a 12 pack to drink in the back storage area after we closed. It was one of those nights. We sat against stacks of cardboard boxes, each of us holding a sweating can of Heineken. I looked to Jessica and said,

“How’s this for a first day?”

“I could get used to this,” she said and smiled. Her eyes were dark, but sparkled in the fluorescent light.

Later in the month we were in the back seat of Jake’s car driving down 520 from Orlando as dawn broke across us. We’d gone to see one of his and Jessica’s favorite bands, HIM, at the House of Blues in Lake Buena Vista. I held her hand throughout the show, especially when the throngs of people leaving between bands threatened to separate us. After the concert, we’d gone to a house party with some people and would’ve stayed, but we all had work the next afternoon. On the way back, Jake took an exit off 408 and didn’t realize we were lost until he’d been driving through the darkness of Alafaya Trail for half an hour. We stopped for directions at every gas station and CVS pharmacy still open before finally getting pointed east on State Road 50. Relief washed over us as the road split into 520 for Cocoa. Warm sunlight filled the car and the grasslands of the St. John’s River shimmered, stretching out from one horizon to the other. Jessica lay asleep, her head in my lap and I stroked her hair. I smiled while she sighed in her dreams, but wished she were awake to see the beauty in every direction.

***

LED searchlights accented the darkened sanctuary like a blue and violet aurora. Lyrics in cursive streamed across a projector screen behind the four piece band. My friend Bryan played electric guitar while Justin, a music major, played drums. I had known both of them since youth group in high school. A man with a cast on his right arm sat at the far end of my row tonight. Normally, I liked to seek out people sitting by themselves because I knew how hard it was for some people to even walk through the doors. On a mission trip to Nicaragua a couple years ago, Bryan told me that if I hadn’t sat with him at his first youth group meeting, he never would’ve come back. I kept my distance tonight. The man at the end of the row may have needed a friend, but I needed to be by myself.

***

Jessica and I were walking along a boardwalk through the live oak hammock of Erna Nixon Park. The late afternoon air felt crisp, humidity residing in the coolness left by the hurricane. The last time I’d seen autumn had been when I was sixteen and visited my cousin Brady in Georgia. As waning sunlight glittered through the trees above us, Jessica told me a similar story, moving here from New Jersey after her parents divorced. Her mom had told her this was a land of sunshine and warmth, so she’d been surprised to see frost crystallized along the orange groves when they entered the state in December of 1995. I stopped to admire a verdant array of ferns disappearing into the hammock. Jessica kept walking, but stopped a few paces ahead and waited for me. I walked over and slipped my hand into hers.

“How about a game,” she said, “two truths, one lie.”

“Okay,” I said, “sounds fun. You first.”

She stared at the canopy pensively then said, “My favorite band is HIM, I’ve never been to another country, and I skate.”

“You’ve been to a foreign country,” I said.

“How’d you know?”

“That one has a story in it, so you wouldn’t have mentioned it unless it was true.”

“Damn, alright,” she smiled at me, “I used to go to Puerto Rico with my dad in the summer. Before I moved here.”

“How long since you’ve been back?” I asked.

“Long time. I only saw my dad a couple times a year after the divorce, and we never really made it back down.” Her northeastern accent showed on the words “long” and “divorce”. She glanced downward at the boardwalk. Two squirrels chased each other along a moss covered branch reaching over us.

“I guess it’s my turn,” I said and gave her hand a slight squeeze, “I hate horror movies, I’m studying nursing at BCC, and I’m a terrible liar.”

“You like horror movies?”

“I can’t stand horror movies,” I said, “The characters are always really stupid, or the director is just going for the gross-out factor. I also don’t like seeing innocent people get killed.”

“Well if that’s true, you must be a good liar?”

“Nope, I’m working on my AA in Sociology, not nursing.”

“That’s awesome,” she said, “I wish I could go to college.”

“Why can’t you?” I asked.

“I’m working two jobs just to keep my place. I don’t think I can add college to the list. Shit’s expensive too.” I told her about night classes and scholarships.

“Maybe sometime. I wanna get my feet on the ground first, I guess.” We reached a pavilion on the boardwalk and sat in one of the benches,

“By the way, that was two lies,” she said.

“It was, wasn’t it?” My cheeks flushed, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s cool,” she laughed. The wind rustled the leaves overtop of us. A few brown ones fell around us like an actual autumn. I slid my arm around Jessica’s shoulders and we watched the amber light grow dim. We were deep enough into the hammock to only hear birds and the rustling leaves, and I imagined the forest stretched on for miles and it all belonged to her and me. I started to tell her this, but she was texting someone.

