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Six

by Katie J. Schwartz

 

 

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The universe keeps giving me brothers.

Henry was there when I was a baby. Not technically my brother, but an uncle born so late to my grandparents that he was only a few years older. When my mother remarried, I gained two more older brothers, Dan and Jake. My first younger brother, Ollie, came a year or so later, courtesy of that new marriage. And finally, my father’s new wife brought me two more younger brothers, Todd and Jack.

And so I, an only child by blood, had six brothers by blessing.

I stood in the wings at the concert hall, rubbing my hands together and rocking back and forth from my toes to my heels. For the first time, I was going to play piano and sing in front of an audience. None of my parents could make it—my father and stepmother lived across the country now, and my mother and stepfather were away on business—four absentee parents, who could never shape my life as much as my brothers do, no matter how they (in particular my mother) tried.

I had my brothers there, and that was what mattered. For the first time, all six of my brothers were in one room. For me.

The house lights went down. I took a deep breath and stepped out into the blinding white spotlight. The polished, softly shining keys of the baby grand beckoned. My fingers fluttered over them, and sweet, soft music filled the room. My eyes drifted shut. Here, on the bench, at the black and white keys—this was my second home.

My thudding heart interrupted the moment’s tranquility. For an instant I didn’t know why, but then I remembered: I had to sing. The first note was fast approaching. My hands began to shake, and I struggled to place each finger correctly. For heaven’s sake, you practiced this forever! There’s no excuse for making stupid mistakes now.

I opened my mouth, and the first few notes came out, clear and solid, if not breathtakingly beautiful. I drew in a breath for the next bar.

A shriek from the audience flew at me.

I stopped playing and whipped around.

Though the high beam of the spotlight was meant to illuminate me, I could see the first row, and all six of my brothers sitting in it. But something was wrong. Their bodies contorted and bent, arms stretching at odd angles, necks elongating. Their skin burst into white feathers.

Before my eyes, my six brothers became six swans. As I stared from my spot at the silent piano, they took wing, and flew from the auditorium.

 

One

My lungs burned. I had been running since I fled from the stage, and I didn’t stop until I reached my bedroom. This is all your fault; you make an absolute mess of everything—I fumbled for my spellbook, frantically flipped pages, and stared at the spell I’d done last night.

I knew, deep down, what had happened. I had wanted to sing well. I had wanted my brothers, all of them, to be proud of me. I’d been thinking of my brothers as I enacted the spell, when I should have been focusing on myself. How could you have been so careless? Stupid! I’d been thinking of them when I inhaled a mouthful of sage smoke and choked on the word “swanaz.”

Why on earth would you try a spell in an ancient language that you of course don’t know? What an idiotic decision!

I sat back on my heels. My brothers were waterfowl, and it was all my fault. They’d all been there for me, and it was all my fault.

~ ~ ~

Henry sat me down at the piano bench. “Come on, let’s play piano for a while.”

I squirmed and tried to get back up. “I want to go outside!”

He laughed. “It’s raining cats and dogs! Come on, Juli, I’ll teach you a song.”

I stilled at the thought of learning something on the piano. Henry made such beautiful music come from the keys; I wanted to too.

Henry put his hand over mine and helped me tap out a four-note rhythm. “F-D-G-C,” he sang along. “And repeat, repeat, repeat.” We practiced until I could plunk it out on my own, and gradually I got faster, until I was doing it in perfect four/four time. As I continued to enthusiastically strike the keys, Henry stretched out his fingers and began to play a slightly more complicated melody on top of mine.

For a few minutes, we played together beautifully, our separate melodies intertwining into one full-fledged song. Then I lost my notes under his and began to stumble. I slowed, hit a wrong note, and my stomach dropped. My hand slid off the keys.

Henry paused. “What’s wrong? That was great!”

I studied my lap. “I did it wrong. I’m stupid.”

His brow creased. “Where did you get that idea?”

I shrugged. “I can’t do it, Henry.”

“Juli.” Henry put his arm around my shoulders. “You don’t have to be good at things right away. Making mistakes is how you learn.”

 

Two

Chewing on my already-shredded lower lip, I continued to leaf through my spellbook. There had to be a way to break this. Mistakes are how you learn. There had to be a way to fix this. But spell books handed down from your great-grandmother don’t come with indexes, and looking for a counter-spell was slow going.

My neck ached and my feet had long since fell asleep, but I remained on the floor, searching, searching. For heaven’s sake, the spellbook isn’t all that difficult to use! Why haven’t you found something yet?

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. As calmly as I was able, I started at the back of the book and flipped forward. I took the time to read the title of each spell, and my entire body twitched with impatience. This wouldn’t take so long if you weren’t so careless and stupid.

And then, there it was. A spell to reverse animal transformations. Based on the illustrations of gooey-eyed figures, it was originally intended to restore a lover cursed by another jealous witch, but it would work just fine for brothers. There was one warning, right at the top of the page: The casting witch had to remain completely, utterly silent for the entire duration of the spell. I quickly scanned the spell.

My stomach dropped.

~ ~ ~

Dan started up the car. “You ready, Juli?”

“Yeah!” I bounced a little in my seat. Dan was taking me to a high school party. Me, a sixth grader! A high school party!

He grinned. His smile was crooked, like a child’s drawing of a crescent moon. “This is gonna be awesome.”

The party wasn’t quite what I expected. Instead of a houseful of teenagers dancing and flirting with each other, it was a group of ten or so people lounging around in a low-lit living room. I hung back near the doorway as Dan greeted everyone with lazy high-fives and rude-sounding names, like Swinger and Tubs.

I managed to edge closer to the circle and sit in an empty armchair without anyone noticing me, but then Dan turned and introduced me to the room. Frozen and squirming inside, I listened to a slew of names that I couldn’t focus on enough to remember, and returned half-waves with barely imperceptible nods.

Someone handed Dan a beer, and I shrank further into the armchair as he popped the tab. He turned to me and grinned his off-kilter smile. “You want a beer, Juli?”

“Jesus, Dan,” one of the girls said. “She’s just a kid.”

“She can handle it.” His grin widened. “What do you say, Juli?”

I looked around at the room of high schoolers, all older than me, all infinitely cooler. My voice stuck in my throat, so I did the only thing I could do. I nodded.

Dan handed me his beer and got another one. I took a sip. Bitterness soaked into my tongue, reminding me of when I bit my fingernails and accidentally got a taste of polish remover, except it was everywhere. I grimaced, and the entire room laughed. Heat crept onto my face as I filled to the brim with embarrassment at my own stupidity.

I spent the rest of the evening wishing I could either leave or die. I didn’t drink the rest of my beer, but I held it, feeling the metal can grow warmer and warmer. The taste remained in my mouth. Eventually, the party devolved into everyone pairing up and making out. I couldn’t ask Dan to leave, and I couldn’t call home and ask for a ride, either—I would never hear the end of it if my mother knew about this.

Trapped in the big armchair, I willed myself smaller and smaller, and stayed completely still and silent. If they didn’t hear me, then I wasn’t there.

 

Three

I stood by the little pond in the woods, kicking up the newly-fallen leaves, hands shoved deep in my pockets. All six swans were there, floating aimlessly around the water. I couldn’t tell if they knew they were actually humans, but I thought they looked a bit morose.

I was feeling a bit morose too. The spell didn’t stop at absolute silence, there were other tasks that I had to fulfill, tasks that I had no knowledge of or experience with—who knew how long it might take? Maybe six months, maybe a year. Maybe more.

During my period of voicelessness, I had to collect stinging nettles, make thread from their stems, and use that thread to weave a blanket large enough to throw over all of my brothers. My silence and industriousness would endow the nettle-blanket with magic, which would transform my brothers back into my brothers, or so the spell claimed.

My silence and industriousness—I’d almost snorted when I read it but stopped myself. Was a snort considered speaking? It wasn’t an ideal spell, but it was my only option. Of course, you’ll likely mess this one up as well—why on earth would you be able to get it right.

I squinted at one swan. His beak was a little crooked, so I thought he might be Dan. Maybe. Dan always treated me like an adult instead of a kid, but now that I was pretty close to actually being an adult, he always seemed like he was on the verge of apologizing for it. There was something in his eyes that belied something on the tip of his tongue, something that he couldn’t quite choke out.

I sighed internally and picked up the plastic bucket I’d brought with me. It was time to start gathering nettles.

~ ~ ~

Jake surveyed the tall, dense patch of weeds and scrubby brush. “It’s taller than you,” he said. “You better get up on my shoulders.”

He knelt down and I scrambled up. We had been tromping through the wooded area that surrounded our house all afternoon—we did it almost every day, looking for cool places, wild animals, and interesting plants. Jake was a Boy Scout, and his knowledge of wilderness seemed endless to me.

Today, we were looking for a place to fish. I perched precariously on his shoulders, clutching the little cross-body bag that I brought along to stash pretty rocks and cool sticks. Last week, we’d found a turtle shell, bleached tan and white by the sun. It was sitting on my bookshelf.

The weeds made dry cracking and shooshing sounds as Jake moved through them. From my vantage point, it looked like a waving ocean of mottled browns and greens. The tips of tree branches combed through my wind-tangled hair. Jake’s hands squeezed around my ankles, steadying me.

As he set me down on the other side of the brush, something caught my ear. “Jake! I think I hear water!” I started to run in the direction I’d heard it from, but he grabbed my wrist.

“Slow down! That’s poison ivy over there. We have to go around.”

I stopped, looking down at the dirt. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so stupid.”

“Not knowing what poison ivy looks like doesn’t make you stupid, goofball.” He grinned. “Let’s check out that water source.”

We slowly picked our way around the leaves of three, and when we came out on the other side of the trees, there was a small pond. It wasn’t very big, but it was pretty—surrounded by sugarberry trees and flinty rock. A couple of ducks floated on its mirrored surface.

Jake grinned down at me. “Come on, let’s skip a few rocks.”

 

Four

My grades were slipping.

No, they were plummeting. I’d been silent for five months now. I could take solace in the fact that I had almost enough nettle thread to begin weaving a blanket, but my senior year was basically a wash. After begging my parents to let me transfer into a fancy-pants art school, I’d filled my schedule with things like voice lessons, public speaking, and participation-heavy creative workshops. My mistake. Full of mess-ups and mistakes, as usual.

But that wasn’t even the worst of it, wasn’t even the thing making me toss and turn all night long.

The entire town was in a fervor looking for my brothers, my six swans. Witches, both local and out-of-towners, were boasting that they and they alone knew how to reverse the curse. Scientists were salivating at the chance to poke and prod them, to figure out where the human was tucked away inside the bird. Luckily, my brothers mostly stayed at the pond, and I was the only one who knew about it. None of this would have even happened if it weren’t for your positively astounding ineptitude.

But I wasn’t taking any chances. I crafted a protection charm, filling my turtle shell with dried bay leaves, St. John’s Wort, and crushed acorn, and walking a barrier around the pond as the mixture burned, releasing a heavy, acrid smoke into the air. I did this every Friday evening, just to be sure.

But school . . . school wasn’t an issue that I could resolve with witchcraft. Maybe if I’d been practicing chaos magic for the last hundred years I could trick my teachers into passing me, but until then . . . I would just have to swallow my F’s right along with my voice.

~ ~ ~

Ollie came rushing through the kitchen door after school, letting it bang shut and moving his legs in a stiff, jerky manner. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that his eyes were brimming with tears.

I cautiously edged my way into the living. He was huddled up on the couch, face crushed into a throw pillow. “Ollie? What’s wrong?”

His shoulders shook as he drew in a shuddery, tear-filled breath. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Ollie.” I sat down next to him and put my hand on his back.

After a minute or two, he rolled over and sat up. “I can’t read right. Every time I have to read in class I just can’t say the words. My face gets all hot and I just can’t say the words. Everybody says I’m stupid.” He tipped forward and crashed his head into my shoulder. I wrapped my arms around him.

“Everybody says that? Everybody?”

He sniffed. “Well, almost everybody. Trent and Mira and Nathaniel all do.”

I recognized the names. Younger siblings of kids that had been in my class at the same school, all exceptionally mean, and exceptionally unashamed of it.

“Ollie.” I rubbed his back. “Listen to me. Just because somebody says that you’re stupid doesn’t make it true.”

He shrugged.

“No, really. You’re good at tons of stuff. Remember the birdhouse that you made for Mother’s Day? The finches love it! Could somebody stupid have done that?”

Ollie burrowed his face deeper into my shoulder, but I could feel him smiling. After a minute, I heard his muffled voice. “I can make really good pancakes too.”

I smiled too. “See? A stupid person definitely can’t make pancakes.”

He laughed, and then grew still again. “But I’m still not good at reading. And reading’s important.”

“Well, we can work on it. We can ask Mom if you can get a tutor—”

“No!” Ollie shook his head. “I don’t want to ask Mom. I—I don’t want a tutor.”

“Well, I can help you then,” I said. “Just remember that you can learn to be better at reading. Those other kids can’t learn to be kind.”

 

Five

The nettle blanket covered my twin bed, but I knew that wasn’t enough. It needed to be at least queen-sized, maybe bigger. Against the backdrop of quiet classical piano music, my knitting needles continued to click and clack. Since I didn’t have a loom at my disposal to actually weave a blanket, knitting one seemed like the obvious alternative. I still wasn’t very good at it—and my hands were stiff with pain from working so closely with a stinging plant—but I was at least faster than when I’d begun. And I figured that a couple dropped stitches weren’t a big deal for a blanket that wasn’t going to be used for warmth.

On my nightstand, my phone began to buzz, vibrating until it shifted and bumped into my alarm clock. I stiffened and ignored it, looking harder at my stitches, playing closer attention to each loop. When it finally stopped, the stones in my stomach dissipated some. One more short, angry buzz sounded, meaning that I had a voicemail or text. The stones were back.

I finished the row that I was on, moving the needles more slowly with each stitch, then drew in a long breath and forced myself to look at my phone.

A text. From Bella, a friend from one of my music classes. The missed call was from her, too.

The stone churned around, grinding against each other as I clicked to open the message. It read: “A bunch of us are going out tonight. Idk why I’m even telling you, since you don’t go out or even talk to us anymore.”

I set my phone face-down, pressing it into the bedspread, as if that would make it and the people on the other end of it disappear. The school year was long since ended, and for that I was glad. I couldn’t speak and I spent most of my time knitting a giant, nettle blanket. It was easier to just ignore my friends, to fade into the background and hope they forgot about me, didn’t notice my strange behavior. They did, of course, and now our relationships were strained, to put it nicely. For heaven’s sake, take some responsibility for once. This would be a non-issue if you hadn’t made such stupid decisions.

It was for the best, though. I didn’t have even anything in common with my musician friends anymore. I couldn’t sing, and for so long now, my hands were either swollen and pussing from handling the nettles, or aching and blistered from nonstop knitting. I hadn’t touched the piano in nearly ten months.

~ ~ ~

Todd burst through my closed bedroom door, smiling and struggling to pop open a can of soda. “Hey guys! What’s going on?”

The internal sighs that came from my friends were excruciatingly audible to me, and I cringed and flushed pink. Hannah’s lips pressed into a thin line as she shut the magazine that we’d been taking a quiz from. Its glossy pages slapped together with an irritated fwap!

Todd came over and wedged himself into our circle. “So how is everybody? What are we talking about?” He leaned over and peered at the magazine. “Seventeen, huh? Any good articles?”

I could hardly bear to look at my friends’ faces, but I still saw the eye-rolls and badly disguised snickers. Janie leaned over to me and whispered, “Can’t you tell your little brother to go away?”

Todd took a long, disgusting slurp from his can of soda. I flinched. “Todd, can I talk to you outside, please?”

“Sure, Sis!” He leaped back to his feet. I ushered him outside of the room and quickly shut the door.

“Look, we’re doing some, um, girl stuff right now. Girls only.”

I watched as Todd’s smile faded. His cheeks turned pink. “Oh.” He looked down. “That’s cool. I’ll just go see what Jack is up to.”

I patted him on the shoulder. “Thanks, Todd.” And I reopened my bedroom door just in time to hear Lisa say, “He’s so lame. Maybe he should be called Toad instead.”

My friends dissolved into fits of laughter. I turned bright red and couldn’t even look at Todd as he walked quickly away. My stomach twisted as I walked back into my room and sat down among my friends. Part of me wanted to tell them that they were being jerks, but they were laughing too loudly.

 

Six

By my very unscientific estimations, I only needed about another foot on my blanket. I sat on my bed, knitting frantically. It was the end of September. I had been silent for almost an entire year. At this point, I wasn’t even sure if I could still talk.

The hit to my grades hadn’t been quite as bad as I’d feared, and I was able to start college on time. Granted, I couldn’t get into a great school due to my suddenly lower-than-average GPA, but maybe that was for the best. From where I was sitting, online classes through the local community college seemed like a good option.

But it was almost all over. I was going to save my brothers. I was going to undo my mistakes. I was going to start talking, singing, and playing piano again. Maybe I could even begin to repair my lost, broken friendships.

I thought I heard the front door open but dismissed it. Ollie was a swan, and I’d been living alone for the entire year. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I heard stiletto heels clicking down the hall towards my room.

Not because I didn’t know who it was, but because I knew exactly who it was.

My door swung open, and there she stood. My mother.

“Well.” She clicked her way into my room, thin and model-tall, smoothing down her elegant white business suit. “Word finally reached me, although it took awhile to make it through the grapevine. Thank you for letting me know about what you did to your brothers and poor Henry. Oh, and your father’s children.”

I looked back down and concentrated harder on my knitting.

She made a tsk noise through her teeth. “For heaven’s sake, Julietta. I go on sabbatical in Europe for one year, and look what a mess you’ve made. Did you think I wouldn’t find out about it?”

She doesn’t know that I can’t talk. She doesn’t know the spell. A witch so powerful that she teaches at a private witchcraft institution, and she doesn’t know the counter-curse.

I knitted faster. I only needed a little more.

“Oh, and don’t think that I don’t know about your schoolwork, either. We’re going to get that fixed right up as soon as this other mess is taken care of. Community college, what an embarrassment.”

I heard her heels clicking again and then saw her white pant leg out of the corner of my eye, right next to the bed.

“Julietta.” Her voice was sharper, taking on a more annoyed edge. “Don’t you dare ignore me, young lady.” When I didn’t acknowledge her, her fingers smashed my cheeks together and forced my head up. Her gray eyes were cold. “Pay attention. This is what’s going to happen: You are going to give me your great-grandmother’s spellbook, and then you are going to take me to your brothers and the other poor boys. I am going to fix this whole mess that you’ve made. For heaven’s sake, how could you have been so stupid?”

~ ~ ~

Jack sat down next to me on the piano bench. “Hey Juli?”

My fingers stilled, but the sweet notes lingered in the air, reverberating. “What’s up?”

“I was wondering.” His fingers ghosted lightly over the keys, touching but not pressing hard enough to produce sound. “Do you think you could teach me how to play the piano?”

“Oh, Jack.” I bit my lip. “I’m not nearly good enough. Wouldn’t you rather have a real teacher?”

“But you are a real teacher. You love piano and you’re super good at it.”

“Jack, I just don’t think—”

“Please, Juli?” He leaned his head against my arm. “You’re the smartest, nicest person I know. You can be an awesome teacher, you can. Please?”

I looked down at him. He pouted his lower lip out, and then gave me a goofy grin, unable to hold the pose. I couldn’t help but smile. I was still learning the piano myself, but maybe we could learn together.

“OK.” I said. “Here’s your first lesson.” I played a four-note sequence. “F-D-G-C. Now you try.”

 

End

I couldn’t hold off any longer. My mother, still criticizing and firing off orders, was now rifling through my things, trying to locate my spellbook. She didn’t ask why I wasn’t speaking. She didn’t ask why I was knitting a giant blanket of stinging nettles. She didn’t care about anything except doing things her own way.

I couldn’t hold her off any longer. Eventually, she would find the spellbook and try something, something that might disrupt all of my efforts. The blanket might be too small, but I would have to risk it.

When her back was turned, I quickly folded up the blanket and ran from the room.

“Julietta!” Her voice was shrill, irritated. “Come back here this instant, young lady!” Just before I banged through the back door, I heard her pointed stilettos begin to click down the hall after me.

The heavy, cumbersome blanket weighed me down, and she came out of the back door before I was able to clear the backyard and disappear into the forest. Knowing that she was behind me, I decided to take the longer route to the pond. The way that would be harder and messier on her expensive high heels and pristine white suit.

“Julietta!” I could hear her shrieking behind me. “Stop this nonsense right now, young lady! Do you hear me? Right now!”

I pushed on.

When I arrived at the pond, my brothers were floating at the far end but began to swim towards me. My lungs heaved and my legs burned, both stinging from the run through the woods, but I wouldn’t stop. I would save my brothers.

There was a crashing noise behind me, and my mother burst through the trees. Her pants were mud up to her knees, there were leaves and twigs in her hair, and her heels were gone. But, to my horror, she was clutching the spellbook.

She spotted my six swans and smiled. “Ahh, there we go.” And she flipped open the book.

I dropped the blanket and rushed at her, intending to knock the book from her hands. She grabbed my wrist and held in high in the air, so that I was forced onto my toes. “Julietta, I simply don’t understand you. I tried to train you, to teach you to be a proper, powerful witch like me, but you just insist on bungling every single thing that you do.”

She shook me. I wobbled on my tiptoes. My shoulder socket screamed, but I pressed my lips together.

“Nothing to say for yourself, hmm? Well, that’s fairly typical, isn’t it. Always the quiet, shrinking, stupid little girl.”

A large white bird flew at my mother’s head.

She shrieked and dropped my arm. I tumbled to the ground, and when I looked up, another swan had joined the first. And then another, and another. In less than a minute, all six of my brothers were diving-bombing my mother, hissing, honking, and flapping their wings.

She screeched again and flung up her hands to protect herself, sending the spellbook crashing into the mud. I scrambled to my feet and grabbed the blanket. I would save my brothers.

My brothers who taught me, who let me experience things that my mother never would, who were my friends when no one else was. My brothers who depended on me, who forgave me when I was unkind, who believed in me and my abilities. My brothers who loved me.

They abandoned my mother and landed in front of me. I threw the blanket.

Shouts and loud popping noises came from beneath the nettles, and the swan-shaped lumps shot upward, growing, twisting, changing. Human hands flung the blanket back, and there they were. I fell into their arms, sobbing and rasping their names.

 

Epilogue

I stood in the wings of the auditorium, waiting for the concert to begin.

This time, I wasn’t performing, but waiting to watch my student perform. Jack stood beside me, nervously rocking back and forth on his feet. I put my hand on his shoulder. “Hey. You’re gonna be great.”

“I know.” He flashed me a grin. “I have an awesome teacher.”

I turned and smiled back at him, but my happiness faded some as I looked at his left arm. Although technically human, it still grew large white wing-feathers, from his wrist to his shoulder. I had been right. The nettle blanket wasn’t quite big enough.

“Jack, I know I’ve said it before, but I really am sorry about your—”

“Stop it.” He rolled his eyes. “It isn’t your fault, Juli. It really, really isn’t.”

I gave him and quick hug, and he walked out on stage to a rainfall of applause. The music began to drift over me, and I closed my eyes, humming. After the concert, I would return home with Henry, where I had been living since I’d left my mother’s house after the swan incident. I had also left the spellbook, content to leave the family business and pursue music, another kind of magic. My mother wasn’t happy about it, but that was her usual state of existence.

As for me, I had the love and support of my brothers, and for the time being, that was all I needed.

 

 

BIO

katie schwartzKatie J. Schwartz was raised in a small Midwestern town and now lives in another, frightfully similar, small Midwestern town. She has a Master’s degree in Professional Writing. Her creative works have appeared in Journey Literary Magazine, Adanna Literary Journal, and Black Fox Literary Magazine. Like many writers, she also has a blog: katiejschwartz.wordpress.com. Author photo credit to Bryan Schilligo.

 

 

 

 

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The Jaguar Smiles

by Emma Fuhs

 

 

Samantha Gates lives on a street where everyone smiles. They smile as they trim their rosebushes, as they water their lawns in the early afternoon, as they unload groceries from Whole Foods. They smile as they jog and they smile as they walk their purebreds. Samantha thinks the smiles are trying to tell her something.

She sees her children off to school each morning. Joseph is fourteen and Kathleen is eighteen and neither of them gives a shit about Samantha. Most days, they leave their homemade lunches in the fridge.

This morning is no different. She watches one of the neighbors look up from his lawn mowing and smile as the Gates children head off to school. Sipping her milk-diluted coffee, Samantha folds herself into the couch closest to the front window and doesn’t smile. Lately, she seems to be the only one not smiling.

Kathleen backs into the street. She doesn’t check both ways like Samantha taught her to. Samantha thinks that she might have to tell her husband, Todd Gates, that Kathleen is driving a little recklessly. The children listen to Todd.

Just as she’s about to retire to her room for a couple hours, something catches her eye. There’s a creature stalking Kathleen’s car, lean and black. It’s some kind of large cat, Samantha guesses. A jaguar.

She gets up, spilling coffee on the white couch and carpet. She curses the way she does when Todd’s not around and hurries to the front porch. By the time she opens the front door, the car has rounded the bend and is gone. So is the jaguar.

Samantha turns away from the still-smiling neighbor and goes back inside, locking the front door behind her. She goes to the kitchen and sits in front of the iPad Todd bought for her fortieth birthday. She had to open it at the surprise party he threw for her, in front of all the people that he invited. Even the people she didn’t know. Even the woman who called Samantha fat in high school but scribbled a friendly-enough note in Samantha’s yearbook. Todd apologized for the slip, claiming he’d seen the yearbook and thought the two had been close. Samantha forgave him, of course.

She unlocks the iPad with the password 8-6-3-3. Todd in numerical form.

Google is already open. Her last search was a recipe for steel-cut oats and before that, an erotic romance on Amazon. She reminds herself to clear the browsing history before Todd returns home.

She tries to steady her trembling hands as she types into the searchbar: Jaguar sightings in Pasadena? She’s heard of mountain lions spooking unsuspecting hikers in the Hollywood hills, but never a jaguar.

Her search yields some interesting results. A few years back, a mother claimed to have seen a family of black mountain lions with lime green eyes near her home in Waco, Texas. The article says that she called Animal Services immediately after the sighting, so Samantha digs through her purse for her iPhone. She unlocks it with the password 8-6-3-3 and dials Los Angeles Animal Services.

“Thanks for calling. You’re talking to Bradley. How can I help you?”

“Hi Bradley. My name is Samantha Gates. I just saw a jaguar following my children to school and want to report it.” As she talks, Samantha tugs hard at the thin silver chain around her neck. Todd gave it to her years ago in a small black box, and she assumed it was an engagement ring. They had been dating for almost five years and talked about having four perfect children, so marriage was inevitable. When she opened the box and saw the necklace, her look of surprise was not the same one she’d rehearsed in the mirror.

“Ms. Yates, where are you calling from?”

“It’s Gates. And I’m calling from my home in Pasadena.”

There’s a muffled sound from the other end, almost like someone ruffling quickly through a thick stack of papers. But Samantha has heard this sound before. She knows Bradley is laughing at her.

“I googled it. There have been similar sightings before. I read articles.”

“Look, Ms. Bates. I’ve read articles about Bigfoot before, but that doesn’t mean he’s real. If you see the thing again, give us a call. Otherwise, there’s not much I can do for you.”

“But—”

“Have a great day, Ms.”

Samantha slams her phone down, hoping it will shatter against the granite countertop. But when she lifts it to check, the screen is still in one piece. It’s too protected by the rubber lining of her phone case.

She turns back to her iPad, narrowing her search based on something that Bradley said. Bigfoot. She types: Jaguar sightings in Pasadena? Cryptozoology?

This search pulls up fewer links than the last. She clicks on the first one because it has a very no-nonsense tagline about jaguars and cryptozoology. The site is a WordPress blog managed by a Pat Donohue. He writes about eyewitness accounts of large black cats sneaking up on unsuspecting suburb-dwellers and his personal email is listed at the end of the blog post. Samantha copies it over to her Gmail account and considers how to word her message.

 

From: mrstoddgates@gmail.com
To: truthhunter1974@gmail.com
Date: 12 November, 7:56 AM
Subject: Jaguar sighted in Pasadena

 

Hi Mr. Donohue,
I stumbled upon your blog this morning after seeing something rather troubling. It looked to me like a jaguar was stalking my children on their way to school, but I cannot be sure. In your opinion, is there any chance of a jaguar roaming my neighborhood in Pasadena?

Best,
Samantha Gates

 

She reads it over a few times before deciding that it is good enough to send. It doesn’t sound too hysterical or ridiculous. It is worded similarly to the exchanges she has with other PTA moms. She expects that he’ll email her back by the end of the day.

Samantha leaves the iPad in the kitchen and goes to the bedroom she shares with Todd. The king-size bed rests on a frame of ornately carved oak that Todd bought from a furniture store that was going out of business. He bought it on his way home from work one day and a van came to drop it off the next morning. Samantha called him when the men came to the front door and he apologized for not telling her about the bed frame over dinner. It had slipped his mind.

She forgave him and let the men bring the bed frame upstairs. They even installed it for her, shelving the sexless bed on top of the impressive wooden box.

Samantha takes her clothes off and gets into the carefully-made bed. She spreads her naked body out, wiggling her toes at the pockets of soft sheets that are so deliciously cold without Todd lying beneath them. She closes her eyes and stays like that for almost an hour.

When she gets up, she smoothes the wrinkles out of her shirt before pulling it back over her head. Then she makes the bed exactly the way it was before, lining all the white pillows up and working the comforter until it is taught. She goes back downstairs and checks her Gmail.

There’s a message from the cryptozoologist.

 

From: truthhunter1974@gmail.com
To: mrstoddgates@gmail.com
Date: 12 November, 8:34 AM
Subject: Jaguar sighted in Pasadena

 

Ms. Gates,
Thank you for your message. As someone who dabbles in cryptozoology, I am very interested in any reports of unusual animals. As someone who lives in the suburbs of LA, I have something of a personal interest in your report. Let me tell you right off the bat that this type of sighting is not unusual. It’s estimated that across the Southwest, anywhere from ten to twenty percent of eyewitnesses calling in about big cats describe black jaguars instead of mountain lions.

In my opinion, the government does not want us thinking these creatures could ever come back. But they’re not extinct like dinosaurs–it is well within the bounds of possibility to think that a stray jaguar might migrate up from Mexico and find its way into your neighborhood.

I would recommend calling it in to the Dept. of Wildlife Conservation. Or, if you like, I can make the call for you.

Sincerely,
Pat Donohue

 

Samantha’s hands are shaking as she types, so her email takes a few minutes longer to compose than usual. Finally she writes out a message asking that Mr. Donohue please call the Department of Wildlife Conservation on her behalf. She includes the street address so that the report is accurate.

Samantha turns the iPad off and grabs her iPhone off the counter. Todd picks up on the fifth ring.

“Hi, Sammy.”

“Todd, listen. I need you to come home right now. I need a car.” Once Kathleen got her license, Samantha didn’t need to drive the children to school anymore. Kathleen got Samantha’s Lexus for her sixteenth birthday and Todd kept his BMW. When they leave home in the morning, the garage is left empty until they return.

“You sound funny Sammy. Take a deep breath and tell me what’s going on.”

“It’s the kids. I saw something this morning and thought I was crazy but I’m not. I’m not crazy, Todd. Jaguars can migrate north of the border.”

“Samantha, stop. You can’t do this every time I leave for work. Don’t you have something to keep you busy? What about that scarf you were knitting last week?”

“There’s a jaguar stalking our children.”

“I have to go. Text me if you need anything.”

Todd hangs up and Samantha continues standing in the same spot, staring vaguely at the oven’s digital clock. The green numbers glow eerily at night. She knows because sometimes she sleepwalks downstairs and starts making herself a sandwich. Each time, she wakes up right after taking a bite. If she didn’t wake up at that exact moment, she’d choke on it.

Todd doesn’t know about the episodes. He takes melatonin every night, before going to bed and after jerking off in the shower. Samantha hasn’t told him because she doesn’t want him to lock up the bread and condiments to keep her safe.

The day passes slowly. She busies herself by tearing out the scarf she had started and spooling the yarn until it’s wound in a ball that looks exactly the same as when she bought it in the store. She goes into the front yard, ignoring the smiling neighbors as she checks the dirt for paw prints. She drafts several emails to the school, detailing the jaguar sighting, and deletes every one of them. Finally, the children return home.

Samantha has a plate of Oreos on the counter that they ignore. Joseph grabs a soda from the fridge and Kathleen’s headphones are playing music so loud, Samantha can hear it from ten feet away. Their feet type out a long sentence going up the stairs, followed by the punctuation of two slamming doors.

Alone again, Samantha finds Kathleen’s keys hanging on a peg next to the front door. She takes them and leaves the house, locking the door behind her. She scans the street carefully to ensure the jaguar hasn’t returned. The street is empty except for a woman walking her newborn child in a stroller, smiling as she passes. Samantha ignores her. She makes sure she has her license and the credit card Todd gave her before getting behind the wheel of Kathleen’s car.

The drive to the grocery store is short. She gets there in just a few minutes and parks in the half-empty lot. It’s not crowded because most people do their shopping on the weekend.

Samantha gets a cart and puts her purse where a baby would go if she still had one. Usually she carries a list of everything she needs to buy for Todd and the children. She writes it out the night before and brings it to the store to ensure she won’t forget any essentials. But today is different. She doesn’t have a list and she doesn’t know what she came here to buy.

She starts on aisle 1: Produce. Then she goes to aisle 2: Baking, Spices, Oil. Then she goes to aisle 3: Canned foods. Then she goes to aisle 4: Chips and condiments. Then she goes to aisle 5: Baked goods. Then she goes to aisle 6: Cereal, Coffee, Tea. Then she goes to aisle 7: Personal hygiene. Then she goes to aisle 8: Beverages and water. Then she goes to aisle 9: Frozen dinners.

The man at the checkout stand appraises her cart when she approaches.

“Just that?”

Samantha nods, taking the box of tampons out of the cart and setting them on the conveyor belt. They cost twelve dollars and she pays for them with Todd’s credit card.

The sun is setting when she gets back to Kathleen’s car. Samantha thinks that time is funny inside a grocery store. It drags and it races.

Samantha drives fast on the way home, hoping that the jaguar will jump out in front of Kathleen’s car so that she might kill it. Then her children would see what a hero she is. And Todd would realize that she needs something more than yarn to keep her busy all day.

She parks in the driveway and takes her purse from the passenger seat, the box of tampons tucked inside. She gets out of the car and starts toward the house, hearing the click of the automatic locks behind her. She is almost to the porch when she hears another sound behind her. It is barely a sound, closer to the whooshing of wind through grass or runoff collecting in the gutters. But she knows that this is exactly what a jaguar would sound like: Almost like nothing.

Samantha turns to face the jaguar. It is crouched in the middle of the lawn, flicking its long tail back and forth. Its eyes are not lime green like the woman in Waco, Texas described. Its eyes are twin moons, golden and gathering light from the sun.

She takes a step closer and it snarls, mouth stretching back to reveal sharp teeth and a coarse pink tongue. Samantha thinks that it looks almost like a smile.

She smiles back.

 

 

BIO

emma fuhsEmma Fuhs spent her childhood on the central coast of California and now attends the University of California, Davis, where she is majoring in English. She aspires to be a novelist and is probably eating a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch right now.

 

 

 

0

Car Crash

by Joe Giordano

 

 

I bartended at a joint that featured live music. I accumulated a few bucks and bought a small, three-bedroom house on a busy street in East Austin that I rented to musicians who played at the bar. The legalities on rental property were onerous, so I stayed under the radar with word-of-mouth as the source for new tenants.

The last act in the evening, three guys with long black hair and beards that made them look like Sikhs without the turbans, were renting my house. They were tuning their instruments on stage, starting their set, when a police call came for me. Some poor bastard had lost control and drove his beater, pea-green Chevy into my house doing eighty. You can still see the skid marks on the asphalt. The driver was impaled by a two-by-four and died instantly. The house was thrown off its foundation severing every utility connection. The firemen turned off the water and gas, but the EMTs wouldn’t enter the house to remove the body until contractors installed braces to stabilize the roof. When I told the Sikhs, they wanted me to put them up at a hotel. I refused. One of them said that they’d turn me in for renting illegally. I walked away. Even musicians can be assholes.

The driver of the car was Farley Matheson, twenty-three, unemployed, living with his mother about ten blocks away. It seemed right that I see her. I arrived late morning. Before I rang I saw that the door was ajar. I called out, but there was no answer. I stepped inside. A woman with blue eyes, and pulled back gray hair sat scrunched into a corner of a thread-bare couch. She stared out a side window.

“Mrs. Matheson?”

No answer. I took a few steps forward. “Mrs. Matheson, I’m Paul Nardelli. I own the house where your son’s accident occurred.

She didn’t stir.

I didn’t want to stand over her, and I didn’t want to sit. “I came to express my sympathies for your loss.”

She let out a deep sigh. “It’s not your fault.” Her eyes were red-rimmed. “Farley was a good boy. He made me warm milk to help me sleep.”

I glanced around the living room. There were three framed pictures. A man in his thirties, a younger man I guessed was Farley, and a rather old photo of a little girl with blonde pig-tails and a tender smile. “Mrs. Matheson, do you have someone to help you?”

She pointed at the pictures with a hand veined like a tobacco leaf. “Bobby was killed on the BP oil rig. Little Mazie was lost to me many years ago.” She sighed. “Strange, don’t you think? If you hit a little girl with your car, you’d stop to see if she could be saved?”

I gulped. The thought of grieving for three dead children hit me like a tsunami. My eyes moistened. I cleared my throat. “Your husband?”

“He left soon after Mazie died. We couldn’t stand the blame or the guilt.”

“I’m sorry.”

Mrs. Matheson’s blue eyes were in turmoil. “I try to understand. What sin did I commit that so offended God?”

My mouth opened and closed. She turned her head toward the window. Above the pictures I noticed a mark on the wall where a crucifix once hung, now just a white shadow. After a few moments, I slipped out of her home.

The insurance company sent Mr. Charles Smallman, from Kansas City, as claims adjuster. He was bald, and the sweat on his pate threw a glare that could’ve lit Sixth Street. He wore a brown-suit, yellow tie, and complained about Austin heat.

Farley’s Chevy had torn a hole through the living room as wide as the Congress Avenue Bridge, and the house was half on the grass. Smallman rooted around the debris with his tape measure for an hour.

Finally, I called out, “What are you calculating? The house is a total wreck.”

Smallman hadn’t unbuttoned his jacket. He produced a massive handkerchief and wiped his considerable forehead. “There’s a lot that can be salvaged.” He left in a rental car, and I stood, hands on hips.

Within a few days, I received a settlement offer for a fraction of what was required to restore the building. My face got hot.

One of my friends from school, we called him Outlaw Dan, rang me. Dan had been three-hundred pounds before his stomach was banded. He was down to two-twenty but still binged on Nacho Cheese Doritos. The year before, Dan hacked into Wells Fargo and changed account names to silliness like “Joaquin Barfly.” No money was taken, but Wells Fargo couldn’t calm customers for months. The FBI wanted Dan’s ass. He lived in a caravan and moved every night. He said, “Did you see the blog about your house crash?”

I couldn’t give a Longhorn’s turd for politics, but a well-known political tweeter had written about Farley Matheson’s death: “Another East Austin slacker bites the dust. Good riddance!”

My first thought went to Mrs. Matheson. She’d never read such trash, but a neighbor could call attention to this calumny against her dead son. My ears reddened like chili peppers.

I said, “Dan, we need to fix this prick. Will you help?”

Dan had an evil sort of laugh.

The blogger’s name was Reginald Crawley, and I hoped we’d find kiddie-porn on his hard drive. Crawley was surreptitiously an on-line hit-man for a nationally-known Texas politician. The politico paid Crawley to attack enemies while he disclaimed responsibility. Dan found copies of correspondence and proof of payment to Crawley, which we leaked to the Austin American-Statesman. You heard about it because the national networks picked up the story, and the politico’s Presidential hopes evaporated like Lake Travis in a drought. He didn’t resign. Narcissists like him are like clown punching toys that keep popping up with the same molasses grin. Embarrassment isn’t in their lexicon. Crawley, on the other hand, left town. He set up shop in California. I worry that he’s thriving.

Meanwhile, I had a long think about the paltry insurance settlement offer. By some amazing coincidence, the house must’ve been struck by lightning and burned. Anyway, that was my story. The insurance company had a different take, because I received a knock on my door late one evening from Sheriff Rufus Tyler. Ole Rufus brushed past me without a word and ensconced himself into my favorite chair. Tyler had a gunmetal crew-cut and a girth like he’d swallowed a dinosaur egg. He folded his hands over his belly. “You set fire to your house.”

It wasn’t a question. My eyebrows rose. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Tyler looked at his fingernails. “I knew you’d deny it.”

I leaned a shoulder against a wall.

Tyler said, “Trouble is that an orca-fat dude was seen leaving the scene, and he doesn’t fit your description.”

Instinctively, I pulled in my stomach.

He continued. “I know you had it done.”

“It was lightning.”

Tyler laughed so hard that he went into a coughing fit. He said, “You rented the house without the proper permits.” He smiled. “If I tell the insurance company, they’ll void your coverage.”

He really had my attention.

He said, “There’s a rumor that you’re responsible for harpooning –.” He mentioned the Texas politico by name. “I hate that son-of-a-bitch.”

Breath returned to my lungs.

Tyler stood. “You won’t like me so much the next time we cross paths.” He passed out the door like a cold front.

A week later the full insurance check arrived. I went to see Mrs. Matheson. “Farley’s life insurance came through.”

She was surprised that Farley had any insurance, but allowed that the money would come in handy. She agreed, and I went through her finances. We paid off her mortgage. She didn’t have much credit card debt, but we wiped that away. She picked a nice marble headstone for Farley, and we settled accounts at the funeral home.

I dropped by Mrs. Matheson’s every couple of days to buy her groceries, take her to the doctor, or to the senior center. One evening I made her some warm milk. She said, “Thanks, Farley.” I didn’t correct her.

One day we were sitting in her living room. She said, “It wasn’t God.”

“Sorry?”

“The death of my children. It wasn’t God, it was the devil.”

That’s when I noticed that the crucifix was back on the wall.

 

 

BIO

joe giordanoJoe Giordano’s stories have appeared in more than ninety magazines including Bartleby Snopes, The Saturday Evening Post, decomP, The Summerset Review, and Shenandoah. His novel, Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, was published by Harvard Square Editions October 2015. His second novel, Appointment with ISIL, an Anthony Provati Thriller will be published by HSE in May 2017. Read the first chapters and sign up for his blog at http://joe-giordano.com/

0

The Astronaut

by Christopher Branson

 

 

6th December 1999

 

As I sit here writing at my desk it will shortly be midnight. The halls are deadly quiet and the quad is still. No sounds come from the window, only the twitch of my curtain in the sharp winter air. It is now three hours since I returned from my uncanny encounter, three hours of tobacco-fuelled meditation and self-interrogation, and I have resolved at last to set down with unfailing accuracy the weird events of the evening just gone. It is true perhaps that I am tottering on the brink of inebriation, but let it be said that drunkenness might yet prove propitious, and not simply for the good of my nerves. I mean that it might serve the truth of this telling, too. A sober mind would likely prove a hindrance when trying to recount the full irreality of my meeting with that shaman.

To provide a context for the future reader, curious of mind: today was a harsh crisp cold December day. I emerged sleepless from the fog of my room at eighteen past eleven in the morning, a freshly-printed essay in my bag and with barely sufficient time remaining to land at my destination, on the other side of Jesus Green. Noon was the deadline, the arbitrary cut-off, past which my labours would risk casual dismissal. Through the awkward letterbox of my awkward supervisor’s flat the script had to go, and thus to that place I was compelled to go, and in haste. What it argued, this essay, through which I’d agonised the night, I presently forget. All I can tell is that it had been assembled from the words of arcane secondary texts, texts that I barely understood, and that the whole thing stank of a final-year student in search of vindication.

But worry not, dear reader, for that was then, and this is now. Upon submitting the script I succeeded in disposing of all of my academic neuroses, along with what little interest I’d briefly aroused towards the History and Philosophy of Science. And, most significant and joyous of all, by dispensing with that terrible essay I managed to liberate myself for a few dear hours of all concern and care about my dreadfully impending future.

I sidled into a favoured tavern just as the streetlights were flickering on, the essay out of sight and bloody blessed mind, a successful book browse behind me and an overpriced hotdog from a street vendor resting in my gut. Dismissing the cruel world with a cheery ‘Fuck off!’ under my breath, I headed straight on into the back of the pub, into the warmth, the candlelight.

Oh, it was a welcoming old abode, this streetside boozer, all unpolished wood and candlewax and a thick and prohibitive smokiness to the air and no awful jukebox to ruin the mood. Reporting to the bar of this smoky paradise, I acquired a glass of the darkest stuff they had and retired to a table, where I rolled a cigarette, lit it luxuriously, and presently opened my brand-new second-hand book. And then, with my three forms of nutrition to hand – serving body, mind and lung – I reclined along the bench seat, my God did I recline, I was bare degrees from the horizontal. I may as well have been decked out in a silk lounge suit, a gentleman supine in a backstreet opium den in some far corner of the Orient. I daresay a few other aspects of the experience contributed to this fantasy, which now strikes me as increasingly vivid and true: the redolent, premature candlelit darkness of the room, placing it already in the realm of dream; the poetry of the magnificent smoke, a ceaseless hypnotic motion like Chinese dragons dancing; and finally, and above all, my sleep-deprived, thoroughgoing exhaustion, which was nigh-metaphysical in stature. In sum, I felt perfectly stoned, as though a chasm had been woven around me into which perspective could not penetrate, and as I lay there on my bench in this warm womb of a room I daresay I wore a very milky smile.

It was from out of this narcotic dream haze that he then emerged: suddenly, forcefully, not at all like a ghost. ‘Excuse me son,’ he said, ‘I see that you’re reading, would you mind if I sat here?’

I looked up from behind the pane of glass that had formed on the surface of my face and I beheld a giant, a corpulent monster clad in wax jacket and flat cap, who stood there poised, across the table, to react to my response. I scanned the room, registering that all but one table were presently unoccupied, and I looked at him again and replayed his words in my mind. It was striking, was it not, the incongruity between, on the one hand, his acknowledgement that I was busy with my reading – that I was engaged in a rewarding private ritual, one that would benefit greatly from remaining private and undisturbed – and, on the other hand, his request to impose himself on my table? When he had at his disposal no fewer than four other free and ample resting spots from which to select? And when I was almost guaranteed to deny the request, to dismiss him with incredulous refusal? And yet it was precisely this same fabulous incongruity, I suspect, and perhaps this alone, that caused me instead to drop my feet to the floor, wearily push my ailing frame upright – so that while I continued to slouch I was now approachable at least – and to lift my hand from my book and wearily beckon him to sit down, ‘Please,’ thereby breaking a long-ingrained habit of avoiding interaction with strangers at all cost.

Now, I should make clear that my immediate feeling was that this man had chosen me. That this messenger had specifically been seeking my table, and no other, through the strange, dilated time-fog of the room. That he wished to make contact. As I replay it now, I cannot find words to explain or justify why this intuition had stolen upon me with such clarity, but it is integral to my purpose that it is noted here in its chronological place.

Now, it was a large round table that I’d acquired and he sat down opposite, so that he was still two yards away from me, still out of my space: unreal. For some perverse reason it felt to me like a game of some sort, and I made a secret decision to entertain his every conversational whim.

And already I was enjoying the reflection that here I was, about to join the ranks of pint-supping men who talk to other pint-supping men, those proficient in conversing with other men of similar ilk, irrespective of familiarity and free from all prejudice, and not only that but I was presently engaged to do so with a companion of highly eccentric manner and quite gigantic proportion. I smiled and took a better look at him. His head was the size of a large watermelon and he was ruddy of face, but with huge sad eyes beneath his farmer’s cap. I became temporarily fixated on the size of that massive head and on how much it must weigh, and this thought discomforted me to the extent that I was compelled to look away, so that I noticed the half pint of ale that was gripped helplessly in his giant fist like a thimble inside a boxing glove, and I gulped and instead looked back at the massive head and took a nervous draught of stout.

‘John,’ he said, extending a massive arm, and I replied with my own name, though it did occur to me to do otherwise. I unfolded my limb and tensed it as contact with his outrageous paw drew near. He was gentle with me, though, I could tell, even if I could still sense the power in that monstrous appendage.

‘What do you do?’ he now enquired.

‘Student,’ I replied, and he nodded.

He cocked his head to one side, craning his neck, and cast his eyes at the cover of my book. ‘Graham Greene.’

‘Brighton Rock,’ I confirmed.

‘Haven’t read it,’ and he leaned back and took a tiny sip from his tiny glass.

I’d read it once before, at school, but refrained from disclosing this. Nor did I mention what had animated this impulsive new purchase: the fact I’d recently see the film and had been left terrified by Richard Attenborough’s face.

‘My wife’s read it,’ he said, breaking what was swiftly becoming a challenging silence. ‘My wife’s read everything.’

Something in his tone or bearing caused me to glance at his ring finger, which was unadorned, and I smiled and sat up straighter still and said, ‘Really?’ and he nodded.

‘I read non-fiction,’ he said. ‘Facts,’ and then he was possessed by a grave mood, and he leaned in with wild eyes, his voice conspiratorial. ‘I can remember everything, Chris. Everything!’ He raised his fist from the table. ‘People say it’s a gift, but it’s not.’ My eyes widened. ‘It’s a curse!’ And he thumped down his fist and leaned back with his declamation still resounding in the haunted space between us.

I didn’t know what to say, not least when I noticed the tortured expression he was affecting, as if the mere mention of his affliction had unleashed a plague of memories upon his tortured mind. I shuddered at the strain on his enormous brain.

Still he was awaiting a reaction, though. Despite summoning all of my faculties in response to his plethora, all I could manage was, ‘Really?’ and he nodded once, apparently meaning business.

‘Ask me something,’ he said, ‘anything. Something I wouldn’t know.’

By way, perhaps, of my recent studies, the first such question that appeared to mind concerned the year of publication of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, a successful book, all told.

My companion nodded and leaned back. His thick fingers pressed against the tufts of hair that protruded from his cap around the temples. He strained his face for several moments, turned a shade of red, and then began to mutter a strange incantation, a chant of what I can only assume were related facts: mental hooks for the elusive date that was drifting through his infinite mind. I was captivated. When eventually he located the answer he delivered it with confidence, setting out first the question, and then the vital year that had been requested. Unperturbed by my astonishment, he proceeded to detail of what the treatise comprised, where it had been written, how old the author had been upon publication, and finally with which Cambridge college he had been affiliated, and he then concluded his performance with a great wag of the head and a fold of the arms, and I do not exaggerate when I tell you I was agog. Absolutely everything he said had been wrong. Coming to terms with the stature of the man, several moments passed before I was able to speak.

‘But wasn’t he a fellow of Trinity?’ I said.

‘No,’ John confirmed, ‘he was not.’

And with this firm rebuttal I decided not to provoke his wrath any further, instead fleeing this danger by changing the subject. I asked him how he made his living. To what end did he exert his extraordinary powers? As a spy, perhaps? An inventor? A quizmaster? No, alas. I was disappointed to learn that he was in fact a businessman. He assured me that his wealth was significant, but that he had struggled for every penny. And with a shake of his finger he now changed the subject again, a tactic that left me dizzy.

I reflected: I’d never before met such an astounding liar. So serious was he that he may well have believed every word of his ridiculous spiel, and I saw no human reason to challenge this fanciful faith.

