Home Fiction

Dream On

by CL Glanzing

Sinead Simon has a toothache. She prods it with her tongue hoping to find a dullness through the sting. In the night, curled in her sleeping bag, with the wind whipping the tent against her knees and head, she imagines using her adjustable spanner to rip the belligerent bastard from her aching gum. But it is unlikely she could remain silent throughout. She will not even make a fire to draw attention to her presence. She has become accustomed to softening her steps, keeping the gas stove on low.  She knows where the ivy is pulpy and easiest to step through, and where the blackberry brambles make trip-wires across the forest floor.

Ten metres behind her lies the wall, above the moss-drenched ditch with its lattice of dead logs. Narrow, wrought-iron slats — four inches thick and six feet high. A row of dense boxwood lines the inside of the fence, prickling branches through the slats and obscuring the house on three sides. The only breach is a narrow, but regal, iron-framed gate with wood infill. But it never opens, and the red eye of the camera on its shoulder never dims.

Sinead paws her feet in her sleeping bag, flexing and curling. She is snug, being so constricted. She knows where she is. The immediate world is known.

At 06:50 she emerges from her nylon cocoon. She wiggles the hot water-bottle from the feet of her sleeping bag and tips the cold contents into the bushes. She sometimes likes to end the evening with it zipped into her jacket, stroking it like a pregnant belly.

She laces her boots and pockets her waterproof notebook and pen. She hangs her field binoculars around her neck. Her hands circle the trunk of the beech tree under which she camps. She finds purchase on a low branch and a deformed knot at shoulder height, lifting her weight. She steps into the Y of the beech and swings carefully as she climbs higher and higher. She straddles a thick branch running parallel to the ground and jutting forwards in the direction of the house. She slides herself forward like an inchworm, buttocks raising and pushing her torso forward until the glass box house is in clear sight. She lifts her binoculars and points them towards her subjects.

The Lady in White sits at the kitchen island, sipping from a porcelain espresso cup. From the beech, Sinead has a clear view of the entire lower floor – the black leather sofa, the oak dining room table, the chrome kitchen. The french doors leading to the manicured lawn and, a little ways down, the tasteful gazebo and koi pond. Above this floor is the master bedroom, just behind a balcony with frameless glass.

Sinead watches the Lady waft to the sink and carefully rinse and dry her cup. She wipes her finger along the underside of the espresso machine and then rubs her fingers together. She then wets a cloth and rubs where she has found the dust or grime or whatever has displeased her.

The Lady returns to the kitchen island and kneads her temples in a circular motion for a while, slowly, until she is sitting with her fingers framing her face, as if attempting some trick of telepathy. She stares out the window of the glass house in the direction of the lawn.

Sinead wonders where the Lady’s mind has gone. She is coldly vacant, expressionless. Perhaps melancholy.

The Lady is warm and dry, cuddled in a cashmere cardigan and soft slippers. There is fruit on the kitchen island, central heating, a teepee of logs in the fireplace. And yet, she does not want to be here.

Sinead thinks about the two blue macaws in her aunt’s house. ‘I think they want out,’ Sinead had said, looking at the majestic birds perched in their cage. Looking into their black eyes, still like shadowed caves, she convinced herself she could see a light within, pleading and restless. ‘Don’t anthropomorphize,’ said her aunt.

Sinead does not want to be biassed. She reminds herself not to interpret, just record the physical phenomenon in her little notebook: lips turned downwards, unfocused eyes, sighing.

And then she reminds herself: Confirmation bias – the experimenter interprets results incorrectly because they are looking for information that confirms their hypothesis and overlooks information that argues against it.

She is probably the worst scientist for this job, but also the only one that can perform it.

Another figure comes into the room with the Lady. She watches her speak some words as the figure packs a suitcase on the dining room table. The Lady is kissed on the cheek and she smiles warmly. Then she is left alone.

Sinead cannot see the Mercedes departing the garage, but she can hear the gravel crunching under its weight, and the electric gate drawing back and then piercing shut in the car’s wake.

The Lady goes upstairs and changes out of her cream robe and into grey leggings and a grey sports bra. Sinead knows the rest of her morning routine. Elliptical for an hour, followed by a green smoothie. Then she will sit on the sofa and play CandyCrush – she once left her tablet propped on the sofa facing the window. There is only one computer in the house, but it’s in the study and the Lady never uses it. She has her tablet.

She lets the Waitrose delivery in through the gates on Friday afternoons. And the maid comes Mondays at 10:00. Sometimes she’ll read a book – Sinead’s binoculars are not sharp enough to read the titles.

Sinead knows the Lady has a PhD in mediaeval literature. And used to teach at the University of Essex until three years ago. Now she is on sabbatical, returning tee-bee-dee. Conducting neither research or maternity leave. Snow White pacing in her glass coffin.

Sinead should call the Lady by her real name – Dr. Elizabeth nee Marjoribanks. But the Lady in White feels better. Makes it more objective in her reconnaissance, and gives a mythic power to her observation. Like debunking a ghost spotted by a local farmer. A ghoulish folk-story moulded and churned in the minds of the frightened villagers – an obscene blemish on their perfect town. And Sinead wants nothing more than to prove it wrong, methodically, scientifically. Pull the mask off the ghost and declare, ‘Ah-HA! It was the janitor all along! And here are the missing church alms.’


Sinead is not new to science.

At a bioengineering conference, she stood in row EE of the conference hall in front of a vinyl poster describing the impact of deep brain stimulation on phantom limb pain. As second author, she began to feel wholly anonymous in the rows upon rows of colourful posters. Only the young researchers seem to be standing next to their work, searching for eye contact from passersby, like hopeful puppies in a department store window.

Just the week before, her gladiatorial pursuit of a PhD grant bestowed by the Scottish Research Council had gone to another student with whom she shared a closet office. Her career prospects were seeming their bleakest. 

Then a handsome man with walnut hair and panto glasses approached. 

He frowned as he read the text behind her head, not looking at Sinead directly. Indicating with his cup of Starbucks and still avoiding her eye, he spoke: A little derivative of Jenkins et al, don’t you think?

‘Well, unlike Jenkins, we used aggregated data,’ she replied.

He pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows as if to say, Perhaps, perhaps.

He eyed the other bodies mingling around the rows of posters, and said offhandedly, So, tell me something I don’t know yet. It sounded rehearsed, clearly directed to every new person he encountered. She did not really want to engage in such an obvious goading, but she felt compelled. She did not know who this man was, but she did not want any conference gossip painting her as a poor sport, or unenthusiastic.

‘Well, I think this technology will be in everyone’s homes in 20 years.’

He exhaled sharply through his nose, half-laughing at a private joke. Sooner than that, he said.

He handed her a card – ‘Jack Delaney, Founder’ – and told her to stop by his start-up’s stall. By the end of the evening, he had offered her a job and she waved goodbye to her PhD pipedream.   

He was fascinating, pensive, with a penetrating stare like a harrier. He did not suffer fools gladly. The slightest unintelligent or unoriginal opinion, he nipped at its heels, sometimes fearcely enough to draw blood. He was sarcastic, with a dark humour bordering on cruel. But his observations on chemistry, biomedicine, and neurosurgery were astonishing. He was a database, casually referencing literature like he was pulling light from the aether. Not just citing, but deconstructing, destroying, and reassembling the pieces into an empire of his choosing. He cackled like a young boy when something delighted him, and he stabbed his finger in the air to punctuate displeasure.

At dinner, after the conference, his colleagues started talking about their new project – the use of delta sub-4 frequencies to de-synchronise abnormal oscillations in brain neurons.

‘Interesting,’ said Sinead. ‘What for?’

The table laughed. They looked to their leader seated at the top of the table, waiting for the word of God. He took a sip of his beer and said, We’re going to cure mental illness.


Sinead shimmies down the tree. She takes her gas stove from out of her tent, and twists the dial to snap the blue flame into life. Nothing happens. She clicks it a few more times before concluding that the gas canister is empty. She had to order them online especially before she left.

No more hot meals. Her hot water bottle will remain empty at night. Which is not really a problem, considering it is May.

And she has learnt to ignore ‘wants’. The meringue-softness of a duvet, porcelain sinks, plastered walls. She has concluded that wanting comes from the stomach; needing from the head. And wanting is weakness. It says you are not self-sufficient, that there is a hole inside you that you cannot fix with a hot meal. It means that you may not survive. You are looking down from the tightrope – suddenly aware of your precarious existence. Un-wanting is self-preservation and acceptance.

But the inability to boil water from the stream – that will be a problem. She will have to walk the seven miles to the petrol station with the small corner shop.

In this sleepy Surrey village, the roads cut through steep embankments with few shoulders or gutters. They are punctuated by wide driveways that declare the property names in large, rustic fonts – Badger Cottage, Oak Stables, Mosswood Farms, Bramble Lodge. The ‘cottages’ always seem to be the size of aeroplane hangers. These kinds of properties are never sold – only if the occupants are childless and needing to go into specialised care homes. Otherwise, they are inherited and exchanged between the hands of the same small group of upper middle class snobs. There was always the nouveau riche outlier – actors, hedge-fund managers. Tech billionaires.

Parts of these open fields make Sinead angry – all that space just sitting there when twice the population is stacked in high-rises half the square footage in the city. Despite the majestic breathlessness that stirs in her when she sees a horse cantering through a field, she can empathise with the current political movement to have them banned in Britain. Too much space for a creature that does nothing but offer vein entertainment for rich cunts to stroke and brush and race. Not that such a bill would ever pass through those very same rich cunts sitting in the House of Lords.

When Sinead arrives at the petrol station, she is feeling parched and her knees ache. She first checks her balance at the cash machine outside by pressing her thumb to the fingerprint reader. £56. Fuck.

After she has purchased enough canned vegetables and bags of peanuts to fit inside her backpack and two gallon water jugs, Sinead reluctantly walks into the public telephone booth next to the cashpoint, and presses her thumb against the screen to access her cloud contacts. She simultaneously hopes and dreads the end of the dial tone.


‘Hi Natalie. It’s Sinead.’

‘Oh my god, where are you?’

‘Listen, I’m going to be a while longer and -’

‘-I haven’t heard from you in three weeks. I’ve been going out of my mind.’

‘I know, I’m sorry. My solar battery died.’

‘When are you coming home? You can’t possibly still be camping. My mobile says you’re calling from Dorking… Why – why are you in Dorking?’

Sinead’s mouth is a hot, dry cave sloshing saliva around and around. Get to the point, she tells herself.

‘Natalie, I need you to give my two weeks’ notice. Please can you cancel the standing order with Mrs. Tobakias for my half of the rent so that I don’t get charged next week.’

‘Why are you in Dorking?’ Natalie repeats. ‘You’re not doing what I think you’re doing?’

Sinead squeezes her eyes shut. ‘Got to go. Love you, bye.’ She ends the call and sinks her head against the telephone screen. She opens one of the water gallons and slurps as much as she can manage by tilting the heavy container to her mouth. The cold water shocks the spot in her teeth that has been worrying her.

She walks the miles back to her camp. The road is narrow, twisting, rising and dipping over the gentle hills. Passing cars could almost clip her arms swinging the water jugs. She steps into the narrow gutter a few times or scrambles up a steep bank to let a large lumber-carrying truck past. The drivers raise a polite hand to her in thanks. It is generally a friendly place, just not one built for one on foot. Who is poor enough to walk here?

She does not take the same route back in case anyone begins to recognise her around the area. This time she cuts through the woodlands, damp from recent rain, and the mud sucks her boots into the gelatinous, yellow paste. Overhead a woodpecker raps against an oak. A pair of sparrows flutter out of view as she snaps her way through fallen twigs.

She saw a goldfinch several weeks ago when she was feeling disheartened and nearly ready to bundle up her camp. It was that night that she heard the Mercedes roar from its garage and screech down the country road. The house lights were left on. Sinead scrambled up her tree in the dark, barefooted, her feet pierced by bark.

The Lady was standing in the bedroom window looking out at the woodlands. From the steep angle, Sinead could not see the bed or the rest of the room, only the Lady from the waist upwards.

The Lady was crying. Despite the light behind her, her shoulders were shaking heavily. Her chin was practically to her sternum and her hands were locked at the back of her neck, forearms pressed tightly against her chest.

She withdrew for an instant and when she returned, she opened the bedroom window and hurled something out onto the lawn below. The window closed and the Lady disappeared out of sight again.

Sinead dismounted the tree, landing on her feet and then knees. The impact stung her joints, but she scrambled to the back gate, just behind the camera’s eye, which pointed sharply downwards to the gate’s entrance, as if obsessively glaring at an invisible doormat. She peered between the gap between the hinges of the door.

Whatever was launched into the garden, it swivelled in the air clockwise and landed on the ground like a frisbee. It was pigeon grey, with a soft blue light flashing to one side. Sinead shone the torch from her pocket across the lawn, just for a moment. The beam of light caught the object, now visible. Circular – no, donut shaped. But thin.

She recognised it. A Somnus XE7. Retail price, £399.

Why did she fling it, for it to be ruined by dew? A light on the ground floor turned on, and Sinead hastily switched off her torch. The Lady appeared in the living room and unlocked the French doors. An alarm whistled and she punched her fingers against the unseen side of the wall, presumably to disarm it, because the noise abruptly stopped.

She glided across the lawn in her white robe, clutching it closed to her breast. Sinead could hear her breathing, sharp and shrill. The Lady located the device and sighed – perhaps with relief? – and her breathing slowed.

She wiped the Somnus with her sleeve and carried it into the house, resting on her palms like a dead bird. As she turned to close the French doors, the living room light caught her face, and Sinead saw her furrowed, anxious brow. Her shoulders were bent, heavy. This was a resigned woman. This was a defeated woman. Returning to her aviary.

I know you, thought Sinead. I won’t leave you.


The public footpath snakes between two empty fields and then ends at the junction of a public road. Temptation gets the better of her, and she walks leftwards, down the road past a wide, electric gate hugged between two enormous rectangular pillars. Hound Hall declares a shining plaque. As if that was not austentatious enough, two stone bloodhounds sit poised to attention on each pillar of the gate. Her nose crinkles seeing them again. So subtle.

The stone guardians came with the property when it was purchased three years ago. It’s just surprising they remained – could anyone actually like them?

Sinead is unable to take her eyes off the house’s brutal asymmetry and feature floor-ceiling windows. Two shoeboxes of concrete and glass stacked precariously. The bust of another hound guarded the chrome knocker on the front door. The idea that anyone would need to knock after gaining entry through the draconian security gates seemed odd.

But this sleepy Surrey village was full of contradictions. Loud signs declaring ‘Beware of the Doberman’ while a plump Yorkie yips along the fence. Front gates only a metre high containing elaborate security keypads. Electric doorbells pointing away from the open shed offering £1 for a dozen eggs – honour system. They were optimistic, but paranoid. Good fences make good neighbours. Longing for the comradery of their father’s generation but also fearful of the present, as the Daily Mail tells them to be.

A voice interrupts Sinead’s thoughts. ‘Would you like some mint?’

She stops in her tracks. On the other side of the barred fence is the Lady, on her knees in front of a tidy flower bed running the inside periphery of the front fence. She wears yellow gardening gloves and a wide sun-hat. She holds a pair of pruners and wipes her brow with her sleeve.

‘Sorry?’ says Sinead, surprised.

‘It’s turning into a bit of a hedge and I feel sad hacking it back and letting it go to waste. Would you like some? You could make some tea.’

Sinead looks at her earnest face, and the beads of perspiration forming near her eyes. She has never seen the Lady this close. It is unnerving, like examining an impressionist painting familiar only from postcards. She has never imagined how the Lady’s eyes were coloured. Now she can see they are brown, with a touch of green by the irises.

‘Thank you,’ says Sinead. ‘That would be very nice.’

Observer effect, she thinks, disturbance of an observed system by the act of observation.

The Lady passes a bushy stem through the barred fence to Sinead. ‘Here, take some more,’ she adds, passing more, one by one. They both laugh politely at this slow activity. The slats brush against the mint, releasing the fresh oils into the air. Sinead’s mouth waters, thinking about chewing the leaves. She had been without toothpaste for at least six weeks. It could explain the toothache.

‘Do you live around here?’ asks the Lady.

‘I’m renting,’ Sinead says, having practised this explanation in her head many times. ‘A shepherd’s hut in one of the North fields.’

‘Oh, how marvellous. For how long?’

‘A few weeks. I’m working on a novel.’

‘Goodness. Well, I hope the village is inspiring for you.’

‘It is. How long have you lived here?’ Sinead already knew the answer.

‘Three years. Or thereabouts.’

‘With a partner? Husband?’

‘My husband. He works in the city but he – we – always wanted to live in the countryside.’

‘Is your husband nice?’

The Lady begins to smile and laugh, but then notices the intensity on Sinead’s face, the ferociousness in her eyes. The Lady does not know why, but it is in discord with the innocence of the question. Her smile lowers in.

‘Yes,’ the Lady says. And then the smile suddenly flickers on again like the revved engine of a hotwired car. ‘I should get out of the sun now. It was nice meeting you.’

‘You too,’ says Sinead, and watches the Lady take her basket of gardening tools inside the house.

Sinead picks up her water jugs again and walks back to the road. Once she reaches the end of the fence, she drops one jug to the ground and strikes her face once, twice, three times with an open palm. Stupid stupid stupid. She frightened the lady with her rough questioning.

The fence ends, and the woodland begins again. A narrow stream trickles out of the roots, twisting into a gutter and disappearing into a culvert pipe under the road. She steps onto the bank of the stream, and follows the void of trees until she reaches the end of Hound House. Then, it is a sharp ninety degrees through a thicket of young saplings and trees until she reaches her campsite at the back of the house.

The jugs were heavy and the stream battered her with every step. She should eat, but she does not feel like she deserves it. 


Twenty hour shifts. Sixity days until the funding from their private donor ran out. They had promised results by quarter-one, and now they had crept into quarter-three. They had moved into cheaper accommodation in the basement of a former paper warehouse. Enough space to rig a sterile lab and operate their £300,000 MRI machine sparingly. No windows or natural light.

The storage cupboard was converted into a shift-room with three rows of bunk-beds. Jack woke the sleeping bodies by turning on the lights and clapping his hands loudly. Come on, you pussies. If I’m awake, you’re awake.

Sinead was the only woman in the R&D team, and it showed. By the end of six weeks she smelt just as pungent as the others, and she stopped blanching when she walked past the blow-up sex doll by the watercooler, with a rotating A4-printed face of various celebrities and politicians. When Davidson pretended to hump one of the subjects in the MRI machine, spanking the air above the sedated body, she did not laugh with the other boys in the control room. But she also said nothing.

The lack of sleep and poor, freeze-dried noodle diet had caused her to gain a stone, which she hid under baggy band t-shirts and sweatpants, which seemed to be the dress-code anyway.

And driving her unwavering momentum was the desire to impress Jack. One evening – or perhaps it was so late that it was early – they were hunched over a Mac together, rerunning the analysis code for the umpteenth time, and Sinead finally spotted an errant parenthesis in row 74 of the R code. Jack put his arm around her shoulder and squeezed her against his chest. She was conscious of not having showered in two days, but she knew that he was admiring her mind, not her body, which was a greater intimacy.

I knew you were brilliant.

And Sinead beamed. 

Before she could dismiss it with the trained modesty instilled in all young women, he kissed her fully on the lips. The bunks were all occupied, so they got into his car in the parking lot and fumbled under the glow of the streetlight like a couple of teenagers.


She moved her bags into his office. They shared the single mattress on his floor, tucked between the file cabinets and his desk. No bottom sheet, only a thin duvet and Jack’s chest to keep her warm. The entire floor kept at a chilly 14ºC in order to offset the heat of the servers which lined the hallway.

At first it feels cosy, working next to Jack, their laptops back to back. Sharing gastronomically questionable take-out from the greasy spoon across the road. He demanded perfection with an urgency that felt like a dizzying rush. Pygmalion effect, he reminded his staff. High expectations lead to improved performance. And all the while feeling like her status in the team had been elevated to queen regent.

The fluorescent lights were always on, and the lack of windows made it impossible to determine day from night. One long night in a casino, with her career sitting on the pass line of the craps table.

Then, a potential investor got cold feet. A marathon of an ethical review application failed. A successful reduction in symptoms for a volunteer with treatment-resistant depression – their accountant, Henry – but an inability to replicate it with five more volunteers.

Jack bristled when Sinead placed her arms around him. When she closed her laptop and lay down on the mattress to close her eyes, Jack would exhale sharply. By all means, get your beauty sleep. I’ll just be over here trying to save the company. She would rouse herself and make them more instant coffee with hot water straight from the tap.

Days blurred together. Punctuated only by minor milestones of progress. The rest of the team began to resent her for perks they imagined her getting. They distanced themselves from her, she and Jack becoming isolated in an echo chamber. He made paranoid assertions about the team, and wielded them against her as well when she did not agree.

When she slept – for the few precious hours when Jack was off presenting to investors or haggling for new equipment – it was a putrid, dark sleep. She felt like a seagull doused in oil, unable to move or breathe. Rousing herself was becoming more difficult as she went for longer and longer stretches without.

Sometimes, she would be woken from this cavernous sleep to the feeling of Jack’s mouth on her neck, his hands pawing at her sweatshirt. Unsure if it was morning or night. You can’t get enough of it, can you, he would grunt. His body began to repulse her, and he noticed. This made him bolder, wanting to force his way into her like a mole sensing a coming frost. His kisses became sloppier, his fingernails catching on the folds of her skin. He pounded into her with a desperation bordering on a scream.