“Sorry.” She said and put her phone away, then rested her head on my shoulder. I kissed the side of her head.

***

I’d gone to Path of Light Lutheran Church with my parents since 3rd grade. The first time I went to youth group since I’d come out, I trembled as I walked in. I pictured terrifying situations; from micro-aggressions to outright shaming and expulsion from the group. I didn’t know what to expect. Yet nothing seemed to have changed. Justin even came up and gave me a hug, told me I was brave. Pastor Freeman worked with youth and young adults. I knew he knew, but he greeted me with the same smile and hug he always had. After a short devotional and some games, we were all sitting at round tables eating pizza and hanging out just as always. Relief broke across me like a strong wind.

Bryan was there that night for the first time, sitting by himself, back to the room and hunched over his plate. I walked over to him and introduced myself, Justin and others soon joined us. Bryan gradually opened up to us and became our friend that night. He told us he played electric guitar, so Justin invited him to the band. All of us stayed up until eleven talking, laughing, and playing games. I knew I would love these people forever.

***

Jessica and I were at an abandoned marina in Melbourne late one afternoon when she showed me her scars. We came here because she’d seen dolphins swimming right next to the concrete embankment and knew they were my favorite animal. A speed boat cruised by in the choppy water. A family fished off the back of a truck parked at the edge of the embankment.

“Look,” Jessica pulled her arm out of her jacket sleeve, “you’re going to see this sooner or later.” She extended her arm to show me diagonal lines of scar tissue on the undersides. “I take anti-depressants when I can, but I don’t have insurance. I can’t always afford them,” she looked into my eyes, a searching look, like I would take off running and screaming. It took me a second to realize what I was looking at. I rubbed my thumb over one of the two inch long scars.

“How close have you come?” I asked.

“I never cut deep enough to hit the vein, except once. I was seventeen and my mom was at work. I panicked and called the ambulance and they came in time. Lotta blood though.” She withdrew her arm and threaded it through her sweater sleeve. She looked out over the water. The sky turned pale, with a rosy diffusion along the horizon. A cool wind passed through my hair. I walked over and wrapped my arm around hers.

“It’s best that you know about me,” she said, “I come with some baggage.”

“It’s okay,” I leaned against her, “I do too, we all do. I can help you.”

We were quiet for some time. The sky grew darker. Down the embankment, the tailgate of the family’s truck clapped shut, the dad called his two kids back to the vehicle. Jessica shifted closer to me, our bodies together.

“So this means we’re a thing now,” I said. She chuckled and I pulled her in and kissed her. As we were driving back to her apartment, I suggested she come to church with me one night. She shook her head,

“You know I don’t do church. I still find it weird you do.” She lit a cigarette at a stop light. I rolled down my window.

“They’re very accepting where I go,” I said, “It wouldn’t hurt you to come one time.”

“Maybe one day. We should see a movie or something after work tomorrow,” she turned the music up slightly. We turned onto Babcock from New Haven Ave. On the corner, surrounded by live oaks, the First Christian Church’s roof sloped downward, its edges close to the ground like a bible that fell page side down.

***

Back when I was sixteen, I was sitting with my family at church one Sunday and we had a guest pastor. He was an older man, and for the most part friendly and his sermon was engaging, at least for a sixteen year old. I’d grown so used to Pastor Meyer’s sermons I often just tuned them out. I didn’t mean to, but ten a.m. was early on a weekend for me back then. This man spoke loud, paced back and forth across the stage, moving his arms with his words. He’d started talking about our part in the great commission – to go out and make disciples of all nations. Then he started fishing for not only examples of these lost souls we needed to witness to, but also how real God’s wrath was. He proclaimed that Hurricane Katrina was the literal hand of God smiting New Orleans because that week they were going to have a gay pride parade through Bourbon Street. His voice boomed from the pulpit how New Orleans’ allowance and celebration of homosexuality and other debaucheries finally pushed God to His limits, just like Sodom when He rained fire from the sky down upon it. The words stabbed my heart. My mom’s hand found mine and she gave me a gentle squeeze. I had come out to her, my dad, and my stepbrother Hunter two months prior. Mom asked me if I’d prayed about it, which I had. I spent a year begging God to change me if this was truly wrong. If it offended Him as bad as the church said it did, to please take it from me. But He didn’t and that’s what I told my family. They circled around me and hugged me at the dinner table that night as I cried. It had to be real then– not only did my family shroud me in support that night, but that was the first time my stepbrother and my dad shared any intimate connection. My mom had divorced Hunter’s dad before I was born, and Hunter had always harbored enmity toward my father. They’d fought my whole life, but in this moment, they came together to tell me I was loved, just as I am. Still, sitting in the pew that Sunday as the guest preacher inadvertently told me my existence offended God Almighty, a phantom of doubt whispered into my mind. Not about my favor in God’s eyes so much as whether I was really welcome among other Christians. My parents didn’t bring it up on the way home. I thought about it all week.

