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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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Obligatory Silence

by Claire Tollefsrud

 

 

“Do you play any instruments?” For some reason people always ask that question.

You want to tell the truth: “Yes, I used to.”

But then they ask, “Which one?”

“The piano.”

“That’s a great instrument,” they say. “Why did you stop?”

They wait expectantly, wanting an easy answer, a normal answer. But you’re tired of lying to stay comfortable.

“My older brother was studying piano in college,” you say.

And if they know anything about your family they’ll shut up real fast. The blood will drain from their face and they’ll quickly change the subject, or leave, or say something stupid like, “I’m sorry.”

Not their fault. You wish it were, though, so you could be mad at someone.

Instead, when people ask, “Do you play any instruments,” you say, “no.”

Then you go to the empty, quiet room in your house, where the picture frames have started gathering dust. You sit on the bench in front of the grand piano and let your fingers brush the keys, rifle through the yellowing sheet music. One day, you tell yourself, you’ll play again. Start with one song, something slow and easy, and then work your way back up to harder stuff. Feel that love of music again.

Yes, one day you’ll do that. Not today though. Not today.

 

 

BIO

Claire TollefsrudClaire Tollefsrud is an undergraduate student working on a double major in Psychology and Creative Writing. Storytelling has always been a passion of hers. She also enjoys Tae Kwon Do, singing, and going on small, everyday adventures.

 

 

 

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Bethany Pope

A Pretty Smile

by Bethany Pope

 

I didn’t have enough money for a full set of dentures and the county dentist only accepted cash in hand (he said on the phone that he’d gotten sick of chasin’ down late payments), so I had to settle for a bridge. Luckily, I still had a couple of eye teeth to hook the new fronts onto.

I’d been fired from my job at Kash’N’Kary last week (after Bobby got through with me) and if you’ve never had to seek employment while your smile shows the gum where there should be incisors you can count yourself lucky. People look at you like you was somethin’ scraped off the bottom of their shoes if your cheeks get hollow.

I think it’s because people think that poverty is contagious, somehow, and not a sickness that you can’t help, either. It’s treated more like the clap than the flu. Something a better person could avoid, or at least treat with enough willpower and effort.

Anyway, there I was with the choice of gettin’ the water turned back on or financing a new smile, and out of things to sell after I stuck the ‘For Sale’ sign in the cracked windshield of my shitty, rusted out Volkswagen. I paid the phone bill, though. Good luck gettin’ a job if the boss can’t call you. One of my neighbours let me draw a plastic gallon jug of water from her garden hose and I gave myself a cat-bath by pouring about two cups of it onto a dish and scrubbing my armpits with salt. It burned, but it worked. Hell, I don’t mind. My granny cleaned herself like this every day of her life, even when she had soap.

When I was dry, I put on my best Goodwill clothes and walked two miles to the bus stop.

According to the sign, a bus came out here once every two hours. When I finally find another job I’m going to have to plan accordingly. It’s going to be one hell of a commute into Palmetto.

If I could live closer without losin’ granny’s house, I would. It’s just four white-painted wood walls standing on cinderblocks, just three rooms with a leaky roof settin’ on a postage-stamp, but it’s all my family ever had. I got to hold onto it for the sake of my blood.

By the time I made it to the bus stop my ratty old pump-tongued Reeboks were stained gray with the dust and so was the bluejean hem of my dress. I stood there for about an hour, leanin’ against the trunk of a Queen Anne palmtree and smellin’ the sweat-stink rising up from my crotch, before the bus finally pulled up. I slid my quarters into the slot by the driver and settled myself down in the near-empty back row.

The ride wasn’t too bad. I’ve always liked looking out of windows and if you’re a good driver you don’t get the chance to do that very often, unless you got someone drivin’ for you and in that case you’ve got to pay attention to him unless you want to make your honey angry.

We passed the orange groves, those long hollow-eyed trailers they keep the migrant workers in, passed the Tropicana orange juice plant, then the Esso gas station that gave away free coffee two years ago, one paper cup per person, per day, the whole first week it was open. I watched the country degrade into township and I felt somethin’ steel slide into me, somethin’ cold and hard settling into my guts the same way it always does when I cross that border.

I could hear my granny, loud as life, talkin’ to me inside of my head. She said, “Such a shame, Norma. When I was a chile we took care of ourselves. We grew cane and tobacco which we traded for supplies at at the Post. My daddy went out huntin’ and brought home braces of opossums and gators, sometimes he’d catch a rafter of turkeys or even a deer. We didn’t have much, but we took care of ourselves. Now you got to go out there and be a shame to the family. I bet you’ve even forgotten how good a hot, fatty biscuit tastes, or how to make a mess of grits into something edible. If it were my day you’d be married to someone steady. You might have been beat some, but you’d have kept your teeth until you’d birthed a baby or two…”

I turned her off then. That’s the nice thing about the dead. If it’s daytime, and you’re in public, you can shut them off like radio.

Anyway, the bus was filling up fast. There were a lot of black people, more Mexicans, and one or two white faces sticking out like the pale grains in a jar of crushed pepper. I didn’t talk to any of them. Weren’t none of them my kind. But lookin’ at them was enough to serve as a distraction.

I got off three stops from the station and walked the mile into the office of the only local dentist who will take a body without any insurance. It was a cinderblock box, painted with a coat of white that glittered in the sun, peppered with specks of mica. There were some purple wanderin’ Jew plants growin’ by the doorway, and a mummified brown lizard stuck in the corner of the door, caught and flattened between the wall and the hinges.

The receptionist was a heavy blond lady with a set of long, purple acrylic fingernails who looked up and glowered at me so hard from behind her linoleum counter that I felt self conscious at myself and smiled at her. The shocked look on her face soothed the embarrassment I felt at forgettin’ again about the state of my mouth.

I filled in the paperwork, laid my greasy stack of cash by her fat, freckled paw, and sat in the single white-plastic lawn chair decoratin’ the waiting room.

Eventually, the dentist called me into his office. I sat down in the brown reclinin’ chair (it was patched with silver strips of duct tape) while he reached in with ungloved hands and measured my mouth. I felt him palpating my eye-teeth (they wouldn’t move, no matter how hard he wiggled them) and then he did the same with my molars and frowned, sayin’, “Miss Nelson, these back ones are going. You sure you can’t scrape up another two-hundred? You’d be better off if I just pulled them right out and fit a plate in there. You’re getting a used bridge anyway, and a lot of people come to this state to die off. I could get you a fine set for a total of seven-hundred dollars.”

Dr Bronson pulled his fingers out of my mouth, wiping my saliva off on the collar of my dress. I answered him, “I already sold my car to get these-uns. I can’t raise no more until I find myself a job.”

The dentist turned away from me, arranging a selection of ivory-coloured teeth onto his rust-speckled tray. He spoke as he tried them, one by one, against the width of my mouth, “All right. I know how that is.”

I felt a click in my mouth, and Dr Bronson smiled, “Yep. That’ll do nicely.” He winked at me, sliding one thick lid over a rheumy brown eye, “The undertaker sold me this one just yesterday. Lucky for you that old man bought it, or you’d be out of luck. All the others were too small. You’ve got a mouth like a man, practically.”

He held up a blue-plastic hand mirror and I saw my face in it. The dentures were huge, and coffee-stained. They looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in a while. But at least they looked natural. I told the dentist, ‘Thanks’ and resolved to give them a good bleach scrubbing as soon as I could get Miss Ginny to lend me a capfull.

Dr Bronson stuck his hand out and I shook it. He said, “Tell you what. You use these teeth for now but don’t damage them. When you’ve got the extra money saved up I’ll take them back and get you some real dentures. I can always resell these to somebody else.”

I thanked him kindly for that, and told him to plan on seeing me again in three or four months. Then I walked back out into the swelterin’ sunlight and started making my round of Dollar Stores and Cost-Cutters. I had about four hours before the last bus back home and I meant to spend as much time as I could filling out applications.

BIO

Bethany PopeBethany W. Pope is an award-winning writer. She received her PhD from Aberystwyth University’s Creative Writing program, and her MA from the University of Wales Trinity St David. She has published several collections of poetry: A Radiance (Cultured Llama, 2012) Crown of Thorns,(Oneiros Books, 2013), The Gospel of Flies (Writing Knights Press 2014), and Undisturbed Circles(Lapwing, 2014). Her collection The Rag and Boneyard, shall be published soon by Indigo Dreams and her chapbook Among The White Roots Will be released by Three Drops Press next autumn. Her first novel, Masque, shall be published by Seren in 2016.

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i, Clouded

by T.E. Winningham

 

Pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping;
good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities.
On errands of life, these letters speed to death.
– Herman Melville

 

 

The Company put us way out in the frigging sticks, tripled-up in the cheapest ratty room nowhere near the campus, off the wrong expressway even, in these cornfields stretching must be hundreds of miles in every direction. Nick, Tracy, and me. Checking into the motel we could see it, the campus, standing up from the flat horizon the way state universities make bubbles out of the void like sealed ecosystems. Standing there with shirttails flapping in the wind, a nervous twitch started in my eyelid waiting for the GPS to find us, shock and horror settled in my stomach when it gave up. Walked across the gravel lot in the heat, from the motel to the dust caked gas station where the greasy-fingernailed attendant sold me an actual—never to be folded correctly back to its original shape—paper roadmap. In the room we sat around it at the table in Nick’s cigarette smoke and stale lamplight, marking in pencil. The route of county roads leading from our We Are Here dot to the We Need to Get Here Every Damned Morning dot traced the shape of a lost Tetris game. Then we turned off the lamp and lay listening to flies trapped between the window and screen, stripped down to underwear and sweating, thinking this is only April.

The library sat square in the center of campus, towering over the stone-columned museumesque buildings and surrounding lawns. Students on foot and bicycle made a kind of swirling vortex around it, a hurricane’s empty center. The first morning we introduced ourselves to the head reference librarian, a small woman with a thick Slovenian accent and papers prepared for us. Call numbers by floor, tutorials for the online card catalogue. Unexpected, really, as this was merely a formality but nevertheless she led us under the arched marble and stained glass of the lobby to an echo chamber of a vacant reading room and sat us down at the first of the long mahogany tables. “You will find the book stack very well ordered,” she said, passing out the stapled pages. “In spite of this area being originally closed to the students.”

“Closed?” Tracy asked.

“Yes. The students needed only to bring call numbers of the books they desired to the front desk. An attendant would then return with them. This changed quite some time ago, problems with the staff and with budgets, but we have worked diligently to reorder the entire stack to make it accessible to the students. Who are not often accustomed to library methods.

“Now,” she continued, and began reading deliberately from the handout. The numbers and decimals and cross-referenced charts were incomprehensible to me. Nick exhaled loudly as he flipped ahead through the pages.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry to interrupt,” Nick stood, “but we need to get started. Waivers we’ll sign, as our Company agreed, but the rest of this, it isn’t how we work.”

“But you will not know where to find the books you are looking for.”

He pointed to the bookstack entrance, a small doorway behind the librarian’s desk, smiling. “They’re in there. We just start at one end and work our way to the other, Company policy. Anyway, with searchable text we’re basically making catalogues obsolete.”

She gasped; we all stood.

“Thank you for your time, we’ll let you know if we need anything,” I said as we left her just standing there and walked into the stacks.

We were scanning twelve hours a day, driving back and forth on the dark two-lanes with drunk pickup drivers, suicidal raccoons, and teens standing on parked cars shooting rifles at God knows rustling in the fields. In the mornings, still dark, the same minus the kids on the abandoned cars. Mists hung low like a ceiling over the corn stalks to either side, long gray nightmare tunnels in the headlights, breath and coffee steaming over the windshield and Nick’s cigarette ash floating up from the backseat. And Tracy, asleep, head bouncing against the passenger window with the smearing noise of skin on wet glass. Three weeks and we were zombified.

In the motel Tracy got her own bed, tiny and swimming in her flowery pajamas, hornrimmed glasses pushed up as a headband holding red bangs from her face. The paintings hanging around us made me think of some Bob Ross assembly line sweatshop, rows of easels and brushes twitching furiously, making the trees happy or else. Past midnight and the TV options are softcore porn and an advertisement for this new acne-busting home laser system, and between the two it’s hard to tell which paid actors are more excited. Tracy clicks back and forth and decides on porn. Nick sleeps next to me, mumbling something about focused light and ray guns. “Bart,” Tracy rolls onto her side to face me. “We haven’t slept in a week. This has to change.” On her wrist is a tattoo of a band-aid and scissors, a kind of warning against permanent mistakes. Hers is the personality that disappears under sackcloth dresses, the Company simply forgets her, she’s quiet and acquiescent-seeming with authorities and they don’t understand irony. “Hey there, Nickers, wake up! We’re formulating a plan.”

Nick snorts or coughs or just something wet catches in his throat.

Tracy takes pen and pad of paper from the drawer with the Bible. Tearing sheets off the pad, she throws them in our direction and they swirl like snowflakes between the beds. “Y or N to the commute,” she says.

“What’s our alternative?”

“Either a Y or an N.” She mutes the moaning TV.

“I mean, if we don’t commute then what?”

“We’re checked in indefinitely,” Nick’s awake. “We stay here.”

Tracy writes on one of the sheets. “I’ll mark that as Abstained.”

“It’s not…” Nick sits up, “it’s clearly an N. Or, wait,” he looks to me.

“Oh good, settled then.”

“You mean Y, Nick,” I hand him a slip of paper. “As in: yes we commute.”

“Too late,” Tracy folds three sheets in her lap. “We’re in unanimous, resounding agreement.”

###

We moved into the library at the end of Finals Week when the building’s mostly a ghost town. The lights go off predictably at night and flicker back on in their little metal cages in the morning. Important administrative things are surely going on elsewhere, though I can’t imagine what they are. But the stacks are quiet. We’re contracted with the university to be here “until we’re done” scanning and the Company made it very clear they don’t care to hear from us until then. Assuming we haven’t all died and rotted first. We left the rental car parked next to a dumpster behind off-campus housing and set up camp in the Medieval French Poetry section, confident we won’t be discovered. Sleeping bags, two flashlights, lots of bottled water and energy bars, pizza delivery on speed dial along with obviously plenty to read. The twelve hour days continue, down on the bottom floor where we started, still, eventually working our way up. We’re already chilled in the unbelievable air conditioning fanning constantly from the vents, sitting alone in our aisles scanning page after page until the lights go out and feeling our way back to camp.

There was at one time a plan for this building, you can tell, but it’s long forgotten. The aisles stretch sometimes forever while others end abruptly against support columns, plastered with yellowed signs taped over each other with call numbers and arrows pointing left or right in the dead ends. The fire sprinkler plumbing and electrical conduits run exposed overhead, the casings for power outlets often hanging empty next to bundles of the multi-colored wires of a newer system. Reflective tape traces paths along the floor where it’s swept clean from the elevators to freshly painted shelves, everything near the stairwells is decaying and dirty. I can only imagine the asbestos waiting to ooze down over us from the cracked HVAC and hot water pipes.

This kind of isolation, of sensory deprivation, of course we’re all going a little insane getting used to it.

Nick reminds me of a woman in drag if she overdid the five o’clock shadow and greased a pompadour to its natural limits, he’s from the East coast and I’m telling myself he was going to crack under Company pressure anyway. He started talking about himself in the 3rd person but weirdly, as if relaying messages to all three of us from some fourth, boss-type person coincidentally named Nick. Like, Nick wants us to work American Literature, 1937-38 today. Or, Nick has an updated completion timetable for us. The orders come down without discernable pattern, and the random changes totally screw us up. Tracy usually shakes in place for a second before saying for example Who fucking promoted Nick? and running off down the aisles. She’s right, too, he’s not in charge—just a little older. I like playing along but this invisible Nick can be a humorless ass. I asked him once if we could take lunch outside for a change and all he said was No, no, Nick doesn’t think that’s a good idea, Bart. Then, In fact, Bart, Nick has cancelled lunch breaks.

Which is really too bad, because this job is boring. Imagine scanning book pages with a handheld gizmo for a living. It’s pretty much the same as holding an extremely docile cat in your lap and brushing it until well after your arm goes numb, then putting it back on the shelf and taking the next cat, then the next, over and over for thousands of hours. The detritus and wisdom, conquests and failures of the world shelved to the ceiling around us. Most of it. Or at least part of it, there’s no way for us to know: for time’s sake, Company policy forbids reading. But I feel the shelves looming so impossibly high, even as I thunk my head on a fire sprinkler standing up. I’ve scanned more pages than I can count, haven’t seen the sun in longer than I’ll admit, and I’m freezing. There are no windows here, no clocks. No floor marked G and I know the one marked 1 isn’t but forget which one is. We take elevators in both directions, stepping off it seems always into basements.

“It’s worth it,” Nick says, “for the future.” Marking the place in his book, he stands. “We think of libraries as social institutions, as a common good, but the building is just a warehouse. An antiquated system. Indexes, catalogues, all that’s gone now. Our warehouse is virtual. And with tags and searchable keywords it’s the end of systems.” He gets that Rally-the-Troops look. “We’re consolidating the network, and once we’re finished this never has to be repeated. This,” raising the book at us, “I could throw this anywhere because we’ll never need to find it again. It’s in the Cloud now. We’re getting rid of old ideas of organization because they’re holding us back like a dead weight, like hobbling a horse.”

“Very eloquent,” Tracy says, checking her email.

Nick looks at the phone in her hand. “By the way, Nick doesn’t want us using our mobile devices anymore. He feels they’re distracting us from our work and so, as of tomorrow, he’s cancelling our internet access. If you want to update your away message, now would be a good time.”

Tracy looks up at him, eyes almost murderous or dead. She opens her mouth to speak but closes it again, looks at me. She stands and walks off and we don’t see her for the rest of the day.

Sanity took a turn for the worse without the internet. There is not a thing left to do but scan, and the constant, endless enormity of it all is crushing. The web becomes a phantom limb, a displaced itch or a tapping on my shoulder for attention. It’s there, I feel it there, but our connection only goes one way now through the scanners: up, out, away into the Cloud.

So for something to break up the day I make lists of new Company slogans, things like Feed the Cloud and We’ll Read For You. I like the Cloud. As abstractions go it’s a good one. An ether-land all around us tethered to a few black boxes, no one knows where, with some demonic genies inside throwing switches and pulling levers, moving little 1s and 0s across magnetic disks buried anonymously in a desert. But it’s a hungry Cloud. It’ll fill the sky and not be filled, though we try—offering what we can, books, pictures and tags, names and where we are, mapping every moment so it can learn. Still it demands more, everything and all of it in three dimensions. And so on the title pages of books I write, very faintly in pencil, The Cloud thanks you for your devotion to its Mission.

Tracy barricaded herself behind a luggage fort and gets up in the middle of the night. I hear her unzip out of her sleeping bag and creep off down the aisles. At first I only followed to the stairwell, it’s so cramped in there with the low zigzagged flights of echoing metal steps she’d hear me instantly. But I grabbed the door as it slammed, before the latch caught, and stood listening and watching for the flashlight beam above and counting her steps rising up and around and up. I figured she’d gone to fifteen and the next night waited until long after she’d left camp, went up there and walked toward the dim light far off in a corner, the smell of mildew and cardboard in the air and the sound only a typewriter makes clacking through the dark. She’s at it for hours each night. Floors below, I lie awake listening for the hammering keys, and wonder what she could be trying to say. Maybe I imagine it, but all night I hear a river of taps washing down over me while Nick snores by my side. And I keep looking but can’t find the reams of typescript she must have.

Meanwhile invisible-Nick is driving our Nick to the brink. He’s scanning with a stopwatch in his free hand, going over the same page again and again.

“Nick, can I ask what you’re doing?”

“Nick wants us to start training to maximize efficiency,” Nick says. “The scanners read one inch per second, Bart, and if we time ourselves we can commit that pace to muscle memory. We’ll move as fast as we can, and no more error messages. Then once we’ve got that, we can address the problem of page flipping, which is inherently wasted motion.”

“You’re joking.”

“Where’s Tracy? Nick would rather inservice all three of us on the new procedures at the same time.”

“Sure, whatever Nick says. I’ll go find her.”

She may as well have vanished into the labyrinths of hell. Floor after floor is silent, empty. I check our camp, nothing. I check the dusted-over corner where the typewriter sits quietly, all of fifteen eerie and dim with most of the lights burned out. Boxes upon boxes stacked full of unshelved books and the unfiled remains of everything else, this will be torture when we get to it. It doesn’t look as if anyone’s been here for 50 years. Age and disuse, mold and crumbled plaster dust, and then a door closing and Nick is behind me. “This is why we’re here,” he says. “People build and they forget, leave everything behind to rot. What we’re doing, in the Cloud, there’s no past so no more forgetting. Everything is continuously updated, all this in front of us in the immediate present, always.”

I open the flap of a cardboard box, lift out a book. The dust jacket’s missing, the black cloth cover frayed, title worn to illegibility on the spine and the binding creaks as it opens. Is it really forgotten, the weight of it left here? Is it lost, I ask myself, as the acid paper dissolves? “Yeah, glad to do my part.”

“Bart, I’m afraid Nick doesn’t want us up this high yet. We have a schedule to stick to.”

“No, I know, I was just looking for her everywhere.”

“We’ll get to this soon enough. Let’s go.”