His discourse now turned to space, and it was clear that the possibilities of the vast black nothing had him rapt. He told me of wild inventions he had read about, and I sought to explain why I didn’t think they were possible, given my errant grasp of physics. This failed to diminish his interest in these matters, however, since he was a firm believer in alien technology far superior to our own. He carried on in real wonder, his outlandish descriptions punctuated by pauses of intense cogitation as he stared at a candle that was flickering to my left. ‘A man told me…of this ship…that can go so fast…’

His performance to this point had excited me so wildly that my patience was now rudely diminished, and I quickly tired of these science fiction fables. I wished to hear him speak again of human matters. Fortuitous thus was I that his huge jukebox of a mind then skipped to the matter of government conspiracies and I had the quite remarkable wisdom to ask him about the assassination of JFK. I was certain that of all men John would know what really went on, and I was glad when he agreed that Oswald could not possibly have done it by himself. His reasons for thinking so, however, were entirely his own. As he unfurled his explanation I waited silently, both attracted and repelled by the possibility of what I was about to hear.

‘You see, Chris, for Oswald to have made those shots…well, he would have had to be superhuman. Back then, when was it, 1969? There were only two people on the planet who could have made them…and me and my brother were on this side of the pond,’ and this time he didn’t even bother to acknowledge my incredulous reaction, just folded his upper body into a shooting stance, his muzzle pointing towards the window, and fired off shot after shot. ‘Paoww. Paoww.’

As if caressed by this reassuring memory of childhood he began to settle down again, and we then conversed in relaxed demeanour about his family, and about his working life and wealth, the source of which I could not quite discern. He had felt the bite of poverty, though, he assured me and no doubt, once owing twenty thousand pounds. He’d lost his house, his car, everything, but, he told me, this didn’t matter. ‘It’s only money. Doesn’t mean anything,’ and once more he gave me a testing stare from his great sagging eyes, but this time with grit in his cheeks, and I swear for a moment he looked like a genius.

I felt compelled to affirm the values he’d set forth and so complied: ‘No, I try not to worry about wealth,’ I said, and he nodded, satisfied with my answer. At which point the face of a lunatic returned.

‘I’ve dug the earth, Chris.’

I need not add that his ability to confound and unease was that of an expert. I stared back, slightly manic of a sudden, a confused smile playing at the edge of my mouth.

‘That,’ he said, ‘is hard … I’ve earned the right to my money,’ and he looked indignant as he said it.

‘Yes,’ I answered: that much was clear. ‘I worked in a warehouse last summer,’ I offered in return, eager to exploit my sole contact with working class life. ‘I was picking grocery orders and shifting crates…It wasn’t too bad for a few weeks, but then I didn’t have to support a family like most of the other men,’ and I shook my head to convey my respectful awe at the stoicism of the working chap. And then I noticed a dreadnought shadow swallowing over my glass and I looked up and saw him looming there over me, his arm thrust forth, massive, his girth seeming to encapsulate my entire field of vision. The surface of his appearance wobbled like a candle-flame, flickering occasionally. I couldn’t define his boundaries. I saw sunspots. His eyes focused on mine.

‘Feel it.’

I became crudely conspicuous of myself: my torso was pressed against the back of the bench, my arms flung behind it, and sweat was stinging my eyes. I reached out, trembling, trying to maintain a smile as I closed my hand upon the mighty wrist he held out for me, which looked like a leg of lamb in a farmer’s jacket. It was by far the largest arm I’ve ever encountered, three times the greater of mine. I was convinced even before I’d felt it that this man had dug the earth. I tried not to press too hard on the wax cloth. He was satisfied by my limp grip, however, and he returned oddly to his seat, grinning triumphantly, taking his time, as though hoping that others would note his prowess.

At this moment I fidgeted awkwardly because three unfriendly-seeming men at the bar were now staring at us with suspicious eyes, causing me to look down and notice that my glass was empty, an observation that was marked by John.

‘What are you drinking?’ my stout companion swiftly enquired.

‘Stout,’ I said, and smiled.

His features lifted, rampant with incredulity. ‘That,’ he spluttered, ‘is what my mother drinks! It’s shit! You should drink the real ale, my son.’

Now, I honestly did not know how to respond to this and therefore did not, and fumbled instead for a cigarette. He ignored my discomfort and lurched erratically to the bar, telling the barman loudly that I drank an old woman’s drink. He ordered in accord with my wishes, nonetheless. He took another half for himself, despite his own glass still sitting an inch from full, a level it had not deviated from since the moment he’d sat down.

As he made his order the three regulars at the bar observed him from their perches. He seemed to amuse them, which made me smile. Then he turned to them, his head wobbling and sporting its most affable lunatic smile. ‘Now, can I buy you gents a drink? Anyone? Anyone?’ With barely concealed amusement the three declined the offer. John, however, was particularly insistent, which to my great distress prompted the synchronised draining of the men’s glasses, a coordinated action that was frankly uncalled for and which surely had humiliation at the base of its design.

‘Time to go, lads,’ the eldest of the three said, and they all left presently, the last of them looking over at me with an expression that I inferred to mean something like, ‘Get out while you can, he’s a fucking fruit.’

John was quite aware of what had happened, and perhaps was even as sentient as I to the likelihood that these drinkers had walked directly to the next pub, three doors along. I caught his eye as he looked across at me, forlorn, and I mustered all of my resources and smiled vacantly back at him. This, remarkably, seemed to do the trick of reassurance, spurring him to turn sharply about. ‘Do you know,’ he informed the sympathetic barman, ‘I think I’ll have your largest cigar,’ and he patted his belly opulently and the barman smiled. I lit a roll-up, eyes glued to the drama, and pulled greedily on it. ‘Chris,’ he called, ‘do you want a large cigar?’ and I shook my head, exhaling my smoke in a controlled fashion and holding my device aloft. ‘Or are you managing with what you’ve…’ he continued unnecessarily, his voice trailing off. He paid up and wandered pack, the cigar in his pocket, and he set down the glasses exactly. Then he lit the mock-Cuban at length and puff-puff-puffed. His composure returned.

‘Do you want to see a magic trick?’ He wagged his head at me, leaning back in his chair and raising his eyebrows enthusiastically. I looked at him blankly, the fresh stout lapping at my lip. ‘I,’ he whispered, ‘can levitate.’

I put down my drink. ‘Really?’

‘My brother showed me how.’

Dispensing with his cigar, he seemingly floated to the centre of the empty room and stopped. His feet moved daintily on the sticky pub floor, arranging themselves with esoteric precision. He took many deep breaths and looked up. As vital as composure, it seemed, was posture: he gripped his jacket like a nobleman, as though clutching two imaginary lapels between thumb and fist.

I expected him to do it.

Then, daintily as a ballerina, he lifted his entire body up such that the foot closest to me now hovered a full inch above the ground. The ball of the other foot, upon which he had assuredly transferred all of his weight, was cunningly obscured from view. He paused for a moment in mid-air, and then drifted calmly back to earth. As he returned to his chair he looked distinctly smug. ‘It’s good, isn’t it?’ He puffed on his cigar, spluttered, and returned it to the ashtray.

I couldn’t speak straight away, and I cannot swear that a spot of dribble didn’t fall from my lip as I stared, taking him in. ‘You didn’t … actually, though … did you?’ I shrugged, smiling apologetically, and then right away regretted my words, realising that the only noble course of action was to have roared in approval at his sleight of foot. He fell silent, and looked straight into me. A candle flickered.

‘Well no…I mean, of course I didn’t…but it’s clever, isn’t it? It is what is known as,’ he added, ‘an optical illusion. Do you want me to show you again?’ My urge to politely decline this offer was immediate and overwhelming, yet was nevertheless too late in arriving. Before I’d had a chance to draw breath and select a negative word or two he’d already positioned himself in the centre of the room, arranging his feet, breathing calmly, all eyes in the bar now fixed on him, then…’Ah-ah!’…and he victoriously returned to his seat. ‘Now,’ he winked, ‘did you work out how I did it this time?’ I looked down and noticed that the glass in his hand was full. To the left of his fleshy paw was a now-empty half pint jar, and I hadn’t seen a thing. I looked up, nodded nervously, and drew deeply from my glass.

A silence then passed that would have suffocated the hope of many a man, but John possessed fortitude like no other. He simply sat and concocted his next move. The tension was unbearable. I closed my eyes and braced myself.

‘Do you know…Chrissy,’ he started of a sudden, wagging his head with visible glee, ‘what I wanted to be when I was a boy?’

‘No,’ I answered confidently.

‘…’

‘…’

‘No…well, of course you don’t know,’ he conceded. ‘But guess!’ His tongue stroked the inside of his cheek as you would a cat. He waited with raised eyebrows, tapping his cigar. The relief that only moments before had surged through me now drained ominously away. I bowed my head in concentration.

‘A magician?’

‘No.’

‘A soldier?’

No.

‘A racing driver?’

‘Nope’

‘Bus driver.’

‘Nor that. Not a driver.’

‘An actor, then?’

‘Nope.’

It occurred to me to facetiously suggest ‘A businessman,’ but instead I simply said, ‘I give up.’

‘Do you give up?’ he demanded. I was unsure whether he was seeking the pleasure of forcing me to repeat my concession, or if he was simply operating a few seconds behind reality.

‘Yes,’ I confirmed, and awaited the revelation.

‘An explorer!’ he whispered ever so loudly, his eyes lighting like fireworks at the sound of the word. ‘Marching across the South Pole! There, son,’ he confirmed, ‘you’d really be alone.’

This last detail skittled my thoughts, which initially had conjured public school types with groomed blonde moustaches, nasal voices and army-issue backpacks, leading a legion of men into unknown territory in the name of the Queen. And now of a sudden something entirely different had been brought to mind, a vision that provoked in me an immediate suffering and which haunts me still as I sit here in the Witching Hour writing at my desk: the image of little boy John, awake at night and shivering under his sheets, praying to God for the solitude, the intense cold, the emptiness of the South Pole.

‘Why would you wish to be alone like that?’ I asked him, my voice uneasy, the vision of the schoolboy’s prayer already fixed in my mind.

‘Because that,’ he said, ‘is what makes the explorer the best of men. Forget success or fame, I’m talking about glory. An explorer is the bravest of them all. You do it all on your own … walking on land where no man else has trod. There’s no one there to help you. That,’ he nodded, ‘is a strong man. When you’re truly on your own, forging a path in the world, that’s when have to be strong.’

He fell quiet. His incredible elastic features had subdued and the notion came to me that he was now recalling every occasion in his life when he’d relied on another, that he was reliving shame about his every moment of weakness. And all of a sudden I was possessed by an acute feeling of guilt, for was I not now an accessory to this repeated suffering of his? He’d sought my company, after all. But then I looked him in the eye and I felt certain that despite the pain it might cause him, he wanted me to stay. He was seeking a moment’s respite from his life’s burden, I believe: sympathy, perhaps, or just a little understanding. In any case, he’d be alone again soon enough. I decided to let him take all the time he needed. It was not long, however, before he spoke again.

‘What are you going to do,’ he coughed, ‘when you finish your studies?’

‘I haven’t a clue,’ I blushed.

‘You’ll be rich,’ he said. ‘No doubt about it. With your degree you’ll walk into a career. Mark my words, Chrissy, you’ll do well.’

Now it was my turn to evoke discomfort. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to do a job just for the money,’ and I avoided meeting his eye, quite aware of the privileged position my place at this institution afforded me.

He smirked back at me, no less aware. ‘What do you want to do, then?’

‘I don’t know,’ I repeated, and I smiled frankly at him and reached for my tobacco. It was hardly an inquisition, and in any case I felt I owed him something, but on this particular topic I truly had nothing more to give. ‘I’m actually a bit worried about it,’ I mumbled, a cigarette filter obstructing my speech.

As I licked the paper and sealed my roll-up my eyes flicked up at him and I realised that my confession of anxiety had caused him pain. He sat up and his speech became uncomfortably sincere: ‘Chrissy…look at me, Chrissy…You are the…strongest, most intelligent person I’ve ever met.’ I felt he was pleading with me, as though he’d seen into my future and witnessed a terrible fate. ‘You’re going to do fine,’ he said, his thick voice quivering at its edges, ‘Fine. Nothing to worry about.’

I gulped. I didn’t understand what had occurred. Had he truly looked into my soul? Or was his speech nothing other than heartfelt nonsense? Had his artifice really fallen apart? And all of a sudden I saw him standing there naked, squirming in the candle flame that flickered in the huge, dark pool at the centre of his eye.

‘What have you got to worry about?’ he persisted. ‘Money?’ His frustration was clear. He still appeared to believe, despite all protestation, that I’d allowed myself to be subjugated by material worry. ‘Chrissy, if you’re ever short of cash I’ll lend it you.’ He laughed and looked at the cigar in his hand, which was clearly not to his taste. ‘What do I need money for? A few thousand, no interest. Don’t you worry…Heck! What am I saying? A good friend like you? You can have it!’ As embarrassed as I was by this crazy offer, I was relieved that my companion had regained his form. ‘When do you want it? Any time! A few thou, you just say the word, Chrissy! You can’t worry about money, you know!’ He was excited and truly serious: about the point, if not the offer.

I thanked him, told him money wasn’t really a problem. I simply wanted him to change the subject. He had no need to impress me. I’d felt uncomfortable enough when he asked for that ridiculous cigar. I don’t think he realised how much I took for granted over this table, and even if he did, I’d lost all desire to pick away at his ridiculous façade.

‘Have it your way,’ he said, ‘but the offer’s there,’ and I said nothing. I then feared that once more a frightful silence was about to descend on us, only for him to burst with an irreverent chuckle and I looked and could see that he’d managed to relight the flare behind his face.

‘What, then,’ he said, ‘did you want to be when you were a boy?’ He twiddled his cigar, which was now proving a helpful prop, if nothing else. ‘Don’t be shy!’

Now, I must explain at this point that I’d anticipated the question. He was doing his best to disorientate me, of course, by changing topic erratically, such was his genius, but the revelation of his dark desire to be an explorer had lingered nevertheless. It seemed to stand out as a clue to the meaning of his visit: a flag in the snow, cracking in the wind, beckoning me towards it. I tried to recall my own childhood dreams, to unearth something of similar character, but my mind remained a blank. I remembered our home and how I used to climb trees in the woods; playing on the Down’s Banks, the Plot, the Mudleys, the Mole-Hole. I’m not sure I wanted for anything in those sweet, carefree days. I’m not sure I ever much imagined growing up, and honestly I can’t remember wanting to be anything particular when I did. And now, years later, fully grown, I still struggle to imagine growing up, and still don’t want to be anything particular when I do, the only difference being that these days, unlike in my childhood, I feel like I’m permanently wanting for something.

For the last few years I’d been set on training as a physicist, but that had blown up spectacularly. It turned out that those scientific studies were not conducive to my wellbeing, they did not nourish my soul. And since abandoning that straightforward and decided course, something in my life had been lacking. Meaning, direction, purpose: call it what you will. It is the void that drives my father’s relentless questioning on our weekly call: ‘What are you going to do with yourself after you graduate?’ he demands. ‘What are you going to do? What?’ I had no present desire to go over all of that again. At least my about-turn meant I didn’t have to tell John that I wished to be something as urbane as a man in a white coat. That wouldn’t have done at all. Not after what he’d shared.

Then the thought occurred. I saw it coming to me in slow-motion, dancing through the fog of the room. An image from a film; a sequence that had captured my mind. The slow, graceful waltz of a little craft as it slowly floats inside a majestic, turning space wheel: how they corkscrew together in perfect harmony.

‘I wanted to be an astronaut,’ I told him.

He was ecstatic. ‘Well, you can be an astronaut! You’re clever, you’re strong: that’s all they want!’

I shrugged and watched his face as it frowned in concentration.

‘When I was a boy, Chrissy, I always thought I’d be the first man on Mars. The red planet. Have you seen Mars?…It’s amazing!’ He looked at me now with that same boy’s wonder. ‘It’s bright red, of course, and it’s got canyons hundreds of miles deep. That’s where they are, if they exist.’

‘If who exist?’ I knew what he meant, of course, but I hoped I was wrong.

‘Tell me, Chrissy,’ he asked as he stroked his lip, his eyes gazing at the ceiling and perhaps envisioning the infinity beyond, ‘do you believe there could be life on Mars?’

I stifled a grin and replied soberly, quoting at length a few scientific explanations as to why it was highly unlikely: mostly bits of chemistry and biology I’d picked up here and there. Sadness descended on me as I spoke, not from quelling his Martian hopes, but from the belief that the profundity of our encounter may well have run its course, that this turn of conversation signalled that his interest had reverted to speculative themes. Reflecting on it now, I suppose my reaction reveals just how acutely and ambiguously I’d already come to depend on the man. I’m no mystic, dear reader, but more than once this evening has the word ‘supernatural’ visited itself upon my mind. But anyway, as a way of concluding this digression, I note that my fears proved in fact without foundation, that he had no intention of divorcing our debate from his profound discourse on the human condition.

‘It doesn’t matter of course,’ he said, ‘whether they exist or not. The first man on Mars will be the greatest explorer of all time, aliens or none. The first of our species to set foot on another planet…but we’re a few years off that yet.’ He looked up reflectively. ‘Otherwise I’d go.’

I laughed. ‘No offence, John, but I think they’d send someone younger than you. A scientist, perhaps?’

‘No, no, no,’ he said. ‘That may be the case when you’re talking about the moon, Chrissy, but this is Mars. What is it? Three years away in a fast ship?’

I shrugged. I had no idea and didn’t care. I wanted only to hear what he had to say.

‘You’d come back from the moon soon enough. They can send who they like for that.’

‘But you’d come back from Mars!’ I exclaimed. ‘Eventually! There’s no reason why not!’

He bowed his head so that now I was faced by the checked surface of his flat cap. It seemed to dissolve before my eyes and smile. I looked at his hand, which gripped the diminutive glass of ale, as ever an inch from full.   I sensed that beneath his cap he was grinning, but when he raised his face it had been wiped of all discernible emotion. I stared at him and awaited his judgement with trepidation. And then finally he shook his head, slowly and at length, and a chuckle broke from his cheeks, a chuckle at the innocence of my youth.

‘You wouldn’t come back,’ he said. ‘Not from Mars.’ And he looked at me with intent once more, netting me in those huge sincere eyes. Their sadness haunted me, haunts me still. His countenance had come to possess a futile quality, and through his recumbent jowls I could trace twitches that betrayed a clenching of teeth. At one point I thought I saw those great eyes of his well up, but I cannot be sure as no drops fell. I stared, unblinking, as he spoke.

‘You have to understand, Chrissy…Space…it’s cold…It’s cold and you won’t come back, and when you’re up there you’re on your own.’ He looked down at his drink. ‘They wouldn’t send you, Chrissy. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. But me? It doesn’t matter about some old sod like me.’

‘But what about your wife, your children?’ I demanded, my voice cracking. People were looking. I would have shaken him by the shoulders if only I’d possessed the courage to make a scene.

‘They’d understand,’ he said, now cupping his miniature glass inside both giant paws. He looked up. ‘But it’ll be too late for me. You’ll be my age before they’re ready to go to Mars. And that’s why you’ll be the one to go.’

I couldn’t believe my ears. My hands gripped the edge of the bench.

‘Your wife will understand what you have to do; your kids will be proud of their old man. The strongest man in the human race.’ He lowered his head once more and I smiled, unsure of what to say.

‘John, you were born too soon,’ I tried, suddenly feeling as though I was in a soap opera. Yet a hint of a smile on the injured face suggested I was on the right track and I was spurred to persevere. ‘You can’t choose the time you live in,’ I said. ‘All you can do is make sure that you’re ready, if ever they need you. And you would have been ready, John. You would have been ready if you’d got the call.’

He held his smile for a moment, and then the corners of his mouth fell down, sliding those great cheeks across the vast flanks of his face, and with this sage expression he nodded slowly into space and raised his glass. ‘To you, Chrissy. Thank you.’

And for a long time we sat at one with our silence, both rocking our heads in that same wise rhythm, our eyes exchanging through the magical fog the final sentiments of our meeting. Outside now the darkness was pitch, and at some point the candles inside had been bolstered by dull electric lighting, though in all the time we’d been there the illumination in the room seemed not to have deviated from that single dark shade of ochre. I sank the dregs from my glass and pocketed my tobacco, got into my coat and slung my bag over my shoulder.

I went to shake his hand. ‘Thanks for the drink, John.’ He took my hand in his giant mitt and stood up. Before I could react he’d embraced me, enfolding my tired torso in cold wax cloth. Into my ear he spoke:

‘Good luck, Chrissy. You’re the strongest, nicest bloke I ever met. You’ll go to Mars. Be ready.’ And he pulled back to look me in the eye a final time, to check I’d understood. For a moment I thought he was going to perform a salute. ‘Remember that only the strongest can go.’ And again he clasped me, too hard this time, and I felt a terrible urgent need to leave, to remove myself from this unhinging of emotion.

‘It was good to meet you, John,’ I said.

When he released me I thanked him again but by then I was already walking away, overcome by the desire to escape his world, and now I did not look back. In the front room I caught a gust of chill evening air as I broke into a trot. The barman, collecting glasses, looked at me quirkily as I passed by and asked, ‘Do you know that guy?’

‘Fuck no!’ I laughed, suddenly red with embarrassment, and as I turned up the street my laughter continued, it continued all the way up the hill and back to college, in fact; and it was no longer laughter of embarrassment, I think, but from some other, blacker well of anxiety and joy that the strange events of the evening had sprung. And, as the hours passed subsequently in my room, as I paced and smoked and drank and continued to spasm with involuntary nervous chuckles, I attempted to grasp just what precisely was at the root of this disturbing levity. Yet try as I might I could not find my way around the edges of the problem, could not remove myself from it, so to speak, and consider it from a distance. And at the end of much strained cogitation I conceded that the meaning of John’s visit was likely for now to remain a mystery to me, no less than the shape of my future self must remain a mystery to the present chap.

And so, defeated by the problem, I determined at the very least to set down the tale in pure honest detail, to set it down here as you have just encountered it, unabridged, full and fresh from the mind, such that one day hereafter some other enquirer, perhaps even my own grown-up self, might review this strange encounter afresh. And considering it in light of the subsequent twists and turns of my life, my successes and failures, it is sincerely hoped that the investigator might thereby come to some conclusion as to what truly passed inside my soul this odd December evening.

 

 

BIO

christopher bransonChristopher Branson was shortlisted for the 2016 Impress Prize for New Writers and has recently been published in The Ham. He is close to completing a comic novel about a young man trying to recover from a profound love affair that never happened. Prior to focusing on fiction he wrote a doctoral thesis on Nietzsche. He lives in London, England. @tarkovskysdog

 

 

 

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Someone Has to Heckle the Rhinos

by Noelle Schrock

 

 

In a far corner of the Bronx zoo, sits a dignified creature. Thick skinned and two-horned – the rhino is endangered. Leash kids, parents, and childish adults marvel at the creature – they “ooh” and “aweeee:” attentions only afforded to endangered animals in captivity. My friends and I do the same. Our curly haired friend approaches the fence.

“Hey! Hey rhino! Yeah, I’m talking to you, you sack of shit! Think you’re so tough? You’re just a grey bag of skin!” He points and laughs.

“But why?” We ask.

“Somebody has to heckle those rhinos.”

 

I sit in the far corner of my bed – knees to chest. My four-day hair is matted and sits in a semi bun on top of my head. I press the mascara stained sleeves of my red sweater to my eyes – trying to catch the tears before they fall. It has been twenty-four hours since my friend was declared brain dead.

I cry as I pull on any tee shirt I haven’t worn to bed. I cry as I pull on a pair of pants that pass as clean. Tears drip onto my shoelaces as I tie them. I stuff Kleenex down my sleeves. I pull on my thick skin and sharpen my two-horned wit. I go to work.

My boss and coworkers handle me with kid gloves. They speak in voices so soft I have to lean in to hear them. I field the “ah, I’m so sorry-s” and the “are you okay-s” with clenched teeth. My curly haired friend sits next to me on his couch – “this sucks. THIS SUCKS.” He shouts through rigid jaw.

Rhinos are hunted for their horns; folk medicine indicates a powder made from the horn of a rhino has healing properties. They are sprinkled over food as a seasoning; they’re brewed into tea. They feed one’s lust. They cure fevers, arthritis, and gout.

“What poor animals! What precious creatures! Hunters need to be stopped! These rhinos must be protected!”

“What a stupid looking horn. Big nosed idiot!”

On the drive to the hospital, we listen to sad music and don’t talk much. I take my two-horned wit and thick-skinned strength and grind it into a fine powder. I serve it as a condiment on the sandwiches we pick up for our friends who have been at the hospital all day. I brew it into the tea I hold with two hands because the warmth has been sapped from my body. We sit down the hallway from his family, laughing at things we remember about him, making sure everyone eats, taking turns crying and rubbing backs. They ask if we want to say goodbye. My throat closes up – I don’t know if I can. My curly haired friend takes my hand and says he’ll go with me.

You know in movies where the main character is standing at the entrance to a hallway that leads to a big plot development and the camera zooms out so it seems like the hallway is light years long? That’s what this hallway looks like. We walk with solemn slowness. As long as I could keep him as the squinty eyed, smiling, sassy boy I’d talked to on Thursday he’s still alive.

The sterile room is too warm. His face is still swollen from where his head met the hot, black road. My blood rushes from my head to my feet. His body is slowly being vacated of organs. The machine on my left beeps out a steady heart rate, his chest rises and falls – but it’s not him. He’s gone – I am saying goodbye to a machine.

I leave the room clutching the hand of my curly haired friend. Snot runs out of my nose – I use an entire box of Kleenex on the way home. It’s quiet until something not at all funny happens, but we laugh anyway. We get lost in suburbia and yell at the carbon copy houses.

 

Rhinos, depending on the type, live in grasslands, floodplains, swamps, or rain forests. They spend their days and nights grazing – but will sleep during the hottest part of the day, coating themselves with mud to stay cool.

“Ha! They’re covered in mud! Exotic PIGS!”

 

We spend three days in Dayton – with his family, with his friends. It’s an open casket. At his funeral, I think Marina is the most courageous person I know. Her best friend is dead but she gives a eulogy and only cries a little bit. At the reception afterwards we eat because it’s daytime and it’s the polite thing to do.

Afterwards we sit on the edge of the pool at the house we’re staying in, still dressed in our funeral clothes. One by one we all jump in, fully clothed. We create a whirlpool – grabbing each other’s ankles and pool noodles, pulling each other along. We laugh because it’s the hottest part of the day and our only mud is each other’s voices.

“He was the worst.” Marina says through tears and laughter. We share stories about him, even the bad ones. Someone has to heckle the rhinos.

 

The rhino is usually a solitary creature. But sometimes, they socialize with birds. It’s a symbiotic relationship, but a rhino will make a “mmmwonk” noise when it’s happy and a bird will perch on its back.

 

We’re usually solitary creatures. But sometimes a bird – well a bird lover – will bring us together. Because here’s how it ends: I can lose my friend in a bike accident. I can stand on the precipice of depression with outstretched arms ready to fall. But at the end of the day – as long as I have someone who will heckle the rhinos with me – their arms will grasp my waist and pull me back from the edge.

 

 

BIO

noelle schrockNoelle will graduate in the spring of 2017 with a B.A. in Writing and English from Indiana Wesleyan University. She believes in writing as a catharsis for the grieving and healing. She hopes to work for a publishing house or in the entertainment industry writing for SNL or Jimmy Fallon. Her work can be found in Indiana Wesleyan’s literary magazine Caesura. This is her first piece published in a real literary journal.

 

 

 

 

0

Revolutions and Revelations

by Shalen Lowell

 

 

5 November 1767

“If it weren’t for that snotty kid with a fever, I would have gotten out before that damn sun set,” muttered Dr. Alex Hitch as he paved his way through the dark and smoky streets of Haymarket, streaked with the rotten detritus of yesterday’s fruit vendors. “These streets are creepier than the cellars of that old meeting house,” he concluded, as if not talking to himself but rather a medical colleague over some finely steeped Harbor tea. The cacophony of cobblestones assaulted Hitch as he paced the market block and rounded up to old Faneuil Hall, the cellar of which he spent many a late night, after his last house call, poring over archetypal witch trial documents, many of which were forged, copied accounts, but hey, you get what you get.

Hitch had been right smack in the middle of the transcription of one Mary Bradbury’s records and testimonies before Judge Hathorne in the Court of Salem, one of the more enticing case files. Poor Mary claimed to live out with due diligence the words of the Gospel, obeyed the ministry, and preached against heathenry. Even pledging obedience to the patriarchy isn’t enough to exonerate oneself these days. Not as juicy as Bridget Bishop’s testimonies, but a rich text nonetheless. Never in his 25 years did Hitch imagine fulfilling the dull and dirty work of his father, also a man with a medical profession, and with a particularly sterile sense of humor.

Hitch tugged at his graying overcoat and its frayed collar, stalking closer to the string of boozie Irish pubs lining the walk. “Better stick close to the shadows. Much better to avoid the horse shit.” Not bothering to glance in his periphery, Hitch swept across Treaumont and Common Streets and took the frigid stone steps of the Hall two at a time, managing not to trip until the top one this time. Hitch careened over and into the side of the hall, blackened by the half crescent moon on the adjacent side of the sky.

“What the hell was that?” Hitch reared back on his feet and smoothed out his black hair over his widow’s peak as he looked to see whether the folly was his or the steps, which seem to be in continual disrepair. “Revolutionaries these days,” shrugged Hitch as spun around and saw—

“Is that a body?”

Hitch was thoroughly unsurprised at the lump of flesh strewn across the stairs. “Did I just trip over that…?” Hitch swung around, looking around for another human with which to validate the strange occurrence and realized at that moment that a body lying out in the night, unclaimed, probably wasn’t a normal occurrence. Not one to be deterred by decaying bodies, Hitch knelt down to identify it. Despite his medical professionalism Hitch almost gagged when he saw the face of Henry Cabot, rector of the North Church, peering up at him with hollow eyes and a mouth occupied with hundreds of maggots, slowly but surely inching their way out of Cabot’s extremities. Hitch gently prodded Cabot. Other than the gross maggots, he could identify no other physical evidence to diagnose this odd situation. Hitch found, after plugging his nose and removing Cabot’s shoes, what looked like to be the symptoms of dropsy: swollen hands, face, and feet.

In his vapid exhaustion combined with the dizzying confusion of the late hour, and also the peculiar observation that no one seemed to be walking near the Faneuil block at all, Hitch sighed a deep breath of sleepless annoyance at this new patient (of his apparently) and burst into the Hall, proclaiming to a few men crouched over sketches of town streets and battle outlines dripped with mucky wax, “We’ve got another one…”

#

Darin Flyte sat slouched against the backside of her sparsely cushioned wooden booth at the Green Dragon, one of Boston’s more dingy but homey hidey holes, the pub always playing host to a motley group of eclectic characters across the town, from politicians to the plain old town drunks. With her rump pressed firmly into the wooden frame of the booth and her shoulder slouched against Mary, one of her only longtime and dearest friends, she swore out of the grimy windows stacked with soot that she saw a crowd hustling past the pub and across the street to Faneuil.

“What do ya think they’re up to?” Mary twisted under Darin’s alcohol-weighted stupor to get a better look out the window. The crowd continued to jog past and tapered out to a slower trickle of stragglers.

Darin rolled her eyes and let her head lop back onto Mary’s shoulder. Slapping herself awake, Darin shook her head in an attempt to wake from her self-induced stupor. “Meh the usual … Probably a flock of late night worshipers groveling at the heels of Henry Cabot to “repent” their desperately kept hidden sins.”

As Darin raised her eyes to the door, she saw Dr. Alex Hitch storm through, dragging in some of the brief drizzle, which deposited in puddles around his well-worn boots.

Though not one to command the center of any sort of attention, Hitch blurted out, “There’s been a MURDER!”

“Wait what?” Felix Amory, owner of the pub, pitched up from his seat at the rear of the room, amid a flock of receipts. “What could you possibly be talking about? We’ve kept this town pretty clean over the past year.”

“I don’t know. I don’t yet have an answer,” Hitch admitted, placing his hat on the top of the coat rack by the rust-hinged door and stalking to a high seat by the bar, so all could hear. “But it was Cabot. Henry Cabot. I can’t believe it myself.”

“Cabot? Holy shit…We’ve got a serious one this time…” Felix said. “Although I s’pose it’s technically on your hands, you being the doctor and all. Shit.”

Hitch heard a chorus of incoherent mumbling and exasperations throughout the pub, which, when he held up his hands for a moment of silence, dulled to a sullen hush as those gathered there decided to shut up and listen.

With a heavy sigh, Hitch blew out the nervous breath he’d been holding in and said, “Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll get to the bottom of this somehow…Since I’m the only capable medical professional. I am in need of new patients after all, and I just happened to stumble across this one.”

And before the chatter rose to a dull roar, he added into the chaos of the pub, “I haven’t had a proper chance to inspect the good Father Cabot of course, but there does seem to be something strange about his murder…Something not altogether…natural…you understand.”

A drunken and confused chorus of “Wait!” and “How so?!” erupted from the contents of the pub, affording Hitch only choppy moments in the intermediary remarks to shout, “I won’t say anything until I’ve had a closer look!”

From the corner, Darin rolled her eyes further into the back of her head in boredom and, turning as if in exposition to those around her, commented, “There is no such thing as magick.” Then she worked herself up a bit louder, standing so Hitch could hear her.

“Come on, Alex,” Darin scoffed, “You know as well as I do that all that magick stuff is bogus. This is the eighteenth century after all…”

“I didn’t say a thing about magick.”

“Well, I intimated where you were going with this…Salem’s not too far away, you know.”

Hitch shrugged and took a step back from this particular bombastic Bostonian. “Nice woman, but you never know when the temper’s going to flare,” he muttered into the sleeve of his overcoat, and then proceeded to respond with, “Ahem, actually, I prefer Hitch if you don’t mind.”

“I know you as Alex and I’ll address in kind.”

Hitch bellied up to the bar and dumped half the contents of a stout down his throat, and after whetting and clearing it, he plowed forth. “I’m just saying, didn’t look like natural causes to me. Or maybe it was meant to look that way. I don’t know. It’s late and I’m tired. Once I get Cabot back to my house, I’ll inspect him further and uhmmm…”

Sensing the loss of his argumentative momentum, Hitch mumbled and pushed his way through the crowded pub to the chilly street corner and huffed off. The passersby had by now flocked either home or sought the warm stocked fire of the Green Dragon and other such dives nearby, so not a soul heard Hitch as he exclaimed loud enough to hear, “East-coasters these days are such a disagreeable sort.”

#

Harper Ratcliffe sniffed and hocked a wad of saliva into his fist as he leaned back in his rickety wooden chair in the butt end of the pub, with a clear sense of satisfaction. There was nothing Ratcliffe enjoyed more than a friendly but heated disagreement. “Well that was fun.”

Ratcliffe tipped his head back in exasperation and proceeded to bob forward until his chair clattered back on all fours in front of his table. Ratcliffe sucked on his burnt out cigar, trying in vain to make the smoky vanilla flavor last until he could pawn another via a passerby five-finger discount.

Ratcliffe sucked and spat on his cigar, chewing the ends a bit, notebook still lying spread-eagled on the table. Harper Ratcliffe fancied himself a bit of a writer, a purely freelance amateur. He very much enjoyed, and staked a good deal of his pride on, transposing real life “characters” into his many fictive universes.

“That Darin Flyte would make a great one,” Ratcliffe thought underneath his ale-scented breath. Ratcliffe had planned to take a note or two during the encounter just witnessed with one particular Dr. Alex Hitch, but instead decided to trace his own signature with a finely-tipped pen, until the ink bled through to the other side of his loosely stitched notebook pages. His notebooks were a lot like Ratcliffe himself: well-worn, seams bursting, well-used, ragged, yellowing and dank.

“She’s quite interesting indeed.” Behind him, he pricked his ears at another of the townies gathered in this late hour, Felix, the innkeeper. Ratcliffe’s ears picked up a vague snide comment whispered from Felix’s mouth, something along the lines of “mmmghhmmmmmm…hygiene…”

Ratcliffe cleared his throat rather loudly and exclaimed in a manner more emphatic than necessary, “What was that, Amory? If you’re going to insult me, please speak louder, eh?”

Felix squinted and scoffed at Ratcliffe from a few tables over. After a brief interlude of pointless indecision, he decided to spit back with notable vehemence, “Awww fuck off, Ratcliffe. Pall around in someone else’s pub for a change, I have half a mind to revoke your room and pitch you out on the street.”

Ratcliffe spun in Felix’s direction and afforded him a seductive wink from across his table. “You mean you don’t find me charming? Come on, man. Plus, you know as well as any I need the room.” Another wink.

Felix’s face registered somewhere along the spectrum of former lovers between awe and appalling dejection. “No,” Felix said with a less than certain conviction, “As a matter of fact I don’t.”

“Well, you’re not as strapping as you were, my dear Felix Amory. And to think, if you still had held onto that boyish charm I still might want you.”

“Excuse me? Want me?”

“Yeah, but like I said, not anymore.” Ratcliffe shot yet another wink and tongue-click, followed by a soft and subtle deep-throated purr, before spinning back around to stun him, as well as silencing the rest of the bar company.

 

“Mmmmm yes,” hummed Darin, “Poor Alex really is going to have his hands full with all this bloody business going around.” She sipped her nightcap of brandy before continuing, “I do wonder how he’ll manage it.”

Mary frowned at her friend, fresh from the town’s streets after having finally departed the pub. In a harsher tone than she meant, Mary said, “No need to be an ass. What’s gotten into you tonight, eh?”

“Nothing. Murder and rumors of murder are so tedious.”

“You’re saying you believe it didn’t happen?”

Darin sipped, waving her free arm. “I’m just saying, where’s the proof? Where’s the body? Hitch has nothing, no proof, and he didn’t even produce Cabot’s body to corroborate his claim. I’m as dubious as anyone.”

“Okay.”

“And moreover, that nonsense about magick? There’s no such thing. And to claim a murder committed by such is ridiculous. Ludicrous, I can’t even.” Mary plopped herself down on the leather chair adjacent her friend in Darin’s sitting room. Darin kept a timeless aesthetic, the finest leather and goose down-filled furniture, though the crimson colored walls of the room often gave the impression that the walls were pressing in on oneself.

“Hitch never said anything about magick.”

“What did he say, then?” Darin gulped the remainder of her drink and half slammed the glass back onto the wooden serving table beside her.

“You know as well as I,” said Mary, with a hint of odd suspicion dripping from her words. “You were there. He said ‘may not be natural causes.’ That’s all, nothing specific about magicks.”

Darin leaned back, stretched out on her down sofa, and closed her eyes. “Yes, I suppose that is what he said. Still either way, I don’t believe it.”

“Oh come on, you came from the northern towns. You don’t even believe natural magicks and such phenomena exist? What about wiccans?”

“No!” Darin stood in a rush of fury and, gasping, tried to keep her words guarded and under control. But the wave of anger was sure and steady, and Darin’s voice level grew at a crescendo until she was yelling at Mary: “There is no such thing as magick. All that stuff, that “magick” was bullshit, nothing more than the accusatory claims of children running through the streets of this city claiming that this person or another was a witch. It was a campaign. Nothing more than the naïve mutterings of children looking to get a rise and panic out of common folk. You of all people know how I feel about this.”

Mary shrunk back in Darin’s chair and exhaled an exasperated sigh of defeat. She shut and rubbed her eyes, hoping the tiredness and pain would recede. “I know, I’m sorry. I do know. I’m just saying it’s in the realm of possibility of belief for me, still.”

“Not for me.”

“I know.”

Darin dropped back into the sofa and spread herself along its length. “It’s been a long day, Mary. Please leave me be.”

“Okay.” Mary knew there was no use arguing with Darin, stubborn and steadfast in her ways but a good and benevolent person at heart, Mary swore to it.

Darin waited until she closed the sitting room door and sat down in her guest room, picking at the silver rose locket that hung around her neck. It had been a gift from her mother before her untimely death.

“What a messy, messy affair. I wonder what can be done to ameliorate it.” The later the clock struck, the more often Darin talked to herself. Darin rubbed her eyes, rubbing over a few freckles on the bridge of her nose, and smoothed out her messy dark brown locks. As her grandfather clock struck twelve, Darin sunk into a sobering sleep, deciding how best to approach Hitch.

#

6 November 1767

“You know, maybe Hitch could use some help with this investigation after all.”

“Oh yeah?” Felix was rinsing out glasses at the bar before the dinner rush. Darin liked frequenting the Green Dragon, not for its rowdy crowds, but more for Felix as well as the intrigue. There wasn’t a Bostonian who didn’t know that if you were after secrets and information, or the transmission of either, Felix was your guy. “Help from whom?”

“Why, me of course,” Darin smiled in that sly, intelligible, and knowing manner. “I was a member of Cabot’s congregation after all, so I knew him pretty well. I could be useful to his investigation.”

“Yeah maybe. It’s just Hitch working on it so, I’m sure he would at least appreciate the help.” Felix replaced a glass on the underside of the bar and stopped mid-motion. “Wait, what about that huge stink you made the other day? This initiative seems all of a sudden.”

Darin shrugged Felix’s remark off, “Eh, I was out of line. I probably shouldn’t have shit on Hitch like that, but I can make it up to him by helping it out. Though I do sincerely doubt magick had anything to do with Cabot’s timely end.”

“Uhmmm,” Felix shot Darin a skeptically browed look from below bar level, “Don’t you mean untimely?”

Darin’s eyes widened for a fraction of a second. “Oh yeah, of course. Untimely it was at that. Anyway I think Hitch could use the help. And so I want to help.”

“Well that’s good of you, anyway. If you and Hitch can cooperate, I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.”

“Indeed,” agreed Darin. “The good doctor, like many of the authority figures of this town, could always use a bit of advising from someone else.”

“I see.”

“Plus, I have a reputation to uphold. I should not have been so foolish with him.”

Felix hummed an “mmmmm” in agreement. Though he may not come out and say it, Darin was one-hundred percent right. Not just about Hitch, though Felix thought the doctor would probably perform fine on his own. She was right about the town, their dear Boston, with its old world conservativism still imbued with older narrow-minded and patriarchal sensibilities. This town, though settled, was still explosive. “And I want to be right in the thick of all the action,” Felix mumbled under his breath, now frosty from the door opening and closing as Darin left the pub with a trail of fresh rainwater behind her.

#

The following afternoon, Hitch leaned a bit closer to Henry Cabot’s body, now stowed on the slab in Hitch’s cellar and mortuary room. Dark and dingy, like most cellars, Hitch’s had the added element of housing all his medical playthings, various metal instruments, syringes, tape and bandages, and all such things macabre that he was unfortunate enough to deal with in his daily work. Having afforded a squat house of his own right in the town, Hitch thought it most convenient to place his medical practice right in the forefront living room and cellar of his home. Though economic in decision, Hitch now resented the choice. “How horrid and gross. Why did I ever choose the medical field? So depressing and nasty, and I do so hate getting my pressed shirts dirty,” Hitch muttered to Cabot’s dead corpse. “Not like you can hear me anyway, so I may as well complain all I want.”

Hitch proceeded to peel back the thick layer of now rotted skin and fat from Cabot’s chest to his torso, then took care to break Cabot’s ribs and breastbone in the process, for further inspection of the hollow husk that was once a full-grown man. Hitch almost gagged as he remarked at the thousands of maggots feasting on Cabot’s insides. By now the swelling on his extremities had stopped, but Cabot’s hands and feet still remained inflamed and pungent.

“Mmmm but the real question is, how did he get like this?” Hitch’s monologue reverberated off the stone cold interior of his darkening cellar. Candles were interspersed on various shelves and examination tables to give light to the whole of the room. However the waning daylight did nothing to help his cause. “You, Cabot, I just talked to you the other day, and you seemed to be in perfectly good health, other than being a bit of an alcoholic, rotund, self-important bastard…I had no reason to suspect your ill health at the time…”

Hitch walked up closer to Calbot’s head, intending to poke it here and there to check for cranial inflammation. To his disgust, Hitch spotted a wad of earwax caked on the inside of an ear.

“There’s also the matter of how you got to Faneuil Hall. You may have dragged yourself there? But how, when you had no independent use of your insides and thus mobility? There’s no way this could have happened in the course of a night, nor could you have made your own way, so someone dragged you, perhaps?”

Hitch shrugged at Cabot’s corpse and proceeded. “Then there’s another question of how someone did this to you—since I doubt you would self-impregnate with maggots—where they stowed your body in the meantime—and of course, again, why…”

Hitch answered himself:

“The circumstances are indeed peculiar,” just as the doorbell rang from aboveground at his front door. Grumbling and groaning, Hitch washed himself of Cabot’s innards and mounted the cellar stairs up to his crimson-carpeted front hall. He swung open the door, only to find the person he least wanted to see and last expected to be at his home: Darin Flyte.

Not knowing what else to say, Hitch offered an, “Oh, hello Darin.”

Darin bowed her head a fraction of an inch towards the doctor and offered up the cheery greeting of, “So sorry to bother you, Hitch, I know you must be insanely busy, what with all this disturbing Cabot business…I wanted to first apologize for my behavior the other evening, and second, to propose an offer that I think you’ll find quite beneficial.”

Hitch raised a dull eyebrow and let the bags of his eyes droop to full extent, in evidence of how tired and bothered he was to be interrupted after office hours. “Ah, using my preferred ‘Hitch’ like I asked.”

“Yes. I spoke out of line the other night. I didn’t mean to offend more than usual. Too much to drink and a long day, you know?”

“Yes. That is, uhm, I mean thank you.”

“May I come in?”

“Yes, of course, forgive me.” Hitch backed from the doorframe to allow Darin to enter the house, all the rooms of which were outfitted with hardwood, and a bit creaky at that. As he closed and locked the large entryway door, Hitch continued, “So you say you have an offer for me?”

“Yes, I do,” Darin undid the buttons on her dark navy pea coat and revealed her button-up black trousers, tucked into what looked to Hitch like knee-high riding boots, complete with a loosely fitted cream-colored undershirt that billowed out at the sleeves and tied just below her neck. An awful lot like a gentleman’s clothes, Hitch thought.

“What with the impending colder seasons and all, I know you have a lot of patients on your hands—literally. You’re quite the busy man, Dr. Hitch, and I know you could use a bit of extra help, especially on this Cabot case.”

“What exactly are you proposing to me, Darin?”

“That I assist you of course, in the manner of your investigation into Cabot’s murder.”

Hitch near stumbled on the carpet, on his way to offer Darin a seat next to the hearth in his kitchen and a steaming cup of tea. “You want to help me? After that nasty show in the pub the other night, you can understand why I would be a bit skeptical, no?”

Darin shrugged her shoulders and agreed, “Of course, I know it sounds a bit odd considering the spectacle I sort of made. It may be hard to believe, but I do mean what I say. I would most definitely like to help you in your diagnosis and investigation.”

“I don’t mean to offend,” admitted Hitch, “And I appreciate the offer greatly. But how would you know so much about diagnoses and medical afflictions.”

“My mother was a healer and herbalist. She taught me a great deal.”

“Well I do hate to admit it, but I could use a second set of eyes…from anyone really. You may as well come on down.” Hitch ushered her inside his home. “I’ll get you a smock…”

#

Equipped with his new assistant, Hitch and Darin were bent over Cabot, both dawned with fresh, white smocks and peering into Cabot’s decaying innards. Thanks to Hitch, most of the maggots had been carved out of Cabot’s body, but an errant bug or two remained.

“I would rather have you inspect the body on your own and see what you find for yourself, but for the sake of expediency in the waning daylight, I want to tell you a few of my vague theories.”

Darin, thinking she would rather have a first look herself, stifled an argument. “Okay, give it to me, doctor.”

Hitch sucked in a deep breath and fired off his observations: “So, from what I have here, which thanks to the accelerated rate of decay as well as the host of feasting bugs is not much, I’ve noticed an oddity or two. I managed to swab a small piece of Cabot’s stomach lining, as well as his intestinal tract and found the remains of some drink very high in alcoholic content.”

“What like beer or ale or mead? Maybe the rector liked to drink or something.”

Hitch waggled a finger and continued. “Hah, no way, those drinks are child’s play compared to what we have here. I’m talking a drink consisting of over 50 percent alcohol.”

“Such as?”

Hitch continued, “Well it could be any number of things, but I’ve heard whisperings of a spirit called absinthe…It’s made by the Swiss, very potent, and can cause hallucination, delirium, and in excess amounts, death. It is a botanical spirit, made with several types of herbs including fennel and wormwood.”

Darin crinkled her brow and asked, “Well from who, and when, did he procure it? I’ve never seen nor heard of anything like this, so it must be rare.”

“That’s the thing, I don’t think he drank anything of the sort.”

“Okay, well then how did this happen? He clearly had to have gotten some, if it was in his system.”

Hitch corrected Darin with further insistence, as he built up some confidence in his argument. “There’s no doubt there are traces of the ingredients of absinthe, but I’m not sure the good Cabot here drank absinthe.”

“So you’re suggesting that whatever the cause of his death, it was made to look like he ingested the drink?”

“Exactly!” Hitch scooted over to a side table, on which rested notebook with some messy, scrawling cursive inside.

Darin inched forward, near plunging her face into the belly of Cabot’s formerly infested gut. “Maybe it was one of those ingredients, made to look like the drink itself that killed him. In that case, it was a someone who killed him.”

Hitch hummed in agreement, “Mmmmm mhmmm…”

Darin continued, “And if I were to guess, the fatal ingredient, or one of the fatal ingredients, would be wormwood.”

“I thought as much, too. But why wormwood?”

“My mother told me wormwood, though used as an old and archaic remedy for removing anger or protecting one from curses, cannot be directly ingested. It’s poisonous.”

“Yes! Yes!” Hitch had to admit though frustrating she could be, Darin was intelligent, and her mother taught her well. “I’m glad I’m not going crazy down here, as one is prone to do in the dark with no one but a corpse and one’s own illegible notes to keep company.”

Darin raised herself and finally took a step back from the body. The rank smell of decaying organs and flesh was finally getting to her, so she plugged her nose as she asked, “Wait. Hitch, how do you know so much about herbal remedies and botanical properties?”

Hitch raised an index finger once again, pretending he was delivering a lecture to a hall full of eager students. Seemed he did like attention after all. “I confess my profession does not do much to satisfy me. While carrying on my father’s tradition of the medical field after his death, and while my job does afford a stable income, I get bored easily. I spend my free time, what little I have of it, in enjoyment of poring over historical documents in the cellar of Faneuil Hall.”

“And they just happened to have a fully stocked “botanical herbs” section?”

Hitch frowned. “Well, no. But there are many documents copied from their originals sent from the north shore, detailing the witch hunts and trials in this area. But a fair number of the sources I’ve poked through recount the reasons for accusing one woman or another of being a witch, and many mention wiccans and herbalists who were apt in healing with certain kinds of botanicals.”

“Hmmm yeah, I could see where you would get that sense,” Darin said in mock agreement, her back tensed. “So…this evidence of wormwood…that is why you think Cabot’s death wasn’t an accident? That someone forced it upon him?”

“Maybe…” Hitch trailed off. “But I think it’s more than simply just suspecting wiccan activity. I think the wormwood was used as a cover, either to poison Cabot initially or deflect suspicion from the real crime: the swift, subtle, and rapidly induced decay of his innards.”

Darin rolled her eyes from the corner of the room, propping herself on the edge of another wooden table. “So you think, just because you cannot fully explain the reason for his death that the cause was, what? Magick?”