***

Jessica and I had been at a party for two hours in Melbourne and I wanted to leave. She and I had gone shopping and I’d left my car at her apartment. I had gone to parties before where I didn’t know anyone, but usually I was outgoing enough to where it wasn’t a problem. This one was different – located in a strange neighborhood near the Eau Gallie cemetery. The nearest streetlight was over a block away and the house was only visible by its pale yellow windows glowing through a tangle of live oaks, Spanish moss, and palmettos. Jessica introduced me to a few people, then joined some others to do shots in the kitchen. A couple of the people here looked like they were in their late forties. A lot of them wore black clothes, chains, and hats cocked to the side. Everyone was smoking and drinking. I held a Bud Light and stood in a corner. The most normal person I met was a high school senior named Zack from West Melbourne. When I told him I was studying sociology at BCC, he told me about his aspirations to study electrical engineering at FIT when he graduated high school. He’d applied to both the Bill Gates and the Ron Brown scholarships and had his fingers crossed. It was a nice conversation, but when he left to get another beer, I didn’t see him again until a chorus of laughter and shouting roared from the bathroom. I followed the crowd toward the noise to see Jessica in the bathroom puking her guts out into the toilet.

“Get the fuck outta here, people. Y’all’s pathetic,” Zack said, lifting her to her feet and walking her into the hallway.

“Jessica!” I tried to look her in the eyes but her head rolled around.

“You know her?” Zack asked.

“Yeah, she’s my girlfriend,” I said.

“Well, looks like someone spiked her shit, let’s get her outside,” the two of us drug her through the throngs of people and out onto the sidewalk where she proceeded to empty the rest of her stomach contents into the street. Zack stood on the sidewalk, eyes scanning the road while I held Jessica’s hair back.

“You guys got a way home? I ain’t drank much tonight.” Zack offered.

“Thank you,” I said, “I can get her home.” I fished her keys out of her purse, then Zack walked us back to her car. I thanked him and sped out of the neighborhood. Jessica’s head rolled on her neck and she smiled while occasionally mumbling gibberish. I’d told my mom I was spending the night with her, so she wasn’t expecting me until morning. When I got Jessica up to her apartment, I undressed her, helped her shower, than laid her in her bed and placed a wastebasket on the floor. I climbed into bed and held her. Her skin was fever hot.

The next morning, I ran to the store to get her a PowerAde and some Advil. We sat in her kitchen and she told me she’d chased Xanax with three shots of Jack Daniels last night.

“Seriously, Jessica? You could’ve died,” I said. She glanced up at me with bloodshot eyes, supporting her forehead with her right hand. I called my mom and told her I was studying at the college and wouldn’t be home until late.

Jessica spent the day in her bed. I brought her water and whatever food she could stomach. She started feeling better by late afternoon, so I put a movie in and climbed into bed with her. We held each other, sitting propped up against pillows.

“I’m sorry about last night,” she said, “I get this way sometimes and just kinda lose control. It scares me, to be honest.”

“I’m scared too,” I said, “last night could’ve been bad.” I glanced at her right arm and saw two cuts scabbing over. Jessica looked up at me then pressed her head against my chest. I wanted to say something about the cuts, but I didn’t know what. Holding her against me, feeling her warmth, her breath in metronome with mine, I wanted to shield her from anything that could hurt her, but I couldn’t. I felt frightened and helpless.

“Come to church with me,” I said, “You can get away from this world, find people who can support you.”

“Shayla, I’m agnostic. That’s not going to change. Besides, you’re gay and I’m bi. That isn’t exactly a model Christian.”

“That doesn’t matter where I go,” I said, “the people there are family. They’ll accept you. We can help you with what you’re going through.”

Jessica sighed and pulled away from me, “Shayla, you may be safe there, but that’s still a religion that hates us for who we are. It’s not my scene and never will be.” She laid back against the pillows. The light streaming through her blinds dissipated and the blue of the TV flickered across the walls. Her hand slid out of mine.

“If it’s just the same to you, I’d rather we not go to parties like that anymore,” I said.

“Okay.” She laid her head across my stomach and I stroked her hair. My phone buzzed on the nightstand. My mom was calling. It was getting late and I hadn’t been home since yesterday afternoon. I told her I was studying in the library and lost track of time. It was ten p.m. when I kissed Jessica goodnight and left for Suntree. Something felt wrong as I drove the empty streets, like I had forgotten something behind at her house.