The world has a breath. The swell of grass in the breeze. The hush before rain, inhaling, and the spurt of life in the exhale. This is how we learn to count: in and out.

The darkness creeps over her tent. It seeps in her bones – the cold, the futility. The day has circled back to eat itself. She must be fierce, she must warm herself with her resolve, even as she hugs her knees to her chest and coughs with the damp crawling down her throat.

She is the fearful watcher, the unwinking. sentinel. Often she awakes, sitting upright, not remembering what impulse had hinged her body so forcefully. She wakes holding her foam earplugs, despite having wedged them in her ears an hour ago – what was she trying to hear? Or was it in a dream?

After midnight, awake and trembling with cold, she emerges from her tent. The ivy rustles underfoot. The house is dark, with black eyes. Staring at the house feels insidious – like gazing at the black water at the bottom of a well, tipping yourself forward and daring gravity not to seize you and smash your face into that cold, foetid water.

She imagines his clammy hands around her body, clutching her frame like ivy smothering a house. Trying to soften her angles and the tension of her bones. She was moist when he wanted her to be, and soft when he wanted her to be. She was naked – but more than naked. Peeled. Skinned.

She remembering how she buried deeper within herself to escape. Pulling her elbows in towards her body, squeezing her legs together. His flaccid wetness against the back of her thigh. It might as well have been a hook, having pulled something deep and solemn out of her, and left to shrivel under the cold, fluorescent lights.

Don’t sleep, she had thought. Don’t leave your body. You must keep watch.

And a part of her does want to leave, to sink into a warm, velvet pool away from the body that failed her. But sleep is surrender. Not just to yourself, or to the dark waves of your unconscious that can cast any number of terrifying shadows, but you also must surrender to whatever surrounds your hollow body. The air, the sheets, and whomever you lay beside. You are absent, you abandon your meat suit. Every night.

The body and the mind are an unhappy marriage. How can the body forgive the mind every morning? The mind says: I’m sorry, I left you with Him. I had to go, I had to leave – because I could. You would have done the same. 

‘And what did she do?’ you are asking yourself. ‘When does she put her hands up and leave?’ But the truth is that she hated herself for being repulsed, unable to take the intensity that he flung at her. Most women are raised to never disappoint – a worse sin than being stupid or lazy or cruel. She was no different. And she was frightened of making him angry or sad. She feared his intensity could backfire, like a loaded shotgun and destroy them both.

One night sitting in their car, he unfastened the glove compartment and showed her the loaded Glock he kept ‘for protection.’ Her first thought was not ‘I am a strong, independent woman who deserves better.’ It was, ‘I don’t want to die. Say whatever it takes to keep that thing out of his hands.’

The world consists of facts, she tells herself, rubbing her arms for warmth. We are stuck between the cosmos and the atoms. With enough time, all effects can be measured. All truths are revealed. She must observe and quantify.

She can feel the invisible weight that she must drag behind her everyday. If she can prove it real, then she can prove the pain to be real.

The prospect of disproving her hypothesis is frightening. Did she have the wrong subject? Could her variable not have a measurable effect on her subject? Illusory correlation: perceiving a relationship between variables even when no such relationship exists. Cum hoc ergo propter hoc. After all, three hundred scientific papers were published about N-Rays which amounted to be nothing but a fictional phenomenon created by experimenter bias. And astronomers once believed a planet Vulcan orbited next to the Sun, drawing Mercury into its bizarre dance.

This research is cauterisation, an exorcism, she tells herself. A course of antibiotics stronger than radium. Strip the marrow – suck it dry. She read that the body replaces all its cells in seven to ten years, but this seems like a lie. What of the parts of him she swallowed? Did they become part of her muscles and bones? She shudders and wants to tear her veins apart, unspool them like yarn.

Sinead knows the Lady. She was the Lady. She knows where she goes when she sleeps, and she knows what remains, defenceless and silent.


Her fingers are numb, they feel as stiff as chopsticks. Her mouth throbs. She takes out her torch and shines it between her gum and lower lip. The reflection of her Swiss army knife reveals a black cross on the surface of her left premolar. She wonders if she could scrape the decay out herself. Risky, if it has penetrated the root. She swirls more water around her mouth and swallows.

In the morning, the pain is worse. The gum is puffy. Her neck lymph nodes are swollen like robin’s eggs. She can barely swallow. She does not want to have to return to the shops two days in a row. But she needs paracetamol. Maybe some Bonjela will tide her over. Help her get back up in the tree.

She changes her shirt and ties a bandana around her hair to look as different as possible. She adds a pair of sunglasses to the ensemble. Hopefully someone different will be operating the shop this morning. She exits her patch of woodland and takes a shortcut across a sheep field, shortening the journey by two miles.

When she turns the corner in the village, there is a police car parked outside the petrol station, a policeman leaning on the bonnet. She lowers her head and decides to walk past discreetly. Then, the door opens, and Natalie steps out.

‘That’s her,’ she says, flapping her hand to get the policeman’s attention. Natalie lunges towards Sinead and embraces her. ‘Thank God, you’re okay.’

The policeman approaches and Natalie lets go. ‘Sinead Simon?’ he says, ‘We’re here to check on you. Your friend was very worried about you.’ He approaches with his palms facing her, like she is a bridleless horse about to bolt. His partner emerges from the shop and flanks her. She feels constricted, trapped.

‘Do you want to have a seat?’ says the first policeman. ‘And we can have a chat?’

‘Not really,’ says Sinead.

‘We just want to check if you’re okay.’

‘I’m fine, really.’

‘Where are you staying?’ asks the second officer.

‘Glamping,’ she says. The policemen exchange glances.

‘Your friend is concerned you’re not taking your medication.’

Sinead laughs, unsure why. Raw embarrassment perhaps. ‘I only took those to help me sleep,’ she says, frustrated by the need to reveal personal information.

‘They’re antipsychotics,’ Natalie stage-whispers to her.

‘Also prescribed for sleep disorders,’ declares Sinead, now realising she has raised her voice. She threads her fingers though either side of her hair. This isn’t happening. If only she could let her body float away with her mind like the basket of a hot air balloon.

‘Your friend is worried you might be a danger to yourself or – perhaps it would be best if you came with us to a hospital and we could get you checked out.’

‘What are you doing in the area?’ asks the second officer. Clearly the bad cop.

‘Hiking,’ she says.

‘You wouldn’t happen to be visiting a Mr. Delaney, would you? Or staying nearby?’

Sinead glares at Natalie. She never should have told her.

It had just come tumbling out of Sinead’s mouth when Natalie had found her trying to toast and butter a Wheetabix at four in the morning – having been awake for three days and stoned for two of them.

‘Is that the guy?’ Natalie had asked, pointing to the open copy of Fortune magazine on their kitchen table. The face above the headline, What’s next for Mr. Sandman? had been burnt into a black circle with a Bic lighter, the scorch penetrating into the table.

Sinead had nodded, her shoulders wedged high under her ears. She stood in the middle of their broom-closet kitchen, clutching the counter like a drowning woman clinging to a buoy.

Natalie gently closed the magazine and carried it to the recycling box as if it contained a live spider. 

‘Good riddance,’ Natalie had said. But Sinead had read it too many times by now. The words created a scalding stew in her mind, slopping around and around. As Natalie tried to put her to bed, she could still feel them.

Wunderkind Jack Delaney will return to the UK after four years in silicon valley. On the eve of his company going public, with a £5 billion valuation, ‘Mr. Sandman’ has opened a new head office in East London’s Tech City.

‘It’s a far cry from our humble broom–closet in Shoreditch,’ laughed Delaney, referencing the start-up which discovered he and his team discovered the revolutionary method for administering delta-waves in order to guarantee sleep within 3 to 5 minutes. What Elon Musk recently described as ‘The biggest disruption to the tech market since the iPhone.’

‘I wouldn’t go so far as saying “discovered.” It was a happy accident,’ explained the Oxford alumnus. ‘We realised that when we administered delta-waves to participants as part of our mental health study, they were falling asleep – and staying asleep – until we turned off the wave machine.’

Last month’s study in the Lancet revealed that with the Somnus™, the quality of life of shift-workers has risen dramatically.

‘In a 24-7 world, we should be able to control exactly when we need to sleep,’ said Delaney. ‘Doctors, pilots, bus drivers, coal miners … now able to get the rest they deserve and wake up refreshed whenever they are needed. No more insomnia. And no more health problems associated with circadian rhythm disruption.’

The Somnus™ will be released a new, 200 gram lighter XE edition, available in a choice of colours, by Christmas.

When asked whether he uses the Somnus himself, he said, smiling, ‘No, but my wife can’t get enough of it.’

Natalie knew that Sinead was lying when she said she was going on a research trip – for what kind of research does a Boots Pharmacy send its junior pharmacy technician? It hurt to lie. Natalie had been a good flatmate, kind and quiet. Probably the longest relationship Sinead had ever had.

But right now, standing a metre away from two armed policemen, Sinead is a canister about to blow. She is the sharpness in the eye of a cottontail.

She nods slowly, and pretends to take off her backpack from her shoulder. Then she flings it in the direction of the policeman – assuming the surprise would give her a few seconds – and she bolts down the road.

She knows these back gardens better than them. She darts right over a low fence and snakes through an orchard, and over another fence. She veres left and meets a public footpath that turns sharply and intersects a farm road. She whips off her bandana, and throws it leftwards up the path in an act of misdirection, and then sprints in the opposite direction. She hops a cherry laurel hedge – one of the houses advertising a dog despite not having one – and lies flat with her belly against the lawn. She waits several minutes, listening for the sound of running footsteps.


Your voice is too pitchy in the mornings. The coffee is too cold – make it again. You’re sabotaging me. You don’t believe in me. Corporate espionage. What is that car outside doing? Write down the licence plate – I shouldn’t have to ask. You are empty. You were nothing before you had our goals – look how far you’ve come. I’m proud of you. You challenge me. It’s okay to disagree with you. Are you being intentionally dense? Are you trying to get a rise out of me? I just want to fucking relax. Kiss me. Like you mean it. You’re so hot. Turn around. Come on. You can’t get enough of it.


Sinead and the Lady. Two data points – that’s a line. Plus time – that makes a vector. She never liked vectors at school. They made her queasy with their untidiness. She preferred natural logs, which felt like launching a kite on a string and then pulling back to the ground. Doing and undoing your work, safely on a string. The laws gave you a path to follow and they held you safe.

The lawn grass tickles her face. She watches the slug trail on a dandelion glint in the sunlight. In the distance, she hears the sound of pounding feet approach, along with the static and consonantless word-garbage from a shoulder radio. Then the noise trails away into nothingness.

Slugs are just wriggles of muscle, she thinks. Perhaps she’s delirious from her sprint on an empty stomach, which is now pressed uncomfortably against the ground.

But from this angle, everything seems connected to grandmother Earth. Some creatures are capable of peeling off her skin for a moment, but always return to the bosom of her gravity. The hare leaps, the mayfly zips, the fox pounces. Natural arcs of creation, destruction, and recreation. Man is the only creature to struggle against this natural concept, and resistance breeds despair. He grieves. He thrashes violently, wanting to seize control of his natural parabula. I am bigger and mightier, he says, attempting to cast off the net. And none are more hubristic than scientists. Beating their fists in the dark.

She lifts herself off the lawn and climbs over the garden fence. Back onto the residential road, she zig-zags down the path, onto the public footpath snaking between two fields.

She runs to the front of Hound House and pounds the buzzer with her fist.

‘Yes?’ says a female voice.

‘This is the writer from up the hill – could I talk with you for a second?’

‘Oh, um, what about?’

‘Better in person,’ she pants. ‘It’s about your husband.’

The crinkle of the autocom soothes into a dead horizon. ‘Just a second.’

The longest wait of Sinead’s life. A car passes and she turns to hide her face against the gate, breathing heavily. She is compromising the experiment. She’s sticking a finger on the scale. But she cannot imagine leaving this valley without knowing.

The Lady emerges from the front door. She looks flummoxed when she sees Sinead, who is still panting hard, her nose and cheeks flushed. The Lady keeps a wary distance from the gate, her arms holding another cream cardigan closed.

‘What’s this about?’ she says.

Sinead swallows. ‘I knew your husband,’ heaving the words from her body like stones. ‘He was cruel. He was a monster.’

The Lady looks bewildered, as if Sinead has just slapped her.

‘I need to know whether you’re safe,’ says Sinead.

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Are you safe? With him?’        

A car engine builds to a crescendo behind her and screeches as it cuts the corner of the road and comes to a stop on the driveway. It honks twice, rudely, attention-seeking. Sinead flattens her back against the fence as the horn ornament comes into view.

From the black Mercedes emerges a tall man, chestnut hair, a pale beard trimmed to sharp perfection along his cheekbones. He’s wearing a navy suit and paisley shirt with no tie, just a baby-blue pocket square. He is shorter than Sinead remembers.

Darling, He says to the Lady, leaving the car door open and the car purring. He reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out a mobile phone. Get away from the gate.

‘What is going on,’ says the Lady, frightened.

There was a message from Surrey Police waiting for me at the office. They wanted to do a wellness check and something about a former lab assistant stalking our house. So I came right back.

Sinead wants to curl inside herself like a snail. She presses her back against the bars. A terrible anachronism stands before her. Beneath the crows-feet and greying eyebrows she can see the outline of the young man she used to know.

‘Stay away from me,’ is all she can manage.

‘Do you know her?’ the Lady asks her husband.

No. He raised his phone to his ear. I’m calling the police.

‘Tell her about the mattress in your office. About the hotel room in San Francisco,’ says Sinead. ‘And the Ambien you gave me for jet lag.’

She’s crazy.

He grasps her arm and flings her in a sharp arch away from the gate. She stumbles to the driveway on her knee and then hip. She is infantilized sitting on the crazy-paving, her arm aloft in his tightening grasp. She looks up at the underside of his chin and the softness of a belly spilling over his belt. She sees the echo of a body she used to know – like a soldier staring at his own severed limb, watching the fingers twitch. 

‘Listen to me – listen to me,’ Sinead says, twisting her body to grasp the bars of the fence. ‘Elizabeth – Dr. Elizabeth Marjoribanks-Delaney. I know you. If you need  help – if you need to get out – when you need to get out, I’ll be here. I’ll be here for you. You’re not alone.’

Sinead’s eyes are watering, begging Elizabeth to see the sincerity. Recognise her reflection.

Then Elizabeth looks towards her husband. ‘How long until the police?’

The light in Sinead flickers out. The planet Vulcan shadows her face. You can observe phenomena, watch a brain shrivel – it’s another thing to try and intervene. That takes years of clinical trials. And this trial has failed.

Prospect theory: a loss is perceived to be more significant than the equivalent gain.

Sinead walks her hands up the gate bars until she is standing, Jack’s hand is still on the arm of her jacket, leashing her. He is speaking the address into the phone in his palm. She thrusts her elbow into his chest, unstabling him for an instant, and then sprints down the driveway as soon as his grasp releases her sleeve.

She runs until her lungs sour with the metallic taste of blood. She runs until her gasping breath smothers the sound of her weeping.


Natalie parks the Prius in the driveway leading to a field of black-nosed sheep.

‘Just here?’ confirms Natalie.

Sinead nods, removing her forehead from the passenger window. ‘Thank you for doing this.’

‘I don’t like helping you violate an injunction.’

‘We won’t have to get that close,’ says Sinead. ‘Ten minutes, I promise.’

Natalie does not protest, considering the value of the items left at the campsite and the back-rent that Sinead owes. She takes two Ikea bags from underneath her seat and shakes them out. It’s been two weeks since Sinead left Hound House and walked aimlessly into evening, eventually following the signage to Gatwick. She spent the last dregs of her savings on a night in a hostel. And in the morning, she called Natalie, who quickly borrowed her brother’s Uber vehicle.

They cut across the field, and turn left into a thicket of ferns, Sinead leading the way. When they reach the familiar pocket of woodland, Sinead catches sight of her green tent. She tries not to eye the wall behind it, imagining it to have a piercing quality to her eyes like the sun.

The wind or a curious animal has managed to unzip the tent, letting rain flood the base. Together they begin to pack the remains of her campsite. Her gas-stove, binoculars, good wellies, cutlery, and pans. No sense leaving them to rot and litter what countryside we have left.

After Sinead has dismantled the tent and tucked the frame parts into the Ikea bag, she stands and wipes her hands on her jeans. She allows herself to properly look at the fence. Slowly, she approaches.

Natalie is rolling the sleeping bag into a soggy roulade. ‘That’s not twenty feet,’ she warns.

‘Give me a second.’

Sinead creeps to the gate. There is something thrusting from the gap between the door and the fence. Something green upsetting the smoothness of the wall.

There, resting on the hinges of the gate, is a bouquet of mint stems.


CL Glanzing is an international nomad, currently living in London. By day, she works in healthcare research, trying to use those ridiculous letters after her name (MA, MSc, PhD). By night, she does heritage crafts and runs an LGBTQ+ bookclub. Her story “Fishbone” was recently included in Issue 51 of Luna Station Quarterly.

The Sad Princess of Highland Park

By Cara Diaconoff

In her bedroom in her father’s house, the wealthy daughter sat staring out the window. Six months she’d sat this way, since she’d graduated from college last winter, watching the workmen, who were renovating the fountain at the center of the circular driveway.

The fountain renovation was part of her father’s “statement piece,” a massive grounds project being built in memory of Francesca’s mother, dead now eighteen years. This was how her father was spending his earnings from the two celebrity criminal cases that had made him a household name. It would be the wonderland her mother had always dreamed about.

The grounds would be ready in time for what would have been their twenty-fifth anniversary. Francesca’s father had requested topiary in the shapes of dragons and mermaids and devils from the Polish tales of her mother’s childhood. And he had envisioned terraced hillocks of poppies and geraniums and mazes lined with evergreen hedges so intricate that a wanderer might really get lost. The fountain was the coup de grace. Its centerpiece was a rusalka, the water nymph of Slavic tales, sitting naked on a bank with head thrown back, throat gushing water.

The fountain was taking longer than projected. The pipes had needed to be rerouted, permits from the city secured. For weeks the fountain had been a pile of unattended rubble, baking sullenly in the Texas sun by day, and by night glinting in the moonlight like the ruins of a temple to some ancient, bored god.

But now the work crew had returned. The statue of the rusalka was raised, presiding over the piles of stones and tools.

One of the new crew members caught Francesca’s eye—although why, she couldn’t say. Was it just that he was tall and skinny? He wore a kerchief tied around his crown that made him look like a very tall woman, long hair gathered in a bun on top of his head. He was gentle in all his movements, in contrast to the irascible foreman, chronically red-faced.

The foreman called him Marco. She could understand most of what they said to each other. With her window open to the fresh air, in the morning before it got too hot, she would listen and watch as they carted blocks of cement around the grounds.

It was good to have a diversion. Usually, the most exciting thing that ever happened in this neighborhood would be a sighting of Miss Clara, the Argentinian widow, suffering from dementia, who lived next door and sometimes came out to wander the border between the two properties, dressed in a pea-green jumpsuit like a huntress or a wood-sprite.

Francesca was twenty-two now and hadn’t laughed since her twenty-first birthday. Every morning, she would wake up at nine to Carmelita, the housekeeper’s, rapping on the door.

“We are just making sure you’re alive!” Carmelita said this every morning, always in the same bravely joking tone.

“I’m alive, dear!” Francesca would call back, as merrily as she could muster. Carmelita had been with the family for years—for as long as Francesca could remember.

She could have stayed in her own condo, out in the high-rise by Turtle Creek. But most of the friends she’d had in town were elsewhere now, working or traveling. Without knocks on her door, she would have lain in bed till nightfall at least. She barely needed to eat. She didn’t know why she felt this way. It had only gotten worse since she’d finished college.

So it was good, she told herself, that she was forced to haul her body from the bed, push her feet into felt clogs, and shuffle downstairs to the east dining nook to pick at a toasted bagel. Yes, it was good, even if the effort would exhaust her so much that, again, it was only the need to avoid alarming the help that could motivate her to shuffle back upstairs.

Her father was working on a case, which meant that he left home at dawn and didn’t return till dinnertime or later. She found herself often alone in the house except for the help, who came and went, distantly heard. Times when she felt more wakeful, she would wander the halls, listless yet ready to be detained by anything sufficiently interesting—like scrapbook photos of her late mother, with the heart-shaped face and dark eyes.

Her mother had died, by her own hand, before Francesca had been able to form any memory of her more than a scent of Chanel and a pair of black sunglasses that covered half the face. Her mother, Julia, had met her father when he was visiting Warsaw on a Fulbright. Smitten, he had been, with this girl behind the law-school office counter who smiled so demurely yet also so slyly. And she, perhaps, had been entranced by the self-assured man with the piercing green eyes. When the school year ended, he had spirited her back with him to the United States, and in a picture in his scrapbook, taken after they first arrived, he is staring at the camera with a hint of jauntiness, and she, sitting by his side on a doily-covered couch in someone’s living room, is gazing away.

Francesca always wondered if really her mother had never wanted to expatriate.

From the outside, this house she had lived in her whole life was a massive hacienda with Moorish turrets, presiding impassively at the center of its two acres of land. Inside were enough twists and turns to supply a Tudor castle. On one of these languid afternoons, she entered a sub-wing and counted four doors. She could swear she had been in the same one the day before and counted only three.

Try the knob of the seemingly extra door. Ah yes, it gives—so obligingly, as they all do. She is grateful to her father for not ordering the unused rooms locked.