Hitch removed a glove and scratched the back of his neck in an absent and anxious manner. “I know it sounds suspect, or maybe too far a stretch, but I have to explore every option, you see.”

“I see,” Darin mused as she unfolded her arms and walked back to Hitch’s side. “I really don’t think it’s any type of magick though. Magick doesn’t exist.”

Hitch shrugged. “Like I said, I know it sounds crazy.”

Darin puffed out an annoyed breath and resigned. “Well if you want to keep on believing, I’m sure as hell not going to be the one to stop you from your own delusions.”

“At any rate, I should probably call someone else to come help me with this case. I mean, between you and I, I know we can make progress, but it doesn’t hurt to have someone else on the force? I do have a friend, Henry, who is an officer of the town of Lowell, and he moonlights as a P.I of sorts. May see if he can help us for a bit.”

“Good idea,” Darin resigned again.

Hitch’s eyes flitted from Cabot to the small cellar windows, to Darin, noting that the room was almost devoid of light save for the ten or so flickering candles still interspersed around the room. He sighed, “Anyway, I’ve taken up too much of your good time.”

Darin rubbed her eyes and admitted, “Yes, it probably is time for me to be getting home. Thank you for having me, Hitch. Please let me know if there is any way I can help further.” She untied the white smock from her waist, affording a small smirk. “Though I hope for the sake of your argument and reputation you’re not too invested on this theory reliant upon ‘magick.’”

“Well, we shall see where the evidence leads me, shan’t we?”

“I think we shall.”

As Hitch leaned in a bit closer, squinting at Cabot despite the obvious lack of daylight, Darin motioned toward the door. “I had better take my leave.”

“Ah, yes, of course.” Hitch answered in an absentminded manner as he kept one eye on Darin and another on the corpse still on his dead table. “I’ve kept you too long, please, I’ll walk you out. Thank you again for the help.”

As Hitch and Darin ascended the steps from his cellar, and Darin assumed her coat, she mentioned, “I hope we’ll do this again soon?”

“You don’t mind the trouble?”

Darin scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Please, Hitch, I have more time than I know what to do with. And it’s not that I think you’re incompetent or anything. But I do very much enjoy your company.”

Hitch dealt her a dead-pan stare, thankful but surprised at the odd offer.

“As long as you don’t mind?”

“Oh no! Of course not! Please, I welcome your assistance.” Hitch shook himself of the daze, just in time to hear Darin say, “Well good! I shall see you soon then!” and made her way out into the icy Boston night.

Hitch shut the door on Darin. Just as she hopped down his stoop and headed towards Newbury Street, she noticed an irregularity in the shadows cast by the homes across the street from Hitch’s. She recognized the dirty, plaid-patched pants, worn and frayed wool jacket, and what remained of a derby hat perhaps, from the pub the other night. She had picked him out smirking and stinking at the back of the pub.

“Ratcliffe, what do you want?”

Ratcliffe slunk out into the faint moonlight, now replacing the orange, fiery sunset with its lackadaisical glow. Darin saw him shove something—a notebook maybe?—into the pocket of his coat as he jogged across the way over to her. “Oh, you know, just a stroll in the moonlight.” His attempted smile looked more like a snarl to Darin.

“But it’s not even dark yet.”

“Getting an early start. Little do some of the people here realize, much happens in this city when the lights go out.”

“Mhmmm I bet.”

“So,” Ratcliffe continued, “What were you and, ah, Mr…Hitch was it?”

“Yes?”

“What were you and Hitch doing together so late in the evening? After office hours, might I add.”

Darin’s eyes widened in disgust and she spat, “Are you intimating that I’m having an affair? Well if that’s what you think, you can stuff it.”

“Is that so?” Ratcliffe’s nasty grin widened.

“Yes, that is so.” Darin plowed on. “First off, it’s none of your business what I do with my free time. Second, Hitch is a respectable physician, and a friend. And I am a respectable woman.”

“Didn’t seem like you two were, how should I say, too chummy the other night when you made your scene after Cabot’s murder.”

“We have since resolved our issues.” Darin drew her coat tighter and pushed past Ratcliffe back down the street, shouting behind her, “Now if you don’t mind, I need to be going back home. Good NIGHT.”

Ratcliffe chuckled as Darin made her way in the direction of her home. Ensuring she was out of earshot, Ratcliffe scribbled two words in his notebook (“temper temper”), and thought aloud: “I wonder what this town would think of ‘Darin, the model, upright landowner’s wife’,” sarcasm dripping from his mocking tone, “when they learn about these trysts with Hitch, and her clearly unresolved anger issues … hmmm … I should hate for her reputation to suffer for it.”

#

“Where were you all day?” Arthur Flyte asked Darin, as he plopped down at their intimate dining table. The Flytes’ dining room was much like the rest of the rooms in their quaint, but certainly rich house on the outskirts of the Common: decadent but just so in a tasteful manner, with a dash of gold in their curtains and other decor. These private residences on Newbury were of the clapboard colonial type, featuring thick black shutters on smooth, greased hinges, and stately without being too lavish. This room, unlike that of the sitting room in which Darin spent most of her nights reading and entertaining Mary, had rich, cobalt colored walls and artwork from local craftsmen. Many such paintings depicted a vast jungle, with reddened horizons and sprinkled with sailing fleets here and there: the New World.

“I was just out and about, as I am most days,” Darin offered. “You know I have the time.” At that moment, Bartholt, a butler, serviceman, and valet to the Flytes entered from the two way, swinging door that led to the kitchen just beyond, and delivered their roast pheasant dinner, complete with bountiful harvest vegetables which were imported from Arthur’s land west of the city, and a fine syrah red wine. Darin offered a smile and she placed a silk napkin on her lap and cut into their meal.

“I know you do,” Arthur spoke through a mouthful, forcing Darin to wince at the sound of his talking and chewing. “You’re lucky at that, to have so much time, being a landowner’s wife and all. The investment I’ve made in some of the farms out west have provided well for us, have they not?”

“I cannot disagree with that.” Darin scoffed in her head at the improbability of herself owning land. You’d think in the process of colonizing a new world, they’d at least think to restructure the social systems, Darin thought to herself. Even if Arthur could, she wasn’t much sure of his willingness to cut her in on the “family business”. Arthur wasn’t an unbearable spouse; in fact he could be quite handsome with his milk chocolate eyes and dirty blond hair, bleached by the sun in his early days of boyhood and undercut on the bottom half of his head to reveal a natural brunette. He cleaned up rather nice, she thought. But as with any man, she was reluctant to bear him children, despite their marriage of two years. Darin decided to throw him a bone. “I was helping out Hitch today, in fact. He seems to require a certain amount of my expertise, and since, as you yourself say, I have the time, I figured I would lend him my assistance.”

“You’re helping him with this whole…Cabot affair, panic about which is spreading around these streets like wildfire?” Arthur looked up with a glance of brief skepticism. “He’s a medical professional, he can’t handle this himself?”

“It seems not.”

“Hmmm very well then. You know you don’t need my approval.”

“I certainly don’t.” To lighten her remark, Darin once again gave her husband a reassuring and genuine smile, with a hint of devilry contained therein.

“Will you be seeing Mary tonight?”

Darin had no clue if her husband thought anything suspect of her friendship with Mary, considering the frequency of the girl’s attendance at their dinners and the late hour she left their residence most nights of the week. She didn’t really care either. Darin suspected Arthur was caught in his own elicit affairs, too.

“No, I don’t think so. I’m feeling rather exhausted tonight.”

At the conclusion of their meal, Darin rose from the table and paused briefly before padding upstairs to her sitting room. She walked to Arthur, planting on him a substantial kiss, and said, “I grow weary, and I must away to bed. Goodnight, my dear.” And thus she made her way up to her room for a usual drink.

#

9 November 1767

Hitch’s ears pricked up as he heard the three knocks on his door, signaling Darin’s arrival. Popping his Yorkshire pudding from its cooking tin on the fireplace and placing it with gentle hands next to the cooling lamb roast on his mahogany counter, his boots thumped along the hallway and he made his way out to greet her. He remembered to smile, something he did not do very often, though he was in a pleasant mood, having the opportunity to entertain a rare dinner guest. He was happy to have some company and grateful for Darin’s continued assistance with this whole troublesome Cabot case.

With a bit more gusto than his usual expressions afforded, Hitch opened the door and said, “Hello Darin!” Hitch had grown to appreciate Darin’s refined and sophisticated sensibilities. Though at moments uncouth and raucous, she did offer terribly good dinner company. “Welcome!”

“Hitch, thank you,” Darin said as she stepped out of the nippy air. Her eyes looked crinkled and saggy at the edges, as if she had just woken from a long nap or managed to survive the day with a minimal night’s sleep. “I do so appreciate your company this evening.”

“The pleasure’s all mine.”

Darin hoisted the jingling contents of the cloth bag she’d been carrying, and placed it on the hall floor as she removed her jacket. “I hope you don’t mind, but since you were so kind to provide the food, I would supply the drink for tonight.” Darin winked and laughed, “You do know I love a good drink.”

Hitch perked at the word “drink” and said, “Ah, wonderful. What are we having, may I ask?”

“It’s a surprise, you’ll see!”

Hitch vacated the kitchen, accompanied by the roast and pudding, placing them on his dining table just so.

“I’m starved for good company these days,” Hitch admitted with his own little embarrassed shrug, before he realized Darin couldn’t see him from the kitchen, from which he heard the audible clinking of glassware.

Darin chuckled a bit from the nearby kitchen and added, “Well it’s a good thing we’re about to sit down for dinner right?” Darin stepped into the room bearing a curious looking beverage on a bronze tray. Spying the roast, Darin sighed. “Ahh I wish you had let me know what meat you were preparing. This drink goes particularly well with fish. Alas, we shall make due.”

Darin delivered two pint glasses of sparkling, spiced amber liquid to herself and Hitch. The glasses each contained a full pint of the liquid, a warm amber hue, rimmed with a sliced lime and a thin line of sugar. Only then did she notice Hitch’s table setting. “Are those bayberry candles?”

“Why yes, they are. How did you know?”

“Bayberries are a popular source for candle wax. Expensive though, and not very sustainable.”

“True, all the more luxurious though. Even though it takes 15 pounds of berries to yield one candle.”

Darin rolled her eyes. “They’re better off used for their medicinal purposes, such as fits and fevers.”

“I see.”

“I do love your table presentation, though.” Hitch’s table boasted extensive amounts of artisanal fruits, golden, green, and macintosh apples and red grapes, arranged in silver fruit bowls with grape vines wrapped around towering candleholders, the candles themselves made of bayberries. In the direct center of the long, rectangular table, at which a chair was placed at each end, was a pheasant, also on a silver platter. Hitch preferred to spare no extravagance when entertaining dinner guests.

“Thank you. I do pride myself on appearance.” Hitch sipped his drink, slurping a bit of the drink into the back of his mouth. “This drink is delicious, what is it?”

“Do you know poison sumac?”

Hitch gagged and spat the drink out onto his precious table décor, near spraying Darin in the face. But she was too busy laughing doubled-over, and then straightening to resume her usual smirk, her mouth tipped up in a knowing smile.

Darin added, “Hah yeah well, that’s not it though.”

Hitch’s eyes near popped out of his head, trying to register that he had almost been poisoned. Or had he? “What?”

“Don’t worry, there’s no poison sumac in that drink, “Darin laughed. “I was just playing with you.”

Hitch shot Darin a most unamused, low-brow glare as he wiped his mouth and his place setting of the cocktail detritus. “Okay…So what exactly is in this?”

“No need to worry,” Darin reassured the good doctor, “it’s non poisonous sumac of course.”

“Why in the name of God do you make drinks with sumac anyway?”

Darin took a harmless and generous gulp from her glass. “Like I said, old family recipe passed down from my mother.”

Hitch took another tentative sip of his drink and admitted, “You have a weird, sick sense of humor.”

Darin smiled, “And I take pride in that…So do you still plan on inviting your friend, whatshisname, to the town to help our investigation?”

“His name’s Tudor, Henry Tudor. And yes, I do. I’m thinking he can ask around for Cabot’s usual whereabouts, friends, any enemies he may have had. Though I don’t know why he would have any enemies.”

Darin smirked, ready to jump at the mention of “Tudor.” But as she opened her mouth, Hitch added, “Yes, I do realize the peculiarity of his name…Tudor, as in Kings Henry VII and VIII of England…”

Darin added, “Maybe he can keep an eye on that slimy Ratcliffe, too. I’m sure he’ll be sneaking around, poking his nose into our business, or your home, where it doesn’t belong.”

“Mmm good point. That, too.”

She slurped at her drink once again and cast her probing eyes across the table, in Hitch’s direction. “So tell me Hitch.”

“Yes?”

“Why do you keep to yourself so much? When I see you around town, it’s only ever you walking between appointments, and I don’t see you taking company with very many people. If any at all. Why is that?”

Hitch lowered his gaze once again. “Why do you want to know?”

“Oh, no reason in specific,” she said. “Just wondering was all.”

“Well if you must know,” Hitch offered, “I came here, to Boston, when I was just a young lad. I was under my father’s tutelage for most of his remaining years, until he died. Then, with no other viable choices before me, I look up his profession and that’s been that. All work, and not much opportunity to make friends.”

“Ah I see … I’m sorry … You know, and I don’t say this with a light heart, I can be your friend, Hitch.”

Hitch’s face reddened and he stuttered a bit in surprise of Darin’s forward statement. He coughed a bit to clear his throat before saying with a genuine, wide smile, “Yes, I would very much like that, Darin Flyte.”

#

Darin collapsed in her posh sitting room after hearing the door’s lock click in its place. Her eyes were squinted and pained in the dimmed, candlelit room. “Why do my eyes hurt so damn bad?” She rubbed her brow in frustration. “Maybe all the actual intellectually challenging conversation got to me more than I thought?” Darin chuckled.

Despite being at the peak of her contentment as of late, having found a new and decent friend, she was drained. Darin often felt that at the moment she was closest to sustaining a significant connection with another person, she felt most like retreating. Friendship, love, acquaintance, Darin realized, while wonderful, was always fleeting. No person, feeling, object, nothing was permanent, such affection including. This sensation was an odd and uncanny one, one Darin had fostered in her short life from countless flings of trust and betrayal.

Darin was both unsurprised yet shocked when she found herself thinking of Hitch, and that if she were to lose him, she wouldn’t mourn terribly. “Life’s just a series of expectations and eventual disappointments. Sure it’s great now, but what’s stopping something horrid from happening?”

Oh hell… Darin thought, as she heard a weak knock on her door. She slouched over anyway and fumbled with the door knob, revealing Mary standing alone in the shadowy hallway beyond the threshold. Darin’s face fell in exhaustion, and she swore she could feel the bags under her eyes in that instant.

“Arthur let me in again.” Mary stepped through and into the room, a bit breezier than usual, or maybe that was just the late autumn chill Darin felt on Mary’s coat. “I thought it best just to come up.” Darin nodded as Mary removed her scratchy wool pea coat and plopped down on the plush sofa.

“I’ll get you a drink.” Darin opened a wooden chest adjacent the door to reveal a set of fine china, glassware, and bottles upon bottles of wine and cider, saved for private entertaining.

Darin offered Mary the glass of red wine and sat gingerly next to her, careful not to deflate the cushions, nor rock Mary too much in her spot. Darin placed a cautious hand on Mary’s thigh and squeezed it in reassurance.

“Mary, I’m going to be completely transparent with you for a moment.”

“Of course, my dear,” Mary said, as she planted a firm kiss on Darin’s salty forehead.

Darin sighed. “You know that moment when you’re sharing an absolute, wonderful, intimate moment with someone, timeless it almost seems. Yet despite this person’s physical closeness, their body pressed against yours in a hug or an embrace or a kiss, you can already feel them retreating. They retreat, you feel their inertia drawing away from yours, leaving you alone.”

Mary wrapped her arm around Darin, cushioning her as Darin’s dead eyes drifted up to hers. “Darin, what brought this on?”

“I have this distinct and repugnant sense that things will soon be changing in ways that I cannot begin to realize.”

#

11 November 1767

Darin was hunched with her back and wool coat collar against the wind to fight off the brisk air. She had just arrived at Hitch’s house after a short walk from hers, when she heard mumbling in Hitch’s cellar. Darin decided to forego her usual politeness and let herself in.

Darin quickly wiped her boots on Hitch’s front rug, slouched off her jacket, and proceeded to tromp down to the cellar. Before her stomping presence could interrupt the conversation between Hitch and his supposed guest, Darin caught the words “His Majesty” and “undercover” in the string of conversation. She almost stopped in her tracks, mulling momentarily over Hitch’s political leanings. No bother, she thought. I’ll inquire later.

Reaching the end of the stairs, there Darin found Hitch’s table filled with a medical chart on which was drawn the outline of a body, appended with the notes of Cabot’s condition, the swelling on his extremities, and a list of potent alcohols; a diagram of the Boston roads surrounding the common, pricked with labels like “North Church” and “Faneuil” as the streets stretched out to the harbor; and the beginnings of a suspect list, on which was drawn a huge question mark. These papers now replaced Cabot’s own dead body. She also found Hitch himself, engaged with a middle-aged man who looked to be in his 40s, with a belly that outweighed his three-piece suit, and whose face was plump, rosy, and which boasted mutton-chop side burns.

Hitch glanced up from his absorption in his files for Darin’s entrance, and immediately swept across the floor to greet her. He gave her a light and amicable hug. “Ah Darin! I’m so sorry, I hope you weren’t waiting upstairs long. I confess I didn’t hear you knock.”

Darin returned the greeting, lightly kissing him on the cheek. “No need to worry doctor. I wasn’t out there long. I heard you down here and figured it would be okay to let myself in.”

“Of course.” Hitch wheeled back to his guest. “Actually, we’re due for introductions. Darin, remember when I said, during our first meeting, I had a friend whose help could be of use to our cause?”

“Yes, of course.”

Hitch gestured to the ginger-haired, pudgy man and said, “May I introduce Inspector Henry Tudor. He’s from Lowell, and he traveled an awful long distance to help us. And Henry, this is Mrs. Darin Flyte.”

Darin offered her right hand, a slight smile, and a terse “Pleased to meet you.”

Tudor bent and kissed Darin’s hand. Darin was sure it was meant to be a polite gesture but it made her skin crawl anyway. “You as well,” Tudor grinned.

Hitch interrupted with an anxious, “Anyway! Henry was just glancing through our various files on the case. He’ll be following up with leads and interviews while we continue on the back end of things, if that’s okay with you, Darin?”

“Ah,” she answered absently, still thinking on Tudor’s and Hitch’s conversation before her arrival, “of course.”

“Hitch,” said Tudor, going back to the mess of papers, “I think I’ll continue with the investigation you and, Darin was it?”

“Yes…”

“…the investigation you and Darin began into Cabot’s congregation. I’ve seen my fair share of surprisingly spiteful churchgoers. Maybe there’s an opportunist of some kind among them.”

Hitch offered, “Darin, didn’t you attend service at the North Church?”

“I did.” She nodded.

Tudor grinned a slimy and toothy smile. “Well, then Darin, I may need you help me organize some testimonies, after I’ve had a chance to interview some of Cabot’s flock. Do you know these people well?”

“Some of them. Most are my husband’s friends.”

“But you could help me, then?”

Darin smiled despite her disgust with the man and real desire to slap him. How pushy. The hungry look in his eyes suggested his thinking “We should see more of each other.”

“Of course,” Darin replied. “I would be happy to help.”

“Well, Hitch,” Tudor slapped Hitch’s back. “I must be off. The wife promised to make a hearty stew to celebrate our arrival in the city. Goodbye!”

Tudor waddled up the stairs, only bothering a nod and a tip of the hat in Darin’s direction, and not two minutes passed before Hitch and Darin winced as Tudor unceremoniously slammed the door on his way out.

Darin’s immediate reaction was to crack her knuckles, and her second, to alert Hitch to her observations. “Hitch, I don’t like that guy.”

“Darin, you just met him.” Darin felt the familiar tone of annoyance, however she knew from the edge of that tone that Hitch respected her opinion and would justly consider it.

“I know, but Hitch, you know I have decent instincts.”

“Yes, I do. Which is why I’m worried. Henry’s my friend, and I don’t think he’d do anything to screw over this investigation.”

Darin shrugged. “But he seems the type to take credit where his credit’s not due, if you know what I mean.”

“Hmmm maybe…” Hitch considered her sentiments. “I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now. But you didn’t exactly make it subtle that you disapprove of him.”

“For lack of better words, he gives me the creeps.”

“I could see that.”

“I don’t trust him.”

“I know. Just let him proceed for now though. Help us out a bit.”

Then Darin switched directions and nearly sent Hitch flying with her sudden question:

“Hitch, are you a Loyalist?”

Hitch stopped dead, in the middle of piling together his papers and clipping them in a bunch. “Excuse me, what?”

Darin took a step closer towards her friend, offering her unusual sympathetic eyes. “Are you a Loyalist?”

“Why does it matter?”

“Hitch, you know I like to ask things out of nothing. It’s just who I am.”

Hitch pressed on, palms sweating, unsure of her direction. “Does it matter?”

“Not to me,” Darin admitted. “I just want to know is all.” Darin sighed and offered Hitch her hand, taking his in hers and giving it a reassuring squeeze. “Honestly. It’s just my natural curiosity.”

Hitch dipped his eyes down to his shoes, and Darin swore they were misty. Hitch was not usually this reluctant. He slumped against his table, which gave a little under his weight, and Darin put an arm around his shoulder as he admitted, eyes still trained to the shoe-trodden floor, “Yes.”

#

12 November 1767

What? Wait, who’s dead?”

“There was a guy, he came into town yesterday afternoon…He may have stopped here for a drink?”

“What was his name?” Felix asked.

“Tudor, Henry Tudor…” whispered Hitch with a sigh.

“And, now he’s dead?” Felix raised an eyebrow and walked out from behind the bar to sit face to face with Hitch.

“Yes!” Hitch whispered again. His wide eyes were red and panic-stricken. He turned around, glancing out over the frosted glass of the Green Dragon’s street-side window. “Look, Felix. Can we talk about this elsewhere?”

“The pub’s not open yet. It’s just us.”

Hitch’s eyes darted to and fro, overcome. “I’m paranoid. Indulge me. Please.”

“Hitch, what’s wrong?”

“I—I don’t know…but…his death must have something to do with the investigation…But I only employed him yesterday…and if that’s the case, I could be in some deep shit…Felix. Please.”

“Okay, okay.”

Felix led Hitch up the creaky, wooden back stairs to his lonely office, off to the left. Cramped and receipt-strewn, the office boasted wooden walls that matched the pub below, empty candle holders on the roll-top desk overlooking the cobbled street below, and two chairs.

“Please,” Felix gestured to one of the chairs as he shut the door and sat adjacent to Hitch. “Now tell me what’s going on.” He placed a hand on Hitch’s leg, then thought the better of it and retracted himself immediately.

Hitch began, “So. I brought in a friend of mine, from Lowell. He was to help Darin and me with our investigation of Cabot’s murder, right?”

“Okay. And?”

“And he only arrived here yesterday…He visited my lab, met Darin, and left for dinner. That was it! I don’t think he even had the chance to begin his investigation of Cabot’s congregation yet. He said he was going home to his wife and that’s the last I saw of him…Then this morning a constable came knocking at my door telling me the news…”

“Why did the constable come to you?”

Hitch bent over to rest his head in his hands, rubbing his eyes. “Henry’s wife told the constable that I was a friend of his, and that Henry saw me last night. He didn’t come home last night. They found his body in the Common. The constable asked of my whereabouts last night and if I knew why Henry didn’t return home … or if he had other plans … I can’t believe it…”

“Okay, well, this guy, Henry. How was he killed?”

“They didn’t say! But I’m terribly concerned … Why the hell was he killed? No one knew he was a part of the investigation…assuming that is why he was killed in the first place … I mean, I don’t think it was his wife, so…”

Felix’s last words came in an exasperated rush, pent up with the nervous energy in which one knows one has to tell a friend some horrible truth in a hurry, but simultaneously dreads the moment in which those words realize themselves. “Look, Hitch, there’s something you should know…”

Hitch’s head shot up so last his neck cracked. “Ow! Crap…” Rubbing his temples, he proceeded, “What?”

“You said there were only a few people who could have known Tudor was working with you, right?”

“Yeah…?”

“I think they’re starting to suspect, well, you.”

“WHAT? How? Why?” Hitch reeled with incredulity. “What? No way….what?” Of course the moment in which Hitch felt like Cabot’s murder investigation was beginning to close, chaos just had to erupt, didn’t it?

“Well, before you came in this morning, I had another visitor.”

“Who, besides myself, could possibly be up so early as to visit you at this hour?”

Felix lowered his gaze to his writhing hands and blew out a deep breath he’d been holding in. “Darin.”

“And what was Darin’s purpose in coming here? It’s too early for a drink.”

Felix reached out on a whim and took Hitch’s hands in his. “Hitch, Darin heard about Tudor this morning. You know how such things spread in this town.”

“Yes, and? Stop beating around the damn point.”

“Sorry. Darin told me that she suspects you. I think she was going to one of the police with her suspicions.”

“What the hell? No way would she say that. No way.”

“She did.”

“There’s no way.”

“But she did, Hitch. Whether you believe me or not, I’m telling you the truth.”

Hitch went back to rubbing his temples. “Well…well…do you believe her?”

Felix retracted his hands and crossed his arms. “No, of course not. That’s why I’m telling you.”

“What reasons did she give?” Hitch kicked into a solemn survival mode: his voice was flat, dull, and exhausted.

“She told me you had extensive knowledge of supernatural magick and botanicals. And that such knowledge had been made obvious in the course of your investigation…Is it true?”

“Yes, I do know an awful lot about witchcraft, natural magicks, wiccan history, pagan religions and the alike…But that doesn’t mean anything. I didn’t kill Henry Tudor.”

Felix nodded. “She’s not only accusing you of the murder of Tudor. She thinks you killed Cabot as well.”

“What connection could I possibly have to Cabot?”

“I don’t know, Hitch. But is there anyone else who knows you know about this stuff?”

“Just Darin herself.”

“No one else?”

Hitch considered all the nights spent in the cellar of Faneuil, neck-deep in records and reports of the witch trials, and medicinal herbs and spells. “Uhm…well anyone who saw me conducting my research too I suppose…”

“Oh Hitch…”

“It’s just a hobby!” Hitch stopped. “Well at least it was just a hobby until I got wrapped into this murder investigation. I’m a doctor. I’m the one trying to solve this…Why in hell would people possibly believe, including Darin, that I would be the one to do it?”

“I dunno,” Felix shrugged. “Maybe Darin thought it was the perfect cover…You have to admit, having yourself inserted into the investigation as the knowledgeable medical professional attempting to solve it is a pretty good cover. Hitch if I were you, I’d skip town…People will come asking.”

“God, but I don’t want to,” whined Hitch. “I have to solve this murder! Well, now two murders…I need to talk to Darin.”

#

Felix led Ratcliffe upstairs to his office, leaving an unnamed new employee to man the bar downstairs during the end of the lunch rush. It’s not like he was supposed to know everyone’s name when they started working for him. Ratcliffe clutched at Felix’s hand as they ascended the stairs, and in a half-minded trance, Felix allowed their fingers to link. Damn that Ratcliffe…

“Come on, Amory, I’m getting antsy here…” Ratcliffe continued to mumble as he and Felix burst through the office door and Ratcliffe began making quick work of removing Felix’s apron…

Felix protested faintly against Ratcliffe’s advancing and aggressive lips, managing a “Call me Felix, you dumbass,” before he gave in and allowed Ratcliffe’s kisses to push him back up on his desk. He scooted to the back edge of the desk, pushing bills and receipts alike aside in a haphazard manner when Felix’s finger cut on a stiff piece of stationary and he could only yell, “Fuck!”

Ratcliffe jumped back. “What the hell? I was just getting started for God’s sake…”

“I cut myself on something. Hold on…” Felix pushed off the still-advancing Ratcliffe and fingered the note. “Who left this?” He swiveled to the pointed edge of the desk and hurriedly opened the odd note.

Ratcliffe heard him gasp another, “Oh fuck…That bastard was right.”

“What’s that?”

“Oh, poor Hitch…”

What?” Ratcliffe kept pestering Felix until he handed the note over, on which was written only a few words, scrawled in a hurried mess of what Ratcliffe could only figure was Hitch’s cursive:

Leaving town, but first: it was Darin.

#

13 November 1767

“It’s about time the Flytes hosted another of their infamously decadent, pre-Winter Solstice parties,” remarked Felix. “Take some of the craziness away from the pub and get me out for the night.” Little did he know, Felix was unintentionally talking to Ratcliffe, who was lurking just behind him in the corner of the room, breathing in the chill from the adjacent window.

“Mmm yeah, well don’t just sit there skulking, go and get me a drink would ya?” he whispered in Felix’s ear, firing goose bumps from Felix’s neck all the way down his body. Ratcliffe’s eyes darted to Darin across the room, honing in a suspicious glare. “I need to make the rounds.”

“Yeah yeah.” Felix swatted him away and waded to the alcohol, feeling a bit out of place with all these well-to-do, upper class townsfolk. Though being a “mere innkeeper” was nothing to shirk at, Felix knew. He did get all the gossip of the town for sure, and being privy to snippets of information often came in handy in times like these.

#

“I think I may have messed up.” Darin’s posture gave the impression of a breezy calm but her eyes darted to and from the various guests in her living room. Her elegant black satin evening dress showed elegance, grace, and composure. Darin’s inner demeanor and panicked voice did not.

“Messed up how?” Mary asked.

“I think they’re onto me.”

“Who’s onto you? And for what?” Mary asked with a quizzical smile. She sipped her drink.

“I don’t know. Hitch, Felix, everyone. They think I did it.”

“Did what?”

“Killed Cabot.”

“Please, Darin, you’re being paranoid.” Mary placed a hand on Darin’s shoulder. “Get yourself a drink and enjoy your own party for once would you?”

“Harper Ratcliffe has his eyes on me tonight too. I see him in the corner. I can only suspect he thinks the same.”

“Just ignore him. Ratcliffe doesn’t think much of anything these days.”

“Just the revolution.”

“Yeah just that.”

“Calm yourself,” Mary said.

“If only it were that simple…” Darin sighed as she ran a trembling hand down the side of her face.

#

“Darin, may I talk to you for a second?”

Darin whipped around in surprise as she felt a prick of static on her arm. Even more surprising was the face that met hers. Ratcliffe, sneering and smelly as ever, a pen alight in his hand. “What do you want,” Darin spat. She paused and recovered herself, permitting a small “sorry” for Ratcliffe. “Sorry, didn’t mean to shout. These sort of social scenes are exhausting.”

“They don’t seem to become you, as they do for the other rich wives in this town, hmm?” Ratcliffe said.

Darin sighed and placed her cider on the silver platter sitting next to the makeshift bar, ready for Bartholt could remove discarded drinks from the scene.

“I’ve a few questions for you,” Ratcliffe continued.

“About what? What could you possibly have to ask me? I told you about me and Hitch: there’s nothing between us, so bugger off.”

Ratcliffe licked his lips. “I think you’ll change your tone when you hear that I know what you’ve been doing in the Common on nights of the new moon. Hmmm…? How careless.”

Darin dragged Ratcliffe off by the elbow and waded through her mingling guests to the entryway. She managed to avoid the gaze of her guests as she padded up the scarlet-colored carpeted stairs to the second-floor landing, still dragging Ratcliffe behind her. She grabbed his forearms and shook Ratcliffe so that strings of his greasy hair now fell in his face. “What the HELL are you talking about?”

Ratcliffe smiled. “The fact that you even have to ask means you already know.”

“Enlighten me.”

“Weeeeellll,” Ratcliffe began, “Let’s just say I saw a certain someone out in the Common one night while I was snooping around the town—as you know I am inclined to do.” Ratcliffe circled around Darin so his face was in the shadows, veiled in part of the landing light from below in the bustling party. “Now, there’s nothing wrong with a good walk in the moonlight, but since it was a new moon, there wasn’t one. Saw you digging deep into the soil near the oldest, decrepit oak in the Common, so I decided to snoop further. I’m not saying I believe in magick, per se, but I certainly don’t count it out. After you sunk your arms elbow deep into the rocky dirt, I saw a green spark or something…Anyway it looked to me like some magick ritual. It was creepy,” he finished, matter-of-fact.

“And thus you assume I know magick? Because of a hunch?”

“Well, there’s more than just a hunch. Cabot and Tudor, or at least Cabot anyway, seemed to be killed by supernatural means, as Hitch suspects. Funny, it happens right after I see you in this little ritual—or whatever it is—of yours. That and your raging outburst that night in the pub, when Hitch merely suggested the cause of Cabot’s murder was magickal. Seems like a whole lot of coincidence to me. I don’t believe in coincidence.”

Darin shrugged off the accusations and suggested, “Well aside from thinking you saw me in the Common that one time, most of the incidents involving your accusations involve Hitch, too. I don’t see you accusing him.”

“Hah, why in the heck would I accuse him?” Ratcliffe laughed. “Sure Hitch may know about magick from his studies, but I doubt he has the strength of will to possess it. Not that I know much about it, but I’m assuming magick takes a particularly strong-willed person to possess and manipulate it. I believe you do have such strength. That is why I am accusing you.”

“Mhmmm.”

“Also, Hitch left Amory a warning note before he suddenly blew outta town, and he seemed to think that you were the culprit,” he added. “Even if these are just hunches, I know I’m right.”

Ratcliffe took Darin’s subsequent silence as a sign of assent, and proceeded with his argument. “The real question is, of course I’m dying to know, what kind of magick do you possess? I don’t think you’d waste your time on anything weak, if you’ve come this far and performed this well, in covert manners. Also why? Why use it at all? Why kill them, these men?”

Darin considered shutting her mouth, but no matter her false refusals, she had a sneaking suspicion that Ratcliffe wouldn’t drop his. May as well get credit where credit is due, she thought. “As you said, I don’t put up with bullshit magick. And this source is immediate and easy to access, so why wouldn’t I? Wouldn’t you?”

“Is this because you’re a redcoat supporter? Masking your identity as a Loyalist by pretending to be a well-to-do-housewife?”

“No.”

“Or maybe because you’re a true revolutionary, eh? Fighting the good ol’ blue jacket cause against the crown?”

“No.”

“Then what could dear Darin Flyte possibly gain from murdering those men? Don’t tell me you did it for no discernible reason?”

Darin dealt Ratcliffe, whose eyes were alight with nervous energy and excitement, a dead-pan glare. Her eyes were listless, dead, giving her face an expression of absolute apathy. She looked as if she could growl in fear, anger and triumph.

“That’s exactly why murdered those men. Because I wanted to.” Darin paused, near grinning as she remembered Ratcliffe’s words just a moment ago. “Ratcliffe, didn’t you just say that this was information that you would die to know?”

Ratcliffe swallowed and began backing down the stairs. “Well, technically I said I’m dying to know. There’s a difference in verb tense there.”

“I don’t see much difference.”

“Given your proclivity for murder, I don’t see why you would.”

Darin snickered, an expression she rarely displayed except in few moments of heinous ecstasy. “Even if I let you go, and you stupidly tried to expose me, I don’t see why anyone would believe you.”

“I do have your confession.”

“Hah yeah, okay, see if that counts for anything. The opinion of a repulsive, snivelly little nothing writer like you against mine, a woman of upstanding and intelligible repute in this town? I don’t think so. Not even Felix will believe you.”

Darin let a wicked smile rip across her face as she reached down the stairway to caress Ratcliffe’s stiff jaw line, before digging a long, sharp, green magick-infused nail into his right eye, gauging it out, and dragging him back up the stairs.

 

 

 

BIO

shalenlowellphoto2Shalen Lowell is an author, blogger, and poet hailing from Boston, Massachusetts. As a trans author, Shalen specializes in fiction which represents the intersection of fantasy and postmodern genres and queer literature. Shalen currently holds a B.A. in English Literature and Environmental Science, and their work often focuses on the crises of environmental degradation as figured through fantasy media. Their work is also featured in Aether and Ichor.

 

 

 

0

Lee’s Funeral, Emmy’s Wedding

by J L Higgs

 

 

My fingers stealthily unwrap the cellophane around the hard candy without making a sound. Withdrawing my hand from the outside pocket of my black suit jacket, I palm the candy in my fist. Pretending I’m clearing my throat, I raise my fist to my mouth and slip the hard candy inside. The sweet taste of strawberries spreads across my tongue.

“Stop that fidgeting,” says Marlene. “They’re about to start.”

I tuck the candy into my cheek with my tongue. “This is just plain weird,” I say. “And this bench is hurting my butt. It’s hard as a concrete block.”

“Now you hush, Jimmy B.!” she says. “You agreed to come, so if you really didn’t want to you should’ve just stayed at home.”

“It’s still weird,” I mutter.   Caught rolling my

eyes, I give Marlene one of my best angelic smiles.

When the phone call had come three days ago it had been a shocker.

“Daddy’s dead.”

“Dead? What do you mean Lee’s dead?”

“Just what I said, Uncle Jimmy. Daddy’s dead.”

“You sure, Emmy?”

“Of course, I’m sure. Daddy’s dead,” she repeated.

“Lee’s dead,” I said to Marlene, clamping my hand across the mouth piece of the phone.

“Give me that phone,” she said, snatching it out of my hand. “Emmy honey,” she said in that sing-song butter melting voice. “Lee’s dead?”

“Yup. He’s dead.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that, honey. What about the wedding? I guess you all are going to postpone?”

“Why’s she getting married anyway?” I whispered.

Marlene covered the phone’s mouth piece with her hand, “Shush, Jimmy B,” she said.

”Shush, Jimmy B,” I mimicked back softly so Emmy wouldn’t hear me.

“Nope. We’re gonna go ahead and have it.”

“Do you all think that’s a good idea? I mean, given the funeral…”

“Well, I talked with Momma. Since everything is ready for the wedding, she felt we should just go ahead and have it.”

“Alright then. Well, you tell your momma I’m thinking about you all and I’ll be keeping all of you in my prayers. We’ll see you in a few days and in the meantime if there’s anything I can do for you all just give us a call. And let us know when the funeral’s gonna be.”

“Well. That’s why I called. You and Uncle Jimmy need to come about an hour earlier on Saturday.”

“That’s no problem at all, honey. I’m happy to do anything I can to help with the wedding.”

“Well I appreciate that, but we’re all set with the wedding. We just need you to come earlier for Daddy’s funeral. It’s gonna be right before the wedding.”

So, here I am at Lee’s funeral on a beautiful October day. The mountains are a brilliant sunlit patchwork quilt of yellow, red, and orange. It’s been years since I’ve laid eyes on them. Thinking of this small town in the mountains, with its few black families sprinkled about like pepper on grits, as home is barely a distant memory to me now. I wanted out as did Lee. That, along with thousands of other reasons, probably accounts for why he and I were such close friends.

Hunting deer, turkeys, and rabbits through autumn leaves and deep winter snows. Fishing for yellow perch, lake trout, and large mouth bass. Swimming, camping, and hiking; Lee and I had been as close as two boys who weren’t brothers could be.

In about a week’s time, today’s colors will start to dull. The fluid flowing through each leaf’s veins will begin to slow down until it finally stops. Cut off from its sustenance, each leaf will eventually die, then fall to the ground. What remains standing will be stark bare skeletons awaiting winter’s cold and snows.

As the Wedding March begins to play, we all stand-up. Marlene takes my hand in hers. She gives me a quick sweet smile.   As Emmy walks down the aisle, her light brown Shirley Temple curls bounce like springs. A bouquet of long white lilies covers the small bump of her almost six-week pregnancy. It’s a tossup which will happen first, Emmy graduating from high school or the baby being born. Emmy’s always been one for surprises. Even from the start.

Peg’s family had moved to our town when we were all eight years old. From that day forward, the three of us, Peg, Lee, and me were practically inseparable. We went through school together and a few years after we graduated high school they got married. Shortly after that I acted on my own and escaped this town, leaving it behind me.

Almost immediately, Lee and Peg wanted to start a family. But after years of trying, they learned that conceiving a child was a remote possibility at best. That’s why everyone was shocked when Peg became pregnant. By the time Emmy was born, they’d been married nine, almost ten years.

Throughout her pregnancy, Lee had hovered around Peg like she was made of glass. Determined that nothing would go wrong he’d taken control of everything. He barely even let her get up or move around. By late in her eighth month, his well-meaning over attentiveness had just about driven her insane. That was why she’d called me.

“Jimmy B.,” she said when I answered the phone, “You better come on up here.”

“Why?” I asked, “What’s the matter? Something happen to Lee?”

“For now, your best friend’s fine,” she said, “but if you don’t get up here and get him to give me some peace, he won’t be!”

That was how I came to be up at Lee and Peg’s the day Emmy was born. After Peg’s phone call, I’d told Marlene I was going up visit Lee because Peg was one hair’s width away from sending him to meet Jesus. Marlene laughed and asked if I wanted her to come with me. I told her no. Peg had said she just needed some quiet time to herself.

When I arrived at Lee and Peg’s, the issue of him giving her some breathing room was still far from settled. Lee was adamant that in a woman’s final month of pregnancy her husband should be even more vigilant. Peg reminded him that her due date was two weeks out and that women had had babies for hundreds of years without men being present. Ignoring Lee’s hang dog expression, she shooed us out the door.

“Go do some sugaring,” she said. “Half the season’s already passed.”

As Lee started up the quad, I hooked the short bed trailer to the hitch. Then we loaded two empty 50-gallon barrels onto the trailer. I slammed its tailgate shut and we headed down the trail into the woods. At each tapped tree, we checked its small hanging bucket for sap. We gingerly removed each full bucket, so as not to slop any of the crystal clear sap over the metal bucket’s edge. Then we emptied the precious nectar into one of the barrels. Once the barrels were full, we mounted the quad and rode to the ramshackle sugar house we’d thrown together when we were boys.

“Damn. Still standing,” I said, nodding toward the shack as I wrestled one of the barrels off the trailer.

“We should do something about it, one of these days,” responded Lee.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Just not today.”

Lee chuckled. He tipped a barrel up onto the edge of its bottom rim and wheeled it hand over hand into the shack.

As I started the fire, Lee began pouring the sap into the large silver steel boil pan. After poking and prodding the fire a bit and tossing on more split wood, it was roaring. Black soot from its smoke started to coat the underside of the pan. Then bubbles began forming on the bottom of the pan. Once the bottom was completely covered in bubbles, they began to rise through the hot liquid. They burst through its surface in a rolling boil.

“Candy, Lee?” I asked holding out my hand.

He started to reach for the candy, then stopped, his hand in mid-air. “You didn’t swipe it now, did you, Candy Man?” he asked, eying me.

“Sure as shit did,” I replied, alluding to when we were kids and Lee got caught stealing candy from Shorty’s Gas Up, Grab & Go Country Store. “Hell. I’ve been holding on to this particular piece of candy for over twenty years, just so I could give it to you today.”

“Well in that damn case, I’m happy to be your partner in crime.” Lee plucked the candy from my palm, tore off the wrapper and popped the candy in his mouth. Then he smiled like he was the happiest man in the world.

Lee stooped, picked up the wire mesh strainer and skimmed its head across the surface of the boil. He lifted the strainer from the pan and flung the foam trapped in the mesh onto the ground.

As the liquid in the pan began to turn a light caramel color, he added more sap to the pan while I continued to feed the fire.

“Hot enough for you?” asked Lee. He chuckled as he unbuttoned his large red plaid fleece lined denim jacket.

“Shit, I bet you feel right at home since I know there’s a place reserved for you in hell,” I replied.

He began laughing so hard he was about doubled over when the rickety door to the sugar shack burst open. In the doorway stood Peg.

“Lee,” she said. “I think it’s time.”

“But you’ve got..”

“I said it’s time. We’ve got to go!”

Stunned, Lee grabbed Peg by the arm. His eyes darted between the boil pan, Peg, and me.

“You heard, Peg,” I said. “We got to go.”

Snapping into action, Lee dashed out the shack, darn near dragging Peg. At the quad and the trailer, he hesitated.

“Just get in the damn trailer,” I yelled, jumping aboard the quad and starting it up. Lee leaped into the trailer, then turned and helped Peg up into its bed. She sat down carefully with her legs dangling out over its open gate.

I slammed the quad into gear and took off. As we tore through the woods the trailer careened wildly, striking protruding tree roots, rabbit holes, and ditches carved by runoff from melted snow.

When we reached the house, Lee yanked Peg out of the trailer and they piled into his big truck. He started it up and swung it 180 degrees, spraying gravel and dust into the air. Then the truck screeched to a halt.

“Jimmy,” he yelled to me through his open window. “The maple syrup!”

“Just get on to the hospital,” I hollered back. “I got it.”

With that, Lee slammed the pedal to the metal. The truck shot down the driveway, wheels spinning and gravel flying every which way. Thirty-five hours later, on April Fool’s day, Emmy was born. For someone who had seemed in such a rush to get here, she sure changed her mind at the last minute.

Emmy stops at the altar. Derek is standing there. He’s got a huge grin on his face like he’s won a blue ribbon at the fair. His white blond bed head hair is sticking out in all directions. The suit that big country boy’s wearing looks like something that was last in style when his grandad was a boy.

Derek slides over until he’s standing right beside Emmy. She smiles up at him and he down at her. As we retake our seats, I slip another hard candy into my mouth. Butterscotch. One of my favorites. I wonder what Lee would think of all this if he were here? Then, I think, well, he is here, sort of, if lying in an open casket next to your daughter at her wedding could be considered being here.

As the ceremony begins, Peg starts crying. That sets off a chain reaction through the women in the church like something contagious. Sure enough, beside me, Marlene is silently crying. I reach in my pocket, pull out my clean white handkerchief, and hand it to her. She thanks me and begins dabbing at her eyes. For a split second, I consider offering her a candy, but then I think better of it, and don’t. While the young white minister talks, I stare at a stained glass window. There, a white Jesus is dying for my sins. Really?

I’ve heard this part countless times. There ain’t nothing unique about a wedding ceremony. But a combination funeral/wedding? That’s unique! That’s why I didn’t think there was anything wrong or inappropriate when I had asked the minister if he’d ever done a funeral/wedding before. Of course, that got me “the look” from Marlene. But the minister didn’t seem the least bit offended. In fact, he smiled and was downright pleasant as he told me that this was his first.

Now if anything could be considered inappropriate, it’d be what ole Bone Head Earl said when we were standing there paying our respects to Lee before the funeral started.

“He looks good. He looks just like himself,” Earl whispered to me.

“Are you stupid, boy,” I snapped back. “First off, that’s like saying Lee’s looked like a dead man all these years. Secondly, if he looked the least bit like you or me, then one of us would sure have something to worry about.”

“Well, I didn’t mean anything bad, Jimmy B.,” said Earl, twisting the frayed brim of a Lake Monster ball cap in his hands. “I just meant he looks like he’s sleeping.”

“Then that’s what you should’ve said,” I responded shaking my head as he shuffled off. Given my experiences with the stupid things some white people say to black people, I often wonder if their brains are ever even engaged before they speak.

As I hear the words, “you may kiss the bride,” my attention returns to the ceremony.

The wedding having ended, we line up to shake hands with everyone in the receiving line. When we reach Emmy, she pulls me close and gives me a kiss on the cheek.

“Daddy would’ve been so glad you came,” she whispers in my ear. “We’ve missed you, Uncle Jimmy.”

“I’ve missed you too darling,” I say. “Boy,” I say turning to Derek, “You better take good care of my god daughter and the little one that’ll be here soon.”

“Yes, sir. I will,” says Derek pumping my hand a little too enthusiastically. “I’ve got a job all lined up and everything. I’m gonna be stocking the shelves at the hardware store.”

“Well that’s good,” I say, pulling my hand free. “I’m sure your father is looking forward to having your help.”

Marlene tucks my blush smeared handkerchief into her pocket book. She pulls out a small silver tube and reapplies her lipstick.

“Isn’t that George?,” she asks, stowing the capped lipstick back in her pocket book. My eyes follow hers across the room. They land on a 400 pound man in a red polo shirt, wearing white khaki pants.

“Yup,” I say, “that’s Skinny George and Silent Cathy.”

“I heard his wife just disappeared. Up and left him,” said Marlene.

“Looks to me like he might’ve eaten her. I sure hope you ain’t got no peanuts in that bag of yours.”

“You better stop,” she said covering a laugh with her hand.

Skinny George, ever the politician just as he was when he was our high school class president, stops here and there to chat up the other funeral/wedding guests. Silent Cathy, like a pilot fish, moves in perfect synch with Skinny, smiling politely and saying nothing. After not uttering a single word aloud during our school years, Silent Cathy shocked us all when she delivered the valedictorian address at our high school graduation in a clear strong voice.

“Hello George,” said Marlene. She tries giving him a hug, but her arms barely make it even half way around his body.

“Hey, George. Hey, Cathy,” I say.

“Hey,” replies George as Cathy smiles and nods hello. “It’s a darn shame about Lee.”

“Yeah, sure is,” I say.

“How you all been? Lee used to keep us up-to-date, but we ain’t heard much the last year or so.”

I shrug. “We been fine, George,” interjects Marlene.

“Well, we missed you at the last reunion, Jimmy B. Sure be nice if you could attend the upcoming one next July.” Cathy smiles at me and nods in agreement.

“Well, I don’t know George,” I say. “I don’t…”

“We’ll see what we can do,” says Marlene cutting me off. She graces Skinny with a sweet smile while I stand there as mute as Silent Cathy.

“Well, we’ll see you all downstairs,” says George, reaching out and shaking my hand. Then he moves on, meeting and greeting his subjects, with Cathy following in his wake.

“You ready to head downstairs to the reception?” asks Marlene. “I did promise Emmy and Peg I’d help set up.”

I look at the doorway to the staircase that leads downstairs and catch a glimpse of Emmy. She gives me a happy wave and I wave back. Then she disappears down the stairs.

“She’s certainly glad to see you,” says Marlene, touching my forearm tenderly. “Now aren’t you glad you came?”

“Marlene,” I say. “What ever do you think she sees in that boy?”

“Huh. That’s what my momma used to ask me about you.”

“And I bet you told mother dear that I was as sweet as candy,” I say, smiling from ear to ear.

“I told her you were just a fool and that I took pity on you since no one else would’ve.” Marlene lets out a cackle and gives me a peck on the cheek.

“Now Jimmy B. Your god daughter’s got a good head on her shoulders. If Emmy’s decided to marry Derek and have his baby, then you should just accept that she knows what she’s doing.”

“Yeah. You’re right.”

“Of course, I am, Sugar. And she was a beautiful bride. Little Emmy all grown up. Lee would be so proud.”

“Yeah, he would.”

“So. You coming?”

“No. You go on ahead,” I say. “I’ll be there shortly.”

Marlene, my social butterfly, easily joins in with the folks heading downstairs. They’re all going on about what a nice wedding ceremony it was and how Emmy was such a beautiful bride. Finally, with the church cleared out, it’s just me and Lee. I walk over to the casket and look at my best friend. He’s lying there so still it seems unreal. I try to speak. My lips move, but I can’t get out a single word.

“You should come up in April and do the sugaring.”

I turn toward the voice. Peg walks over and takes my hand in hers. She rests her head on my shoulder. Whereas some women age, Peg, like Marlene, just gets more and more beautiful as time passes. Her graying hair doesn’t make her look old, but mature and wise.

“The baby should be born around April,” she says. “Lee won’t be here. You should.”

“Well, I’m not sure..”

“Earl and George have said they’ll tap the trees,” said Peg. Taking a step back, she looks me straight in the eyes. “There’s no point in them doing that if no one’s gonna do the sugaring. Lord knows, I ain’t gonna do it.”