She doesn’t come back to camp at all that night and I’m worried. Nick mumbles in his sleep, an argument with iNick, like a man overcome by fever and shivering. We’re not losing control, he murmurs, we’re not skipping ahead. She’s here and we’re on task. I pull my sleeping bag up over me and zip as high as it will go, the clicks of hot water pipes and a ringing in my ears.

The next day I’m sure someone’s following me. The air feels heavier, colder, I hear doors open and close. My legs cramp, knees start popping every time I stand. I hear a sneaker squeak on the tile and follow what sound like moans for an hour down unfamiliar rows into corners where the lights have burned out. I find empty study spaces, metal cubicles piled with discarded books and imagine students here, weighted down with fatigue as if chained to these desks. Row after row of silent bodies, lips moving soundlessly, pencils scratching in notebooks and fingers dog-earing pages. I read the titles. At this desk an 18th century economics term paper, at this one a Renaissance history of unknown playwrights. I read notes in margins, imagine outlines on scratch paper, the damned straining to absorb all they can remember, and the ghoulish reference librarian passing between the rows with her strict hair and index cards. Handing down call numbers for more, ever more in a cruel parody of assistance. I imagine them, eyes red and malnourished, one by one collapsing onto the bound journals and ancient encyclopediae strewn before them, dead of boredom and insomnia and if Nick’s right the Cloud can save them.

###

Turning a corner I almost step on Tracy, curled cross-legged between the shelves among unpublished dissertations. She stops scanning, looks at me, she’s started wearing drastic eye makeup. I cough a sort of apology. “Are you lost?” she asks.

“Nick’s been looking for you. He thinks you’re AWOL.”

“I’m not absent; there is no leave. Besides, I’m working.”

“It looks like you’re reading.”

“This is fascinating,” she resumes brushing her scanner down the page.

I sit next to her, “Not the point. We’re already like a century behind, don’t you ever want to get out of here?”

“Do you?”

She loosens the drawstrings of the knapsack at her feet, pulls out a typescript page, lays it flat on top of the page she just scanned and begins brushing from the top.

“What. In. God’s. Name are you doing? That’s going into the same file.”

“It’s like an abacot. Look it up.”

I can only stare at her.

“I’m writing a memoir. Every so often I slip a page in.”

“And you just put the book back? There’s no way to find which ones you’ve ruined.”

“Exactly. No one checks.” She holds the typed page away from her body and lights it on fire, watching it curl and flame and smoke into ash. I launch into a coughing fit as orange and red lick across her face, shimmering spots in my eyes. “I’m adding to the Cloud,” she says.

When she returns to camp Nick’s out cold as he is a bit earlier every day. She drops the knapsack on my shin and leans down over me. “You should start reading before it’s too late. You already missed the beginning,” she kisses my cheek before crawling over her luggage and lying down.

###

Summer’s gone, Tracy’s memoir shrinks and grows from the beginning toward the end, whenever that might be, the last page curling up in flame. I hide with a flashlight in my sleeping bag like ten years old, trying to keep pace with it, the tap tap tap from above racing behind her voice reading the words aloud in my head. With the fall comes Work/Study undergraduates making rounds, wraithlike in black polo shirts, with such maddening regularity and I avoid them. It’s the intrusive eyes that bother me. The lights stay on longer now, and the workday stretches to fill the time but the stacks go on interminable as ever, inch of text after inch, line by line, recto and verso, leaf after leaf, book, then shelf, then aisle, floors, and then the abandoned boxes stored where no one’s seen them for decades in the dust and then books left open and kicked under tables with the marginalia of some doctoral student left in 1924 waiting for us to add to the Cloud forever.

Graduate students are a small but constant presence, as passively nagging as a termite problem. They’re a territorial lot but usually don’t mind if I sit with them, scanning whatever they’re not at that very moment reading, so long as I’m quiet. So godawfully quiet I don’t know how they live like this, sitting in their rows. Some with their own reading lamps plugged into outlets at the desk, fleece blankets over their laps, others getting up every so often to ask the next one to lower the volume of their headphones. It’s unreal the silence they bring onto the floor, they’re living sound dampeners sucking the life out of the air itself. Nick doesn’t have the same rapport with them, and if he’s nearby they move off lumbering in silent packs, grocery bags filled with books, and Nick yelling Wait, we need those!

Nick’s taping charts and pencil-drawn maps and timetables all around the camp, orders and revisions iNick hands down mercilessly. Nick scribbles the hanging papers to oblivion trying to account for where Tracy’s already been. Dark circles spread under his eyes, he’s losing weight and his jaw moves mechanically, grinding teeth in place of food he won’t eat. His delusion’s skewed a bit on him, he talks directly with iNick in the 2nd person now. He says things like This is a good strategy but we need more procedural freedom to accelerate our progress and We’ll meet whatever deadlines you set so long as ultimate responsibility lies with you but the 1st person pronouns don’t seem to have a referent anymore. He’s fanatical about efficiency and holds morning meetings in the washroom, just for me since Tracy’s away wherever. Today he claims to have solved the page-flipping problem. We’re standing against a wall, looking down an unending aisle, and he hands me a book from the shelf.

“You’re going to tear the pages out and lay them end to end. No more flipping. I’ll follow you and scan,” he says.

“I’d literally rather do almost anything else.”

“It’ll be much faster,” he steps toward me, “no more wasted motion.”

“Tearing is a wasted motion, just a different one. Not to mention one that destroys the book.”

“Nick feels the physical object itself is expendable once it’s safely in the Cloud.” He opens the book and starts, slowly and perfectly, tearing out pages. “Fine, I’ll tear. You scan.”

“I’ll be somewhere else. Doing something else.”

“That’s insane,” Tracy says when I tell her later.

“And you’re Miss Rational these days.” She’s grown pale and freckles stand out on her cheeks. We’re sitting among the boxes on fifteen, she’s unpacking and scanning the timecards of some forgotten payroll. “So what is an abacot, anyway?”

“Doesn’t exist.”

“Like something made up?” I hold up a timecard in the dim light: Julianne Peterson Feb. 14, 1957.

“No, the word doesn’t exist. Started as a mistranslation of French, which somebody copied and somebody else changed the spelling a little by mistake. Finally somebody else included it in their dictionary, meaning a crown-type hat worn by kings. Don’t know how they came up with that, then other dictionaries just copied that first one.”

“So you’re adding mistakes to the Cloud?”

She looks at me, glasses slipping on her nose, “I’m adding judgment.”

I arrange the timecards into little stacks and repack the box as she empties it. We sit without talking then until the last card is scanned, the file is uploaded, and the box is again full as though we were never here.

“Want to see something neat?” She stands, wiping at wrinkles in her dress.

I nod. She leads me by the hand running up the stairwell. I hit my head, stumble, and follow floor after floor with my hand in hers. I can’t breathe, pain in my eyebrow and fiberglass needles in my lungs. She stops, bends over with hands on knees. “It’s good for you,” she looks at me but her hair hangs all in the way. “C’mon,” she pulls at my hand again, walking now. I use the railing and make her stop three more times, coughing, as we wind our way into smaller and steeper circles. At the top is a landing, a door and a sign. BookStack Stair 2: No Roof Access. And the door shrieks as she opens it.

It’s a watchtower but with stained glass windows, thick and blue religious figures I’ve never known, the outside light barely coming in. We’re underwater swimming in it, vague shadows of another world darken the glass and I have no idea how high we are, or where. She places her hand against the glass where it looks like the setting sun and I hear the wind pick up just beyond her reach.

“It’s beautiful,” I say mostly to her.

“It is. But it’s not what I wanted to show you,” she points to the room’s large center column, to a door in the column I hadn’t noticed. Inside is a small office, dirty and cobwebbed without even a lamp. She shines the flashlight on the desk, on a rotary phone on the desk. “Nick has no idea this is here. It works.”

I step through the flashlight beam into the room, into a clean swept space on the floor where now I know she’s been sleeping and she follows.

“Is there anyone you need to call?” she asks.

I turn to her, the light rising between us, “No.”

“No one?”

“No.”

She switches off the light, the blue filters deeper in from the outer room, and the saints in the windows stand watch until they, too, go dark.

I wake to whispering, on the ice cold floor, from the best sleep I can remember but cramped all the same. A soft click and rustling and then that shrieking door sends me nearly out of my skin. Her steps fade down the stairwell to nothing, leaving me again to sleep.

###

On three, where I left Nick, there’s nowhere really to step, pages line every aisle, blanket every tile square and still the shelves don’t show a dent. I’m afraid to leave the doorway; it reeks of cigarette smoke here. A sweeping noise moves through the shelves, a whirlwind, then waves of paper in the distance. The undergrads. In the midst of swirling pages, black polos standing out in the white like doomed arctic explorers. They’re pushing brooms, shaking out plastic bags, stuffing them full and the reference librarian’s yelling now so loud, so fast it sounds like German. It’s time, I think, to be somewhere else. But she steps into this same aisle, direct line of sight and here I am backing into the stairwell and letting go of the door. It swings shut with the force of a gunshot and through the little window crisscrossed with wire mesh she’s walking this way, all rage and hate. I run.

The rest of the day I hear her everywhere behind me, and in my poisoned imagination the teenaged furies have grown wings, rushing through the stacks after me with their broom handles poised overhead as flaming swords, their eyes scarlet in the glow and the smoke. I run from every noise, every squeak on the floor and metal click in the pipes above. By lights out I’m utterly lost, under a cubicle desk in a corner, hungry and confused in the freezing air. I lie on my side, arms wrapped around knees, and dream of Tracy when I sleep. She’s bathed in the shades of blue and enfolded in white cloth, her hair turns purple in the light, kneeling and whispering softly over me here on the floor like prayers.

The lights flicker in the morning and burn, I crawl from under the desk and look for the stairs. In the bathroom near camp feet are visible there in one of the stalls, between the bottom of the door and tiny checkered tiles. I turn on the sink and take off my shirt, put my head under the tap and, straightening up again, call out toward the feet, “Nick?”

“Bart?” he answers, hiding from I assume himself and smoking, the cigarette plume’s smothering as it reaches me, I bury my face in a paper towel and hack. I don’t like the look of what remains there when I’m done. That goes right into the trash, I splash my face with water and look into the mirror. “I’m in a nightmare,” sounds like something I’d say, “they’re relentless. Everywhere at once.” But it’s Nick speaking, and then banging on the flimsy walls around him. “They didn’t understand, none of them did. And that woman…” I walk toward him while he describes his discovery and eventual escape, the elevators called for and sent away as decoys, the stairwells and utility closets. His cigarette hisses in the water below him. He tells of the furies and fascist librarian, the long night balancing on the toilet rim and an irrational fear of the sound it would make flushing, that they’d hear him.

“It’s not irrational. They’re really after us, Nick.”

“I know. But Nick tells me he’s negotiating a truce, with a significant payment involved. We just need to lay low.” He draws his feet up and they disappear above the bottom of the stall door.

Camp is well outside the usual undergrad patrols and offers some measure of safety, of what at least feels like safety. Nick’s almost completely encased us in walls of hanging paper at this point. I look around and through Tracy’s luggage fort, hoping to find her memoir, something to lose myself in for a while, but instead find layers of complex lingerie folded and sorted by color and pattern. The purpose of certain buckles, snaps, and webs of strappy elastic are beyond me. I close everything and sit on my sleeping bag, facing away from it all but her disappearances feel sinister now. I think I need to watch her movements more closely at night, and during the day.

Around midterms and finals the stacks fill with actual people around us, but they’re lost and empty in the eyes and we don’t worry. They’re so out of place here they mostly ask us for help even as we wrestle books from them. It’s horrible though, chasing students around this way, their greedy hands trying to take and take from us. Who could know what they’re after? Or when those books would return or how to find them then. I just want them to stay at home, wait comfortably on couches and understuffed beanbag chairs until we’re finished. They’ll never have to come here then, derelict as they are, with the wide eyes and little maps sketched on the damned index cards, the strings of meaningless letters and decimals. Mouths moving dumbly, fingers tracing along the spines for some stitched block of paper, they don’t even know what’s inside, if they need it at all. Wandering, backtracking, they curse the skies for books misshelved or missing altogether. They recall books from each other and fight over limited resources. Just stay home and wait. The Cloud will find what you’re looking for and it will already know what’s inside.

They don’t wait but do stop coming back after exams are done and then it’s very quiet as the snow deepens along the bottom corners of the watchtower windows. Shadowed flurries swim past the angels there and the wind whistles against the blue glass while I sit waiting for Tracy, who vanished in person if not spirit. She still delivers her memoir every day, I find it waiting tucked inside my sleeping bag at night. It started smelling of perfume and, honestly, needing an editor. It’s hurried, as though she’s rushing now toward some end only she can see. I read for clues, some sign of where she is, what she can be thinking, but the story hasn’t caught up with us yet. We’re still stuck in college with her sister and some vague love interest in a water polo player. She buries me in descriptions of falling leaves on the main quad’s rolling lawns, of the blinding sunshine warming nothing and mittens around steaming coffee cups, of hooded sweatshirts and the heavy backpacks on everyone’s shoulders. She writes of the stone buildings and marble columns and crisscrossed paths between them, halls with amphitheater rows of wood tables and too many chalkboards. These long winded lectures she transcribed, it seems, but probably made up with semesters’ worth of notes she can’t possibly remember, all laid out in paragraph after quoted paragraph for reasons only she can know. Telling me of the suit jackets and leather briefcases, the sound of chalk on the cloudy green boards and bourbon bottles pulled from desk drawers in office hours. I read on, racing along the doomed pages, wishing, begging these leaves before they’re consigned to the fire, to get to the point please.

The last several weeks Nick’s been in the bathroom already when I wake, in closed-door meetings with iNick. He hasn’t had time to bother with the nuisance of actually scanning, preferring talk of Taylorized efficiency measurements and motivational strategies, of team-building exercises. He says an increased managerial presence is necessary to keep us all on the same page, and he doesn’t seem to notice the pun, or the irony. By noon he’s visibly shaken, collapsing in nervous exhaustion. And with Tracy MIA I’m left to myself, mostly, making almost no progress. I catch myself sitting frozen, staring intently at nothing, with disconnected sentences stuck in my head like songs, a feeling of remembered dreams. I think of the books now as either empty or solid, like prop books on movie sets for all I could tell you what’s in them. Just endless print and a creeping déjà vu, and I feel like that character in a story I’ve nearly forgotten, too poor to buy the books he wanted so the fool took only the titles and wrote the rest himself.

###

Tracy reappeared after the lights didn’t come on. Either she took pity on us left with only the one flashlight or she’d been somewhere around here all along. Or she was scared, too. Imagine the sun didn’t rise one morning. We felt nothing, no great tremors, no explosion, no trumpets announcing the end of days. At first I thought a Work/Study teen overslept hungover in a strange bed without an alarm clock, woke up lost and sick and fled straight home in shame. But no, the dark lasted long enough we couldn’t explain it away. We were here, sitting on our sleeping bags in the abyss, and no one was coming.

“I, for one, am glad we can just sleep in,” Tracy’s voice from the other side of her luggage.

“You don’t get it,” Nick says. “It was finals last week, this is winter. They don’t have winter classes!”

Tracy shines her flashlight in his face.

“It’s probably a month break,” he continues, “turn that light off. We’re going to be so far behind.”

“Behind what?” is all I can think to ask.

You can only sleep for so long, sadly. Nick hums fugues to himself, setting some kind of mood and Tracy burns through her flashlight battery revising the memoir until the black is all but complete, the mass of these unseen, mute voices collected around us. They haunt me and terrorize Nick, I hear him taking down books and fingering through them as though they were Braille, whispering to himself and inhaling cigarettes, the burning paper and lingering acid trails of glowing red as he gestures toward nothing.

“Bart,” Tracy calls, “I’m bored as shit. Talk to me.”

I feel my way toward and over the walls of her luggage, catching a foot and twisting down to the floor on my back. “There’s no way this is going to last a month,” I say.

“Does it matter?” she reaches for me, hands I think looking for my shoulder, a sense of occupied space.

“I don’t want to sit here like this forever,” I move toward her.

“Then let’s get out of the dark.” She takes me by the arm and stands, leading me shuffling and blind past Nick’s hallucinations up to the watchtower. Every window glows like a lightbox; it must be the middle of the day.

“I’m leaving soon,” she says, sitting down. “I’m done with scanning, I can’t take it anymore.”

“I thought you liked it here. I see you reading all the time. Seems like the perfect job for you.”

“God no, it’s compulsive. If there’s text on a page I have to read it. Can you imagine? Think about all those pages of 8 pt. footnotes, the bibliographies, the indexes.” She leans against the window, breath condensing there under her nose.

“Yikes. I had no idea,” I put a hand on her lower back, “what are you going to do?”

She turns, slides down against the wall to sit. “My sister and I are starting a business. Video editing.”

“Aren’t there already enough people doing that?”

“Not like us. We’re only going to do home movies, tourist’s vacations, that kind of thing.”

“Like kids’ birthday parties and stuff? Nobody watches that crap.”

“Because there’s too much tape to sift through. They already lived it once, who has time to watch the whole thing again? You’d need to live twice as long,” she tucks a lock of bangs behind an ear, brushes an eyelash off a blue cheek. “So that’s why we’re going to go through it and cut out all the boring bits. Voila, the best memories of Florence or nephew’s baptism or whatever. And we’re selling little video cameras that’ll attach to like a hat or coat or something, so people can stop staring into tiny screens their whole trip. You know, if they go to Florence they may as well enjoy it while they’re there.”

“Genius. How are you going to screw this up?”

“Haven’t decided yet, probably something to do with the scraps we cut out.” She wraps her arms around her knees and rests her chin there. “You could come with.”

“I don’t know. I’ll think about it.” And we watch the windows dim and brighten toward blue and fade again four more times before checking again on Nick.

###

The lights were anticlimactically on and we heard him in the washroom, revising revisions of iNick’s schedule. No way for him to know how short lived his plans would be as the librarian’s undergrad minions stepped off the elevator en masse, a lynch mob armed with buckets of soapy water and mops, paper towels and these horrid spray cleaners. We hid like rats, bleach fumes overpowering us on every level, muffling coughs and moving camp every night to stay ahead of them, driven upwards on a rising tide of foaming disinfectant. Days spent in closets, climbing stairs and doubling back, curling under desks until finally we were able to move down past them in the night. We slept then in the chemical smell and worked the next day as they continued upwards, Nick cursing after them.

With Tracy determined to leave, nothing would convince her to just scan a plain old book like a normal person. I followed her around for the company, to spend time with her before insane Nick was the only one left with me here.

“You know you’re not doing what you think you are,” she tells me.

“And what do I think I’m doing?”

“You and Crazy aren’t making some wonderful, liberated world. The opposite, actually. People will look back at this as the moment everything went wrong.”

“But it’s not going wrong. It’s just taking time. When we’re done the Cloud will be there for everyone—whatever they want, whenever they want it, and free.”

“And all stored on Company servers. This,” she holds up her scanner, “is just the first step.”

“A benevolent king benefitting the people.”

“Right,” she pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose.

She’s scanning floor tiles now, the signs pointing to call numbers, the bookends and dust covered shelves, scanning desktops and sleeping graduate students, brushing her scanner across the spines of books lined row after row, waving it like a wand through the air, scanning empty light.

I asked what she thought would happen to her memoir; she said it’s almost done. Written and mostly in the Cloud and almost destroyed. I think we have two different ideas of what done means. Scattering bits of herself on the wind where they’ll never be found.

I’m about halfway through Holy Alliance: The Unified Force of Church and State Governments in 14th Century Spain and its Effects on the Peasant Population but still thinking about the memoir, my hand freezes. “It’s not that no one will know where to look, but no one will know that they should look.”

“You think maybe that might be part of the point?”

“I mean, someone might stumble across the right search terms and see part of it…” my scanner is giving me all kinds of error messages.

“Somebody will find a page of it while they’re reading.”

“Nobody is going to scroll through a whole book anymore.”

“See? That’s what I’ve been telling you. So my book is like a reward, a little mystery for those who do. If you don’t read the whole book you might miss out on a clue.”

“You’ve got a lot of eggs in that basket there.”

She looks around at the shelves, waves her arm from left to right. “And if they don’t, so what? Same fate as some of the best minds in history.”

My scanner beeps erratically; I turn it off and shut the book. Tracy lays out flat on her back and stretches, “It’s comfortable here.”

###

In the dream I was submerged in fire, but a movie’s fire, like photographs of the sun, blinding orange explosions and the smoke venting mysteriously somewhere. Instead of being consumed in flame and ash the books glowed white hot and melted into thick lava pools on the floor, rising around me. Nick dissolved into a black heart of coal, iNick the fuel, and Tracy’s eyes reflected the flame, her skin shone brightly through the smoke as I rolled and crawled on my belly toward her. Face to the floor, sputtering and burning in the weirdly melted pages. The noise was like a river, a whoosh, a sliding fluid and a crackle. She was a shining skeleton, her teeth exposed smiling, she turned away toward the elevator. iNick stood, stiff and crumbling, charred and barely hanging together, turning his head after her. Raising an arm, fire dancing along the length of it, pointing after her. I was being washed back on a current, swimming for the elevator against it, drowning. Worry in Tracy’s eyes for the first time. The doors opened and she stepped inside. The watchtower’s angels tore the clothes from their bodies and wept, the bookshelves around me disintegrating. Tracy’s face burned to that skull’s helpless grin, waving goodbye as the doors closed, the elevator car rose through the tunnel behind the burning walls. And iNick, unmovable, laughing now as he swung the charcoal arm around to point at me.