***

Pastor Freeman preached Saturday nights. He ran our young adult community group on Thursday night as well. Tonight, while these memories paraded through my mind, he spoke of what was happening in the world; the economy failing, the war in the Middle East that hadn’t let up since 9/11, victims of Katrina still homeless. All evidence of a broken world. I glanced to the man at the other end of the aisle. He wore a black shirt and dark blue jeans. The only part of him not covered in shadow was the white cast on his right arm. I felt rude sitting so far away from him, like he smelled bad or something. A searchlight lit up Pastor Freeman on the pulpit. He told us how there were examples of this broken world in our own communities, people our age addicted to drugs, dealing with mental issues, with depression, with anger, people contemplating suicide. Hope rose in my chest that maybe this was the reason I was here. That after he got done listing all these examples of suffering respective to my generation, he’d drop that ultimate answer I was missing for how to help Jessica. Instead, he said,

“What they all don’t know is what they need is JESUS.” I thought he would follow this up with something of more substance, but nothing came. He simply listed more examples of broken people, prescribing “Jesus” as the antidote for their brokenness. Words that mean nothing to anyone outside of the church. I shook my head. For the first time since I’d been coming here, I wondered if maybe the pastors who I loved, and maybe even these people I’d grown up around, were all just completely clueless. They believed in a God of easy answers.

***

I was leaving one of my night classes at BCC when I checked my phone and saw a text from Jessica, “Shayla, Im at a party but dont wanna be here. Please come get me.” It was forty five minutes ago and the address was somewhere off University Blvd at least fifteen minutes away. My heart started racing and I tried calling her. It went to voicemail. I texted her, “So sorry, just getting out of class. OMW I promise,” then jumped in my car and bolted down Post road toward US 1. I cursed at myself, I should’ve been checking my phone. She needed me and I wasn’t there. I caught almost every red light, stopping at Lake Washington, at Eau Gallie Blvd, Sarno. Finally, I crossed the New Haven intersection and entered an array of buildings in varying states of disrepair or neglect. I was rarely on this side of town, and this stretch of US 1 was completely foreign to me. I crossed the train tracks at the University intersection, trying to find the apartments she’d texted me but unable to make out building numbers on the poorly lit street. I passed a Quik Stop with at least fifty people hanging around outside cars in the parking lot. Clouds of cigarette smoke hovered over them like fog in the light of the sign. I was afraid to roll my window down. Finally, I found a set of single story apartments colored like a rotting tangerine peel in the single streetlight illuminating the entrance. I parked and tried to call Jessica again. Nothing but her voicemail. My heart thudded against my sternum, and I tentatively stepped out of my car. I walked toward an apartment with a porchlight on and voices emanating from behind the door. I knocked and a guy in a muscle shirt and tight cornrows opened the door, holding a bottle of beer.

“Wassup, girl?” He opened the door wider to let me in. Smoke trailed among jostling bodies inside.

“I’m looking for my girlfriend, Jessica. Is she here?”

“Tyrese – who’s at the door?” A Hispanic girl appeared behind the man, pink streaks running through her black hair and a rhinestone skull grinning from the front of her shirt. She looked me up and down and said,

“You lost, homegirl?”

“She’s cool, yo. We was just getting’ to know each other,” said Tyrese. The girl glared at him.

“Beat it, Tyrese,” she said. He wandered back into the throng. She turned back to me.

“I’m just looking for my girlfriend, Jessica. She texted me and wanted me to come get her.”

“Jessica, who?”

“Lopez. Please, I just want to get her and I’ll be out of here,”

“I don’t know a Jessica Lopez, I’m sorry,” she said. Laughter resounded amid the discordance of voices and music inside. I glimpsed two people snorting lines on a coffee table.

“She has to be here, she texted me this address,”

“Well, if she did, she’s gone now. My best advice to you’s to get going. Not tryin’ to be a bitch, but I can tell you don’t belong here.”

“Trust me, I don’t want to be here either, but my friend needs help. She texted me this address and –”

“I ain’t gonna tell you again, girl. You need to get goin’ now. This ain’t your scene and your girl ain’t here.” She locked eyes with me and shut the door in my face. I slammed my fists against the door and shouted to let me in, but nothing happened. I walked back to my car just as someone from the Quik Stop parking lot yelled,

“Hey, baby! Where you goin’?” My hands shook as I pulled my door open. I was sure they were talking to me and I resisted the urge to look back and see if they were approaching. I sped out of the parking lot. As I drove down University, a police car appeared in my rearview mirror and followed me until I crossed the railroad tracks back to US 1. My hands didn’t stop shaking until I reached Wickham Road.