And it was in the drawers of an old cedar dresser in this room that, this afternoon in early July, she found mysterious treasure. A pile of empty jewelry boxes, encased in rococo gilt. Pencil drawings, on crumpled graph paper, of a rusalka seeming to transpire from a woodland creek, limbs and hair intertwined with the grasses of its banks. Other knick-knacks like the detritus of a toy garrison: tiny metal horses and swords and helmets. And, in the midst of it all, a wedding-cake topper that Francesca could not imagine had ever been used for a real cake. Could it be a joke? The groom was grim-faced, apparently bald under a top hat, while on his arm hung an emaciated bride wearing a crown of roses and a red-lipped mouth (the paint looked freshly applied) stretched in a ghastly grin.

The next day, she was afoot again, too restless to stay in her room after the crew had broken for lunch. Would she be able to find that drawer? Down the main second-floor hallway, through a door, up a small flight of stairs, and there was the choice of two wings. She chose one, and, yes—four doors again, and the fourth one led into the room with the stripped four-poster and the cedar dresser.

She took hold of both handles, and with a sound like a yawning cat, it creaked open. Everything in it looked the same as before. There was the wedding couple, poking from a mess of miniature rifles. She ran her fingers through them and touched the edge of a spiral notebook she hadn’t noticed the day before. Curious, she pushed aside the toy weapons.

The notebook had her mother’s name on the outside. Just her first name, Julia, felt-penned in careful cursive. Inside were a series of drawings, some in color. Even the black-and-white ones exuded lushness, lavish in their precision and level of detail. One of them showed a row of wombs, each encasing its own monstrosity. One fat fetus was covered with bloodshot eyes, another with scaly stumps. Francesca turned the page to find a sketch in color. Again it was set up in rows: four rows of four identical figures. On looking closer, she saw that the figure was a spreadeagled female body, the wrists tied to what looked like chain-fencing; this background covered the whole page. Between the spread legs of each figure poked a bloody flower. The pistil of each of these was a tiny head, madly laughing. None of the spreadeagled bodies had a face. They had just a neck and a chin that pointed to the heavens.

With shaking hands, Francesca snapped the notebook shut. A ribbon of graph paper fluttered to the floor. She picked it up and unfolded it, expecting to find another pencil drawing.

Instead, it was a note, written in her father’s spiky, preternaturally vertical hand. The paper looked new—white, uncreased. She had most definitely not seen it the day before.

It seems you must be feeling better? Scouting secrets? Better to ask me anything you want to know. Takes the guesswork out of it.

Think of the times when a wrong guess can be fatal.

Her knees went spongy. She backed up to sit on the bed. How could he know her movements? Her eyes scanned the walls; there was no sign of a camera, a blinking light. Would they be lining the corridor? In the years she had grown up with him in this house, she had never known him to do anything like this.

Once when she was about eight years old, she and her father had spent a long Saturday at the country home of one of his old friends, and by the time they were to leave, she had fallen into a groggy half-sleep in an easy chair. Her father hadn’t tried to rouse her; he had gathered her up without a word and carried her in his arms to the car.

That was her father—decisive, protective. She would never forget the feeling of being cradled, like a precious thing. She would reserve it to call to mind whenever needed: her arms around his neck, face crushed to his chest, the papery smell of his crisp linen shirt.

There were people in public life who called him a monster because of the evildoers he had defended: the wife-killer, the mad bomber, the abusers of the public’s trust. She knew that his thirst for fame and fortune had led him down paths most would eschew.

But most were not haunted the way he was by some mysterious anguish. She knew he was in pain by the way he’d pace his bedroom late at night and by the sharpness of his tone as he whispered to himself in the breakfast alcove in the morning.

Had someone hurt him? She didn’t know. He talked so little about the past. She’d never known her grandparents on either side. She only knew his family hadn’t been rich. They had been small-time ranchers, devout Christians. He had a younger brother and sister he rarely saw; they had stayed closer to the family ways. He had been the oldest—the odd one, a light-eyed changeling: too solitary, too brainy, standing always apart with a twitchy smile.

In college, he had chosen to study law over science. But he had never told her the rest: the reasons he came to specialize in defending the truly terrible. Now that she too was an adult, couldn’t she guess it? Couldn’t she guess that he was drawn to other changelings, others who loved mysteries, others who loved to try to reveal that which was kept hidden, by means of complex, long-running, live experiments, manipulating everyone around them?

Her mind racing, she made her way back to her room still clutching his note. At one point as she wound through the corridors, she thought she heard the creak of someone else’s pace several steps behind her, but she was too preoccupied to turn around. It was probably just a member of the help staff, and she didn’t know all of them well.

Through the window, the workmen caught her distracted eye. The windows were closed against the heat, but she could make out the dumbshow of Marco patiently showing the newest crew member, a boy who looked no more than fourteen, how to maneuver the wheelbarrow over bumpy terrain.

The stocky foreman was always impatient with such displays. She could see him striding and snapping.

She kept watching, today, as up the path came a lanky young man with a clipboard in hand: a canvasser, by the looks of him. Not a common sight in this neighborhood. He must be a brave one.

Marco held out a hand to the young man. The canvasser, startled, almost dropped his clipboard. Then he recovered his equilibrium and handed it over, and he and Marco conversed solemnly over it for several minutes, with Marco finally taking out a pen and writing on the page, as his crewmates stopped eating and stared. Eventually, with many nods and smiles on both sides, the canvasser retrieved the board and made his way up to the road.

Francesca could see the other men laughing, and Marco gamely joining in, and the foreman getting up in Marco’s face, doubtless yelling at him to stop getting distracted.

He’s beautiful, she surprised herself by thinking, as her eyes followed Marco’s tall figure, the womanly bun on his head in poetic contrast to his broad shoulders and flexing biceps.

She couldn’t remember the last time she had gotten pleasure—let alone lust—from looking at anything or anyone. She could recall a time when she had laughed at herself for ogling men. She didn’t do that now. No laughing. She observed the feeling—the throbbing, the happy yawn that engulfed her torso.

Somewhere, though, she heard someone else laughing—a cackle. She couldn’t tell where it came from. Miss Clara from next door? It didn’t quite sound like a noise she would make, and the windows were closed anyway. But it must be her.

When it was time for dinner with her father, she emerged obediently, having changed out of her sweatpants into a blouse and pencil skirt and the stiletto pumps she had always worn so gracefully. In the pocket of her skirt this evening, she carried his ribbon of graph-paper note.

At the dining table, she watched him—the peremptory flick of his wrist as he rapped a spoon against the side of his water glass to summon Carmelita to remove their plates.

There was a thread of iron in him. He was staring at her now—his big, imperious face—as if he knew what she was thinking. She lowered her eyes to her plate, feeling the heat of his gaze on her cheek. She had seen him smiling his intimate smile, the one that said he could wait until you figured it out, the secret you both were in on.

Monster, they called him. Was he her monster?

Carmelita came in, well-disciplined with her blank expression. It was a relief for Francesca to have her to look at. But she was gone again inside half a minute.

“You’re quiet tonight,” said her father.

She gave a small smile. “Am I usually so talkative?”

He flashed a grin in reply. It was so quick that perhaps she had imagined it.

“The fountain is coming along,” she observed.

Her father took a sip of his coffee, catching her gaze briefly above the rim.

“It makes me think of Mom,” she said. She felt the blood surge to her cheeks. But why shouldn’t she know more about her own mother? “What would she say about it if she were here right now, do you think?”

Her father’s mouth was spreading in another grin, unreadable. “I must say I have no idea. Your mother was always a quiet one. I’ve told you that.”

“I suppose,” she said. “Do you know—today I happened to find an old art notebook of hers.” She looked him square in the eyes. “The images are quite disturbing.”

He studied her, still grinning. “Perhaps another subject,” he finally said.

“You never told me she made art,” Francesca persisted. You never told me what made her so unhappy, she didn’t add.

“I don’t know that I would call it art,” observed her father.

“Would you call what I make, art?”

She knew she was skirting risky territory. Indeed, her own art—the painting and ceramics work she used to do, before she stopped feeling like doing anything—had already been a bone of contention between her and her father. During the initial planning phase for the statement piece, a year before, she and her father had discussed how she might contribute her own work to it. But after a while, his emails about this had stopped, and eventually she had grown tired of her father ducking her direct questions. She supposed he had thought better of involving her, had decided that the statement piece was worthy only of professional contributions.

She had been disappointed at first, frustrated. Now, she didn’t really care anymore.

Lord knew, it was hard to sustain any strong emotion in this exhausting room, its walls hung with gilt sunburst ornaments and lit by Tiffany lamps, centered on the heavy table with its sticky wood. The maroon silk drapes over the French windows were pulled back to let in the last sultry rays of sunlight. The reflections of the crape myrtle bushes just outside the window wavered prettily on the opposite wall.

The bushes would survive the grounds-renovation project, but beyond them the soil was dug up for the planned poppy terraces. The house was surrounded by rutted earth; to enter at the side doors, one had to walk across plank bridges the crew had set over the ravaged ground.

It was like she was cast on a desert island with him.

 “I swear,” he said suddenly—it was the daughter’s turn to startle now, hearing his velvety drawl—“that if someone could get you to laugh, I’d give them your hand in marriage.”

She tried to arrange her face into an appropriately ironic smile.

“My hand, Daddy? You have my hand to give?”

His lips parted slightly. He could wait till she understood the joke they both were in on.

Then he said, “You never do see anyone. Would it be terribly old-fashioned of me to suggest that all this could be cured by some healthy romance?”

“What do you mean by all this?”

His smile turning sly. “What should I mean by it?”

Now was her cue. She drew the crumpled piece of paper out of her pocket and put it on the table between them.

He favored it with one raised eyebrow.

“I found this,” she said.


“Are you having me followed?”

“Am I—” he began, then stopped himself, and now she was a witness for the prosecution whom he was grilling, and humiliating, in court. He turned to throw a disbelieving smile in the direction of an invisible jury, then back to her. He furrowed his brow in a look of staged pity.

“I know that depression is a disease,” he said. “I understand that.”

“Daddy,” she said, “you wrote me a note. This is your note.”

“Daughter,” he replied, as if to match her syllable for syllable, “I did not write that. I never saw it before.”

“Oh please. I know your handwriting!”

He rocked his head back and settled upon her a long, expressionless gaze. He was beautiful and mean, a bald-headed snake with those emerald eyes. She would have said she was prey for him to mesmerize but for the surprisingly chilling thought that she was too far below him even to eat.

Still, she willed herself not to look away.

“It’s a shame,” he said at last, “how you’ve let yourself go. You had a sharp mind. Maybe not the most original. But you were sharp. It’s a shame.” He paused. Tapped the glass with his spoon. “Well,” he said. “Dessert?”

That night, she slept even more fitfully than usual. Through her unquiet brain flickered creek-side sprites with pointy breasts and a shack that stood on chicken legs next to a rushing river that she kept trying to swim across. At dawn she finally fell into a deeper doze. When her eyes next opened, she reached for her phone and saw to her surprise that it was noon. Had she slept through Carmelita’s knocking?

Groggily, she sat in the window, hugging her knees. Outside, the workers were back. The weather today was heavy, the sky a moody gray. The heat was a miasma. Reports on her phone said a storm would come tonight.

One could see that it was getting to the crew. The men kept peeling off their shirts and tying them around their waists and then stopping and retying them around their necks. Even the foreman seemed too sluggish to rage with his usual gusto.

Down the driveway, Francesca saw a familiar, gliding figure: Miss Clara, from the property next door.

Miss Clara looked the same as she always had: the girlishly thin, long-legged figure; the green jumpsuit, the wispy gray braid that hung over one shoulder. She had been a widow as long as Francesca had known her, living in the bungalow next door.

In this neighborhood’s terms, the family were the local charity case. The talk was that when Miss Clara died, the property would be sold and the modest three-bedroom house razed.

Now, Miss Clara wavered at the gate, and then, with a mild nod as if accepting an invitation to dance, began to pick her way up the drive.

The workers didn’t notice until she was almost abreast of the fountain. “Ay! Senora!” they cried. “No, Senora. You will hurt yourself.” A couple of them moved gingerly toward her; she, meanwhile, held out a hand to each one.

“No, no, Senora. Not forward. Back.” Politely, each of the men had taken one of her elbows and were trying to guide her back up toward the road.

The foreman stood in the drive and roared at the sight. “Will you let go of that crazy old bitch right now and get back to work! We are behind enough today as it is!”

“What was that? Say that again!” It was Marco, his meekness suddenly gone. He got around in front of the foreman. He said something else Francesca couldn’t hear, holding his arms tensely by his sides, his hands in fists.

The foreman gave a bark of a laugh. He said something that ended in, “your mother?”

“No, she is not my mother. But she is someone’s,” said Marco. Then he took a step backward—as if he were about to land a punch or maybe just to get out of the foreman’s path. His intentions would never be known for sure, because before he could do anything more, the foreman bellowed that he was fired.

“Get out! Don’t you stay behind to grab your things—they’re ours now—get out!”

And Marco did. He turned to walk down the drive and passed Miss Clara, who had suddenly grown more definite, standing in her flip-flops glaring at the foreman. “Son of a whore!” she said, in the high, distinct voice she might have used in happier times at tea parties.

“It’s all right, Senora,” said Marco. “Let’s go.”

Francesca closed the window, feeling troubled. Should she tell her father? Then she realized that she had no idea what connection he had, if any, with the hiring of the grounds crew.

But she felt too on edge to stay in her room. Through her head flashed images of Marco’s arms around her, punctuated with those bulbous fetuses she’d seen in her mother’s notebook. Her head, her body, felt full, the way she used to feel back in the days when she made art, when something needed to billow out of her, and she would go to the ceramics studio and work it through the wheel’s thrumming.

No studio here, but perhaps she could find a pad and charcoal pencil. She slipped into ballet flats and out her door and began to pad down the hallway, peering through the just-ajar doors into all the bedrooms: the long-unused ones with furniture covered in plastic, the ones that had been renovated last year and that were supposed to be open again when the landscape project was unveiled.

But her mother had died in one of these rooms. Had she not? Her father had never told her details. She wasn’t even sure of the manner: Hanging? Pills?

She opened a door at the end and walked up a short flight. A gloomy vista, this corridor. She headed for a room at the end, a smaller room that she vaguely remembered about fifteen years ago being something like a study for her father. It had been modest, dusty, with stray cardboard boxes in the corners. She hadn’t stepped foot in it since she was eight.

As she moved toward it, she heard a rumbling in the atmosphere. The storm was coming sooner than predicted.

She tried the doorknob. It didn’t budge. Tears sprang to her eyes. She felt bereft. She wiped her hand on her pants, like she did when she was working to open a tightly sealed lid, took a breath, and tried again, doing her best to be slow, patient. Could she jiggle it? Was it just stuck? The varnish so thick on every surface of this place, outside of her own room … and then it gave. She turned the knob and opened the door.

On the far wall inside, seeming perfectly natural, was an old woman standing over the desk at the window with a feather duster. She was tiny, her back bowed double, and dressed in an old-country style unusual for help in this neighborhood: gray shawl and brown corduroy skirt, checked kerchief over wisps of hair.

“Oh, hello, ma’am. I’m so sorry.” She was ready to give up, go back to her room.

“No, please, dear,” said the old woman in a strangely silken voice, youthful-sounding to be coming from this bent body. (What labor laws must her father be breaking to employ this sibyl-in-a-jar?) And Francesca felt herself drawn in, as if an unseen hand took hers and directed her to a seat on the molded wooden chair.

“Do you work here, ma’am? I don’t remember ever seeing you here before. My apologies—I’m the daughter of the house.”

“I know, dear,” said the crone. “I’ve practically watched you grow up.”

As she spoke, she moved away from the window and around the side of the desk. Francesca could see her more clearly now. The woman’s hair was tightly pulled back to reveal a face just like a beak: a forehead that proceeded into the nose in almost a straight line and small eyes on either side like fish-eyes; Francesca didn’t know which one of them to look at. The face was a checkerboard of wrinkles, so that one might expect a toothless mouth, but the mouth was in fact full of long, white, snaggle-teeth. Beneath a brown smock that covered her body, she tottered on a pair of stick-like legs.

“Oh my God!” murmured Francesca. “How is that possible? I never saw you before! Does my father know you—”

“Your father—oh, psh!” snorted the otherworldly-seeming creature. “Master Christopher is guaranteed to know nothing of me. I am not one, my dear, who has to do with fathers. I am all about the mother.”

Francesca could feel her breath coming rapidly. “Please don’t come any closer.” She was gripping both armrests of her chair. Somehow, she didn’t think to stand up.

“My dear, I don’t hurt anyone who doesn’t give me reason to,” said the crone, but, obligingly, she stopped where she stood.

“What do you mean that you’re all about the mother? What do you know about my mother?”

“I know much about your mother,” said the crone, almost singing, her voice so almost obscenely lovely, melodic, and Francesca wondered if she would have to resist being hypnotized. “Your mother brought me with her from Poland. She wanted to leave me behind, but I insisted.”

Of course, her father had never said anything about an old woman accompanying him and Julia on the journey from Warsaw. . . .

“I flew with her in a bottle in her suitcase,” said the crone as if she had heard Francesca’s thought. She spoke with a faint Slavic accent that sounded like a real babushka. “At first,” she went on, “she seemed not to need me, so I stayed back, and perhaps for a while she believed that I was gone. But then, when it became clear that her joining with Christopher had been a grave mistake . . . well.

“Your mother’s problem, my dear, was that she was too uncertain a soul. She was weak, timid—and even after she had you, that didn’t change. Oh, she tried to be kind. She tried to reform Christopher through kindness, but the effect was pathetic. Like giving a dictator a goldfish to try to soften his heart. Into a vacuum, stronger spirits will step, and I am sorry to say that at the end she made it a battle between me and Christopher, which she would never survive.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” whispered Francesca around the lump that had begun to rise in her throat. “I never knew anything about how my mother died.”

“I was with her when she died,” said the crone, and never would Francesca forget the smooth nursery lilt of that phrase as the crone spoke it, the uptick on with, the flat straightaway of when she died. “I was with her in the pool—when she drowned. Her dying was the most definite thing she ever did. You know that she did it on your parents’ wedding anniversary?”

“No—no! Of course I never knew that—”

“Well, it is so. I was with her then. I closed her pretty eyes, so they wouldn’t stare so wide and scared. Pretty eyes just like yours, dear, and you should not look so scared yourself. Please, my dear . . . .”

But Francesca had found her feet. The back of the chair clattered to the floor, and somehow she managed not to stumble as she backed away, into the hall, and then turned to run, crashing down the stairs, making for the kitchen, where Carmelita and her helpers would be. She would have called Carmelita’s name if she’d had a voice. But they would be there, the familiar faces, just past the swinging door to the kitchen.

She hadn’t noticed how dark and cool the house was. Now she saw the kitchen in shadow. She saw the cutting boards stacked, untouched, in the corner of the prep counter. She heard the cuckoo clock, sounding its warning rattle that brought all the blood to her head, and then its four clacking calls—with that vomit-rattle between each one.

Just then, the thunder rumbled again, shaking the windows, and immediately the rain began, in true Texas fashion, an instant, raging sheet.

But she could not stay in the house. In her panic, she at first couldn’t remember which exits were the ones with the makeshift bridges, but then the first one she thought of was all the way on the other side of the house, nearer the covered port where she and her father kept their cars parked. She spun in confusion. Another crack of thunder sounded, and then she heard another series of thuds, she didn’t know if it was just more thunder? or steps, from upstairs—world-shakingly heavy steps, and so now she just had to get out, it didn’t matter how, and the closest exit she knew was the front door, and she ran out down the center of the cavernous lobby and threw herself on it, and it actually gave from inside, it wasn’t bolted or barricaded, but as soon as she got it open, the world was rushing black water, and the next thing she knew, she was airborne and then submerged in it. She choked, inhaling mud. She flailed.

She had landed in a makeshift moat, and it was deeper than she’d ever have imagined, or maybe it wasn’t but it was only that she couldn’t stand up, and she couldn’t see. She whirled, in a prone position, from side to side, grabbing, and only felt more mud. Oh, it was all she had ever been able to do. She was a useless creature, dropped into a world in which there were none but useless parts to play.

The mud oozed and flowed through her fingers, but now something was grasping her ankles and pulling her from behind. Touching her. Outrageous. So, now she fought. She would not be a weak soul. But it tugged with a grip on each of her ankles now, and it had too much force and knew too much what it wanted, and without even the energy to give a cry of despair, she gave up, she let go of the fight.

And then she was curled in a ball—on solid ground, although still being pelted with rain. And she felt a light hand on her shoulder, and she screamed, by reflex, but then she heard a familiar voice, “Senorita, no, no, por favor,” and she opened her eyes enough to see Marco standing over her.

He was laughing as he helped her struggle to her feet, as he raised an umbrella over her head. “Come, come. Please, miss, come,” he was saying in English. “Come to be dry. I am sorry I laugh.”

“I know some Spanish,” she said, “un poco—it’s all right.”

They stood, sheltering, under Marco’s umbrella. “But, senorita,” said Marco, “what are you doing here? We thought no one was supposed to be in the house today. My aunt’s friend, Carmelita, she told my aunt the whole staff had been, just this morning, given a paid day off. She said that that had not happened in almost twenty years—a paid day off on a day that is not a holiday. She said that the last time it happened . . . but I am rambling on.”

“That is strange,” she said. “I know nothing of that. But I can’t go back in. It’s impossible. My father will be home soon—or maybe he won’t. I don’t know what to do.”

“It’s all right, senorita.” He squeezed her forearm.