I woke, I hope understandably terrified, to a flashlight bulb staring down on my face. Nick snoring off in a corner in the dark and Tracy says, “It’s time to go.” She leads me to the ninth floor and sits me down at a desk, she sits across from me and turns off the light. We sit watching the shapes of one another dissolve into spots of color swimming in the black. It’s maybe 20 minutes before the lights click and flicker on and she’s still exactly there at the table across from me, confirming the statue-image of her I had in my mind this whole time. She stands as my eyes adjust, takes Monotheism and Empire from a nearby shelf and returns, opening it on the table in front of me.

“I’m leaving,” she says.

“I know.”

“No. I mean now. I just want you to do one last thing for me before I go.” She pulls my scanner out of her knapsack and sets it next to my hand.

“Why do you have that?”

“For this.” She places both hands down on the open book, palms up and perfect fingers outstretched. “Scan,” she says.

“Why me?”

“I can’t do it myself, silly. I need your help.”

Her hands, my scanner, her memoir floating in the ether. “I mean, your fingerprints. They’ll be in my scanner. They’ll come to me for everything that you’ve done.”

“They never check.”

“But if they do.”

“Then I want you to know this isn’t everything. It feels like it right now, because you’re inside it, but all you have to do is step outside.”

I take hold of her by each wrist, one at a time, and scan.

“See, that wasn’t so bad. The first step is always the hardest.” She leaves for the elevator then, looks back over her shoulder until the doors open. Inside, she hits a button it looks like somewhere in the middle but it’s hard to tell and she blows a kiss in my direction. She’s gone, I’m coughing again and hard, and since I’m here already I might as well get to work. The scanner blinks, ready for the next file, and I flip back through the pages on the table in front of me to start from the beginning.

 

 

BIO

TE WinninghamT.E. Winningham holds a PhD in Literature from the University of Southern California and a BA from the University of Iowa. His work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Anamesa, and the Overtime Chapbook series, among other journals. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

 

 

 

0
Mitchell Grabois

Art

by Mitchell Grabois

 

1.

I walk into the house. I see that my wife has decided to remove the popcorn ceiling. In fact, she’s removed it. I told her we needed to get it tested for asbestos first. She said we didn’t need to. She sits on a wooden chair, wet crumbles of the former ceiling strewn around her. Her smile is triumphant. It was even easier than they showed on YouTube.

A book is in her hand.

What are you reading? You’re not reading that trash again, are you?

She recites: From a very tiny, underused part of my brain – probably located at the base of my medulla oblongata near where my subconscious dwells – comes the thought: He’s here to see you. My wife begins to unbutton her blouse.

Jesus, you’re reading Fifty Shades of Grey again

I feel the color in my cheeks rising. I must be the color of The Communist Manifesto. My wife throws her blouse to one side atop a pile of popcorn litter. She wears no bra. Her tits are small, but “perky.” We make love on the wet asbestos. Afterwards we take a shower together, but the damage has been done. I already feel the cracklings of MESOTHELIOMA in the lobes of my lungs.

 

2.

I wake at 5 a.m. to drive a neighbor to cataract surgery. I drop her off and go to find a McDonald’s with Wi-Fi, but find none between the clinic and the Front Range, just a Jack-in-the Box. Standing at the counter I peruse a poster, a man with a Jack head and an athlete’s muscular arms. I didn’t get this body eating chocolate milk shakes, the caption reads. Sometimes I got vanilla. I take a table, drink bitter coffee, and remember Bob W. in high school, a tall skinny guy with long, lank hair and a comical face. I remember his night-time raids, stealing Jack-in-the-Box heads from drive-throughs, leaving the “restaurants” bereft of their mascot. Some businessman would be really pissed in the morning, but that was part of the point. There was a connection between the Jack heads and the U.S. military (Bob lectured us as we smoked dope in his bedroom) and the atrocities they were carrying out in Viet Nam. It took me a couple of years before I understood, and then I became an activist member of the small cadre of Jack- head thieves. I finally got caught (though Bob never did) and spent some time in Juvenile Detention, to my parents’ everlasting shame.

 

3.

My wife falls asleep. She’s like her Lithuanian grandmother: she can sleep on a manhole cover.

 

4.

I grew up and moved to “Paradise,” where bougainvillea vines and Poinciana trees blazed, and escaped iguanas made a commune on my front porch. I fed them slices of banana from my palm and regularly refilled the shot glasses I left on the rail with iguana adult beverages, namely water with lime.

But I was exiled from “Paradise” by ugly politics, a kind similar to what Adam experienced in the Garden of Eden.

 

5.

The goldenrod of my new, Midwestern home made my head swell. Wasps stung me in the face when I entered the barn. Holding my spray can of poison, I couldn’t find their nests. Maybe they were high up in the eaves, or hidden somewhere in the hay mow. But the expansive fields of corn and soybeans were a kind of meditation.

 

6.

I drive to my one-room schoolhouse.

It was the Amish school for a while, until the local Amish community suffered a rift. The elders ordered everyone to disband, to scatter like dandelion seeds drifting in the wind.

But while they were still here, the Amish children drove little wagons to school and put the horses in the horse barn, out of the snow, across a miniature ball field next to the schoolhouse.

The horses were bored while the kids were in school, and chewed on their stall boards. It’s amazing how much wood a horse can chew in a school year. After the community failed, I bought the schoolhouse. I thought I might start an art academy, buy some abandoned farmhouses nearby for dorms, use the barns as studios, but the more I thought about it, it just seemed like too much work.

 

7.

The industrial turbines were built, over our protests. By then I was a member of the community, sort of, though my cousins kept their distance. When I was walking on the road and they drove by in their vans or pick-ups, they wore sneers. The turbine blades sliced the air. Surely to say that is metaphorical, but why did I start finding streaks of blood on the floor of my front porch? I had recently scraped it and painted it glossy grey, and the blood was vivid against it.

 

8.

I bought a chain saw, the most expensive one Farm Supply had, went into the horse barn and sawed out the horse-chewed boards. They were old boards, probably milled on the adjoining farms. I put them in rough frames, branded them with the image of a laughing horse, called them: Horse-Chewed Board #1, Horse-Chewed Board #2, up to #26. I shipped them to my agent. The art world was astir, me coming out of retirement. Some folks had assumed I was dead. Each piece went for about two-hundred grand. They sold out within the month. My total cut was about 3 mill, if I remember right. I love art. I was reconsidering starting an art school, out in that verdant township.

 

9.

As in a horror film, the streaks became small pools, scattered across the porch floor like grisly polka dots. Hypotheses straggled across my mind. Had animals been fighting there?

 

10.

Eventually it became too much and I took to the road. The Front Range rose before me like a mirage, as if I were a Spanish pilgrim on the trail. But I have no faith so I can’t be a pilgrim. I’m merely homeless, like so many others, like the refugees of the Dust Bowl.

 

 

 

 

 

Climate Change

by Mitchell Grabois

 

Day One

Dear God, let everything broken be unbroken.

Tiffany: The roadway is not asphalt but the bodies of Doberman Pinschers. Sometimes they come back to life.

Still, an urge to swim in her father’s pool, her breasts desperate for her children, or needing violence against her pale skin, a voice whispers: run run run.

Global warming has stopped ice bridges from forming, isolating the wolves who live on this island, as if fenced in barbed wire, trapping the Doberman Pinschers who inhabit Tiffany’s nightmares, trapping Tiffany as well on this Alcatraz-like place.

Inbreeding has made the wolves as twisted and angry as those humans who live in my township (off in another part of the state), in which the wind turbines, erected too close to our homes, have destroyed our health, the enjoyment of our property, the value of the property itself.

 

Day Two

Everything is gone, but they demand I get out of bed and brush my snaggle teeth. Can’t you hold me, Hank? Close, as if I were beautiful?

After years of hospital work, I am ubermensch with x-ray eyes. Under ugliness, I see beauty,

under dysfunction, capability. I see Tiffany before illness’s smears. She kneels in sunshine, in rich earth, like Mary Magdelene.

Greed shows itself in infinite forms, as does grief.

 

Day Three

Soggy collard greens.

Tiffany is not here.

Toilet graffito: Eternity—too long to be wrong.

At Highcastle Pharmacy, I stand in front of the lipstick display and read the names of colors.

She said: You buy me a tube. I shake from medication and you guide my hand,

I gaze at her new-colored lips. What if all the barriers —including her illness—suddenly collapsed?

So porcupines hurl themselves from trees at the greedy, climate changing humans, making themselves suicide bombers, though each hopes he’ll survive to bomb again. They have plenty of quills, and know how to hide as skillfully as French resistance fighters during WWII.

 

Day Four

At the grunge band crash-pad: Dax: prison tattoos, ragged hair, pinwheel eyes. Couch-bound,

he stares at the ceiling, his electric guitar on his chest, its neck between his legs.

“Wazzup, man…? Tiffany? Yeah, she’s here. Shaggin’ our new drummer.”

My heart soars, then falls to the pit of my stomach. I am ready to vomit with elation.

Dax leads me into a room with a bare, cum-soiled mattress, crushed PBRs on the floor.

“Probly went to score. You gonna bust her?”

“She’s a chronic schizophrenic, an escapee.”

“Dig, you gotta let people tune their own karma. You can’t just lean in like a shade-tree mechanic, spray ‘em with WD-40, and re-torque their mind with your kryptonite wrenches”

“So terror and confusion are Tiffany’s fate, and we should let her die under a freeway?”

“I’ve got to head for the McJob, man”

Drowsy, I lie on the couch, cover myself with his Fender. I’m a three-headed dog, Cerberus, at the gates of Hell.

I awake in deep dark, sneeze four times, feel dizzy. There’s meth in the couch cushions. I stand, grip the guitar—an ax—and head for the cum room. No grunge punk is gonna interfere with my treatment plan.

 

Day Five

As long as climate change continues, the porcupines will remain at war. If some call them terrorists, so be it.

 

 

BIO

Mitchell GraboisMitchell Krockmalnik Grabois has had over a thousand of his poems and fictions appear in literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, The Best of the Net, and Queen’s Ferry Press’s Best Small Fictions for work published in 2011 through 2015. His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and Nook, or as a print edition. To see more of his work, google Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois. He lives in Denver.

 

 

 

0
Jill Jepson

The Drowning Time

by
Jill Jepson

 

Edith Brinkerhoff is given her medication at 6:00 a.m. The nurse might be Judith Green, a stout woman with big, blond legs, who is brusque to the point of meanness, and who leaves the room as quickly as she can, closing the door loudly—not quite a slam, which would be a violation of protocol. Sometimes it is one of the male nurses—Edith thinks of them as “the boys,” she can never remember their names. This morning, it is Helen Arlington, an efficient black woman with thin arms in short, cuffed sleeves.

“Good morning, Mrs. Brinkerhoff. I hope you slept well. I hate to wake you so early. Doctor’s orders. Here, you go, your treat for the day.” She rolls the bed to a sitting position and hands Edith two miniature paper cups each containing an assortment of pills, pastel blue triangles, green disks, pink disks. Edith tips her head back and pours one cup then the other into her mouth. She holds the pills on her tongue while Helen Arlington hands her a glass of water.

“There then,” the nurse says. “Let’s get you to the bathroom.”

Helen Arlington chats even though she knows Edith will not respond. Edith has not spoken for decades. The nurses say that, even if she had thoughts in that head, she wouldn’t be able to speak them, her vocal cords atrophied by now. Judith Green mutters that she’s glad the old bag is mute, who would want to talk with that one? Nazi bitch. She says it out of earshot of their supervisor, and of Edith, except for once, when she muttered it under her breath, just as she shut the door behind her. Most of the nurses are not so openly hostile, but they look at Edith warily as they rush through their work.

Rumors about Edith Brinkerhoff lurk in the corners of the nursing home. Every new nurse learns the first day in a whispered conversation that she was once a member of the Nazi party. That she was guilty of war crimes.That she murdered a Jewish family in her home—her own home—a family she’d known all her life.

How she escaped the authorities is anyone’s guess.

There was no proof. There were no witnesses.

Should have been tried with the rest of the war criminals. Should have been hanged.

Just a rumor.

It’s no rumor, look at those eyes.

Some of the nurses, but not Helen Arlington, secretly call her Frau Brinkerhoff or the Commandant.

Edith knows what they say. They do not say these things to her face, but she knows. She has trained herself not to care. They roll her onto the deck when the weather is pleasant and position her in front of the window of her room when it is not. She occupies herself with the movement of sunlight across the room. Now it is at the corner. Now it has reached the smudge on the wall, where a swath of paint covering a stain does not quite match the rest. It creeps across the door to the hinge. The nurses come with her medication and meals. Sometimes they speak to her, sometimes not.

“Well done, Mrs. Brinkerhoff,” Helen Arlington says when Edith is finished in the bathroom, as if urinating were an accomplishment. Edith brushes her teeth and washes her face. The nurse wheels her back into the room to get her dressed. She knows precisely how to maneuver her patient, how to pull her forward and support her as she lifts her buttocks. She fastens a brassier around Edith’s chest and pulls on underpants. She gathers a dress in her hands, and drops it over Edith’s upraised arms. She does not care whether the rumors about Edith are true. Patients are to be cared for. A job is to be done. She is neither kind nor unkind. She is professional.

Edith allows herself to be moved, jostled, dressed like a doll. She watches the nurse fold her nightgown into a perfect rectangle and slip it into the drawer.

She knows this: Six hours later, Helen Arlington will be dead. She will be driving home after her shift. A driver coming east on Appleton Parkway will be texting to his girlfriend. You were with him. I saw you. Dont lie 2 me. The nurse will be listening to All Things Considered on NPR, a bag of groceries on the passenger seat, a loaf of raisin bread on the top, a bag of not-quite-ripe peaches. At the stoplight, she will reach to punch a radio button, turning to soft jazz. She will enjoy the music, which she finds relaxing. She will think about her son, how he’s doing better in school. The light will change. She will toe the gas pedal. There will be no screeching breaks, for the driver of the other car will be reading his screen. U R such a baby i dont even like him.

The impact will hurtle Helen Arlington’s body forward and to the right. The other car, an SUV belonging to the parents of the texting driver, will tear into the body of the nurse’s old Saturn, into her own living body. The pain will be shattering explosions, purple, red. It will last for 9 minutes and 16 seconds before Helen Arlington dies.

The sunlight reaches the edge of the dresser in Edith Brinkerhoff’s room. Edith looks at the clock. It is 7:05. Helen Arlington will die at 1:17.

“Here comes your breakfast,” the nurse says. The aid has arrived with a tray. Steam rises from a bowl. The aroma of oatmeal mingles with the scent of hot tea.

The aid places the tray across Edith’s chair. “Enjoy your breakfast, Mrs. Brinkerhoff. I’ll come and pick up your tray in an hour. It’s a beautiful day out, so I can put you on the deck for awhile. Would you like that?” The aid is young and uncertain. It embarrasses her to talk to Edith, since there seems to be no point. The woman’s mind is clearly gone. Lights out. No one home. She looks up at Helen Arlington with a questioning expression. The nurse nods approval. Pleased that she has done the right thing, the aid turns and leaves.

Helen Arlington fills Edith’s pitcher with fresh water. She picks up crumpled tissues from the stand next to the bed and opens the blinds. “I’ll tell the girl to check on you every hour,” she says. “Have a good day, Mrs. Brinkerhoff.” Edith watches her leave, the last glimpse of her dark ankle in her white shoe.

After breakfast, Edith is pushed to the window. The day is sunny and warm, but the aid has forgotten her promise to take her outside. Mrs. Brinkerhoff will spend her morning watching the cars through the glass, noting their colors. Light blue. Dark blue. Silver. Maroon.

The rumors about Edith Brinkherhoff are true, mostly. Now, when her life consists of the moving wedge of light, the counting of cars and days, she has only this: to remember.

She remembers the Levinsons. Samuel, a quiet man with dark eyes and a threadbare jacket saturated with pipe smoke. His late wife, Rachel, cheerful, blond as any pure German, who died young of influenza. The twin boys, toddlers in her earliest memories, then raucous schoolboys, then awkward twelve-year-olds, who had left cuteness behind and would never have the opportunity to become handsome. The boys played the piano. The Brinkerhoffs heard the music from their apartment every afternoon, major scales, minor scales, Mozart, Chopin.

The Levinsons were the Brinkerhoffs’ neighbors for fifteen years. They were friendly, but not friends. The Brinkerhofs didn’t care that they were Jews, not until later. They were too absorped in their own troubles—the broken stove, the leaking pipes, the rising price of everything—to worry about the Levinsons. Edith’s father drank too much. Her parents argued.

She was not Mrs. Brinkherhoff then, but Fraulein Edith, a bony-kneed, nervous child, easily overlooked. Not disobedient or rowdy, but neither cute nor charming, and with a tendency to say odd things.

The bird stood on my palm, and that’s when I saw it—the wall coming so fast. I felt my shoulders move, not shoulders but wings.

Good God, girl, what are you talking about? Stop tugging at your hair. Stand up straight.

I didn’t see the wall, and then I did, it was white and it came so fast I couldn’t stop.

Go to your room and read one of your books. Papa is not in the mood for nonsense.

The bird was a wren who had eaten seed from her hand as she stood on the landing one spring afternoon. She found the wren—she felt certain it was the same one, though she could not say why—lying by the wall of the school, ants in her beak and eyes. Edith was with her sister Ilse, who was seven, two years younger than Edith. The younger girl wrinkled her nose at the sight of the bird’s broken neck and swarming eyes, and made gagging sounds to indicate her disgust. Edith took her hand. Come on. Class is starting. Ilse ran up the stairs, but Edith turned to look at the bird, the white wall.

It did not happen for a long time after that and Edith began to think perhaps she’d dreamed about the wren. No one can experience the death of another, a death that hasn’t happened yet. But she could not forget.

One day, Herr Levinson met Edith on the stairs.

“Wait here. I have something for you.” He disappeared into his apartment and returned with a small bag containing two chocolates, one for her and one for Ilse. A relative had sent them from Holland. “I suspect you do not get chocolates often,” he said.

“Thank you, Herr Levinson,” Edith said. She had been taught to be polite.

The same week a boy from Edith’s school died of measles. Rainer Muller was a tall, studious boy in her class, a boy who liked science and wanted to be a chemist. Many children had measles that year, but while most returned to school in a week or two, and were soon running around as if nothing had happened, Rainer was buried in the graveyard by the church two weeks before his 12th birthday.

Edith told her parents she’d dreamed about it before it happened. She called it a dream, though she knew it wasn’t. She was wide awake when Rainer’s hand brushed hers as he walked past. She felt the burning fever, her eyes like hot stones, the drilling pain in her forehead, the sweat-laden weight of the quilt. She heard the soft sobbing of a woman. When she opened her eyes she saw not her own mother, but Rainer Muller’s, clutching a handkerchief, her face damp and swollen. Edith closed her eyes and lay in the still center of the pain until she felt Rainer’s death, the slip-sliding away.

Her mother told her it was a coincidence that she saw Rainer’s death just before it happened. You’ve heard people talking about children who died of measles. It’s made you anxious, and your worry turned into a dream, that’s all. Now, go outside. Why don’t you take your sister to the park?

Edith was not like Isle, who was dimpled and empty-headed. Ilse sat on papa’s knees and giggled. She sang, and the relatives beamed and applauded, not because she was talented, but because she curtseyed so cutely and had such a pretty little mouth. Edith sat, lost in thought, ignored.

The child is so odd.

Herr Levinson did not give Edith chocolates again, but he did invite her in for tea. He told her to ask her parents if it was all right. She didn’t, but she told him she had. She sat politely in his living room while the little boys played the piano and showed her their books. She was not interested in music or books, but she was happy sitting in the Levinson’s apartment. Herr Levinson showed her a picture of him and Frau Levinson when they were young. Edith thought the couple looked very beautiful together, that they seemed to be glad to be married to each other.

“You are lonely, I think,” Herr Levinson said. “I was a lonely child, too. With an elder brother who grabbed all the attention.” He lit his pipe, filling the room with fragrant smoke. “If you ever want to come play with the boys, you let us know. Our door is open.”

When Edith left the apartment, she sat in her room and cried silently, as if Herr Levinson had opened a wound that needed cleaning. She was much too shy to come for a visit again, but every time she saw Herr Levinson, he smiled and stopped to talk. Even after she stopped speaking, he talked to her.

One day—autumn, gray—she stood in the rain outside the door of Herr and Frau Hofmeister’s, neighbors two doors down, for more than an hour, trying to get the nerve to knock. From beneath the door came the smell of sausages and potatoes frying, children shouting. She raised her hand three times and put it back down three times. The fourth time, she forced herself to be brave. Frau Hofmeister, who knew her only as the Brinkerhoff’s daughter came to the door in a grease-spattered apron, her hair frizzing out from her bun.

What is it then? Speak up.

I just came to say…

Yes? Say what? Frau Hofmeister turned to shout over her shoulder. Maddalen! Ferdy! Stop running in the house! Then back to Edith. If you have something to say, say it.

I came to say…please be careful of your cat, Frau Hofmesiter.

My cat? Wenzel? Frau Hofmeister turned to look at the smooth white cat reclining on the sofa, licking his side. What about Wenzel?

Please don’t let him outside. It isn’t safe.

What are you talking about?

He could get run over by a car. You wouldn’t want that to happen, would you? If you keep him in the house, he won’t get hurt.