“Well, it probably wouldn’t be right if I…”

“That was Lee’s and your thing, Jimmy B.,” she said. “Y’know, Lee ain’t done no sugaring the last year. When I asked him why, he said he was waiting for you. Well,” she said, taking Lee’s hand in her free one while still holding mine in her other, “it looks to me like time done run out on both of you.”

Tears start to fill my eyes. I try to hold on and keep them at bay.

“I don’t know what you all had your falling out over. Lee never told me. And I never asked. But that shack you all built is still standing.”

I try to speak, but I can’t. It takes everything I got to keep the tears from breaking loose.

Peg lets go of Lee’s hand, then mine. “I’m gonna go downstairs now before they start looking for me,” she says as she starts to walk away. “I’ll leave you here with your best friend.”

As she reaches the vestibule, Peg stops and turns back toward me. “Jimmy B.,” she says, “No matter how far or how fast a person tries to run away from home it’s where their heart is and where the people who truly love them will always welcome them with open arms. Don’t you think it’s been long enough? It’s time. It’s time for you to come home.” Then she turns away and leaves.

I wipe at my tears. I feel small. Smaller than I’ve ever felt in my life. Why didn’t I stop myself from yelling, “fuck you, Lee,” and slamming down the phone. It wasn’t as if he’d never teased me before that he’d only gotten caught stealing the candy from Shorty’s because I’d confessed that he’d done it. But those angry words had been the last words he’d heard from me.

“I’m sorry, Lee,” I say, touching his cold stiff hands. “I am so sorry.”

Out of habit, my right hand goes into my pocket. It fumbles around until it comes out holding a candy. “My last one,” I say. I slipped it between his folded hands. “I miss you so much, buddy.” Then I walk away, to join the wedding reception.

 

BIO

jlhiggs2J L Higgs is a former financial services employee. His short stories focus on the lives of black Americans. “Lee’s Funeral/Emmy’s Wedding” is his second published short story.

In addition to writing short fiction, J L spends his time drawing people and places encountered while traveling domestically and abroad. He and his wife currently reside outside of Boston. Their adult son and daughter live nearby.

0

Slush

by Jacqueline Berkman

 

I don’t normally meet up with strangers to rehash the last time I saw their missing ex-wives. But it was a foggy Monday morning, I was newly unemployed, and didn’t quite know how to operate within the parameters of my free time.

I was still unfamiliar with the neighborhood and picked the first café on Fulton Street that I could find. It was only a couple of blocks from my apartment and I had just sat down when Frank walked in, nodding at me as he headed toward my table.

“Casey,” he said, extending his hand. “Thanks so much for meeting me. I’m sure you have a lot going on.” He looked just like the pictures that I googled, handsome in a professorial type of way, tall and wiry with a salt and pepper beard and dark, inquisitive eyes.

“No problem,” I said, stirring my coffee. I kept my head down so I wouldn’t laugh, because the reality was I had nothing going on. I had just moved from Philadelphia for my dream job in San Francisco only to find out, four days in, that the company was shutting down.

So I kicked off the new workweek like any self-starter in Silicon Valley would and slept in past 10 am, ignoring repeated texts from my boyfriend back east, only stirring awake when a call came in from a number I didn’t recognize. In the hopes it was a job recruiter, I picked up, but it was a man’s voice I had never heard before, and he had barely introduced himself as Frank McAllister before cutting to the chase. “I know this might sound crazy,” he said, “but did you go hiking in Lake Tahoe this past weekend with a woman named Nancy Foster? Blonde, petite, around 5’4?”

My stomach lurched. I propped my pillows up against the wall and surveyed my barren apartment as I figured out what to say. I didn’t recognize the name, but the physical description matched the woman I had spent the previous Saturday with, and before I could formulate a response he said, “She’s my ex-wife. She broke into my house and stole my wife’s diamond bracelet, probably a few hours before she met you.”

“My God,” I said, a gasp escaping me, as if I were some stunned bystander in a Lifetime drama.

“Look, I know we don’t know each other, that you have no real incentive to help, but can you do so anyways, out of an act of kindness?” Frank’s voice was a bit breathless, as if he just ran up a flight of stairs. “I have no idea where she went, but she sent me a cryptic email this morning that didn’t mention anything useful except for your name.”

“Really?” I said, not proud of the fact that my voice shot up several octaves, undoubtedly inflated by a sense of importance I didn’t know I had.

“Yes. She admitted to stealing the bracelet. She wrote: ‘I can’t tell you where I am, or when I’ll give it back. All I’ll say is that I went on a hike in Lake Tahoe last weekend and met a young woman named Casey Valeri from San Francisco, and I feel she has changed me for the better. How, I’m not sure, but that’s what I’m on a mission to find out. I’ll be in touch soon.’ ” Frank cleared his throat, the notion that he had Facebook stalked all the Casey Valeri’s in San Francisco who potentially fit the bill already implicit. “You can imagine my frustration, and my wife is distraught. So please, could you find it in your heart to help a stranger in a pinch?”

Help a stranger in a pinch. It was a saying prior to those last few days that I would have dismissed as corny, as my day-to-day life was built upon a foundation of self-interest, just like everyone else. But since Saturday, this sentiment seemed to be the recurring theme in my world. I recalled my hiking partner with a bewildered fondness, and before I knew what I was doing I agreed to meet Frank at a coffee shop, out of a desire to propel the kindness to strangers movement if nothing else. “One thing,” I said. “Bring a picture when you get there, I need to confirm it’s the same person, I think she gave me a fake name.” I hung up, practically shaking with excitement.

Fast forward an hour, and the noir-like atmosphere only continued as Frank sat down at my booth and slid a Polaroid photo across the table. We were quiet as a waitress refilled our coffee, and it was only after she left that I flipped it over and studied the image, which was of Frank and Nancy on a boat, presumably during happier times. “Yes, that’s her. “

Frank sighed. “Whew,” he said. “At least we’ve got that.” He smiled with a small, closed mouth and I thought it was tasteful, the right mix of friendly and concerned. “Look,” he said. “I know this whole thing must be strange for you. It’s strange for me too. And I don’t know what your impression was of Nancy when you met her, I know that she can be quite charming, but the truth is that she’s crazy.” Frank’s hands began to tremble, and I felt a bit sorry for him. “She’s a kleptomaniac,” he continued. “She was off kilter when we were together, maxing out credit cards, lying about it, and after we divorced she got even worse. She called our mutual friend twice to bail her out of jail for shoplifting. And just when I think the dust will settle, that she’s out of my life for good, she goes and does something like this again.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, though I wondered if part of him enjoyed telling this sordid tale, making it just so he was the center of it. “I’ll try to be as helpful as I can.”

“Whatever you remember will be helpful, I’m sure,” Frank said, vigorously stirring Splenda into his coffee. “When did you first come across her on Saturday?”

I sighed. “Let me think,” I said. “About four hours into my hike.”

And that was true. The first four hours were spent walking along a muddy trail, lost in my thoughts, barely appreciating the pine trees, the mountains and the snow. I was fuming over my job situation. How the severance package was shit, how it was so unfair to be laid off after only four days, how things like this happened in the world all the time but in the grander scheme of human suffering it wasn’t even considered a blip.

“I stopped at a clearing in the middle of the afternoon because I was running low on water, and that’s when I met her,” I said. I remembered it well, being caught off guard by the unseasonably powerful sun on my back, the snow all around me melting into slush. I had scoured my canvas bag to see if I miraculously remembered to pack another canteen with water, but of course I had not.

“My God,” Nancy said, just a few minutes later, huffing and puffing as she approached the same clearing. She was a pretty, well-manicured woman who looked to be in her mid-50’s, using a broken off branch for a walking stick, which seemed oddly primitive in contrast to her North Face Jacket, Lulu Lemon yoga pants, and Ecco hiking boots. “I’m so out of shape. To think I’ve done this for so many years and now I can barely breathe. The joys of getting old.” She sighed and shook her blonde hair from the confines of her beanie, and I noticed that it was clearly dyed, dark roots beginning to sprout from underneath. “What’s your excuse?” she said, nodding in my direction. Her eyes regarded me with sympathy, as if I represented the lost traveler she once was.

“I’m low on water,” I said, feeling like a fool as the words came out, so at odds with the prepared me, the one who was always designated driver, who brought more than enough trail mix and apple slices for everyone on road trips.

The upper corners of her lips curled up, bemused, into a smile. “Well, we’re quite the duo, aren’t we?” she said. She reached into her knapsack, also North Face, and handed over an impossibly large canteen filled with cool water. “Looks like we should stick together.”

“Nancy was really friendly, and I was clearly in a pinch myself,” I said, though Frank winced at my use of the expression. I looked down, avoiding his judgmental gaze. “I needed help, “ I said, my voice shaky. “And I wanted company, and she was there for me, so we started hiking together, and that was pretty much that.” I drummed my nails against my mug, the coffee burning in my throat. “But she did give me a fake name.”

Our introductions took place as we approached a change in terrain, where the muddiness of the trail gave way to a dramatic incline filled with rocks and slush. Nervous, I extended my hand.

“I’m Casey,” I said, and I remember she hesitated before taking it, looking at me with a veil of suspicion. “Casey Smith?” she said, a grin on her face.

“No, Casey Valeri,” I said, suddenly embarrassed by withholding information, even though I never usually introduced myself to people using my first and last name.

“We’re approaching the hardest part of the trail.” she said. “I would know, I’ve done this several times before. So I want to know who it is I’m dealing with.” She laughed, as if to add levity to the mood, but there was a focus in her eyes that made me think this information was, for some reason, important.

“What’s your name?” I said, clutching onto my backpack like a student, eagerly awaiting instructions on how to proceed next.

“Bonnie Parker,” she said, climbing up the first rock. “Nice to meet you.”

Hearing this, Frank shook his head in disbelief. “Jesus,” he said, “You realize who Bonnie Parker is, right?”

I didn’t, and my silence gave me away.

“Bonnie Parker. The woman who inspired Bonnie and Clyde, the film about the bank robbers? Nancy is unbelievable.” Frank smacked the table, clearly angry, and I bit my lip so it wouldn’t look like I was smiling. I had to admit it was clever, and fitting in a sort of way, two people leaving the boundaries of civilization and the confines of its laws.

“Sorry,” he said. “I cut you off. What were you saying?”

I shrugged. “Not much,” I said. “Bonnie—er, Nancy and I were figuring out our strategy for getting up the mountain.”

The trail was steep and downright intimidating. All around us, upwards and downwards, right and left, there was nothing but rocks and the rapid disintegration of snow under a glaring spring sun. But Nancy didn’t seem daunted. “One important thing to know about this part of the trail is that most of the rocks are unstable. It’s more like bouldering than hiking. We’ve got to rely on our endurance,” she said, panting as she climbed, before turning around to evaluate me, an experienced adventurer sizing up a timid novice. “Have you ever done anything like this before?”

The short answer was no. I liked to hike, and I would frequently try to get Tim to join me on hikes back in Philly, but he was always preoccupied, whining about one law school exam or another that he had to study for. And without him, I never mustered the courage to jump in my car and explore a new trail by myself. “Not quite,” I said.

“It’s intense,” Nancy said, propping her walking stick for me to grab onto as I hoisted myself onto one of the rocks. “But intense physical exercise is good. It gets you outside of yourself.”

“Exactly,” I said, in what I hoped was a cheerful voice. I focused on my breath as I climbed behind her, my calves screaming as one foot ascended after another, and whatever it was that held my guard up began to erode, much like the snow all around us. It was then, I told Frank, after we had barely begun climbing those damn rocks, that I—kind of—broke down.

“Broke down?” Frank said.

“Yeah,” I said, looking out the window. The trees swayed back and forth in the fog, the 5 Fulton bus made its routine stops, and life moved along, farther and farther away from this sequence of memories. ”I felt like I was going to faint. I crouched down on a rock and told Nancy I didn’t think I could go on any more.”

Frank’s eyes glazed over, his fingers rapidly tapping against the table, as if waiting for me to get to something good. I diverted my gaze, my face flushed with shame as I recalled the moment I burst into tears. I had been overwhelmed and dehydrated, and it was as if the mountain had triggered some kind of desperate rawness in me, the kind where you want to spill your guts to anyone, and the normal privacy filter you carry around inside melts away and you begin to tell stories in the way that you actually see them.

Seeing my distress, Nancy used her stick to hoist herself down to the rock beside me. “Casey, dear,” she said, putting her arm around me.

“I need to turn around,” I said, tears hardening on my face, the beginnings of a headache blooming in my temples. “I barely have any water, I’m completely out of my element.” I was practically hyperventilating at this point I was so upset, gasping for breath in between sobs, snot dripping out of my nose and only the back of my hand to wipe it off.

“There was a lot on my mind, and Nancy wanted to listen,” I said to Frank, even though I could tell he clearly was unimpressed, figured me for some kind of emotional loose cannon. And with an overwhelming urge to defend myself, I said: “I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and the altitude was getting to me, just making everything worse.” I hoped that made my crisis clearer than it was, wrapped it in a bow tidy enough for Frank to walk past without a second thought. Which it seemed to, because he expressed no interest in the subsequent conversation that occurred right after.

“I have no idea what I’m doing with my life,” I told Nancy. “I moved from Philadelphia last weekend to accept my ideal job in San Francisco, and my boyfriend back home won’t stop calling me, and it hasn’t even been my first week out here and they are already shutting the company down and laying everyone off.” I wanted to calm down, but the more I said the more agitated I got. “So now I’ve got to start all over again.”

“Yes,” Nancy said. “You’ve got to start all over again.” There was a pause between us, an extended moment of silence, doves whistling as they sailed across the sky and nestled into trees, the crystalline blue lake perfectly still below us. “Do you have any idea how lucky you are?”
The comment caught me off guard, as if I was clubbed on the head by a blunt instrument. Dazed, I looked out at the lake.

“You think I’m lucky?” I said.

“Yes!” She said. “You are so lucky. You’re young and free and you can reinvent yourself in any way you see fit. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.” She looked over at me. “First things first, though. Leave that dumb boyfriend behind. For good.”

“He’s not dumb,” I said, almost too quickly. Which was true. Tim was smart, book smart at least, one of the most book smart people I knew. But maybe that was the problem. All he knew was what he read on the page, and it narrowed his world, turning him into a self- righteous automaton that only studied and complained.

“He’s no good for you,” Nancy said. “You can’t be afraid to walk away from things.”

“You’re right, I guess,” I said, even though I was afraid of walking away from things, terribly so. And there was something gnawing at me, some persistent fear that couldn’t seem to abate.

“What’s the matter?” Nancy said.

“Don’t you ever feel like, even if you walk away from things, that your problems will just find you anyway, just smack you in the face wherever you go?”

“That can happen,” Nancy said, a bit more somberly than I would have liked. “But what’s the alternative?”

I shrugged. “There isn’t one, I guess.” I looked at Nancy, who was still Bonnie to me then, and found myself admiring her slim body and stylish clothes, her impractical walking stick perched in the snow. “How did you get so wise?”

“If you don’t dwell on the past, it can’t weigh you down,” Nancy said. She sighed, a long painstaking breath, and I imagined her lungs fluttering like butterfly wings. “Don’t get me wrong, though,” she said. “There are a few things I’d like to fix.”

“Like what?” I said, but she waved me off.

“Oh, it’s exhausting getting into it. Mostly, I miss my son Marcus. I haven’t seen him in a couple years. I think he lives in Phoenix now. I want to explain some things to him, but I’m not sure he wants to see me.”

“How come?” I said.

“Let’s just say I haven’t been the world’s best parent,” she said, and then her eyes glazed over for a moment, as if she were deeply considering something. “His birthday was last week. He just turned 25.”

“I’m 25 too,” I said, and it was only a moment later when I saw Bonnie’s bottom lip quiver and her eyes fill with tears. “Are you okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” she said. She shivered, even under the sun, and after wiping away tears reached into her pocket and pulled out a 50-dollar bill. “This is yours,” she said. “The bottom zipper of your knapsack has been open this whole time.” She took a gulp of water and smiled. “Be more careful.”

* * *

“Anyway,” I told Frank, “She gave me a good pep talk and we turned around and headed downhill and that was pretty much that.” I avoided eye contact because I could tell he was growing increasingly frustrated, as I were telling him the world’s most boring story. And maybe I was. But, perhaps in sensing his disinterest in the details, I had selectively omitted more and more, deciding he wouldn’t understand, didn’t deserve to understand, any of it.

“You know,” I said, slapping the table with sudden gusto. “I just thought of something that might help you out. Nancy kept saying that the hike was amateur stuff, that she wanted to climb Mt. Whitney. She was going to head there after Tallac and send me a postcard. Maybe she’s in one of the lodges around there, if she hasn’t started hiking it already.”

Frank nodded, punching buttons in his iPhone, and it didn’t take a genius to know he was investigating lodging near Mt. Whitney. Which amused me, because for all of his time married to a schemer he’d remained as gullible as ever. I doubted he’d be clever enough to out what she actually did, which was book a Virgin America flight to Phoenix.

I stretched my legs, looking around me at the mostly empty café. The fog and drizzle gave way to a sunny afternoon, and I was overcome by all of the things I had to do.

“Well, Frank,” I said. “I’ve got to get going. I hope I was helpful.”

“Yes,” Frank said. “I hope so, too. Thank you, Casey.” He extended his hand and by the time I shook it, his attention was directed towards the next item on his to do list, the person on the other end of the line. “Hello, my name is Frank McAllister, I was wondering if you recently had a guest named Nancy Foster? No? How about Bonnie Parker?”

I waved as I walked out, the cool air reviving my lungs. I had five missed calls from Tim, and when he called again as I was walking home I finally found it within me to pick up.

“Where have you been? Do you even care about this relationship?” he said, his voice blubbery with angst. Beethoven, or some equally appropriate study music, was playing in the background.

And I took a deep breath. “Listen,” I said, my body flooding with adrenaline, “I moved to San Francisco for a reason, and even if it’s not clear what the reason is anymore, I’ll just have to wing it it until I figure it out. And your endless calls and texts are not helping me figure it out. So please, for the love of God, would you give me some space.” And then, surprising even myself, I hung up.

There really was so much to do. Unpacking, emailing recruiters, assembling Ikea furniture, doing whatever people did to get on their feet. But for the first time in a while, I felt light, and as I walked up the steps to my apartment I envisioned Nancy in Phoenix, walking across the gravelly driveway to Marcus’ place. I pictured a young guy making his way downstairs, opening the front door, looking out inquisitively. His mom. I hoped he’d invite her in. That he’d offer her something to drink and listen to what she had to say and accept that whoever she was, whatever she’d done, that she was enough.

 

 

BIO

jacquelineberkman2Jacqueline Berkman is a writer based in San Francisco. Her short fiction has been published in The Writing Disorder, Waccamaw, and The East Bay Review, among other places. Her short story “Picking Locks,” which was adapted into the short film “Panofsky’s Complaint,” was screened at the Brooklyn Short Film Festival in June 2016.

 

 

0

Mother

by Jac Smith

 

 

It cost thirteen dollars to gut Mother. I use a knife, but don’t know where her insides end up. They are likely seeping into the Nevada pavement somewhere between the hotel and Reno International. The drunks coming home from the casinos will carry bits of her on their shoes. The big rigs will gather her up in their deep treads, take her north on the 580. Truckee River may even get lucky. By morning she will be in every crevice and corner of Reno until one good rain storm settles her deep inside the sewers. Deflate this city with a good hard puncture, rip it open and turn it inside out; the flakey film that coats the underbelly is one part sugar, one part Mother. Eve will say to cut it out, to stop thinking this way in regard to her. That my thoughts are too exaggerated, too large, too scary and untrue yet all of this starts because of her. It starts with Mother and I in Croatia, where we are intact and happy and whole. It starts when my sister calls.

It’s been thirteen months since I’ve last seen my sister, Eve. I’ve broken our contract and she is demanding I come home for the yearly exchange of our mother which, like always, I am putting off. Either direction. I want more time with Mother and I want more time without. To get along with Mother requires a very specific headspace, but once I slip into it, onto it, right beneath it — she’s hard to give up. It’s this condensed feeling, the one I get with Mother. If I lay on my back and pull my knees up, my spine feels especially heavy. Heavy and dense and like some good cold thing. It’s an iced tea cold, the kind you buy from people who are paid to smile hard and smile early which, according to Mother, is the kind you want and since I’m into onto beneath, I agree.

Eve gets tired of leaving voicemails. Her kids take turns giving various warnings against me keeping their grandmother over the allocated time. There’s a little one and maybe a medium one but it’s the older one, twelve I think, who fills my inbox with long formidable pauses. I can hear him flip through his spelling workbook; he drops bombs like catastrophic and detrimental and absurd.

I book us a flight home.

40,000 feet in the air and Mother tells me she doesn’t want to go back to Eve. Which is unfair since she knows about the contract. And while isn’t anything legal, doesn’t involve Mother’s consent at all and my signature is that of a nineteen year old’s with the curlicues to prove it — it still stands. The longer I have Mother, the more fervent Eve becomes in demanding us home. Mother and I laugh at that. We nod and curl up and whisper things and even if it’s catastrophic detrimental absurd, it’s also into onto beneath and there is room, I decide, for both.

We fly into Reno-Tahoe International right in the middle of the day. A taxi takes us to our hotel which is not the nicest one in Reno but it is the nicest one just outside of the city and only forty miles north of Jawbreak, my hometown.

Once we’re checked into our room, I heave my suitcase onto the bed. Underneath every piece of clothing I own are two Ziplocs, hefty-sized. Mother moves to the corner of the room, tucks herself into an overstuffed chair and soon she’s silent and in that space between sleep and not and since that’s the home of lucid dreams and feeling capable and having power, I let her enjoy it. I open the Ziploc that holds a clean, black, high-neck shirt and a nice pair of fitted pants that are made up of something that doesn’t wrinkle.

I can’t keep Mother any longer, I know this. The knowing is inside of me, in my stomach, and it’s being sucked upward and collecting at the top of my guts, high-like and not where it should be. It’s making me want to grab Mother and get back on a plane. But it’s also making me want to drop Mother off right now in some alley while I run away. A long stride, thighs tightening, arms pumping, chest hurting thing⎯ that’s what I want.

Tonight we will meet my sister for the exchange at The Stampede, the only bar in Jawbreak. My worst thoughts happen there; the decor and furniture and people a revolving backdrop in most of my nightmares. There will be a singing Elvis doll that sits on the table we consider ours. It’s a true collectable, licensed and authorized by Elvis Presley Enterprises Incorporated and has the official Elvis Presley Enterprises Incorporated logo on its box. The certificate of authenticity is framed and hangs above where the doll stands in its box, on the side of the table pushed up against the wall. Only 61,000 Produced! is what the certificate says. I know it does because I’ve read it. Top to bottom, ten times, each reading a year apart.

The doll goes off every time someone sits down at the table. Middle of conversation, middle of summer and Elvis starts crooning “Blue Christmas” while his hips grind against cardboard and plastic. There are beer stains on the box and part of me wants to steal the thing and sell it on eBay and the other part of me wants to pull it out and maybe hold it a bit.

It’s the Only 61,000 Produced! that’s especially weird. It seems like a lot. But the exclamation point that comes after the statement is what teachers call a context clue and it makes me think I don’t know shit about collectables or Elvis or something like worth.

The doll pops up in my dreams where it doesn’t belong. If I’ve had Mother with me longer than I should, catastrophic detrimental absurd, he pops up outside of my dreams as well. He’ll stand right next to me while I work, while I survey whatever new water supply in whatever new country I’ve been hired to diagnose. I’m in Croatia or South Africa or Indonesia squatting over some town’s main water source and that wicked little King starts crooning “Blue Christmas.” Every time he pauses his lips pout at me from across the watering hole.

Even if Elvis decides not to wage a war at the bar tonight, still there will be other concerns. Always, I will run into some boy I grew up along side of and because at some point I let him see me naked, he will think it permissible to bring up what happened with Mother or maybe even what happened at my high school graduation. It’s what The Stampede has always offered⎯ clearance to grind thumbs into wounds.

Before The Stampede became base camp for the yearly hand-off of Mother, it was my father’s place. He went to The Stampede every day after work even though he quit drinking before I was born. As far as I knew, he never went inside, just smoked cigarettes out front with a few patrons before heading home. He carried a whole layer of pride about being a recovering alcoholic and would make a point to serve Mother a glass of wine with dinner on Friday nights just so Eve and I had some example of responsible alcohol consumption. He always said it just like that, those three words and his gaze was pointed, first at Eve and then at me. And in the space where his stare would jump from my sister and start to come my way, I would force my eyes wide so he would see me bold and unblinking. Booze wasn’t the problem, he told us. It was his brain with booze that was the problem. Keep your eyes on the things that scare you most so that they scare you less, he always said to Eve. Said that part to her and not me but I was listening anyways.

*  *  *

The Stampede has a heavy-weighted wooden door that takes a good strong shoulder and a good bracing leg to open. Mother and I arrive and I handle the door exactly as I’m supposed to. Still, it clips my elbow on the back swing and hip-checks me before it slams back into place. The door is, no doubt, the most expensive thing in this place. Later, I’ll crush the glass that holds the fire extinguisher and hatchet and hack down the door on my way out. I’ll pocket the real brass hinges and sell all of it along with Elvis for hundreds of dollars. I settle at the thought, push my satchel more firmly onto my shoulder and take Mother and I straight to the bar top.

The Stampede is made up of honey-colored oak paneling. Every surface is coated in the stuff, the grade alignment not once considered. The ceiling, floors, walls and tables are all bathed in a lamination of cheap gloss finish that makes it feel like a wraparound bowling lane.

I haven’t sold Elvis or the hinges just yet so I order the cheapest beer they have on tap. I don’t order one for Mother because I’m not Dad and she’s allowed to make her own choices regarding responsible alcohol consumption. Besides, Clive Tisdale is four bar stools down from us so I leave Mother with my satchel and head on over.

Clive, who we called Bear in high school because he was this big broad thing but unfortunately is now just normal-sized, has got his elbow on the bar and his back to me.

“Hey Bear,” I say.

He turns to face me since I poked his back. “Lucy, hi,” he says. “You look good.”

I sit, thank him and he nods back. Always was a nodder. Would nod to just about anything I said to him, asked of him, did to him. Which meant I did most everything first with Bear. First person I stole my father’s chewing tobacco for, first person I skipped class with, went swimming in the drainage canal with, stayed out all night with. Asked him to kiss me when we were fourteen. Asked him if he wanted to see me naked and do other things pretty much right after that. He just nodded and nodded and then I’d go ahead and do it.

Even during graduation when I flashed my naked chest to the entire population of Jawbreak, snatched up my temporary diploma and lit the thing on fire with my rainbow-colored Bic — there was Bear with his big shoulders, sitting in his folding chair, holding his intact piece of paper, nodding.

It was a little impulsive, the thing at graduation. I get it; it was weird. But I was eighteen, proud of my pale breasts and also unaware of what being in Mother’s presence for thirteen months or longer did to me. Also, I didn’t know that I’d have to wait two weeks for the real diploma to arrive in the mail which meant I couldn’t catch a plane right after the ceremony, robe and tassel hat still on, which was something I had been fantasizing about for a good long while. So, I was pissed.

“You here with Eve?” Bear asks, like I can’t just be here on my own.

“I’m here with my mother,” I say as I pour a little bit of beer down my throat and watch Bear watch me.

“How’s the family?” I ask, eyeing his wedding ring.

“Oh you know, the same. We got another one on the way. Hill’s real excited, boy this time. How long you in town for?”

“Just the night. Same as always,” I say. “Congratulations on the kid.”

I thump his average shoulders with my palm, laugh a little, and try to do that thing my dad was always doing⎯ pounding on my shoulders with his giant man hand in a way that was encouraging and painful all at once. I tell him I’ve got to go before he can tell me the same and then I spin around on my barstool, take in the people I grew up with, see that some are noticing me but none as much as I’m noticing them.

My back is turned on Bear so he no longer exists which is this thing a colleague of mine once said while sprawled out underneath Botswana skies. He told me things only existed if you were looking at them. Once you turned your back on whatever was there, it stopped Being. Being, as in capital B, Being. He wasn’t joking but I laughed anyways, right before getting real creeped out and whipping around to see if the world was still there. I turn my back on the bear now though and the move makes me pure and strong and confident and I look at the front door to see if it’s intimidated.

Instead, I see Eve.

She’s already looking at me once my eyes get to her eyes and we just sort of stare at each other for a second before she slings her head in the direction of our table. I spot Elvis where he always is, sandwiched between the sugar caddy and the napkin holder.

I glance over to where I left Mother but see only my satchel.

I mean to hold up a finger to Eve like, give me a minute. I’ll finish my beer, make Eve and Elvis wait while I banish them from this world with my turned back. I’ll collect myself, become Lucy that is not into onto beneath, slide off this stool and saunter over. Instead, I just grab my satchel, smooth my wrinkle-less pants and go.

When I get to the table Eve is signaling to the bartender for a beer of her own while I inch the first half of my first thigh in while keeping my weight steady so as not to set the doll off when I sit. That’s when Eve starts talking.

“You brought her right?”

I pause, ass still hanging off the booth and look at my sister. “Nice to see you too.”

“Sorry,” she says and I slide all the way in.

Elvis keeps his trap shut.

Eve sees me looking at him and rolls her eyes before I can do something like reach out and touch the doll’s hips. “Where you coming back from this time?” she asks as her drink is delivered.

I reach for Eve’s beer and pull it towards myself. “Croatia,” I say, then hold her glass up. “Do you mind?” She shakes her head and I drink. “It’s a new International Flooding Initiative. They need hydrologists.”

“Is that still with the UN?” she asks.

I nod. It isn’t.

“And Croatia is in danger of flooding?” She takes her beer back.

“You do know where Croatia is, right?”

My sister sighs, practiced and narrowed, slides the glass back to me.

“How are things with the kids?” I ask, my hands sliding up and down her glass.

The last time I saw her kids was a few years back. By accident. Ran into them at a WinCo the night before we were to meet up. I had a bottle of wine tucked into each armpit when I heard the little one bellowing for fruit roll-ups. It was Mother’s last night with Eve but she wasn’t even with them.

“They’re fine,” Eve says, waves her hand in front of her chest, pushes the air there out of the way. “Moving on?”

I tap the glass against my teeth and then reach down to my satchel which is next to me on the booth. I open the flap and use both hands to yank the other gallon-sized Ziploc out.

I set Mother down on the table with a thud.

Elvis starts singing.

My sister slumps forward a bit, puts her elbows on the table, her face in her hands. It’s the closest either of us has gotten to a prayer-like position around Mother. “A Ziploc, Lucy? Really?” I can barely hear her over “Blue Christmas.” Eve stares at Mother, her eyes on her even as she asks her next question. “What happened to the urn?”

“Getting her through customs was a bitch,” I say. Elvis breaks into the throaty part of the song and I notice for the first time a small tear at the top of Mother’s bag, right beneath the double zipper. “Besides, Mom likes the idea of fitting into a Ziploc. Efficient.” The edges of the tear are jagged, like it got caught on something. I wonder if there’s some spilled Mother in the bottom of my bag. Ultra-strong and durable, hefty Ziploc my ass.

“Mother wasn’t efficient,” Eve says.

I don’t say anything. If there is one real rule between us it’s that we don’t discuss who Mother was and who Mother is. Mother felt like shit when Eve and I were still kids so she chased eighteen Vicodin tablets with a Starbuck’s Venti iced tea.

“What did you do with it?” Eve asks and I rotate Mother so that the tear is facing me and not Eve, dip my finger in just a bit to touch her. “Luce, stop it.”

I snap my hand back. “Hm?”

“The urn. What did you do with it?”

The King finishes his song, his hips frozen in a harsh left thrust. I reach out for Mother again. She’s right there and visible and it’s hard not to. I prop her up a bit, even her out so she doesn’t slouch over and spill onto the sticky floor. My palms fall onto the bulk of her, my fingers squeeze together as the heels of my hands sink down. Even through the plastic I can still feel the individual granules of her. I bring my fingers up like a tee-pee. A tee-pee on a sandbank. Then I answer the question, “tossed it at security.”

*  *  *

I was eleven when Mother committed suicide. The most spectacular part of the story was that she committed suicide. It turned out to be a fucked up brain chemistry thing which meant when people asked why, we were just left with, it happened. Nothing bad came before, the actual thing wasn’t messy and no one meaningful found her. We didn’t see it coming but Dad always said that was because we didn’t have her brain and it was a stupid question for people to ask us anyways. She did it in her car in the middle of summer. Eve and I were at swim camp and Dad was at work and by the time the police found her, parked in a thirty minute only zone, we hadn’t even missed her yet.

Dad had her cremated and Eve said we should spread the ashes somewhere nice like the mountains or in the empty lot at the end of the cul-de-sac. I said that I wanted to keep her and Dad just said, okay.

So I did.

The first day of sixth grade I put Mother, urn and all, into my backpack and I took her to school with me. The kids in my grade made a big deal over never mentioning their own moms but mostly I think they just felt scared to be near me and mostly I just felt like the heavy weight of Mother, bouncing against my lower back, was nice.

A year later Eve noticed the dark purple bruise at the top of my tailbone, went looking for evidence and put an end to it.

“You’re keeping her in your backpack?”

We’d been home from school for an hour and I was coming back from the kitchen with a paper plate of tortilla strips and melty cheese, when I found her in my room, crouched over my unzipped bag, pointing.

“Well, yeah,” I said because that’s what Eve was looking at.

“Lucy, you can’t do this.”

Eve had that tone infused into her voice that meant I was embarrassing her. Like everything I did was designed to fuck with her precious high school social standing which was pretty much already in the toilet due to Mom up and off-ing herself.

“You’re a shitty freshmen, Eve,” I told her, feeling the newly discovered power of curse words on my tongue. “Nobody gives a bullshit what your little sister is doing with her dead mom.”

Eve ignored my singular ownership over Mother, something I did so she’d yell at me and I could shout the word “Mom” at her and she could shout the word “Mom” back and we could be kids that didn’t have to learn how not to use that word.

Instead she went with, “Nobody gives a bullshit?” She smirked at me and it had some kind of instant charge that turned my cheeks bright red. “That’s not even how you use it, dumb ass.”

“Get out of my room!”

“No,” she shouted, then pointed a finger at Mom. “This is bullshit. Keep her under your bed or on your bookshelf like a freakin’ normal person.”

“I’ll do whatever I want! Dad said so. He gave her to me.”

“She’s our mom, Luce! You don’t own her.” Eve reached into my backpack and grabbed Mother, pulled her out and held the white heavy ceramic in both hands.

I flew towards her then. “Don’t you dare take her!” Ready to punch Eve in her stupid nose if she even tried to get out of my room with the urn. Eve, four years older and already tall like a total giant just put her hand out and pushed my shoulder down so I was forced to my knees. She was out the door and in the hallway by the time I stood up and sprinted after her.

“I’m putting her here!” Eve declared, looked at the shelves that were scattered along the hallway and were too far up the wall for me to reach. They were full of picture of us all smiley and vacationy and before.

“Eve, please.” I reached up and wrapped my hands in Eve’s shirt, pulled like I was five and she was Mom and wouldn’t pick me up. “I’ll keep her in my room. I promise. I promise,” I said, the words frantic and rushed and I pushed them out as fast as I could. I’d known Eve my entire life so I really knew her and I knew once she set Mother down, took her hands off and stood back, she wouldn’t change her mind.

Which is what she did. She removed her hands and I wailed.

Eve looked down at me then and I was crying hard but my eyes were wide and trying to see her and for a moment Eve’s face did this thing it rarely ever did. It opened and it softened and she put her hand on my face, right on it, half on my cheek and half on my nose and a bit on one eyelid. It was this containing grip on my face, like she was trying to hold all of my emotion on it and also like maybe she was trying to stop it from spreading.

“Lucy,” she said, “this is for the best.”

She let go of me then and I went all the way down. My face was heavy and hot and on the floor as I kept yelling but she walked behind me and away. “You’re bullshit Eve,” I shouted, mouth laden and open and the taste of carpet fibers on my tongue.

*  *  *

“I’ll get a new urn,” Eve says as she looks at my hands which are still poised over Mother’s sternum.

“You won’t,” I say. “We all know you won’t.”

“She’s dead, Luce!” Eve slaps her thighs with open palms, eyes wide and mouth pinched. “This isn’t her.” She points at Mother like she’s not the thing that birthed us and soothed our faces and explained how the red lights on our side of the freeway were brake lights and the white lights on the other side of the freeway were head lights and how all cars had both and we weren’t on teams or anything like that. She smacks at my hands with the backs of hers but I pull Mother closer to me and hunch forward to protect her from the onslaught.

“Fuck,” Eve says, sits further back into the booth as I slide Mother off the table but keep her on the bench next to me, close and tucked into my hip. I run a hand flat along the table, the little seeped out trail of Mother sticking to my palm. I pull the zippy part of her bag open just enough for it to pucker up.

“You’re really losing it, aren’t you?” Eve asks.

I dust my palm. The hefty Ziploc promise comes true when I hear the seal stick together as I zip Mother up. I scoot a little bit closer to the cold heaviness at my hip and look back up at Eve. “It has been thirteen months,” I say.

Eve looks stricken for a moment, but then the moment passes and her face still looks like that, all worried and scared. Scared for me but also like she’s scared for all the fucked-up family genes that are probably swirling around inside her kids too.

“Seen Dad lately?” I ask.

Eve shakes her head, tells me she doesn’t want to talk about Dad and it occurs to me for the first time how maybe this thing I’ve got with Mother, this into onto beneath is somehow like the thing Eve has with Dad. This big something that feels like so much rage and anger that it exceeds its limit, has nowhere to go and so it loops straight back around into love. When Mom swallowed those pills it did something to me, put something in me that I could never push aside, grow past, bury. That wasn’t the thing that gutted Eve. It was Dad and it was the booze that u-turned its way back into his life, gripped the sides of his face and pulled him permanently under. For years I woke up in the middle of the night to Eve screaming at him, telling his slumped form and glassy eyes that he had to do something, fix something, try something. That he had to stare at the scary. Which was me. Which he didn’t. Which meant Eve had to.

“Lucy, listen,” Eve finally says, grabs my sticky hands and slides them to the middle of the table with hers on top, pressing down until all four hands are just one thing. “I’ll get something nice, okay. A nice urn, I promise.”

            I don’t know what to say so I give the Elvis papers their due and when I’m done, Eve is still there and our hands are still one mass. I focus hard until I feel her hands separate from mine, still pressed together and on top, but not all the same thing. Hers are rigid and flexed and when I look up her face is impassive. She always did store the worst of her thoughts in her hands. I know her and I will not let her be the one to remove her hands first, step back from me and watch me wail.

“No,” I say.

She starts in but I slide my hands out from underneath hers. I gather Mother up and slip her back into my satchel. I spit carpet fibers from my tongue.

“She stays with me,” I say, standing up and not even giving Elvis a cursory glance. “You can’t take her from me. I won’t allow it.”

“Lucy,” Eve says. “Stop this. She wouldn’t want this for you.”

But that is where my sister is wrong. She doesn’t know how Mother loves the heat of the Gobi desert and the skyline of Israel. She doesn’t know how Mother is no longer the woman that was always only half happy and who was always only half listening. She doesn’t know that she has become this new other mother who never pulls her hands away and never steps back after she has done something unspeakable, but who instead steps closer and leans in more and is always, always there.

I am wanting to tell her that, but I don’t know how so I am silent.

Eve asks if I remember what Dad always said.

“About the staring at the scary?”

She shakes her head. “About the booze and his brain.”

“It isn’t the booze and it isn’t the brain, but the booze and the brain, together,” I parrot.

She nods.

I hate her.

“Goodbye, Eve,” I say, ready to be out of The Stampede and ready to be out of Jawbreak. She tries to say one more thing, but I am giving my farewell nods to both Elvis and the door hinges⎯ I won’t be back for them. I face my sister one last time and offer her a small grin. We will never agree on this and that is a truth we both know. I turn my back on her and leave.

The second I do she is gone. My colleague was right⎯ it is absolute.

*  *  *

When Mother and I get back to the hotel I call up room service and order us steak. While we wait, I change our flight to a red-eye for tonight. The man who delivers our dinner has on a double-breasted coat lined with brass buttons, twin trails that are the guardrails for his insides. He is sewn in tight from pelvis to chin and I ask him if he is married.

He tells me yes. I have approached him from the side, have run my strong palm down his leg and squeezed his ankle. He is a horse and his hoof comes up as quickly as his answer.

“I like these,” I say, my pointer finger hovering above his belly. I do not touch his brass highway lanes but I am touching the air they are touching and he is looking.

His eyes are siding on too wide and I know it is because he is not sure what this is. If I were less pretty it would be weird but I’m not so he is still standing here.

“Uniform,” he says. Chokes it out and keeps his lips parted. I stare at the inside of his mouth and wait for him to say more. My finger strokes a button. “Mandatory,” he finishes, right as my index goes in for the double tap.

He doesn’t initiate anything else; he also doesn’t take ownership of his still open mouth. Instead he watches me take my hand back and he watches me as I take a loop around the dining cart that he has rolled in.

Our dinner looks good.

There’s a receipt tucked in underneath the edge of the plate. Turns out this steak costs thirteen dollars too.

I tell the man about a steak I once ate in Oslo and how it was smothered in this pepper sauce and how the restaurant had taxidermy buffalo heads and belt buckles on the wall and the steak was supposed to taste like here and the place was supposed to remind me of here but instead it just tasted like there and felt like there and never once did I have some flash of a moment that made me think I was home. I look at the knife that came with the steak, touch the handle a bit, but only with one finger, and when I look back up the waiter his face tells me he is having all sorts of fucked up thoughts about it.

This man has said three words to me. He is standing in the middle of my room with his parted mouth and his yes uniform mandatory, and so I know he is a malleable man and he is married to a malleable woman. I am sure of it. He goes home in the evenings and pushes brass buttons out of waxy threaded loops, takes the yes uniform mandatory coat off and feels loose. His insides are held tight all day, compressed in and solid-like and I wonder if the letting out of all that flesh feels like something scary. If his insides go slippery without their restraints and if he watches himself leak out and knows the job it will be to stuff himself back in come morning. Or maybe his wife has cool hands that hold his torso in, that wrap firmly and tightly and feel good. I could be her. I could coax this man, this man with the fish mouth and the horse legs into removing his coat and showing me what happens. I could try my hands on his stomach and chest and neck and I too could be made to mold. He and I will be easy hands and easy insides and parted lips only.

We will smile Eve’s happy smile and Eve will recognize me then. My sister will say how she likes these new hands of mine. She will say the compliments to my hands and insides and lips because I won’t be face or brain or thirteen months of damaged heart. She will shout it over and over, “I recognize you now! I like you now!” But my hands won’t be able to hear that, will not be able to comprehend it so nothing will change and then I will be stuck with this man who is stuck in this hotel and is having scary thoughts about what I am planning to do with my knife. I give him a tip and ask him to leave.

The knife that has come with the steak is more plastic handle than serrated steel. But when I hold it flat and on my palm gravity pitches it forward so it flips tip first into the carpet. I know that it is a good and heavy blade. I drop down next to it, pull my satchel onto my lap and carve out a hole in the bottom corner of my leather bag. It’s not easy this task, but soon I’ve got the stabbing motion down and the shiny leather is now streaked with white scuff marks. There is a silver dollar sized gap exactly where the seams meet.

I pack everything up. I leave some money for house keeping.

The floor seems too casual so I gather Mother and move to the center of the bed.

I pull my legs up so they are close to my heart and my feet are flat and my stomach has a wall of other body parts protecting it and making me feel safe. Mother molds herself to the ridges of my kneecaps.

“This next part isn’t going to hurt,” I tell her as I grip the bottom corners of the Ziploc, push in a bit so she bunches up and is right at eye-level.

Maybe Dad was right and maybe it isn’t Mother and it isn’t me but me and Mother, together.

The ridges of my spine carry only a hint of coldness.

Eve’s movie version of this is Mother leaning over a cloud looking at me, crying big and round and really blue tears at the idea of this still being a thing. Well, yeah, no shit. Mother has always been a contributor, participant, provoker of who I am and if Mother didn’t want to forever be the contributor participant provoker then Mother shouldn’t have ended herself.

I have tried so hard to remember the last thing Mother said to me when she still had things like hands insides lips. I can’t. There are whole books that list the last things people have said before they died, but they are for kings and inventors and people about to be lethally injected. They’ve got record of the last words they said to their kids and their wives, their physicians, nemesis and some to a whirl of descending light that was probably their god. I have no way of knowing Mother’s. But she was always polite and would have said thank you when she went through the Starbuck’s drive-thru so that was probably it and that’s a shitty one.

We’re so close, Mother and I, sitting like this with my hands holding her and like always it is mostly nice. I tell her that she doesn’t have to leave, that if she decides to stay I will take her with me always. We will go back to Croatia. We will dip our hands into every water source. We will trace the rivers until we end up at ocean. We will swim in every large body of water that the world offers. Whatever she wants, we will do it. We will dive headfirst into the Adriatic Sea and we will take the steak knife with us and spend our days butchering green mermaids. We will sell their hides and never own cars and we will color Christmas with whatever shade we want. I press my forehead right into her, feel the sandbar mold and make room even as I squeeze my hand over the tear in her Ziploc. I shift my face down and bury my nose deep. It is the only version of her lap that I know and it is happening on an ugly comforter in a town where it only takes thirteen dollars to ruin something so completely.

Mother tells me this is not the end, that it is okay to be affected and affected still. I tell her how there is so much I am still wanting to do in this world. I tell her how I’d like for her to bear witness to it if she so chooses. I cry a bit because no shit, this is emotional.

We have to leave so I stand up, wrap the steak in the front page of the newspaper that was delivered to my room earlier and pull my suitcase to the door. I pick Mother up from the bed with both hands and with one final squeeze I tip her over and set her zipper side down inside my leather bag. Holding my wrapped meat in front of me, my satchel on one shoulder and suitcase in the other, I head for the elevator and wait to be delivered to the lobby.

I take my first bite as I stand outside and wait for the cab. I take smaller bites of it on the way to the airport. I fold the newspaper down a bit and out of the way while the driver pulls my suitcase out. “Thank you,” I say to him and my voice sounds just like Mother’s. I adjust my leather satchel, walk inside and take some bigger bites while I wait in line at security. I chew on the fat while I am patted down. “Thank you, thank you,” I tell them all. I finish it after I’ve boarded, am crumbling the headlines and stuffing them into the pocket of the seat in front of me while the safety video plays. I’ve got steak juice on my hands when the plane takes off.

Maybe it was⎯ have a good day at camp, sweetheart. Or maybe⎯ I’m going to ruin you, dear. Or even⎯ this is my brain and that’s the end of it.

I request a napkin. “Thank you so much.”

The overhead lights dim soon after and passengers all over the plane are reaching up to flick them off completely. It is in the almost darkness that I gather enough of my own insides together to pull my bag onto my lap.

To reach in with both hands is like wanting too much of something so I slip just one hand, my left, into the satchel until I feel plastic. I have touched these layers of Ziploc before. I’ve done it without thought and without care. It is what is inside that is something to know, but now, inside this flying beast where it is mostly quiet and mostly dark and surrounded by strangers, the plastic itself means something too. It contains her, holds her together, makes her this thing that I can look at and recognize and pull towards me and push away and zip into my luggage and stroke and punch and grip and she is one solid mass that always feels heavy and is not lacking, is not full of iced tea, is not parked in a thirty minute zone, and is everything, everything I thought Mothers should be.

My fingers stroke the entire length and width of the Ziploc and not once do I encounter her.

When I run my palm along the entire perimeter of the bag I come up empty. It cost her exactly thirteen dollars to end it and it seems impossible that something so vast and something with so much weight on my life could be done with less than a single month’s allowance. My finger pokes through the rip of the Ziploc and then straight through to the shredded leather until I can see the pink of my fingertip. I am no longer into onto beneath. It is warm down here, terrifying but warm.

Mother, I whisper, chant it over and over and it is the only voice in this whole big sea of sleeping humans. Mother, I say, my chest going loose and my insides wishing desperately for a double-breasted coat. I wonder where she landed. How much of her is in the elevator, on the sidewalk, in that cab, or even at my feet as they press into the belly of this plane. Was there a moment, plastic cup pressed to her lips and the hard edges of pills filling up her throat, where she thought this choice⎯ so complete in its absoluteness⎯ was exactly wrong? I have no way of knowing. My back is turned and Mother no longer exists.

 

 

BIO

jacsmith2Jac Smith is from Long Beach, California. She received a B.A. in Psychology from California State University, Long Beach. She was a recipient of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program Scholarship. Recently she quit her job, left civilization and moved to the small mountain town of Green Valley Lake where she is pursuing writing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

The Spoiled Child

by Tessa Yang

 

 

When Evelyn Farnsworth noticed her daughter, Gracie, ridiculing the hunchbacked boy on the playground, her first cowardly impulse was to pretend this wicked girl was no child of hers. It was easy. So easy, Evelyn wondered why she’d never tried it before. She had only to fake deafness, bow her head, and gaze placidly at the crossword puzzle in her lap—just another mom, fending off boredom at the playground.

As a rule, Evelyn viewed crosswords as the banal pastime of precocious college students and old people desperate to prove their mental acuity (at fifty-two years of age, she had long since stopped being the former and hoped she had at least a decade before succumbing to the latter). But she’d picked up the Wednesday crossword last week in the waiting room at the dentist, just to give it a go, and was annoyed to learn she could only solve a half a dozen clues. Since then she’d been carrying the crossword around with her everywhere, hopeful that each change in environment would inspire her with another answer—a theory which had so far proven untenable. After all, if a Sunday afternoon trapped at the playground didn’t help her think of a four-letter synonym for “inane,” Evelyn didn’t know what would.

Still she persevered, alone on her bench near the merry-go-round, tuning out the chitchat of the young moms and the squeals of their children, until a flurry of motion made her look up to see her daughter and the hunchbacked boy wrestling on the ground.

By the time Evelyn got there, it was all over, the kids having been separated by a dad on scene. The hunchbacked boy sobbed into the breasts of his babysitter, but Gracie maintained a fierce, unbroken scowl until Evelyn had marched her back to the bench. Then her small face crumpled. Her shoulders began to shake.

“He—pulled—my—hair,” she whimpered, each syllable tight with the effort of restraining full sobs.

When Evelyn had gotten engaged to an Asian man, her mother had warned her that their children would look nothing like her. “No problem,” Evelyn had said. “If I’m displeased with the results, I’ll just return to sender.” Her mother had been correct as far as Evelyn’s boys were concerned. Cal and Roger were Allens in miniature, right down to the wild cowlicks in their thick dark hair. Evelyn used to get outraged when people asked “where she had gotten them,” as if she were some crazy white lady who kidnapped Asian babies at the mall.

Gracie, a surprise pregnancy, had also been a surprise to look at: Evelyn’s green eyes and pointed chin and even traces of Evelyn’s blondeness, visible as faint reddish highlights in Gracie’s brown hair. No one ever thought she was adopted. Instead they said, “Like mother, like daughter” or “She has your eyes.”

Tears sparkled on Gracie’s cheeks. Evelyn wiped them away with her thumbs. This was not the first conflict her daughter had been involved in. Gracie was bossy and defiant and proud. She seemed to dislike other children, or to think herself better than them. What few play-dates Evelyn had arranged ended with Gracie sealing herself up in her room, leaving the chattering playmate to trail Evelyn around the house. There were emails from school. Parent-teacher conferences that felt like criminal trials. Evelyn supposed this ought to be a long-delayed Teaching Moment on her part, a chance to quote the golden rule and explain that teasing special kids was wrong.