“I’m called Francesca,” she said.

“Francesca,” he repeated. “And”—touching his chest—“I am Marco. I tell you, it’s not a problem. We can go next door. Miss Clara’s son and his wife are there with Miss Clara.”

“You know Miss Clara?”

“Of course,” he said, and he caught her eye and started to laugh again, his nose crinkled and eyeteeth bared. He put his arm around her shoulders and drew her into him, and she stood under the drenched umbrella, smelling mud and wet hair.

And it was like that, by the half-finished fountain, that the staring, recessed eyes of the Bentley’s headlights caught them as it pulled in through the gate and crept slowly up the drive.

She didn’t think to move. A scene with her father was necessary—inevitable.

With the same slow deliberation, her father lowered his window. He kept his head inside, safe from the rain.

“Well, well. And what have we here?” He wore his spreading grin. “Looks like the one about the daughter who ran off with the hired hand?”

“Oh, that’s funny, Daddy. Well, you did say I was unoriginal.”

He made a pouting face. “No matter, dear. It’s an overrated quality—in women in particular.”

She had no idea what that meant and wondered if he did either. It was like all his jibes: a line thrown out for effect. She thought of the looks he would cast toward the invisible jury when she was talking to him. His strutting, his mugging, his everlasting pacing and self-scolding: oh God! she suddenly thought—the poor man. He was never not on trial.

“I’m sorry, Daddy!” she cried. And for the first time in months, she made a move of her own volition in the presence of her father, pulling Marco away from the car, in the direction of the property-boundary fence and the house next door.

She was in Miss Clara’s house, working to get dry. Miss Clara’s daughter-in-law had ushered her into one of the bedrooms and brought her one of Miss Clara’s housedresses to change into out of her muddy shirt and sweatpants. Francesca had drawn the shades over the windows, which looked out onto a back garden.

So snug and bright was this little house. It was hard to believe that the castle-like home she’d forsaken was only a few yards away on the other side of a stone ledge.

Was forsaken too strong a word? She didn’t know yet.

“Don’t worry,” Marco had kept saying. “You’re safe.”

“I know! I really owe you,” she assured him.

Through the closed bedroom door, she could hear him, conferring in a low voice with Miss Clara’s son and daughter-in-law. He was like her father in that he seemed to be used to people listening to him.

She could smell cornmeal and beans, cooking in the kitchen. The house was adorable—so tiny, after the expanses she’d been used to. But what was she doing here, really? She’d loved his comforting arm around her shoulders, the way he’d taken charge. But Marco’s life had been something she had watched through a glass window.

(The way the crone had watched her—?)

And where was Miss Clara? This was, at least nominally, her house. Of course, she wasn’t capable any longer of taking care of it, so, in practice, it was her son’s. Her son and daughter-in-law had made the sacrifice of letting her live out the end of her days in her own house rather than relegating her to a memory-care ward.

As if on cue, she heard what sounded like a sigh. A sigh of female impatience, she would call it, although not bad-tempered. It seemed to come from outside. Miss Clara, flitting around the garden? The rain had stopped, but Francesca imagined that Miss Clara’s family would probably want her back inside.

She raised the blind, raised the sash above her head. “Miss Clara?”

Suddenly, the screen was filled by the face of the crone.

“Oh, God help us,” gasped Francesca, startled. She backed away from the screen. “How did you get inside the fence?”

“My dear,” said the crone, “if you haven’t yet grasped my nature, then I suppose I must put on a show-and-tell.” And then, a hiccup in the atmosphere, and the world went black for several seconds. The wings of some massive creature seemed to beat the window glass—perhaps even broke it, for Francesca felt battered, herself, by draughts of air.

And then her vision returned, and she was in a dark corridor lined, as in a gallery, by the spreadeagled bodies she’d seen in her late mother’s notebook. They seemed to be behind glass screens, yet these were close enough to touch. She saw the chained wrists, the bloody flowers sprouting from between their legs. Their chins were still pointed skyward; she still couldn’t see their faces. They were broken, headless rusalki.

But now, come to life, they were no longer silent. As she passed each one, she heard a screech like a barn-owl’s, trailing from a desperate peak to a hot and panting echo that seemed to pass up through her and braid itself with her own entrails.

The sound was horrifying. But if her first instinct, earlier, had been panic, her impulse now was anger. Why must the crone always be looking to trap her?

“Mother!” she cried, furious—and she didn’t know if she meant Julia or the crone.

“Motherrrr!” She felt her voice trailing off, the tears rising. She looked, in vain, for something she could lean on.

But just then she heard another noise: the busy, fussy trilling of that familiar Texas warbler, the mockingbird. The thing was hovering in front of her face, its tail feathers trembling. It looked toward the screens of rusalki and then back at her, urgently repeating the same phrase.

She couldn’t help herself. Her face cracked in a laugh. It was the sheer incongruity.

You laugh! said a trilling voice. The sad girl laughs.

“Yes—yes, I’m laughing,” said Francesca.

Then the spell is broken. Do you feel it?

“I don’t know.”

Obstinate girl. Now do you? Another blink, and the gallery was gone, and she was back in Miss Clara’s spare room, conversing with a mockingbird that hopped along the sill.

You’re a nervous little one, said the trilling, but you’re not your mother. Go now!

“You mean leave?”

Yes! This is just a waystation. You won’t find rescue here.

The little bird was singing, fit to burst. The noise itself drove her from the room.

She found herself weaving through the kitchen, speaking words of reassurance. She was just popping back to her own house, she told them, now that the rain had stopped—so that she could get dry clothes of her own. She reached up to give Marco a hug. They would keep in touch, she told him; she would make sure he got rehired or maybe even help him get set up in business. There would be time for all of it—for whatever he wanted, whatever she decided.

And she meant it. She could reason with her father, the sad monster. Her mother’s nightmares were not her own.

She let herself out the little house’s front door, still chuckling.


Cara Diaconoff is the author of Unmarriageable Daughters: Stories and a novel, I’ll Be a Stranger to You. She has taught writing and literature as a Peace Corps volunteer at Russian institutes, at Southern Methodist University and Whitman College, and currently at Bellevue College, near Seattle.

The Best Detective There Was

by Leila Alliu

            The name “Richard Strong” until recently was never that popular as far as detectives went. It was a gradual growth of interest, however, when three years ago, the publication of Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes as well as the Whitechapel murders in 1888 gave the British public a sort of morbid fascination with crime. I found more and more people became familiar with Detective Strong (the name I go by) as everyone wanted to know the whereabouts of everyone in their circle. I will not complain — I find keeping a job to be rather convenient, thank you very much. It was only in the past year where I received an influx of new customers.

            Like Holmes, I am a private investigator. I do not associate with organisations. Therefore what you will see is the product of my intellect alone. I begin my story with the introduction of a woman known as Mrs. Frederica Barker looking for her husband, who had gone missing.

            “Are you Mr. Strong?” She asked at my doorstep. The poor girl was young, around two and twenty, and in such a state of fright when I first beheld her. She was clutching her handkerchief to her heart in a shaking gloved hand.

            “That is certainly the name on my postbox,” I responded with a slight grin. “May I ask who you are?”

She introduced herself, and I received her into my home and had her tell me every bit of information she could give.

            “He works with Scotland Yard,” she said as she gently dabbed her eyes with the  handkerchief. “About five days ago, George told me he would only be gone for a little while. I pressed him that he might tell me where he would be off to, and after such a long while of my begging, he told me he was after some murderer. I asked nothing more after that, only that he may be careful. And now he’s gone!” She let out a quiet sob “He said he would be gone for three days at most and I still haven’t heard from him! Oh, Mr. Strong, please help me find where my George is!”

            I gave her a reassuring smile. “I will do my best, my dear. All I need now is some time and a confirmation that you have told me everything.” I glanced down at my notes to make sure I had everything she told me.

            “Yes, that is everything. Quite everything. I’m so sorry I haven’t anything more to tell you, but I couldn’t ask where he may be — I didn’t want to know about it.”

            “Completely understandable,” I assured.

            “Can you really begin an investigation with so little information? I’ve told you barely anything. And if George is in danger…”

            “You musn’t worry about such things, Mrs. Barker. Bad for the health. I’ve solved investigations with much less evidence before.”

            “Oh, thank you, Mr. Strong! Thank you!”

            “You’re very welcome, my dear.” I led the trembling girl to the door. “I will write to you should any breaking event occur. In the meantime, rest assured that a professional will be looking for your husband.”

            She smiled- a gentle, graceful smile, and left with a little more confidence in her step.

            A week passed from this meeting until I met with her again, to my surprise. You see, I hadn’t asked her to visit, but the girl took it upon herself to come back and ask herself! I swallowed my anger allowing her in, and attempted with all my might to keep my impatience in check. I admit I might not have been very good at it, because as we spoke her demeanour slowly changed from excitedly asking about how far I had gone in the investigation to becoming more shy, reserved, and might I say, frightened. I almost said it served the girl right- she had no right to barge in on such pressing matters.

            “Have you any other clients you are assisting?” She asked, eyeing me.

            “None at all. Your case is all I have at the moment, and I am working with all due diligence.”

            “But again, Mr. Strong, you haven’t told me what you’ve found.”

            It was at this moment where I almost, and I say almost, snapped. However, I managed to only take a deep breath.

            “The information I have gathered at the moment is not fully conclusive, and I don’t wish to give you any false hopes.”

            “Oh,” she said, almost sinking into herself. “If that is all then. And I forgot to say, I’ve been speaking with the colleagues of my husband at Scotland Yard, and they have also looked into the circumstances into his disappearance. Nothing has been found yet, but how wonderful is it that we can have more help?”

            This was it- the moment I have had enough.

            “That was not necessary whatsoever, Mrs. Barker, not necessary at all,” I firmly stated. Her face fell. “I have told you time and time again that I require no assistance, and that I will inform you of anything in the case, and yet you decide to show up unannounced anyway! I must bid you good day, Mrs. Barker, before you take it upon yourself to continue the investigation yourself.”

            She cocked her head, her eyebrows furrowed.

            “I haven’t-”

            “Good day, Mrs. Barker. You know the exit.”

            She slowly rose and led herself out the door like a child after a chastisement. But after recklessly intruding on my investigation, I suppose I had to say such. I listened to the door quietly shut and reveled in the silence to follow.

            I did not hear from Mrs. Barker after that. It was easy to guess she was not happy with the work I had done with her case, and turned to Scotland Yard. I dropped the case entirely and decided that Mr. Barker was dead.

            A few more days passed from that fateful meeting. I continued with my work, accepting new clients as time moved on. To lose one was a disappointment, I admit, but not the end of the world. There always seemed to be someone going missing, therefore a detective such as myself would not be out of work for long.

            There was a part of me that was tempted to go to Scotland Yard and ask after that case. I wondered if they had gotten any farther. I thought it impossible, though stranger things have happened. I decided not to, however. I mean it once more that I do not enjoy associating with organisations such as that one, and I was not planning on beginning over a singular grieving widow.

            I was sitting in my home and reviewing a case when I heard a knock at the door. I can still hear that knock.

            Upon opening the door, I found a constable with an officer behind him. The grave faces on the both of them could have silenced a party.

            “Mr. John Coleridge,” the constable announced. “You are under arrest for the murder of Richard Strong one year ago, as well as Mr. George Barker and several other victims.”

            You see, I had never stated my name was Richard Strong. It was easy to get rid of him and take over the business- he had no one living with him and no acquaintances close enough to recognize the change between us, poor man.

            But therein lied the question of how people would go to me to solve their disappearances. I had underestimated the amount of people in need of a detective. Therefore, I may as well do the work I had done before with Mr. Strong, and bring the clients towards me. No one seemed to recognize the fact that every person that had gone to me left with the knowledge their loved one had died.

            One man “fell off his horse” as he was travelling a great distance, and I was the one to inform his grieving sister. Another “was caught in a fire,” I am afraid, and your son, madam, did not make it.

            I had no regrets for my work; a man is to make a living. But when a certain second-born nobleman who shall remain nameless went to me to do the same thing I have been doing to people for months, then I decided my wages could be far better made. More and more people of rank came to me with their “problems,” and I would be the unfortunate detective that would discover that, oh dear, your poor brother has drowned! Yes, sir, it is an unfortunate tragedy, and without an heir besides yourself as well! No one would question them, and when I walked away with my payment, I forgot their face and name entirely.

            But it was that girl. That nosy, irritating girl that had ruined it all by having friends with the police. I should have been angry, infuriated, out for blood, and in a way, I was. But I could not help being impressed. After all this time of my creating my own disappearances, she found me out herself.

            And now here I was. Caught.

            “Gentlemen,” I said with a cool smile growing over my face. “You will witness no resistance from me.”


Leila Alliu is a history enthusiast, focusing on fashion history, who has spent years studying and making her own garments of the past. When she is not doing this, she is usually reading classic literature and writing stories inspired by novels of that genre. After six years of short stories, poems, and even a novel of her own, she wrote this story as an acknowledgement to her love of history and the gothic mystery genre. Leila has also been published in the Copperfield Review Quarterly with her short story “Suffragette.” She can be found on Instagram @victorian.historian, where she displays her works of historical fashion and discusses and posts about her favorite books.

Selling Out the Nation

By Stephanie Daich

I stared at the bank foreclosure. “I’m sorry, Dad.” Four generations had successfully farmed my land. Not only did I control the largest farms in the Midwest, but I also owned a legacy. Of course, I didn’t have to lose it. The government made that clear with its deceitful proposition. But could I ruin our nation to save my farm?

I picked up a handful of miniature microchips about the size of a strawberry seed.

My daughter Grace entered the kitchen, and I quickly stuffed the microchips into my pocket. She had prominent bags under her eyes, dark and sorrowful like a middle-aged man would have, not a young girl in her prime.

“Is this my last day at school?” she asked behind sniffles.

I couldn’t look at her. Tomorrow, the police would escort us off our property. If I didn’t team up with the corrupt government with their plan, that was. I put my hand in my pocket and fingered the little microchips.

“Please, Dad, tell me you found a way to save our home.” She bent forward into my face. Her long hair draped over my shoulders.

“Grace, let’s go,” my wife Samantha said as she walked into the kitchen. She looked more emotionally wrecked than Grace.

“Please, Dad, tell me you found a way to save our home.”

“He could save it if he just went into business with the government.” Samantha opened the cupboard, pulled out two glasses, then slammed the cupboard shut. I jumped. “But he has too much pride. He would rather lose his great-great-great-granddad’s land than go into business with anyone.” She banged the glasses on the cupboard.

She didn’t know what the government intended to do. She believed it was just a partnership, an expansion.

“Such pride.”

It tore me apart to see my family so unhappy.

“Fine, I’ll do it.”

Grace threw her arms around my neck. “Really, Dad, really?”

I couldn’t look at her or Samantha. They didn’t realize what they were asking of me. Selfishly, I would save our home, but I would screw the nation.

“Oh, thank you, thank you,” Samantha said as she filled the cups with orange juice. She didn’t hug me. We had way too much tension between us for that. She handed a cup to Grace and with her free hand, grabbed her keys.

“Let’s go,” she said with a much happier tone.

“Thanks again, Dad,” Grace said as she left the kitchen, blowing me a kiss.

I ripped up the foreclosure letter. I thought it would bring satisfaction, but it didn’t. I called Josh from the Government office. “Fine, I’ll sign,”

“I knew you would come to your senses.”

I hung up on him.

I pulled the microchips out of my pocket. Within the year, these would be enlaced in all my produce. I would keep a section of my farm untainted, only for Samantha, Grace, and me to eat from. And within the year, the rest of the nation would succumb to ultimate government control.

But at least I saved the farm.


What transpires when Stephanie Daich observes life? She creates stories. What happens when you read her stories? Your imagination explodes. Stephanie Daich works in corrections and writes for the human experience. Publications include Making Connections, Youth Imaginations, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Kindness Matters, and others.

The Scarecrow Cross

by Erik Priedkalns

           Along Shuka River’s edge, around Nishinomiya, Japan, solemn stone walls coldly sit on either side of the narrow river’s flowing waters. The walls cast shadows on the grassy strips, separating them from the river. Above the walls and river, the town sits. On the east side, across from the stores, apartments and houses, there is a red dirt path that runs the length of the river. On the path, walkers walk, runners run, and bikers scoot up and down.

            On weekends, in the unbearable heat and humidity of the summer months, families pitch little tents and eat and drink, throw balls back and forth, swim, and enjoy the time.

            On rainy days, the water picks up speed as it comes down from the mountains above the town. There are cute little cartoon signs that warn children of the danger of flood waters. They show screaming children in their baseball hats and school backpacks fleeing a torrent of roaring water.

            Along the path you come across the occasional park bench, tree, shrubs, or wildflower gardens. Sometimes you find old stone markers, statues, or signs. Nothing really explains why things are where they are. They are just there.

            On a certain day last July, if you were on the path, just a kilometer or so from the Shukugawa train station, you may have seen her; an old Japanese lady, not an inch more than four feet tall, shuffling her way to a certain spot.

            The lady is about eighty-five years old. You probably notice the strange roller coaster rise at the top of her back and realize she can barely look up, so she just looks down at her feet. Her gray hair is tied back in a bun. She wears grey, light cotton pants that stop at her calves, and a grey jinbei top.

            The old Japanese woman, her name is Mayumi, gets passed on the path by a mother on a bicycle. The mother on the bicycle politely rings her bell to let Mayumi know she is passing. Mayumi steps to her right, and the mother on the bicycle does a quick bow of her head.

            The mother has auburn red, dyed hair and is in her thirties. She wears a white, cotton, short-sleeved blouse and a flower covered, black skirt that goes down to her ankles. Her name is Chie.

            Chie has a newborn baby, about five months old, in a pouch on her chest. The baby’s body and face are pressed against her chest. A little straight-haired, four-year-old boy wearing a yellow baseball cap and red shirt is on the back seat. Mayumi hears them talking in serious tones. Mom speaks to the boy without mocking baby talk.

            Mayumi smiles and says out loud, to herself, “The baby will soon get a seat on the bicycle, but the press of the body will stay on mama’s chest.“She remembers her mother telling her that she spoiled her little girl too much by showing too much affection and protection. “They need to be taught to stand alone,” her iron-stern mother said.

            Mayumi watches the mother on the bicycle until she disappears into the line of the horizon.

*          *          *

            Chie breathes heavily. Her puffy white knees pop out of her long skirt’s front slit each time she pedals. She tries to cover her legs because she does not want them to burn. Chie slows a bit because the rays of the sun are burning her face. She stops and pulls an orange baseball hat from her purse.

            Chie is careful not to bounce the little baby on her chest because she is asleep. All my padding is still left from when she was born, Chie thinks. Time for a diet.

            “Why did we stop? asks the little boy.

            “I’m putting on my hat, don’t you see? You ask silly questions.”


            Chie’s beliefs are old. She feels bad for scolding the boy, but he needs to learn how to pay attention.

            To her right, Chie notices a black, wrought iron fence around a marble, grey stone statue. The statue is about two meters high and is pentagon in shape. The black fence bars are each speared at the top, and the black color of the bars is dull and peeling in places. This is the first time they have ridden the bike this far up the river.

            Just beyond the statue, there is a growth of three gnarled, knotted trees. The trees are hunched over. Their leaves are dark green on top and mint green underneath. Under the rough shadowy circle of trees, tall grass and wildflowers are growing. The grass and flowers all lean in towards something pink.

            Chie starts to walk with the bicycle towards the trees. As she gets closer, she thinks she sees a little girl in the middle of the tree circle. She sees a pink flowery summer top, a yellow straw brimmed hat, and a baby-blue skirt. The wildflowers surrounding the feet are red, orange, and purple.

            Chie moves closer. She sees that the figure is not a little girl, it’s just some clothes draped on two sticks, one vertical, and near the top the other is horizontal, like a Christian’s cross.

            Little girl scarecrow, Chie thinks. She says a quick prayer. The trees are watching like loyal dogs.

            “What is that?” asked the little boy.

            This time the Chie does not respond. She studies the figure, looking for a reason as to why it is here.

            She notices a small bottle of soda and dead, dry flower stems at the foot of the cross.

            “What is that?” asks the little boy again.

            Chie gently shushes him. “A little girl,” she says in a half-whisper.

*          *          *

            As Mayumi moves along, she shifts her bag from her left to right hand. The little red purse she brought jiggles around the inside of her bag. She sings a made-up song in her head, the same one she used to sing to her daughter.

Make sure your daughter is pretty,

cute like a little doll,

cute shoes, cute tops, cuteness all because of love.

*          *          *


            Chie hears her son but does not respond. She studies the kaleidoscope of flowers surrounding the girl’s little skirt. A zinging coldness springs out of Chie’s stomach and spreads through her entire body. Her throat tightens and fills with sadness.

            What’s wrong with you? She asks herself. It’s probably just a child’s robot, or imaginary friend. But the thing stuck in her throat won’t swallow away. At the corner of her eyes, and along the bottom rim, she feels sharp nips as tears start taking shape. Silly woman, she scolds herself, don’t blink.

            She can hear the river. It is so small and slow it barely makes a noise.

*          *          *

            Mayumi takes a break and sits on a bench. She watches all the children running up and down the trail and splashing in the water.

            She thinks about the thigh-high child she saw wandering alone in the store today. He was a little boy about four years old. He was wearing rubber sandals, a blue baseball shirt and blue shorts. She asked him his name, but he wasn’t paying attention because he was talking to his hands. As Mayumi was about to ask him where his parents were, she heard a woman’s voice call a name from across the store. You could barely hear the voice among all the other voices, but the little boy looked up and started walking towards the sound.