Frau Hofmeister was busy and tired and she sent Edith off, but two days later, the Hofmeisters appeared at the Brinkerhoff’s door, Frau Hofmeister clinging nervously to Herr Hofmeister’s arm, both of them peering inside, looking around the room anxiously for the strange child. Edith listened from the stairs.

Wenzel has gone missing. Two days now! He is always home at supper time. I give him scraps from my own plate. He must be hurt—or worse.

The girl did something to him. Not Ilse, of course. The other one.

The other girl? Our Edith? She’s not the kind of child to harm an animal. She would never… Edith heard her mother’s voice dwindle. She heard the doubt.

She came to our house. She threatened us! She said she would harm Wenzel if we let him out.

Papa called Edith’s name.

Edith, what do you have to say? What did you tell the Hofmeisters about their cat?

Wenzel had sauntered up to her one day outside her house. She crouched to pet him, heard the squeal of tires, felt the crunch of bone. She jerked her hand away and stood, staring at Wenzel as he snaked around her ankles.

I dreamed it I dreamed it I dreamed it. It wasn’t a dream.

Edith was not punished. Mama and Papa told the Hofmeisters they were mistaken, that cats run off or die, it happens all the time. Still, Edith saw something new in their eyes. That night, she heard them discussing her. Such a strange girl. She’d heard this many times before, but now it had taken on new meaning.

After that, she kept her dreams-that-were-not-dreams to herself, and since she could not tell the most powerful thing she felt and knew, she fell into a silence broken only when adults demanded it, and sometimes not then.

The images came and came. When Frau Schmidt touched her palm while giving her change at the bakery, Edith saw her slip on a slick bathroom floor, felt the impact of the sink cracking her skull. It would not happen for another year, but it would come. An elderly man brushed past her on the streetcar and she felt his chest explode, saw the light grow white in his eyes before it blinked off. Two years in the future. Inevitable. She held the Schneider’s baby and knew his breathing would stop, unexpectedly and for no reason, in three months and four days, at 2:04 A.M..

She tried only once to stop it. There was a dog, a stray who lived in the neighborhood, and whom Edith fed scraps of bread and fat sneaked from her own plate. He was shy, but one day he lowered his head and allowed himself to be petted, and in that way she learned his death would come on a Tuesday morning in August, in the canal near the bridge, not far from the church. He would be trying to drink when he slipped. Cold water, a desperate flail of limbs, the burn of the lungs the hold hold hold hold hold of air, and the one thing that is worse than not breathing, and that is breathing water.

She thought about the dog every night, week after week, and as the day of his death approached, a deep, firm determination formed in her chest. She could not keep the wren from the wall or Rainer from measles or Wenzel from the crushing wheels of the car. She could not stop Frau Schmidt from falling or make the Schneider’s baby breathe. But she could keep the dog from the canal.

The day before, she waited, sitting on the ground, dirtying her dress, knowing she would catch trouble for it. She waited a long time, several hours, and finally, the dog came. She had a rope and a bit of bread. The dog was hungry. He knew her. He was a sleek, bony dog, completely gray with gray eyes that studied her face. He hesitated only a moment before lowering his head and humbly coming to her. He did not snap or bite when she slipped the rope over his head. He did not protest when she led him home. She managed mirculously to get him into the house and up the stairs without her parents knowing. She put the gray dog in the closet. He seemed to know to remain quiet. She lay down a blanket, and he curled obediently on it. She filled a bowl with water and placed it down for him, and that night, she sneaked him scraps wrapped in a napkin. When the family was asleep, she allowed the dog out of the closet and onto her bed. He would be safe now. When the time came, he would be nowhere near the canal, but in her room. In the morning, she would release him because the drowning time would have come and gone. He would die someday, but not this day. She closed her eyes and breathed next to the contented snoring of the dog.

A scream woke her. It was early morning, cold, and the scream came from her mother. The door to her bedroom was open. But how could it be? She had made sure to close it. She stumbled out of bed and down the stairs in her nightgown, rubbing sleep from her eyes.

Mein gott! Mein gott!

Papa swore. “How could such a thing have happened? How did that mutt get into the house?” The gray dog lay on the kitchen floor, his eyes glazed, his muzzle in a pool of blood. He had eaten the white powder Mama used to kill rats. He had ignored the scraps of fat and crusts of bread in the garbage, which he could easily have reached. He worked the cupboard door open, going for the one thing in the house that would kill him.

That is when Edith learned. Death comes when it comes.

In school, Ilse grew popular. At fifteen, she had large round breasts. She giggled, and no one minded that she did poorly at her lessons.They called her sweetie and angel. She no longer sang for the adults, her voice so out of tune that even her prettiness did not make up for it.

Edith, to her great relief, no longer went to school. She did not listen to the radio with the family or pay attention to Papa’s pronouncements when he read the paper. The world changed around her, and she grew more silent. She was sent out sometimes to buy bread or cheese. Mama could not stand the way she shut herself in her room. It frightens me, the way she stares. She made up errands to get her out of the house.

On a snowy day in February, Edith went to the butcher in Haupstrasse. She returned with a miniature piece of beef and a dish of cabbage and chicken the butcher’s wife, had made. She was a friendly, smiling woman, who more than once had given Mama pieces of meat when her husband was not looking. No, no. Pay later! Times are hard.

It was nearly seven by the time Edith returned. If it were not for that, she would never have met Herr Levinson on the stair, where he sat smoking in the evenings. He would never have said, Guten Abend, Fraulein Edith. He would never have helped her with the key. She would never have touched his hand.

She staggered back. The dish fell, shattering on the concrete, shards of glass mixing with cream and cabbage.

“Oh dear dear,” Herr Levinson said. “A terrible shame. I will get the boys to help clean it up.”

She stared. She did not speak. Her breath would not come, then it came too fast. She fled Herr Levinson, the stairs, the mess of meat and glass, up the stairs, through the apartment into her room. She closed the door. It is not a dream.

She had known a hundred deaths by then, but never one like Herr Levinson’s. It was far off, months or possibly years in the future, but coming, coming. There would be unbearable cold. There would be hunger. Not ordinary hunger, but a raging yearning for food, a burn in the gut like cold fire. Look at the wrists, the jutting bones, the skin hanging like rags. These are my wrists, my hands, these claws. She saw the eyes of strangers, too large in shriveled faces. She saw a face, a well-fed boy, not a man yet, rosy cheeks, cruel eyes. She smelled death everywhere, everywhere. Where are the boys? The boys, my boys, my boys. What did they do to my children?

Edith locked herself in her room. She curled up in her bed, but she did not sleep.

In the morning, the Levinson boys came to the door. She heard their voices and got out of bed to press her ear to the door.

“We cleaned up the mess, but our father was concerned. She seemed unwell.”

“She is fine. Thank you.” Mother said nothing more. She didn’t thank the boys for their concern or their father’s help. She closed the door. She no longer spoke to the Levinsons.

Edith heard the boys’ voices, and she remembered their father’s words, the words he had not yet spoken, that he would speak some day. My boys my boys my boys my boys.

Edith refused to leave her room, despite her mother’s roaring demands, the pounding of her father. Come out this minute! She would not speak. She heard footsteps on the floor above her bed, and muffled voices—Herr Levinson and his sons. They would all die, the boys before their eighteenth birthdays, grotesque, lingering deaths, without dignity or comfort, and their names would be forgotten.

Death comes when it comes. How long ago had she learned that? She remembered the wren, the cat, Rainer Holtzer dying in a fevered haze. She remembered the gray dog. She could not save any of them.

On a gray March afternoon, Edith Brinkerhoff knocked on the door of the Levinsons’ flat. She held a covered dish, one hand resting on the bottom, a potholder shielding her palm from the heat.

“I wanted to thank you. For cleaning up the mess. For inviting me into your house that day. Long ago now.”

Herr Levinson’s eyes widened. “You are speaking, Fraulein. It has been so long since I heard you speak.”

“I brought you a dish. Kugel. I hope…” She hoped the Levinsons would eat the kugel. Perhaps they ate only Jewish food. Perhaps they would be wary of eating a dish prepared by such a strange young woman. Perhaps they would throw her kugel out, not knowing it was their only chance. They did not have long. Things would get very bad soon. Later, they would get worse. A few months, and it would be too late to help them.

Herr Levinson took the dish, smiling.

“Come in, Edith. Have some tea.”

She said no. “Good evening, Herr Levinson. Say hello to your boys for me.”

“I will, Edith. Thank you.”

Edith’s mother ranted. She ranted when the Levinson’s died. Poisoning themselves! What trash! Good riddance! She ranted about her silent daughter, the price of meat, her husband’s drinking. She ranted, too about the rats. What had become of the white powder she kept below the sink? There was half a jar last time she looked. That Jew poisons his own sons and we cannot get rid of the rats in our walls. Later, she opened her eyes her heart speeding in the middle of the night, when the connection she could not make in the daylight came to her in the dark.

Ilse was relieved when her husband went to war. She did not mourn when he died, though it left her with two hungry children and not enough money and the bitter sense that she had been robbed. She listened to the radio and believed the stories of triumph and patriotism and was bolstered, thinking of her sacrifice for her nation and her race. When the war ended, her only regret was losing her beauty at too young at age.

In 1952, she and her second husband emigrated to St. Paul, Minnesota. There was nothing for them in Germany now, they said. Mama and Papa had died by then, both of colds that turned into pneumonia. Ilse insisted that they bring Edith, despite her husband’s protests.

We can’t leave her alone. She’s crazy as a bat. A murderer. If it got out what she did…

We can’t live with her, Ilse. Think of the children. We have to keep the children safe.

We’ll find a place for her.

Ilse paid for the nursing home out of her inheritance, and then from her husband’s salary, a dear price. Edith was, after all, her sister.

“I won’t be back,” she said, parking Edith by the window on the day she brought her to the home. “Ever. We’ve had enough, Edith. We know what you are, what you did, and we don’t want you in our lives. You will be provided for. We would not let you out on the street. We’re not monsters. Not like you.” She left the room. A few minutes later, Edith saw her below, walking through the parking lot to the car in her gray wool coat and hat. A cloud of exhaust puffed from the back, and Ilse was gone.

The same day, struggling with a strange country, a language she spoke imperfectly, an angry husband, and the burden of a sister she feared and hated, Ilse told someone—a new friend in her new land—the shame that burned like fire smoldering under ice, swearing the new friend to an impossible secrecy. Ilse must talk, as Edith must be silent. She didn’t know the way words spread, from one person to the next to a nurse who tends to Edith every morning.

Edith does not know how long ago it was that Ilse brought her here. She has watched the sunlight move across the room perhaps ten thousand times. Judith Greene brings Edith her lunch, and one of the boys comes in with her afternoon medication. She watches the clock hands move inevitably toward 1:17.

It is nearly two when she hears alarm in the voices from the hall. She cannot make out the words, but she knows they have gotten the news. They liked Helen Arlington and will grieve her.

You just never know when it is going to happen. You get up in the morning, and you just don’t know.

The sun moves to the small table, where there have never been flowers. It glares on the metalic edge of the mirror. It dims.

From her window, Edith counts the cars. She notes their colors. Three blue. One white. Four silver. Doors open and doors close. Footsteps mark out complex patterns, thousands of steps back and forth, leaving and returning, each one stepping toward the same end.

 

 

BIO

Jill JepsonJill Jepson is the author of Writing as a Sacred Path: A Practical Guide to Writing with Passion and Purpose (Ten Speed Press) and the editor of No Walls of Stone: An Anthology of Literature by Deaf and Hard of Hearing Writers (Gallaudet University Press). She holds a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Chicago and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a full professor at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN.

 

 

 

0
Janice E Rodriguez

Ground Control

by
Janice E. Rodríguez

 

 

I blame the International Astronomical Union for my mother’s departure from rational thought. Their announcement of Pluto’s demotion from planet to planet-like object left schoolteachers racking their brains for a my-very-excellent-mother-just-served-us-nine-pizzas replacement, museum curators wondering whether to snap the last orb from their orreries, and my mother, always sensitive to minor shifts that no one else felt, floating away from reality, converted into a mother-like object.

“I’ve sold the house,” she said on an October morning.

Our waitress circled the diner with coffee pot in hand, lingering a second too long by our table, sniffing the air for resentment and gossip. I waved her off.

“Mother, it’s too soon after Dad. You should wait a while before you make a big decision like that. Give it until Christmas.”

Mother wiped her mouth on a paper napkin and counted out her half of the bill plus a tip, stacking the coins into neat piles.

“The papers are signed. ’Tis done,” she said, affecting a vaguely Scottish accent. “You two should come over and see if you want anything. It won’t all fit in my apartment at the retirement community. I can’t keep the telescope, and I’d like someone to have it. Of course, that supposes that David will deign to set foot in my place.”

I kept my face bland and soft, refusing to rise to the bait. She stood and headed for the door.

Irrational. On a whim and probably at a marked-down price, she’d signed away the house whose threshold she had crossed as a bride, my childhood home, the single fragment of our family existence my father was able to recognize when his other memories had fled.

“She hates retirement communities,” I said. “So did Dad.”

The waitress looked at the bill and money and then at me, and I scrabbled in my wallet for my half.

“That your mom?” she asked. “You’re like two peas in a pod.”

“Not really.”

Since I escaped to college, Mother had maintained an untidy orbit on the far reaches of my existence. Six visits a year were plenty—three melodramatic and disastrous holidays, her birthday, and two random days marked in black on my calendar. David always stayed away, which gave Mother an opening line: “Is he at home, or did you finally kick the pompous ass out of your house?” This she alternated with, “Did you wise up and move out yet?”

We scheduled all six visits for neutral ground, like two wary souls on a blind date or two weary spouses navigating a divorce. She had never been abusive; she wasn’t evil; we were just too unalike to get along.

And now, three years after the IAU sent those unexpected vibrations rippling across the solar system and through Mother’s body and soul, she’s gone, a clot shaken loose from a leg or an arm to lodge in her brain. Her pastor and a hospital social worker assure me that she went in an instant.

I stand at the door to her apartment, empty boxes next to me on the floor, her purse tucked under my arm, her key in my hand. The keychain, a battered souvenir of the 1964 World’s Fair, swings heavily, and I hope for a second that its weight will pull me away from the door. I look at the fob, a heavy disk depicting the Unisphere, one of my only memories of that vacation. Mother and Dad hated traveling. The mother-like object that entered my life three years ago visited Cape Cod and the Jersey shore four seasons out of the year and sent tacky postcards with enigmatic messages.

I insert the key in the lock and am pushing open the door when my cell rings.

“Hey,” my husband says.

I juggle the two purses and the phone. “Hi.”

“Your Aunt Betty called. She said nice funeral and she wants your father’s burial flag and his Army medals.”

I stare in horror at Mother’s apartment, decorated in Dad’s least favorite color, blue.

“Are you there?”

“Yeah, David,” I say. Navy wall-to-wall carpeting. “I’m here.”

“She says that the widow has first priority but then after that, that stuff should pass to the nearest living male relative.”

“To cousin Rob.” Blue willow china in the corner cupboard. Toile cobalt children and farm animals scampering across the sofa.

“I gave her your cell number.”

“What? No, David. I have too much to do today.”

“So do I,” he says. “She can’t keep calling me here. I have a business to run.”

I yank the key from the lock and let the door fall closed behind me.

“Did you pick up my dry cleaning?” David asks. He sounds like a cliché.

“It’s on my list. I’ll see you tonight.”

The counselor would be proud of us. It’s the most civil conversation we’ve had without her supervision in six months.

I walk to the kitchen and dump the phone and purses on the table. As I dig for my to-do list, I notice that the kitchen is awash in a sea of blue, too, with some sunny Provençal yellows to keep it company. I pencil the word cleaners where it belongs, between the post office, where I need to find out how cancel Mother’s mail, and the liquor store, where I need to buy a bottle of anesthetic to get me through this week.

On the bookshelf, a gaudy ceramic rooster and chicken stand in front of a jagged skyline of cookbooks. Mother preferred her cookbooks in alphabetical order by author, blind to the untidy look that created.

The rooster and chicken were table decorations at Aunt Betty’s reception the second time she married, the first and last country hoe-down theme wedding I ever attended, and my twelve-year-old self never expected a bride in a patchwork prairie skirt or a groom with a bolo tie, especially when the bride was from Philadelphia and the groom from Secaucus.

Grandmom Parker and Great Aunt Irene sat at a gingham-covered picnic table with us that day. There were ribs and fried chicken, applesauce, potato salad, and a brownie wedding cake. Grandmom ate nothing but applesauce. Great Aunt Irene explained that their hotel was too close to the railroad tracks and Grandmom had ground her teeth—her gums, really, because her full upper and lower dentures had been in a jar on the nightstand—the whole of the sleepless night, and her mouth was too sore to put the dentures back in.

“Isn’t that a shame?” Aunt Irene asked. “Her own daughter’s wedding, and she can’t say or eat hardly anything.”

Grandmom glared at her.

“Of course, there could be a third wedding. With Betty you can’t tell,” Aunt Irene said.

“Harry’s a good man,” Dad said. “He and Betty have known each other for a long time.”

Aunt Irene helped herself to a second drumstick. “Know each other? Well, you know what I always say.”

Grandmom’s eyes narrowed at her in warning.

“I always say that you never really know a man until you’ve seen him naked.”

Our table and the two beside us went quiet in response. Another round of scratchy, bouncy fiddle music started up a few tense moments later.

“Isn’t that right?” Aunt Irene asked Grandmom.

“Let’s dance!” Mother said to Dad, smiling, eyes shining.

“When have you ever known me to dance?” Dad said.

I avoided the withering look he gave her by knocking my fork to the floor and spending more time than necessary recovering it. Under the table, Mother’s feet kept merry time with the music.

I move the ceramic rooster and chicken and begin to pull the books down, unsure of whether to box them up or to reshelve them by height. The doorbell rings and helps me avoid a decision for a little while.

Three elderly women stand in Mother’s doorway, sad smiles on their faces.

“We’re the Transitions Committee,” the first woman tells me.

The second hands me a business card. Happy Meadows—There’s No Place Like Home. Transitions Committee.

The third pats my arm and says, “We’re so sorry to hear of your loss.”

They have matching perms, tight curls blown dry into soft helmets, a blue rinse.

“You look just like your mother, dear,” the first woman says. She hands me a brochure.

They bustle into Mother’s apartment in unison, a single officious body with three heads and six legs.

I remember them now. They were at Mother’s funeral. David and I had been seated in the front pew, with Aunt Betty, Husband #3, and my cousins behind us, their kids behind them. I saw the three-headed, six-legged beast in the back pew on my way to the ladies’ room.

“TB, the family disease,” Mother would have said. “Tiny bladder. Give us Miller women an important occasion, and we just have to go and go.”

I paused on my return from the ladies’ room and listened to the three women.

“The son-in-law is an architect,” said the first.

“I understand they don’t have children,” the arm-patter said.

“That’s a shame,” said the card-carrier. “Is that the son in the second row with all those kids behind?”

 

“No,” said the first. “It must be some other relative. She only had the daughter and no grandchildren at all, poor thing.”

The card-carrier pointed to the left and said, “Is that the organist’s husband?”

“He’s gotten awfully heavy,” said the first.

The arm-patter shook her head sadly, “I never would have recognized him.”

The first woman opens the brochure, which is in my hand, and begins to speak while her two companions eye Mother’s blue living room. “Some families, when they have finished dividing a loved one’s possessions, find that there are usable goods left over. It can be difficult at times like these to find worthy charities to accept the goods. The Transitions Committee has assembled a list of places in the community where your loved one’s memory will live on in the form of donations.”

The arm-patter points to an address. “This food bank will accept perishable foods, within their expiration date, of course, and will even come here to make a pickup. We suggest that you tackle the refrigerator first, even if you don’t want to call the food bank. Otherwise, it becomes an unpleasant job.”

The other two concur with delicate shudders, and their shudders turn to startled jumps as my cell rings. It’s Aunt Betty’s area code.

“Thank you so much, ladies,” I say, closing the door on their surprised faces. “I’ve got to take this call. You’ve been so much help, really. Thanks. Thanks again.”

I put the chain across the door and toss the phone onto Mother’s blue recliner on my way back to the kitchen.

There are only two cookbooks that I remember, a Betty Crocker and a Fannie Farmer, and I put them in a box with a yellow sticky note—yellow for you is how I’ll remember—before loading the rest into a second box. I slap a green sticky note on the box; green for Goodwill. The bottom shelf holds Mother’s collection of astronomy books. I box them and affix a green sticky note.

The kitchen cabinets are next, the cans and jars alphabetized, for heaven’s sake, with no thought to the fact that lentil soup is tall enough to obscure the sliced button mushrooms. There are three boxes with blue sticky notes marked Food Bank when I finish. I search in vain for Mother’s good china. The everyday dishes—more blue and yellow Provençal—go into a box with a green sticky note.

Mother was a gifted and adventurous cook. In the back of the large bottom cabinet are the tagine, the fondue set, the madeleine pan, the springerle board, the wok, the bamboo steamer, and the little metal cornets on which she rolled delicate cookies into cornucopias. Dish after dish of exotica she would set before us when I was growing up, relentlessly innovative even with my favorite, macaroni and cheese, and Dad would patiently eat most of it, only occasionally delivering words that set her lips into a tight, thin line: “Well, we don’t have to have that again.”

I keep the madeleine pan. The rest goes in a box that I carry to the living room before tagging it a green sticky note.