But hadn’t Gracie suffered enough?

The merry-go-round squeaked, and children screeched joyfully, and Evelyn saw on her daughter’s stunned, tear-streaked face the dismay at having had her first real encounter with violence. Some innocence had gone out of her. Some sense of safety had been snuffed out.

Suddenly, Evelyn wanted nothing more than to wrap her daughter in her arms and murmur that things would be all right, which she did, right there on the playground, kneeling in the overgrown grass.

“How about we go out for ice cream?” murmured Evelyn. “Would you like that?”

She felt Gracie’s head nodding against her.

Evelyn rose and led the way to the parking lot. She felt weary, wrung out like a dishrag. She had worked as a full-time accountant all through her sons’ upbringing and had never expected her role as stay-at-home mom to be more demanding than her career. But she was confident that her course of action had been correct. Gracie had learned a hard lesson. They would drive to the dairy, eat some ice cream, maybe pick up something on the way home for dinner. And that would be that.

 

But of course, that was not that. That could never ever be just that, because the next day, when Evelyn was idling in the parking lot of Cleary Road Elementary, poring over her crossword while the rest of the moms left their cars to gossip in the sunshine, someone approached her Subaru and rapped on the half-lowered window.

Evelyn looked up from her crossword, which she’d spread across the steering wheel. An unfamiliar woman stood beside her car, half bent, so that she and Evelyn were eye-to-eye.

“Hi there.” The woman smiled. She was younger than Evelyn—who wasn’t these days?—and she had the slim shoulders and small, perky breasts of a J.C Penney store mannequin. Her blonde hair jutted from the back of her head in a short ponytail. She wore fluorescent spandex, as if she’d been called away in the midst of a workout. “I’m so sorry to bother you, Mrs. Farnsworth,” said the stranger. “One of the other moms pointed out your car. I’m Fiona Waters. Arthur’s mom?”

“Oh,” said Evelyn. She was baffled. Who the hell was Arthur? The woman continued to smile too widely, like someone who had something to sell. And then it hit her. Oh shit, Evelyn thought. Mother Hunchback. In the flesh.

She took off her seatbelt and climbed out of the car. The day was cloudless and beautiful. The shaggy heads of willow trees tossed and nodded in the breeze, sending shadows skittering across the pavement. Fiona Waters shook Evelyn’s hand. Her stubby nails were flaked with fading pink polish and bitten down to the skin.

“I was so sorry when Kara told me what happened yesterday at the playground,” said Fiona. “I wish I could have been there to handle it. We don’t use a sitter very often, but my husband’s hospital was sponsoring a charity golf tournament downtown. I want you to know,” she said, her voice quiet now, conspiratorial, “that I had a very serious talk with Arthur about his behavior. He had no right to lay a hand on your daughter, no matter what she said.”

“Oh. Thanks,” said Evelyn, taken aback. “I mean, yeah, I had a pretty good talk with Gracie, too.”

Fiona smiled again. There was something about her, a fake quality that did not exactly make her unpleasant, though it put Evelyn on edge. Also she didn’t like Fiona’s wording, no matter what she said, as if Gracie had uttered a disgusting racial slur, when probably she’d just wanted to know what the deal was with that hump.

The bell shrieked from inside the elementary school. The doors flew open and children tumbled out like jelly beans from a split bag.

“Break’s over,” said Evelyn. “Back to the grind.”

Fiona laughed, but made no effort to walk away. “You know,” she said, “Arthur is turning eight this weekend. We’re having a little celebration at the house. We’d love it if Gracie would attend.”

“Of course,” said Evelyn. She knew a challenge when she heard one. She took out her phone to make a note of the time and address.

“It’ll be a good opportunity for them to smooth things over,” said Fiona. “I just think it’s so important for kids to move past their differences. Don’t you?”

A few seconds after she had left, Gracie appeared at the car, holding some clay monstrosity from art class. She thrust it into Evelyn’s hands as she climbed into the back seat.

“What’s this supposed to be?” asked Evelyn.

“It’s a giraffe,” said Gracie.

Evelyn looked at the thing, turning it a few different ways in her hands.

“It’s a giraffe that’s been hit by a bus,” clarified Gracie.

 

That night, when her husband got home from work, Evelyn informed him that Gracie had been invited to a birthday party.

“That’s nice,” said Allen.

Evelyn wanted to tell him that it was not nice. That it was a trap, designed to pit one mother against another in the type of smiling warfare she had not participated in since high school. But Allen was taking off his tie, washing his hands at the sink, eyes staring blankly at his reflection in the darkened kitchen window in a way that meant he was already thinking about something else. And truthfully, Evelyn was embarrassed, having nothing to show for her day but petty squabbles between moms in the elementary school parking lot.

Gracie joined them at the table for her dinner, separately cooked, because she ate only variations of mac and cheese and a few slender green beans if you were lucky, drank only chocolate milk or lemonade out of the glass with the twirly straw. Bedtime was next. Gracie didn’t usually give Evelyn any trouble in this area—the seven-year-old sucked up sleep greedily, like a teenager—but tonight she had all sorts of crazy demands. Cups of water for her stuffed animals. Wearing sneakers to bed. Evelyn finally switched off the lamp, walked into the hallway, and slammed the door.

“Turn on that light! I dare you,” she shouted through the closed door. Gracie did not respond. Evelyn stood in the hallway, fighting the urge to go back in, to apologize or scream some more, she wasn’t sure. When she entered the master bedroom, Allen was just replacing her cell phone on the nightstand.

“Roger called,” he said.

“Does he want me to call him back?” asked Evelyn, already halfway to the nightstand. Her younger son had an entry-level position at a bank in San Francisco and did not keep in touch as well as his brother. Roger had always been private like that, a bit of a mystery. One time when he was about Gracie’s age, Evelyn walked into his room with a basket of laundry to find him kneeling on the floor before his bed, little hands tented onto the mattress. He was praying. Allen was a staunch atheist, Evelyn a lapsed Catholic. Neither of their sons had ever been to church. Evelyn had wanted to ask Roger where he’d learned. Instead, overcome by sudden embarrassment, she tiptoed out of the room.

“He said he was on his way out,” said Allen. “Dinner.”

“Oh.” Evelyn squeezed her cell phone and let it drop onto the nightstand.

“I’m just gonna say goodnight to Gracie,” said Allen.

“I wouldn’t,” said Evelyn. “I barely got out of there alive.”

He disappeared down the hall. Gracie didn’t hassle him like she did Evelyn, or maybe Allen just knew how to handle it better. Eight years ago, when the unexpected pregnancy had first presented itself, Evelyn was the one who’d suggested she stay home with the baby. It seemed logical. The cost of daycare had skyrocketed since the days when Cal and Roger were little. Her full-time salary barely covered the expense, and part-time wasn’t even worth the effort. What Evelyn hadn’t anticipated was how stay-at-home motherhood would feel less like something she and Allen were doing together, and more like a secret she needed to keep from him.

It hadn’t been easy for Allen, either. He could no longer carry out the father’s obligatory athleticism as he had with the boys. Couldn’t keep up with Gracie as she raced through the backyard, or fling her squealing into piles of leaves and snow. But his failings were private, confined to weekends in the backyard. Evelyn couldn’t hide the fact that she didn’t speak the same language as this new generation of mothers, who enthusiastically micro-managed every moment of their son or daughter’s day.

Allen came back into the room, smiling.

“She’s a good kid,” he said.

“I never said she wasn’t,” said Evelyn.

He went into the bathroom. Evelyn heard the familiar elasticky rip of Band-Aids as they were removed from skin. In the past month Allen had begun to develop warts on his fingers, and the freezing solution he applied turned the warts to squishy nubs the color of bird poop. He wore Band-Aids to work to avoid repulsing clients. Evelyn would find these sticking to the sides of the garbage can each morning. She and Allen had a policy where he was not allowed to touch her during the wart-freezing process. She felt bad about this and so couldn’t bring herself to mention the Band-Aid situation, even though she was getting extremely tired of having to un-stick them from the can.

 

On Thursday night, Evelyn drove to Prospero’s Italian Eatery for her standing dinner date with Debbie Fager. The Fagers had lived next door to Evelyn and Allen for sixteen years. Their son, Louie, an affably stupid boy who was always getting Frisbees and tennis balls stuck on roofs, had been an obligatory playmate for Evelyn’s sons when they were small. Debbie and Ron Fager had downsized after Louie went away to college, moving full-time into their house on Keuka Lake. More recently, they had divorced, and Debbie had returned to the city, prompting the renewal of the Thursday night dinners she and Evelyn had suspended over six years before.

“I don’t miss it, though,” Debbie was saying, as Evelyn consulted the wine menu. “It was stuffy and damp in the summertime, and we had these ants…Really it was just old and falling apart.”

“Your marriage?”

“Oh you’re the worst,” said Debbie, swatting Evelyn with her napkin. “You’re really terrible.”

The divorcee’s life was treating Debbie well. She had joined a local book club. She had lost fifteen pounds. She was getting along much better with her sister, who had always detested Ron. Listening to her speak, Evelyn was overcome with the feeling that she no longer had any idea who Debbie was.

“How’s Allen?” Debbie asked as the waiter came by with a basket of bread.

“Good. Great,” said Evelyn. “He’s got a big open house this weekend.” She had a sudden pressing need to tell Debbie about the warts. Instead she took a chunk of ciabatta and swirled it in the dish of olive oil.

The talk turned to children. Louie had landed an internship as a glorified errand boy for some big name in D.C. Debbie, who was paying his rent, spoke of him with the same gushing affection she’d shown throughout his adolescence. Evelyn updated her on Roger and Cal, but of course, Debbie was most interested in hearing about Gracie, this third child who’d sprung into existence just as she herself was fading from Evelyn’s life.

“It’s just so fascinating,” said Debbie, tucking into a plate of eggplant parm.

“What?”

“Doing it all again. The diapers, the nightly feedings…”

“She’s nearly eight now.”

“I don’t know how you’re managing it,” said Debbie, shaking her head. “I give you credit for it. I really do. No way I could do all that again.”

Evelyn looked at her plate of manicotti, which she no longer remotely wanted, having made her usual mistake of filling up on bread.

“Then again.” Debbie paused, fork in midair. She seemed fully capable of carrying on this conversation by herself. “I guess it could be really nice, getting a chance to do it over. You’re older now, wiser. You don’t make the same mistakes. I mean, God knows I had my fuck-ups with Lou. Turned out okay in the end.” She beamed. Evelyn divided her manicotti neatly in half. She expected she would eat it for lunch tomorrow, even though she had this fantasy of saving it for dinner. Gracie and Allen would appear in the kitchen, expecting food, and Evelyn would be sitting there with her manicotti and glass of red wine and a cigarette languidly dangling between two fingers, even though she hadn’t smoked in thirty years and had no ambitions of starting again.

By the meters where Evelyn had parked, Debbie squeezed her into a hug. “It was so fun catching up! You look amazing, by the way. Did I say that already? You really do.”

Evelyn realized she had never learned what led to Debbie’s divorce. How had the subject not arisen? She wanted to know, but it seemed like an awkward time to ask, now that they were saying goodbye. She wondered about it all the drive home. She hoped it was an affair. Affairs were really the only things for divorce. They had that soap opera shine. You could tromp around flinging dishes and screaming to high hell, and no one could say anything against you. But she really did not think either Ron or Debbie was the affair-having type. Probably it had been the usual accumulation of slow, sickly details across time, a gradual distancing, so that one day you looked up from the table and were disoriented by the sight of the person sitting beside you.

Allen had put Gracie to bed by the time Evelyn got home.

“Did she give you any trouble?” Evelyn asked as she hung her keys on the hook.

Gracie? Give a person trouble?” Allen smiled and leaned in to kiss her, his warty hands concealed behind his back.

“Listen,” said Evelyn. “I don’t think Gracie should go to that party this weekend. She doesn’t get along great with the other kids, and I’ve got a lot of stuff to do around the house.”

“But that’s the point,” said Allen. “It’ll be good for her. She’s got to learn how to play nicely with kids her age.”

“But this particular kid…I mean, they were fighting. I don’t want there to be any trouble.”

They’d been moving automatically toward the staircase, Evelyn flicking off lights as they went. Now Allen turned to her. He was fifty-seven, nearly six years Evelyn’s senior, but had the uncanny ability to age himself up or down with small adjustments to his posture and the tone of his voice. At work, he was a young man. Evelyn had witnessed him at showings, limbs loosening, laughter spilling from his lips, buyers flocking to him like moths to a warm light. Just now he’d become older. It was hard to say how. Something in the lips and eyes, and in the rounding of his shoulders. He faced Evelyn unflinchingly and when he spoke, it was with the stony authority one generally associates with movie antagonists and God.

“Gracie will go to the party,” he said. “It’ll be a good chance for her to learn how to play nicely with kids her age, and for you to learn how to play nicely with the other moms.”

Then he went up the stairs, leaving Evelyn seething at the bottom.

She knew she shouldn’t take him too seriously. Allen was like this sometimes at the end of a long day. Perhaps Gracie really had given him a hard time. But as Evelyn slowly climbed the stairs, the sting of his words deepened, not least because they granted her a benefit of the doubt she knew she didn’t deserve. Allen thought Evelyn was being difficult, refusing to “play nicely” with the other moms out of a sense of superiority. He couldn’t see that she was incompetent, that the era of mothering her two little sons was like a country to which she’d relinquished her residency. No: A country to which she’d completely lost the way.

Evelyn was in bed when Allen emerged from the bathroom. He looked like his usual self now, a fifty-seven-year-old man with a little pouch of belly fat hanging over his pajama bottoms and soft creases to either side of his dark eyes. Evelyn feigned great interest in her crossword puzzle as he got into bed.

“How well do you know Fiddler on the Roof?”

“Not well.” He reached out to graze her arm with the heel of his palm. “Hey. I just worry about her sometimes, you know? She’s not great with other kids. And with her brothers so much older…I worry she’s growing up like an only child.”

I’m an only child,” Evelyn said, throwing down the crossword puzzle and glaring.

Allen smiled sympathetically. “Yes, you are.”

 

Evelyn drove straight to the mall after picking up Gracie from school. Really she ought to have done it sometime that morning, but she hated shopping and had this idea that Gracie ought to suffer along with her, it being her fault that Evelyn had to buy a present in the first place. The problem with this plan was that Gracie’s suffering compounded Evelyn’s tenfold. She whined loudly all through Toys R Us, snatched items off shelves, and, when they had finally left the store and were eating Auntie Anne’s pretzels at the fountain in the lobby, revealed a pack of Juicy Fruit gum stolen from the check-out line.

“Give me that,” Evelyn snapped, yanking it from Gracie’s hands. But the prospect of returning to the toy store was too draining to face, so she stuffed the gum into the bottom of her purse.

In spite of herself, Evelyn had purchased for Arthur one of the most expensive Lego sets in the store. A creeping guilt had germinated inside her sometime after the conversation with Allen last night. She woke with it curling and squirming in her stomach. How had things gotten to this point? Cal and Roger had never caused such trouble. The whole plain of Gracie’s childhood seemed to stretch out before her mind’s eye, studded with warning signs she ought to have noticed. Evelyn, glancing down at her daughter licking salt from her fingertips, experienced the queasy sensation of having done an irrevocable wrong.

Around them, people drifted toward the fountain and tossed pennies into the spray. A layer of them covered the tile bottom like a copper carpet. Evelyn would have expected mostly children, but in the ten minutes that they sat finishing their pretzels, she saw two middle-aged couples, an elderly woman with a walker, and several younger adults approach the fountain with pennies clutched in their fists.

Gracie, who’d been watching this procedure closely, asked Evelyn, “Will their wishes really come true?”

“No,” said Evelyn.

She balled up the remains of her pretzel in the salty wax paper. When she returned from the garbage to find Gracie rooting through her purse, she thought her daughter was after the gum. Instead Gracie’s hand emerged with a fistful of loose change. Eyes squeezed shut, lips pressed into a tiny line, she flung the coins blindly. About half entered the water with a series of gentle splashes. The rest rolled in every direction across the floor.

“Now look what you’ve done,” fumed Evelyn. “You go and get those. Go and get them right now.”

Gracie obliged, skittering across the worn linoleum on all fours like a crab, shouting tunelessly as she went, “I wish I was an apple. A hangin’ on a tree!”Passerby laughed at the sight. Everything was funny when it wasn’t happening to you, Evelyn thought grimly. But after Gracie had returned the coins to her hand and they were getting ready to leave, Evelyn tossed a shabby penny over her shoulder into the water, almost like an afterthought.

What should she wish? For Roger to get a promotion at his bank? For Cal to dump that stupid girl? For Gracie to make some friends? Or should she dare to make a wish for herself? A traitorous thought for a mother. But what the hell. Evelyn closed her eyes and sent the wish spinning out into darkness. It had no particulars. It was more like a feeling, pushing upward from the gut. The only words marking it were a vague chant Evelyn could hear reverberating between her ears as she and Gracie walked to the car. Let me. Let me. Let me.

 

Saturday, the morning of the party, Allen rose with watery dawn light seeping through the curtains. Evelyn lay in bed and listened to the sound of the shower running. Back when the boys were little and Evelyn still worked, she was always the first one awake. The early morning hour of peace seemed to renew her before the day even began. Sometimes Cal, a finicky sleeper, would creep in shyly to join her while his little brother stayed in bed. He’d curl up in her lap while she watched CNN, his hair smelling of that sweet staleness that comes only from children just stirred from bed.

At 8:30 when Evelyn went to get her daughter up for the party, Gracie hooked her legs around the bed post and covered her head with the pillow. Once she’d been pried off, she refused to try on any of the dresses Evelyn had laid out for her and insisted on wearing a hand-me-down flannel of Roger’s.

“That’s a winter shirt,” said Evelyn. “It’s 80 degrees out.”

“No,” said Gracie stoutly. Whether this was a denial of the shirt’s seasonal appropriateness or of the current temperature, Evelyn didn’t know, and she didn’t have time to find out. She shoved Gracie into the kitchen and threw a plate of toast at her. Allen, who also appeared to be running late despite his early rising, dumped the rest of his coffee into the sink, kissed Gracie—“you smell like a DAD,” she complained, squirming away—and then Evelyn.

“Look,” he said, extending his fingers. The latest post-wart nubs had peeled off, leaving the skin shiny and fresh.

“Must be a good omen for the showing,” said Evelyn, smiling. “Good luck.”

“Thanks,” said Allen. “Good luck with—” He paused, cocked his head. At the table, Gracie overturned one of the pieces of toast and made a revolted expression as butter dripped thickly onto the plate. “Good luck with everything,” said Allen. He kissed her again, and left.

They drove to the party at half past nine, Gracie slumped in the back seat of the Subaru. Evelyn had not recognized Fiona Waters’ address. Allen had mentioned it was one of the newer developments out at the edge of town. She took the thruway, which was already crammed with cars, young families speeding out to lake houses. The wrapped present sat on the front seat, sunlight gleaming on its silver ribbons.

Gracie was quiet. Cars had this effect on her. Evelyn had discovered this many years ago when Gracie’s infant wailing had yet again woken her and Allen in the middle of the night. Evelyn tried all the usual things. Rocking, singing, feeding, changing. The baby screamed and screamed. Finally Evelyn bundled her up, stuck her in the car seat, and went for a drive. It was January. She could not say what impulse had called her to those slick, shadowy streets. Snowflakes swirled in the headlights. Evelyn drove and drove. She wondered if she was about to do something crazy, about to become one of those mothers whom people described as “snapping,” as if mothers were like twigs that could only take so much pressure before they broke in two.

The baby was silent. Not sleeping, just silent, the gleam of passing street lamps reflected in her eyes. Evelyn drove for what felt like hours, threading in and out of neighborhoods, through empty parking lots, then along country roads where silos wore white hoods of snow. When she got back to the house, Allen was in the kitchen, holding the portable phone. He stared at her. She walked right past him, carried the car seat upstairs, and placed the now sleeping baby in her crib. She and Allen never spoke of the incident. But from then on, if Evelyn got up to tend to the baby in the middle of the night, Allen got up, too.

Evelyn had to circle through Fiona Waters’ neighborhood several times before she found the right address. Once she had, she wondered how she ever could have missed it. In style and size, the house was similar to the colonial homes on either side, but cars packed the spacious driveway and the red turrets of an enormous bouncy castle protruded over the roof. She and Gracie walked around back. Two dozen children of varying ages raced across the lawn. Arthur was easy to spot, frolicking about in a bright red T-shirt and a paper crown. He had the disconcerting habit of narrating his activities in a hoarse yell: “Look at me! I’m running, I’m running! I’m eating an Oreo!”

In addition to the bouncy castle, Evelyn could now see a face-painting station, a dunking booth with a damp teenager sitting glumly on the seat, and one of those portable rock-climbing walls, children bobbing on harnesses like lures on fishing lines.

“Looks like fun,” said Evelyn.

Maybe,” said Gracie, digging the toe of her sandal into the ground.

When Evelyn next looked back at the party, Fiona Waters had materialized so suddenly, it was as if she’d sprouted from the earth. The woman was wearing a carnation pink dress with matching teardrop earrings. Her blonde hair was down, hanging in the sort of loose waves that appeared effortless but had probably required an hour of styling.

“Mrs. Farnsworth, Gracie! So glad you could make it!”

“Call me Evelyn,” said Evelyn. “And thank you. We’re—really excited to be here.” There was a loud ding, followed by a splash, as someone hit the target and the teenager plunged into the tank. “What time should I swing by to pick her up?” Evelyn asked.

“Well you must stay and chat for a little while,” said Fiona emphatically. “Kara”—she reached out an arm, and again, almost miraculously, the young woman from the playground appeared in their midst—“will you take Gracie to get her face painted?”

“Sure,” said the babysitter brightly. “C’mon, Gracie. We can get ourselves painted like cats.”

Gracie shot Evelyn a betrayed look as Kara took her hand and led her into the yard. Fiona linked arms with Evelyn as if they had been friends since girlhood and marched her to the patio, where a group of adults lounged at tables beneath sprawling green umbrellas.

Fiona introduced Evelyn to the group of more or less identical-looking young mothers, and one man Evelyn had expected to be her husband, but turned out to be her brother, Walter. A nearby table, laden with cucumber sandwiches, mini quiches, and fruit tarts, suggested that Fiona had anticipated as many adult guests as there were children. Evelyn wondered at it—when Cal and Roger were small, birthday parties had meant abandoning your kids in the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese so you could enjoy an afternoon of peace—but she did her best to adapt. She talked about the benefits and drawbacks of Boy Scouts, and suggested a pediatrician to a woman who had just moved to town. Fiona fluttered about in her pink dress, proffering food and dipping into conversations just as they were starting to lag.

Look at me, Allen, Evelyn thought, plucking a cucumber sandwich from a platter. Look at how nicely I’m playing.

She managed to detach herself from the group and join Walter at the edge of the patio. He wore a sour, jaded expression that made her feel an instant kinship with him. Under closer inspection, he was also nearer to Evelyn’s age. When she asked him if any of the children were his, he pointed to the teenage boy sitting rigidly on the dunking booth bench as another group of children lobbed balls at the target.

“Little fucker took my Camry out for a joy ride,” said Walter. “He won’t be making that mistake again.”

Walter sold medical equipment to the city hospital where Derrick, Fiona’s husband, headed up the surgical transplant team. He was recently divorced, and his sister seemed determined to get him to attend as many family events as possible.

“She pities me,” he said with a small shrug. “She means well.”

He asked Evelyn which kid belonged to her.

“The pissed off-looking one in the flannel,” said Evelyn. She’d been keeping an eye on Gracie all through their conversation, monitoring for any signals of impending conflict. Things looked all right. Gracie had just emerged from the bouncy castle and was swatting at her static-ridden hair. But because Walter had confessed his failings to her, Evelyn felt a pressing need to share something of her own anxieties. She told him matter-of-factly about Gracie and Arthur’s fight on the playground, and Fiona’s subsequent invitation. When she had finished, Evelyn expected his disapproval. She craved it. Instead, Walter laughed. Said he bet half the kids there had been involved in a scrape with Arthur at one time or another.

“He picks fights,” said Walter. “The school wants to throw him out. Derrick says he’ll slap a lawsuit on their asses so fast they won’t know what hit them. But Fiona, she just wants everyone to get along.” He smiled and shook his head, as if both he and Evelyn knew what to think of that idea.

After Walter had excused himself to load up on mini quiches, Evelyn stayed for a while and watched the children playing in the yard. Now that she was paying attention to something other than Gracie, she noticed that they had given Arthur a wide berth. The boy had just gotten his face painted to resemble a butterfly. He charged across the grass toward the dunking booth—“I’m running! I’m running!”—and the group of girls gathered there scattered. Bypassing the rubber ball, he threw his whole weight against the target and dropped his cousin into the water, hooting. Then he was off again, carving a path through the yard, hurtling into a boy who was thrown completely off his feet. The boy had been clutching a balloon. Freed from his grasp, it rose up and up until it had surpassed the turrets of the bouncy castle, and the child, realizing his loss, let out an agonized wail.

Evelyn turned and headed back to the car. She had seen enough. It was a quarter after eleven. There would hardly be a point in driving home, but she’d passed a public park on the way into the neighborhood. She figured she might sit there and work on her crossword puzzle until it was time to retrieve Gracie from the party. Then it occurred to her that what she really wanted was to talk to one of her sons. She seemed to remember Roger had some volunteer engagement Saturday mornings, but Cal might just be sitting on his deck in Philly, tossing sticks for the dog, his cell phone face down on the patio table that had been Evelyn and Allen’s first piece of furniture in that tiny apartment they shared in 1987. They were the first of their friends to get married, the first to have children. How special it had made them feel. As if a snug domestic existence were their personal secret. As if it had not all been played out millions of times before.

Evelyn was almost out of the neighborhood when she saw the wrapped present forgotten on the passenger seat. Fuck it. She’d donate the Legos to charity. But before she’d gone another half mile, she turned around and returned to Fiona Waters’ house.

The backyard had become overcrowded with children. In an instant, Evelyn realized why: Arthur had entered the bouncy castle, prompting a mass exodus of the kids who had been inside. The party had arrived at an uncomfortable standstill. The boy who’d lost his balloon sat on the ground with his hands over his ears, perhaps refusing to move until he was given a replacement. The teenager had quit the dunking booth. He and Walter were now engaged in a shouting match behind the hedge. Two or three mothers were discreetly collecting their children and hurrying them out of the yard, deaf to Fiona’s protests as she stood on the patio, balancing a cake in her arms. It was a sheet cake, white with blue frosting. A blue plastic number eight candle protruded from the center. For the first time, Evelyn wondered where Fiona’s husband was. At work? Out of town? Why would he not be here to help her manage this chaos? Fiona set the cake on the table. Its tiny flame quivered in the breeze. Something about the sight moved Evelyn into action.

Gracie was milling around near the snack table, but she slouched across the yard when Evelyn beckoned.

“No way, José,” said Gracie when Evelyn told her what she wanted her to do.

“Gracie Marie Farnsworth,” said Evelyn.

Gracie shrank inside her flannel. She peered at Evelyn for a moment, as if weighing the threat behind those words. Evelyn fully expected her daughter to remain defiant. Why should this time be any different than all the others? Yet it was different, somehow. Evelyn knew it. Gracie must have known it, too. She turned and trekked back across the yard. At the doorway to the bouncy castle, her sandals joined the heap of sneakers and flip-flops unclaimed by the kids who’d fled the place a few minutes before.

The dispute between Walter and his son had escalated. Expletives erupted from behind the hedge. The remaining children had begun an impromptu game of toilet tag, dodging the mothers who attempted to reclaim them. The cake now abandoned, Fiona recovered the tray of dwindling cucumber sandwiches and thrust it under the nose of each adult who tried to leave. It was at least a minute before anyone noticed the cries going up from the bouncy house.

Through the black netting of the castle’s windows, Evelyn could see her daughter and Arthur leaping up and down, ricocheting off the walls like ping-pong balls. The entire structure rocked and heaved with their exertions. They came together, seized hands, and toppled as one onto the floor, only to spring upward again, legs flailing. Arthur’s voice was a delighted, high-pitched scream, drowning out the noises of the yard: “Look at us! We’re bouncing! We’re bouncing!”

 

 

BIO

tessayang2Tessa Yang is a second-year MFA candidate at Indiana University where she serves as the Associate Editor of Indiana Review. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Clockhouse, Lunch Ticket, and R.kv.r.y Quarterly. Her short story “Runners” was a finalist for The Cossack Review’s October Prize and will appear in Issue 7. When not reading and writing, Tessa enjoys playing Frisbee and counting down the remaining days until next year’s Shark Week. Follow her on Twitter: @ThePtessadactyl.

 

 

 

0

Pikkake Peaks

by Victoria-Elizabeth Panks     

 

 

Her anxious fingers fondle the collar of Oxy-Blox plaited around her neck, as if it were an abacus or a strand of worry beads. Searching for the incoming frequency, her childish, nimble fingertips locate the cool silvery cube of iridium, pulsing with an aqua tint.

An unknown frequency.

Who was gaining access to her network?

“State the origin of your frequency and identify your molecular sequence. I repeat, you are an unknown transmitting into my private network. Are you some kind of local hacker?”

“I am not unknown to you.”

Images flash across her internal scanner, projecting from the incoming frequency; an eternity of visual memories: a red-haired woman, naked, in a pool; a cinnamon-skinned woman, perched on a rocky shingle; a gamine—red lipstick; black beret over pixie hair—poised at an easel; a Chinese beauty smoking a bamboo pipe; a freckled ‘tween, her green eyes reflecting the flames consuming a city. More women: they rode horses as silver earrings tangled into their windblown hair; they birthed babies in the shadow of the mission; they worshipped at the altar of the redwood forest, at the edge of the ocean, at the feet of a poet. They were Natives. They were Spanish, Asian, Irish, French and Mexican. They were the sum of a millennium and they were one.

They are her. She is them.

“Do you begin to understand?”

“Affirmative. But….what is that thumping noise?”

“C.Y.D.”

“Identify.”

“The Club. Club. Your. Destiny. I am the house DJ here—atop Telegraph Hill.”

“What’s a DJ? And what has it got to do with me? And all….that.”

“I am the house DJ. I spin sides for the sleek and sensual beauties of the night.”

“Spin sides?”

“Sides. Vinyl. Wax. 12”. House, Techno, Tribal, Trance, Dance, Ambience. I am the jockey of discs, the guardian of souls, the keeper of destinies.”

“You sound like one of those fast-talking hucksters. You certainly know how to sell yourself.”

“I know when to turn the volume up and when to slow things down. I sense their moods before they even sense them, themselves.”

“Well, I’m sure I don’t know anything about Earth’s version of sensory perceptions.”

“Ah, but I know about yours…”

“If you care to elaborate.”

“I created the system installed in your quarters. It senses your moods by reading the quality of your aura and filters a complimentary tone of music into your living space. I designed all the sensory music systems for Biosphere Peaks.”

“It must have taken you years to perfect such an invention.”

“Not too many. I based the whole design on a whimsical charm that was popular here in the late twentieth century. They called it a Mood Ring. The aura from the wearer would dictate the hue that blazed within the quartz-stone. It was elementary thermochromic and liquid crystal sleight of hand, but the concept had some interesting possibilities when applied to the natural organic chemistry of the body. If you take a look at the sensory gauge on the inner wall nearest you, you will observe the hue emanating from it is a pale yellow, caused by your sudden wakeful interest in this strange communication. The music has picked up its beat, ever so slightly, from the violet haze of introspection three point five earth minutes ago.”

“Impressive. And an ambitious feat in design concepts. It would require much time to come to fruition.”

“I have had much time on my hands…You see, I have been waiting for your arrival.”

Me?

“Yes, You. I see your destiny.”

My destiny?”

“There is a girl. She is hiding. Protect her.”

“I’m a scientist, not a mother.”

Pause.

“How did you cast all those images? Is that another trick of your auric perceptions?”

“I am sending visual images from my own memory bank, through the same telepathic pathway as our messages. I would come and meet with you in person, but I cannot leave this place at this time—and time is of the essence in this matter.”

“Wait, did you say you were on Telegraph Hill? Isn’t that the Velvets’ sector? Oh––you––you’re not human.”

“You are not human, either.”

“But you are native to this planet.”

“Much like yourself,” the beat intensified, throbbing with frenetic aural waves. “I am Ambrose. Welcome Home.”

* * *

At sunrise Astra_L circled the promenade of the observation deck attached to her quarters, assessing the unsolicited invasion from the DJ on Telegraph Hill. She scanned the distance, but the city lay covered in dense condensation––only the twin peaks she called home and the pinnacles of the absorbent, moisture-gathering solar sails were graced by the sun’s rays above the white blanket. She witnessed her own shadow appear, much elongated, on the fog, creating a haloed bröcken spectre against the iridescent backdrop.

Home.

Astra_L had never known a Home. Her first memories were of her matriculation into university on Pallas-42 and years of subsequent research had taken her to distant galaxies before being summoned to a position at the Intergalactic Biochem Institute Headquarters on Thessa_Loniki. And now this assignment in the Cygna Alpha sector, on this blue orb. From the summit of the twin peaks, straddled by the twin observatories, she breathed in the fresh sea air; the fragrant flora splattered with dew. The city seemed to have a potential—perhaps once lost, but regenerating along its organic impulses. Humans had known success and suffering here. It was her job to give them the knowledge of sustainability.

Regaining her lavish quarters, Astra_L strode across the liquid crystal floor panels, which currently displayed a tropical sea, frolicking with sleek dolphins. She wondered if that was another of Ambrose’s tricks to appease her sensory desires. Still, it was a bit arrogant to assume he could know her destiny. And what relation did he have with all of those women? Some of them naked in his presence; many in obvious distress; and the one only a child! How could she be connected to those women? And how was he? Was he immortal, this Ambrose? Keeper of Destinies, as he styled himself.

As she descended to ground level, she pondered the possibilities and the connections. She weighed the probabilities. She propagated a timeline and plotted the women along it to ascertain if the functionality would hold with consistency. Was it plausible?

Crossing the silent tarmac she found white flowers, growing in profusion along the otherwise ragged hillside. Enthralled by its sweet scent, she knelt to pluck the pale corollas, depositing them into sample vials attached to her magnetic belt. Scree spilled into the depths of the ravine, drawing her attention to the shadowy depths of a chasm. Her eyes linked with a pair of intensely violet orbs inset in the smudged, tear-stained paleness of a porcelain face.

Life Type: Human.

Orientation: Female.

Age: Fifteen Earth years.

They each froze.

Inspecting the state of the girl, who shivered in the rocky niche, Astra_L scowled. By all appearances, here was the subject of whom she had been warned. This snot-nosed creature. Protect her, he had demanded; for she is your destiny.

 

Astral_L surveyed the area surrounding the deep cleft in the side of the mountain. What had caused this creature to scramble to such a hiding place? The road lie hidden far below in swirling mist, its tarmac curling in hairpin turns. The hillside was littered with manzanita, live oak and dry scrub. In the ravines, rocks slid into positions forming homes for jack rabbits, gophers, tarantulas and rattlesnakes. Not a wise place to repose unless one was in need of camouflage from a far more perilous predator.

Protect her, he had said.

 

Spitting and scratching, the girl crouched like a gargoyle in the ravine, threatening to spring if attacked. Astra_L transmitted waves of peaceful energy but found no open frequency. The girl wore no collar—perhaps her chips were embedded. A hawk soared above honing in on invisible prey in the manzanita bushes cresting the ridge. Below lay the intense cotton batting of fog, muffling all sounds from the city. The hawk dove, rustled in the brush and rose again grasping a baby hare by the scruff of its neck.

“Humans never co-operate,” she muttered before aiming the laser at her prey.

* * *

Light streamed from the skylights and clerestory windows into the central atrium of the Twin Peaks Centre for Biological Study. Smooth flowing ramps glided in a graceful spiral from floor to floor of the North Peak facility. Streamlined in white stucco and pristine glass, the airy space glistened in the sun’s rays. Greenery hugged every curve and long vines of algae dangled like a Calder mobile from the ceiling, absorbing carbon all day and glowing with phosphorescence at night. Every component of the building’s design had a specific function. It was a living, breathing organism, completely sustainable, creating energy, gathering moisture, composting waste.

In opposition to the self-cleansing, fresh-aired surroundings, Astra_L carried the dirty, smelly, scraggly dead-weight of teenager up the ultra sleek ramp to the top floor and into the Bio-Organics Wing. She stomped across a soft beige floor composed of a cellular material that developed the strength of bones the more it was tread upon. All of the buildings’ furnishings and materials were composed of bio-plastics created in the labs and tested in the surrounding spaces. She approached one of her colleagues in the lounge overlooking the rooftop’s aqueduct pool. Palvär Aalto was a Finnish architect working on a creation he called BacillaFilla™. Using a common strain of bacteria, he was able to extrude compounds that melded cracked areas together with bacterial growth, leaving behind a strong, fibrous substance as strong or stronger than concrete. It was being tested on many of the derelict 21st century buildings downtown, in an effort to recycle the nearly two hundred year old edifices.

Square settees were arranged within the lounge opposite an cafeteria area. She heaved the teenager onto one of the cushioned platforms as if she were no more than a feather pillow.

“What’s this you’ve found?”

“I had to stun her…she was hard-headed. I couldn’t break through.”

“Yes, these low humanoids haven’t been injected with neural lace yet. They are still analog communicators.” He wrinkled his nose. “Where did you find her—in a compost ditch?”

“I have to protect her.”

The question mark response was evident by the expression on Palvär’s taciturn Scandinavian face.

“They have ceased to evolve. Which is the reason they are nearly extinct. This city is a utopia fit only for those wealthy enough to dwell in its isolationist enclaves of materialist abundance and economic modernization. She may be a survivor, but for her kind, it’s only a matter of time.”

“I’ve had a summons. From one of the immortals living up on Telegraph.”

“That’s the Velvets’ territory.”

“I do not think he is a Velvet. This child appeared rabid. She is afraid of something—she was hiding from something. I want to study her. Observe her. But first I need to have her washed, fed, and vaccinated.”

She signaled to a concierge at the lounge bar, who arrived at once to take the offending, odorous girl away.

“Take her to Aung Suu-Kyi with instructions to examine thoroughly. Thank you. And be careful, she might bite.”

 

“Palvär, can you tell me about these specimens I gathered on the slopes of the peaks?”

“Ah, those are the Pikkake flowers. Feynman brought them back from the archipelago called Ha-wa’ii. He got bored with the antiseptic smell of the lab and altered the DNA of this flower so it could thrive in the conditions of the hillsides. He was a bit of an eccentric, but it was a challenging exercise. Show off, y’know.”

“Kind of like the way the Spanish imported and cultivated grape vines for wine-making in the 19th century.”

“If you say so….” he squinted, bewildered, “I wasn’t around then.”

Astra_L hid the consternation she felt behind a stoic demeanor. She didn’t know anything about the cultivation of vitus vinifera either. She knew about 759-Vinifera which was a minor planet orbiting its sun at a perihelion of 0.969 degrees. Feeling a bit dazed by the unsolicited and mysterious recollection, she approached the bar to request a fortifying elixir before repairing to her private quarters to wash off the perplexity and disruptive debris clinging to her like perspiration.

 

Astra_L tinted the wall length glass windows with their polarizing shields to dim her sleeping chamber. The brushed metallic floors were divided into tiles by the glow of aquatic neon. Leaving her silver mesh tunic and metallic belt on a white leather pouf, she entered into the partitioned bathing facilities where a warm pool bubbled softly, its thermal mineral waters swirling in anticipation. Next to the sunken round pool, a basket held a selection of bath tablets. She chose Lemon Luminosity. Its label professed that the bath tablet would produce physical sensory perceptions to one’s neuro-processors, when dissolved in a thermal soaking bath. The logo pictured a woman with luminous red hair, soaking in a marble pool; a remarkable resemblance to the figure cast into her mind by the DJ, Ambrose. The woman looked to be in a state of arousal. Astra_L felt a sudden anger blooming through her spectrum, seething with exploitation. After soaking in the boiling waters, she adorned herself in a hydration cloak; an organic cloth robe that revitalized the derma. The fibers contained microscopic parasites that induced exfoliation, leaving the skin surface smooth. She sprayed her silver mesh tunic with a laundering canned air which used an organic compound to remove impurities without the need of water or harsh chemicals, making the clothing ready for immediate wearing.

Stomping across the main room floor that resembled a mountain meadow, she entered the island kitchen to whip up a verdant frappé. Using the intercom, she contacted Aung Suu-Kyi for a report on the human specimen.

“How is she?”

“Surly and sullen. Just like all those Rococo Graffiti kids. Craving caffeinated Monsta’ drinks and chemicated McSandwiches.”

“What else?”

“Aside from kicking, spitting and hissing like a frightened kitten, she has a chronic respiratory condition––most obviously from toxic inhalation caused by the collapsed buildings and infrastructure at ground zero. These remaining humans hold a tenacious grip on life in their post-apocalyptic world. They don’t live in the upper stratum and have been struggling to adapt to their environment. Then there’s the drugs…”

“Drugs?”

“Low level heroin and cocaine derivatives. But that’s not all…”

Astra_L arched her sleek silver eyebrow into a ?”

“She is status, primigravida.”

* * *

The room was spartan and white, furnished with only a bed, chair and desktop. An interface embedded into the wall provided communication and entertainment with the touch of a finger. A hexagonal window filled the width and height of the wall opposite the door; its views looking east towards the bay. The feral child was seated calmly on the edge of the bed staring out the window. She had been removed from her soiled medley of garments and been distilled into a simple white tunic dress and white bootlets. Defrocked from the melange of tattered laces, greasy velours, and dusty leathers, she looked passive and vulnerable. The color of her eyes was only intensified by the scrubbed paleness of her skin. Her combed hair was the color and texture of cornsilk, tinted with baby blue dye.

 

“Let’s begin with your name.”

“How did I get here?” she retorted petulantly.

“I brought you here. You were huddled in the ravine. Do you remember?”

“You couldn’t have carried me––you’re no bigger than a child.”

“Well, I didn’t put you in my satchel. And I’m stronger and older than I may look to you.”

“You look like a skinny twelve year old. Like my pesky little sister.”

“Where’s your little sister now?”

“She’s dead. Like the rest of my family.”

“I’m sorry. But I’m not a substitute for your little sister. Or your mother, for that matter. But I can protect you.”

“Protect me! Protect me from what?”

“From the Velvets…”

“Who told you about that?”

“An immortal who knows more than you or I put together. But if you’d like to co-operate perhaps we could assess the situation rationally.”

Silence.

“So, let’s begin with your name.”

Their eyes locked. The stubborn violet eyes of the human regarded the volcanic orbs of the alien biochemist.

“Where did you get that silver makeup on your face and lips? And how did you dye your hair to get it to gleam like that?”

“Your name,” with impatient force this time.

“And why are you so short?”

 

Astra_L fumed and stomped across the room. She wouldn’t tolerate the peevish attitude of a teenager. She had an important assignment requiring tireless research and development. There was no place for time-wasting in her schedule. With her hand on the lever she pulled the door open with a quick flick of the wrist.

“Wait.”

She paused without turning around, attuned to the change in tone.

“My name is Aura.”

Astra_L let the lever click into place. When she looked back into the room, she saw the girl’s figure had slumped from its proud position. Her arms crossed over her legs; her head bent low; her face quivering with tears.

“I’m scared,” she admitted, her tough veneer surrendering.

Astra_L sat down on the chair and spoke candidly.

“I am Astra_L. I’m from a planet called Thessa_Loniki which is 200 lightyears and a wormhole away from Earth. I was summoned here as a consultant in the Preservation Department. I am a Synthetic Biology Designer. My hair is naturally metallic and my eyes are tattooed with iridium oxide to improve my vision. My age in earth years is approximately one hundred and fifty, give or take a decade or two. My height computes to four feet, eight inches in earth measurements, which is normal for my species. Now, tell me who you were hiding from in the ravine. What brought you up to Twin Peaks?”

“Jean-Louis deLapin. He’s one of the Velve’teens.”

Their interview was interrupted by a rumble as the observatory swayed on its axis clinging to the mountaintop. Astra_L stared out the window at the twin observatory straddled upon the opposite peak, as it undulated like a daisy on its stem in a breeze.

“One of your famous Earth quakes?”

“Nah, that’s just the hydraulic tremulator.”

“Clarify and define.”

“It’s a sort of hammering device. It’s made to move the plates gradually and relieve pressure before it builds up to catastrophic quakes. The hydraulics are wedged into each side of the fault to push and pull from beneath. On the crust, the city feels the forced tremors, but they cause no damage.”

“How do you know about such technical engineering?”

“My Da’ worked on the construction of the Andreas Fault Tremulator.”

“Is that how he died?”

“No. He died with the rest of my family––during the meteo-tsunami.”

“And you?”

“I was up on Telegraph when it happened. Jean-Louis saved me.”

“And you became his pet.”

“No! It wasn’t like that.”

“The Velvets rule Telegraph Hill and their brood, the Velve’teens, control all you wild, young, humans, fueling you with drugs and chemicated foods. They feed off humans by stealing the warmth of their body temperature. You think it’s a kiss, but it’s the kiss of death.”

“What would you know about it? You don’t know what it’s like out there.”

“I know that this Velve’teen brute is abusive, intimidating and threatening. I know that you feel a sense of traumatic bonding with this individual for saving your life, but whose only ambition is to steal your life’s breath. I know that you are exhibiting the classic symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome. And,” she finished softly, “I know that you have been impregnated by this predator.”

“How…” she stuttered for breath, “how can you possibly know that?”

“An embryo is developing––”

“How do you know it’s Velvet?”

“The zygote is only half human: one cell is a haploid gamete, the other is of alien origin. Is that the reason you ran away?”

“I was afraid of what he would do if he found out. Their kind are very uncompromising about pure blood. They are of royal ancestry; they don’t couple with our species. I didn’t even know what was happening. He was kissing me and I became so cold, like the cold if you were dead. I was spiraling and dizzy and the next thing I knew our embrace had become charged with an energy I’d never experienced. All at once, I felt pain, warmth and euphoria—the highest High. And just as quickly it was over. I felt stained and numb.”

Suddenly, Astra_L saw a flash memory––she had been equally stunned by a past encounter, long ago in a far away land.

“I know how you must have felt.”

“You?”

“No, not me…but someone…” she trailed off vaguely. “Right now, I need to test your chromosomes to see if this pregnancy is viable in your state of health.”

“And if it isn’t?”

“Then we’ll manipulate your system to make it viable.”

“You can do that.” It wasn’t a question.

“I build organic sustainable systems. I can build your system to sustain a living organism. You will give birth to a new hybrid human specifically designed to survive on a sustainable planet. While I get to work in the lab, it is your job to rest. You can sleep safely here. You will trust me.” It wasn’t a question.

 

With Aura’s medical chart and lab samples, Astra_L spent the rest of the day in deep microscopic focus. Her thoughts dwelled on the introspection of a declining species. When Palvär Aalto stopped by the lab she began to test her ideas out loud, listing the collective successes made to reinvigorate the city landscape.

“Our aim, in these post-apocalyptic conditions, has been to create a sustainable city with new and reconditioned buildings, changing the evolution of building design. We’ve replaced a compromised infrastructure with solar sails that collect sunlight for energy and pull moisture from the daily fog; bacterium formulated to eat human waste and delete carbon; water collection that cools and heats the air; and interior and exterior plants that provide food. But what of the remaining civilians who survived the apocalyptic event only to suffer due to their inability to adapt to the new environment. How can we coerce DNA to evolve in these conditions before a species becomes extinct?”

“You’re talking about human biology now. We’re bio-synthetic designers.”

“But we manipulate cells. DNA cells.”

“We don’t even manipulate rabbit cells, let alone human.”

“Perhaps it’s time we tried. In the Andromeda galaxy, technology has evolved faster than any human mind can digest. When the Singularity Equivalence occurred we were able to create entire worlds in the blink of an eye; planets for education; solar systems for research; galaxies for new colonies. Every thought, every dream had drastic impact and immediate reality. We learned to direct our minds to create authentic, sustainable worlds of light. We focused on the chemistry of plants to show us how to harvest life-giving light. Plants are the most efficient life forms in the known universe.

Here, on this Earth planet, you tried to harvest light from solar panels which were nowhere near as efficient as one simple leaf. We studied energy transfer in light-harvesting macromolecules and found there was assistance by specific vibrational motions of the chromophores. The plant actually puts the photon into a state of quantum superposition, multiplying it by every route that the photon could possibly take, so that in this manner photons are able to break through the forest of particles which separate light photons from leaves and attain a perfect connection. Once the successful route has been configured the photon is sent back in space-time and its route becomes the only possibility that ever existed. All other probabilities are erased.”

“But that defies all classical laws of physics. That kind of prediction is likened to a Tarot Card deck.”

“In your world. And moreover, this equation of so-called non-classical behavior enhances the efficiency of energy transfer in other applications. Treating human DNA cells as efficient energy transfer conductors is theoretically possible and may be the way I can help this child.”

“And why the intense need to manipulate her DNA? She’s getting by.”

“She’s been impregnated by a Velvet; one of the teens kept her, as a sort of pet.”

“So now she’s your pet?”

 

Astra_L continued to study the human girl’s DNA structure, as well as that of the hybrid zygote. When she’d closed out her lab log and visited the canteen for a vegetarian bento box meal the western skies had already been overtaken by the marine layer of evening. On her way to her quarters, she checked on Aura and found that the girl had napped straight through the afternoon, devouring sleep befitting a teenager.

Back in her quiet domain, a cobalt night had fallen. The studio apartment’s open plan had a soothing eclectic decor. The liquid crystal floors had taken the aspect of smooth and soothing slate granite. Ivory plush seating arrangements inhabited the fringes of the room, while above and equally spacial, a carbon fiber ceiling was arrayed with starlight halogens. A reading nook was partitioned by floor to ceiling neon tube lighting that cascaded like a flickering waterfall of fairy lights. A tranquil pool reflected lights glittering onto a white drop ceiling. Its waters were mirrored by an identical outdoor pool, seen through the wall of windows. In the center of the room an enclosed circular island comprised the kitchen facilities. A glittering honeycomb pillar of metal fashioned into a column supported a white disc of light over the workspace. Astra_L set the bento box on the counter and drew water to make a pot of tea—a comforting and charming custom of Earth culture. She found the vials containing the samples of the Pikkake flowers she had gathered that morning. Still fresh, they emitted a cloyingly pleasant scent, tropical and sultry. Here was an organism, removed from its natural habitat and brought to live in a relatively hostile environment and yet, it had been manipulated to not only survive in that environment, but to thrive and propagate. Could the key to human survival be found in the theory implemented to evolve this plant’s structure?

She gazed at the stars wistfully as they began to twinkle one by one in the firmament above the nestled fog.

 

“Trouble!”

She awoke with a zing. The transmission was clear and abrupt. She’d dozed off on the settee overlooking the outdoor pool. It was deepest night. The city lay enmeshed in its foggy insulation.

“You were sleeping?”

“Resting, yes.”

“You must be on the alert. The Velve’teen is searching for his pet. He’s none too happy to have lost control over his captive.”

“They can’t come up here. It is forbidden.”

“They have minions. The girl will respond to the siren’s call. She is hungry for the drug.”

“She’s carrying fetal cells.”

“You must protect the girl and her progeny. It is your destiny.”

 

Below, someone or something was trying to break the hexagonal window of Aura’s room, waking her with a start. In the moonshine of night she could see the window bend with tensile flexibility as it resisted repeated attempts. She rose from her bed to look out into the darkness below. As she stood gazing into nothingness the door slid open and the room was abruptly illuminated. Astra_L shook her head.