***

One Thursday night, I was at Cold Stone Creamery in the Avenue Viera with Pastor Freeman, Brian, Justin, and a girl named Sarah from the young adult community group. I’d finally heard from Jessica after that night. She had apologized and said she got home and fell asleep. When I suggested we hang out and talk, she didn’t respond for six hours, then made another excuse. Sitting outside the white light of Cold Stone, I stared vacantly at the blue-green neon of Rave motion pictures across the brick road of the outdoor mall. Justin and Pastor Freeman debated the merits of denominational Christianity and I tuned them out. Brian touched my shoulder.

“You want to take a walk?” he said.

“Sure.” We excused ourselves and wandered into the circular plaza. Bronze statues of children riding alligators and other animals sat on top of rounded patches of green AstroTurf.

“What’s up?” he asked. He stopped and waited for me to make eye contact.

“Nothing, why?”

“You just seem distant tonight. I’ve kinda noticed you’re acting different.” We sat on the edge of a fountain in the middle of the plaza.

“Is everything cool with Jessica?” he asked.

I sighed. “I don’t know, Brian. I’m sorry. She’s going through some hard times right now, and I’m trying to help her.”

“Anything I can do?” Brian asked. I shook my head. I started to reach into my purse for my cigarettes, but stopped. I smoked socially at parties, but I’d started smoking more once Jessica and I were dating.

“Well, I’m here if you ever need me, Shayla. You know that,” said Brian.

“Thank you,” I touched his shoulder and smiled at him, “I really appreciate it. It’s something I’ve got to deal with though.” He hugged me around the shoulders. We sat on the fountain while the illuminated water splashed behind us. I wanted to tell Bryan everything, or even Pastor Freeman, but I still hoped Jessica would come to church with me and meet them. When she was ready, she could tell them herself what she was going through and I’d be holding her hand the entire time. We walked back to Justin and Pastor Freeman. They sat there, joking and laughing, as if all the world’s problems were solved. I wished I could share in their bliss.

***

The last time I saw Jessica, we were sitting on a concrete embankment of the abandoned marina in Melbourne, our feet dangling over unknown depths of the Indian River. The land sloped downward from US 1, and a five story building towered above us. Jessica said cops would sometimes hang out in the parking garage of the first story, but not in the early evening. To our left, overgrown grass surrounded the crumbled remains of the marina, which looked more like a city block in Baghdad. Jessica wanted to go to a party tonight, but I’d talked her out of it. A black zip up hoodie covered her arms. It was a cool night, but I wondered if she’d been cutting again. The wind tousled her curly strands of hair. I stroked them out of her face. I hadn’t seen her in a couple weeks and her texts had been shorter and hours apart.

“I missed you,” I said. I slipped my hand over hers.

“I missed you too,” she said, “I’ve been busy, you know, looking for another job and everything.”

“It’s cool, I’ve been busy too.” I stroked her hand gently. Something splashed in the water, some kind of night bird. She leaned into me, resting her head against my neck. The scent of her hairspray wafted into my nostrils like a warm, fuchsia cloud. I held her, but as I tried to pull her sleeve up to expose her arm, she pulled it away.

“I haven’t,” she said.

“I’m worried, that’s all.”

“I’m fine, Shayla. I’m taking my medication and sticking with it,” she said. I wanted to believe her, but she’d said this before. I asked Jessica one last time to come to church with me. I told her she was broken and she knew it.

“I know you’re scared, Jessica. You said so yourself.”

“Your church ain’t got nothing that can help me. Once I get a better job, I’ll be able to afford my meds.”

“Your meds aren’t the problem, Jessica. It’s the people you’re around. I can see it. It’s so painful to watch.”

“I’ll be okay,” she said. She walked away from me, to the edge of the embankment. The wind came across the water strong, and black waves splashed against the concrete.

“You texted me asking me to rescue you once.” I followed her to the edge. She looked out across the water. I waited for her to respond.

“I’m sorry I brought you into this, Shayla,” she finally said, “You’re a good person, you don’t deserve any of this. You need a less fucked up girl than me.”

“What are you saying?”

She chewed on her lower lip, eyes cast down toward the water. “You’re right. I am broken. I’m just going to disappoint you. I’m no good.”

I touched her hand, “Jessica, you are good. I love you more than I can put into words. I just want to help you.”