The Transitions Committee be damned; I’m not going to save perishables. I put aside some bread, peanut butter, and juice for breakfast and send the remaining contents of the refrigerator sluicing down the garbage disposal, sad vegetables, fruit that’s seen better days, sour milk and memories. The frozen food goes in the trash.

It’s nearly five, and there’s not enough time to make it home and get dinner on the table before seven. I pick up the phone and dial into David’s voice mail; the counselor would tell me I’m avoiding authentic communication, but she’s never seen how he gets when his routine is disrupted.

“It’s me. There’s a lot more here than I thought, so I’ll stay the night. I left dinner in the fridge. Just reheat it. The dry cleaners will give you your suit if you give them your phone number, well, my cell phone number.”

Mother used to say that husbands have to be treated like colicky newborns—kept on a strict schedule. I remind myself that even the most distant planets align from time to time.

I pull Mother’s phone book out of the recycling bin and dial a pizza parlor, smiling and thinking that when the cat’s away, the mice order out.

Awaiting dinner, I put pink sticky notes on the living room and kitchen furniture—pink for the poor—all of it destined for pickup by the Fourth Street Shelter, all of it new, the furniture from my childhood home apparently jettisoned with the rest of our family memories.

There’s a bottle of wine in the corner cupboard in the living room, a little too sweet and effervescent for my taste and far too pedestrian for David’s, but it goes great with the pizza.

The combined effects of wine, packing, and memories leave me feeling sleepy. I choose Mother’s guest bedroom—her own room would be far too strange—which is mauve. I search the closet for a guest bathrobe.

No bathrobe, but a box marked china. I slide a thin blue photo album from on top and toss it onto the bed for later inspection. I peer inside the box; Mother and Dad’s wedding china is there. I smile and put a yellow sticky note on it. In a box below it, I find her wedding dress, draped over a busty form beneath a plastic window, preserved in its acid-free box, awaiting the day when her daughter or granddaughter might wear it. I disappointed her twice on that one.

There’s no guest robe in the bathroom either, so I go into her bedroom. Everything inside her closet smells like flowers and summer hay, and I shut the scent of her away, unexpected tears burning my eyes.

I open the bottom drawer of her dresser. It’s a new dresser destined to be marked with a pink sticky tomorrow, but I know Mother. Her bottom dresser drawer always contained clothing she never wore but felt guilty giving or throwing away. Front and center is the tee shirt David and I bought her on our trip to Hawaii ten years ago. Beneath that is the fifteen-year-old one from Paris.

I pour myself another glass of dreadful wine and crawl into the guest bed, wearing the Paris shirt and steeling myself to look through the photo album. Before I open it, I make a trip to Mother’s room to retrieve a box of tissues.

Mother and Dad in their twenties, at a picnic with friends, everyone’s arms linked, everyone’s face contorted against the sunshine. Mother and Dad at a meeting of the church group for young couples, The Twosomes, Dad out of focus. Dad bowling, Mother looking off camera. Mother and Dad at Niagara Falls, Mother’s eyes closed and Dad’s popped open in surprise.

Me on Dad’s lap, Mother standing behind us, one hand on Dad’s shoulder and the other on mine, smiling through clenched teeth. Mother and Dad at one of Aunt Betty’s weddings, sitting apart, the air tense between them.

Anniversary pictures, posed and stiff. Me graduating college, arms thrown around both my parents’ waists, leaning into Dad, away from Mother. Candid photos, with one or the other smiling, but never both.

I swallow wine. Leave it to Mother to compile a record of the unhappiest moments of her forty-six years of married life. There is another, thicker photo album on the nightstand, and I fortify myself with another glass of wine before opening it.

The first pages are blank, and I turn the album upside down. But then the photographs are upside down. I right the album and begin at the back. Mother and Dad in their twenties, seated on a picnic table, their knees, heads, and shoulders together. Mother and Dad as secretary and president of The Twosomes.

Mother has arranged this album in reverse chronological order, and every photo shines with happiness and family pride. Then, as I page backward through the album and forward in time, Mother with new friends, people I don’t know.

Mother at Mount Rushmore. Mother with another woman and two men by Lake Louise. Mother and her friends in front of the Eiffel Tower. Mother in London. Mother in a store in Scotland, holding a kilt in front of her waist. Mother dressed as an elderly Christmas elf serving dinner at a homeless shelter. Mother and a white-haired man at a Western-themed Halloween party. Blank pages, and I sleep.

***

Thin-crusted, cardboard-boxed pizza undergoes a magical maturation process overnight in the refrigerator, and it makes a delightful breakfast, one I usually enjoy only when David’s out of town, so I give it the full treatment—serving the slices on a paper towel instead of a plate, crooking one knee and resting my foot on my chair, watching the television and reading a magazine while I eat.

The pizza keeps my morale high as I strip Mother’s bed and put pink sticky notes on the furniture. I’m prepared this time—windows open to draw her perfume away, the television keeping me company, and it works until I open her closet door. Headless, handless, empty clothes sag on hangers, looking like her and not like her. Front and center is an outfit that crowds the others, one I recognize from the fatter of the two photo albums, a pink top with a ruffle under the scoop neck, ruffles under the puffed short sleeves, a pink and green plaid skirt that flares out, and underneath that, about a mile of stiff petticoat. I shake my head.

Except for the green and pink costume, the clothes are organized by color, and I pull them out, sort them into piles by season, bag them, and put green stickers on them. Shoes go into a box. Underwear I throw out, mechanically, purposely avoiding thought. The detritus and whimsies of life grow when they’re released from the confines of their storage spaces and pose impossible questions: Why did you buy me? What do I say about you? Why wear that to a Halloween party?

Cooking magazines and romance novels form an irregular tower by the bed. I throw them into a heavy-duty garbage bag, sweep a parade of tiny perfume bottles from the nightstand after them, and pull the plastic drawstrings closed.

Curled around the base of the lamp is one of Dad’s watches. He bought and lost a half-dozen a year, cheap ones, even before the Alzheimer’s, the kind you used to be able to buy in a corner drugstore. My eyes sting. I can’t believe Mother saved one of them. I find the box with the good china, wrap the watch in tissues, and tuck it inside,

The bedroom takes up the rest of the morning, with a brief interruption for the pickup by the food bank. Only the bathroom remains, where I suspect that I’ll throw out everything, and the closet by the front door. My cell rings. Aunt Betty. I ignore her.

I haven’t found Dad’s service flag or the medals. Aunt Betty will declare this a perfect opportunity for a melodramatic scene. To the closet, then, to find a way to shut Aunt Betty up.

I hear a knock as I go, and I’ve got the front door open before the man outside has withdrawn his lightly closed fist. He stands there, hand raised, one knuckle extended beyond the rest, face frozen like a mask, eyes shifting away so I can’t read them.

“I, uh … hadn’t heard. She never … The ladies told me when I got back this morning.” He jerks his head to the right, and I see three blue-haired heads disappear around the corner of the hall in unison.

I pull him inside and close the door.

He smiles and pats my hand. “So you take in strays, too, just like her. I’m John Bailey.”

I can’t figure out whether to pull back my hand to shake his or to put the other one on top, so I settle for stepping back and offering him a glass of water.

His throat catches. “You sound just like her, too.”

When I return, he’s blinking back tears as he surveys the stacks of boxes and piles of bags.

“Would you like a few minutes alone, Mr. Bailey?” I ask, and I retreat to the bathroom before he can answer. I wonder out loud if the Fourth Street Shelter can use opened toiletries.

I hear sniffling and shuffling, and he appears at the bathroom door.

“The tissues aren’t in the bedroom,” he says.

“Guest bedroom, Mr. Bailey.”

“John,” he says.

“John.”

He returns with the box, blowing his nose loudly. “I was visiting my kids in Michigan. No one called me.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“I brought her this.” He extends a blue folder.

I usher him back to the living room, and we sit so I can read the certificate inside.

Belles and Bucks Modern Western Square Dance
Mrs. Doris Parker & Mr. John Bailey
First Prize
Division 3—Senior Beginners

“May I buy you lunch?” he asks.

I’m not sure why I accept. Perhaps it’s the way he holds his grief back, under the surface, wrapped in a thin and fragile skin. Perhaps I think the skin will be less likely to burst if we’re in public. Soon I find myself in the retirement home’s café, fiddling with a menu, ordering a cheeseburger.

John leans forward confidentially. “So have you thrown that no-good husband of yours out of the house yet?”

I cough iced tea up my nose.

“Sorry. It’s what your mother would have asked you.”

“And it’s just about exactly the way she’d ask, too.” I let several minutes pass in silence to show my disapproval before asking about the square dancing.

John talks between bites of sandwich. “Your mother was a terrific dancer, God rest her. If she had started sooner in life, she could have been a professional.”

“There are professional square dancers?” I ask.

He stares out the window. “I can’t believe she’s gone.”

I repeat the comforting words of the pastor and social worker—no pain, gone in an instant—hoping they’re true.

Being in public is no proof against John’s grief, and he begins to cry in the way of those who rarely permit themselves to do so, a few fat tears smeared away with the balls of the hands, then wracking, painful sobs.

I walk him back to Mother’s apartment, people giving me angry and suspicious glances as we go. I cannot carry or assuage the grief of this man I do not know, so I settle him in Mother’s blue toile armchair, fetch him tissues, and begin sorting through the last closet.

A cardboard box with Mother’s bank statements and bills, yellow sticky note. Coats and jackets for all seasons, green sticky note. Boots, green sticky note. Umbrellas … trash?

“You’re very efficient, very contained,” John says. “I can see why Doris would have thought that seemed cold sometimes.”

I’m glad my back is turned. I find a box the on the top shelf of the closet. Dad’s flag and medals.

John is standing behind me now, looking at Dad’s things.

“She was proud of you,” he says. “Proud of your work. You know, there was no such thing as art therapy when I was your age. I wonder if it would have helped the boys who came back from Korea.”

“I work with children, not adults.”

The doorbell rings, and the workers from the Fourth Street Shelter are here for the boxes and bags with pink sticky notes. The Goodwill people are next. I hand them the estate donation forms, and they carry out everything marked with a green sticky note.

“I should go,” John says. “You keep this for her.”

He presses the certificate into my hand. I have no way of explaining to him that the thought of Mother square dancing is completely alien to me.

He’s halfway out the door when he asks, “Did you find a watch? It’s nothing fancy. Brown leather band. I left it here last time.”

“No.” So long as that watch is in the box with the good china and a yellow sticky note, it’s mine. It’s Dad’s.

“I’ll give you my address in case you find it.” John writes it down, draws a little map. “I guess you’re going soon.”

“Tonight.”

His eyebrows quirk, his lips twitch, words forming and unforming and failing to emerge from his mouth. He gulps and nods and pats me on the shoulder.

“Wonderful woman, your mother.”

When he leaves, I consolidate my boxes and bags and begin to haul them to the car. I open the fatter of the photo albums and flip through to the picture of what I supposed to be a Halloween party. I scan the background—azaleas in bloom, green grass, the women dressed in ruffled tops and flared, tiered skirts with petticoats, the men wearing matching fabric on the yokes of their Western shirts or on their ties. Next to Mother, arm behind her back, is John Bailey. There are tiny indentations at her side where his fingers must surely be clasping her to him. His tie matches the green and pink get-up she wears; his broad smile mirrors hers.

I slip the certificate that John has brought into a blank page in the album and close Dad’s—John’s—watch between the cover and first page. On my way out of town, I stop at his place and put the album on his doorstep. I ring the doorbell and walk away, but he hails me before I get to the car and does an old man’s half-jog over to me.

He points down the street. “Half a mile from here is the turnpike. Past the grocery store. Two more lights. You’ll see the sign on your right when you get to the gas station. There’s a whole universe out there. You’d be happier without him, you know.”

I thank him and nod and head the way he pointed, toward infinite possibilities and alternate worlds. When I’m out of sight of his place, I double back and drive home.

 

 

BIO

Janice E RodriguezJanice E. Rodríguez inhabits two realities—the rolling hills and broad valleys of her native eastern Pennsylvania, and the high, arid plains of her adopted land of Castilla-León in Spain. She currently teaches Spanish at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. When she’s not teaching, writing, or gardening, she’s in the kitchen working her way through a stack of cookbooks. She can be found online at janiceerodriguez.com.

0
MP Stien

The Oracle

by
P.M.  Neist

 

 

He was in no position to miss the meeting, or cancel it for that matter. He hadn’t written a thing in months: not a paragraph, not a sentence, not a word. And he had to admit: they’d been nice about it. Yes they had. They had granted him a six-month sabbatical, followed by a two-week creativity retreat in Colorado. When that had failed, they had stepped it up, and he couldn’t blame them: weekly mandatory group therapy, a writer’s boot camp in Nebraska, goal setting, visualization, coaching, hypnosis. Now this.

He had driven bumper-to-bumper for two hours and parked in the last spot on the roof of the garage across the street. It was raining, the hard October wind pushing moisture into his shirt collar. He should have worn a scarf. He should have shaved. He hurried into the stairwell and made his way to the ground floor, bracing himself for the short walk to the Bellevue. He remembered going on a date there, eons ago, with someone’s sister.

He pushed the door open.

The hostess, lumpy and myopic looked vaguely familiar. He handed his coat, finger-combed his hair into some semblance or order, and scanned the dining room.

There she was, the only guest at a square table under the oversized crystal chandelier. She was shorter than he’d imagined, much older, with what looked like a dead animal around her neck, or was that a fur collar?

Peter Knudsen, he said. Pleased to meet you.

She squeezed his fingers, limply he thought.

I have taken the liberty to order. The mussels are excellent here. I hope you don’t mind.

He was allergic to seafood. Surely that would be in his file? But would they have shared this information with her? He wasn’t sure how these things worked.

That’ll be great, he said.

She smiled and motioned for the waiter. The baby blue walls, the fussy gilded dining chairs and the tall windows with their two layers of semi-transparent curtains were as he remembered. The menu was probably be the same as well, and the catatonic-looking waiter pouring the white wine.   She lifted her glass.

Cheers.

They each took a sip, hers considerably deeper than his. He’d barely set down his glass when the waiter came back with two steaming black pots of mussels, and two small plates of French fries balanced on his inner wrists. She made an ambiguous noise. Was that a hint of a mustache on her upper lip? He made an effort to return her gaze.

So, Peter, why don’t you start by telling me about you? Writer in Chief for the Little Sisters of Prayerful Mercies is an impressive position. How did you get there?

This was simple enough. He’d answered an ad for a part-time position his senior year of undergraduate studies in romance languages.   The Sisters had started him with the weekly prayer at the back the their children’s magazine, Papillon, she must have heard of it? (She hadn’t). Within the year, he had progressed to writing the monthly prayer of contrition for Spiritual Teen and by the time he was finishing graduate school, he was in charge of the congregation’s seven annual novenas: for the well-being of expectant mothers, the safe return of the troops, the recovery from cancer, pneumonia, croup and bankruptcy and of course the two semi-annual retreats at the shrine of Our Lady of Infinite Pardon.  One thing led to another.   When the previous Writer in Chief died of a heart attack, a month before his graduation, the Little Sisters offered him a full-time job. That was it. He paused, considering the food.

Married?

Divorced.

Children?

Two dogs.

She gnawed at the foot of an impressively large mussel, juice dripping from her chin. Should he say something? Offer his napkin? She was older than his mother. Certainly his gesture couldn’t be misinterpreted as anything but kindness. Before he could act, she reached for her own napkin and slurped at the sauce in the shell.

Soulful repose?

Pardon me?

Do you write for the deceased?

Rarely. There is another writer who is in charge of funerals. But I do write the annual card for All Saints Day and the Prayer of General Mercy for the Unborn.

He watched her work the food.   He’d not touched his plate yet.

The sisters make quite a bit of money from all those prayers don’t they?

I don’t deal with the business aspects of the congregation.

But he had thought about money. In fact, he had toyed with the idea of going into business on his own, writing a small prayer book perhaps, under a pseudonym, something comforting and light, one of those small formats that sold in the magazine rack of drugstores. But he had never had the stamina of an entrepreneur. In any case, his non-compete agreement prevented him from writing anything spiritual for anyone but The Little Sisters. There were ways around it of course, and the sisters had never refused permission for him to write an occasional heartfelt birthday or sympathy card for friends or family. He just never had the time to explore anything else. That was all.

She burped into her fist.

Excuse me.

She dabbed at her lips, leaving two scarlet crescents on the linen napkin. He picked up a French fry, dipped it in mustard.

Are you a believer Peter?

Of course.

She lifted an eyebrow.

Are you sure?

I have always had faith.

She could fish all she wanted, the old bat. Mass every day, confession once a week, altar guild: he had absolutely nothing to fear in that department. She rested her hunched shoulders against the back of the chair.

Faith is a given, you know, a bit like a piece of family furniture, something that’s being passed on to you by your upbringing. Believing, on the other hand, is an act of will. It takes grits to believe. With believing comes doubts and with doubts come suffering. So I am going to ask again.

She paused for effect, a bloody drama queen.

Are you a believer Peter?

He didn’t even raise his sight from his plate.

With all due respect, I don’t agree with your semantics, though you are perfectly entitled to your opinions.

He hadn’t felt this calm in months.

She looked to the left and must have made eye contact with the waiter because the guy appeared almost immediately, a trained dog answering her call. They remained silent through the next glass of wine. Suddenly, without ceremony and certainly without asking, she switched her near empty pot of mussels for his full one and started eating his food. Seriously? Did she think he was going to fall for this?

You know who I am, don’t you? She asked.

I know what they call you: the Oracle.

Her laugh startled him: deep and pebbly, unsuited to the size of her body.   And what had he said that was so funny? Everybody had heard of the Oracle. There were plenty of stories of people whose lives had been done and undone by her predictions. Happy stories, sure, but plenty of sad ones too. She was nothing to laugh about, and nothing about this meeting seemed remotely pleasant or funny to him. She was quieting down.

What do people call you, Peter? Prayer Man?

He felt the pang of anger rise in his chest. He counted to six, a trick he had learned at one of those annoying day-long workshops the Little Sisters scheduled twice a year: “Managing the range of feelings” ,or something of the kind. At least, this one had proved to be surprisingly memorable and effective. He breathed out, slowly.

To tell you the truth: I have never cared what people call me. I do my job, do it well and leave it at that.

You used to do your job.

He counted again, staring at the framed reproduction on the dining room wall above her right shoulder: “Oldham from Glodwick” by John Howe Carse. He was surprised he could name the painting. The waiter was back, clearing the table.

Dessert? Coffee? She asked, like the good hostess she wasn’t.

Not for me, thank you.

She ordered cherry pie and a triple espresso.

And a cognac, she added.

They sat in silence for a while. She was rummaging through her purse, absorbed in her search for something or other: phone or notes. He disliked her small, ferret-like movements, the way she pursed her lips. At least she was no longer talking and that was a huge relief.   Soon, the waiter would bring the last of the food and drink and they would be done. He would find himself into the safety of the street and later, that of his apartment where he would lie down on the couch and listen to music as he had done almost every day for the past eight months. If the Little Sisters decided to fire him, that would be fine.

But when she finally looked up, her eyes had turned an intense shade of blue that shook him to the core. This was it. He’d read accounts of other people’s meetings with the Oracle, how there was never a way out, how you just knew you had been cornered and would have to learn your fate. His heart was racing like a miniature pony trying to escape from his chest. When her voice finally came out to him, it sounded like one of those old vinyl records, scratchy and smooth at the same time.

Listen Peter, I believe you are a good person, I really do and so do The Little Sisters, which is why we are having this conversation. But I must let you know: your chances at happiness are getting slimmer by the minute. You can keep being tossed about by life and your brand of anxieties or you can start believing – really believing – that your fate has nothing to do with you or what you do. Take me, for example, do you really think I can predict the future?

She didn’t wait for his answer.

Frankly Peter, I have no idea whether or not I can. I show up, say what I think I must say and let others worry about the outcome. You should consider doing the same.

He nodded. Whatever she was saying, he wanted it to end, the sooner the better. She leaned forward and took his wrist, her fingers warm as a ring of fire.

All of this…

She made a vague gesture toward the curtains and the street beyond.

It’s one big motion: a process. That’s all. We do our part, we move on. It’s not really our concern. Do you understand me?

He had no idea what she was saying.

Yes.

Excellent.

She let go. He felt himself go slack. The waiter was back, placing a slice of pie, coffee and drink on the table in front of him.

This is not for me, Peter told him.

But the Oracle was up from her chair, a hand on his shoulder.

Oh, but it is, she said, her hand heavy as an iron chain. Eat it. It will do you a world of good. You’ll see.

She shushed him with a firm pat on the shoulder.

So this was it? All he had to do was eat and drink, and it would be over? He felt relieved, but as he reached for the spoon, she lowered her head, tenderly it seemed, and for a moment he thought she might kiss him.

She bent further, her lips grazed his right ear.

Peter? She whispered.

He didn’t dare look up, or move.

Do us both a favor will you? Get the fuck back to work.

 

 

BIO

MP StienRaised in a French fishing village, P.M. Neist acquired her storytelling skills from a colorful cast of spirited relatives. After moving to the United States, Neist switched to writing in English. Soon after, she started drawing. She is the author and illustrator of Barely Behaving Daughters, an illustrated alphabet of girls who like to do as they please.