*          *          *

            Chie nudges her bike up to the iron fence. She takes her son out of the seat. He grabs the iron bars with both hands and rocks back and forth.

            “Is she a scarecrow?” he asks.

            “Shush,” says Chie, “do you see any crows?”

            “Maybe she scared them away,” says the little boy.

            Chie just stares at the figure. Her son starts walking around the fence surrounding the stone.

            “Lift your feet up when you walk,” Chie says absent-mindedly.

            Each time he passes, his hand brushes the back of her legs just above the knees. His touch is electric and bounces her breath each time.

            Where was she going? Chie wonders. She turns and looks to the river below. It’s only about four meters wide, and maybe two meters deep. The rocks in the river are covered with moss and are very slippery. Chie shivers a bit, turns away from the river, and looks back to the stone and the little girl.

            Her son’s small hand brushes the side of her leg as he makes another pass. The touch pulls all the strength from her legs.

*          *          *

            Mayumi gazes at the water. It is so calm today, she thinks. It is calm almost every day of the year. She closes her eyelids as the sun’s reflection skips off the water.

            Mayumi remembers that day with her daughter. It was at a spot just up the river a bit.

            “Stay close,” she had said to the little girl, “I just need to get some bread.”

            “Yes,” her daughter promised. She was four and had a bad memory. She had straight, black hair that was cut to the base of her neck and hung in a razor straight line just above her eyes.

            Mayumi watched her skip/run towards the river. The river was loud and fast that day. There had been heavy rain during the last week.

            “Not too close,” she shouted to the little girl.

            The girl turned and said something. Mayumi couldn’t hear her over the sounds of the cars and water. She turned towards the store. It was getting close to sundown, and she needed to hurry to get home and make dinner. As she opened the door to the bakery, she heard the little bell on the door tinkle. She gazed at the pastries, buns, muffins, and bread behind the glass. Mayumi still remembers exactly how the bakery smelled that day.

            Mayumi gets up off the old bench and starts walking. Not much further she thinks.

            She sighs. She can remember the bakery smell, but she has started to forget her daughter’s smell. Before she left the house this morning, as she was busy gathering up the incense sticks, chocolate pieces and the little red purse, she pulled out one of her daughter’s old shirts. She had to be careful, because it was so old it felt as though it would crumble under her touch. She put it near her nose, but the smell was gone.

            Mayumi knows her daughter had a smell, a little sour and a little sweet, but she could no longer bring its details to memory.

*          *          *

            Where was the little girl going? Chie wonders. Was she wearing that hat?

            The baby wiggles a bit but stays asleep. Chie feels her puffy cheek rub her breast. She rubs the baby’s tiny back.

            The little boy runs back and forth on the trail.

            Chie looks down to the river and frowns. She knows that occasionally it swells and runs violently down this bed. On those days, she doesn’t let her son go to the river, even though some of his friends get to go.

            Maybe the sounds of the river and world killed the mother’s call? Chie thinks. Nonsense. You don’t even know if it was the river. Stop this thinking.

            Chie is struck with a strange feeling, like a warning, and looks around to find her son. She sees his red tee-shirt disappearing up the trail. “Jiro,” she calls, but he doesn’t stop. She sighs, gets on her bike, and starts peddling after him. She catches him not far away.

            “You should never leave me like that, and when I tell you to stop, you must stop,” she says sternly.

            “I’m sorry,” he says.

            “Let’s sit on the grass a little. Mama is tired.”

            The boy sits next to her and lays his head on her thigh. She feels the weight get heavier as he gradually falls asleep. She puts her palm on his warm, red face. The little baby wakes up briefly, tilts back her head, and looks at Chie with tiny, groggy, brown eyes. A smile materializes from the little face. She smacks her lips and falls asleep again. Chie bows her head down and kisses the top of the baby’s head. A milky sweet smell fills Chie’s nose.

            She looks over to the little girl. Through an opening in the circle of trees, Chie can see the figure clearly. She closes her eyes for a moment and then opens them. She sees a bent over, old woman, with a bag in her hand, walk to the trees and to the little girl. It’s the same woman Chie remembers passing earlier.

            The woman puts down the bag and wipes the back of her hand across her forehead. She takes out some incense sticks, puts them in the ground and lights them. She then reaches into her purse and pulls out some little, shiny objects and scatters them around the base of the little girl. Finally, Chie sees the woman take out a little girl’s red purse and put it on the horizontal stick.

            The old woman puts down the bag and touches the palms of her hands together in front of her chest. She stays like that for a long time.

            Chie understands.

*          *          *

            Mayumi stares at the little pieces of silver-wrapped chocolate at her daughter’s feet.

            She remembers the exact moment her own spirit vanished. It was gone after thirty-two minutes. She remembers the instant the sun went down and her hope for a good life disappeared. After thirty-two minutes of searching, she knew everyone could stop. The line from her heart to her daughter snapped, and Mayumi knew what that snapping meant.

            And at that exact moment. . . .

            Mayumi walks over to a park bench, as everything comes back once again. She sits with a heavy drop. The bench creaks.

            At that exact moment, she thinks. She has tried to put it in words for forty years.

*          *          *

            Chie sees the old woman walk over to a park bench and sit down heavily. From afar, the rise at the top of the woman’s back seems to be pushing her body down, and it looks as if the woman is about to topple over.

            Suddenly, Chie feels the weight of her son lift off her leg. She sees his head pop up.          “Look mama, the woman.”

            He springs up and starts to move to the woman. Chie’s hand shoots towards him. She grabs his arm, and feels her fingers and nails sink into the flesh.

            “No,” she says firmly. “Why do you want to bother the woman and the little girl?”

            He looks surprised, and his eyes water a bit. Chie loosens her grip, just a little.

*          *          *

            Mayumi sees the little boy in the red shirt start to get up. The young mother’s hand catches him.

*          *          *

            Maybe it would be okay if she let the little boy come over, thinks Mayumi.

*          *          *

            Chie wonders if she should let the little boy go. No, she thinks, he will just make it harder.

            She turns back to the river and stares at the cold stone wall across the way.

*          *          *

            Everyone had tried to get Mayumi to stop coming here, but she was stubborn. She would never leave the place that brutalized her every day. Even her husband tried to make her give it up. He tried for years, and it made her so angry. “Heartless one,” she’d say. Then he died, and she couldn’t tell him sorry.

*          *          *

            The little boy sits down next to Chie and takes her hand. He puts his face into her palm and nuzzles it with his little nose. Chie feels the warm breath, and the tickle of his nose on the most sensitive spot of her palm, where the lifelines meet and cross.

            She jumps a little when she feels the tips of his bangs move lightly across her wrist.

            She sees the crescent indentations of her nail marks on his arm.

            She feels like a fool when the clinging tears finally drop.

            “What’s wrong?” says the little boy.  

            He gets no response.

*          *          *

            Mayumi sees the little boy take mama’s hand and touch it with his face.

            She sees mama’s head bow to the ground.

            Chie looks away and turns to the river.

            At that exact moment, she thinks.

            For forty years, every single moment, down to the second, has felt like a 5 p.m. on a Sunday night in January, when it gets so dark, cold, and lonely, and nobody is around, and you try to think about getting through another week, while you sit in your house and feel like everything is crumpling around you into pure pitch black, and you cannot go to sleep because there is so much time left in the day, and you wonder what the rest of the world is doing, you look outside, but you cannot see anything outside and all you see is you and the room you are in and it looks like a faded picture from a photograph in a magazine, and your only thought is “my god, morning will be back again.”

            And you bargain with whatever god will do the trick. You plead for the little one to keep living on. And every day your prayers and grief pour out.

            Mayumi built the little girl on the cross ten days after it happened. She remembers how they all watched her with sorrowful eyes as she put the stick into the ground, tied the cross-stick at the top, and hung her daughter’s picture where the two sticks met.

            And every day for forty years she has begged the little stick figure girl to come alive, fill up the clothes and get off.

*          *          *

            “You’re spoiling her,” Mayumi imagines her mother would say. “For forty years, that’s all you have done.”

            At that exact moment.

            Mayumi hums her daughter’s song.

            For forty years every day, she’s hung her life on the Little Girl, Scarecrow Cross.


Erik Priedkalns is an attorney (non-practicing by choice) who grew up in Thousand Oaks, California. He graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in English with a creative writing emphasis. Currently he lives in a small farming town on Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan with his wife and dog. He hopes to one day become a farmer himself. His extremely limited Japanese gives him motivation to write, and say everything he wants to say to the people around but cannot. He has found endless writing material in the country, writing about the people and the surrounding countryside. He believes everything here has a story, and that the forests, trees, rocks, and streams all speak if you listen closely enough.

A Cat in a Box for Mom

by Joe Cappello

The Zabretti family stood in front of the coffin staring at the body of their mother. She was dressed in a pink, shift dress with a hodgepodge floral design, resembling a mini tornado that touched down below her waist. She wore a white head band with the words “Peace and Love” printed on it in blue letters next to the outline of a dove. Strands of white hair stuck out over the top of it.

Marion Zabretti shivered from the air conditioning that made the viewing room colder than it had to be. The sickly-sweet scent of flowers and sight of her mother looking like a hippy manikin turned her stomach. But as the oldest Zabretti, she felt she should be the one to say if her mother’s coffin should be opened or closed for the viewing. Her younger brother, Salvatore, (“Torre” for short) and youngest sister, Luce, had other ideas.

“I say we vote on it,” offered Torre. He leaned over to get a closer look at his mother’s head band. “Did people actually wear stuff like that in the 60s?”

“That and love beads and they stuck flowers in the hair, flower children they called themselves.” Marion shook her head. “Mom was a piece of work alright.”

“So, are we going to vote or what?” Luce folded her arms rubbing her bare arms with the palms of her hands. She wore a sleeveless black dress and matching low heel pump shoes. Her brown hair hung in curls around her face giving her a slight retro look. “Because if we are, I vote to leave it open.”

“Are you serious with this dress?” said Marion ignoring her. “It barley reaches her knees. And that headband…” She leaned over the coffin carefully as though coming too close would soil her pricey high-waisted trouser pants and snow-white blouse.

“Don’t rag on me,” said Luce. “Mom wanted to be buried in the dress she wore at that Democratic Convention in Chicago ‘68… ‘stickin’ it to the man’ as she liked to say.” Marion bent over the coffin getting an even closer look, her parted black hair falling in front of her face which she quickly brushed away.

“Let’s stay focused, Marion,” said Luce. “We’re supposed to be deciding if we should leave the coffin open or not. I vote yes. How about you, Torre?”

“I don’t care one way or the other.” Torre shrugged. Marion frowned as she took in her brother’s appearance. His wrinkled gray trousers and navy-blue sport coat didn’t quite match. She winced at the sight of a multi-colored tie around his neck, which she considered most inappropriate for a funeral. She turned down his collar to cover the exposed tie and centered the knot on it.

“Thanks, mom,” Torre said, beaming a child-like warmth that made Marion crack a smile.

“Never mind.” She patted his cheek, then turned away abruptly.

“Okay. I vote we close it,” said Marion.

“It’s a tie.”

“Not really, Luce. Tie goes to the oldest. We close it.” Luce opened her mouth to say something but Marion cut her off.

“Look at this carpet. What was the color supposed to be…maroon? It looks like dried blood from a crime scene.” She scraped at it with the sole of one of her leather ballet shoes. “And these shit-colored, brown walls and those things passing for drapes in front of the windows look more like burlap sacks. Did you have to have the wake here?” Luce rubbed her arms more vigorously.

“Baldoni’s has buried Zabretti’s as far back as I can remember,” said Luce.

“Did you ever think it might be time for a change?” Marion’s dark eyes narrowed. She lowered her voice. “Did you ever consider cremation? We could have sprinkled her ashes over the marijuana plants she had growing in the back yard. Mom would have loved that. Honestly, I wish you would have checked with me before you did all this.”

Johnny Squitera, Luce’s husband, a short man with a barrel chest, drew closer to Luce and Marion. He cleared his throat.

“Marion, we had to make decisions,” said Johnny, “so we did the best we could, we—”

“Hey, you all remember Beth, right?” said Marion cutting off Johnny and rubbing the shoulders of her partner standing next to her. A wisp of a woman with curly blonde hair and brown roots, Beth smiled slightly. “Show everyone the picture you brought with you.” Beth reached into her purse and produced a six by nine, color photo in a flat black frame. It showed Mary Zabretti standing on a boardwalk, her back to a sandy beach with white-capped ocean waves behind her.  She wore a tie die shirt, granny glasses and a wide brimmed straw hat. Two rainbow colored peace symbols hung from her ears.

“She looks great, doesn’t she?” said Marion. “Compliments of my Bethy over here.” Marion grabbed Beth’s cheeks and smooshed out her lips. “Where did you take that again, my little talented photographer?” Beth strained to speak through her scrunched lips.

“Jersey shore. Seaside I think,” she blurted.

 “Well, you are terrific at what you do even though you hardly make any money at it,” said Marion. She placed the photo on a pedestal next to the coffin in front of a bouquet of flowers. Her cell phone rang.

“Hello?” She lowered the phone. “Gotta take this call. Be right back.” She brought her face close to Beth’s ear. “Let me know if little sister over there brings up the will.”

Marion hurried back to the viewing room. She paused at the entrance to give her eyes time to adjust to the darkness that now hung over it like a dark cloud. She could see the curtains had been drawn to ward off the hot July sun. She sat next to Beth in the front row.

“Any news?” she asked.

“Nothing about a will,” said Beth. “Torre was just here talking about the house he is renovating in Pennsylvania. I didn’t know he moved to PA, did you?”

“No,” said Marion. “I thought he still lived with mom.”

“Not for a long time, he said. How come we didn’t know that?”

“I can’t picture the man leaving mom, never mind Jersey City, New Jersey.” Beth’s eyes widened as she pointed to the back of the room.

“Oh, and your sister, Luce, is back there, giving the funeral director hell.” She turned her body around indicating the back of the room.

“Mr. Baldoni, this light?” Luce indicated the light mounted on the podium at the entrance to the room. She pulled the chain repeatedly turning the incandescent bulb on and off.  “Did you buy it from Edison himself? I told you people who come to pay their respects will be old.” Mr. Baldoni’s bald head turned red and his jowls sagged lower than an old hound dog.  “They need a bright fluorescent light so they can see to sign the register. I paid for a podium with a bright light and that’s what I want.”

“Was she always like that?” asked Beth.

“Luce? Oh, yeah,” said Marion. “She was always little Miss Anal. Has to control everything. She not only dots I’s, she crosses T’s then nails people to them.” The old man shrugged.

“And when you’re finished with that, Mr. Baldoni,” continued Luce. “There, see? Back there.” She pointed to a row of chairs. “The third row. A few of the chairs are out of line. I said three perfectly straight rows. So, when you come back, I expect you to make that right.” She ran her hands over her bare arms, then placed her hands on her hips. “And turn that damn air conditioner down. Its colder than a morgue in here.” She took long, quick strides toward Marion and Beth and sat down with a huff.

“How many Zabretti’s has he buried? You’d think he’d know the drill by now,” she said.

“So, Luce, when did Torre move out of mom’s house?” asked Marion.

“I don’t know, years ago.”

“Okay, so you’re still around the corner form mom on Piersall, right?”

“No, we moved down the shore six years ago.”  Luce took a deep breath and pulled her black skirt over her knees. “So, when are you two gonna get married?” Marion and Beth exchanged glances.

“We are married,” said Marion.

“You’re kidding. When did that happen?”

“Three years ago,” said Beth. “At the bowling alley where we met.” She clasped her hands and squealed with delight.

“You know how Beth loves to bowl,” said Marion.

“No, I don’t and you actually had a wedding at a bowling alley?” Johnny and Torre heard the word “wedding” and instinctively joined the three.

“Did you say wedding? Who’s getting married?” Johnny sat next to his wife.

“These two,” said Luce. “Only they’re already married.”

“Oh,” said Torre, looking at Marion.

“Alright, look, we didn’t invite family, okay? Just a few friends,” said Marion.

“And my bowling team.” Beth’s eyes widened. “We bowled afterwards. Shot a 150. My personal best. Say, after this maybe we can all go bowling, Luce. I see there’s an alley here in your old neighborhood.”

“No thanks,” said Luce. “I haven’t been in that bowling alley since they found out the guy handing out shoes was a pedophile. He’s probably still there.”

“I remember him,” said Marion. “He was creeper than a graveyard at night.” Just then Johnny held his ears and began screaming.

“Ahhh.” He stood up rocking from side to side.

“Marion, what is wrong with you.” Luce grabbed Johnny’s wrist. “It’s all right, Johnny, everything’s okay, look at me…look at me,” she said, her voice thin and panicky.

“Sorry, Luce I forgot.” Luce placed her forehead on her husband’s while still holding his wrists. Their heads swung back and forth in unison. “It’s okay,” she said. “The bad lady said the bad words it will pass.” She turned on Marion. “You know he has a reaction to idiomatic phrases.”

“I…I…remember now, it just slipped.” Beth turned to Marion.

“What’s going on?”

“A crazy story,” said Marion. “Johnny works construction. About five years ago they were demolishing a small building. They were finishing up inside. As you can see, Johnny is a short guy. When the foreman went to do a head count, he missed Johnny. He must have been bending down or something, who knows. Anyway, they blew the damn thing up with him still inside.”

“That’s terrible. Was he hurt?”

“Minor injuries, except they noticed a little later that he went berserk if anyone used an idiom or expression like the one I just used.”

“That’s strange,” said Beth.

“Tell me about it. Doctors still can’t figure it out. He’s a rock star in the unclassified mental disorders community.” Marion noticed Johnny seemed to calm down. Luce started leading him by the hand to the exit.

“Wait a second, Luce.” Marion intercepted her sister. “Hate to bring this up but what about…you know…mom’s will?”

“We’re not talking about any will until the priest gets here.” She turned to go, then wheeled back on Marion. “And watch what the hell you say around my husband.”

The wake got underway at 2pm as scheduled. By two thirty the family was seated in the first row. Marion looked back at the three long rows of chairs made straight as an arrow by the cowered Mr. Baldoni. At that moment a woman entered the room. Bent over, strands of white hair barely covering her head, she pushed along a walker with four shiny chrome wheels and matching chrome hand brakes. An oxygen bottle sat in a bracket mounted on the walker’s left side; a clear plastic tube attached to the tank split into two smaller tubes visible in each of the woman’s nostrils. An “Eat my Dust” sign hung from the front seat.

 A large man with a perpetual grin followed the woman as she made her way to the coffin. She closed her eyes and mouthed a prayer. She placed her hand on the coffin then made her way to the Zabretti family who were now all on their feet.

“Hello,” she said stopping in front of Luce. “I’m Bernadette Cosimano, an old friend of your mom’s. So sorry.” Luce put her arm around the old woman.

“Thank you,” said Luce. Marion pointed to the sign.

“Nice sign,” she said. “Really cute.”

“Comes in handy.” Her eyes twinkled in an old cute person sort of way. “Especially when I have to haul ass for somethin’ I did at the home.” Luce laughed uncomfortably. Torre came to the rescue.

“Thanks for coming. How did you know our mom?”

“Oh, me and Mary go way back. Went to St. Paul’s on Greenville Avenue together. We were in the same class.”

“How sweet is that,” said Beth unconsciously massaging her bowling arm.

“Yup. Mary and I made our first communion together…sang in the choir…received confirmation…”

“Adorable,” said Luce shaking her head.

“Snuck our first cigarette in the girl’s bathroom. Nun smelled the smoke but couldn’t figure out who did it. She was madder than a pissed-on chicken.” Johnny fell back in his seat and instantly assumed a fetal position.

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Nothing, Mrs. Cosimano,” said Luce as she went to Johnny and began rubbing his temples. “Relax…relax…it’s okay,” she said. Mrs. Cosimano laughed.

“He looks like 90 percent of the people back at the home. Anyway, where was I?” She looked back at the large man, his hands folded in front of him still grinning.

“Smoking in the bathroom,” he said.

“Oh, right. Let’s see, we had our first drink together…” Luce stood up.

“Really, Mrs. Cosimano. That’s enough…”

“…And our first refer…”

“Don’t stop her, Luce, she’s on roll,” laughed Marion.

“Must have been 1966 or 67. Hell of a year, did lots of pot. Lots of cute boys were around then.” She smiled as she leaned over her walker. “We did them too.” Torre stifled a laugh. Beth swung her harm as though throwing a ball down an alley. Luce gave up and fell back on her chair.

“Well, sorry again for your loss. She was a great gal, kind with a sense of humor that would make a stone sculpture crack a smile.” Johnny moaned as he dropped his head in his hands. She pointed to the large man behind her. “He’s my ride. Gotta get back. I promised a gentleman caller I’d do him a favor.”  She winked at the group. “I’ll probably have to take my teeth out for that one.”

The afternoon wore on and only two more visitors showed. One was a woman who worked with Luce at the local motor vehicle agency. She brought a card signed by her other co-workers. Marion remarked to Beth that was much easier than actually showing up at the wake.

The next-door neighbor, a man in his 50s who mowed the lawn for Mary, stopped by to pay his respects and let everyone know he would no longer be cutting the lawn.

“I mean, who’s gonna pay me, right?” he remarked. Marion laughed mechanically as she gently shoved him out of the room. She shook her head as she sat down next to her brother.

“So, Torre, still working for that construction company?”