“You want me to come to that church,” she looked at me, “I’m telling you that’s never going to happen. I tried church once, before I knew I was bi. All anyone ever did there was make me feel bad for having sex, or drinking, or saying cuss words. It was all a bunch of uppity suburban white kids who’ve never had to suffer, but had all kinds of advice for people who have.” She took another step away from me. A two foot wake sprayed me as it broke against the concrete.

“I promise it’s different.”

She looked at me and shook her head. She didn’t believe me.

“Why do you want this so bad? Like, why do you care?”

“Jessica,” a tear rolled out of my eye, “I love you.” I stared into her eyes. She looked away. I stepped forward and wrapped my arms around her. I held her harder and tighter than I ever had that night, pressing her into my chest. I wanted to force feed how much I loved her right into her soul. Her hands wrapped around my body, and we held each other. Tears trickled down my cheek. Light shined through my closed eyelids, as if the sun was rising. I cracked my eyelids open to see white light illuminating us, like Pentecostal glowing. We must have shined bright enough to be seen all the way across the river. My fingers gripped into Jessica’s sweater, my heartbeat accelerated. I pictured us levitating, rising up above the destroyed shore into a blissful night. Then I opened my eyes wide and saw the source of the light – a pair of headlights from a parked police cruiser, idling in the building’s parking garage.

“We should go,” Jessica said. When we drove home that night, we said maybe two words to each other.

***

A day passed before I finally got tired of waiting and texted Jessica. She responded four hours later, said she was sorry, just busy and stressed out. I tried to call her and she didn’t answer. I sat on my bed feeling an empty ache in my chest. I texted her again, saying I wanted to see her. Minutes dragged by and I resisted the urge to keep texting her. There was so much I wanted to say and it multiplied with each second that went by. I went for a run through my neighborhood, trying to take my mind off things. When I returned, I checked my phone, still nothing.

At dinner with my parents, I was quiet. I kept checking my phone under the table. I wanted to get away from the table, maybe call Bryan or Justin. Maybe just drive around Viera. Anything but being here waiting.

“You okay, Shayla?” My mom said I stabbed at my rosemary chicken with my fork.

“Yeah, just not feeling good, that’s all,”

“We’ve just noticed you’re becoming more distant, lately. I tried to talk to you this afternoon, but you walked out the door to go run. We figured you had your earbuds in.” I looked up to see my parents staring at me.

“I’m sorry,” I glanced downward, “It’s just not something I want to get into.”

“You can always talk to us,” my dad said. “You know that.”

“Thanks, Dad.” I said, “I’ll be fine. I promise. It’s just something I’m going through.” I excused myself to my room then turned on my TV. I knew they knew something was up – I never withheld things from them. I don’t know why I thought this, but part of me was scared of how they’d react if I had told them Jessica cut herself and did drugs. I still sometimes felt I was pushing my luck dating girls, even though they accepted me. The first channel that came on was Fuse, parading rock videos that I normally watched with Jessica. My heart throbbed like an open wound. I wanted her here even more. I shut the TV off and paced, finally breaking and texting her again, telling her to please call me. I sat and waited. I took a shower, brushed my teeth, and climbed into bed. I stared at my ceiling for an hour before my phone finally buzzed. Just a text, Going to sleep, call u tomorrow. She never did.

***

Pastor Freeman’s sermon ended. Brian, Justin, and the female singer resumed their positions for the closing song. The blue and violet lights panned across the cavernous ceiling.

It is well … The singer’s mezzo-soprano voice crescendoed with Bryan’s guitar and the increasing, bombastic beats of Justin’s drums. I wanted Jessica to hear this – for the words to wash over her and bring her to her knees. I knew it would. Tears climbed down the scaffolding of my eyes.

It is well … Fragments of us returned to me – late nights at Starbucks where we’d play “two truths, one lie” over coffee. Sleeping late into the morning together. Walking through the mall hand in hand after work. She’d spend too much time in Hot Topic looking through chrome studded collars and band shirts. I’d get her back at Macys, trying on colors of light blue and green.

It is well, with my soul … I wanted to believe these words. I wanted them to be about me, about her. I pictured her meeting Brian and Justin, going to movies with us, going to concerts, spending weekends away at beach retreats. I could see her at my side with them, wandering the Avenue Viera under the brilliant white lights, talking and laughing because we were at peace, we were all the same. Just twenty-somethings trying to find our purpose while the world collapsed around us.

It is well, it is well with my soul. The singer belted into the cavern of the sanctuary. Hands raised among the dark bodies, the atmosphere filled with rapture but I couldn’t handle it. I shoved past the man in my pew and left.