 

 

 

 

0
Taylor García

Monica in Georgetown

by
Taylor García

 

Pie Sisters isn’t packed on a Sunday night, and though I want it to be darker, the place is airy and bright, and the smell of butter and sugar almost knocks you out. On first glance, it’s just students with Macs and books, and couples over slices of pie and cups of coffee. Then, toward the back, her black hair and unmistakable profile jump out. My palms sweat and they never do. My mouth goes dry. Sure, this was Mom’s idea, and I’m only appeasing her yet again, but shit, this is Monica Lewinsky.

“Ms. Lewinsky?” I reach, then pull back. No hand offered from the cool invisible bubble that surrounds her.

“Oh, hi.” Only a flat acknowledgment of a smile. “Troy?”

“Are you alone?” I say.

Monica shifts her eyes left. A big, bulky brother in plain clothes, sits a table away, deep into his smart phone. It would make sense she has protection. The presidents and their families have it for life. Why not their mistresses? Though Monica, not the taxpayer, must be fitting the bill for this guy.

I’m overdressed in a button-down and tie against Monica’s modest Gap-ad wear and her detail’s gym clothes. Her manicured fingers lace around a latte.

Way back, when I wrote for my high school newspaper in Little Rock, our advisor, the lovely Ms. Georgiou, drilled it into me to be a train on a track when interviewing. “They’re giving you their time. Don’t waste it,” she’d say. I had brought that into my budding journalism career in D.C., had it wired for years, but right now, it won’t work. My skin is shriveling up into itself.

Monica gives me the flat smile again, takes the lead.

“I typically don’t meet with strangers, or discuss the Clintons, but the story you told my publicist sounded—provocative.”

“Well, thank you for meeting me. Especially here in D.C. I’m sure it’s the last place—”

She waves it off. “I happened to be here for a fundraiser. It all lined up.” She waits, but I’m still speechless. Here’s Monica Lewinsky, not that much older than me, both of us merely children in the summer of ’98, both of us starry-eyed for the man that would never love us back. She: that woman, publically shamed, and me, her lover’s illegitimate son, waiting, plotting to come forward.

“So,” she says, “you claim your mother had a liaison with President Clinton?”

According to Mom, it was back in 1978 in Arkansas. Nine months later, me. I’ve told her a million times it would make a much sexier story if she came forward first, Clinton’s secret African-American mistress, and then me, the product of that affair, but she’s too chicken. She’s been putting me up to this since I first came out here for college.

“Well, he was just elected Governor of Arkansas then.” I lick my lips, trying to get my mouth to move again. Monica must think I’m a perv. But wow, she is pretty. “She was a staffer on his campaign.”

“And you know, without a doubt, that he’s your father?” she says.

“Yes. That’s what my mother says.” I can channel Mom when I need to. She adjusts her frame when talking about Dad, like I’m doing now.

“Well, you’ll need DNA proof,” Monica says, “otherwise there’s nothing.”

She sips her coffee, makes brief eye contact with her guard. He gives her an imperceptible nod. This won’t last long, I know. The vultures could swoop in any second. I used to do it all the time as a reporter.

“What do you do, Troy?” she says.

“I’m out of work. My paper shut down. Right now I’m just spending a lot of time at the Libertarian Party office. Getting ready for the election.”

“Are you running?” she says.

“One of these days.” My palms have stopped sweating, and her face has softened. Still no vultures. “I want to be President some day.”

“Oh,” she says. “Just like your father.” She flashes that classic toothy smile from her intern I.D. badge, circa 1990-something.

“Yeah, just like him,” I say, embarrassed. At least that’s what Mom has always wanted for me. Our plan has never changed: expose the truth with Monica’s help, then use that vortex fame to topple the Clintons and build my own campaign to be the first third-party president.

Monica’s smile vanishes. She moves her coffee aside. “Do you know the full story? Has your mother told you everything?”

“No.” Every time I’ve tried, she changes the subject. Gets testy. Something hurts.

“It’s quite possible she was a victim—who knows?” Monica says. “And I understand if she wanted to keep it secret and avoid the humiliation. But you need to know the truth.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

“And, I’m never one to bash anyone’s dreams, so please don’t take this the wrong way, but I think a Libertarian president in this country is a long shot. It’s a two-party system.”

Her bodyguard stands. Monica glances up at him. It suddenly feels like a break up. No. A straight-up dumping. I’ve got a fresh one in mind: Deepa Viswanathan. A cute Indian girl from Philly and a die hard Democrat. Hillary all the way. Deepa spent one night at my place in Alexandria a couple of weeks ago. We had two more dates, then she dropped me when I told her the family secret.

“No, no, I get it. I just—we just thought you could help us. I’m sorry to trouble you. Coming out here tonight.”

She leans forward. “Troy, I wish I could do something for you, but this is between you and mother. Face her.”

Monica stands. Flat smile. She seems so alone. I know exactly how she feels.

***

The Oakwood has that depressing Sunday night vibe. Grills gone cold, pool decks dry and empty, and cars waiting to be rocketed back into the Beltway come Monday. It’s the time of night you’d want to watch a movie and open some wine with your lady, if you had one.

Whatever happened to Mom on his Arkansas gubernatorial campaign shorted some fuses in her head. That much is clear. What kind of person goes from being a Democrat to Green, then Independent, then Republican, then eventually Libertarian? And who goes along with it, door-to-door, passing flyers, shaking hands, and serving chicken dinners, following along with her dream? A good co-dependent son, that’s who.

My phone blinks with a voice mail. Must have missed it on the Metro back to Alexandria. It’s Mom again. She’s frantic. Something about a pain in her left arm and neck. Headache, too. Calling Mrs. Wilson for a ride to the hospital. She didn’t have any of those symptoms when we talked earlier, just before I left to go meet Monica in Georgetown.

This might be a false alarm. It wouldn’t be the first.

There’s no answer at home in Little Rock. I try Mrs. Wilson, our life-long neighbor.

“Hi, Addie. It’s Troy. Is my mother okay?”

“Oh hi, honey. Yeah, she’s fine. They’re just running some tests. She needs to talk to you though. You ready for the phone number to her room?”

Mrs. Wilson’s daughter Niki and me used to fool around in our shed growing up. In elementary, we mostly kissed, and by junior high, we helped each other lose our virginities. Mom and Mrs. Wilson never knew a thing. Kids learn from the best how to keep secrets.

My phone vibrates. It’s a number I don’t know, but from a Little Rock area code.

I know what’s killing Mom in the hospital. Curiosity. She wants to know about Monica. She still thinks she’s the girl in the beret. But that girl is a ghost. Monica’s a grown woman now. She’s not a victim anymore. I shouldn’t be either.

A fourth ring. I answer. Mom’s out of breath.

“Oh baby,” she says. “I thought I was having a heart attack.”

“But you’re not.” What I’m about to say to her just might give her one.

“No. I’m—I’m just tired, I guess,” she says.

“Are you still lying down? Still comfortable?”

“Yes, baby, thank you.” She sounds suddenly all better. “So how did it—”

“Before that, let’s clear something up.”

“Oh, baby, I feel that pain coming back,” she says.

“You’re fine, Mom. You’re at the hospital. Now, listen to me. I need to know what actually happened with you and Bill Clinton. Did you two have a… sexual relationship?”

“Oh, son, I’m in so much pain.”

“Mom. The truth.”

There’s a certain silence between two people on the phone when the conversation temporarily dies. That living breathing person on the other side, regardless of their location, waits for you, and you for them. That absence of sound swallows you both.

“He—tapped me on the behind,” she says.

“It that all? Nothing else?”

“Yes, that’s all.”

“Who’s my real father?”

“Oh, honey let’s just talk about­—”

“Tell me.”

“Will Dumas.”

“The bus driver?”

“Yes.”

Willie Dumas. The older white bachelor all the kids knew, but no one ever thought a second more about. I had known him all the way from elementary to high school. The man who was checking up on me, asking why I never went out for sports.

“Why didn’t you two ever make it right?”

“It was a different time, son. Black women didn’t just have babies out of wedlock with a white—son, just come home. We’ll talk it over.”

The silence builds solid again. Reminds me when I actually spoke to Monica’s publicist a few months ago. The woman had said, “Yes, she can meet with you. Privately.” In the stillness of the open line, I couldn’t speak.

“Hello,” she had said. “Are you still there?”

“Are you still there, honey?” Mom says.

“No, Mom. I’m not coming home. Not for a while at least. We both need some professional help. We’ve needed it for so long. I mean, I don’t know why you’d keep up this twisted-ass revenge plot with me thinking Bill Clinton was my goddamned father. The politics, the story. Why? Why? You know, it’s kind of fucked.”

“I know, son. I did you wrong. I was confused and scared. Know that I love you more than anything. I always will.”

“I have to go, Mom.”

“Please call me, baby. I’m so sorry.”

“I will. Just give me some time. Bye.”

We hang up, and instead of smashing the phone against a wall, a sudden calm stirs up inside me. It surrounds me, like a hug. It’s that fear and confusion she was talking about, morphed into the truth you can’t ignore. It’s holding me tight, rocking me gently.

I’ve often wondered what it was like to have my father hold me. Maybe like this. But maybe not, because this is the feeling you get when you’ve known all along you’re all you need. Could be why Clinton always got out of the jams he was in. He was always holding on to number one.

My chest expands, fills with the best breath on record. I could probably grow wings and fly right out of this apartment if I tried. It’s been 17 years in this dead air, and it’s no coincidence I’ve been thinking about folding it all up.

Monica’s right: there won’t be a Libertarian anything. This chapter’s over. Boston’s been on my mind for some reason. Maybe Chicago. Hell, even California. Just the other day I read that in St. Croix, you drive on the left side of the road, and in certain bays, the water glows at night.

 

 

BIO

Taylor GarcíaTaylor García’s short fiction has appeared in Chagrin River Review, Driftwood Press, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Hawaii Pacific Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and Caveat Lector. He also writes the weekly column Father Time at the GoodMenProject.com.

He lives in Southern California with his wife and young sons. www.btaylorgarcia.com

 

 

0
Matt McGowan

The Bridge

by
Matt McGowan

 

My wife was feeling carsick anyway. We were coming out of the mountains, heading southeast on a two-lane, state highway between Yellowstone and Laramie. The Tetons were behind us, and we were sad about that.

I hadn’t talked to my daughter in four months. She sounded scared, her breathing clipped and hard. Gulps and puffs of oxygen punctuated spurts of angry words.

I heard only bits and pieces before I could pull over. Bad reception. Something about a landlord and roommates, an “asshole” and money. There were problems with money.

Outside, the sun was high and the air thin. I too struggled to breath. I walked around the front of the car. When I reached the passenger side, I felt that weird sensation of being strung between the old and the new, the latter walking away from me, her arms spread out, resting on the shoulders of her eight-year-old twins.

My daughter and I lost reception. I re-dialed and waited for her to answer. While listening to the ringing, I watched my wife and the kids walk down a gravel road. They stopped at the bottom of a short hill, where the road bottlenecked and bisected a retention pond. The kids picked up rocks and tossed them into the water. My wife turned then, looked up the hill and smiled.

 

“Hello?”

“You there,” I said.

“Dad?”

I walked to the road. “Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” said my daughter. “I can hear you now.”

“I couldn’t understand much earlier. You kept cutting out.”

“I’m so stupid,” she said.

“You’re not stupid. What happened?”

“I guess I can’t get out of this lease. I signed it back in… October, I think. Stupid.”

We hadn’t talked about leases and contracts. There was a lot of stuff we hadn’t talked about. We hadn’t even lived together for the past four years.

“What’s the problem?” I said.

“Five people were living here, but only three of us signed the lease. Now three people have moved out, and I…”

My daughter sucked oxygen into her mouth. Her voice trembled. She was trying not to cry.

“It’s okay,” I said.

“Logan says I owe eight hundred dollars! He’s a dick! I don’t have that kind of money.”

My heart sped up. This was the kind of thing I ran into with her mother. Her problem was now my problem.

“I have a little money,” I said.

“I just want out of here! Damn it! Why am I so stupid?”

“Stop saying that. This is just a youthful mistake. I made a thousand of them when I was your age.”

She was calming down. “I’m sorry for calling you,” she said.

“Don’t be,” I said.

At the bottleneck, they were skipping rocks. I’d been teaching them. It was a quaint scene down there, a little slice of Americana. My wife said something to her son, who turned around and said a few words back to her. She laughed. She was beautiful in the Western sun, the way a person glows when they’re back home. As if she could be any prettier. The boy picked up another rock and flung it. It didn’t skip. I needed to work with him some more.

“The university probably has an office,” I said to my daughter. “Some kind of legal clinic or services to protect students from unscrupulous landlords.”

“He’s a dick too,” she said. “He never fixes anything. The heater was broken all winter. It was fucking cold. This is Minneapolis.”

I hadn’t heard her drop the F bomb before. It annoyed me, the way it would coming from anyone’s mouth. But who was I to judge. I said it thirty times a day.

“I could send something,” I said. “Maybe a couple hundred.”

I was waiting for her to accept. I wanted her to say that her mother had offered too, that we could cobble together eight hundred. But she didn’t say anything, not even thanks.

“Do you really owe that much?” I asked.

“No!” she said. “I owe three hundred, but because my name’s on the lease, I guess I’m responsible.”

“How much does … what’d you say his name was?”

“Logan,” she huffed, extending the first syllable.

“How much does he owe?”

She didn’t answer. I could hear sniffling.

“Do you know?” I said.

She coughed and inhaled deeply. “No, I don’t know anything.”

“Well how have you handled it in the past? Did each of you pay a fifth or whatever to the landlord?”

She coughed again. It sounded chronic and pulmonary. Was she sick, I wondered, spending some of the rent on cigarettes? Then I heard what sounded like crinkling wrapping paper. There was a loud knock, then a scratching and muffled sound.

“What?” she said.

“Who have you written checks to?”

“I pay him…”

More background noise. Then everything muffled out. I could feel her slipping away. Someone had entered the room.

Just like her mother; come to me with a problem and then recede when I try to help or offer a solution.

“I gotta go, dad.”

“But…

“I gotta go.”

“Okay,” I said. “Just call me back when…”

She hung up.

 

Did this happen to the parent of every adolescent? This child, this little human who drove me crazy talking ten-thousand miles an hour in the back seat when she was five, was now … a woman? It was painful to admit: I had no idea who she was. Did I make her?

I walked back to the car. The twins were standing on a large rock, a barrier between the road and one of the ponds. They were singing and dancing silly. Shielding her eyes from the sun, their mother was watching them. She was laughing.

“Okay,” I yelled. “We’re done.”

The kids jumped down off the rock and jostled with each other, bickering, no doubt arguing about who had shoved the other first. Watching them, I felt a hard knot forming behind my sternum. As they came up the hill, looking normal and well adjusted, I forgot who I was, or rather which version of myself was standing there on the side of the road, forever caught between two worlds.

 

Fifteen miles down the road, the kids settled in with a game of hangman, my wife asked me if my daughter was okay.

“I guess,” I said.

There was a tinge of melodrama in my voice. I knew what that was about. I needed her to feel sorry for me. Here was a little plea for attention, rising up from the subconscious.

But her question wasn’t about me. It had nothing to do with anything except my daughter and her welfare. Was she okay? Did I know this?

My wife didn’t play games or waste time on words that had nothing to do with what she was thinking about. No hidden agenda or passive-aggressive manipulation. Knowing this forced me to answer her question again, this time without emotion, without all the guilt I carried around about the divorce.

“Yes,” I said. “She’s okay.”

“What’s going on?”

“Some kind of problem with a lease. Lots of drama.”

“Does she need money?” asked my wife. “We’ve been talking about sending her some.”

“I know,” I said. “I offered.”

“And…?”

“I thought that’s what she wanted. Now I’m confused. She didn’t seem … I don’t know … interested. Maybe it was because I didn’t offer the full amount. But I don’t think that was it. I think she would have responded the same way regardless of how much I offered.”

“Maybe she was just trying to work it out in her head,” said my wife. “Or…” She paused here, leaning forward and smiling. “Maybe she just needed someone to listen to her.”

“I did that, I think … I don’t know, maybe I had too many solutions.”

My wife smiled again and placed her hand on my leg. “I’m sure you did fine, babe.”

 

We were trying to make it to Fort Collins, but it was getting late and the kids were hungry. So we stopped in Cheyenne. My vegetarian wife consulted Urban Spoon and found a diner, the kind of meat-and-potatoes place she knew her son would love.

“But first,” she said, “we need to find a Walgreen’s.”

“What for?”

She didn’t answer. She just leaned forward and looked at me like I should know what she was talking about.

 

We drove around a long time trying to find the Walgreen’s. It wasn’t our fault. The GPS directions stunk. We passed an Air Force base, a poorly lit mall and a decent-sized rail yard, all of which destroyed the city’s grid system critical to a visitor’s successful navigation.

Restless and punchy, the twins wrestled in the backseat. My wife, usually eminently patient, sighed several times and then finally snapped.

“That’s enough!” she said. “I’ve asked you several times. It’s not safe for the driver when you do that.”

They quieted down.

Finally, I spotted the sign up ahead and pulled into the Walgreens parking lot. By this time, my wife was humming oddly and swaying back and forth in her seat. When I slowed to a stop in front of the sliding doors, she bolted out of the car, her absence followed by a synchronized, harmonic sigh from the back seat.

I parked the car and I dialed my daughter. The phone rang several times. No answer.

While waiting for his mother, my stepson asked me a question I’d heard him ask her before. “Cy,” he said, “what’s your worst fear?” When he asked his mother this question, her reply was the same every time—“That I wouldn’t have had you guys.”—to which he would complain: “That’s what you always say. What’s your worse fear other than that?”

My stepson and I had a good relationship—all the normal ups and downs—but I felt honored that he’d finally asked me. I took as a sign of love.

“That’s some heavy stuff,” I said.

“Yes it is,” he said.

I thought about it. I saw my daughter, sitting in the back seat, talking incessantly, driving me nuts. Her beautiful face, those big blue eyes and fat, rosy cheeks.

“I guess I’d have to say … It’s sort of like the flip side of what your mom says. That’d I’d lose my … That I’d lose one of you. Or your mom.”

I expected him to argue the merits of my fear, as he had with his mother. Because really, the whole exercise was nothing more than a way for him to talk about his own worst fear – flesh-eating, mind-controlling zombies. But he didn’t argue.

“Yeah,” he said. “That would suck.”

Finding the restaurant was no problem. We drove downtown, near the capitol. Our waitress brought us coffee and water and silverware wrapped in paper napkins. She was a scrawny, rough-looking woman with a scratchy, country drawl and leathery, Western skin. I imagined her helping out on a ranch as a little girl, younger than the twins. She called my wife and me “hon,” and she took care of us like a doting nurse. Which was golden, because we were strung out when we got there.

After we ordered, the twins ran off to the bathroom to wash their hands. My wife took a deep breath and exhaled. She was relieved, happy to be off the road, but I could tell something was wrong. She seemed distracted.

“Everything okay?” I said.

She perked up and smiled. “Yeah. Just these kids. But they’ve been so good overall.”

“They really have,” I said.

She smiled and lifted the pearl-colored ceramic cup and took a drink of coffee. She was forty-three, I forty-seven. She treated my son like he was her own, but she hadn’t even met my daughter.

Setting the cup back on the table, her brow furled, and her face in general changed from placid to worried. “Did you hear back from Steph?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I tried her again while you were in Walgreens.”

She curled her upper lip. “No answer?”

I shook my head.

Then the twins returned with the energy of an Oklahoma tornado.

 

Caffeinated, stomachs full, we headed south on Interstate 25, the Front Range looming to the west like the outstretched wings of an enormous bird. The kids had calmed down, and in this replenished, satiated condition, we actually enjoyed the drive to Fort Collins. My daughter still had not called back.

The twins were nothing but pleasant – chatty and laughing and playfully teasing each other and their mother, whose mood had improved immensely. She was laughing too and playing along with them, but I swear—during a lull in the backseat-frontseat banter—I heard a rapid inhale-gasp and then a hushed sniffle-snort. Did her lip quiver? I leaned forward to check on her, but it was dark inside the car and just loud enough to prevent me from knowing with any certainty that this had actually happened. I felt awkward too, leaning forward like that and looking her way, as if I were invading her privacy.

And then it was over, if it even happened at all. She was right back to playing with the kids.

 

She booked one room at The Armstrong, an historic hotel on the main street in downtown Fort Collins. We rolled in much later than expected but at a decent time, around 9:15. After we hauled all the suitcases and backpacks up to the room, my wife asked me if I’d take the kids for a walk. “Or,” she said. “I think they have a exercise room.” All code, of course, for “I need a minute,” which was fine with me, because on the way in I spotted a creamery at an intersection a couple blocks to the north.

 

I got two scoops of vanilla with caramel and chunks of Heath mixed in. The kids ordered disgusting concoctions of bubblegum ice cream covered with sprinkles, Gummy Bears, frozen M&Ms and iced animal crackers. We sat outside, where the mile-high air had turned cool enough for a light jacket.

“Listen to me,” I said. “When you’re in college and living far away in a different town, don’t forget to call your mom.”

“I’m going to live in a big city,” said my stepdaughter. “With skyscrapers.”

“Great,” I said. “We’ll come visit you. But until we do, or in between visits, call us.”

“I will,” she said.

“No you won’t,” I said.

“I will!” she said. “I promise.”