“We’ll have no further disruptions tonight. Come with me.”

Aura turned from Astra_L to the window and then back again, dismayed and conflicted, but the memory of being stunned by Astra_L’s taser was equally convincing.

 

In the midnight hours, the center maintained a low hum, while the Roomba™ drones roamed the building, vacuuming and purifying the air during the night cycle. The open atrium was lit by the hanging garden of algae, pulsing with phosphorescent light. Circling the mezzanine level, Astra_L halted in front of a nondescript door and placed her palm on its sensor. After a smooth opening they entered into a small round room with no windows in its curvature but one circular window in the ceiling.

“I dare them to get through that.”

The room, white all around, was furnished with grape-hued decorative pillows, glassware, ceramics and silky bed-linens. Recessed lighting glowed from wall niches in shades of lavender, calming and serene.

“This room is more suitable. You’ll be very comfortable here and above all, safe.”

Astra_L fingered the interface screen on the wall, to open the VisualTunes application.

“I’m going to set this on Random/Ambient to aid your R.E.M.”

The room’s lights dimmed as a light-show projected, covering the walls in virtual wallpaper. Cherry blossoms fluttered gracefully to morph into butterflies wobbling over grasslands. Giant redwoods eclipsed the bright vista, shading it with dark mossy ferns and deeply rusted tree bark. The view tilted upwards to gaze at the treetops far far above.

“Tomorrow I’ll teach you how to use the computer’s Leopard Shark™ operating system. You’ll receive a password to access the most advanced applications for entertainment and classwork.”

“Classwork?”

“You’re not going to spend the next nine months idling away up here. We’re going to test your intellect to assess your level of education and bring you up to the appropriate levels for a human in the upper stratum. You might actually thank me when all is said and done.”

“Thank you,” she yawned, with a smirk.

“Don’t patronize me,” she shut the door softly, feeling protective.

* * *

For the first week, Astra_L kept the girl under close observation and fed her organic tranquilizers to insure cooperation and acquiescence. Though docile, Aura was showing increasing benefits from her isolation and with the success of learning abilities she gained personal pride and confidence enabling her to assimilate with the inhabitants of the Peaks Center. She took an interest in the composition of the futuristic applications and biochemical devices that comprised her surroundings. Eventually her tranquil state existed without the aid of supplements. The improved diet of nourishing foods filled her body, as did the arrangement of fetal cells growing within. Whenever Aura showed signs of flagging, Astra_L showed up with a new topic to distract and entertain.

On a blustery afternoon that showed portents of saturating rains, Astra_L had scheduled Aura for an intense round of sonographic imaging. The fetal cells were developing at an alarming rate propelling Astra_L into a pressure situation. She was still investigating the Pikkake flower propagation and needed more time to complete the strain of equations and translate them into workable applications for humans. Aura sensed that something was wrong and became irritable and restless.

“Enough! We both need a break from this. Aung Suu-Kyi, send the images we’ve captured to my lab log—I’ll assess them later. Aura, you may dress now. Are you hungry?”

The girl shrugged with ambivalence.

“Fine. We’ll have tea in the Mood Lounge.”

“Mood Lounge?”

“Yes, I think we deserve some place a little more uplifting than the canteen. Go on, get dressed.”

 

The interior room had no windows to flaunt the grey day of shadows and fog. Instead, it was decked out like a deep sea cavern—a mermaid’s lair of aquatic greens and blushing dawn pinks. The columns stretched in concave arches from floor to ceiling and were decorated with white seahorses on a pearlescent ground. The low ceiling was composed of waves of aquamarine lighting that faded to indigo and violet at the depths of the interior. Bubble chairs swung from the ceiling and poufs littered the floor like coral reef cushions. The music was syncopated to the rhythms of the sea, ebbing and flowing with tranquil waves of ambience.

Seated in a deep egg cup chair, an elderly human made click-clacking noises by jousting two shiny metal sticks at each other in repeated skirmishes. The pointed lances were laced with dangling threads of hemp, silk and woolen fibers, intertwined to make intricate designs.

“Mama-San, would you be willing to teach Aura the arts with which you weave these magical webs? She should learn to stitch clothing for her baby.”

“Aye, it’s simple to work up some jumpers for a wee bairn. Sit next to me, child—my, you aren’t more than a wee bairn yourself.”

“My grandmother used to knit, I think. I remember that she used to send to Iceland for wool.”

“Aye, we McLeods of Skye have always raised sheep, as well. It’s not something you see much in these parts, but I’ve been working on cultivating a new strain of alpaca that can survive in an urban landscape. They require less pasture than sheep; have excellent survival skills and fewer predators. And feel this wool—it’s as soft as a Kashmiri goat. Now, then, choose a color from Auntie Maeve’s basket. One skein will be enough. Oh yes—that’s a lovely shade of violet; as smokey as a twilight sky.”

“I’ll just go fix us some tea and we’ll have a cozy afternoon,” Astra_L was relieved to have distracted faces cast in her direction.

“Yes dearie, that would be fine.”

 

When Astra_L arrived back from the canteen with a tray of traditional tea scones and a steaming brew she found the two women—crone and child—deeply embroiled in the intricacies of knitting and purling. In no time at all a tiny tunic was taking shape in a soft shade of Scottish heather. Aura was in good hands. Not only was she in the company of a wise woman, but a resourceful teacher and able protectress.

Aura became hooked on her new hobby and entranced by the human who nurtured with a grandmotherly air. She sought Maeve McLeod’s company most days, giving Astra_L a respite from worry over the girl’s isolation and need of constant attention. It allowed her to devote her energies to the maternal and fetal DNA, pushing forward for an evolutionary equation. She was nearing the end of the third week since adopting the pregnant teenager and felt confident that another week would not end without the successful advent.

 

On a cloudy and breezy afternoon, Maeve had shepherded her wee lass outside to get a proper walk and taste the mist on her tongue for good measure. McLeods believed in outdoor exercise in all weathers. Down at the edge of the North Peak Maeve maintained a pasture for her herd of alpacas. Aura was enthusiastic to see the animals whose fiber allowed her to make exquisite baby tunics. The alpacas in the small herd exhibited several different colored coats; all of which were thick and fuzzy and particularly mopsy on the crowns of their heads, giving them the appearance of wearing Russian cossack hats. They frisked and galloped in the paddock and a young colt came right up to the fence and lashed its tongue in Aura’s hand, nosing for apples. Finding the hand empty of food, the youngster wasted no time in responding with a glob of spit, aimed right at Aura’s face. Maeve chuckled with merriment but Aura wore a stormy expression. Auntie Maeve soothed with a clean hanky and a bucket of chopped apples. The alpacas doe-like eyes with batting long lashes worked like a salve of apology and soon the young girl had forgiven the baby alpaca for its insolent behavior. As the herd chomped slowly on the little apple chunks, a calmness wrapped around Aura.

All at once, the herd became spooked and fled to the outer reaches of the pasture. Aura jumped in alarm. Maeve immediately spun around, prepared to face trouble. Two Velve’teens descended upon them. Aura shrieked and froze in place. Evelyn, ever at the ready, withdrew from her jacket pocket two long shiny and lethal knitting needles. Cast from silver with a core of iridium—elements patented to pierce a Velvet’s lungs—they shimmered with deadly glamour. As the taller Velve’teen leapt to capture Aura in his cloak, Maeve plunged with all her Scottish strength. The dark creature howled and fell with a heavy exhalation onto the ground. The smaller Velve’teen shuddered as the second knitting needle was waved in his direction. He hissed; gathered the airless body of his companion and flew down the hairpin roadway, his cape flapping in the wind. Aura was traumatized by the attack and strangely mournful for the fallen Velve’teen, whom she recognized as the older brother of Jean-Louis. The other, younger companion, she identified as a royal cousin. She wondered what had happened to Jean-Louis and why he had not come for her himself. She began to feel remorse, adding to her conflicted emotions.

It was all Maeve could do to calm the girl and herd her back to the confines of the Biosphere. Aura feared she’d never be allowed outside again. She also feared for her daughter—she knew with intuitive certainly that the baby would be a girl. She began to rub her hands together in agitation and mumbled furiously all the way up the hill, up the ramp and into her room where she slammed the door violently and flung herself on the bed.

* * *

Astra_L was immediately made aware of the attack and gave instructions to allow Aura space to calm down. Her own assessment was that the situation was going to escalate into realms for which she was unprepared. They’d had several weeks of peacefulness and a false sense of security. Not long after Maeve finished her report, a transmission came through from Ambrose. He had heavy news and a plan which must be put in motion and adhered to immediately. It was up to Astra_L to explain to Aura just how precarious her situation had become. Aura would need to cooperate for the plan to succeed. There would be no time for temper tantrums or moody sulks.

With clinical resolve Astra_L summoned the girl to the lab to extract samples. When Aura entered she found the lighting dimmed, the lab instruments cleared away into cupboards—all the work surfaces cleared and pristine. Aung Suu-Kyi was not present in her lab technician’s coat. Only Astra_L, who sat quietly typing into the interface of her log, as calm as ever.

“Come in, Aura. Today’s events have had serious repercussions. Word has come back to me about the extent of the damage. I’ve been in contact with Ambrose. Do you know of him?”

“He’s that DJ at the club. He came up here? I thought he was a Velvet.”

“I’m not sure what he is, but no, he didn’t come here. We communicate telepathically,” she paused to fondle the iridium collar, “using these frequency blocks.”

“I thought that was a necklace; it’s so tribal.”

“The Velve’teen wants you back.”

“It’s where I belong,” she asserted.

“They will beat you to a pulp.”

“I suppose I deserve it for all the trouble I’ve caused.”

“Aura, you know better than this. You do not belong in the company of abusive monsters.”

Silence.

“Aura, listen—we need time. Ambrose has convinced Jean-Louis’s coven that you are being treated for malnutrition and injuries. He’s not sure they’re buying it so he’s agreed to let the Velvet patriarch have a look at you via the Earthnet. They want to talk to you and assess your status. It will be a very quick interview and you must be strong when you face him.”

Aura began to quake visibly, shrinking into the lab chair.

“Ambrose has made it very clear to me what will happen if the patriarchy realizes you are with child. Under no circumstances can we allow that evaluation to be determined. Do you understand me? Can you do this now?”

“Ok.” The girl shivered.

Astra_L sent a vibe through the Oxy-Blox to Ambrose.

“She is ready.”

The distal beat and throb of the club could be felt through her neuro-sensors as his deep voice slid like syrup over the ambient music.

“––time for some retro beats, my dark ravens….We are going on a journey to the Zero-Point Field with Steve Moore and the Long Island Electric System. In L.I.E.S you will find the Truth. Release yourself to the gravitational flow….this is timelessness….right here, right now, with me. C.––Your.––Destiny.”

“You are quite a performer.”

“Ah, well, music is the pulse of my life.”

“Is the Velvet patriarch in the club?”

“It is his club. Monsieur Vince Noir is waiting in the Velvet Lounge. Understand that this is not a social call. Velvets are smooth negotiators and all business. They do not engage in idle conversation nor will they entertain questions that do not pertain to the transaction being discussed. They adhere to strict codes of conduct, privacy and protect their bloodlines ferociously. And when they speak they are as silky as maple syrup, coating their prey like amber snaring an insect.”

 

Astra_L manipulated the transparent interface on the wall with her nimble fingers as Aura stared, mesmerized by the visuals. She startled out of her reverie when the smooth stone face of the wizened Velvet patriarch appeared, suspended right in front of her like a Cheshire cat. His smile, a toothy grimace, tried to placate her.

“My son has been missing you terribly. He is contrite and sends his salutations. Perhaps he has done something to frighten you, Mistress Aura. What could have scared you so much as to run away?”

“I…I can’t remember. I hit my head…”

Astra_L nodded encouragement.

“And look at you––so clean and so white. You look like an angel. Where are your clothes; your lovely dark velvets. Why do you remain with these mad scientists? You’re nothing but a sad human freak to them. Come back to your bonded brotherhood. Whatever my Jean-Louis did to offend you, we will make amends.”

Astra_L stepped into the frame.

“That will do. You can see that Aura is well and on the way to recovery. It is time for her to rest now.” Astra_L prompted Aura to close the conversation politely.

“Good night and god speed you, Black Emperor.”

With a flurry of keystrokes Astra_L disengaged the interface screen. “And good riddance!”

“He seemed to really care about me.” The feral girl that enjoyed the savage pleasures of bondage had been resurrected under the powerful gaze of the smooth talking Velvet.

“Aura, they only care about getting you away from here so they can continue to manipulate you. You know this.”

Aura’s look of consternation illustrated the conflict swirling in her head.

“Understand that you are going through an awakening. So many things are being thrown at your young self. Coming to terms with the Velvets; Motherhood looming; experiments on your DNA. It is too much all at once, but you are handling it splendidly. Aura, you are going to give birth to a transitional humanoid, moving human evolution forward. You will be the mother of a new species.”

 

Ambrose cut into Astra_L’s frequency.

“That was a good performance. Aura did well. Still, the patriarch is suspicious. I am quite certain that he guesses. It is only a matter of time before they act. You must prepare her for the next stage of the plan.”

“It’s too soon,” she whispered out loud, emphasizing her thought. “Ambrose, I’m not sure how much she can take all at once. She might crack.”

“She is strong. She has survived where others perished. Her job now is to be the vessel for the human race.”

“But to go alone…”

The pulsations from the club faded out. Under Astra_L’s gaze Aura appeared to sense that something even more life changing was about to occur.

* * *

Within days, and under the shade of night, Aura had undergone preparations to leave Earth. Her DNA, successfully manipulated by Astra_L, was evolving along new strains, creating a healthy environment for the developing fetus. Emotionally Aura was learning to implement a new set of coping mechanisms, through meditational therapy. Instead of relying on depleting drugs, her nutrient-filled body was able to come to terms with life in a post-apocalyptic world. It didn’t have to include daily struggle for survival. She was becoming an uplander, dwelling above ground zero, breathing fresh air, feeling sunshine on her skin; like a seed that had sprouted and burst through the crust of the soil, photosynthesis had taken hold and she thrived in its light. She was able to visualize inner peace for the first time in her life. The time was near at hand for her to leave the biosphere.

One afternoon, as the marine layer brushed the peaks, obscuring and muffling the city below, the frenetic pace of the preparations caught up with Aura and her spirits flagged under the pressures. Her sullen and listless body language was apparent to Maeve McLeod as the two sipped tea between stitches of kidsilk mohair. Maeve was helping Aura to complete a two piece outfit and having whipped up the petite cardigan had begun to fashion a miniature tam ‘o shanter. The elderly woman was rambling one of her knitting yarns—a tale from olden days in Skye—when she became aware of an unenthusiastic response from the girl. It was the paleness of her respiration when she sighed that caused Maeve to halt in the middle of a row and finger the Oxy-Blox collar at her neck.

Immediately Astra_L tuned in to the frequency, ever vigilant of another attack.

“Maeve?”

“Don’t alarm yourself, dearie. Aura is safe here with me, but my yarns of olde Scotland aren’t proving very entertaining for the wee lass today. I think she has more pressing worries regarding her future and unknown territories. Perhaps you should spin some yarns of Thessa_Loniki to soothe the gurl; put her in the picture.”

“Of course. I’d been so focused on preparing her skills that I hadn’t given a thought to things as simplistic as stories of the landscape. It would take a Skyelander like you to make that necessity so clear.”

“Nonsense, dearie, you’ve had the pressures dragging against you as well. Perhaps you both need an evening off. Have the chef send up a grand feast.”

“Yes. I’ve done enough for today. Send her up to my quarters in a half hour and I’ll start her off with a relaxing thermal bath before dinner.”

 

Astra_L had drawn the bath and the scents of Satsuma Masseuse wafted through the air, invigorating and uplifting. As she showed Aura into the apartment the floors bloomed with the saturated colors of a tidal pool. Purple anemones, orange and mauve starfish, inky spines of urchins and the peridot greens of kelp all swirled in a soft current, rippling languidly as the two woman walked through the room into the bath. The music began to bubble in tune with the thermal jets and Aura recognized the sort of trendy music that she had always preferred and began to feel more at ease in the biosphere’s austere, modern decor.

“Take as much time as you like and have a long soak. I only just ordered dinner and it’s going to take a while for the chef to concoct my requests. When the appetizers arrive I’ll bring a tray in here. If you need anything yell loudly; I’m going to be frothing up some of my famous Thessa_Loniki cocktails—perfectly safe for the babe as well.”

Astra_L had set a prodigious task for the Twin Peaks chef. She’d sent him all the traditional recipes from Thessa_Loniki to fashion a culinary journey for Aura. The first tray that was sent up from the kitchens had an arrangement of Pseudokeftedes made with roasted red peppers and goat cheese fermented in brine. The croquettes exotic flavors paired well with a dollop of strained yogurt for dipping. The fig and mango cocktails went down smoothly as the girls eased into conversation of less pressing matters. They spoke of Ambrose and his mood-altering inventions which Astra_L pointed out, including the physically pleasing bath tablets.

Amber Aphrodisiac? Rosebud Arousal? Lotus Flower Lingam? Have you tried these?”

“They each have special properties of pleasure, but the Lemon Luminosity and Fig-ments of the Imagination induce, shall we say, more cerebral reactions.”

Aura giggled, prompting the baby to kick and roll. Astra_L helped her up out of the bath and wrapped her in thick velour robes.

“I put some soft pajamas on the bed. Get dressed while I see to the incoming platters. Can you smell the aromas? Aren’t they just mouth-watering?”

The feast was composed of individual platters containing servings of delectable richness. Aura began to open up to Astra_L, seeking information regarding the planet she would soon inhabit. The first dish comprised thin slices of marinated pork, stuffed with batons of Kafalograviera cheese, wrapped onto skewers with chunks of peppers and onions rested on a bed of pilaf. Aura began to reveal her curiosity about Astra_L. Over octopus baked with eggplant in a tomato sauce flavored with laurel leaves, allspice berries and parsley, she asked about boys and if Astra_L had ever loved one. That led to stories of Astra_L’s university life on Pallas-42 while they munched on sizzling pieces of Gia Bakalarakia—a species of Thessa_Loniki cod—fried with root vegetables until crispy. Aura wanted to hear all about the galaxies Astra_L had traveled to and what most amazed her about those distant places and the inhabitants. They paused from the feast with a palate cleanser of fig and bergamot sorbet. The music began to change its beat, with a thumping village dance harmony at home in a biergarten. The next platter served sausages with mustard greens and asparagus, and homemade bread rubbed with garlic and olive oil. They washed that down with an artisan non-alcoholic beer that the chef brewed himself, taking great pride of his Artois heritage. Aura noticed that the expansive floor, which had remained its sedate granite grey throughout the meal, had burst into an aquatic scene once more. Clear waters over rocky reefs and pink sand beaches lined with palm trees were viewed under the twilight of a violet sky. A shell-shaped tray was appeared arrayed with grilled shrimp marinaded in lemon juice, mustard, garlic, Boukovo chili flakes, cumin, honey & sea salt. Aura was certain she could actually hear the wavelets brush the sandy shoreline with gentle caresses.

“Yes, that’s Ambrose again.” The music had morphed into a seductive wafting breeze of nature accompanied by the tremulous strings of a zither.

After the gut bursting meal, they took a stroll on the observation deck to breathe in the misty night. Aura shivered, but admitted the exercise was helping her respiration. Back inside Astra_L brewed a special relaxing tea which she served with the dessert. The cake, called Pallatiko, consisted of a semolina honey cake topped by a thick layer of creamy custard, sprinkled with cinnamon. Aura went into raptures.

“I’ve never eaten or even heard of such amazing dishes as you’ve served tonight. Do you eat like this all the time? The canteen usually serves salad greens, bean curd and rice—lots of rice…” she emphasized. “Even Maeve hasn’t brought me a cake like this one! It’s absolutely divine.”

“It”s Thessa_Loniki on Earth.”

“What? You mean—“

“All the recipes for our feast are the pride of Thessa_Loniki. I had the chef follow my instructions to make a variety of savory dishes to whet your appetite for your new home.”

“You mean, I can eat that sort of food every day?”

“Well, we still eat salad greens.”

“And the cakes?”

“There are so many types of cake, Aura—so many. Honeycakes composed of a hundred layers of the thinnest pastry, coated in thick jasmine honey and pistachios.”

“Tell me more!”

“Here, have another piece of this luscious Pallatiko cake—Chef Pépin has got the perfect touch with cream custard. Now, let me tell you about the Sea of the Halkdikis.

         In the harbor of Thessa_Loniki the shallow sea is the home to a sisterhood of nymphs. From the ancient tower you can see them frolicking under the moonlight. Their silvery green tales thrashing lightning through the shallows. They have long silver hair and their faces are marked with iridium tattoes. Kalisto, Caliadne, Menthe, Daphne, Lara, Praxithea and Zeuxippe—The Seven Sisters. Often they would be joined by students, walking the beach after a heavy night of drinking, after an even heavier day of course work at the Biochem Institute. Once you have swum with the Seven Sisters and are initiated into their realm you will always find a safe harbor and protection. Of course, the ladies are willful if sufficient sacrifices are not made at regular intervals! But generally speaking a silvery talisman will charm their graces…”

The fog shifted and sighed as Astra_L told Aura the myths of Thessa_Loniki and shared her experiences living in the graceful sea port. Aura had actually broken through the alien woman’s mind and their communication had reached a common frequency.

As dawn drew her blushing fingers through the mists Aura succumbed at last to fatigue and was sent to her bed. When she parted with Astra_L, it was as a sister, for they had forged a bond stronger than any Velvet could weave.

* * *

The day had arrived and without incident or delay, Aura was gently loaded into the transport pod that would whisk her and her unborn child to the institute on Thessa_Loniki. There were tears shed and gifts exchanged. Maeve promised to send packages of wool and knitting patterns for the child would grow like a sunflower. Astra_L would send teas and bath tablets to ease the pains of childbirth. The three women—the old ewe, the ageless alien, and the feral pixie—hugged in a triumphant embrace. As they waved the pod into the stratosphere, Astra_L felt the weight release from her tense shoulders. Aura was on her way; she would grow into a woman and mother on Thessa_Loniki, living in a civilization of freedom and advancement.

Back inside the biosphere Astra_L realized how much the last weeks had consumed her and also how much they had broadened her perspectives, Though she’d traveled all over the known universe, it took a wild Earthling girl to bring her down to solid ground. She remembered the women that had been flashed across her mind’s eye when she’d first shared thoughts with Ambrose. Had she played her part in their history? Had she achieved success for their future? And would she have a further role to play?

As her thoughts pandered across the apartment, the floors bloomed with night jasmine, doused in dew. She was too tired to eat, sleep or think. The music instantly melded with her mood, transmitting a sultry siren song in soulful electronica. Astra_L flung off her silvery mesh tunic and plunged into the thermal bath for a deep soak. As the music became lusciously buoyant and arousing she indulged in a bath sensory tablet to dissolve the last remaining rigidity in her spine. As the Jasmine Orgasm tablet peaked amid the jets to thermal heat, Astra_L slipped into a cool sensation of piquant pleasure. Her body shuddered with erotic stimulation fulfilling the promise hyped on the wrapper. Completely relaxed and satiated, she soaked in a state of post coital bliss in the aquatic sensory bath.

* * *

From a red sand shingle, Aura watches as a green moon rises above the pale yellow sea, hanging in a violet sky, strewn with nebulas in jewel colors. Then another moon rises to join the first; and another; and another. Six jasper-hued globes hover, suspended in the star-splattered night sky. She climbs the ancient tower to its summit overlooking the shallow Sea of Halkdikis. The celestial orbs sway in gentle movements across the horizon, jostling amongst each other, like children at play, or space ships in formation exercises. In awe she gazes, rubbing the rounded moon rising from her own body, while the Seven Sisters appear one by one and thrash about in the gentle wavelets. Thessa_Loniki was holding her in a grip of fascination. She’s had little time to feel homesick, but she wonders if she will ever see her home planet again. Would it be her daughter, swaying in the swelling placenta, or a distant daughter, who will hear the call of the San Francisco foghorn. With tears in her eyes she contemplates the display surrounding her. If she listens very closely Aura can hear the dance of the jasper spheres as they glimmer with balmy luminosity onto the waves caressing the shore. She hears too, the song of the sirens—the Seven Sisters: “there will be a time to return—for your bloodline is fierce, strong, and loyal. When the time is right a your progeny will travel to the Earth of her ancestors and she will take with her something magical and wild.”

 

Back in San Francisco, Astra_L stands on the balcony mesmerized by the sun’s rays projecting her shadow on the fog bank hovering around Twin Peaks. She brings her arms above her head and joins her palms together in a tree pose. The sun’s radiance transforms the foggy condensation into sparkling iridescent jewels and her shadow dances into a nimbus of rainbow prisms creating a bröcken spectre.

 

Ambrose sends a pinging vibration from his lair atop Telegraph Hill.

“You did well.”

“It was that flower that showed me how to manipulate her DNA. Still there are many humans left here who are suffering from the entropy of their society and the Velvets who feed off them.”

“They build them up with drugs just to tear them back down. It is a feudal system that will languish over time.”

“And what of Aura?”

“She is your destiny.”

“You said that before. But how?”

“One of her daughters’ daughters will hear the call of San Francisco and realize your destiny. She will be you.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because you always come back. There is a strong, magical binding in place, from long, long ago.”

“And you are the guardian of Soul; the keeper of Destiny.”

“I am Ambrose.”

 

On the hillside, the Pikkake blooms sparkle with dew drops from the awakening of daylight. She springs from her balcony, to collect their sweet, sultry scent.

 

 

BIO

victoriaelizabethpanks2Victoria-Elizabeth Panks is a writer who was brought up along the central coast of California and the northern shores of Lake Michigan, but finds herself living, inexplicably, within the southern suburbs of New Jersey, where she translates French symbolist poetry and writes fanciful speculative fiction. She is currently at work on her second novel.

 

 

0

Cogito(e)    

by Jennifer Vanderheyden

 

                      

Everything changed the day I ran over the body. I wasn’t texting, talking on the phone or even listening to music. I was thinking. The Cartesian/Sartrean form of existential thinking. Ever since my therapist had asked me to find my authentic self I was obsessed by the task … probably ruminating about it was the exact opposite of what I should be doing, but I had just realized that the bare truth of the cogito was possibly what I somehow needed to get to … the tabula rasa of my being … the blank slate for me to begin again at 45 years old. My wife of 17 years had recently left me, prompting my visits to the therapist. So I was searching my soul when the accident happened.

I had just enough time to see the hearse spin around, the back door fly open and the body bag fall out on the highway. I instinctively knew that if I swerved too much I would lose control as well, so I was able to turn the wheels so that I only ran over the end of the bag, hoping and praying that it was the feet. Fortunately it wasn’t one of those misty cloudy days in Seattle or the car might have skidded out of control. It came to a stop off the side of the road, just short of the jack-knifed semi that evidently had begun the chain of events. The body bag had also come to a stop near the semi, fortunately out of the way of the slowing traffic in the other lane. I remember thinking that something about a body bag with no gurney seemed strange, but what did I know about mortuary protocol?

I didn’t seem to be injured, and I doubted my 1999 black Beamer sedan was otherwise damaged since the corpse was my only collision. I felt stunned and dizzy, but the sound of a stuck horn jolted me into action. I called 911 as I got out of the car to check on the other two drivers. The boyish driver of the semi was climbing out of his cab as well, shocked and slightly trembling but seemingly OK with the exception of a bloody nose. The driver was semi-conscious, an enormous knot beginning to form on his forehead. As we approached he moved away from the airbag just enough for the horn to stop blaring.

“What do we do?” I asked as I hung up with 911. “The squad and cops are on their way. Should we move him?”

“Dude, let’s just try to keep him awake and talking,” the truck driver said, as he took out a cigarette with unsteady hands and then thought better of it. He reached in and turned off the ignition. “Don’t look like there’s any danger of a fire, so we’d better not move ’im in case he’s got internal injuries. You stay here and I’ll put down some flares. And go to the other side of the car away from traffic unless you wanna end up in a body bag too!”

That was unnecessary, I thought, as I went around to the other side and leaned in.

“Hey buddy … what’s your name? Everything’s gonna be all right. Help is on the way.”

“What … the hell … happened?” As he attempted to open his swelling eyes, he moved his head toward my voice.

“Looks like a semi jack-knifed, you must have swerved to keep from hitting it and then you started spinning around. But don’t worry … everyone else is OK. It’s just me and the truck driver.”

“And the body?” he grunted as he tried to reach for the door.

“Look, I don’t mean to be crass since this is your profession and all, but I would think that’s the least of your worries since he/she is already dead. Which is it?”

“My fuckin head feels like it’s going to explode … I need water … which is what?”

“A he or a she….and I shouldn’t give you any water until the squad gets here.” My doctorate was in philosophy but I knew enough to not give him fluids in case he needed an emergency surgery. I leaned in a little closer to determine the size of his pupils through his squinting swollen eyes.

“Help me get outta here so I can check on the body.” I wondered how that was going to work since he could barely see, but I knew it was good he was remaining conscious.

“Look … just calm down … they will be here soon to get you out of here the right way. I don’t want to make you any worse. You stay with the truck driver and I’ll go check on the body if it’ll ease your mind, but just what am I supposed to check?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had run over a part of the body bag … still not sure yet which end. “Is there anyone I can call from the funeral home so they can come and get it?” I looked around to see if I could see the name somewhere. “My name’s Frederick … Fred for short … what’s yours?” I saw his eyes were closing again so I tried to keep him awake with my questions.

“Calvin…”

“OK, Calvin, I’ll make sure everything’s all right.”

I went back to where the body had fallen, hidden by the semi, and knelt down near the end of the bag that had the tread marks. My eyes were drawn, though, to the other end, where there were two holes. Strange, I thought, they didn’t look like they had been ripped in the accident, but why else would there be holes in a body bag? Ventilation came to mind but I didn’t really want to go there.

Fortunately for me, the bag had fallen with the front facing up: the zipper ran straight down the middle, and the two holes were at what appeared to be the top of the bag. Good news, I thought. Chances are I did indeed run over the bottom of the corpse, but I didn’t want to unzip the entire bag just to check the feet. I could just feel them. Make sure they were still attached and let the professionals do the rest. Nobody would see them anyway other than the mortician.

I checked to make sure no one was watching, took a deep breath and felt around the bottom end of the bag. I touched what seemed like toes and began to make my way up the calf. The leg jerked. What the hell? I moved my hand away like I had touched a hot piece of charcoal and sat down on the pavement. It could have been a muscular reflex. Or I had actually hit my head during the accident and I was hallucinating or something. I felt like vomiting. Without thinking, I stood back up, lifted the body and gently placed it in the back seat of my car. It was limp but not rigid, which confirmed that he/she was still alive. I guessed it was a she because although it was all I could do to lift her, I suspected it would have been impossible for me to lift a dead-weight man.

I climbed in the car, quickly unzipped the top of the bag, and saw a young woman with short, spiked blond hair that looked as if it had not been washed or combed in quite a long time. The jewelry had evidently been removed from all of the piercings on her ears. Her yellowing left eye appeared to have been bruised from an older incident. A long, thin scar just below her ear traveled down her neck. Eyes closed, she was breathing softly but steadily through her open mouth, showing no obvious evidence of trauma from the accident. I knew time was of the essence so I zipped up the bag, reassured that the holes were allowing enough air to sustain her. Careful to not block them, I placed my jacket over the body bag to conceal it as much as possible. What the hell am I doing? I should just put her back in the hearse and be on my way. No … for once I’m not going to think this through … I’m going to follow my gut instinct. I closed the back door of the hearse and went around to the front to check on Calvin and the semi driver. The police and EMT’s were just arriving to start their assessment and I explained who I was. They wanted to check me out but I refused because I knew I was OK and I was impatient to get back to my car before Calvin mentioned the body. I walked up to the patrolman.

“Excuse me, Sir … can I fill out the accident report now? I’m a professor at the UW and I need to get to my class.” That wasn’t entirely true … I had no class since I was on sabbatical to work on my latest book: K(c)ant Beat Sade: Moral Imperative and Philosophy in the Boudoir.

“That’s fine…if you’re sure you don’t need the medics to check you out. What do you teach?”

“I’m OK. Just a little shocked by the whole thing. I teach philosophy. Are the other drivers all right?

“The other two seem to be OK … probably nothing too serious. Tow trucks are on their way, so you should be all set after we finish the report. Philosophy, huh? More power to you … I took one philosophy class in college and sorry, but that was enough. Let’s get you on your way so you don’t disappoint those students!” I gave a feeble smile and shook my head slightly like I always did … most people say exactly the same thing when I tell them what I teach. Usually better not to mention it but in this case I was hoping it was my ticket to get out of there before I lost my nerve.

After I gave my statement the patrolman returned to his car to finish writing his report, the other cop was preoccupied with directing the traffic in order to allow me to pull out, and I was easily on my way. What the hell was I thinking? Where am I going? I can’t go back to my place until I get this thing figured out. No, wait … I need cash and clothes and now’s the time to get them before anyone follows my trail and before the girl wakes up. I took the next exit off of I-5 and headed toward my place in Ballard as rapidly as I could without attracting attention. I live on a quiet street facing Puget Sound, and since it was the middle of the day one neighbor would be at work and the elderly couple just beside me would be taking their daily afternoon nap. The driveway angled down toward the rear of the house, and I drove directly into the garage and closed the door. The garage was actually under the main upper floor and the windows of the garage door were very small so there was little chance anyone could see in. Besides, all of my neighbors were accustomed to my coming and going because of my hectic teaching schedule and they left me alone unless there was an emergency. Except the elderly couple, who considered me a surrogate son and wanted to chat every time I was out mowing the yard. But they were so naively unaware of anything other than their meticulously manicured lawn and their advice to me on landscaping and where to find another wife. Although they annoyed me at times, I tolerated them because they served as good studies of human nature and they were kind at heart.

I unzipped the top of the body bag to see if the girl was still sleeping, or whatever drugged state she was in. Her eyes flinched a bit at the sound of the zipper and the suddenness of the filtered light coming through the small windows but otherwise she gave no signs of waking up. What the hell did they give her? And what if she needs to go to the bathroom? How long has she been like that? Of course I had no way of knowing at the moment so I decided I’d better quickly pack what I needed and get back on the road.

I took the stairs two at a time and rushed into the bedroom to get a few changes of clothes, underwear, socks and toiletries. In the back of my closet there was a hidden door that, as far as I knew, my soon to be ex-wife did not know existed. I quickly opened it and within a few seconds I unlocked the combination of a hidden small safe. I had begun to suspect my wife’s infidelity a couple of years ago, and fortunately I had the presence of mind to start putting away some cash…$10,000 to be exact. Rachel was a plastic surgeon and had plenty of money, but still I wanted access to some immediate, private cash. I had not really thought about why, but now I mused that it had all been leading to this moment. I stashed the money in my duffel bag and looked around to see what else I might need. My computer was already in the car along with my iPAD, which had a sufficient number of books on the Kindle. Nonetheless I grabbed a few that I couldn’t live without (Neitzche, Kant, Sade, Sartre, and Michel Onfray, this fairly recent French philosopher whose works I had just started reading).

I tossed my stuff in the trunk as quietly as I could so as not to awaken Thalia (as I had decided to call her). I quietly slid in the car and was just about to turn the key when I was jerked back by something tight around my neck. Oh shit….I had left my exercise band on the backseat floor.

“Who the fuck are you, and where is Calvin?” a groggy voice whispered in my ear. “What happened to the hearse? Why are my fucking throbbing toes swollen to twice their size, and why do I hurt all over?”

As I instinctively brought my hands up to try to loosen the band, I felt the cool blade of a knife against the flesh of my arm.

“Don’t move or I swear I’ll either choke or stab you to death.” Damn. I should have looked a little more closely in the body bag. Didn’t really think she would have a weapon.

Somehow she had the strength to tighten the band and I realized she had hooked each end to the seatbelt attachments at the bottom side of each seat. She could make it constrict by pulling on either side or hooking it tighter.

“Look,” I said, “ I’m not trying to hurt you. My name’s Fred…. we were all in a car accident and I unintentionally ran over your toes when the body bag fell out of the car. Calvin was hurt, and he insisted on checking on the body and I said I would do it. When I saw you weren’t dead I decided to put you in my back seat…just a gut reaction. I just thought there must have been a reason you had been drugged or something. For all I knew I was saving your life. But they’ll surely look for us once they realize what happened and this is the first place they’ll come. Just trust me and let me get us outta here.” She was loosening the band as I talked, which I took as a good sign.

“And just where the fuck do you think we’re going?”

“My buddy has a cottage in the Cascade mountains north of Seattle toward Bellingham. He already told me I could use it if I wanted to get away.”

“Did you call him yet? Tell anyone?”

“No, I was going to give him a call on the way.”

“Ok. Mr. Genius. I’m going to trust you for the moment because right now I don’t have too many choices. But you have to do what I say. Throw your fucking phone on the garage floor right now and let’s get movin!”

“But I need my…..” the last word was cut off by the band constricting my throat and I knew she meant business.

“Throw out the phone, I’m gonna remove the band and crouch down so the neighbors don’t see anything, and you’re gonna drive this fucking car. You keep your phone and they’ll track us all the way to the cottage.”

I threw out the phone, started the car, and we were on our way. I decided to avoid I-5 as much as possible but it wasn’t easy since my GPS was an app on my phone. What have I gotten myself into? This is more than a diversion or procrastination because I was having trouble concentrating on my research. This is where impulse will get me! I glanced in my rearview mirror and it looked like Thalia was dosing off again. Surprising, but maybe it was still the effects of the drugs. I could stop at a rest area now that we were out of Seattle and just drop her off. It wasn’t too cold yet so she would survive until someone found her. Just turn around, go home, and if the police called I could say that she must have climbed in the back of the car at the scene of the accident while I was talking to the officer. Say she had choked me and brandished a knife and directed me to go to my house for money and then drive her to the Canadian border. That she passed out again in my car from her injuries and I left her at the rest area. Hell, I could even dump her and call them right away… if I had a phone…they would surely believe my story over hers. I glanced at my neck in the mirror to see if I had signs of being choked when the sound of a ringing phone shocked me.

Thalia answered and was talking as quietly as she could but I could still make out a few words. “Yeah, some fucking idiot.”   “didn’t ask him yet.” “I’ll call you when we get there.” “OK. You too.”

“So you make me throw out my phone and you had one all along. Who’s the fucking idiot now?”

“Look, Fred: my head and feet are killing me. I’m cold and hungry. I don’t know who you are and I’m not sure what’s gonna happen to me. Or you, for that matter. Don’t worry about the phone. It’s untraceable. How much longer?”

“Maybe 20 minutes. Look, I’m sorry about your condition but haven’t you even thought about thanking me? Maybe I saved your life. It’s about time you tell me who you are and why you were playing dead…or were you forced to do that? Was Calvin abducting you?”

“Oh my God…did you just hear anything I said? I don’t feel like talking about it right now. I could ask you the same thing. Why would anyone take a body from a hearse and drive off with it?”

“Because for the first time in my life I did something without analyzing the hell out of it. And it just seemed like fate, especially once I saw I had accidentally run over your toes. Don’t you see: you’re my muse. I was thinking about the cogito of Descartes, about the meaning of my life and then I ran over your toes. I thought you were dead and you weren’t…just like me, metaphorically speaking. It’s not I think; therefore I am…it’s more real than that…more visceral. I feel; therefore I exist. I move; therefore I exist….I…”

“WOULD YOU JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP, OR “I EXIST” WILL NO LONGER BE A PART OF YOUR VOCABULARY!!!!!!!”

 

Thalia must have dozed off after her outburst because during the rest of the drive the only sounds were her light snoring and the steady but accelerated rhythm of my heartbeat pounding in my ears. After a good deal of trial and error I finally located my friend’s cottage, which was at the end of a winding one-lane road. I had only spent a long weekend there a few years back, but I was hoping the extra key was still hidden in the same place. I pulled the car behind the cabin and glanced at the back seat to see if Thalia was still sleeping, which she was. She reminded me of my niece back in Philly: required by circumstances to put on a tough armor for the world, yet inwardly just a petrified girl. Someone Thalia’s age should be going to Greek parties at school and staying up all night in the dorm talking about life’s perplexities, not spewing out curse words at some total stranger. For all of her tough talk I suspected she was just as confused and anxious as I was. I touched her lightly on the shoulder and then held down her arm as she instinctively grabbed for her knife, which I immediately realized I should have confiscated before I woke her up.

“It’s OK…I just wanted to let you know we’re at the cottage. I’m going to look for the key. Wait here.” I grabbed the small snow shovel I keep in the trunk for my occasional ski trips and walked up the short incline a few yards behind the house to a clothesline. Buried next to one of the posts was indeed the container holding the extra key.

I helped Thalia out of the car and guided her to the back entrance of the cottage, whose screened porch ran its entire length. She allowed me to carry her up the few steps. The covered wicker furniture reeked of a musty unkempt smell. We entered the kitchen, which, although small, had enough room for a 1950’s chrome table with periwinkle blue vinyl chairs, on which she plopped down, steadying herself by leaning against the table. “I guess I’m weaker than I thought,” she said.

“Do you want some coffee or hot tea? My buddy Stan usually keeps the place stocked. Some soup maybe?” I saw that she was beginning to shiver and went in the living room to get an afghan. For the first time I looked closer at what she was wearing: a lightweight pale green dress with flip-flops … strange for late fall but fortunate for her, I guessed, since her feet and toes were so swollen.

“Look, let’s find you some warm clothes, heat up a can of soup, then we can both get some rest. Stan usually brings his girlfriends up here and someone must have left something you can wear.” I saw that she was still clutching her knife handle as she looked up at me and forced a menacing look.

“I’m going to call you Thalia since you haven’t told me your real name … so Thalia, I swear to you that I mean you no harm. I’m not a rapist or criminal…I’m a college professor who happens to also be going through a rough time right now. That’s what I was trying to explain to you earlier.” I saw her dark brown eyes get bigger.

“Don’t worry…I’m not going there again…we’re both too tired. I’m still not sure why I took you but I did, so now we both have to deal with it. Why don’t we come up with a plan in the morning…but you have to promise you won’t try to leave. This is a small mountain town in the middle of nowhere and you’ll stick out like a rose in the middle of a desert.”

“Oh my God, Fred, you just never know what’s going to come out of your mouth … it is Fred, isn’t it? I promise to not leave if you promise to stop talking. Soup sounds good … just show me where I can find the clothes and a bathroom.”

Just my luck to have a bitch for a muse. I helped her through the main living space, which crossed the entire front of the cabin, then around to the right where the two bedrooms were located with a Jack & Jill bathroom in between. I saw some women’s clothes in one of the closets, told her to take that bedroom, and went back to the small kitchen to heat up the soup.

Several minutes later Thalia limped into the kitchen and I got another chair for her to prop up her feet. I searched the freezer for some frozen peas, which I wrapped in a thin kitchen towel and placed on her feet. She must have showered because her hair was wet, and she was wearing a pair of sweats and a dark sweater, and for a minute I thought of my wife, Rachel, who usually dresses in the same type of clothes. A couple of weeks before she left, she came up to me one Saturday and asked how I liked her new sweater. “It’s very becoming,” I had answered, although it looked like every other sweater she owned, “really looks nice on you.”

“It’s not new,” she had practically screamed, “ You never SEE me. I could wear the same clothes for days and you would barely notice. I spend $150 on my hair and you say nothing. Just what was it that even attracted you to me?”

“Come on, Rachel … you know I didn’t fall in love with you for your clothes or your hair. Nothing as superficial as that. I fell in love with who you are.”

“That’s even more ridiculous coming from a philosopher, Frederick. You don’t have any idea who I am. You fell in love with your own fiction of who you wanted me to be.” I couldn’t give her an answer, even though at that moment I felt she was giving me some kind of test that would determine whether she stayed or not. Evidently I failed miserably.

Thalia took a couple of sips of her chicken noodle soup and said wistfully, “ My Mom always made this for me when I was sick. Thanks.” She held the bowl with both hands and brought it up to her nose, closing her eyes briefly as she savored the aroma.

I decided to push for more information. “Does your mother know you’re all right? Do we need to call your family or did you already do that?”

She slammed the bowl down on the table and looked up at me like a frightened runaway. “Look, Fred, don’t ask anymore questions. I’m going to level with you because of the circumstances but I will only tell you what you need to know and you have to promise to keep this confidential. I’m in the witness protection program, and Calvin was supposed to take me across the Canadian border so I could have a new identity. Since he’s still in the hospital, he’s sending another agent for me tomorrow … that’s who I was talking to on the phone.” She took a drink of water and picked at what polish was left on her half purple nails. I noticed she had some scars on her arms and when she saw me look she covered them with the afghan.

“Fred, you got yourself involved in some serious shit… and I have no idea if the bad guys are on our trail. They could even have caused the accident for all I know. But you’re the one who decided to get messed up in all this…you can imagine why I didn’t trust you because I thought you were kidnapping me to kill me. You might still, but my gut tells me that no one could keep up this act of the nerdy college professor. So I’m not your fucking muse…I may very well be your grim reaper, or whatever you call it!”

“Witness protection? What for? Does that mean you can never talk to your family again? So they think you’re dead? What drug did Calvin give you?” I had a thousand questions but I figured I’d better stop there.

“Fred, if you remember, the first thing I just said to you was don’t ask any questions. If you need to know anything else I will tell you.” She took another sip of the soup and wiped away what looked to be a few tears. “I just want to go back to sleep …. the only thing I need from you is something for the throbbing pain in my toes.”

Still in shock from her revelation, I went to the bathroom to look for some ibuprofen and gather my thoughts. I had finally done something impulsive, and this is where it got me! I needed a plan ASAP. I didn’t want to imagine what Thalia had done to get herself into a witness protection program, but if she was telling the truth, the next 24 hours were the most crucial. With luck, no one had followed us and the agent would be here tomorrow and I could get my life back. On the other hand, if anyone had followed us, we were screwed. I figured my best plan was to find some sort of weapon and keep an all night vigil. Surely Stan kept a hunting rifle or some other type of protection hidden somewhere in the cabin.

I heard Thalia call my name. I turned to see her shuffling toward me.

“Are you looking for poison or something? My feet are killing me!”

I gave her the ibuprofen and helped her in the room. She turned around and looked at me: “My God , your face is white! I don’t know what else to say. Maybe you saved my life, maybe not. Now all we can do is wait. Just don’t do anything stupid. If you hear something, wake me up first. My guy will call me when he’s close to the cabin. Night, Fred.” I heard the door lock behind me.

There was an old unlocked garage behind the cabin, so I moved the car in it and got my bags. I had noticed some wild mint growing in a neglected herb garden, so I picked a few leaves, took a bottle of rum I had stashed in my bag and looked around the kitchen for some carbonated water. No lime, but this would suffice. Rachel often made fun of me for drinking mojitos, but I always told her it was better than the absinthe that some of my philosopher buddies drank. I sat down on the back porch and looked up at the stars, taking a deep breath of the cool, fresh mountain air. The gravity of what I had done finally hit me. Not such a bad place to die, I thought. If this doesn’t give me some insight about the meaning of existence I don’t know what will. Like Roquentin, the protagonist in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist novel Nausea, I had a sick feeling in my stomach, but it wasn’t from staring at the roots of a tree. It was from looking at the vastness of the universe and the knowledge that whether I lived or died didn’t really matter. Sure, my friends and family would be sad, and maybe a few colleagues and students, but they would clean out my house and my office, keep a few mementos, and life would persist. My books and articles? Just a bunch of academic requirements to help me get tenure. Maybe all of this was my therapist’s fault for asking me to find my authentic self. But now, feeling alone and genuinely scared, I had the overwhelming urge to call Rachel.

 

 

I kept sentinel all night, seated on the living room chair facing the front door with the old rifle I had found in the bedroom closet lying across my lap. Dozing sporadically, I heard only the sounds of the wind and the night owls, with the anxious beating of my heart providing a back beat. When the first rays of light appeared behind the dingy white shades, I stepped outside on the front porch to watch the sunrise over the valley. I could just barely make out the veiled Cascades in the distance, and I took a deep breath of the misty, thick air to clear my mind and settle my nerves. If I could believe Thalia, the new FBI agent would soon arrive to take her to Canada and I could return to my research and writing. Even Sade should be a comforting and welcome task given the forbidding scenarios my mind was creating should the “bad guys” show up at our door. I resolved to never again complain about conducting research. Perhaps some strong coffee would fortify my wavering anxiety, so I went back in the cabin and headed for the kitchen.

Thalia stood in front of the olive green countertop, fumbling with the coffee machine, and I cleared my throat to give her an indication I was around. She jumped a bit anyway, then a wave of relief visibly calmed her when she saw me at the threshold.

“I didn’t mean to startle you … how did you sleep?” I caught a reflection of myself in the door of the microwave: I had not yet combed my wavy, unruly hair nor shaved in days. It’s a wonder she hadn’t screamed. I felt in my pocket for a rubber band so I could at least gather my hair in a short ponytail.

“OK, except for the nightmares, which included one where I was being buried alive….and I was shivering a lot…what about you?”

“I dozed on and off but tried to keep watch from the front room. Any news from the FBI agent?” I motioned for her to sit down as I worked on the coffee. I noticed that her feet were somewhat less swollen.

“Not this morning, but I would think he should be here any minute. They had to fly in a special agent.”

Of course I had no direct knowledge of how the FBI or witness protection system functioned, but I did have difficulty believing that it was taking so long to send a replacement. I chose to not push the issue since I knew it would only anger Thalia, and so far she seemed more comfortable with me this morning …. at least she was no longer cursing! I handed her a cup of black coffee and offered her some pop tarts for lack of anything better. I loaded them in the toaster and sat down at the table opposite Thalia, glancing at her without overtly staring. The bruise on her left eye was less apparent, but the scar on her neck was puffy and reddish, indicating to me that it was fairly recent.

“If you don’t mind my asking, how did you get the black eye and the cut on your neck? Looks as if you were lucky to survive.”

“ I do mind your asking, and it’s really none of your fucking business, Fred!”

Here we go, I thought … I should have at least waited until she ate something…a little blood sugar spike to maybe calm her down. “ I’m sorry … I know you said no questions, but I can’t help but wonder.” I put the pop tarts on a plate for Thalia and was just loading another set in the toaster for me when I heard a noise on the front porch. I made a sign to Thalia to stay put, grabbed the gun and cautiously rounded the corner toward the front door, rifle drawn and ready. I came face to face with Rachel and Stan, who seemed to be just as shocked as I was. They dropped everything and threw their hands up in the air.

“Fred, don’t do it!” Rachel started shaking and crying at the same time. “Let’s all sit down and talk this through….we’re all professionals here.” Stan looked back and forth between me and Rachel and opened his mouth to speak.

“Shut up!” I yelled. “Everybody just shut up!” Thoughts were bursting through my head like fireworks: Why were they here? Did the police come to them, looking for me? Or was it the bad guys and they could be right behind them? Was this a set up? I had not told Stan I was coming to his cabin, but maybe they questioned all of my friends and put two and two together. But why would Rachel think I was going to shoot them? Oh … my … God … the truth exploded in my head like the grand finale on the Fourth of July. I had the good sense to put down the rifle because I no longer trusted myself. I sat down in the chair and stared at them in disbelief.

This is the other man? You’ve been cheating on me with one of my closest friends?” I saw Rachel’s eyes turn toward the kitchen, where Thalia was leaning against the door.

“And you’re retaliating with this underage girl? Fred, what in God’s name are you thinking?”