“No, I’m a sales associate for a lumber yard.” Torre unbuttoned his suit jacket, his large belly spilling over his belt. “But that’s only temporary. I got this idea.” He leaned in to her, his breath coming in short heaves. “I got an idea for a TV show on one of those home improvement networks.” He patted his stomach. “The name of my show…” He raised his hands in the air and looked between them as though reading a sign that had suddenly appeared there. “…My Gut Feeling.” Marion raised her eyebrows then frowned. Torre continued.

“Tagline…Your Gusty Home Improvement Guru.” He slapped his knees. “The graphic is a tool belt around my gut. What do you think?”

“Sounds like another show about flipping houses,” said Marion.

“Yeah, but I can provide insights from my wealth of construction experience.”

“But weren’t you usually the guy who directed traffic at road construction sites? Not exactly useful info, if you ask me.” Marion regarded him for a moment and slowly nodded. “How about coming to work for me?”

“You know I ain’t got those kinda’ credentials,” said Torre.

“But you got a contact…me. How you think I cracked the good ole boy investment banking network?”

“You had your fancy NYU MBA.”

“No guarantee. But I was smart. I joined a tennis club where a lot of investment bankers were members. Played in high school, remember?”

“Yeah,” said Torre. “You used to beat the hell out of me in front of my friends. Embarrassing.”

“And I beat the snot out of them until one of them said someone as aggressive as me should be working for him. That’s how I made the jump to Wall Street.” She leaned in confidentially. “I could be your jump.”

“Forget it, Marion. I don’t need my big sister to rescue me.”

Marion looked at her watch and was about to say something to Beth when a young woman entered the room. She paused letting her eyes adjust to the dim light. 

“Over here.” Marion smiled as she and Beth rose to meet the young girl. They each took an arm and led her to the group.

“You all remember our daughter, Juanita. Juanita, you remember your Aunt Luce, my sister, and her husband, Johnny. And my brother, you’re Uncle Torre.”  Juanita’s long black hair draped over her cell phone, her dark eyes fixed on it as she texted. The pecking sounds made by her fingernails filled the abrupt silence.

“Say hello,” exhorted Beth. Juanita grinned as she looked up for a moment and waved with one hand, her other hand still texting. Beth pulled Juanita into the seat next to her.

“Wow. I haven’t seen you since you were a little one,” said Luce. “How old are you now?”

“She’s 17,” said Beth as her daughter continued texting. Marion grabbed her phone.

“Sweetie, can you stop that please? Its rude.” Juanita’s head bobbled back and forth as she spoke.

“How come it’s not rude for you, mi querida madre?” She looked at the others. “She talks on that phone all the time…even when she sits on the toilet.”

“That’s enough, Juanita.” Marion cleared her throat. “Juanita’s attending an art sleep away camp for the summer.” She patted Juanita’s head. “She fancies herself an artist. Beth and I think it’s a great hobby.”

“It’s much more than a hobby,” said Juanita looking up from her phone.

“Never mind,” said Marion. “You’re here to pay your respects to your grandmother.”

“Okay,” she said as she rose. Halfway on her way to the coffin, Juanita stopped.

“Oh, by the way,” she said turning around.  “I forgot to tell you. My roommate at camp got COVID.” Marion and Beth exchanged glances. Before Juanita could say another word, they pounced on her, dragging her back and pinning her down in one of the seats.

“Where is your mask…get me a mask,” said Marion. Beth reached in her purse and took out a blue surgical mask. Beth grabbed her arms as Marion stretched it across her face and hooked the loops to her ears. Juanita jumped up her words pulsating as though trying to break through the mask.

“What are you doing, you two locas? You didn’t let me finish. That was three weeks ago. I don’t need no mask.” She attempted to take it off. Marion held up her hand.

“No, you should keep it on,” she said. “It’s for your own good.”

“Huh. You mean for your own good. After all, I might make you sick, you might have to miss a day of your precious work.”

“Calm down, Juanita.” Beth went to touch her arm but Juanita batted her hand away.

“Sure, mia madre, don’t I always?” She rolled the mask up in her hands and placed it in her pocket. “I’m going to the little girl’s room, then I’ll be back to say goodbye to my abuela.” She lifted her index finger in the air. “And just so you know, I’m not going to college in the fall. I’m going to art school.” Juanita resumed her texting a she turned and exited the room. Marion smiled weakly at the others.

“Teenagers. She’ll calm down.”

“Sounds like she wants to go to art school,” said Torre.

“I’m already a patron of the arts with this one,” said Marion, jerking her thumb at Beth. “She’s going to college. I want her to take care of herself, make money.” Just then, a man appeared in the doorway and peered into the room.

“Oh. The priest is here,” said Luce, getting up and motioning for him to enter. “Everyone, this is Father…uh…”

“Kerala…Father Onka Kerala,” the priest said, rolling his mouth around each syllable of his name like it was a giant marble.

“Sorry, Father, I had a momentary lapse there.”

“That’s okay. It’s an Indian name,” he said nodding to the group. “Sometimes hard to remember. Please…just call me Father Onkar.”  Marion whispered to Beth.

“That doesn’t sound any easier.” Beth shushed her.

Father Onkar walked slowly to the coffin, his black cassock making whooshing sounds as it brushed against the tops of his shoes. A shock of black hair stuck out form the top of his head held in place by a noticeably greasy hair tonic. He clutched a bible to his chest like a shield. He stopped, bowed to the coffin, then turned toward the group.

“Now before I say a prayer and give a final blessing, I thought it might be comforting if any of you would first like to say a word d about your loved one.” He continued rocking back and forth. “Anyone?” he said.  Juanita appeared in the doorway and spoke as she entered the room.

“I just want to say my abuela was a great lady, always nice to me. Gave me money every time I went to see her. She knew I was saving up to see my father in Guadalahoorah, Mexico.”

“That’s …jara,” said Beth, pinching the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger. “Guadalajara, Mexico.”

“Whatever,” shrugged Juanita. “Anyway, she was sweet and I’m gonna miss her.” She sat down and resumed texting.

“Thank you, young lady. Anyone else?” Torre raised his hand. He held it there.

“You’re not in school,” chided Marion. “You don’t have to wait to be called on.”

“Oh,” said Torre. “Okay, I just want to say that she was a good mom.” Torre sniffed hard as he reached for a handkerchief in his trouser pocket.

“Thank you. Anyone else?” asked Father Onkar. Luce, Johnny, Marion and Beth avoided his stare.  “No? Okay, then, let us pray.” Father Onkar opened his bible using a red cloth bookmark. “Father, we commend the soul of our dear sister, Elizabeth, into—”

“Mary,” shouted Luce. “Her name was Mary.” She buried her face in her hands. Father Onkar looked at his sheet of paper.

“But here it says the name is—”

“It doesn’t matter what your paper say, Father Oshkosh or whatever you name is. Her name is Mary.” Marion turned to Luce. “Were did you find this guy?”

“Knock it off, Marion.”

“No, I’m serious. Is he saying the Mass tomorrow? Better make sure he has the right address for the church. Who knows…he might show up at a synagogue.”

“I said, shut up, Marion.”

“While we’re at it, who picked out the coffin?” Marion stood up and gestured at the coffin like she was throwing something at it. “It looks like Dracula’s day bed.”

“Enough, Marion. Enough!” Luce jumped up, the chair rocking back and forth in response. “Excuse me, Father.” She turned back to Marion. “I’ve had it with you. Think you can waltz in here and take over? Yeah, I picked out the coffin because you weren’t here. Just like you weren’t here when mom was sick, or she needed a ride to the doctor, or needed her diaper changed. Too busy with your life, so much so we haven’t seen your daughter in years, you didn’t know I moved or that Torre lives in Pennsylvania. Hell, you got married never told anybody, moved to a fancy house in the Hamptons that none of us have ever seen and now you come back here and have the nerve to criticize? All I ask is that you sit there, show some respect for mom and most of all, shut up.” Johnny straightened out her chair and led a shaking Luce into it. Marion sighed.

“Chill, Luce. So we’re a little dysfunctional,” said Marion.

“You have to first be a functioning family before you can be called dysfunctional,” said Luce, her voice quavering with each word. Johnny put his arm around her. Father Onkar cleared his throat as he looked down at his bible. He looked up suddenly and with a wide grin on his face addressed the family.

“Let us say a prayer for the peaceful…,” he raised his index finger, “…peaceful…repose of Mary’s soul.”

“We all here?” Luce stood up and looked at everyone. “Okay. So’s you know. Mom’s will is going to be formally read at her lawyer’s office in a couple of weeks. Mom wanted me to read a letter she wrote, you know, so you’d have an idea what’s gonna be in it and all.” She waved the paper she held at Marion. “So, Marion. The moment you’ve been waiting here. I think you should read it.”

“Oh.” Marion retrieved a pair of reading glasses from her purse. She put them on and, taking the letter from Luce, stood in front of the coffin, facing the group. She cleared her throat as she began to read.

“If you’re reading this, I’m probably stuffed in a coffin at Baldoni’s (don’t let the cheap bastard talk you into something made out of crappy wood).” Marion looked around to make sure Mr. Baldoni wasn’t in ear shot. She continued.  “I want solid steel enveloping my ass.” Marion continued reading.

“Overall, I’d say I had a good life. Your father was a good man who died way too soon, but that couldn’t be helped. You were all pretty much good kids. Drove me crazy once in a while, but you may have noticed I had small bottles placed in strategic locations around the house. ‘Mother’s little helper,’ as Mick Jagger put it.  Anyway, since this is my last hurrah, I’m gonna tell it like it is (like we flower children used to say in the 60s after taking a toke and passing the pot along).

“Marion, Torre, Luce…I love you dearly, but I am so disappointed in you. Like so many people in this country, you claim to be a family…family values and all that. But when was the last time you spoke to each other.? Or visited each other?” Marion looked up at Luce and Torre who were both staring at the floor. “Marion, seems like you’re way too busy making money. Torre, there’s’ more to life than getting a show on HGTV (who the hell wants to watch a show called ‘My Gut Says.’ Especially one featuring your gut.)

“And Luce. Instead of organizing yourself into oblivion, why not pop out a couple of kids? It might give you and Johnny something useful to do.

“As far as my will goes, I know I’m expected to leave what I have to my family, but the three of you haven’t behaved much like one. The only one who’s acted like family is Juanita. Dear, sweet Nita.” Marion’s words actually made Juanita stop texting for almost 10 seconds. “She’s the only one who makes time to visit me and well she actually taught me how to text.”  Juanita smiled as she held up her phone.

“Just sent her one.” She read from her phone. “Miss your already, grandma. You don’t have to answer. LOL.” Marion continued reading.

“I know Marion and Beth love her and have given her a good life. But I can tell she needs more, especially from Marion. She needs a real mother, not a money-making machine in designer pants.” Marion frowned as she looked at Beth, then at Juanita. She refocused her yes on the page.

“Regarding my estate, it will be split equally among my three children: Marion, Torre and Luce. Finally, now that you’re all here, there is one thing you can do for me. I want to be buried with my cat. I know you all think that’s pretty creepy, but that’s my last wish. And by the way, I got one last question for you all. Is my cat really dead?

“Chew on that for a while. In the immortal words of Porky Pig…Duh Duhh, Duh Duhh, Duh Duhh…That’s all folks.” Marion frowned as she folded the letter in her hand.

“What cat?” asked Marion.

“Oh,” said Luce a she reached into a shopping bag next to her seat. She retrieved a small, white box tied with a gold ribbon in the shape of a cross and held it up. “Say hello to Schroeder, mom’s cat, and the one she has chosen to share eternity with.”

The family sat quietly as Mr. Baldoni opened the coffin and gently placed the cat’s ashes at her feet. Luce jumped up.

“No, Mr. Baldoni. She’d want the cat up by her arm.” Mr. Baldoni turned around and raised his hands up to his head as though shielding himself from a blow. He shrugged, then did as she asked.

“Why, so she can pet it?’ Torre grunted a laugh.

“She did seem to think it was alive.” Marion shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “What the hell was that all about anyway? I mean, it’s dead, right?” Luce sat sideways on the chair as she faced Marion.

“Funny thing about that. The cat was looking pretty sick a few weeks ago. I get up one morning and it was dead, lying next to her. I took it and buried it in the backyard. Mom was pretty out of it by then and she kept asking for it. Next thing I know, the dead cat’s in her arms.”

“How did that happen?” asked Marion.

“The crazy dog dug it up and brought it to her. He’s a retriever, that’s what he does.” They all stared blankly at her. “Retrieve.” Luce took a deep breath. “Anyway, I buried it deeper, but the dog dug it up again and brought it to mom. This happened a couple of times until I finally decided to cremate the little twit. Next time she asked for him I gave her the box.”

“Not really very sensitive there, Luce,” said Marion.

“Yeah, but it seemed to work. I swear she sat there petting the box and cooing at it like Schroeder was still there.” The group grew silent.

“But what did mom mean when she asked if her cat was really dead?” Marion stroked her chin as she stared at the coffin. Johnny leaned forward in his seat.

“I can’t help but think of that cat in the box thing.,” he said. “You know, the cat is in there but if no one actually sees it, it’s technically alive and dead at the same time.”

“Well, I saw the cat and it was definitely dead,” said Luce. “Like that Monte Python dead parrot sketch.”

“But mom saw the cat as alive,” said Beth. “And in that Monte Python thing, Michael Palin insisted the parrot was alive.”

“Yeah, but like I said, I saw that the cat was dead,” said Luce. “I mean, I buried it.”

“But the dog saw it as alive,” insisted Marion. “Because he dug it up and brought it inside.” Luce couldn’t help raising her voice.

“Then I took the cat…saw it was dead…and cremated it so the stupid dog wouldn’t keep digging it up and bringing it in the house.”

“So, if we put the cat’s ashes in the coffin, we are declaring that it is indeed dead.” Torre rubbed his fingers over his lips.

“Along with mom,” said Marion. “But we can’t see inside the coffin. Does that mean the cat…” She slapped her forehand. “Never mind. I…I still don’t know what this all means.” Juanita stopped texting suddenly and stood up. She smiled, revealing a row of white, niblet-corn teeth.

“We can’t be family if we don’t see each other now and then. When we’re out of touch, we’re like grandma’s cat. We don’t know who’s alive or dead. I’m gonna text that to grandma. She’ll like that.” Juanita sat down and began texting with a vengeance.

A deafening silence filled the room. All eyes were focused on the coffin and the picture of their mother on a pedestal next to it with her hippie clothes and granny glasses smiling like a cat who just ate a bird. 


Joe Cappello lives and writes in the picturesque desert country of Galisteo, New Mexico. His short story, “The Secret of the Smiling Rock Man,” won first place in the National Federation of Press Women’s 2022 Communication contest, short story category. A memoir, “Once Upon a Midnight” received an honorable mention in the 2022 Southwest Writers writing contest. His one act play, “Monarch,” won the Susan Hansell Drama Contest 2022.

The Best We Can

By William Cass

My parents told me about my mother’s affair, if it could be called that, when we met at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco just after I’d turned thirty.  They’d come out from Pittsburgh and were staying there for one of my father’s last business conventions before his retirement.  I’d flown down from my teaching job in Juneau, Alaska, to see them and stay with an old friend from college.

Their room was on the thirty-fourth floor.  They sat side by side in tall, elegant armchairs separated by a small table.  I stretched out against the headboard of their bed across from them.  It was about 4:30 in the afternoon, and through the big windows behind my parents, the late October light had already begun to fall over the city.

When I’d first arrived, my father had made us all vodka tonics.  We’d caught up on my brothers and sister, how my father’s keynote speech had gone the night before, and the progress on the retirement home they were building in Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Then he simply said, “Your mother has a bit of news.  She’s slept with her old boyfriend from high school.”

The room was still for a long moment until my mother said evenly, “‘Slept’ is an exaggeration.  We were in the backseat of his car at a park.  It was over like that.”

She clicked her fingers.  They both looked at me blankly.

I shook my head slowly.  “I don’t know what to say.  I can’t believe it.”

“Neither could I,” my father said.  He took a long swallow from his drink and held the glass on the top of his knee. 

My mother sighed.  “It was just a ridiculous, impulsive thing.  One time.  Never before.  Never again.  I was in an emotional state.  It was when I was up there in Connecticut to move your grandpa into the convalescent hospital.”

I sat forward and blurted, “The back of his car?”

“He’d heard I was there to move Daddy’s things.  It’s a small town.  He came by the house one night.  We went for a drive.”

She shrugged.  They both continued to look at me intently.  It seemed like they were waiting for me to pass some sort of judgment.

Finally, I asked, “Do the other kids know?”

My father shook his head.  “You’re the oldest.”

I extended my gaze over their heads at the dwindling light against the tops of the city’s buildings and wondered why my mother had told him anything about it at all.

I looked back and forth at each of them and asked, “So what happens now?”

My father pursed his lips.  “I don’t know.  We don’t know.  No current plans.  The truth is…”  He shook the ice in his glass.  “The truth is I’ve ignored your mother for some time…her needs.”

I’m not sure what it was I saw on my father’s face at that moment, whether it was fear or vulnerability or something else, but I know I’d never seen it there before.  The rock-solid stoicism I’d grown to simply accept as his persona – the star athlete, the successful corporate executive, the stern family patriarch – was gone.

“We haven’t been emotionally available to each other for some time,” my mother said.

“Whatever it’s called,” my father mumbled.

I watched my mother lower her face, then turn it away from him toward the hotel room door.

I ended the awkwardness shortly after that by contriving excuses to leave.  We made vague arrangements to have brunch together the next morning before they flew home.  But before the elevator had even reached the lobby, I knew I would break those plans.  I had nothing more to ask or say to them about what they’d told me and couldn’t imagine making small talk about anything else.


I relocated to Seattle a couple of summers later and met the woman who would become my wife at an orientation for teachers new to the district where we were both hired.  After the wedding, we were able to buy a small, older home just up from Lake Washington on the eastside, and worked together fixing it up for the next few years until our son, Ben, was born.  No one could have prepared us for that.  He was severely disabled with a smorgasbord of developmental, physical, and neurological problems.  He spent the first six weeks after birth in the NICU where the dymsorphologist who treated him there told us that kids like Ben rarely survived more than a handful of years.  He was in and out of the hospital thereafter every few months for pneumonias and surgeries.  It was during one of those admittances when Ben was seven that my wife announced that she’d become involved with another teacher at her school.  She said they were moving together to Madison, Wisconsin, to enroll in a graduate program in art history, a subject in which I’d never known her to have any interest. 

At the time, we were sitting in a little ante-room in the med-surg wing at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital waiting for Ben’s surgeon to come let us know how the procedure to insert a feeding tube into his stomach had gone.

She said, “I’m done being a martyr.  I need to take care of myself.  I have a right to be happy.”

“But,” I stammered.  “You never said a word.  I didn’t know…never had the chance…”

She looked at me coldly.  Her eyes narrowed.  “I can’t worry about your feelings.  I can only deal with my own.”

The surgeon entered the room, still wearing his scrubs and operating cap.  He smiled and said, “Everything went well.  Everything is going to be all right.”

She nodded earnestly in that way she had when listening to someone.  It had the effect of making the speaker feel immediately connected, acknowledged, and respected.  So, the surgeon directed the rest of his comments to her.  I sat numb and didn’t hear a word he said.

After my wife left, Ben had to stay in the medically fragile center of the hospital for better than a year because the first fundoplication had gone bad right away and the doctors decided upon a very gradual and careful titration of his feeds with the new feeding tube.  He stayed on a continuous twenty-hour drip for seven weeks before they were finally able to slowly increase his intervals to greater bolus volumes.  Towards the end of that time, he had a tracheostomy to help manage his secretions and then two additional surgeries to move his testicles down their canals closer to where they would have normally been.  The customary recovery time was involved after each, so it was several more months before I could begin trying to arrange the contract home nursing needed to have him discharged.  In the end, I was able to find nursing to cover my work hours, but overnight shifts only three times a week, so had to manage the rest myself.  His care needs were round-the-clock, so I didn’t have a lot of time for much else.


My parents made a yearly visit my way to Seattle for a week each spring.  Over the ensuing years after that afternoon in San Francisco, nothing much changed in their relationship that I could see.  It seemed to me that they had fashioned their mutual co-existence with something between bewildered acceptance and silent resignation.  In retirement, my father’s countenance and self-reliance gradually deflated like a balloon left behind a couch, and this became exacerbated as his hearing loss worsened, even with the most technologically advanced of aids.  His golf games dwindled from four or five a week to once or twice a month, a decline that accompanied the degree to which my parents associated with friends.  More and more, their days involved long periods of time sitting in separate blue recliners in front of the television reading sections of the newspaper, while my father kept one eye on whatever sports show played and my mother shouted tidbits to him from articles that caught her fancy over the volume’s din.

Their collective general health slowly deteriorated.  After my father’s second heart attack and my mother’s first, we convinced them to move closer to one of the kids.  They finally sold their retirement home and bought a cottage in a lovely graduated assisted living community on the Deschutes River in Bend, Oregon, near my sister, Beth, and her family.  That made sense because she was the youngest and still had two small children with whom my parents planned to help.  Although that assistance never materialized, Beth or her husband could take them to their medical appointments and lend a hand in managing their other affairs as needed, so it was an improved arrangement.  However, shortly after arriving, my father began waxing nostalgic for Hilton Head, claimed that we forced him to move, and bitterness began to invade the shell that quickly became his final internal retreat. 

On their last visit before my father died, my mother brought some old photographs to give me.  She said she’d chosen a batch for each of the kids because they’d otherwise just sit untouched in a box in their attic.  I looked through them that first morning as we ate breakfast together at my dining room table.  It was already warm, so I had the French doors to the porch open.  Ben sat in his wheelchair in the doorway where he could feel the sunlight across his lap and squawk when he heard the birds.