 

The sugar made me dream. Walking down a short alley, I heard wood cracking and snapping. When I reached the street, I looked to my right and I saw an entire house, a once-proud, two-story, wood-frame structure from the early 1900s, leaning over like a slow-moving train was pushing on it from the other side. Then it toppled and crumbled into heap of splintered wood and broken glass.

I woke up on my side. There was a light on in the room. I was at the edge of our bed, and I was facing the kids’ bed. My stepson was snoring.

I rolled over. My wife wasn’t there. I couldn’t see clearly because I didn’t have my glasses on, but I could tell she was sitting in a chair on the other of the bed, between the window and the lamp that provided the only light in the room. I located my glasses on the bedside table and put them on.

“You okay?” she said.

“I was just going to ask you the same question.”

She was holding a mug with both hands, like we were in a cabin in the dead of winter. “I’m fine,” she said. “You were talking in your sleep.”

“I was? What’d I say?”

“I couldn’t tell,” she said. “Nothing coherent. Just whimpering and gibberish.”

“Oh yeah?”

“But you didn’t seem afraid. It was more like you were protesting, pleading maybe.”

“Hmm, I don’t know,” I said. “There was a house falling down. I guess it had something to do with that.”

My wife laughed. “Oh,” she said. “Ominous.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” she said. “I’m teasing you.”

I looked over at her and squinted. My eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the light. “What are you doing?” I said.

“Couldn’t sleep.”

My vision improved, I looked right at her. She smiled at me.

“I have something that might scare you,” she said.

“Oh yeah?”

“Are you awake?”

“I think so. We’re not buried under a demolished house, are we?”

“Not yet.”

“Ah, hell, babe,” I said. “Come on, what is it?”

She drank from the mug and then cleared her throat. “I’m pregnant,” she said.

I detected the slightest hint of sadness in her voice. Maybe it was fear. But that was foreign to me, because I rarely saw her in that state. It just wasn’t who she was or how she lived.

Before I could say anything, I saw my daughter again, chattering away in the back seat, singing, asking a thousand questions, pointing out the obvious along the side the road. “That’s a fence. There’s a house. Look at the barn.”

“Whoa,” I said.

“I’m forty-three years old,” she said.

“Uh huh. And you’re fit as a fucking fiddle.”

A burst of laughter and then tears. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“What about? You mean, ‘You’re welcome.’”

Now laughter through tears.

There she was again. This time my daughter was stepping up onto a wide platform. She was wearing that ridiculous hat, walking across the stage, reaching out to accept her diploma.

As if my wife was seeing it too or knew I was. “Man,” she said. “you’ll be sixty-five when she graduates from high school.”

“I already thought about that,” I said.

“I know you did.”

“But I bet I won’t be the oldest parent there.”

She laughed again.

Then I knew what it was all about, this whole business with my daughter. I could see it clearly.

“It’s the bridge,” I said.

“The bridge?” said my wife.

“Nothing,” I said. “Come on, baby. Come to bed.”

She stood up and turned out the light.

 

 

BIO

Matt McGowanMatt McGowan has a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in journalism, both from the University of Missouri. He was a newspaper reporter, and for many years now he has worked as a science and research writer at the University of Arkansas. His stories have appeared in Valley Voices: A Literary ReviewDeep South MagazinePennsylvania Literary JournalOpen Road Review and others. He lives with his wife and children in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

 

 

 

0
Larry Fronk

Bad Soldiers

by
Larry Fronk

 

Tarek lay sleeping next to his mama on the concrete sidewalk, with his head resting on a frayed backpack, in front of an ancient stone warehouse in the Turkish port city of Izmir. He and his mama arrived late that night with his uncle, aunt and two cousins. Tarek mumbles in his sleep kicking his feet. He rolls over and his foot lands on his cousin’s lower back.

“Tarek. Tarek. It’s OK. It’s a bad dream. You’re safe now,” his mama says stroking his short black hair.

“Ummi,” Tarek says taking hold of his mama’s hand with his trembling right hand, “It was the bombs again. I ran, but could not get away.”

Tarek is eight years old with a ruddy, dirty face. He is naturally thin, though not under nourished. He’s wearing a white shirt, black shorts and sandals. The bottom of his legs and his feet are covered with sand from the dusty ride across the Taurus Mountains the day before. His back and bottom are still sore from the bumpy truck ride that began three days ago in Gaziantep. His scarred, left arm hangs limp by his side.

It seems like forever since Tarek loaded up his backpack and left his home in Aleppo, Syria. The backpack holds everything Tarek owns and cherishes. There are two striped shirts, two pair of shorts and two pair of underwear. A picture of his papa in his soldier uniform. A pad of paper, two pencils and two apples. A prayer rug that belonged to his papa.

The sun rises over the tall glistening buildings of Izmir reflecting orange and yellow light off the windows offering the first glimpse of a new day. Tarek stands up and takes a deep breath and is overcome with the oily smell of fish and the sweet smell of fruit coming from crates and baskets lining the docks. He feels salt hitting his face, just like sand blowing off the desert. Tarek sees a crowd of people wrapped in red, yellow and blue blankets on the sidewalk huddled together in small groups. Some are stretching as they wake to the new day. Mamas are picking up their children.

He gets his first look at the docks. The water is lined with boats, both small and large, some with sails, some clean and shiny and others dirty with rust, slime and peeling paint. Men dressed in grey coats and hats scurry up and down the docks carrying boxes, nest and poles. In the distance he sees two very large white boats; bigger than any boat he had ever seen.

“Ummi. What are those big boats?” Tarek asks pointing out to sea.

His mama follows Tarek’s finger and spots the large boats. “They are called cruise ships. They bring visitors to Turkey from other countries like Greece and Italy.”

“Are we going on one of those boats to Greece?”

“No Tarek. Our boat will be much smaller.” his mama answers. Seeing the sadness on Tarek’s face she adds, “Our boat trip will be more of an adventure than going on a bigger boat.”

Tarek hears his uncle approach through the crowd and tell his mama, “Stay here with the others. I will check on the boat.”

“Are you sure we still want to do this. I heard the stories about France and Germany. Anas, I am scared. Maybe we should stay in Turkey.”

“There is nothing more for us here than in Syria. It will be safer in Greece.”

His mama hands Uncle Anas a package and his uncle disappears back into the waking crowd. Tarek and his mama move closer to the building and huddle with the other Syrians waiting for boats. Tarek chooses a spot where he can still see the docks and the sea. He watches the boats sail out to sea and disappear into the horizon. He sees a soldier in a green uniform carrying a gun walking down the street.   He falls back into the crowd and grabs his mama’s abayah.

“It’s OK, Tarek. The soldier is not a bad soldier. He is a good soldier. He is here to help and protect us. This is a safe place.” mama said.

The soldier walks by without stopping or even looking their way.

About four hours later, Tarek’s uncle returns and says, “The boat leaves in two days and will pick us up on a beach about ten kilometers north of the city. We need to find a comfortable place to rest and get food.”

For Tarek two days is forever. He pulls his paper pad and pencil from his backpack and flips pages until he reaches a blank page. He writes about his trip on the truck from Gaziantep, the stories the adults told about Syria, before the war. He writes about the exciting city they are in, the tall buildings, the colorful awnings and doors. He writes about the boats and fish. Once or twice, maybe more, Tarek asks his mama how to spell a word. His mama tells him how proud she is that he practices his writing even when there is no school. Tarek smiles and writes about the good soldiers. Finished, he places the paper pad and pencils in the plastic bag his uncle gave him and put it into his backpack.

The day of the boat trip arrives and Tarek can’t wait to see their boat and start the adventure mama promised. Before leaving his mama changed from her abayah into black jeans, a grey print shirt and a black scarf. Tarek’s uncle leads the group on the ten kilometer hike to reach the boat that will take the group of forty-five Syrians to Greece. They walk two by two. Tarek holds his mama’s hand as they walk along the sidewalks that turn to dirt paths as they leave the city and approach the countryside. Other than scattered green bushes and a few small trees, there is only rock. The path turns toward the sea and comes to an end at a bluff. Below, white caps can be seen over the rough water and waves crash against the grey and black rocks that line the beach. Above, grey clouds can be seen in the distance.

Tarek’s uncle directs people to a path made of small and large rocks that lead down to the sea. Tarek cannot walk on the path. He crawls, climbs and is sometimes lifted over and around the rocks. It is hard work and it takes Tarek an hour to reach the beach. He climbs over the last rock that stands between him and the beach. Tarek stares out at the sea that seems to go on forever. Waves splash against the rocks and spray salt water on his face which he quickly spits out on the ground.

“Ummi, can I put my feet in the water?” Tarek asks.

“OK. Go with your cousins and stay close,”

Tarek takes off his sandals and walks into the water letting the waves flow through him. He runs and splashes his cousins. He turns to let the waves hit his back and sees his mama watching him.   She has a big smile on her face. His uncle stands on a large rock looking out into the sea.

“The boat is coming,” his uncle shouts.

Tarek runs to his mama as the rest of the group gathers together on the beach. The roar of the engine of the black pontoon boat could be heard above the crashing waves. The boat rises and falls with each wave. Each wave brings it closer to the shore. As the boat gets closer, Tarek can see the captain. He is wearing a yellow coat and an orange life jacket. His long dark hair is blowing in the wind. The boat rides a wave onto the sandy beach and slides to a stop. The captain steps off the boat.

“We need to move quickly. The water is a little rough today. Life jackets are in the boat. Everyone needs to put one on,” the captain said.

“The boat is very small.” Tarek said.

“Yes it is,” his mama said, “get in and we’ll put our life jackets on.”

Tarek is the last to get on the boat. With everyone on board Tarek’s uncle asks for quiet.

“Fee Amaan Allah,” his uncle prays.

“In the protection of Allah,” everyone repeats.

Tarek’s uncle and two other men push the boat off the beach. The engine sputters once then starts to roar. The captain turns the boat toward the open sea. Everyone sits very close. Tarek could not even move his right arm. Tarek sits between his mama and his cousin on the side of the boat. His mama wraps her arms around Tarek to protect him from the constant splashing. Tarek’s wet shirt is sticking to his skin. The life jacket rubs on his neck. His backpack is soaked and seems to gain weight with every wave. He shivers from the cold.

As the boat moves further from shore the waves rise higher. Tarek bounces as each wave passes under the boat and the straps on his backpack dig into his shoulders. Another wave and he bounces even higher and his mama’s arms falls away. Another wave splashes over the boat and pushes Tarek over the edge of the boat with his backpack over the open sea. His mama reaches to grab Tarek, but it is too late, he falls into the water.

Tarek hears his mama’s scream over the roar of the engine and the waves. The engine stops.   Tarek’s head is bobbing over the surface of the water and he is waving his right arm in the air. The sea water is burning his eyes and mouth. He yells. He kicks his legs frantically to stay above water and move back to the boat. He sees two men jump off the boat into the sea and swim toward him. He sees the captain throw a life preserver attached to a rope at the two men. One of the men grabs it and swims toward Tarek. Tarek is lying face up in the water when the first man reaches him. His eyes are closed. The second man swims up with the life preserver. Each holds Tarek with one arm with the other on the life preserver. The working together the men in the boat pull the rope.

Tarek is lifted up onto the boat and placed in his crying mama’s arms. Tarek coughs once, then again and again, spitting salt water from his mouth onto those around him. He is shaking uncontrollably. A women hands Tarek’s mama a blanket that she wraps around him. Tarek and his mama sit down in the center of the boat. Tarek’s uncle and several other men surround them. Everyone links arms and they sit as low as possible in the boat. The engine starts and the captain continues their voyage to Lesbos.

Four hours after the frightful rescue the rocky beaches of Lesbos are in sight. The captain turns the boat and heads for a beach nestled between two rock cliffs. As they near the beach several men jump off the boat, grab the ropes and pull the boat ashore. Once off the boat the captain tells the group Camp Moria is a short walk along a path between the cliffs. He returns to his boat and leaves the island.

On shore the group says a prayer to Allah for granting them passage to Lesbos and for saving the life of Tarek. Tarek’s uncle, carrying Tarek in his arms, leads the group along the path to Camp Moria. After walking half an hour the group is stopped by two men in green uniforms with guns.

“We come seeking asylum,” Tarek’s uncle said, “We have a boy that needs a doctor. Please, we ask for your help.”

Tarek’s mama, crying says, “I beg you. Help my son.”

The soldiers look at Tarek, his uncle and his mother. Waving their hands up and down the soldier’s motion the group to sit down. One of the soldiers talks into a radio while the other moves his eyes from person to person. Three other soldiers in blue uniforms join them along with a man and a woman dressed in white. The woman has on a white hat with a red cross on it; the man carries a bag. She looks at the ground listening to one of the soldiers. Two soldiers walk among the group looking at each person. The woman steps forward and begins speaking in Arabic.

“Where is the boy that needs a doctor?” she asks.

Tarek’s uncle stands holding Tarek and his backpack tightly in his arms. The woman motions them to come forward. The man carrying the bag comes up to Tarek and says something he cannot understand.

“He is a doctor,” the woman translates.

The doctor examines Tarek. He says something to a soldier and the women that Tarek cannot understand.

“The doctor says the boy has a mild case of hypothermia.   He needs dry clothes, a warm blanket and a warm drink. A soldier will bring them soon,” the woman said.

Tarek sees more soldiers coming toward them. One is carrying a red blanket and cup.   He hands them to Tarek’s uncle. One soldier stops to talk with the woman.

“Ladies and gentleman,” she says, “I realize you have journeyed a long way to get here. I don’t know what you heard about France and Germany, but things are bad in Europe right now. There is much fear among the people. You will not be allowed to stay. A few hours ago the European Union voted unanimously to close the borders until they can evaluate the situation. I am very sorry, but you cannot stay in Greece. There are boats in the bay ready to take you back to Turkey.”

“No,” Tarek’s uncle shouts, “We have come far. We have risked everything. We are families trying to escape the war. We are not terrorists. We come seeking asylum.”

“I am sorry, but there is nothing I can do. The order comes directly from the Greek President. You cannot stay,” the woman repeated.

“Ummi,” Tarek says, “What does she mean?”

“The bad Syrian soldiers attacked Europe and they won’t let us stay. The people in Europe are afraid of us.”

Tarek sees others standing and shaking their fists and pleading, “We can’t go back”, “Please let us stay,” and “Don’t blame us.”

Tarek looks at his mama. She is wiping tears from her eyes with her scarf. His mama walks up to the woman.

“If a Greek man murders a Turkish man, does that make all Greeks murderers?”

The soldiers move closer and remove the guns from their shoulders with the barrels pointing in the air. The voices fall silent.

“It’s not fair. We hate the bad soldiers too!” Tarek yells at the woman, “They killed my papa. They hurt me. We hate them too. I will show you.”

Tarek unzips the backpack his uncle is holding and reaches in. A soldier runs to Tarek and his uncle and pulls the bag away, but not before Tarek takes out the paper pad.

“Read. Read,” Tarek says handing the pad to the soldier, “We hate the bad soldiers.”

The soldier shakes his head, looks at the pad and shows it to Tarek. The pages are wet and the words smeared.

The soldiers push the group down the path to the bay.

“We hate the bad soldiers too,” Tarek cries.

 

 

BIO

Larry FronkLarry Fronk grew up in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York, and now resides on the east side of Cincinnati, Ohio. Larry recently retired after a 36 year career of public service working in local government in the areas of urban planning, community development and local government management. Upon entering Act II of his life Larry decided to pursue his passion for writing and enrolled in a creative writing class at the University of Cincinnati, Clermont College. This is Larry’s first published work.

 

 

 

0

The Words in Red

by
Billy Sauls

 

I was talking to two of them. True ones. I was there to interview them about a couple of dead people. One of the dead was their own.

The couple was not just Southern. They were not your average run-of-the-mill rednecks either. They were hillbillies. The real deal. Think The Beverly Hillbillies without the good fortunes of a Jed Clampett, or Deliverence minus the forcible sodomy administered by toothless moonshiners.

There was nothing idealistic about their lifestyle. They were not nestled by the mountains around them. That is a romantic kind of thinking. The people living deep in Appalachia are, in actuality, asphyxiated by the hills. The flow of modern technology is cut off from the inhabitants of Dewey Hollow, as is the flow of income and wealth. A proper education cannot find its way into the hollow either.

Even the sun has difficulty delivering its vitamin D to the malnourished citizenry. Potter’s Ridge to the east and Dewey Ridge to the west permit the sun about five hours a day to do its work. That is not nearly enough time, as could be attested to in the ghostly pale skin of the Sanders family.

Walter and Janice sat on the worn brown or beige sofa. Walter was wearing brown corduroy pants and an I ♥ New York t-shirt. I assumed he was not the original owner of the shirt, or pants for that matter. Walter’s thin frame was comically upright, his hands resting on his knees. He had a thick and pouty lower lip. It hung below the much thinner upper one. I could not keep myself from watching it bounce up and down as he spoke. Hard work had aged his face beyond his forty years. The expression on his wife’s face under her dingy red hair was one of a vivaciousness not normally found on grieving mothers. Only the dark rings circling her eyes revealed her pain. She sat, legs crossed, the top leg rocking back and forth, staring into a mug she had cupped in both hands. I imagined the contents of the mug had something to do with her demeanor.

I was there about the suicides. Their daughter’s was the second in the area in a week. I sat in a fold-up metal chair across from them. I took a sip of black coffee as I awaited an answer to a question I had asked. I had learned in journalism school to wait for an answer to every question, no matter how long the awkward silence after asking. Let the interviewee break the silence, and only with a sufficient answer to the question.

Despite my training, the quiet was killing me. I had asked where it happened and how their daughter’s body was found. Though I knew the answers, I needed to get them talking about the tough stuff. We had talked a bit about the other case. Walter told me the mute young man had a note gripped in his cold hand. I had already heard about it from a couple of other people I had interviewed. The words were barely legible. It said, in trembling red ink, I took the wrong one out the first time. It was as if he had to explain why both of his eyes were missing. A big Oh shucks.

I was about to cave in and ask another question, any question, maybe one about the gawky owl clock hanging on the wall behind them, when Walter finally said, “I can take you, I reckon. Upstairs, I mean. Where it happened.” Janice looked at him, mouth open. I too was surprised. She rose from the sofa and marched out of the room. I could hear her slam her mug down on what I guessed was the kitchen counter.

I looked at Walter and leaned forward. “That would be helpful if you don’t mind.”

I followed Walter up the stairs. He had the gait of a much heavier man, shifting slowly from side to side. Walter asked me how a newspaper in a big city heard about the suicides. The big city was Middlesborough, Kentucky. It had a population of approximately 10,000 souls.

I did not want to tell him that his personal tragedy had become a social media sensation, due, in large part, to its being so odd in nature. I merely shrugged my shoulders instead and told him my editor handed me the story the day before and told me to head up that way. I could hear Janice downstairs beginning to shuffle dishes in the kitchen.

He paused just in front of the bedroom door, hand on the knob. He lowered his head. “She was only twenty, you know? Nora. My one and only child.” He looked up at me. “Mister, are you a praying man?”

“I am.” I lied, and smiled doing it. “And call me Don.”

“Mister,” he began, locking his blue eyes into mine. “Ask the good Lord to watch over the soul of my daughter. I know a lot of folks don’t believe in praying for the de… the departed. But I don’t reckon there can be no harm in it. You?”

“No. I pray for the dearly departed every day.” Another lie.

“Have you lost some of your kin?”

“Quite a few, I’m afraid.” Well, I lost a dog once.

“Tell me about it.” He placed a hand on my shoulder. I lowered my head, shuffled my feet on the wood floor, and told him all about it. A moth circled the single bulb overhead in the hallway as I told him about the make-believe auto accident. The dreamed-up coma. The imaginary dead mother. The funeral. The burial in the pouring rain.

He hugged me. I could smell the Brylcreem in his hair.

He turned, took a deep breath, and opened the door. The room smelled of lemon-scented cleaning chemicals. The make-shift twin bed, composed of a worn mattress on a stack of wooden crates, was un-made and bare. The blood stained blue mattress was sunken in the center from its former owner’s body weight. “That there was her bed. Where Janice found her.”

There were no posters or pictures on the wall. There was a single wooden cross on the wall above the bed. It was the only decoration in the room. There was a particle board dresser and an end table. A large fish bowl sat on the dresser. A single blue fish was barely visible in the dirty water.

I asked Walter about the absence of pictures and décor. He explained to me how the family church frowned upon that sort of thing. In the Sanders home, whatever was preached from the pulpit of the Dewey Church of the Lord and Savior was law. According to the Pentecostal church’s pastor, pictures and “what-nots” were forbidden images. Idols. I wondered about the clock downstairs, and had the ridiculous image in my head of the family falling on their knees and worshipping the yellow and green owl as it declared the top of every hour with its mighty and deistic hoo-hoo. I passed on asking about it.

“Mr. Sanders, was your daughter already… gone when Mrs. Sanders found her?”

“Uh-huh. She was already in the arms of Jesus.”

“That’s a nice thought.”

“It’s a fact.”

I smiled and asked where the hand was found.

“Huh?”

“Forgive me, but I heard that she threw her hand after she removed it.”

“Oh.” He pointed to the fish bowl. “Landed in that.”

I looked at the murky water, wondering if the betta fish was traumatized in any way.

“It must have been a horrible sight for the Mrs.”

“Yep. She’s been acting odd too. Not herself. To be expected, I suppose.”

“Yeah. I suppose.” In perfect timing, a series of loud clangs rose from the kitchen downstairs.