I walked out of the sanctuary, hands to my eyes. I stood on the edge of the pond in front of the church. In the middle was an island with a single cabbage palm. When I was young and we were building this church, my dad took me to that island in a small paddle boat a couple times. I withdrew the pack of cigarettes from my purse and lit one. My relationship with Jessica felt like a fleeting dream. I guess part of it was. The part where I could save her. The part where all I had to do was get her in the doors of my church and she’d stop hurting herself. Therein was the dream, and I didn’t want to wake up. That would mean letting her go.

Footsteps crunched on the grass behind me. I looked back to see the man with his arm in the cast approaching. He walked with a wide gait, like some kind of gunslinger, his left arm in a loose fist at his side. Backlit against the parking lot, he looked intimidating. I stayed put. He walked up, stood next to me and just stared at the water. After a few seconds of silence he said,

“Got a light?” Confused, I lit his cigarette for him. He took a drag with his left hand and just stood without saying a word. A night heron strutted through the marsh along the opposite shore. I waited for him to say something. A chorus of frogs resounded from hidden places.

“You were the guy in my row, right? By himself?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Sorry, normally I would’ve said ‘hi’ to you,”

“It’s cool,” he took a drag of his cigarette. A bullfrog snorted from within the brush. I used to think the noise was an alligator.

“It’s not cool,” I said, “It’s…never mind.” I shook my head and stared at the wakes in the water, “I’m not myself tonight, I shouldn’t even be here.”

“That might make two of us,” he said. His voice sounded like a growl, I wondered how long he’d been a smoker.

“I’ve been going to this church since I was a kid,” I told him, “I still come even though I’m a lesbian. Everyone says they’re cool with it, but I still feel I have to be that much stronger to be here.” I looked at the man. I didn’t know why I was suddenly opening up to him. I was able to make out blue in his irises despite the low light. Razor stubble coated his chin. He glanced at me, imploring me to continue.

“I have a friend,” I said, “Had a friend. She needs a place like this, a community of people that love each other and aren’t just destroying themselves with drugs and alcohol. But I wonder if I had been able to convince her to come, would she have even been welcomed here?”

“Weren’t you?” He said.

“I grew up here. Before people knew I was gay. It’s different when someone comes in from the outside.”

He took a drag of his cigarette. “Probably not a shred of my business,” he said, “but if you’ve had faith in this crowd your whole life, why’s it gone now?”

I wiped a tear out of my right eye, “The last time I saw her, we were talking about the stuff she deals with. I told her if she would just come with me, I could show her a world where she doesn’t have to turn to drugs and alcohol. I told her I’d be here every step of the way.”

“What’d she say?”

“She refused, said she’d never feel comfortable here. She said she didn’t understand why I would associate with them.”

“And?”

“I told her it wasn’t that way here. She wouldn’t believe me.” The man grunted and slowly nodded his head.

“Thing was, I didn’t have an answer for her. In most cases, she’s right. And when Pastor Freeman says things like, ‘the answer to everything you’re struggling with is ‘Jesus,’ I just wonder if everyone here really is clueless when it comes to stuff that actually matters.”

“Yeah, that was a bit oversimplified for my taste too,” The man said. A car passed by on Viera Blvd on the other side of the pond. “Ain’t talked to her since, eh?”

“She deleted her Myspace, changed her number, everything. I don’t even know if she’s alive anymore. She used to cut herself.” I dried another tear. I never cried in public, this was new to me. The man stood silent and still, but his presence was consoling.

“So, why are you out here?” I asked. He grunted and looked up from the water.

“I don’t know. I usually come here on Sunday morning and look for the exit right after the closing hymn. Kinda at a spiritual crisis point, I guess.”

“How so?” I asked. He shook his head and dragged on his cigarette. I thought he wasn’t going to answer.

“Just trying to do this Christian thing right, and for some reason I felt I needed to come tonight.” He took another drag of his cigarette and dug at the grass with his boot. “I used to do enforcement for a chapter of Hell’s Angels out in Tucson, Arizona. I’ll let you fill in the blanks there. But I ended up meeting someone, a girl. Not too different from you, I guess. Name was Samantha.”

“Yeah?”

“Yep, she was a good girl, came from a good home, active in church, you know.” He scratched at his short, dark hair.

“She did what you were trying to do for your friend, told me there was something more beautiful than I could imagine, and it wasn’t totally out of reach. I told her she was crazy, that if she knew half the horrible shit I’d done she’d eat those words. But being around her and her people, the difference between her life and mine was the difference between Heaven and Hell.”

“What happened with her?” I asked.