The order and arrangement of the photos seemed to be completely half hazard.  There were some of my parents as far back as their days together at the University of Connecticut and then snippets of various family members – mostly different combinations of my four siblings and me, and later of our own families – over the years at holidays, vacations, and special occasions.  Because they were so scattered, I found myself arranging them chronologically and, in so doing, watching us all grow and age in rapid succession.

I laid two photographs of my parents that struck me side by side on the table. They were both engrossed in their newspapers and didn’t even glance over.  One snapshot was black and white from their honeymoon.  My father had his arm around my mother, squinting with one eye into the sun behind the camera.  They were leaning against a railing in front of a waterfall: handsome, robust, their serene expressions full of confidence and promise. 

The second couldn’t have been taken too long beforehand.  In it, they sat side by side at the little wicker table on their screened-in back porch in Hilton Head picking crab from shells in a bowl.  It must have been among their last crabbing outings there, which was one of their only shared pastimes.  They’d walk down under the bridge below the lagoon behind their house, and my mother would toss a chicken neck tied to a eight-foot string out into the brackish shallows at low tide.  When a blue shell crab approached and began to follow the bait, she would slowly recoil the string towards the bank where my father waited with a long-handled net to try to snatch it up and drop it in a plastic bucket.  On a good day, they could coax seven or eight crabs into the bucket in a couple of hours.  I knew that it reminded them fondly, as it did me, of our crabbing and clamming excursions years before on the Connecticut shore or Cape Cod.  In the picture, my father wore a startled expression and my mother grinned with her fingertips on his knee.

Somewhere in between those two photographs, they’d raised a family, our family, and tasted whatever satisfactions and disappointments life had in store for them. 


Two things happened when Ben turned twelve that were significant.  The first occurred on a rainy Sunday afternoon in the late fall.  I took him to the IMAX theater at the planetarium to see a new movie that had opened about the Annipurna Sanctuary in Nepal where I’d trekked when I was younger.  The theater had a small disabled seating section off to the side for wheelchairs with a couple of folding chairs for companions.  A woman about my age already occupied one of the chairs.  She was pretty.  In the wheelchair next to her, a man was tilted back ready for viewing.  His tongue lolled out of the side of the mouth.  She wiped the drool off his chin with a blue paisley bandana that was tucked into the collar of his shirt.

I arranged Ben in a similar fashion and sat down in the chair next to her.  When I glanced over, she was smiling gently at me.

“I’m Alice,” she said.  “This is my husband, Paul.”

I shook her hand, introduced Ben and myself, and we talked a bit before the show started.  She asked me about Ben’s prognosis.          

I said, “Undiagnosed genetic syndrome.”

“From birth then?”

I nodded.  “Paul?”

She sighed.  “Car accident a year and a half ago.  We were coming home from our daughter’s high school graduation.”

I swallowed and watched her look at him, then take his hand in his lap.

After the movie, she asked if I’d like to get coffee, and that started us doing things together with Ben and Paul every couple of months.  It was nice to spend time with a person with whom I shared similar circumstances.  Of course, that was as far as it could go.

The second thing was that, for the first time in his life, Ben hugged me back.  It may well have been just an unintentional reflex of some kind because it had never happened before and hasn’t since.  But that doesn’t matter…for a handful of seconds, it did.


Ben’s mom asked to see him again not too long ago, eleven years after she left.

As far as I know, she never married her lover, but they’d stayed together, and she called when they were passing through the area.  They drove over, but he stayed in the car, parked down the street.  I don’t know how to describe the way I felt when I answered the door – a cacophony of emotions, I guess, followed by emptiness.  Much as they had with me, the years had taken their toll on her.  She held herself with a cordial and dignified removal, but I saw something in her eyes that told me she was still the girl I’d married.

I brought her into Ben’s room where he was propped up in his bed in the middle of a feed. 

“Benny-boy,” she whispered and kissed his forehead.  He looked past her at whatever it was that he always gazed at. She rearranged and propped the pillows around

him, and I felt the old, painful, instinctive twinge of never doing things well enough for her.

She didn’t ask, but I gave her a summary of how Ben had been doing while we both looked at him and she stroked his hair.  Then we were silent.  I wondered what more it was that we could really talk about.  The motor on his feeding pump made its soft whee-whir.

“I’ll give you some time with him,” I said and left the room.

I busied myself in the kitchen, unloaded the dishwasher, rinsed out the coffee carafe, threw out the grounds.  Then I went into the sunroom, sat on the couch, and tried to grade some papers.  At one point, I thought I heard her reading aloud to him from one of the picture books on his shelves.  It may have been a book she bought for him; it probably was.  After a while, I was sure that I heard her singing softly to him a lullaby that had been a regular one for them when he was an infant.

I looked out the window at the picket fence we’d built together just after we bought the house and before Ben was born.  The climbing roses we’d planted on either side of the gate had grown over the arbor into a tangle of red bursts and green foliage that nodded now in the small breeze and sunlight.

Perhaps ten minutes more passed before she came to the front door, gave me one of her familiar, sad smiles, and said, “Thank you.”

I watched her go down the steps, through the gate, and up the sidewalk to where the car was parked under a tree.  I could just make out his figure behind the wheel in the

shadows.  Ben’s pump began to beep, signifying that his feed cycle had finished, and I went to turn it off.


Not long thereafter, my mother was diagnosed with a relatively mild case of Alzheimer’s disease.  She was about to turn seventy-six and had become increasingly forgetful the past few years, so we weren’t surprised.  Neither was she, though she was frightened by how debilitating the disease had become at the end of her own father’s life.  Her neurologist put her on a medication that he said might slow the process and directed her to be as active mentally, socially, and physically as possible.  She’d moved into an apartment in the lodge after my father’s death and already had a fair amount of acquaintances there.  With the diagnosis, she increased her canasta games to twice a week and began to take more meals in the dining hall with other residents.  She also joined an exercise class and got a subscription to a monthly word search magazine.  So, she did all right.

She still came here for her most recent visit.  Only a short, direct flight was involved, so there weren’t any travel problems.  But during our last phone conversation, my sister had expressed some new concerns about the dangers of her being on her own much longer.  Beth said that not too long before, she’d found a stove burner left on overnight when she went over to the apartment.  There was another recent occasion when they’d had to take her to the ER after she’d confused some of the medications she’d taken.  We both wanted her to maintain as much dignity and independence as possible, but Beth was wondering if the time wasn’t approaching when she’d need to move upstairs into skilled nursing, especially in light of her own family’s likely move to another state because of a pending work transfer for her husband.  Beth asked if I could talk to her about it; I said I would.

After we got home from the airport and settled, she did appear to me a little more fitful, more methodical.  Maintaining her daily routines seemed especially critical to her:

counting out her pills in the morning, taking care of her ilioscopy bag and all that entailed, fixing her tea and crustless toast for breakfast, pouring endlessly over the

newspaper, watching her afternoon talk shows on television.  She shuffled everywhere, and complained more about how she was always cold, how she couldn’t keep any weight on, about the blue veins in her legs and her sleeping troubles.  The glass rarely seemed half-full.

That first day, we walked up the street with Ben to a little café she’d always liked for lunch.  After our meals arrived, she told the waitress that her soup wasn’t hot enough and sent it back to be reheated.  She commented that the potato salad was all right, but not as flavorful as her own.

I finally said, “Tell me something good, Mom.  Something good that’s going on with you.”

“Well,” she said.  She took off her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose before replacing them.  I could see that she was trying not to smile.  “Warren Marshall has been calling.”

“What’s that?” I vaguely remembered the name, but couldn’t place it.

“Warren.  My high school boyfriend.”

I thought of that afternoon in the St. Francis Hotel.  I said, “How? When?”

 “Well, he phoned me after he heard your father had died.  And he’s called several times since.  Just to check on me, he says.  We don’t talk about much.  I don’t think his marriage is a very happy one.  I’m not sure if he’s even married anymore.”

She took a sip of soup, it seemed to me, to hide the sparkle in her eyes.  The spoon trembled a bit in her hand.  I sat back and shook my head.  Who knew how many years she had left?  I thought about how much of life hinged on those things we could control and those things we couldn’t.  I thought about how we go about trying to fashion our truest selves.  I thought about how we all just do the best we can.

I heard myself say, “Why don’t you find out?”

She shrugged.  She looked out the window and set her spoon down.  “The last time he called, he talked about taking a trip out this way.  He has a grandson who goes to college in Portland.  Said he might rent a car and drive down to Bend.”

When she looked back at me, her lips were trembling a little, too, her eyes full of hope and fear and uncertainty.  She looked so small and frail.  In that moment, I knew there was no need for the conversation about skilled nursing; when the time came for that, I’d move her up to live with me.  I reached over and put my hand on top of hers.  I smiled, and she made a thin attempt to do the same.

After a while, she looked over my shoulder and said, “This is a nice place.  It doesn’t look new.  We should have come here before.”

I squeezed her hand and said, “You’re right, Mom.  We should have.”

Originally appeared in Conium Review (2013)


William Cass has had over 290 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as decemberBriar Cliff Review, and Zone 3.  He won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. A nominee for both Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net anthologies, he has also received five Pushcart Prize nominations. His first short story collection, Something Like Hope & Other Stories, was published by Wising Up Press in 2020, and a second collection, Uncommon & Other Stories, was recently released by the same press. He lives in San Diego, California.

A Letter from the Batcave

By Charles Joseph Albert

Dear Alfred:

I’m sorry I haven’t written in a while. But you know how I said things were getting dicier with Bruce? Well, it’s gotten worse. I think it’s depression. He never goes out any more. Not even in the Batmobile, which would be so easy—it pretty much just drives itself, you know. 

I started noticing this about two months ago. It started with a Bat Signal one night. (You know they quit shining a spotlight, right? The alerts come through on the Bat Watch, now.) We suit up and fly the Bat Copter to an address we’d been texted, and sure enough, there’s Joker in the middle of a robbery. Or his henchmen are—they’ve blown a hole in the bank wall, and they’re loading bags of money into a Transit Rideshare van. Joker’s only directing. He’s got Parkinson’s pretty bad these days, you know. Says it’s our fault, from all the times he’s taken a punch to the head. Did you know there’s even a lawsuit?

But let me stay focused. When we get there, the henchmen all start shooting at us, of course, and I run up and clobber them through the usual hail of bullets. That part’s pretty standard and you’ve seen me do it a thousand times. I’m by myself still—Bruce has gone back to the Bat Copter make sure he locked the door. He catches up with me in a minute, which is fine—I mean, it’s not a problem. I’m wearing bullet-proof armor and I have the new skeleto-suit anyway. I can do the whole thing solo. It’s actually easier without him. 

Which I think is part of the problem. I mean, he’s fifty-three. He’s slowed down a lot. And he forgets stuff. I know that kind of bugs him.

Anyway, we knock out the henchmen, and Bruce goes over to get Joker, gets the Bat Cuffs out and all, and they’re doing that repartee thing they do, and Bruce is like, “I’m going to feel these bruises tomorrow,” and Joker’s all, “You know what kind of lousy medical care there is in jail?”

Out from the hole in the bank’s wall comes this teenager. All face paint, purple suit, the whole bit. Bruce and I are like, “Wait, what?” And Joker’s like, “Dudes, meet my son Jack. Jack of Spades.”

Well, I’m still cuffing henchmen, but I’m keeping an eye on this, right? Cause, I mean, the Jack dude is mean-looking. Scrawny, but you could see something off in his eyes. Also, he’s moving jerky. Stumbles on his way through the hole, and when he jumps toward Bruce he shoots way past him. Which means he’s got a skeleto-suit, too. You can tell when someone is wearing one, ‘cause when they walk, they’re all bouncing around like they’re in reduced gravity. Super hard to control, too. And this Jack dude still hadn’t gotten the full hang of it, right? I mean, Bruce should take him, easy. Easily, I mean.

But Bruce isn’t quick enough. Jack tries again, and this time he gets a good right cross to Bruce’s jaw, and down he goes. I make a move to go help, but Bruce shoots me this awful look—it’s pure fury, Alfred. Hatred, almost. I’m trying to not take it personally, because he doesn’t want some younger guy taking down the kid who beat him to the punch. Literally.

So I back off. Let him redeem himself. Only that’s when Joker lifts up one of his crutches, and it’s an RPG. And he points it right at Bruce’s head.

I swear, if you could have seen the expression on Bruce’s face (I mean in his eyes, ‘cause that’s all you can see, right?) it would have just broken your heart. I mean, we’re used to Bruce being it, you know? You and me, we were his crew, and he was Top Dog. But this look in his eyes are anything but Top Dog. It’s utter terror. Like, he is not in control. He’s more like someone who’s about to lose his shorts. And also sad, in a way, too. You know? Sad, like, shoot, I should have disarmed Joker first. I mean, Cardinal Rule, right? Disarm the villain… then repartee. 

Bruce starts to react, but Joker has the drop on him, you know? So Bruce has, like, no hope.

Except I’ve already popped off a shot with the Batarang, knocking Joker’s RPG sideways. His shot goes wide, and instead of blowing Bruce’s head off, all that happens is a burn on his lips from the rocket fire going past. His mask protects the rest.

Well, I take out Jack, which is a piece of cake—the kid doesn’t know the first thing about real fighting. And he has the disadvantage of Joker’s physique—kind of squirrely. Next I have Joker disarmed and cuffed. So everything’s wrapped up neatly and I’m trying to usher Bruce back to the chopper.

But he shrugs my hand off of his shoulder, like, don’t touch me! 

OK, I figure, he just got burned, and maybe he’s a bit sensitive about forgetting to disarm Joker. So I back off. Again. 

But then I make the mistake of heading for the driver’s seat of the copter. Bruce gets all, “What’s the matter? Don’t think I remember how to fly this thing?” And there’s that look in his eye again. 

I shrug and walk back around to the passenger seat, and I can see that he’s in pain from the burn, but he’s obviously trying to make a point here, so I just pretend I don’t notice. And we head home. 

At the wrong altitude. 

We’re flying to Wayne Manor from the west, which means we need to be at 1500 feet, not 1000 feet. The thousands are for aircraft coming in from a north-south axis. Five hundreds are for east-west. And I’m starting to freak, right? I’m imagining some kind of mid-air collision, instant death in a fireball, like what happened to that guy, Hawkeye. Get your elevation wrong, you’re screwed. 

I can see the lights from an incoming craft, and I’m bugging. But how to bring it to Bruce’s attention? I mean, A, he’s in a really foul mood. And B, he just got beat to the punch by some Joker-in-training-pants.

The plane is heading straight for us, but there’s still time to maneuver. So I blurt out, “Hey, Bruce, the altitude—” 

And then, Whoosh

The Bat Copter goes into a spiral dive, and it’s only thanks to Bruce’s spectacular flying skills that we stabilize. You might think he’d be proud of himself for saving our cans, but now he’s all pissed that he was flying the wrong altitude. And he knows I know it, too. And he’s all, “Goddamn it, Dick, why didn’t you say something earlier? Could have fucking lost our shit right there!”

You know things have gone south when Batman swears.

“Trying not to piss you off,” I grunt. 

Boy, does that clam him up. The rest of that flight home is more awkward than a Justice League/Avengers joint picnic.

He goes straight to the shower when we got home. Doesn’t say another word to me. Or to Mr. Mitzumi, who was waiting with a hot sake and a terrycloth robe. (He passes on his regards, by the way.)

That’s where we’ve been, ever since. I handle the next three calls we get by myself. I do it my way, too, like I’ve always been saying I would: I bring the Bat Bots and I set up a perimeter using Siri and Alexa. 

I kept thinking maybe Bruce just needed some time off, or something. But each time I come back from a call, he’s even deeper in his funk. He’s already drunk through half of the Bat Cellar, and he’s binge-watching COPS. I can hear him late into the night, throwing popcorn at the detectives and calling them names.

The other day he happens to overhear a call I didn’t even go to, I just sent the Bat Bots without me. I was watching them on the monitors, and he leans over my shoulder and goes, “Holy Drone Strike, Robin! Did I not teach you anything?” 

And I try not to take offense, so instead I go, “Check it, B-Man! I just nabbed a purse-snatcher remotely!” 

And he goes, “That isn’t real crime fighting. You need a human there, not a machine!” And he staggers off. Trips on a stalactite on his way back to the Bat recliner. 

I’m kind of at my wit’s end, Alfred. If you’ve got any suggestions, I’m all ears. I can’t imagine leaving Bruce after all he’s done for me, but things are getting real. For the past week, he hasn’t even gotten out of his Bat Underwear. And if he catches me looking at him, he gets all, “What’s the matter, junior? Don’t you have some TikToks to watch?”

Hey, maybe we can ask Clark to invite him to the Fortress of Solitude. Ever since he moved it to Florida, Bruce has sounded more interested in going to visit. 

I’m also thinking about filling out that application on the Avenger’s page. I know, I know—they’re Marvel, and we’re DC. But guys have crossed over before. Look at Hawkman. Or Captain Marvel. And yes, I don’t have any mutant powers. But I hear they’re still trying to fill Iron Man’s suit. 

Yours as ever,



Charles Joseph Albert is a metallurgist in the Bay Area and the author of 13 books of poetry and fiction. His latest is An IQ of 84: A Gaijin Chronicle. His stories and poems have appeared around the internet, most recently in Short Edition and Another Chicago Magazine.

Six Steps to Good Sleep

by Ellie May Mandell

Gideon read an article: children who were disadvantaged within the family have chronic and serious health troubles in later life. Great, she thought, something new to worry about. Her mother, who had been of all things a family therapist, had surely read similar articles and maybe even written some. In moments of weakness, middle-aged Gideon imagined her wealthy mother might bequeath her some money in a final act of redemption. Must beat that down, she told herself. Must prepare myself for one last punch in the face. Gideon’s favorite movie line was by Ramsey Bolton in Game of Thrones, “If you think this story has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” The maladies listed in the article and the prospect of disinheritance pressed on her.

Gideon’s father hit her. Too hard, too often, and for invented reasons, Gideon thought then and still, fifty years later. Had he resented the moral injury the child inflicted on his wife? Gideon had poor stamina and became startled at sudden noises. Maybe she offended him as an imperfect creation. Or, the darkest explanation, he did it because he wanted to and saw she was alone in the world. When grownup Gideon woke at night, memories of his habit and her mother’s blankness prevented her from sleeping. Probably lack of sleep was the root cause of the health troubles of all of those least-favorite children, she thought. She decided to write an article herself, in the form of a list: “Six Steps to Good Sleep.”

Step One: Read ten books and forty articles about how to get better sleep. Compile a list of the one hundred or so recommendations. Add “Eliminate the following unacknowledged neuro-disruptors: smoked foods, non-organic foods, medications, and gluten.” Implement all.

When Gideon grew breasts, her father stopped hitting her. Instead, he scratched or jiggled his penis and balls while wearing running shorts near her and he let his towel drop when leaving the bathroom after a shower. He told jokes, any one of which would have cost him his job at the university in a later time. When she was fifteen, Gideon worked in a sandwich shop. One evening she sat in the car of a boy who had given her a ride home and smooched with him for a while. The next day her father told her she had to move out of the family home and into the garage apartment, a dingy and foul-smelling cash cow he usually rented to his female graduate assistants. “Your mother and I agree that you are the kind of person whose fundamental arrogance is damaging to their family,” he said. The apartment gave Gideon a headache. After three nights of sleeping badly from the moldering carpets and cheap furnishings and waiting for her older sister, Ruth, or her mother to visit her, she left her hometown on a Greyhound bus and landed, down but not out, in a small town in western Massachusetts.

Now, grownup Gideon and her husband of three decades lived in the same small town. Their house, which her husband had inherited, sat high on its foundation among smaller houses. It had a western extension with the kitchen on the first floor and, on the second, a bedroom with windows on three sides. Too big of a view, Gideon thought, especially west to the Berkshire foothills. She kept the blinds closed except to the north, where a shaggy privet hedge and a rootbound maple formed a comforting shield.

The west wing bedroom had a bed next to the north-facing window, a side table nearby, and a chair for lounging at the far side of the room. On this morning in early April, Gideon lay face up with her heels on the windowsill and her palms open, in an attitude of acceptance. She waited for the truth to come to her.

Step Two: Consider where, within the objects and surfaces that you eat, touch, or breathe near, there might be any of the three hundred thousand industrial chemicals whose effects on human health, in isolation or in combination, have never been tested or measured. How can these chemicals not disrupt your neurology and therefore your sleep? Eliminate suspicious exposures. This will require major lifestyle adjustments.

That mothers love their offspring equally is only one lie of many told to children to make them behave in ways supporting a civil society, Gideon thought. When the lies grow to be too huge or too numerous, society cracks open and reveals its inner corruption. A sort of reckoning was coming regarding the biggest lie, a lie of omission, as it happened. This lie was amorphous, difficult to describe since its primary components didn’t have a proper vocabulary. The lie had to do with the true costs of the three hundred thousand, as Gideon thought of them, although of course every day more were created, churned out through computer aided design and tweaks to existing ones.

Gideon had unusual insight into these insufficiently-regulated catalysts of profit. Her childhood lack of physical wellness had calcified, through a series of mysterious and violent health upsets, each one requiring years of imperfect recovery, into heightened sensitivity to the toxins around her. Even now, with her health on a slow upswing, she often felt inexplicably low and she avoided leaving her house. When she considered the faulty newborns, compromised young people, and cancer-ridden adults around her, Gideon knew she was witnessing a slow-motion cracking open and revealing of the hidden costs and scale of this one big lie. Her illness was the harbinger of a coming collapse. Her life exemplified, in accelerated and exaggerated form, what was happening to everyone else, only they didn’t know it.