For a brief moment I was somewhat flattered that Rachel thought I was having sex with someone half my age. I had neglected my physical conditioning in the last few years, but I would describe myself as stocky, not pudgy. My pre-Rachel girlfriend had first been attracted by my piercing dark brown eyes….she had even written a sappy poem about them, pointing out that my right eyebrow was higher than the left, which added to the mystique of the intellectual…how had she put it? … something like sexy ambivalent piercing eyes. And I did still have all my hair, unlike Stan, who was entirely bald, yet had grown a full beard and moustache as if to compensate. I was still trying to process what Rachel could possibly see in him when Thalia interrupted my self-indulgent emotional sidebar. In what seemed like one continuous movement she swooped through the middle of the three of us, grabbed the rifle, glanced out the front door, then turned toward us and pointed it in our general direction. She was still wearing what I now realized were Rachel’s clothes.

“Would someone tell me what the fuck is going on here?” she asked.

“This is my wife, Rachel, and Stan, the owner of the cabin … evidently they decided to come up here for a lovers’ tryst … remember, Thalia, you wouldn’t let me call him to tell him I was headed up to his cabin. Stan, why did you invite me? Some kind of sadistic pleasure if I happened to see evidence of Rachel being here? What a coward … you couldn’t just tell me straight up that you were having an affair with my wife?”

“Soon to be ex-wife,” Rachel interjected, “and we were going to tell you … we were just waiting for the right time…waiting for you to stabilize emotionally.”

“Don’t use your medical jargon with me, Rachel … you were probably waiting for the divorce to be final so I wouldn’t renege on the settlement.”

“Think whatever you want, Fred…would you just please tell your lover to stop pointing the gun at us? Can’t the four of us just calmly talk about all this? Oh my God, why is she wearing my clothes? Or did you even notice?”

Thalia ignored Rachel and turned toward me: “Nice decision on the divorce, Fred, and nice work on making this mess even worse. The way I see it is we can either explain what’s going on or make them leave. But I’m not so sure I trust them.”

I noticed little beads of sweat forming on Thalia’s forehead, and she seemed even paler than yesterday. I was just about to ask if she was OK when we heard a forceful knock on the front door. Against the small window at the top of the door we saw a gold badge with the initials FBI. Thalia moved toward the door and looked out the window.

“Wait!” I whispered. “How do we know this is the real thing?”

“When I talked to him yesterday on the phone he told me exactly what he looked like and what he would be wearing. Unless someone tapped the phone, which I doubt, this is him.” Stilling holding the rifle, she opened the door.

He was much younger than I had anticipated, maybe 29 at the most, and his light brown hair was longer on the top and short on the sides, reminiscent of James Dean. His left eyebrow was pierced, and he wore a faded pair of jeans, white t-shirt, and black leather vest. He wore what appeared to be fine leather gloves, and held a revolver in his right hand. Thalia must have recognized the skepticism in my face because she quickly said:

“Look, Fred, it has to be believable that he would be with me if we are to pass the border. The dead body thing didn’t work out so well so we are trying another approach … I’m already in disguise compared to what I looked like before.”

I thought about asking Rachel to examine Thalia to verify that she had undergone plastic surgery, but then I saw Rachel’s eyes open wide in fear. She looked at Stan, then me, and said with a shaky voice:

“Dead body??? FBI?? Would someone please tell me what’s going on?” Stan started to put his arms around her but she pushed him away.

“Well, I could use a little update myself because I thought there was only one other person here in addition to this young lady,” said the FBI agent as he motioned toward Thalia.

“I can explain,” I said, “but could you just stop pointing guns at us?” Thalia pointed the rifle at the floor and sat down in a chair near the front door. The FBI guy also lowered his revolver somewhat but remained standing, facing us all. I began to recount the events of yesterday leading up to this moment, punctuated by the nervous hiccups that always overcame me when I was overly anxious.

 

When I finished telling my story there was a heavy silence in the room, punctuated by my interminable hiccups. I had left out the part about Thalia being my muse, choosing to embellish the possibility that I thought I might be saving her life. I glanced her way to see her reaction, but her eyes were closed. Rachel was staring at me, still shaking her head as she had been doing the whole time I talked. Suddenly Stan jumped up, faced us all and said angrily:

“Listen: this is MY cabin, that’s MY rifle, and I didn’t ask for any of this.” He turned toward Thalia and the FBI agent: “I want you out of here right now, and I want you to guarantee that no one has followed you. Surely you have other agents around here guarding the area who can verify that. Then I want everyone to leave, including you, Fred!” He looked at Rachel. “Of course, that doesn’t include you, Babe.” That one word made me want to run over to him and choke it out of his mouth forever.

The FBI agent saved me from it: he put the gun against the middle of Stan’s forehead and said: “And whose gun is this, Stan? And whose badge? You can’t tell me what to do, and I have the power to have this ménage à toi go down anyway I want. I can see the headlines: lover’s triangle ends with double homicide and suicide. How does that sound? You’re lucky I feel sorry for Fred ‘cause you’ve been doing his wife behind his back!”

It sounded to me like he said “toi” (“you”) instead of “trois,” (“three”) which could’ve been some sort of Freudian slip or just plain ignorance, and I wanted to comment on the possibilities and the double entendres but I thought it best to hold my tongue at the moment, especially since this was taking an unexpected turn. Stan looked as if he were going to wet his pants or worse, and though I must admit I was scared too, I nonetheless enjoyed seeing Stan suffer. Thalia stood up suddenly and rushed over to the FBI agent, but just as she reached him she fell to the floor in an apparent faint. He bent down to her and said:

“Baby girl, are you ok? Say something, Ali!”

Rachel, Stan and I stood there in disbelief and confusion, then I shouted: “I knew it! You’re no FBI agent … you’re her boyfriend, and probably the reason she’s in the witness protection program. Did you have this planned all along? Did you cause the accident with the hearse?” Wrong move on my part … now the gun was aimed toward me.

“YOU! Shut the fuck up!

Rachel moved gingerly toward Thalia/Ali… “Look … let’s all calm down! I’m a doctor … let me look at her.”

With that, Rachel’s physician persona took over. Forgetting any potential danger, she examined the unconscious Thalia and asked us to lift her onto the couch. As Thalia started to regain consciousness she began to struggle a bit, and Rachel calmed her down with her soothing and reassuring voice.

“You’re going to be OK, Ali. The wound on your neck is infected, some of your toes might be broken, you have a fever and you’re probably dehydrated. I have some antibiotics with me so we’ll start with that and plenty of fluids, but you need to rest before you go anywhere.” Rachel gave the fake FBI guy a scolding look. “So what is your name?”

“He’s not going to tell you,” I interjected, “Let’s just call him James since he looks so much like James Dean, rebel and all.” James gave me another menacing look, quickly picked up the rifle that had fallen on the floor, and sat down on the chair next to the couch.

“So she’s gonna be OK?” He said to Rachel.

“Most likely. She needs to rest and she can’t do that with us hovering over her. Why don’t we all go sit in the kitchen…we can see both Ali and the front door from there, and I haven’t had anything to eat this morning. In fact, we have groceries in the car.” She looked at James. “Can Stan go to the car and get them?”

“I don’t want Stan outta my sight. Fred, you go get the groceries.”

I couldn’t help giving Stan a smug look, and he took a seat as far away from James as he could. Rachel gave Thalia the meds, put more ice on her feet and got her settled on the couch. James took both guns and stood by the door to monitor my trip to the garage. As I reached the car and opened the trunk I hesitated for a second…well, more like a minute… as I felt the urge to jump in and drive away. I didn’t wholly entertain the thought because I knew I’d never really act on it, but somehow it felt exhilarating and liberating at the same time. I’ve never liked guns, and I needed time away from the drama inside. Time to let Rachel and Stan’s betrayal sink in. How could I have been so oblivious? I know I can become lost in my research, but how could I not have seen what was happening behind my back? Was this the reason I felt compelled to take the body? Was the universe hitting me over the head with a forced dose of revelation?

“Fred! What the fuck are you doing?” James startled me out of my reverie. I slammed the trunk shut and hurried up the front steps and into the cabin.

While we made some breakfast and more coffee James relaxed somewhat, putting his revolver in its internal holster but keeping the rifle next to his chair at the kitchen table. We all ate in silence, and when we finished I said to James:

“Look, James; I don’t know what crimes you’ve committed and I don’t need to know. You seem to really care about Ali, and I’ve no reason to judge you, other than the fact that you scare the shit out of me with the guns and all. But what’s going to happen now, and what are we supposed to do?

James sipped on his coffee and shrugged his shoulders. “Look, man, all I know is that I have to get Ali and myself outta here ASAP. You’re right about the FBI … it won’t take them long to come here.”

“Yeah… I left my phone on the floor of my garage, which they’ve surely found by now, but if they’re tracing Rachel’s whereabouts they know she’s here … probably Stan too, and they’ll be on their way to question her. I’m surprised they haven’t called already or shown up at the door. Maybe they won’t suspect I’m here with her but if they ask I don’t want her to lie and get caught up in this anymore than she already is.”

“Oh my God!” Rachel said, “I left my phone in my purse and haven’t checked it with everything going on. I put it on vibrate since I’m not on call.” She ran in the living room and returned with it in her hand. Sure enough, an “investigator” had called a half hour ago to ask her if she’d seen or talked to me recently, saying it was urgent that she return his call.

James glanced in the living room to see if Ali was still sleeping, then paced around the small kitchen. “I really don’t give a crap what you do…I’m inclined to help out Fred here because Ali seems to like him. I could just as soon kill all three of you but the FBI will still be on my trail, and I’m thinking that leaving you alive might hurt you more in the long run.”

Rachel simply declared: “I’m going to call the FBI and say that I haven’t heard from Fred, and that Stan and I are here alone,” We all listened while she made the call. “They’re heading up here to question us.” Rachel moved toward the living room with Stan behind her.

James gestured to them and said to me, “So what are you going to do about them?”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“You’re just going to take it. Your buddy messes with your wife behind your back and you let it go. That’s not how it would go down in my world.”

“Well, I’m not going to shoot him if that’s what you mean.”

“Whatever. Do what you want, but you see how far I’d go to save my woman.”

As if on cue Ali slipped into the kitchen and sat down on James’ lap, her arms around his neck. She looked more rested and less pale, and she was still wrapped in the afghan.

He took her face in his hand and looked at her intensely: “We’ve gotta get outta here, Ali. Grab what you need … your meds and water … as fast as you can.”

“Are the FBI here? How long was I asleep? What about all of them?” She gestured toward me.

James gently stood her up and said: “The FBI are on their way. You only slept for about an hour. We’re leaving everyone else here. A professor and a doctor ought to be able to come up with a plan to save their asses … I wouldn’t put much faith in Stan.”

Thalia still looked confused and startled…must have been the infection…but she began to move as James rushed into the living room. I reached out to touch her arm.

“Thalia…….Ali,” I said, “I just wanna say good bye and give you something. I know I pissed you off you with my talking and all, but that’s just me.” I went to my backpack to get some money, then handed her a thousand dollars.

“You don’t need to do this, Fred.”

“I know, but I want to. Take it before I change my mind. I really hope things work out.”

“For you too, Fred. I’m sorry I was rough with you, but you just might be the most annoying person I’ve ever met! Just try to stop analyzing the fuck out of everything. And thanks.” With that, she went to get her things.

Maybe she is my muse, I thought. I’ve been reading these complex philosophers most of my life, but maybe what they say in the end is uncomplicated. Maybe we all want some sort of Hegelian dialectic that results in a nice resolution that brings us one step closer to the meaning of existence, but what if the dialectic never resolves, and that is the simple truth? After all, I think; therefore I exist is pure and uncomplicated.

James and Thalia rushed into the kitchen, followed by Rachel and Stan.

“Can you at least leave my rifle?” Stan asked. “Take the ammunition, but give me back the rifle!”

James’ answer was to knock Stan to the floor with the butt of the rifle.

 

* * *

 

Evidently James was prepared for anything because before he and Thalia left he forced Rachel, Stan and me to sit on the kitchen chairs, then tied us up and duct taped our hands to the chairs. He left our mouths un-taped…I figure partly out of spite and partly to help us figure out our story for the FBI. So there we sat, Rachel and Stan on either side of me. The blood from Stan’s head wound was dripping slightly on my sleeve. I couldn’t help but think of Sartre’s play No Exit: we are truly capable of creating our own Hell. I just hoped this was not a weird trick of fate and that we would indeed reclaim our freedom. It actually felt good to be tied up to Rachel, but not so much with Stan, which made me think of Sade and my book project. Rachel brought me out of my meditation on sadism and Hell:

“Ok, here’s a possibility: Fred, you’ll tell them that after the accident when you were moving the body from the pavement back to the hearse, Ali pulled a gun on you and forced you to put her in the car. She made you take her somewhere in the mountains and you thought of Stan’s cabin, secretly hoping you’d be traced there. You’ll say that you heard her talking to someone on the phone but didn’t know who. That she was injured and told you she was waiting for someone to pick her up. That Stan and I just happened to show up at the cabin, and then James, impersonating the FBI.”

“That’s a bunch of BS!” Stan turned his head toward us, which caused even more blood to drip on me. “We’re talking about the FBI here….you don’t think they’ll be all over this ? And what about your phone on your garage floor, Fred? And why should we lie? Isn’t that aiding and abetting criminals?”

“Stan,” Rachel said, “ If we tell the truth, Fred might be in serious trouble. After all, he could be charged with kidnapping Ali.” She glanced toward me. “And I do feel some responsibility for his breakdown.”

“What breakdown?” I tried to jump up from my chair and almost tipped us all over. “Who said I had a breakdown? Don’t flatter yourself. I’ll admit that taking a body from a hearse appears to be a bit odd, but I’ll explain it to the FBI and take the consequences. I’ll tell the truth. I can handle it.” I knew this would hit Rachel where it hurts because A Few Good Men was one of her favorite movies, and we had watched it several times together. I thought I saw her eyes well up but she quickly looked away.

“Look,” I continued, “Stan’s right. This thing all started with me thinking I had to find my authentic self, and it would be hypocritical of me to lie. Thalia really did pull a knife on me. I’ll tell the truth. At least we can agree on one thing: none of us saw what car James was driving or where they were going, so personally I hope they have a good chance to start over.”

“The motherfucker knocked me down with my own rifle, and you turn into some sappy romantic who wants a fairy tale ending. Go fuck yourself, Fred!” I turned to stare at Stan as I thought about my retort, but when I saw his bloody head I decided to be silent.

We all just sat there for awhile, listening to the creaking of the cottage and what sounded like an occasional squirrel running across the roof. Somehow it seemed odd to me that they were scurrying around, oblivious to anything other than storing their food. I envied them. After some time Stan began snoring, and I whispered to Rachel:

“Not that I care, but is he supposed to be sleeping like that? He probably has a concussion.”

“It’s OK if he sleeps a bit given the circumstances. He has high blood pressure so this will help him to calm down.”

I saw that her cheeks were tear-stained and I wished I could wipe them away. I thought about trying to lick them as a gesture of reconciliation but thought better of it. “Rachel,” I whispered, “do you remember when I used to call you Annie, Roquentin’s former lover in Sartre’s book Nausea? How we used to talk about her “perfect moments” and how it was possible for our perfect moments to compensate for the daily drudgery and repetition of existence? Don’t you believe we can find them again?

“Fred, you started ruining the perfect moments. And it all started with the baby … you know it did.”

“Rachel, please … don’t go there.”

“Don’t you see, Fred? Maybe you took that girl because you needed to rescue someone. You couldn’t save our baby, but you never wanted to talk about it. I wanted to try again, but you wouldn’t even come near me … what was I supposed to do?

“Look, Rachel, I did start seeing a therapist. That’s huge for me.”

“Yes, Fred, but it was after I told you I was leaving. A bit too late, don’t you think?”

“But why Stan, Rachel? Do you hate me that much? Why my best friend, of all people? Surely there were some fellow doctors who would have been willing to supply whatever you thought you weren’t getting from me! Couldn’t you have had just a little empathy? For what we had in the beginning? And Stan was my best man, for God’s sake!” Speaking of whom, Stan’s body, which was slumped against me, began to jerk just a bit, which caused more blood from his head to drip on me.

“Calm down, Fred,” Rachel whispered, “You know how these things work: you started staying at the university later and later, telling me that you had student conferences, or that you couldn’t concentrate at home and needed the solace and inspiration of your campus office. Stan stopped by to see you and we started talking a lot since you were never there. He understood my devastation about the baby and my frustration with you. He said you just needed some time to deal with it on your own terms first. We didn’t mean for the affair to happen … it just evolved. We didn’t set out to hurt you.”

“Jesus, Rachel! I don’t know if I can ever get my head around this. Or if I could ever forgive you…yet with all that’s happened, even all that could still happen … who knows if the bad guys will come looking for James & Thalia before the FBI get here … I’m not sure I’m ready to give up on us, although you seem like you already did.” Just then we heard the sounds of the front door breaking in.

“Damn it!” Stan yelled. “Fred, you owe me a rifle and a front door and whatever other damage they do!”

“Right, Stan,” I said, “and you owe me a wife!”

 

Turns out the FBI was more interested in finding Thalia and James than charging me with a crime. The spectacle of us tied to the chair with Stan’s dripping wound helped convince them that we were all victims. I did indeed stretch the truth and they believed that Thalia threatened me with a weapon and forced me to drive her north to wait for James (they still didn’t tell us their real names). The two were involved in heroin trafficking, which explains the scars on Thalia’s arms. The FBI had put her through rehab and were indeed planning to take her across the border to Canada. Now they seemed to think it would not be long before they would find them because she would likely relapse soon.

I may not have found my authentic self, but at least I am on its path. I still believe the universe meant for me to take the body, which in turn resulted in the tabula rasa of my life as I thought I knew it. The cogito is just a beginning, and the fear of losing everything has made me really question what it is I want. I’m still working on the book about Kant and Sade, but I’m thinking of changing the title to The Marquis de Sade: if you K(c)ant Beat Him, Join Him! … not, however, in the sense of becoming a sadistic sexual pervert! Sade wrote most of his works imprisoned during the French Revolution, listening to the sounds of the guillotine. I suffered my own reign of terror, and I survived it a changed man who at least tries to understand other people’s emotional states, rather than analyzing them intellectually. To really understand someone, let alone oneself, merely thinking is not enough … empathy is the key.

Rachel and I are not reunited for certain, but she agreed to stop seeing Stan and not sign the divorce papers yet if I agreed to continue therapy. My therapist says that Rachel and I are not yet ready for couple’s counseling until we each confront our separate issues. We’re making progress, which for now is enough. I’m working on being compassionate toward myself for the moment. And on being mindful, especially when I’m driving.

As for Thalia and James, I really hope they can make a life together without the drugs and violence, although I can only imagine how difficult that must be. But I’m hopeful, especially after I received an unexpected package the other day in my mailbox at the university: a copy of Descartes’s Discours de la Méthode, with the following inscription:

     Cogito(e)

I think that I am

With the one who knows

And to think it all began

With some very crushed toes.

 

Keep it simple,

Thalia

 

 

BIO

vanderheyden2Jennifer Vanderheyden grew up in southern Ohio, and earned a PhD in French Literature from the University of Washington in Seattle. She lives in Wisconsin and teaches French at Marquette University. She has published a critical study on the works of eighteenth century French writer and philosopher Denis Diderot, as well as piece of flash fiction in Robert Vaughan’s Flash Fiction Fridays (Dolls, Vol. 1, 2011)

 

 

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Martin Keaveney

 

 

The Leaves

He uses the leaves, bunches of them, to show me. He gathers them up, piles in his hands. I can see the pleasure, the deep throaty joy in him, as he makes fists, squeezes those mucky fingers together, his eyes are bright under grey lashes, white dots in the dampness. He wants to show me, he runs around in a circle, tossing them high, he grunts, they swish by his veiny legs, under his bare feet, he looks, stares open-mouthed at me, tears come. The reaction, it must not have been, not what he expected from me, or what he wanted.

 

 

 

 

Artlessly

You’ve got to love it, it was great. Real great. You’ve got to love a man for trying. He might find, no he will fail. That’s for sure, but he did try, he fell a lot of times. A lot, a lot of times, but he did try. He got the end or start, no matter. He didn’t care that much for all he said about it, the end, that is. You’ve got to love a man for trying. If he even was a man, if he was even a her or a she, who knew, must needs this, but you’ve got to love him, nevertheless.

He got out of it. He got to the end or something did, or the start, no matter. Try and fail, fail and fail. You’ve got to love them.

 

 

 

 

Company

We’ve been here for centuries now. Time does not exist here. Nothing does. We do eat, but not in time. We toilet, but not here. We reproduce, but not as nearby. We lead and follow, but only in the future. There is no time to lose or find. It is puzzling and clear. We drill holes all day for millennia. Then holes are filled, we drill more. We talk in silence. We think to others. There are no others ever, only at times. Times of the landed nearby. This time in time. We are alone together.

 

 

 

 

The Vase

He was tidy, she was not. They extended the kitchen. He brought her a flower one day, name not important, put it in a vase on the table in the new section.

She was laughing about it, much later, why he had brought in the flower, can never ask him now. Soft idea, she said, silly man.

 

 

BIO

keaveney2Martin Keaveney has been widely published in Ireland, the UK and the US. Fiction, Poetry and Flash may be found at Crannog (IRL),  The Crazy Oik (UK) and Burning Word  (US) among many others. He has a B.A. and M.A. in English and is currently a PhD. candidate at NUIG.

 

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WARNER

by M F McAuliffe

 

 

This isn’t the Warner Gilchrist who’s a neurosurgeon, nor the Warner Gilchrist who’s a bell-ringer, nor the Warner Gilchrist who’s an executive lawyer, nor the Warner Gilchrist who’s a male model, but the Warner Gilchrist who’s bone and residue in a closed coffin in one of Adelaide’s cemeteries. His father was James Gilchrist, a local columnist for The Examiner, and one of the most fatuous writers I have ever read. At 15, my rage at his column was boundless. Church-goers’ and rose-growers’ regard for him was likewise boundless. Now even Google can’t find him.

Warner was his first-born, a fat-faced, slit-eyed bounceball of self-regard. He wasn’t tall, he wasn’t lithe, but walked as though he was. I knew a lot about the way he walked: he walked in late, down the full length of the theatre, every time we had an English lecture.

He was as full of shit as his father, and as well regarded.

#

He was very young, they said. There was a law that you had to be seventeen to go to Uni; otherwise you had to petition the Governor. I’d come within two months of having to petition; he’d come within two weeks.

I didn’t know his name. I knew the orange hair and freckles, the stretchy-dakked slouch, the eyes, his lack of folder as he slouched past the front rows of girls busy writing in theirs. I knew he bounced a tennis-ball across the plaza month in and month out; I saw him from the library windows. He never seemed to do any work. I expected him to fail.

At the end of the year I came third. Someone called Warner Gilchrist had come second; Walter Selim, a thin, pale worm, had come first.

In Second Year Orange Boy still had the ball. Mostly in is pocket.

Early in Third Year the student newspaper revived. Someone called Warner Gilchrist, with friends, ran it; Warner was the editor. Van Hulse, a friend of mine, gaunt and haunted flame of a boy, went off and politicked. When he came back we were the joint literary editor.

“Oh?” I said.

Not only that. Warner Gilchrist was the son of: James Gilchrist.

#

As we all waited at the entrance to the large theatre I could see the darkened study of his late nights with his father, typewriter, table, pool of light, whisky-to-whisky, man-to-man help with homework, help… (Did his father help him say the things I wanted to say – the feeling at the tip of the branch when the grapevines are pruned, how the small grey wind came from the gullies, how the scatter and spray and spew of houses lay between the hills and the sea?) He’d had help, had it for years and years and years.

“This means we can be a power on campus!” Van Hulse was glowing, his lips open with hope.

I had pressing problems, lose your scholarship and where are you going to get money problems, the entire Spanish Renaissance in Renaissance Spanish problems, Norse sagas in Old Norse and Beowulf in ornamented Anglo-Saxon problems. (Where did Warner get all his free time?)

“Mm,” I said. Hulse invented projects and cajoled students far and wide. I talked a couple of submissions out of a couple of staff. I had too much work to help him much.

Warner’s articles began to appear. Sex and the pill and the new gloriousness of life; the Hey, Jude review; the penis-piece, a four-pager on the True Humanity of not regarding your penis as a Free Strap-on Gift Offer. It was something his father might have written, if he hadn’t been addressing the middle-aged middle class. “Dear Warner, I have never regarded my penis as a free strap-on gift offer. Love, Veronica.” Did not get printed.

Around the same time Hulse told me that nothing we were digging up was getting printed, either.

Take it up with the Student Union executive?

Hulse white-faced with anger. The paper wasn’t controlled by the Union. The press was owned by a consortium of Warner and his friends.

So. His father had bought him a fake newspaper for a platform, and a press to print it on.

#

He beamed and bounced his way across the plaza and grew more orange hair. My thesis grew a hundred monster heads.

I began to be free again at the beginning of Fourth Year, just in time for the Annual Play. The other half of the Former Literary Editor of The Imperial Scheme sprang the fifty cents, and took me. Over the summer just about everybody had dropped out, Hulse said, and instead of cancelling the show… Towards the end the star and only cast member swung across the stage on a trapeze, jock strap naked, coloured streamers rippling from his arse. Hulse wanted his money back.

But when I saw him afterwards, wearing the green corduroy coat with leather elbows, wearing the shirt that somehow made him look substantial, I felt oddly sorry for that simultaneously pudgy and scrawny body.

And then I began to realize that Warner’s performance had gained him respect among the staff. I think they saw it as brave.

And the staff would decide the first class degrees, the tutorship, the scholarship, and the Medal.

#

Fourth Year.

As you walked down the corridor you could start to get a feeling for your chances, read the layers of latenight thought lodged in the satin finish of doors and doorframes. You could see vague shapes, receding possibilities. Once I glimpsed the ghost of Walter Selim, inching along like a vertical worm, his mind concise and brilliant.

But the most glittering bauble on the Fourth-Year Christmas-tree was a couple of terms’ tutoring before leaving for Oxford. If I could get that job I could do something respectworthy while I went on trying to say the sound of the wind. My heart had been set on it for years.

#

Frenzy. Exams. Orals. Alphabetically I wasn’t expecting to see Warner that week. Our paths crossed at the door; I went to knock; he opened it on his way out. Hearty male laughter within. My heart sank. I knew the sound of satisfied agreement when I heard it.

I’d staggered through my Spanish oral, drunk and mindblank, managed to make an unexpected joke with the only three words I could still remember and escape while their impressions were still good.

I didn’t dare get drunk for this. So we sat, them in front of the windows, me staring at the sun and thee silhouettes, in increasingly bad-tempered argument.

When it was over I went downstairs to the Ladies’ to get out of the dress. I hadn’t worn it for years, knew it was hideous the second I put it on –

Warner intercepted me.

The orals were closer to Christmas; the campus was closed and deserted. To this day I don’t know where he waited that afternoon, to speak to me who he neither saw nor spoke to, to see if his scholarship was still safe.

He looked down from his puff-cheeked, slit-eyed advantage and asked me how it had gone.

I shrugged. I wanted nothing but to be away from the grey terrazzo foyer with its thin brass strips, to be back in my jeans, getting to know by its smell and sound and the saltwater desert my future had just become.

“How long were you in there?” His eyes looked amused. The dress, I suppose.

“An hour.”

The pause lengthened, and lengthened again. He stood looking down. Finally I said, “How long were you?”

“Twenty minutes.”

There was so obviously nothing to say.

#

Selim got the Medal.

#

Van Hulse chatted quietly to the staff. Everything I’d been drunk for I’d done very well in; Warner’s First came largely from his marks in French. I grunted. For all I knew his French was better than Voltaire’s.

#

Teaching on the industrialized edge of the extinct inland sea. Dry geologies so barren that for a sense of human scale I began reading The Examiner again.

Warner’s French professor had become the restaurant critic.

Restaurant critic? The man had to be helped downstairs after the French Society.

I wondered why The Examiner had picked him. He wasn’t scrambling for work; he didn’t need the money. He sat in his office, obscure, bespectacled, unnoticeable to anyone but his students –

Warner’s First came largely from his marks in French.

Warner’s father, The Examiner‘s most popular columnist.

#

None of that made any difference now.

The wind grieved at night, scouring the plain under the treeless moon.

#

I drank the Education Department’s pale cups of Gethsemane and when I had the money I moved to Melbourne. I opened The Age one Saturday soon after and found a recent photo of Warner.

Back from Oxford, apparently. Going to Sid Siebel’s filmwriting workshop, writing for the South Australian Film Corporation. He’d won The Age‘s short story competition. The story stank.

I wondered how his father had fixed the workshop, and shrugged. I had to beat down another door for another part-time job.

The recession ground on.

#

Free entertainment one afternoon! Helen Caldicott Against The Bomb! City Square from 3 p.m.!

I got there after work, to a thinnish crowd. Caldicott had already left, but I wanted to see what I could see, so I followed the thick network TV cables and stopped about fifteen feet from the stage, about four feet behind a squat fat guy.

Large orange Afro. Green corduroy coat splitting at the seams. Leather elbows.

Warner leant down and whispered, directing the guy on is knees next to him with an old Sony Portapak to tape a flag too close to the camera for the average Sony lens to resolve. The portapak belonged to Adelaide Video Access. Someone had come up with the shoestring for a directorial experiment.

#

Christmases in Adelaide came and went. I finally got a job in the Public Service, went back to Adelaide for the following Christmas and caught up with Hulse, who was working for a new political rag. I took riesling, brie, edam, green olives, black olives, stuffed olives, cold tomatoes, bread, the best coffee I could find, and a sinful chocolate cake. We sat in his living room, which was small and dark. The food was on the two small tables that stood between us, touching our knees.

We’d been discussing an article he was working on. I’d just put my wineglass down. I had bread and cheese in my left hand, I was catching crumbs with my right. Hulse was examining the plate, looking for his next nibble.

“Bye the bye, Ron, did you ever hear that Warner Gilchrist is dead?”

Hulse had bought tiny car stereo speakers for his tiny living room. Very soft Haydn.

“Drowned.”

I couldn’t hear the music.

“… He’d got divorced and gone to Byron Bay to do some surfing. They told him it wasn’t a beginner’s beach.”

And Warner thought it didn’t matter. Warner thought he was as good as they’d always said he was.

His father had loved and helped him to death.

#

Solid unbreathable green, lungs starving, burning, mouth forced. Swallowing. Rid of water.

No arms. Green through greening water, no arms rescuing. Cold. Swirled. Buckled, bound, encased, inside and out, water.

I saw him fall and part from me, point of light falling and dimming in an endless exterior dark, falling down and away, my enemy, my identity, my loss.

The light went out.

And I was bolt upright in the dark, gasping and choking and terrified.

#

I saw Hulse a few times over the years before I left the country. Warner’s younger brother was a decent-enough journo at The Examiner. His father was a broken man. Warner was dead, and so was his family’s ascendancy.

#

I’ve outlived him now by thirty-five years, and yet he’s wandering cross my mind this morning, that drowned and fatuous boy. I can see him coming across the plaza, fishflesh white under his orange hair, slit-eyed in the sunlight, ball in his pocket. I’m watching him from the first-floor window, wondering what it must be like to be so favoured by family, money, gender.

I turn and draw breath.

I suppose I’m thinking of him this morning because the weather, a harmless-looking grey, not even dank, has me labouring for breath as though asthma had never been dispersed by albuterol, beclomethasone and prednisone; because I could well end up like him, drowning.

But that will be then. The weather will improve tomorrow, the asthma over the next few days. My third book has just gone to the printer, photographs and essays; my husband’s fourth came out last year.

We work around our illnesses, quietly, and get things done.

 

 

BIO

mcauliffe2M. F. McAuliffe is co-author of the poetry collection Fighting Monsters (Melbourne, 1998), & the limited-edition artist’s book Golems Waiting Redux (Portland, 2011). Her novella, Seattle, was published in 2015; her collection, The Crucifixes and Other Friday Poems, will be published this fall.

In 2002 she co-founded the Portland-based, multilingual magazine Gobshite Quarterly with R. V. Branham. In 2008 they co-founded Reprobate / GobQ Books, where she continues as commissioning editor.

 

 

 

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stephanie renae johnson

Straw

by Stephanie Renae Johnson

 

 

Now, listen. This is why I need you.

Most fathers don’t dip the moon into bottles of their own tears and booze. A father shouldn’t tell his daughter that her moonbeam body echoes her mother’s. But he did, with his mouth and with his eyes. That was why we were going to run away: just our hands clasped tight as we roved the hills. Our bare feet and the mountain laurel. Some sheep, maybe, to keep us warm. We were going to fill our mouths with lamb’s quarters and dandelions. We would find what we could and steal what we couldn’t.

We figured, the world owes us anyway, for setting her up with a dead ma and a pa stuck in a bottle. I’m not much better: a dead pa and a ma who disowned me. A mangled creature, she called me. Sick, she growled.

Her pa is a monster. Coming from me, that’s an insult.

That is why, Grandpa—I need to know how to spin straw into gold. She’s in the tower of that mansion right now, and I need you to tell me how you did it all those years ago.

No, I can’t find Ma. She’ll just spit me out again like a bad batch of moonshine. Just show me … please.

 

Grandpa, the forest at night is a cacophony. Stars swirl in a raucous chorus, coyotes yip and howl; the mosquitoes and cicadas are a damn racket. Since being ejected from home like a knocked-over nest, I’ve grown in the woods. My toes are callused blue with the dirt of these mountains. I know the rough of the bramble; my heels are pricked and pierced by blackberry bushes. But I’ll never get accustomed to the night time symphonies of these azure ranges.

I’m surprised I heard her over it all. She was in the corner of my vision, an extra tangle of roots in the kudzu, until I heard the heave of her sobs.

“Oh hell!”

Trying not to trip when you’re barefoot on a mountain is an art form I’m still learning after all these years. I fell into her lap.

“I am so sorry,” I muttered, sitting up and brushing the dirt from my arms. “Are you hurt, miss? Do I need to carry you home?”

She smiled, despite the rivers carved into her cheeks.

“No, but thank you. It’s just–” she breathed out. “–my father.”

“Ah.”

For lack of anything better to say, I plucked an ivy leaf out of her hair.

“Here,” I handed it to her. “For good luck.”

“Thank you … I’m Brenna.”

“Stilt.”

“What a funny name!” she laughed.

“It’s a family name,” I muttered.

“Oh.”

The woods resumed their noise. I hadn’t noticed it stopped until the drum thrum of “talk-to-her-talk-to-her-talk-to-her” bludgeoned through my mind.

She talked first, though. Her voice was like a newly minted coin, silver and round.

“Do you often walk in these mountains at night?”

“I live here. So…yes.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t…” She looked over my shoulder and noticed my clearing.

“It’s fine. I’d rather be here than there.” I pointed at the carpeted view of Ashburn spread beneath our feet.

“It must be beautiful to live here. Have this view every night.” Her chin tilted toward the town, the blinking fires below, the crooked dark line against the other side of the sky.

 

This has happened before, Grandpa. Runaway girls from the town find their way up to my mountain. I never ask for them, but they stumble up as if led. The least I can do is make them a cup of coffee and listen to their reasons for running away.

After the tears dry from their cheeks, they smile at me, they push my hair away from my eyes. They tell me I’m beautiful. They might even kiss me before descending back down the mountain. But then, they realize, they only like the idea of me: the mountain recluse with un-brushed hair, long legs, and longer patience. It’s the reality of me, especially when it comes to taking me off the mountain, introducing me to their kin, their everyday life, the concept of showing me around town on their clean, slender arms that end in uncallused hands. That’s when girls become aware that I don’t fit into a dream life. I’m not a fairy tale ending. You don’t find people like me in any kind of nursery rhyme picture book.

 

That night, I remembered how gold looks when lit by a fire. As I leaned the wood together in a triangle and flung the flint to the center, her hair gleamed. She stared into the flame, but I stared at her.

“So,” I asked, sitting next to her in the dust. “Can I ask what your pa did to deserve you running away up my mountain?”

She laughed. “Your mountain?”

I grinned and glanced around. My pewter coffee pot hung from the branches. My ax stuck up from the stump of what used to be an oak tree.

“Do you see anyone else living here?”

“No,” she allowed. Her smile was like the moon, whittled down to halfway nothing.

“My mountain, then.” I sipped coffee out of my mug and refilled her cup.

She stared through the distance, past me, past the valley below. I almost didn’t want to interrupt her for the fear that her next words would be goodbye. But her lips parted.

“My father is . . . insisting I do something I don’t want to do.” I noticed a dark shadow along her neck as she pushed her shining hair aside. Its twin rested on her wrist. “So I came to the hills to decide what to do next. Seems like I’m not the only one.”

“What will you do next?”

“I’m not sure.” Her eyes swept over my camp. “Why do you live up here?”

I opened my mouth to tell her the same half truths I had told other runaway girls. My parents died. I never had parents. I was raised by mountain men. I was raised by coyotes. But the truth slid out instead, slick as wet leaves.

“When I was ten, my grandpa, my father’s father, fell sick. A little bit of…” I bit my tongue. Never tell, my pa said, never tell anyone about us. “A bit of medical ability runs in my family, so my pa spent all night taking care of Grandpa. But then my father got sick, too. My grandpa got better. My pa didn’t.”

“Your poor mother. What did she do?”

“She went wild, stopped talking to my grandpa. She blamed him for everything.” I stopped, but her eyes were tangled around me like thorns, so I continued. “My ma kicked me out a month later when she found out that I…” Biting my lip, I looked down at her hand in the dirt, inches from mine. They were the same size. Our chests rose and fell with the night air.

“Oh,” she breathed. Her tongue darted forth from between her lips, licked the top, then the bottom. She stared at me and I swear she was finding my soul, just looking at my mouth.

That’s when I fell in love with her.

 

I know you think love at first sight doesn’t happen, Grandpa. I know it took you three nights and a miracle to fall in love with Grandma. It took longer for her to return the feelings. We, as a family, are not that attractive. You have scars from the seam where Grandmother sewed you back together. I remember Father’s bulbous nose that he said you gave him.

And then there’s me. All my unattractiveness collected in my insides, Mother said. All my evil stored in my blood stream underneath my freckled skin and dirty hair. Ma said it must’ve gotten mixed in with the magic blood, like somehow sin came with the ability to make one thing turn into something else. A sickness.

Before Brenna, I didn’t believe in instant connection, either. I was raised on fairy tales just like everyone else; I knew there were witches for people foolish enough to believe in love that took only an eye blink. Witches took a poor girl’s legs. One fed a princess poisoned fruit. I was above all that, high on my mountain, just me and the coyotes, watching the moon. Or so I told myself, nights I was so alone not even the lightning bugs pitied me.

 

But Brenna was different. She listened; I didn’t feel like I had to settle into a type of misunderstood castaway for her. We spun our pasts out in front of the jumping fire. Each laugh that escaped her mouth seemed to hold eternity.

“Do you ever miss town?” she asked as the stars blinked with fury above us.

“What would I miss?”

“Pretty bar maids.”

We both laughed. She had told me how she earned a living, leaning across a bar to serve beer to red faced men. Her laugh sounded like wind in the leaves: airy, musical.

“But I’ve got a pretty bar maid right here,” I boasted. Her eyes glittered at me, the firelight caught up in them. “Besides, there’s so much more to the woods than below.”

“Tell me about it,” she implored, then miraculously—like she’d been planning it all evening and just waiting for the right time—rested the top of her head on my shoulder. The skin there tingled and burned, dancing under her fire-like curls. How many nerve endings can be in my shoulder? It felt like a thousand crinkling constellations had been swept under my skin. I gingerly, carefully, slowly, stroked her hair. It was so soft underneath my hands.

“It’s like this: once you get rid of the people, once you take away the clopping of carriage wheels over brick, every noise lasts longer. I’ve heard bird chirps that have rung through my head for hours. Everything is … easier here, because it’s just me.”

“And me!” she laughed.

I was quiet. I didn’t know how to respond to that. They always leave, these girls. That’s what makes them runaways.

She spoke again. “I wish my world was peaceful like yours.” Her eyes squeezed shut as if blocking the noise out. “My father drinks. And yells. And drinks more.”

But he keeps you. I didn’t say it because I knew how awful it would sound—the man who hits you, makes you work in a stinking bar—at least he doesn’t send you away. So instead, I put my hand over hers and watched the night fall backwards into day.

When she kissed my cheek at dawn, before she clambered back down the mountain, I never expected to see her again. So I watched her as she left, until I couldn’t make out the golden dot of her head on the dark horizon.

 

No, Grandpa, ma won’t help. She’s happier without me there, just her new husband and her pink baby daughter. Ma can only offer the wrong kind of gold. I need straw and all she has are coins, courtesy of her new husband.

In this matter, especially, I don’t think she’s likely to help me. Situations like this are the whole reason she kicked me out. To her, there’s no difference between Brenna and Violet, other than the fact that Violet lies under the earth and Brenna walks above it . . . and even that difference, I’m sure Ma would prefer to fix.

 

Brenna came back the next afternoon. Sitting on the horizontal tree trunk I call my parlor, swinging her feet in the late summer breeze, wearing the sunset in her smile. I almost dropped the armload of wood I was holding. Instead, I set each log down one at a time, staring at her. “What are you doing here?”

She shrugged. “I missed you.”

“How did you know how to get back here?”

“I counted the steps I took back down the mountain and added twenty.”

I placed the last log on the damp earth, still not breaking eye contact with her. “Well, sure, with that logic.” I paused, my chest a jungle. God. I swore she could hear it outside of me; it echoed over the whole mountain range.

“I missed you.”

“When you say that, what exactly do you mean?”

She hopped off the tree trunk and dusted her hands on her dress.

“I mean that I…” She took one step toward me, covering more than half the graying afternoon between us. “Missed.” She put her hand right where my heart felt like it was going to shoot out of me like a bird taking off. “You.” She pulled my face down to her hungry lips. Every sinful kiss, every reason my mother no longer loves me, was all worth her in that moment.

 

Oh, hell. Yes, Grandpa, Violet was that girl at the farm down the way, always stomping with me through the rivers and the dust. You’re remembering right: yes, the girl with hair the color of the earth. But when the fever swept through these hills, when you got sick, when Pa got ill, so did she. She died the month after him, that July that was so sticky hot. Remember? Your fever had broken, but we couldn’t tell because we were all sweating like fevered folk?

Ma found me praying over Violet’s body. Except my prayer, my lips hovering over hers, was the kind of prayer Ma’s God never would hear. Sinner! I can still hear her shrill echo. That’s when I took to the hills. That’s the last time she saw me.

Grandpa, I just need to know how to help Brenna. Please, please, tell me.

 

“Brenn?” I whispered into her hair later that evening. The golden strands held my words for a half-second before she turned to face me. Her eyes were still closed, but fluttered like a butterfly balanced on a falling leaf.

“Mm?”

“Why are you really here?”

“I’m really here because I want to be. Now go back to sleep. It’s night. Unlike you, I’m not nocturnal.”

The skeeters outside convinced me even nature has a metronome.

“Brenn?”

“Stilt, what?”

“I mean. What about your pa?”

“What about him? I’m gone. I’ve left.”

“And what? You just came home, said ‘I don’t want to be here anymore, I’m running away to live with the ragamuffin I met in the woods less than twenty-four hours ago?’”

“Not exactly, no.” I could barely see the thin branch of her mouth.

“Well, then, how exactly?”

“I just left.”

Visions of pitchforks and flaming pyres stamped through my mind. Me, barbecued on a spit. Me, tortured alive, my legs braided shut. Me, eyes plucked out.

“You didn’t say anything?”

“No.”

“You didn’t leave a note?”

No.

“Did you bring anything with you? Anything of his?”

In the dark, her silence.

Then, “Why do you ask?”

I sigh.

“Because I took something from my Grandpa when I left, and I regretted it later. Now I still have ties with him, I still have something of his, something I don’t know what to do with. He still speaks to me, even when I’d rather not hear.”

“What’d you take?”

“What did you take, Brenn?”

“Money.”

“A lot?”

Her hair on the pillow of leaves made a nod, a tender rustle.

“You need to give it back. It’s dirty money.”

“But it’s money we need.”

“No, we don’t. We’ll make it.”

“How?”

“We will, Brenn. Just trust me. We will.”

“Okay. Tomorrow morning, I’ll give it back. But I’ll return by dusk.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

A finger poked my side. This girl was lightning, worried to playful in a cricket’s chirp.

“Not fair, you never said what you took.”

The constellations above swirled with my breath. I got up, dusting myself off. Brenna brought herself up to her elbows, watching me as my arm disappeared into the trunk of a hallowed tree. My fingers closed around the thin wheel, the miniature spokes. He’d shrunk it long ago, as a spectacle for their one wedding guest: their baby. My father.

“I took my Grandfather’s spindle.” The weight of it boomed in her palms.

She examined it carefully, as if her fingers held a dying crow. “Why?”

“Because it’s the only indication I’ve ever had that love is real.” I remember the fireplace in my childhood home. Father’s scratching voice, explaining how his parents came to this country, these hills, with nothing but dreams and sheep. The wooden spindle spun between my fat fingers. The center spoke twirled as I laid on the rug, half asleep.

Brenna put her head on my chest and I held her close. From the tops of the trees, we must have looked like two fox pups, curled against the dark.

 

I know I shouldn’t have pressed her, Grandpa. Don’t you think that I know that now? I stood on that mountaintop, watching the sky fill up with messages of “no” the second she didn’t come right back, the hour the sky turned black. I screamed her name into the sky that night until a thousand crows flung from their trees and whipped around my face.

Are you going to tell me that in the year you and Grandma hid your love, in the time you plotted the midnight shout of your name in the woods, her faked nervous attack, her pretended insanity, her leaving the king, you never made a mistake? No, Grandpa, I know how close the prince came to knowing your ruse, how close he came to suspecting the new baby prince wasn’t his. I’m not the only one who has been tricked by the holes in a late night plan.

 

The following morning, I left the mountain. I bathed. Washed my face and behind my ears just like Mother taught me. There’s no soap in the woods, no indoor plumbing running over to make sure I got every last kiss of dirt off my face.

But I did it. I stumbled into Ashburn—the bright metal song of the blacksmith shop, the leather breeze of the cobbler, and everywhere, the selling. Dollar signs looked like snakes twisted over sticks. This is the world she comes from. This is the world I left. My stomach riled with acid over each shop window; some part of me knew it was where she’d return after me.

I counted the steps and added twenty, just like she’d said, but I had no idea which way that twenty needed to go. I pulled on the sleeves of strangers, but they all shuddered me off.

 

When you try to find an alcoholic’s daughter, Grandpa, you go to the town bar. Because either he’ll be there, or she will, trying to drag him off the stool. I didn’t need to look long; I followed the men whose steps curled like a chipmunk’s tail. All bars are the same, and this one was the brown variation on the theme: stinking, a row of men at the counter while the sun still hung outside on a rope.

At the center of the bar, I found her father. He looked exactly like she would if all the wishes had been sucked out of her, leaving leather for skin. Much as I hated to, I knew that the one way to make a man like him talk was to buy him a beer. I uncrumpled one of the last green bills I had saved from the days I used them myself.

He sucked down the dark, frothing liquid from the wide mouth of the cool glass, after tipping it at me.

“Much obliged,” he muttered. I nodded and leaned over a seat next to him.

“Mind if I ask you some questions?” I asked, my thick anger for him housed in my stomach. I tried to keep it from welling up into the back of my throat onto my tongue.

“You some kinda reporter?”

I ignored this and wielded my own question back at him. “Where’s Brenna?” He took another swig of beer. My rage started to taste bitter between my teeth.

“You must be the wild one. Didn’t know you were the type she wanted.” His eyes traveled up and down my form, stopping at the space right below my clavicle. “Makes more sense, now, the fit she threw when Henry stopped by to collect.”

“Who’s Henry?”

“Henry Kilgilt?” He squinted harder. “Are you not from around these parts?”

“I’ve heard tales. Lives in a giant house on the top of a hill.”

“Not just that. The closest thing the Carolinas have to royalty.”

But what neither of us said out loud was that he had a mean streak: even as a mountain recluse, I heard whispers, passed along stories of what happened if you dared go to his parts of the forest to hunt. They say he wasn’t above skinning humans, too.

“What about him?”

“Well, Brenna’s been promised to him for a while now.”

“What? She barely knows him!”

“That’s not true. They grew up together.”

“She didn’t mention-”

“Of course not. Why would she tell mountain scum?”

I bit my tongue. My fingers tightened into a fist, but stayed by my side.

He continued. “Their mothers grew up together. When Jenny died, Charlotte started to take Brenna on. When Brenna started to look like Jenny’s ghost, Charlotte wanted her son to marry her dead best friend’s daughter. It was the least she could do.”

“The least she could do is not steal a young girl!”

“She didn’t steal her. She died before it came time to collect. Henry was just fulfilling his mother’s wishes.”

“Why would a rich man want to marry a bar wench?”

“A bar wench who works so she can keep her father fed and dry,” the bartender interjected.

“Shut up, Jeremy, or you’ll lose a patron!” He threw the rest of his glass right over Jeremy’s head, but it landed against the wall and came to the floor in an uninterrupted crash. Jeremy blinked and went back to dipping what used to be a white cloth into mugs, swiping it over the glass sides and bellies. His eyes were trained at the floor, but his mouth was a white line of lightning. He doesn’t approve of this any more than I do.

“I told Brenna a couple of days ago, right before her sixteenth birthday. She threw quite a fit, that girl. I s’pose that was when she stormed off to the woods and met you.”

“Guess so,” I murmured.

“Good for her, you sent her back to me to return my drinking money. Guess I should be grateful to you.”

My stomach lit on fire and my eyes blurred. He still rambled on, his arms flailing out.

“—problem with promising your daughter to a rich snob like that is that he doesn’t always see the worth in her, not even in the fresh grave of his mother and her promises. So I told him she could turn straw into gold.”

I blinked at his stupidity. Those three words back at me—straw into gold—gripped their fingers around my gut. My family history followed me here, across the generations. The room was too small now. My feet didn’t have enough room. My lungs didn’t have enough air.

“Why straw into gold?”

He shrugged. “It’ll make Henry more wealthy. It’ll make me more wealthy.”

He believed his own lie. He was that drunk or that stupid or both. My fists tightened around his collar and I lifted him off the bar stool; he was just another log of heavy wood.

“But she can’t,” I hissed into his face. “What is he going to do when she can’t?”

He shrugged and spat at me. The glob landed between my eyes, dribbled down my nose. It smelled like feces and beer. I dropped him back down.

“Doesn’t matter. She’s not my problem anymore.”

My fists left sweet kiss marks on his nose and cheeks before my hips punched the swinging door on my way out.

 

That’s why I came to you, Grandpa. More logical folk would say you can’t hear me, but I know you’re still here. The spindle turns. The blue jays shriek in your raspy voice, the whooper wills capture your whispers. Your stone says nothing other than your name, but I need you to speak now, and not just with the wind through the trees. Please, Grandpa, you’ve talked to me before. You told me to stay in the hills, be brave.

I’m trying to be brave, Grandpa, but my hands have nothing but your dirt now. My lover has never touched golden hay, just greasy, creased dollar bills. You did it once. You turned straw into gold for a simple farm girl you loved. Here’s your spindle even: I brought it back to you. Please show me how your fingers touched the wheel. I need to know, for her.

 

 

BIO

stephanie renae johnsonStephanie Renae Johnson is the Editor-in-Chief of The Passed Note, a lit mag for young adult readers by adult writers. She is also a recent graduate of Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Master of Arts in Writing program and has just finished her first book of poetry. Her work has been published by Parenthetical and Penny, among others. She was a finalist for the 2016 Claire Keyes poetry award, judged by the award winning poet Ross Gay. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with her fiancé and their seven bookshelves.