“Your daughter just lied there afterward? She just, you know, bled to… sleep?”

“Way it looked.” Walter’s head was down. He inhaled a deep breath and blew out air, his lower lip rippling. After a pause, he said, “I’m really worried about Janice. Will you pray with me?”

I was a little startled. “Pray? Right now?”

“Is it a bad time for you, Mister?” He kept his eyes on mine and took a knee in the center of the floor.

“Um. No. I guess. Should I, uh, get down there with you? And, please, call me Don.”

“Unless you feel worthy to stand before the Lord.” His look assured me I was not.

I got down on both knees about six feet away from Walter. I closed my eyes and waited for him to begin. There was a long period of silence. I slowly opened my eyes. He was looking at me. He mumbled, “Go ahead.”

“Me?”

“Won’t you lead us in prayer?”

My heart was racing. Prayer had, in my adult years, become as foreign to me as I imagined classic literature or a quadratic formula was to him. I fancied myself a man of science. My Sunday school years were ancient history. My Holy Trinity was composed of Science, Engineering, and Math. And, as any practicing engineer, scientist, or mathematician would attest, the three of them are One.

Nevertheless, I nodded to him and closed my eyes. I began, “God, it is I and Mr. Sanders. I am Donald Peters. You know that, of course.” I cleared my throat. My hands were clenched into tight fists. “I would like to begin this prayer by giving you thanks, and, uh, praises.”

I heard Walter clear his throat. I opened my eyes.

“What are you doing,” he asked.

“I’m praying.”

He shook his head. “That’s not praying, and that is not how you should speak to the Lord.”

“I’m sorry?”

“That ‘You’ stuff. It’s not right.”

Walter sighed, closed his eyes, and said, “Let’s go to the Lord in prayer.” I closed my eyes again. He began, “Father, THOU hast made the heavens and the earth, and THY power and love know no end. We come to THEE today in prayer.” There was a long pause. I opened one eye and peeked at Walter who was looking at me. The gaze said, That is how it is done. He closed his eyes and began again. “We ask thee, Lord, to give special care to my wife and sister in Christ today. Janice is suffering, and we know that no one knows suffering like thou Son Jesus, and…”

As he prayed, I remembered seeing the bumper sticker on an old Ford F-150 parked in the front yard as I pulled in the gravel driveway. If it ain’t King James, it ain’t bible.

“Thou art the Great Physician and there is no need for the wicked medicine of men if we trust in thee. Janice is a kind soul, Lord. Thou knowest this better than anybody. We ask, O, Heavenly Father, that…”

I pictured his daughter lying there on the bed cutting her hand off with a rusty old saw blade. I saw her throw it across the room.

“That old serpent, the devil, cannot have her, Lord. He cannot keep her down and…”

She just lay there, lay there and died. Bled until she could never bleed again.

“Lift her up, King Jesus. Mount her on wings of eagles.”

He meant “Mount her up.” I meant to find out what really happened there. Who would, or rather, could commit suicide in such a manner? The other case was just as puzzling. Why remove one’s eyes or a hand? Why not slit a wrist or hang from a rope in a quicker, more painless and socially acceptable way of offing one’s self?

“And now, O Lord, I will speak to you in the tongues of angels.”

I watched Walter adjust his body, placing his other knee on the floor. He raised his hands to the sky and lifted up his head. With his eyes remaining closed, he began chanting and mumbling words, or non-words that I would not know how to spell or even pronounce. I’m no angel after all.

After a while, his arms started waving back and forth. They began trembling. His upper body would fall down, back to the floor, and then up again in a slow rhythm. Down and up.

I wondered how long he could go on like this. I was hoping it would be long enough.

I slowly got to my feet, keeping an eye on Walter. I walked softly toward the bed and looked over the mattress. Seeing nothing of interest, I lifted one side of it up from the crates. I saw nothing underneath and felt nothing as I slid my hand under the part I could not lift up. I set it back down and looked back over my shoulder at Walter. He was still in a rapturous state. He continued the up and down movement. The waving. The chanting. The slobbering. His whole body was shaking a little. The only mumblings escaping his mouth that resembled real words were something like “Mama Mia”, “Shenandoah”, and “Oscar de la Fuente”.

I scanned the two walls the bed was against. Nothing. I bent down and examined the crates as best as I could. I had no idea what I was looking for, and didn’t find it. I thought of pulling the bed away from the walls to examine the unexposed sides of the crates, but expected there was no way I could do it without disturbing Walter’s conversation with the heavenly host.

It went on and on behind me, growing in volume.

I softly made my way to the dresser. The fish was interested in me for all of about two seconds before turning away and swimming to the opposite end of the bowl. I could picture it swimming between the fingers of Nora Sanders, her hand an aquamarine obstacle course. I could not find the nerve to open the drawers of the walnut-colored dresser. I would not have felt right about it anyway. I started to walk away when I saw it on the side of the dresser. Etched in and colored in red were the initials DM. Underneath was a heart.

Derrick Mapleton’s was the other body. The young man was found dead in his church on an altar, eyeballs missing. A bloody pocket knife was found folded in one of his overall pockets. A bloody spoon was in the other. He wore nothing under the overalls. The note was in his fist.

I had suspected all along that both cases were something more sinister than suicide. The carving in the dresser raised my suspicions. Did it prove a romantic relationship between the two, which is something a few of the residents of Dewey Hollow had suggested? The Sanders girl and the Mapleton boy had been really close since they were toddlers. The two were flirty with one another since their preteen years. They had often gone on walks alone in the woods in the months leading up to their deaths.

I jumped as Walter yelled out, “Woo Glory!” I turned around and saw him lying there, his back on the floor and his legs folded under themselves. His feet were tucked under his buttocks and his arms stretched out from his sides. More clanking came from the kitchen downstairs. It sounded purposeful to me. “Yes, Lord,” Walter yelled before resuming his unintelligible chants, this time softer than before. It sounded like he was wrapping it up.

I took a picture of the carving on the dresser with my cell phone. I walked back to my former place in the room and got back down on one knee. As he was saying his goodbyes to the angels above, I wondered if it was one of the victims’ parents that killed the two. Was an intimate relationship outside of marriage forbidden in Dewey Hollow? Was the punishment death? Did the pastor of the Dewey Church of the Lord and Savior execute justice? Or was there a jealous young man or woman out there, the third member of a lovers’ triangle?

Walter fell silent. I watched him raise his body back up on his knees, grunting as he did so. He took a deep breath and sighed. He looked at me and shot me a knowing look that said, THAT was some good stuff. He reached around into his back pocket and pulled out a comb. He gave his thinning, greasy hair two strokes from the comb, one on each half of his head. His free hand followed the comb, pressing his hair down against his scalp. He looked at me with a proud look on his face and said, “I got myself the gift of tongues.” He wiped the comb on his pants leg and put it back where he got it.

“It would appear you do, Mr. Sanders.” I smiled at him.

He stood up gingerly and placed the palms of his hands against the small of his back, leaning back and grunting. “I reckon we better head back down. I don’t like leaving her alone for too long.”

“I understand. May I ask you a question?”

“Shoot.”

“Your daughter and the other guy. Mapleton. Did they have a relationship? More than just friends, I mean.”

He tilted his head. “Are you askin’ me if they were messin’ around?”

“Well, no, not necessarily messing around. Just if they were more than friends.”

Walter took a step toward me. “My daughter was pure. We bible believin’ people around here.”

I held up my hands. “I am sure she was pure, Mr. Sanders. That’s not what I’m getting at. All I mean is…”

“It is time for you to go, Don.”

“OK.” I did not want conflict. I nodded and turned toward the door. He stepped in front of me and opened it. I walked out into the hall and headed toward the steps. Mrs. Sanders was at the base of the stairs wiping her hands on a hand towel. “Walter,” she said, “Can you bring down the dishes from our room? I’ll show our guest out.”

“Yep,” I heard him say behind me. I turned to tell him goodbye, but he was already heading away toward their room. I made my way down the steps. Janice was still wiping her hands vigorously and was studying me. She tilted her head. “Mister, do you think my Nora kilt herself?”

The question surprised me. I averted my eyes and began, “I, uh…”

“Well, she didn’t. That Derrick boy didn’t either.”

I took a step closer to her. I took a peek up the stairs to make sure Walter was not within hearing distance. “Were Norma and Derrick a couple?”

She leaned forward. I could see the faint freckles on her face for the first time. I could smell the bourbon on her breath.

She simply said, “Duh.” Shaking her head like she was disappointed in me, she pointed in Walter’s general direction. “And that fool up there knows it too. He is just protecting her reputation, is all.”

“Well, then, I have to ask. Do you think there was foul play involved?”

“Foul play? You mean murder?”

“Yes, ma’am. Murder.”

She peered deeper into my eyes. She knocked on my forehead lightly with a fist. “You are a confused soul. Ain’t you?” She slung the dish towel across her shoulder. “Follow me.”

We walked into the kitchen. The back door I had come in earlier was standing open. A table was in the center of the kitchen. On it was a small, pocket-sized bible. She picked it up and handed it to me. There was a thin strip of paper marking a page.

“It wasn’t murder. It wasn’t suicide. And it wasn’t an accident,” she said. I wondered what was left. “Have a nice trip back home, Mister,” she continued. “That book has the truth you are looking for.”

I nodded goodbye to her, feeling a little frustrated and confused. I turned and walked out the door and to my truck. I watched her pull the door closed. I got in and leaned back in the driver’s seat. Frustrated, I sighed. I started to reach into my pocket for the ignition key and realized the bible was still in my hand. It was green and the perfect size for a breast pocket. Printed on the cover was The New Testament of Jesus Christ. Under the title it read, Words of Christ in Red. I had no doubt those words would also be in 17th century English.

I turned to the page marked by the slip of paper. It was The Gospel of Mark. Sections of the ninth chapter were highlighted. Seven verses were not only highlighted, but underlined in pencil. I put on a pair of reading classes I had in the console and began reading at the forty-third verse. The words were in red. Christ said, “And if thy hand offend thee, cut if off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched.”

My heart rate picked up. I began feeling nauseas. I swallowed and read on.

After Christ talked about an offending foot, he stated in the forty-seventh verse, “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.”

I took off my glasses and dropped them onto the passenger seat. I closed the bible and set it down beside the glasses. I was feeling a rush of emotions.

I thought of a young Nora Sanders wanting to touch Derrick Mapleton. I thought of her hand on his shoulder. His back. His thigh. His crotch. That hand making her sin, leading her to hell, keeping her from eternal life.

I thought of Derrick looking at the young, tight curves of Nora’s body, wanting her, lusting in his heart. His eye causing him to sin. Which eye?

I took the wrong one out the first time.

I started the pickup and headed down the dirt path that led from the Sanders’ place. I turned down the highway that wound through the hollow. I felt sorry for the forbidden couple. I pictured them lying in separate places and times, bleeding to death. They expected to live up until the very end; believed to the very point they lived no more.

It wasn’t murder. It wasn’t suicide. It wasn’t an accident.

It was something else.

 

 

BIO

billy saulsBilly R. Sauls writes fiction and lives with his wife, Deborah, in Knoxville, TN where he attended the University of Tennessee. He has two sons, a step-daughter, and another on the way.

 

 

 

0
Bryce A Johle

Indiana

by Bryce A. Johle

 

 

 

Vibrations on the windowsill jarred my eyes open, liberating me from a dream. I reached for my phone and read the text from my dad.

“Did momma tell you the lousy news? Bout me?” he said.

“Nope,” I said.

“I went to the doctor yesterday.”

“Okay?”

“Doc told me I have heart problems, which I knew the heart wasn’t right, and a failing liver.”

I didn’t reply. Instead, I waited for a follow-up text, knowing he wouldn’t just let me go away from this. Only two minutes later, it came.

“The doc at the V.A. told me, ‘how do you want to die? A failing liver or heart?’” he said. He attached an angry-faced emoji to the end of the text. Another message came soon after this one.

“My blood isn’t getting filtered as it should, which causes lots of serious problems…he said it’s got toxins, inclusive of animal serum.”

“Wtf does that mean?” I said.

“Doc says maybe I was working with animals, or contracted something from animals.”

“Did you suggest the cat?”

“No. But cat has hooked me a dozen times. The doc asked what all the punctures were on my arms.”

I tossed my phone back onto the windowsill and pulled the sheets up over my shoulders. I laid there calculating the meaning of the items spread around the room. There were the television and PlayStation that I never turned on, the dwindling shelves of food, and posters I rarely glanced at pasted all over the walls. My eyes stuck to a couple of apples that I had collected, sitting on my desk. One was green, the other red, but both were brightly pigmented. Somehow, I felt inferior to all of these objects. Each one wanted to do its job and I wouldn’t let it. The apples would rot in a short while, and their vanity, which I assumed they must have had, would be replaced with insecurity when their crisp colors turned pallid, and their taut flesh wilted. I would watch them change, until one day the fruit flies came, and I had to throw them out. Even then, I would be unmoved.

Rolling over, I gazed up at the ceiling and recounted every detail of the film that screened in my head before I woke up.

I found myself in my church, listening to voices close by. I crept my way toward the open double-doors to the sanctuary, and poked my head in just enough so I could see the four armed bodies sitting on the front pew, with a fifth pacing back and forth in front of them, a man shouting peremptory gibberish. This one came to an abrupt halt in both commanding and pacing. He snapped his attention to the doors, and I knew he saw me.

“Get him,” he said. For the first time, he formed actual words. The four bodies immediately sprung to their feet, drawing their pistols from shoulder holsters as they ran towards me. I booked it up the stairs, racing with adrenaline to the next floor. They shot at my hand as I gripped the newel post, missing by an inch when I turned to continue up the next flight. I ran faster. Assuming I knew my own church better than them, I sprinted through mazes of hallways, stairwells, and Sunday school rooms.

I thought I’d lost them when I made a round trip back to the sanctuary, landing with tip-toes at the back room divided by curtains. I slipped behind them and sat down in a corner to catch my breath, careful not to make a thud as my ass hit the floor. Footsteps came before I could react to change my hiding place. The curtains were ripped open, then spread all the way apart when one of the bodies spotted me. He raised a pistol, retightened his fingers around the grip, and I half rolled over and wrapped my arm around my eyes.

Just before the shot was fired, I heard a galumphing movement, and a metal rattling—but I wasn’t hurt. I removed my arm from my eyes with reticence, and saw my dad standing with his back to me. His back had an unfortunate hole in the left side. The steel cane in his right hand fell to the floor with an echoing bang and rattle as his grip loosened, and he fell. I noticed my brother, Jace, standing in the doorway across the room, staring at the back of the body that just shot our father.

Then everything was black. The scene continued a moment later, but I played a different part. I stood there in the curtained-off room, staring at myself sitting on my ass, helpless in the corner. I saw my dad lying dead on the floor, facing me. I held the gun.

Back in bed, my fingers were curled in the sheets, securing them, when I realized I was trying to make myself cry. It wouldn’t come, so I gave up and let my thoughts take over again.

The dread I felt when I knew that guy was going to kill me was tremendous, and thank God my dad stepped in front of the bullet for me. I wouldn’t have done the same thing for him. There’s a theory that when you die in your dreams, you die in real life. I never really knew if it was true or not, but it’s better safe, than dying as a martyr in your sleep, right?

Feeling compelled to think about my dad now, I started collating memories. For as long as I could remember, my dad walked with a cane, which I guess was a result of his back injury from when he built houses for a living. He took heavy steps to the kitchen each morning, every other beat on the floor accompanied by the distinct metal rattle of adjustable steel. On the counter he prepared his breakfast: a paper plate cluttered with pills of assorted colors that looked like a children’s ball pit. Then he poured a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee. He always ate his cereal standing in front of the living room window, staring out. Every fall, when the first licks of frost could be seen on the grass, he said, “Ya know, I might not be around too much longer. I might not even make it to next Christmas.” He stood there staring, talking between chews. “And you better learn to help your mother around here when I’m gone.”

“Yeah, okay,” I said.

“I’m serious, Hal. I’m not as healthy as I used to be.”

“Yep. Neither is the dog.”

My dad sighed and turned away, walking back to the bedroom where he spent most of the day napping.

This dialogue was tradition, and only one of many scenarios that has made my dad a king of uncomfortable situations. Telling me he’s dying via text was a brand new one. I was disturbed by it for a moment, before I realized the undeniable terror of receiving that news in person. Surely I would say something offensive I didn’t mean. Either that, or I’d say nothing, roll my eyes, and go to my room.

The thing was, I just couldn’t stop thinking about my dog. Twelve years ago we bought him, and named him Indiana. I picked him out myself, and grew up with him. I played with him, taught him tricks, and took long, cozy naps with him. But now he was on his way out, marking his last days with sluggishness, arthritis, and difficult breathing. I loved Indy, but I was grateful to be apart from him for long periods while I was at school. My prayers wished for his release when I wasn’t around.

Then I got a kitten last summer. It was from a litter my brother’s cat had, so I got it for free. For months I begged my mom to let me get one, so I was ecstatic when she said I could have it. I called him Dr. Venkman. His immediate purpose was to serve as a companion for stress. Spending so much time with him, I was attached, and gradually paid less and less attention to Indiana.

I prayed about my dad after he texted me that morning. If they weren’t answered, I was going to be stuck with a situation I might not know how to accommodate. My chest felt indecisive about whether or not it should be constricted and stealing my energy. In the past, Jace had always gotten along with my dad, talking about cars, sports, and women. My brother was older, so he got to experience and know my father before he started to go bad. Sometimes they reminisced about those good times, like when they played baseball in the backyard, and my dad cheering Jace on at games. He taught him how to change the oil on a car, what to do if the air conditioner conks out, and how to replace the brakes. Jace was always my dad’s “buddy,” as he would call him right in front of me.

Our bond was different than theirs, even when we were screaming at each other. I addressed him when I needed help fixing something, and we shared a groove for the occasional classic rock song, but that was about it. I only knew my dad as a sick, frustrated old man who wouldn’t stop barking at me. Disabled as he was, he never did any of those dad things with me. I could care less about cars, and I didn’t know the first thing about sports. All I got were his condescending Vietnam parables. When he would come out from his bedroom just to catch me occupying myself by studying and reading, it evoked a rage in him. He would call me lazy, compare me to my brother, and tell me I don’t know what’s hard, that he was at war when he was my age.

Dads say these things, though, so I thought I still loved him—but I also thought it might be that love where you say it and want to believe it, but daydream about his burden being finally eliminated. I wished so hard that it was as simple as getting another cat.

 

Winter came, and I had submerged myself into my final papers, all the while blasting Christmas music and pissing off my roommates and neighbors. My mind was on one track, which was wrapping up the semester and heading home for the holidays to see Dr. Venkman and Indiana, drink some festive beer, and spend some quality time with Giada and Bobby Flay. My mom helped me load my junk into the van and we had a tranquil drive home, listening to Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas on repeat and discussing how school went.

After pulling into our driveway, my heart started to knock against my chest, and I tried to keep my cool, holding my lips shut tight so my veritable glee wasn’t as obvious. From the open hatch, I grabbed what I could and carried it inside, tracking in snow that melted on the kitchen tiles like a pat of butter in a frying pan. I set everything down in the living room, where my dad met me on the green shag rug.

“Hello, son,” he said. An unashamed smile showed his coffee-stained, rotting teeth when he wrapped his arms around me. Those smug expressions always made me wonder how he wasn’t disgusted with himself for being in Vietnam, and raising me to feel bad for not going through a similar struggle. I hugged him back with two quick, one-handed pats on the back, then tried to rip myself away, and run back to the van for my suitcases. When I found myself captured, claustrophobia set in and I panicked. Then he fell to the floor, pulling me along before releasing me and clutching his left arm. I backed up and watched him writhing on the carpet, making a figure impression in the shag.

My mom eventually saw him and called an ambulance. At the hospital, she, Jace, and I were sitting around my dad’s bed, waiting. I looked at him for a long time, thinking about the dog. I felt inferior to him and his heart monitor declaring the current eminence of his life. If I had the means to save the war hero, I know I wouldn’t move an inch out of my uncomfortable hospital chair; I would wait for the fruit flies to come.

When the digital wave pulled tight and the final tone lingered in my ears, I expected to feel an overwhelming rush in my stomach, like bat wings flapping and turning over against my entrails. I almost thought I’d cry for once, at least a tear or two. Instead, I felt indifferent. It was the same feeling as when I get a paper back in class, and read the “85%” written on the front: not happy, but not remarkably angry, either.

As the nurse stopped the ringing, those texts from only a month earlier echoed in recollection:

“Did momma tell you the lousy news? Bout me?”

“The doc at the V.A. told me, ‘how do you want to die? A failing liver or heart?’”

I felt no defined sense of finality then, and I didn’t feel it now, either. That’s when it hit me that my dad had been dead for years. At least, the image had been created a long time ago. I thought of an ice tray being filled with water, each mold flooding one at a time. Every memory of my dad was a hint that filled a mold. The first one was when elementary school classmates mistook him for my grandpa. Eventually the tray filled up with doctor reports, insatiable anger, and longer, more frequent naps that pulled him out of sight. Today, the water turned to ice.

As we each stood beside the bed watching his inert body, I broke the silence and said, “I expected it sooner.”

 

BIO

Bryce A JohleBryce A. Johle is from Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He is a senior at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania currently completing his bachelor’s degree in Professional Writing. His work has appeared in Shoofly Literary Magazine, of which he is now a managing editor.

 

 

 

 

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