“Our worlds ended up crossing. Long story short, she got hurt. Some people tried to get back at me for something through her. Burned her house down, shot her folks. It was all my fault. At first I blamed God, but really I brought all that down on her.”

“That’s horrible.” I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry.”

“The night I left Arizona,” he exhaled a cloud of smoke, “I dedicated my life to Christ, said I’d walk away from all this. I didn’t know how he could forgive me, but I’d start by trying to do right. It was the least I could do for Samantha. I came to Florida for that new beginning, but I’m still doing so much of the same shit. I feel like I haven’t changed at all.”

“You came here hoping to start over,” I said.

“Yeah, well, like you said, if all the preacher’s got for us is overgeneralized non-answers, I’m starting to wonder if I’m looking in the wrong place too.”

I nudged a small rock with my foot. The man tossed his cigarette onto the ground and mashed it with his boot. The fountain in the pond sputtered to life, a light bulb glowed at the base of the jetting water. Windows glimmered from the neighborhood across Viera Blvd.

“I didn’t get your name,” I said.

“Gabriel. Friends call me Gabe.”

“I’m Shayla.” We stood and watched the tiny wakes in the water. Low grey clouds sailed toward us from the west, their undersides rust colored from the city’s light. Animals rustled in the palmettos behind us, probably an armadillo or feral cats.

“Everyone talks about forgiveness and unconditional love in these circles, but I wonder if they’d still be talking like that if I told anyone what I’ve actually done.”

“You don’t feel you can truly be yourself?”

“Most people’s compassion ends when the sins you confess are illegal.”

“It takes courage and strength. I know that much,” I said. A cool breeze blew from the west and the clouds towered over us like ghostly ships. I wondered if it was clouds like these Ezekiel saw when he had his vision in the Old Testament. I looked over at Gabriel, this person who came to church because he didn’t know where else to turn. I thought of how I almost let him walk into and out of this place alone. I was so caught up in my thoughts of Jessica, someone who didn’t even want the help she desperately needed, I couldn’t see this person right here in front of me. With his eyes fixed in a scowl, the rough texture of stubble across his face, his wide stance and the way he loosely cupped his good fist at his side, he was probably used to people avoiding him. That wouldn’t help him in trying to feel comfortable in a church community. If he was anything like Jessica, he’d return to the life he was used to, no matter how dangerous.

“Let’s give this place a chance, Gabe,” I said to him.

“Ain’t we already?”

“Let’s stick with it. Those people inside may have no idea what you’ve gone through, but maybe that’s a good thing,” I said.

“What do I do then?” he asked.

“Keep coming. You’ll make friends, friends you’ll be able to open up to one day,” I turned to face him, “In fact, you already have one.”

He looked at me and grinned with a corner of his mouth. Voices began to reach us from the sanctuary doors.

“Looks like we missed the service,” he said.

“I don’t think we missed anything,” I said. I touched his elbow. “See you next Saturday?”

“Sure thing.” We walked together toward the parking lot. Before we parted he stopped me.

“Just my two cents, but about your friend, you never know what kind of impact you did have on her. She may not have heard your words now, but that doesn’t mean she won’t hear them later down the road when they make more sense.”

“Thanks Gabe,” I said, “I guess that’s something to hold onto.” The armada of clouds overhead passed on across the sky, revealing a few stars amidst an indigo canvas. I gave Gabe a hug, then walked back to my elantra. My headlights lit up the palmetto underbrush and pines at the edge of the parking lot. It looked like a deep, endless forest, but I knew just a few feet into the brush, a mud pit sat where another building for the church would have been completed this year before the money ran out. I thought of Jessica and how she chose to wander the dark and desolate places of the city because in her mind, sanctuary in the church didn’t exist. I had done all I could do for her, though, and there were others like Gabriel who actually made the step she refused to make. A fresh bolt of sadness panged my heart – I knew I’d never see her again. I would go to sleep tonight, and when I awoke she would be a memory, at least to me.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. Brian texted me, we’re all going to Cold Stone at the Avenue. U coming? I put my car in reverse and left the parking lot, driving west toward the white light of the Avenue Viera. Shadows stretched for miles in every direction.

 

 

BIO

Josh Dull is a U.S. Air Force veteran and a fiction author with an emphasis on place and social issues. He completed his Bachelor’s degree with Honors in the Major from the University of Central Florida and his work appears in The 34th Parallel, The Drunken Odyssey, Funny in Five Hundred, and Central American Literary Review. He has also been featured in a spoken word series called There Will Be Words. When he isn’t at his computer writing and revising, he enjoys traveling to lonely places to hear forgotten voices. He currently resides in Orlando, Florida.

 

 

 

 

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