 

 

 

0
Robert Boucheron

Very Good English

by Robert Boucheron         

 

 

Webster Fagle had not been idle. He had gotten his client out of jail on the child support delinquency. Patrick Willis was now a free man, if penniless. Fagle had also shone a lurid light on the chief of police. J. D. Ryder carried on an affair with Ralph Willis for years, graphically described by Ralph’s emails to his brother Patrick. Ryder was now a suspect in Ralph’s death, and police detective Stewart Blake would have to question him. But a vital piece of information was missing. Where was Patrick at the time of the shooting?

Blake had the answer. Patrick Willis left the poker game at eleven, drove to his brother’s house, and made one last plea for money. The ensuing argument turned violent, and Patrick shot his brother in the basement. Why there? That’s where he found Ralph doing laundry. Once the deed was done, Patrick dashed upstairs to see what he could take in the way of money or valuables. Alternately, in desperation Ralph had given his brother all he had, and still it was not enough. Either way, it was Cain and Abel all over again.

While Patrick was cooling his heels in the county jail, Blake searched his room at the Budget Motel, searched the rental car, and canvassed pawn shops within a few hours’ drive of Hapsburg. He needed to find the jewelry, any bloodstained items, and above all, the gun. When nothing turned up, he searched again. No one could say that police procedure was lacking.

Blake questioned anyone who had contact with Patrick, such as Gopal Chatterji, the motel manager, and Dick Malone, the poker game host. He questioned those who might have had contact, such as Mary and Skip Willis. The one person he did not interview was the one who had alerted the police in the first place.

Fagle found Jolene Pitt at Hambrick’s Lounge over the weekend. Well past the age of thirty, deeply tanned, with a gorgeous mane that owed something to hair products and extensions, she wore a flame-red blouse and a wide leopard-print belt to match her handbag.

“Keep moving, that’s my motto,” she said. “Live your life, and enjoy every minute.”

Fagle treated her to a drink. He explained what happened to Patrick Willis.

“At this very moment, he lies in a barren cell.”

“Serves him right, the deadbeat.”

“You wouldn’t kick a man when he’s down, would you?”

“If you’re playing on my sympathy, that string is busted.”

“Nobody’s all bad, Jolene. All I’m asking is for you to make a statement to the police. Where you were, at what time, anyone else who was present, any detail that can be verified.”

“I don’t care if I never lay eyes on that man again.”

“You don’t have to. Lt. Blake or the officer on duty will be glad to assist.”

“The police are not real friendly with people in my sphere, if you know what I mean.”

“Patrick told me something confidential while were going over his case. He said the one bright spot in his life was a lady he met recently.”

“Who he was referring to, if I may ask?”

“He said: ‘She’s a lady who lives as hard as I do, and she never stops to look back.’”
“I guess that’s me,” Jolene mused. Then she sat up straight. “How do I know you’re not making this up?”

“Ask him yourself.”

“Did he say he wanted to see me again?”

“He’s up against the worst charge a man can face, and he’s at the lowest point a man can sink. Only you can save him.”

“You made your point, Mr. Fagle. I can see how you sway those juries in the courtroom.”

“This isn’t about me, Ms. Pitt. My client needs you. On his behalf, I beg of you.”

“Out of the goodness of my heart, I’ll do it.”

The attorney brightened.

“But I want you there by my side. There’s been enough funny business lately.”

* * *

Jolene appeared at the police station on Tuesday. Webster Fagle met her there, as promised. Blake was on hand to take her statement. The detective was impressed enough to drop his gruff manner.

“May I take your coat?” he asked.

“It’s not genuine mink,” she said, “but it’s a pretty good imitation.”

“You look fine,” Fagle said. She was dressed much as she had been on Saturday night.

“I’m here to clear a man’s name. If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”

Blake and Fagle went over Jolene’s account of the Sunday night in question. They explained that her statement might be entered as evidence in court. They watched as she wrote with a ballpoint pen on a legal pad.

Patrick Willis phoned me at about eleven o’clock from Dick Malone’s, where a poker game was breaking up. I could hear male voices in the background, cards slapping on a table, profanity, and the name Malone.

Willis apologized for the lateness of the hour. The game was a bust, and he needed to wind up the weekend on a positive note. If I was by any chance available he would really like to see me. As chance would have it, I was. He said he would pick me up in a few minutes. A few minutes later, he pulled up in front of the apartment, and I got in the car. My roommate Marla saw us leave.

Right off the bat, I could tell Patrick was hammered. The car veered this way and that. Fortunately there was no traffic on the roads. I told him to slow down. He said he only had one or two drinks and we would get there in one piece, which we did. He’s a man who can hold his liquor, I’ll say that for him.

At the motel, we each had a nightcap. He told me his brother kicked him out of the house the night before. They had been having trouble, and this was the last straw. Patrick came to town especially to see Ralph about finances, and to try and collect an outstanding debt, both of which he was unsuccessful at. He was not bitter and hateful, just stymied.

We retired for the evening. By then it was about midnight. Patrick went out like a light. I tend to be a light sleeper, so I am certain that he did not stir until Monday morning. As a matter of fact, he was dead to the world when I left the motel. The manager called a cab for me. He’s a real Indian, not cowboys and Indians, a nice, young man who speaks very good English.

 

 

BIO

Robert BoucheronRobert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories, essays and book reviews appear in Bangalore Review, Digital Americana, Fiction International, New Haven Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Poydras Review, Short Fiction, The Tishman Review.

 

 

 

0
Tom Miller

Furniture Store

by Tom Miller

 

As part of the eternal quest for the perfect table, Keith parked the car in front of yet another furniture store. His breakfast nook required a table sixty to sixty-six inches long and thirty-six to forty-two inches wide, with a pedestal-style base so that people could easily slide in and out of the charming window seat. Keith and Laura had agreed that they wanted a solid wood table and not some cheap thing made of pressboard and laminate. And of course, the price had to be right.

Yes, their need was specific, but was there really not such a table to be found within a one-hundred mile radius? It felt like they had searched every brand name furniture store, local dealer, antique seller, junk shop and thrift mart in the continental United States. They had combed the Internet for countless hours, searching, clicking, reading and debating late into the night, as if they were a pair of physicists obsessed with discovering a new sub-atomic particle.

Keith’s intrepid wife refused to admit defeat, but Keith himself was made of lesser stuff. He was ready to suspend a piece of plywood from ceiling hooks and call it a day. Laura insisted that success was imminent; stores they had previously visited had now received new shipments of merchandise. Their dream table was sitting on one of those floors right now, on sale and ready to be plucked up by the persistent shopper.

Before opening the car door, Keith reached for the Ace bandage and surgical boot that he kept on the back seat. He took off his left shoe and began to wrap the cloth around his foot and ankle.

“Not again,” said Laura, shaking her head. “Why don’t you just wait in the car? I’ll go in quickly and check if they’ve gotten anything new.”

Keith secured the bandage and slipped his foot into the boot, which he had received after having bunion surgery. The boot was designed so that when Keith walked, the heel of his foot absorbed all the weight. His foot now felt as good as new, but the boot still had its uses.

“I want a Coke,” he said. At this particular furniture store, smiling salespeople met customers at the door and offered them a twelve-ounce bottle of ice cold Coca-Cola from a strategically placed refrigerator.

“Then come inside and get a Coke,” said Laura. “That doesn’t mean you have to go through this charade. I probably won’t be in there more than fifteen minutes anyway.”

The last time Laura had popped into a furniture store, Keith had sent her a text message two hours later to make sure she was okay. “It could be much longer,” he said.

“It could,” admitted Laura. “That doesn’t mean you have to put on a surgical boot when there’s nothing wrong with your foot. You could just sit down and wait for me like a normal, uninjured person.”

“But the salespeople look at you,” said Keith.

Laura pondered this statement as if she were deciphering a sentence in a foreign language. “What are you talking about?” she asked.

“I’ve felt the vibe,” said Keith. “If I go in a furniture store and immediately sit down, the salespeople give me a look that says, ‘Why did you come into my store just to loiter and sit on my merchandise?’ And here, if you accept a Coke, it’s going to be even worse. They’ll have spent actual money on me, and I won’t even be making an effort.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Laura, “and anyway, you’re with me, and I’m shopping. I’m sure husbands come in here all the time and wait for their wives.”

Keith tightened the Velcro straps on his boot and picked up a book to read while he waited. “I hear what you’re saying, and it makes sense, but it’s not reality. In reality, I’m getting hostile glares. You don’t see it because you’re busy looking at tables.”

“Fine,” said Laura, as they both started getting out of the car. “Let’s say for a minute that your vibe is not deranged and one of the salespeople actually thinks you’re a loitering moocher. How is the boot supposed to help this scenario?”

Keith started clomping toward the store entrance. “The boot changes everything. The salespeople want me to sit down and rest. The last time I did this, one guy actually rolled a TV in front of me so I could watch while you shopped.”

Laura just shook her head as they went inside. Immediately, a man with a round head, wide smile, gray blazer, and pink, polka-dotted bow tie greeted them. “Welcome to Majestic Furniture,” he said. “Would you like a Coke?” He stood next to a refrigerator much like the ones at supermarket checkout lines. Through the glass, Keith saw rows upon rows of gleaming bottles.

Laura declined. “Thank you, that sounds great,” said Keith, as if the offer were an unexpected surprise. The salesman grabbed a Coke and removed the top with the refrigerator’s built-in bottle opener.

“I’m Scott,” said the salesman, handing the bottle to Keith and looking down at the booted foot. “What happened to your foot?”

Keith enjoyed the feel of cold glass in his palm. “Just bunion surgery,” he said. “The foot feels fine now, but it’s just hard to stand and walk around in this boot. Mind if I sit down while my wife checks out your tables?”

“Not in the least,” said Scott. “We’ve got plenty of seating.” He motioned out into the spacious showroom which reminded Keith of an ancient amphitheater. He was on a stage looking at a front row of plush, leather sectionals. Behind these sat the recliners and wing chairs, as vast in their variety as the middle tier of an audience. Dinette sets and bedding occupied the cheap seats, and china cabinets lined the walls as if in standing room only.

Laura rolled her eyes. “Yes, I’m sorry that my husband is impaired,” she said. As she and Scott headed into the depths of the store, she began to describe her dream table.

With a Coke in one hand and a book in the other, Keith hobbled through the maze of furniture to a remote recliner that also had a cup holder. He settled into velvety gray microfiber and began to read. After a couple of pages he looked up, took a sip of his Coke, and spotted Laura hovering over a table as Scott the salesman checked its dimensions with a measuring tape. Convinced that they would be there a while, Keith returned to his novel.

Just as Keith felt himself falling into another world, a shrill female voice shattered the magic. “No means no, Stevie! If I let you have a Coke you’re going to be bouncing off the walls for the next eight hours! Now stay with Mommy!” Keith looked up at the new customers who had just entered the store. The thin, young mother looked like she had just graduated from high school. She held a baby in her left arm. Stevie, with his thick, unruly mop of brown hair, looked to be about seven or eight.

With a vice-like grip on Stevie’s lower arm, the mother followed a saleswoman into the table section where Laura stood talking with Scott. Keith imagined his wife debating whether a particular table could work in their breakfast nook. A patient shopper, Laura was almost ready to settle for the “good enough” solution that Keith had suggested thirty minutes into their search.

Keith watched the young mother wrestle Stevie into a sturdy wooden chair. She crouched down, pointed at Stevie and spoke to him sternly. Stevie avoided his mother’s eyes, but he also nodded his head in assent. By the time the mother stood up and turned to face the saleswoman, she was all smiles. Mother, baby, and saleswoman began to browse the tables while Stevie remained behind in the chair.

Keith tried to return to his novel. But after two paragraphs, he found himself wondering what Stevie would do. When Keith was eight, he would have never disobeyed a maternal commandment, but kids these days did not have the same level of respect. He looked up from his book. Stevie was on the edge of the chair, studying the surrounding territory and poised to escape. With her back to Stevie, the young mother listened to the saleswoman describe furniture. Five seconds later, like a soldier advancing under sniper fire, Stevie bounded from the chair and took up a position beneath a dining room table large enough to seat eight.

Keith found himself engrossed in the mystery of Stevie. He needed to know what happened when the mother looked back and found Stevie gone from his assigned seat. Keith was not disappointed as the plot took an unexpected twist.

Stevie’s mother never looked behind her. The main character slowly rose from his hiding place until his eyes were just above the level of the table top. The table itself had a rich, deep-brown finish and thick, ornately carved legs. It was set for dinner with eight elegant place settings of fine china, polished flatware, and crystal glasses. While Stevie’s eyes shifted from one side to the other, a small hand reached out from under a table and grabbed a fork. The young ruffian then abandoned his current position. With the fork secured in his clenched fist and his back crouched low, Stevie dashed from under the table and found another safe haven behind a puffy leather recliner. Stevie caught his breath and looked around to see if anybody was watching. Keith quickly put his head back in his book to avoid eye contact.

After several seconds, Keith returned his attention to the boy. Stevie was now working the fork into one of his pants pockets. The kid was not just rambunctious; he was a thief, a shoplifter. And this place was no mini mart where the clerk was hypersensitive about young kleptomaniacs stealing candy bars. Furniture stores did not have to worry about customers palming china cabinets. Stevie was going to get away free and clean unless Keith himself became involved. All he had to do was alert one of the salespeople.

At the moment, the floor staff was busy helping customers. In the back of the store, three women sat behind a long table working the phones or doing paperwork. Keith considered going to the table, reporting the incident, and completing his civic duty, but he really did not feel like hobbling around in his surgical boot. Of course, he could take the boot off and walk to the desk, but that would expose him as a fraud and imposter.

As Keith contemplated his next move, Stevie army crawled to a new location behind a sumptuous beige sectional. Keith decided there was no need for him to get involved. Stevie had not stolen anything yet because he had not left the store. Anyway, it was just a fork. The store used the flatware only for decorative purposes. The utensil may have cost less than the bottles of Coke the store gave out for free. Moreover, Stevie was not his child. A lot of parents resented other adults saying anything that cast a negative light on their child, even if the comment was justified and made in the spirit of helpfulness. Keith was wasting valuable reading time.

Despite his reasoned decision, Keith could not stop watching Stevie. The boy slithered from behind the sectional to the Coca Cola refrigerator. Keith recognized the unfolding story: child wants Coke, child is denied Coke by parent, child ignores parent and takes Coke anyway. All salespeople were occupied at the moment. Nobody stood ready to provide welcome and refreshment to a new customer entering the store. Stevie could grab as many Cokes as he wanted.

The story took an unexpected twist. Stevie dashed for the front door and escaped into the world beyond.

Keith felt a jolt of panic as the situation evolved to a new level. By remaining silent, Keith was not just abandoning a cheap fork; he was endangering a child. Abduction was a common occurrence on the nation’s streets. Even if Stevie avoided this fate, he could be struck by a car, or wander off and get lost.

Stevie’s mother was chatting with the saleswoman, who was making funny faces at the baby. Nobody had noticed a small boy’s escape into a dangerous world.

Keith looked out the front window and found Stevie jogging around the edges of the parking lot. The boy was on the far end of the lot when a car pulled out of its space and left.

“What happened to the other guy?”

Keith turned to see a sixtyish, rotund man examining his booted foot. The man wore a charcoal suit and had a nametag pinned to his lapel that read “Ted.”

“It’s nothing like that,” said Keith. “Just bunion surgery.”

Now would be a perfect time for Keith to sound the alarm. He could tell Ted about the wayward child, and Ted could either corral Stevie himself, or alert Stevie’s mother immediately. Keith considered the aftermath of such a decision. The young mother would glare at him with recriminations. Why did he not cry out when he saw a small boy go out the door? Was he such an impotent slug that he could not summon the energy to help a child in danger? Laura would see him in a different light. Could she continue to stay married to a man for whom she had lost all respect?

“I have a friend who used to have a hammer toe,” said Ted. “He could have had surgery and been in one of those boots for like, six weeks.”

Keith concocted a plan. He would wait until Stevie ran right in front of the store. He would pretend to notice Stevie for the first time and urge Ted to act. The young mother would thank him. Laura would grudgingly admit that his powers of observation impressed her.

“So is his toe all better now?” asked Keith, as he watched Stevie round the back corner.

“Well, he’s all better,” said Ted. “He just had it cut off.”
Keith looked at Ted. “What?”

“He had it removed,” said Ted. “He’s only got four toes now.”

Keith imagined having a gaping hole where a toe had once flourished. “The doctor cut it off?”

“Yep,” said Ted, “lopped it right off. The guy’s even got the toe in a jar of formaldehyde at his house.” Ted smiled. Keith could see that the salesman enjoyed telling this story and shocking his listener. Keith did not disappoint him.

“A podiatrist did this?” asked Keith.

“I assume so,” said Ted. “My friend couldn’t afford to take time off of work. It would have taken six to eight weeks to correct it, but by having it removed, he was back to work in two.”

Keith tried to process this information. Three years ago, the dentist had located significant decay in one of his back teeth. She had given Keith the option of having the tooth extracted or doing a root canal. She recommended the root canal. She was always in favor of saving the tooth, but she realized that not everybody could afford that option. Fortunately, Keith had adequate financial means, and today he still had all his teeth.

A toe, though, seemed more significant that a tooth. One toe represented ten percent of a person’s toes. Would a missing toe have a negative effect on a person’s balance? “So does he get around okay?” asked Keith.

“Oh, sure,” said Ted. “He works for UPS, and I see him out and about, zipping around no problem. A couple of months ago he even ran a marathon.”

“I’m glad it all worked out for him,” said Keith.

A young couple walked through the front door. “Take care,” said Ted as he sprung into action.

Having recovered from Ted’s story, Keith looked out the window to locate Stevie.

The boy was gone.

Keith carefully scanned the entire parking lot from one side to another, but no Stevie. Maybe he had tired of his run and was now catching his breath on pristine furniture. Keith searched as much as the store as he could from his chair, but Stevie was nowhere to be seen.

Though Keith never really thought anything bad would happen to Stevie, there was little question that the boy was now gone and that Keith was the only person who knew about it. Stevie’s mother was watching the saleswoman add a leaf to a table. Laura was sitting and looking at catalogs, the last resort of the desperate and frustrated furniture shopper.

“Stevie, get back here right now,” said the young mother. She had finally looked behind her to find Stevie’s chair empty. The voice increased in volume and seriousness. “Steven Andrew Jorgensen, don’t make me come after you.”

Keith knew that this was his moment of truth. He could remain silent. He could pretend to be as concerned and puzzled about Stevie’s disappearance as everybody else. Nobody would think badly of him for reading his book instead of tracking somebody else’s wandering child.

Whenever he saw Stevie’s sweet, smiling face in the local paper or on a piece of bulk mail, though, he would remember what a selfish coward he had been on the day of the boy’s disappearance.

Keith got a taste of the guilt just by thinking about it. He knew that he would not be able to endure this crushing weight.

He gathered his resolve to shout at the top of his lungs. Everybody in the store would flock to the emergency, and he would tell the entire story. He would even admit that he faked an injured foot. He would make himself look like a self-centered idiot, and maybe—just maybe—Stevie could be returned unharmed to his mother’s loving embrace. Keith had read enough thrillers to know that the longer he waited to sound the alarm, the greater the chance that Stevie would never again be seen alive. The press would revile him for his indecision. Laura would either leave him or stick it out in a cold, loveless marriage. Neighbors would throw raw eggs at his front windows. There would still be regret and self-flagellation, but he just might be able to look at his unshaven, haggard face in the mirror every morning.

“Stevie, come here now!” shouted the mother. Keith thought detected a hint of distress in the voice. In the next few minutes, her fear would begin to outweigh her annoyance.

Stevie did not appear.

Keith cleared his throat.

“That’s it, Stevie,” called the mother. “We’re going home and I’m taking away your video games for a week.”

“Hey!” shouted Keith as he raised his hands.

With the baby in one arm, the woman strode past the bedding and walked right up to a white china cabinet that stood along the side wall. She opened the door, reached inside, and pulled Stevie from his hiding place. “When I say come, you need to come,” she said. With a firm grip around Stevie’s upper arm, she marched the boy to the front of the store.

Ted and his new customers were standing by the refrigerator watching the mother approach with her children. “And give the nice man back his fork,” she said. Stevie reached into his pocket, pulled out the utensil, and handed it to Ted. Ted took the fork and, seeing that the mother had her hands full, held the front door open for her. The mother thanked Ted and left.

Laura had heard Keith’s cry and looked up from her catalog. “What?” she mouthed.

Keith pointed outside and placed his head against his folded hands. Laura waved him off and returned to her table search. Then Keith finished his Coke, stood up, and headed back to the car to take a nap.

 

 

 

BIO

Tom MillerTom W. Miller lives an ordinary life yet finds insight and entertainment from his everyday experiences. He has published a previous story in Red Fez and lives in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with his family.

 

 

 

 

0

The Adults

by Paisley Kauffmann

 

It began as it always began. A man was there in the morning calling Joe, buddy or pal. The man would pillage their refrigerator, watch their TV, and shit in their toilet. This man, like the others, was tall and probably considered attractive. He had striking blue eyes with long black eyelashes. This man, like many of the others, bore intricate tattoos detailing the significant detours of his life. This man had a daughter.

On Saturday, Joe woke up early to play video games before his mother would insist on turning the channel to a reality show. He kicked through the clothes on the floor until he found his favorite tee shirt left behind by the last boyfriend and pulled it over his head. Tiptoeing past the shut door of his mother’s bedroom into the small living room, he discovered a small figure covered in a flannel shirt sleeping on the couch. Motionless, he stared at the round cheeks and pink, puckered lips of the intruding, unknown child. With a stab of disappointment, he decided it was a girl. He had wanted a brother. The girl snapped open her lids revealing shimmering blue eyes laced with dark feathery lashes. Joe startled, stepped back, and tripped over a pair of size thirteen leather work boots. The little girl smiled but did not move. Joe held his finger to his lips signaling her to stay quiet. Mimicking him, she held her finger to her lips and then stuck her finger into her nose. Joe rolled his eyes.

He waded through empty cigarette cartons, unpaired shoes, and fast food wrappers to his video game. Jamming the power button in a half dozen times, he shook the black box until it resuscitated. He sat on the floor with his back against the couch and ignored her as she wrapped her fingers around his brown curls. The tickling sensation made him inattentive, and he got decimated by a zombie. He closed his eyes and let her light touch put him into a trance.

“Hey, buddy.” Devon’s voice quaked through the room. “How old are you?”

Joe dropped the controller. “I’m eleven-and-a-half.”

“You ever babysit before?”

“No.”

“Well, then now is a great time to start.” Devon swung the refrigerator door open causing the beer bottles to chime together. “I’ll give you five bucks for the day.”

“Twenty.”

“Twenty!” Devon stopped pilfering the refrigerator. “You just said you ain’t never babysat before and now you want to charge some professional rate.”

Joe remained silent.

“Ten.”

Joe resumed pounding on the red button of the controller blasting away at zombies with his laser beam. He always aimed the crosshairs at their heads because, if he hit them just right, the head exploded into satisfying vivid chunks of skull and brain.

“Jeez, kid. Fine. Fifteen.” Devon stood with his hands on his hips.

Joe nodded slightly without moving his gaze from the screen.

“Great,” Devon said, and stuck his head back into to the refrigerator.

Joe glanced over his shoulder at the girl, but she had cocooned herself under the shirt. Devon pulled out the pizza box, leftovers from dinner, and tossed it on the counter. He grabbed a slice of cold pizza, tore off a bite with his large stained teeth, and wandered back to the bedroom. Joe had planned on eating the pizza for breakfast himself, and he would have eaten it immediately if he had known there was going to be competition. The last man, with the cool tee shirts, never ate breakfast. The last man hardly ate anything, only drank. Joe focused on smashing zombie heads and ignored his growling stomach. Devon, barking obscenities, returned to the kitchen and folded the last two pieces of pizza together. He worked his feet inside his leather boots and held the pizza in his teeth while he tied the laces. Devon strode through the apartment searching, first, for a clean shirt and then his car keys.

“Where the fuck are my keys?” Devon said.

Joe’s mother, succumbing to Devon’s tirade, dragged herself from the bedroom into the living room and said, “Well, where’d you put them?”

“If I knew that, Amber, they wouldn’t be lost, would they now?”

“Joe, sweetie?” Amber asked, pressing her thumb and forefinger into the corners of her eyes. “Have you seen Devon’s keys?”

“No,” Joe said. He knew where they were, but he was disinclined to make Devon’s day any easier.

The two adults stomped around the apartment cursing blame at each other about the mess. They took turns banging around the kitchen and shuffling through the shirts and jackets flung on chairs.

“Get up,” Devon said to the red flannel shirt.

The flannel shirt remained still.

“Get. Up.” Devon snatched the shirt off the girl.

With her body curled into a knot, her face was tucked into her knees.

Devon swung the girl off the couch by her arm, and she landed on the matted carpet with a thump. He jabbed his hands between the cushions around Joe, who had no intention of moving.

“Devon. Calm down,” Amber said.

“What’d you just say to me?”

“Look,” she said, pointing at the sliding glass door. “There they are.”

“Where? Outside?” Devon stopped molesting the couch and stood.

“They’re on the ledge of the railing.”

Joe was disappointed in the rapid resolution of Devon’s frustration. Last night, Joe had watched Devon step outside and set his keys down while he lit his cigarette. After Devon flicked his butt from their third floor balcony, which was against Ridgeview Terrace’s policy and could incur a fine, he came inside—forgetting his keys. Joe considered giving them a little push, but Devon was new and his volatility was still unpredictable. After more hustle punctuated with a few sharp words, Devon stormed out slamming the door behind him. His mother flinched, sighed, and turned to Joe, but he ignored her and focused on killing zombies.

In the kitchen, Amber started the coffeemaker and crushed beer cans. The little girl picked up the red flannel and climbed back onto the couch. Waiting for the coffee to percolate, Amber shuffled into the living room and sat cockeyed on the ottoman with a missing wheel. “So, did you meet Mia?”

“Yep.”

“She’s Devon’s daughter, or one of them. He’s got four all together. Three from his ex-wife and this one here from his last girlfriend, who, like a total idiot, got arrested last night trying to buy dope from an undercover,” she said with perverse satisfaction.

“Sounds like you’re babysitting today,” she added.

“I guess.”

“Thanks, because I got to run some errands.”

Amber poured her coffee and sat on the balcony ledge to have her morning blast of caffeine and nicotine to get things moving.

Joe paused his game and turned to look at Mia. She smiled at him with a toothless grin. He snarled at her and she buried her face in the cushion.

Amber, with her platinum blond hair piled into a mess on the top of her head, shoved her cigarettes and phone in her purse. She applied a thick layer of pink lip gloss, and said, “I’ll be back in a few hours,” Amber scrutinized Mia like she was another stain on the carpet, “Keep her out of the bedrooms, she seems kind of dirty.”

“I’m not giving her a bath,” Joe said.

“I know, just keep her out here.”

Joe nodded.

Hungry, Joe paused his game and went into the kitchen. Mia slid off the couch and followed him. Joe opened the refrigerator and searched through the condiments and beer. He found a half package of bologna. He peeled a round slice from the stack, folded it into fourths, and stuck it in his mouth. Mia watched him cram a second slice in with the first. With both cheeks filled with processed pork, he chewed with his mouth open. Mia’s eyes followed his hand as he pulled a third moist piece from the package. He held it up and, like a hypnotist, swung the slice back and forth. Her eyes remained fixed to it. Joe let go, and it hit the floor with a smack. Lunging after it, Mia shoved the bologna in her mouth with both hands swallowing most of it without chewing. Disgusted and bewildered, Joe held out another piece. She froze, waiting for him to release it. He tossed the meat behind her and, again, she scrambled after it. Joe continued to toss Mia bologna until the package was gone. Opening and slamming cupboards, he searched for something else to feed her to continue this fascinating game but was interrupted by a knock at the door. Mia’s eyes grew wide and she covered her mouth. Behind the door, Joe found his buddy Brock with a black eye and a red scooter.

“What happened?” Joe asked.

“Mateo’s older brother found me in their garage.” Brock gasped for air. “I wasn’t going to take anything, but he punched me any ways.”

“Where’d you get the scooter?”

“From Mateo’s garage, but only after he punched me. I better bring it in before he sees me.”

Joe held the door, and Brock rolled the squeaky scooter into the apartment. There was a socioeconomic distinction created by apartment residents with garages and apartment residents without garages.

“Who’s that?” Brock asked.

Mia, covered in a golden powder, peeked out from the kitchen.

“Mia,” Joe said. “Her mom’s in jail.”

“What’s on her face?”

Joe shrugged and led them into the kitchen.

Mia held a box of yellow cake mix, ripped opened and half spilled on the floor.

“What are you doing?” Joe asked.

Mia raised her brows and sucked in her lips.

“Gross. She’s eating cake mix,” Joe said. “Should I take it away from her?”

“I don’t know. What’s the difference if you eat it that way or cooked?”

The boys watched Mia shove fistfuls of cake mix into her mouth and chew it into batter, nearly choking with each swallow. As Mia, surrounded by a halo of yellow powder, finished the last of the mix, the boys lost interest and turned their attention to the video game. Stuffed with bologna and cake batter, Mia wrapped herself in the red flannel and dozed on the couch.

Amber returned with a twenty-four pack of Bud Light. She struggled to slide the case over the threshold into the apartment.

“Hi, Amber,” Brock said, craning his neck in her direction.

“Boys?” Amber dropped her purse on the floor. “A little help?”

Brock tossed the controller and jumped up. Reluctantly, Joe paused their game and rose from the floor. Each boy took one side of the box and carried it into the kitchen. Brock let go of his side and the beer bottles concussed together.

“Careful, jeez. Hey, what is this powder everywhere?” Amber gestured to the yellow ring on the kitchen floor.

“Cake mix,” Joe said.

“Why is it all over the floor?”

“Ask her.” Joe jutted his chin towards Mia.

With cake batter encrusted around her mouth, Mia watched solemnly as Amber groaned and said, “I was going to make you a cake for your birthday.”

“Like over a year ago.”

“I just bought that.”

“No, you didn’t,” Joe said. “You were going to make it for my tenth birthday and I’m eleven and a half.”

Amber did not argue. She yanked open the sliding glass door, slammed it shut behind her, and lit a cigarette. Joe glanced at Mia, and she stared back without expression. He smiled at Mia, not to comfort her, but because he relished the irritation she caused his mother.

“Let’s go,” Joe said to Brock.

Mia followed the boys as they worked on getting the scooter through the doorway.

“She coming with us?” Brock asked Joe, heading down the hall with Mia jogging to stay on their heels.

“Yep.”

“Watch out for Mateo and his brothers,” Brock said. Peeking around the edge of the trailer, Joe watched flashing vehicles fill the parking lot.

“You can’t hide from them forever. You might as well give it back. It’s a piece of shit any ways.”

“It works fine. It’s just a little wobbly.”

In the elevator, Mia picked at the dried cake mix around her mouth.

“Does she talk?” Brock asked. “My little sister talks all the time. I mean, like, all the time, even when she’s alone in her room all by herself. Why doesn’t she have any teeth?”

“I don’t know. I think there’s something wrong with her.”

“Why is her mom in jail?”

“Drugs.”

“Mateo’s mom is in jail too.” Brock rolled the scooter back and forth. “I wonder if they’ll see each other.”

The elevator doors opened and Brock glanced around cautiously before dragging the scooter out. Brock held the front door of the building open and all three stepped out squinting under the bright sun.

Someone shouted, “Get ‘em.”

Joe and Brock broke out into a run. Mia put her hands over her mouth.

“Come on,” Joe yelled at her. Mia looked behind her at the three boys bolting across the parking lot, dodging around cars, towards them. She started to run. Although struggling against the scooter squeaking in tempo with his speed, Brock raced ahead and around the back of the apartment building. Joe cut around the corner, he found Brock lifting the scooter above his head to drop into the dumpster.

“Help me,” Brock said, over his shoulder.

Joe grabbed the handle bars and shoved, and the scooter disappeared over the edge.

Occupying the bottom of the growth chart for eleven-year-old boys at four-foot-one, Brock said, “Now me, push me over.”

Joe linked his fingers together and lobbed Brock into the dumpster. Mia, with bright and wild eyes, barreled towards him as fast as her short legs would take her.

“Come on,” Joe said. “Brock, help me get her over.”

Joe lifted Mia up to Brock and, ungracefully, the two of them fell into the metal box of garbage. Joe climbed the side and jumped in just as the three brothers cleared the corner. Crouched around trash bags and cardboard boxes, the three kids listened to Mateo and his brothers pound by in a flurry of gasping breaths.

“Maybe those idiots will keep running all the way to Iowa,” Brock said.

“They’re a bunch of inbreeds,” Joe said.

“Kinda like this one here.” Brock raised his brows at Mia.

“No shit.”

“Sh.” Brock held up his hand. “I hear them coming back.”

Mia covered her mouth with both fists. The boys’ sneakers slapped against the asphalt around them.

“Hey,” one of the boys shouted. “Look in there.”

“Shit,” Brock said under his breath.

Mia pulled a pink lighter from the pocket of her denim shorts. With both thumbs on the striker wheel, she ignited the lighter. She held down the fuel lever with her thumb and finger and reached for a paper towel tube.

Joe and Brock watched Mia hold the cardboard over the flame. The dry paper flickered and a thin black line of smoke danced wildly, distorting Mia’s face. She waved her wrist back and forth antagonizing the fire.

Mateo and his brothers clambered up the side of the dumpster and yelled, “Gotcha, motherfuckers.”

Joe and Brock kept their eyes stitched to the little fire-starter. She tossed the burning paper tube into the center of the dumpster. All five boys held their breath as the fire leapt across the top of the rubbish.

“Shit,” Brock yelled, moving to escape the sudden heat.

Mateo’s oldest brother yanked Brock out by an arm and a leg.

“Come on,” the other brother screamed at Joe. “Get outta there.”

Joe grasped Mia’s arm. She allowed them to push and pull her limp body out of the dumpster. The flames grew exponentially, rapidly oxidizing the refuse. Joe threw himself over the lip.

Surrounding the dumpster with the blaze reflecting in their eyes, the six children forgot the red scooter feud. The roar of the fire and crackling of plastic, wood, and paper masked the wailing sirens.

“Run,” one of the boys yelled, breaking the through the moment of catatonia, and the kids scattered.

Joe ran away from the burning dumpster and the screaming fire trucks. Sprinting through a small line of trees into the neighboring trailer park, he zig-zagged between mobile homes jumping over yard gnomes and tipped tricycles. He concealed himself between two homes to catch his breath and swallowed against the burning in the back of his throat. As the beat of his heart slowed, his skin began to throb. He twisted his leg around to examine his calf, it was shiny and pink akin to a severe sunburn. Peeking around the edge of the trailer, flashing vehicles filled the parking lot. A commotion of urgent voices and the powerful spray of the water ringing and hissing against the metal dumpster replaced the rage of the fire.

“Mia?” He called out around the other end of the trailer. Weaving through the rows, he ducked behind a tree as a squad car cruised by. He spotted Mia down the hill, naked and pale, standing at the edge of what was generously referred to as the pond of Ridgeview Terrace. Over time, the parking lot run-off water, trapped by cardboard boxes and discarded furniture clogged sewer, created a permanent body of brown, stagnant water.

Joe held tight, rocking foot to foot, waiting for the cop to make a second pass around the lot. Mia bent her knees, swung her arms, and jumped off the edge of the grass into the dirty water.

“Shit.” He ran for it. He imagined pulling Mia’s gray, lifeless body from under the oily black surface and willed his legs to fly down the hill. Splashing into the water, he dropped to his knees and frantically reached around on the slimy bottom. His hands battered against cans and broken glass before he mercifully connected with a warm, soft extremity. He wrenched Mia through the obstinate, dark resistance. As her face broke the surface, her eyes were open wide and she smiled exposing her toothless gums. Her blond hair was plastered across her brow. She coughed streams of colloid water from her mouth and nostrils.

“Jesus,” he yelled at her. “Jesus!”

She flinched between coughs and gasps.

“Don’t do that,” he yelled, tightening his grip on her soft arm. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Clumsily, Joe rose to his feet keeping Mia’s head above the water. Holding her under her arms, he staggered towards the edge. He set her down in the grass, dropped down next to her with his elbows on his knees, and wiped the acrid water out of his eyes. She moved closer to him and began to shiver.

“Here.” He reached over and collected her jean shorts and tee shirt. “Put these back on.”

Mia did as she was told and, between intermittent coughs, she delicately manipulated her shirt until it was right-side-out. A curtain of clouds lifted and the sun exposed rainbow shades of bruising on her back and arms. Faded green bruises ringed with a shades of yellow contrasted against the fierce blue and purple bruises. On her head, dark-pigmented lumps shadowed through her wet hair.

Joe raked his fingers through his wet curls. “Why are you even here?”

Mia pulled a fistful of grass out from around her. She examined the smooth green blades before putting them in her mouth.

“Stop. Don’t eat grass. Come on.” Joe stood and lifted Mia into his arms. She was weightless and soft. Wrapping her legs around his waist, she rested her cheek on his shoulder. Joe climbed up the hill, scanned for squad cars, and crossed the parking lot towards the apartment building. The air was sour with the scent of burning refuse.

“Mom?” Joe said, entering the apartment.

There was no answer.

Joe pried Mia off of him and set her down on the kitchen floor. He poured Lucky Charms into a bowl and handed it to her. Lifting the bowl to her lips, she filled her mouth and spilled toasted oats and rainbow-colored marshmallows around her. She plucked cereal off the floor and pressed them through her rosebud lips adding them to her full cheeks. Joe hopped up on the counter, poured himself a bowl, leaned over to the sink and added water. He had long ago forgotten about milk.

The door opened and slammed shut, and Brock raced into the kitchen. His chin was scuffed red against his brown skin. “Can you believe that?” Brock said. “That fire was huge. The cops are everywhere and, lucky for me, they grabbed Mateo’s brother just as he was dragging me out from under a car by my foot.” He held up his scraped palms. “They think he started the fire since he’s already got a record. Is my chin bleeding? It hurts. Can I have some cereal?”

Joe pushed the box of Lucky Charms across the counter.

“Will you pour her some more?” Joe asked Brock. Mia’s eyes had been boring into him since she finished her last marshmallow.

Brock squatted next to where Mia sat on the floor and refilled her bowl. Mia set the bowl on the floor and sifted through the cereal with her fingers.

Brock selected a bowl and spoon from the pile of dirty dishes in the sink. He shook cereal into the bowl, added water, and crammed three spoonfuls of cereal into his mouth. Spitting out cereal, he said, “I had to hide under that car for like an hour. The cops were all over the place. Did you see the size of that fire? We could have burned to death, like dead-dead. She’s crazy. She’s done that before, I betcha.”

Joe watched Mia organize her yellow stars, pink hearts, and purple horseshoes into discrete piles, and eat the blue moons.

“Why are you guys all wet?” Brock asked.

“She decided to go for a swim in the pond, but she can’t swim,” Joe said.

“Gross.”

“Pretty much.”

“Mateo dared me to take a sip of that water once. I said, hell no, but Jackson did it for a cigarette. He ended in the hospital because of it. Remember that? They took his appendix or something out.”

Amber opened the door and stomped into the kitchen. “Have you seen Devon?” She was crying.

“No,” Joe said.

“Hi, Amber,” Brock said, wiping his mouth and smiling at her with gaped teeth.

She glanced at Brock and Mia and turned her attention back to Joe. “He’s not at work. I just went by the construction site and the guys said some woman picked him up. Really, Devon? Really? He’s nowhere to be found and I’m stuck with her,” Amber said, pointing at Mia. “Seriously, this can’t be happening.”

“Did you try calling him?” Joe asked, tilting his bowl to gather the last few bites of cereal.

“Of course, I’ve tried calling him like a hundred times.” Amber wiped her cheek with her sleeve.

There was a change, like a tectonic shift, and Joe set his bowl in the sink. The scent of the fire was replaced by ripe smell of the clogged sink. He noticed his mother’s pink tracksuit stretching across her hips and her stomach pooching over the top of the elastic waistband. Rhinestones missing from both shoulder embellishments created PacMans from the peace signs. “Sorry, Mom,” Joe said absently, examining the newly chiseled lines across her forehead and etched around her eyes.

She stepped back seemingly conscious of his scrutiny.

Brock shook the last of the cereal into his bowl, and said, “Don’t worry, Amber, he’ll probably show up later. He’d be an idiot to leave someone as pretty as you.”

“Well, that cheating son-of-bitch better not show his face around here and she’s definitely not staying here,” Amber said, grabbing at her over-sized imitation purse and rifling around until she fished out her menthol cigarettes. She stuck one between her glossy lips and searched her purse. “Where’s my lighter?”

Brock choked on his Lucky Charms and Joe shot him a look. Amber rummaged through the drawers until she found matches. Standing on the balcony threshold with the door open, she lit a cigarette, and thought out loud, “We’ll drive her over to her mom’s house.”

“I thought her mom was in jail?” Brock said. “For drugs? Right, Joe?”

“She’s got a few other kids.” Amber flicked her cigarette ash over the edge. “Someone must be there looking after them.”

Amber led the mission to her Buick Sedan followed by Joe, Brock, and Mia. Amber still referred to the Buick as Grandma’s car because it was handed down to her after her grandmother died six years ago. Amber’s parents signed the title over to her believing her lack of transportation was holding her back, when they still had hope for her future, but now Joe reads the disappointment on their faces at every Christmas Eve dinner.

“Joe, will you sit in the back with her and keep her down?” Amber asked, unlocking the door with the key. “I’m not getting a ticket, because of her and that carseat law.”

Brock’s face lit up. “I’ll sit in front with you.”

Joe opened the door, but Mia made no move to get in the back seat .

“Come on,” Joe said, gesturing into the vehicle.

Mia remained still.

Amber turned around from the driver’s seat. “What now?”

“Nothing,” Joe said, and held out his hand to Mia.

Mia placed her hand in Joe’s palm and he guided her into the backseat. He climbed in next to her, and Mia scooted closer to him pressing her entire leg next to his thigh. He wanted to move away, but her warm skin exerted an irresistible gravitational pull. She seemed even smaller and more vulnerable in the expanse of the back seat. Amber, as always, drove while she texted and made calls.

“Call Rebecca,” Amber robotically demanded of her phone. “Mobile.”

Amber bitched to Rebecca about Devon’s lies and his miserable, creepy daughter. The conversation with Rebecca, including details of her intimacies with Devon, enthralled Brock. Brock listened and nodded along sympathetically as if Amber was having an exclusive conversation with only him. Mia strained her neck to look out the back window.

“Keep her down,” Amber said to Joe through the rearview mirror.

Joe amused Mia with illusions of removing his fingers at the knuckle and pulling a quarter he found on the floor out of her ear. Tricks he had acquired over the years from a variety of men instructed to entertain him.

Amber pulled the Buick in front of a tired two-story house with chipped yellow paint, and rebounded off the curb twice before she shifted the vehicle in park. Into her phone, she said, “I gotta go. I’m here.”

“Come on,” she said to Mia. “Out of the car.”

Mia squeezed against Joe.

Amber yanked open the back door. “Come on. Move it.”

Mia made no move to exit, and Amber said, “Joe, can you help me out here?”

Joe lifted Mia onto his lap and maneuvered out of the back seat. Mia wriggled herself around and clung onto him. “I’ll come with,” he said.

Amber and Joe, with Mia wrapped around him, walked up the weed-riddled sidewalk and cement steps. The ripped screen door was open about an inch.

Amber knocked on the wood frame and it banged against the jamb. “Hello?” she yelled into the house with urgency.

A child with a blond afro wearing purple corduroy coveralls appeared in the doorway. He or she carried a sippy cup upside down.

“Is your mama here?” Amber asked.

The blinking child did not move, but the cup steadily dripped onto the floor.

“Hello?” Amber tried again louder. “Anyone home?”

“Coming,” a voice returned. “Hold your horses, I’m coming.”

Mia pulled her face from Joe’s shoulder and turned towards the voice resonating from inside the house. A heavyset black woman with gray hair pulled into a tight bun came to the door. She squinted at Amber, and when she saw Mia, she held her hands up and said, “Oh no. That one is not mine. No way, uh uh.”

“But she—“

“Hi, sweetheart,” the woman addressed Mia before she continued her protests against Amber. “I said, no.”

“But she’s the sister, or at least half-sister, of that one,” Amber said, pointing down at the amber-eyed child smiling at Mia.

“I’m looking after mine, and that one is not mine,” the woman said, nodding and winking at Mia. “I’m sorry, but I gots my hands full with the three boys here.”

“That one is not mine,” Amber said, thumbing at Brock’s brown face watching from the passenger seat of the Buick. “But I’m looking after him.”

“That’s your own business.”

“This one belongs here. This is her mama’s house,” Amber said, and tried to pull Mia off of Joe.

“Girl, if you put that child down, I will open this door and come outside, and you do not want me to open this door and come outside. This here is my house. Her mama is not coming back for a long while this time, and that little girl got her own daddy to look after her.”

Amber stopped yanking on Mia and turned back towards the formidable woman behind the screen. “Well, he’s gone off with somebody else. What am I supposed to do with her?”

“I don’t know, but she is not coming back into this house. I got three grandbabies of my own in here and I am too old to keep up with them as it is.”

Amber rubbed her forehead with the heels of her hands and groaned before marching back towards the car.

The woman smiled sympathetically at Joe and said, “I’m real sorry I can’t help ya’ll.”

Joe shrugged and said, “Have a good day.”

“You too, son.”

Joe followed his mother back to the Buick. From the corner of his eye, he saw Mia waving with her fingers at the woman and child in the house. Joe climbed in the back with Mia while Amber stood outside the car smoking, pacing, and yelling into her phone.

“So?” Brock asked.

“She’s not staying here anymore. I guess this is the wrong grandma,” Joe said.

“Aliyah’s grandma and grandpa don’t like me much either,” Brock offered, referring to his half-sister’s father’s parents. “They spoil her rotten. That’s why she’s such a brat.”

Amber threw her cigarette butt into the woman’s yard. She got into the car, and said, “I have an idea.” She held up her phone as the British-accented automated voice asked how it could help her, and, she answered, “Directions to the nearest daycare.”

The phone instructed her to take a few left turns and then a few right turns until they arrived in front a beige rambler with a homemade sign in the front yard incorrectly spelling out, Lisenced Daycare.

“What’s your plan?” Joe asked. “Just drop her off?”

“Exactly. Let them figure out what to do with her,” Amber said. “Come on.”

“Want me to do anything, Amber?” Brock asked.

“No.” Amber scrambled out of the car. “Stay here.”

Amber jogged up the front sidewalk. Joe followed with Mia wrapped around his neck.

Amber rang the doorbell, a dog barked, and she said, “Follow my lead.”

Only a few seconds passed before Amber rung the bell again.

“Jesus, mom.”

“What?”

The door opened and a woman, surrounded by six children of varying heights, wiping her hands on a dishtowel, asked, “Yeah?”

“Good afternoon,” Amber said over the agitated beagle. “I’m looking for a quality daycare for my daughter.”

“Oh, I can’t. I’m at the maximum right now.”

“The sign in your yard led me to believe that you are available to care for children.”

The woman’s gaze moved past Amber towards the sign as if she was surprised it was still there.

“So, can you take her?”

“I’m sorry,” the woman backed up and started to close the door.

“Wait,” Amber said. “Please, if you could just make an exception for today, I’ll pick her up in a few hours.” Amber started to cry. “It’s just that my mother’s in the hospital and they won’t let children under ten-years-old into the intensive care unit.”

The woman eyed Joe who turned away in humiliation over his mother’s histrionics.

“Listen, I’ve got a family to feed and can’t afford to lose my business. I don’t know what you’re up too, but if you don’t get off my property, I’ll call the police,” the woman said, and herded the children behind her before she closed the door and clicked the chain into place.

“What the fuck?” Amber yelled and kicked the door with her pink sequined flip-flop. “What kind of bullshit place are you operating here? Goddammit, I broke my toe.”

“Come on, mom,” Joe said, and walked back towards the Buick.

Amber, shedding genuine tears, limped across the yard towards the misspelled sign. Pulling the wooden sign from the ground, she curb stomped it into pieces.

“Brock, roll up the windows.” Joe said, climbing into the back seat with Mia. “I hate when she gets like this.”

“I can’t. The car isn’t on,” Brock said.

“Turn it on.”

“I can’t. I don’t have a driver’s license.”

“You don’t need a driver’s license to start the car to roll up the windows.”

“Yes, I think you do.”

“Forget it.”

“Here comes a cop,” Brock said, looking over Joe out the back window.

Joe stuck his head out the window and yelled, “Mom! Cops!”

Amber kicked the remains of the broken sign into the street and hobbled to the car. She jumped in the front seat, pumped the accelerator three times, and cranked the ignition. The old Buick revved to life. Slamming the transmission into drive, she sprayed gravel peeling away from the daycare.

“That was close,” she said, eying her rearview mirror and speedometer. “Keep her down.”

“She’s on the floor,” Joe said.

“Great, keep her there.”

The sun inched towards the horizon and graduated from yellow to orange. Brock lowered the visor to block the sun and inspected his raw chin in the mirror. Amber, winding and unwinding a loose strand of hair around her finger, drove in silence, before she gripped the wheel, pressed down on the accelerator, and said, “Let’s stop at the grocery store.”

They pulled into a parking lot of a large grocery store chain and walked in under the scrutiny of the fluorescent lights. The air conditioned store caused Joe’s skin to goose bump, irritating his burned calves. Amber yanked a cart free from the corral. The kids followed her as she limped up and down the aisles thoughtlessly added items. Mia picked up a four-pack of Jello cups and glanced at Amber for approval. Receiving no acknowledgment, she pressed the package to her chest before placing it back on the shelf. Brock slipped a Hershey’s Chocolate Bar into his waist band. They meandered down an aisle with a small section of dog and cat supplies. A basket filled with plush toys for dogs distracted Mia. Picking through the basket, she hugged a pink fuzzy pig to her chest. She grabbed a squeaky frog, chirped it repeatedly, and held it up for Joe to see. He nodded.

“Pick out your favorite one, honey,” Amber said.

Mia grinned a gummy smile at Amber. She stuck her arms deep into the basket and scooped dog toys onto the epoxy floor. Beginning a system of sorting, Mia assessed one toy at a time before setting it in a pile designated by color. Amber released the cart, stepped back, and whispered, “Okay, let’s go.”

“Mom?” Joe said, holding his palms out helplessly.

“Come on,” Amber said. “These stores have protocols to deal with missing kids.”

Joe choked for air.

Amber took Brock’s hand, walked away from Mia, and looked back over her shoulder at Joe and said, “Come on.”

“Mom? You’re going to dump her here? Alone?” Joe asked, his voice cracking into a higher octave.

Amber turned away and pulled Brock along with her.

Despite his protests, his feet obediently followed his mother down the aisle. Trailing behind her, he scowled at his mother’s frizzy bleached hair and the way she walked on the insides of her cracked heels. He flinched with each slap of her glittery flip flops.

Joe walked out of the grocery store without Mia. For the rest of Joe’s life, he was haunted by the voice of the silent little girl.

 

 

BIO

paisley kauffmannPaisley Kauffmann lives and writes in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Life provides her with millions of bits and pieces to stitch together into stories. Her short stories have been published in The Talking Stick and The Birds We Piled Loosely. She writes with one of two pugs in her lap and receives gracious feedback from her husband. The Loft Literary Center, the Minnesota writing community, and her writing group support and fuel her motivation.

 

 

 

 

 

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