Gideon began to lie on the west wing bed for a few hours every day, looking at the sky and composing her listicle in her head. One day there was a tiny crusty turd on the windowsill where she intended to rest her feet. She dislodged and disposed of it with a damp piece of toilet paper, then washed her hands carefully. So the house did have a bat this year, she thought. She leaned her elbows on the windowsill for a while, watching the birds in the yard, then lay down again.

A few years earlier, Gideon had pulled back the blankets to get into bed and a bat lay snuggled on her pillow. “When did you last wash your hair,” her husband said in more of an accusation than a question. “She must enjoy your musky odor.” To keep things simple, the two of them assigned each new bat a random gender. Another time, one of the tiny brown cooties visited Gideon in her home office daily for several weeks. Of all the rooms in the house he could have explored, he chose the one where she was sitting, each day flying at her face first, then making repeated circuits of the room as she cooed at him. “You are just adorable,” she said over and over. “Come visit me any time.”

One winter evening Gideon and her husband were watching a movie in one of the third-floor bedrooms. From the attic above came the sounds of a party or maybe a fracas. At least two but maybe many soft bodies scrabbled and flopped toward each other and then away again, bound to the attic floor for once rather than to its roofbeams. Back and forth, shuffling and scratching. Then a pause, then more shuffling and scratching. Gideon turned off the movie and tried to discern the mood and motivations of the creatures. They seemed to be dragging each other back and forth. She imagined or maybe she actually heard through the ceiling the multilayered squeaks of their conversation.

“Don’t flinch when they fly at you,” she told her husband after yet another evening of sweet-talking a bat into leaving the house through an open window. “They know exactly where you are, so there is no way they’ll hit you. They just want to look into your face.”

“Easier said than done and you’d better stop playing with them,” her husband said. “You’ll get a nip and we’ll have to take you to the ‘mergency for a round of rabies shots.” “I would never reach for them and they have no reason to touch me,” she said.

Step Three: It might take as long as ten years for your neurology to fully manifest the results of Steps One and Two. Stick with it.

I know you can change life’s trappings, Gideon thought, lying on her back again under the high ceilings of the west wing bedroom. But can I stop having the same dreams? Traveling with difficulty across an unfamiliar urban landscape, or in a nighttime city I knew long ago, but that is now altered so the streets don’t go where they should and the busses don’t come. Or a bus arrives but I fumble with change so I can’t get on. Finally arriving at my home but it has become derelict. When Gideon told her husband about the dreams, he said it was only her brain offloading garbage, but Gideon knew the dreams were witness marks, echoes of long-ago family sorrows. I want to wake up in the morning with a sense of contentment, she thought. I want to have dreams where I am sitting in a beautiful and expansive room, watching filtered sunlight play on a warm pastel wall. This is the change I want for myself.

Gideon’s maternal grandmother, Florence, had changed her own life in her fifties. Gideon, looking at the high ceiling of the sky through the new buds on the maple tree, older than the house, opened herself to Florence’s voice. She imagined Florence telling her story, beginning with the death of Gideon’s grandfather in the early 1940s.


My husband died in the war and I sought consolation. I loved seeing myself reflected in mirrors inside fancy restaurants and in shop windows. I began buying colorful tweeded suits and dresses, and shoes made in Italy out of soft leather. I wore the clothing and shoes on outings to buy more of the clothing and the shoes, and I had lunch or dinner in sparkly places with other women who bought and wore these things. I kept myself trim and fit and put myself into a happy sleep each night with memories of my own tidy ankle and slender calf, looking like a soft-focus movie shot. Silk hosiery, fragrant and rubbing softly against the silk crepe lining of a suit skirt, where the lining was sewn to the hem tape with tiny stiches, and the hem tape was sewn to the tweed in yet more tiny stitches. The shoes that were themselves as soft as silk.

After my parents died, I inherited my mother’s button collection. I was thrilled to unwrap the strings of finely-wrought multiples, each cluster a testament to my own virtue. There were cardboard and cloth tapestries of sewn-on buttons, called collector’s cards, like cathedral windows but telling of domesticity and family rather than the turmoil of the biblical stories.

I began searching for buttons in antique shops and at auctions. When I found special buttons, I felt that the craftspeople and merchants of the past had saved them for me, who deserved them more than other buyers because I alone could discern the stories they told of thrift, endeavor, industry, and the embrace of a personal and tightly-held beauty. I began to see how one or another shipment of buttons from Paris made its way to the communities throughout my state. I savored the scraps of cloth and the twisted threads attached to used buttons as well as the images and typefaces on the cards of unused sets. I discerned, in the notations on the cardstock of the collector’s cards, the intertwined lives of the women who saved them and traded them. I saved and traded them myself, to complete certain sets, or to make up cards that reached for what I felt was a true homage to their spirit. Buttons express the ideals of their time and the amasser of buttons internalizes these ideals. I was changed by the hours and years I spent with them.

At first, I had doubts about how long these joys would last in my heart. But as the years turned into decades, I knew that wearing the beautiful clothes and buying and sorting buttons could bring me a lifetime of happiness. Then, when I was in my early fifties, something changed in me. I no longer felt I was building something. I felt I was chasing something. I wrapped the suits and the dresses in tissue paper and packed them away. I stuffed sachets of cedar shavings into the toes of the Italian shoes and stacked their boxes high in the backs of my closets. I took a class in oil painting at a nearby community college.


During her late teens and into her twenties, Gideon tried to repair the relationship with her family. Her father agreed to send her the amounts her university charged for tuition, room, and board, so she went to college. She made up the difference between what her father sent and her actual expenses by working parttime during the school year and fulltime plus during the summers. She traveled to her hometown twice a year when Ruth was also visiting, staying in a motel rather than at her parents’ home.

One year, while she visited with her parents and Ruth on Christmas Day, her father picked a fight with her over a box of family snapshots, worked himself into a foaming rage, and accused her of theft. As Gideon fled the house, Ruth said she would come by Gideon’s motel. Gideon waited for Ruth, reluctant to leave the motel in case she ran into her father on the street or missed Ruth’s visit. The following evening, Ruth came to Gideon’s motel room with a high school friend in tow, both of them dressed for a party. Ruth asked Gideon if she could borrow her diaphragm for a couple of days. Gideon had become increasingly ill-feeling from the stale air in the motel room. As the three young women stood in the depressing room, Gideon understood that she and Ruth were fundamentally different. Ruth, whose mother loved her, could afford to move through the world heedlessly. There was room for her to be whoever she wanted to be. Gideon’s world was precarious. Forces within it troped toward chaos and loss. Gideon turned Ruth down, unable to conceptualize her diaphragm being used by someone else’s body. Ruth told Gideon repeatedly with minor variations, more loudly each time, that she Gideon was the kind of person who was a real asshole.

Step Four: To reduce agita, learn not to care how you appear to others and don’t look at yourself in the mirror. When pressing your naked body against your loved one, inhale deeply and then exhale through the column of warm joy that your torso has become.

After the disastrous and final Christmas visit, Gideon’s mother wrote her occasional cards with news about her garden plantings or her work. These cards, in their imagery and what hints at provenance Gideon could discern from the printing on the backs, suggested travel to European museums and gift shops. Gideon was unable to stop herself from opening them because in each one she hoped to find a declaration of true regard. Every few years she came across a little pile of the cards and threw them away.

One day Gideon’s mother telephoned to say that Florence had died. “There are two kinds of people in the world,” Gideon’s mother said, after wondering out loud why she and Gideon weren’t close. “Some few, like you, see the world only in black and white. Most, like me, see shades of gray.” Gideon, surprised, said that they hadn’t spent time together in many years. “Are you criticizing my life decisions?” her mother seemed genuinely perplexed. The two women spoke past each other and interrupted each other, both of them confused and miserable. Gideon’s mother seemed to be talking to a character in a play. Mercifully, the flow of notecards ended after this telephone call. Gideon never talked to or saw her mother again.

Several months after Florence died, Ruth called. They had sold the contents of Florence’s house, including her closets full of clothing and her various collections, for a single sum to an antique dealer. Items deemed not valuable, including many, many boxes of what Ruth called crap buttons, they had put on the curb on trash day. Florence had made a practice of giving away her finished oil paintings to libraries, municipal buildings, hospitals, and other non-profits throughout her region, so there weren’t stacks and stacks of art to dispose of. Ruth didn’t quantify Florence’s wealth, which, she did say, had grown during her lifetime.

“I wish you hadn’t argued with Mom,” Ruth said. “She’s very upset. Her mother just died. You are the kind of person who is very inconsiderate when times are hard for other people.” Ruth’s tone became harsh, as though she was distancing herself according to a plan she had made before the call. Gideon understood that she was about to lose something that she very much wanted to keep. In the crevasse at her feet, she saw that Ruth was ready to be rid of her.

A few years after moving to the big house, Gideon started buying buttons herself, on eBay. It calmed her to search for them and it calmed her to clean and sort them. Her favorite era was from about 1880 to about 1940, during which some portion of society’s collective joy and delight had been channeled into the design and production of buttons. The Industrial Revolution had provided the initial means for experimentation with new materials and techniques, and a creative impulse, perhaps even a mania, had settled on buttons as an expression of aspiration, culture, and technology. Of course there were lovely and interesting buttons from before 1880 or after 1940, but for these sixty years the sheer volume and exuberance of disparate types, designs, materials and themes made for a golden age. They must have been over-produced, or perhaps suppliers were responding even then to the hoarding instincts of their customers, because vast quantities were still available, many unused, on the eBay button markets.

Now, Gideon and her husband had been living in the big house for about ten years. Each spring Gideon chose one of the large rooms, then spent the fair weather detailing the woodwork, restoring the sash windows, and painting in a light and cheery color. How can I free myself from the burden of my feelings for those people, she asked herself while scrubbing ancient grime from lead-painted window sills and scraping smears from wavy panes of glass. Once a duckling has been imprinted, can they ever love anyone else properly?

Gideon had developed the ability to discern from the overall texture in the grainy eBay photographs whether or not a particular lot contained buttons from manufacturers who had truly tried to make them as delightful as they could. She wondered if her grandmother’s collection, which she had never seen, was swirling through the eBay listings. Maybe she had unknowingly acquired some of Florence’s buttons already. Perhaps the boxes discarded in front of Florence’s house had been salvaged and some of the buttons inside had appeared in the mixed lots Gideon tended to bid on. She didn’t buy the more refined and expensive individual buttons but often acquired highly-crafted ones among her rough and tumble batches. When she died, all of her own buttons would enter the swirling stream again, the most valuable picked out for individual resale, the rest photographed in loose piles for small money.

Gideon came to intuit that most collectible buttons had not been produced as practical objects. There was such excess, both flowing through the marketplace and temporarily settled in the homes of middle-aged women such as herself and Florence. So many were delicate, or unlaunderable, or both. Instead, they were an expression of animal craving for small and inherently useless objects of beauty and joy. Having lost her original tribe except for a faint connection to her sister, she felt a shadow of kinship with other button fanciers, whom she only knew through the bidding wars.

“I can feel my heart expanding to include all the new batches I get in,” she said to her husband as they lay in bed together one morning. “I can’t explain it.” Her husband laughed at her. Gideon reached and cupped his quiet fruits, feeling their gentle weight. “These are going to make me happy soon,” she said. The soft and discretely hairy mass began twitching in her hand.

Step Five: If you have chronic bad sleep, you are a wounded animal. The world is not kind to damaged creatures. Develop the habits of a careful person and stay home as much as you can.

Gideon decided to make the rest of the warm weather a repeating cycle: check the button markets, lie in the west wing or look out its north window, play with buttons, get a good night’s sleep. No painting this year. Maybe if she rested deeply for long enough, she thought, she could find a way to cast off her sorrows.

Gideon’s thoughts kept returning to the one family member she sort-of still had. When they were both young, Ruth used to hit her sometimes. Fair play to Ruth for the way she acted toward me, Gideon thought. It was every elder sister’s job to treat the younger like a little shit. But maybe not into adulthood, as a touchstone affirming your own state of grace. Gideon in turn watched as Ruth’s two marriages imploded, seemingly from a shortfall of practical empathy. She came to understand that their parents’ treatment of herself had taught Ruth, by example, the negligible value of day-to-day kindness.

“Thank you for your last letter and for the ones before that,” Ruth wrote on a postcard when they were both in their late thirties. Ruth was cagey about family news in written correspondence and during the sisters’ occasional visit together, but Gideon found enough clues to piece together their mother’s story. After Florence’s death, Ruth and Gideon’s mother had changed her own life in ways she must have been waiting years to implement, so immediate was the transformation. She gave her ill-tempered husband a large chunk of Florence’s cash to mollify him. She subsidized Ruth’s expenses so both of them could maintain flexible and lightly-scheduled careers. She embarked, with Ruth, on decades of foreign travel and the shopping that makes foreign travel extra-special. One of Ruth’s postcards was from a wildlife refuge in Brazil that led boat tours to see the great macaws in their natural habitat. Another was from a vineyard in the South of France offering summer cooking courses. Over the decades Gideon got a handful of snapshots of happy, happy, happy Ruth with scenic backgrounds and dressed in expensive hiking or skiing or dining outfits, looking at the photographer who was her lifelong and best friend. Like Florence had and like Gideon was trying to do, Gideon’s mother had designed and executed her own rebirth after a long period of quiescence.

I never begat a child but at least I never wished my child gone, thought Gideon. Her uterus was dormant, now a shriveled plum only to be watched in case it metastasized and tried to kill her. It isn’t death I’m worried about so much as illness, she thought. Fuck death. Serious illness is the real bastard. Was there any way to find out if it was her own ill health that had concentrated her family’s disregard? Perhaps Gideon had had an early illness that severed her mother’s attachment to her. Her father, who for all of his self-centered posturing and testiness sometimes told a relevant truth, surely knew what had happened. Were there any of his words, deciphered and recast, that explained her loss of her mother’s affection? If only I could be young again and pay more attention this time, Gideon thought. I could discern their flaws and steel myself against future disappointments. I could understand my illness from the beginning and prevent its escalation. Maybe they foresaw my understanding of their failings and that is why they were so desperate to be rid of me.

The Sixth and Final Step to Good Sleep: Resolve the mysteries and losses of your past. Anticipate and mitigate those to come.

In June the first of the monarch butterflies arrived in the yard. Gideon, checking the markets, came across the leavings of a once-mighty collection. Like the bleached and scattered skeleton pieces of a great whale, the debris told a story only recognizable from afar by a practiced eye. She peered into the grainy photographs. There were piles of collector’s cards with notes on materials, theme, or era, cards from which the best buttons had already been harvested. There were small plastic bags of loose buttons. There was a heap of buttons that needed cleaning. There was a rubber-banded bundle of small tan or logoed envelopes of spare buttons for special articles of clothing. Gideon thought she recognized Florence’s tidy cursive on the top envelope, “brown wool suit, $195, 1962.” She took note of the seller’s location and stared for a long time at the photograph that included the sharpest image of the rubber-banded bundle.

By the time Gideon found the listing, its simple bulk had already attracted a dozen watchers. The auction was scheduled to run at night in a time zone a few hours later than hers, so Gideon planned to stay up late to monitor the bidding. She told her husband she had become convinced of the listing’s provenance. “I can’t tell if they’re left over from the nice ones sold to the antique dealer or if they came from the boxes that were put on the curb, but it doesn’t matter,” she said. “Dig deep,” he said. “You know what to do. Don’t let them get away.”

When the large box arrived, Gideon rummaged for the bundle of spare buttons and took it into the west wing. She hoped her grandmother had notated most of the paper packets, and she had. Gideon pried the little flaps open and shook the buttons out. Some were shell, or plastic imitating horn. She placed these aside. The rest were made from garment remnants stretched over tiny metal or wooden molds and then crimped closed in the back. The colors of the self-fabric buttons reminded her of paintings by Claude Monet.

Gideon picked up a tweed button in shades of pink and fuchsia with speckles of blue and yellow. She lifted it until it was framed by the light peach walls of the room. “Davidoff suit $350 1961,” her grandmother had written. The button looked like Rouen Cathedral at sunset. Another, “green tweed $195 1965,” with its dusky olives and bright red slubs, was a field of poppies among shaded rolling hills. Heavy silk crepe the color of hay, “shirt $95 1968.” Gideon tried to remember the last time she herself had spent close to a hundred dollars on an article of clothing.

Even as she compared her life to Florence’s, she knew the story she was trying to read in the buttons wasn’t about money, exactly. It wasn’t that her grandmother had mortgaged Gideon’s happiness by going shopping. Yet Gideon saw a strong and straight line between the tweedy and silky nubbins, each one an electric and outsized presence in her minimally furnished room, and her own life’s losses.

Gideon turned away from the array of spare button packets and leaned on the north-facing windowsill. Two catbirds gathered small sticks and wisps of dried grass and took turns flitting into the deepest part of the privet hedge. She watched the birds and the monarchs come and go for a while.

When my mother was a child, she lost her own mother to vanity and trinkets, Gideon thought. She only ever had enough love for one child. Whether the catalyst was an early illness or not, there is no one to tell me. My mother will never give me any of her money and I can no more change this than I can rip her from my heart.

The catbirds had tucked themselves into the hedge and the yard was finally still when the sun set behind the foothills to the west. Gideon padded down the hallway to her home office and started her computer. She composed an email to Ruth. “The relationship between you and me has never been a healthy one,” she wrote. “Any future contact between us will only cause me pain. Even if you have big news, do not write or call me. I’m done.” She sent the email.

There was a wispy flutter in the hallway outside her office and a soft impact as if finely-woven cloth had brushed against a wall. Gideon looked up from her computer and saw a shadow flicker in the hall. She turned away from the screen and rotated her chair toward the center of the room. She sat up straighter, waiting. It is possible to make your own luck, she thought.

The tiny brown bat flew into the room, made a wide circuit near the ceiling, and flew out again. It came back for another pass and flew directly at Gideon’s face. What kind of person is she, I want to know, I must know, the little bat thought. I want to see into her eyes, I want to smell her breath. There are two types of person. If she flinches, I’ll have to fly right at her face again. If she looks at me and makes the booming murmurs, I’ll be all set. I’ll come back and let her song flow over me every day, every day, every day.


Ellie May Mandell was an accountant most of her working life. She lives with her husband of thirty-plus years in a small town in New England. She is working on a series of stories about a cast of characters whose lives interweave over several decades. The stories revolve around themes of family and love, illness, moral injury, and redemption.

Fruit Trees Sprouting in a Field of Ash

by Judy Stanigar

The fire that almost burned our house down was set by Dad deliberately, in a way. He had the best of intentions in mind. He was not a pyromaniac. Just a man way over his head about how to grow a garden. And what a garden we had. We counted forty fruit trees, forty. But how does a man newly arrived in Israel from Poland, having escaped the gas chambers, deal with a garden? If you asked him how to chant Psalms, or how to fire a rifle, or survive the Russian Gulag, he’d have no problems doing so. He was the guy who was brought up in European cities and escaped the Nazis’ clutches only to get nabbed by Stalin into a Gulag prison before joining the Russian military to fight the Nazis. So, shortly after he and Mom landed in Israel and he went to fight in the War of Independence, Mom went ahead and bought the house with all those fruit trees. They were going to become pioneers in the dry Mediterranean climate of their new land.

Three years later, we still had a messy yard drowning in weeds with no flowers or shrubbery, just a few skinny hens. The kind of yard one expected from two people who knew nothing about horticulture or indeed anything to do with farming. But Dad was a quick study in his spare time, which was rare; he worked six days a week in construction often away from home in the new Negev towns.

“Everyone,” he said, “painted the bottom half of the tree trunks in white lime to keep insects off the trees.” He would do that too.

Mom was a skeptic. “White paint isn’t going to keep any vermin or bugs off,” she said, examining a leaf for any noticeable signs of bugs. “This is just some ridiculous fad! If you really want to get rid of pests, spray them with the same repellants we use in the house. It kills everything.”

Dad rarely went against Mom’s wishes, but in this case, he was obstinate. One Saturday morning he set out for the yard with his paint brush, a bucket of white lime paint and barrelful of determination.

We watched with fascination as he went about his task: dipping the flabby brush in the bucket and slathering the paint on the trunks. It took him the best part of the day. When he finished, he stood back and, wiping the sweat off his face with his shirtsleeves, he eyed his handiwork. Mom feigned disinterest from the kitchen window, but my sister and I went out to inspect the job with critical eyes.

My sister bent her head this way and that way. “The paint is not even on all the trunks, and looks splattered,” she finally said.

“Yeah,” I jumped in with my six-year-old enthusiasm. “It’s higher on some trees than on others. It makes the trees look funny.”

Dad laughed and waved his hand. “Crooked, splattered, it’s like a Picasso. And anyway, it will keep the insects off, so it doesn’t matter. Now our yard is like our neighbors’.”

We heard Mom scoff from the kitchen window. “It’s not like they know what they’re doing. The blind leading the blind, if you ask me. It would have probably been better to get rid of overgrown weed, so we don’t have to worry about any critters making their homes here.” That was her say on the matter before she called us in for dinner.

I liked the white tree trunks; it gave them an eerie, supernatural appearance, like they were trees, but not trees. White trunks shooting up from a sea of weeds. And at night they reflected the moonlight and glowed in our dark yard.

The following Friday afternoon, we heard Mr. Segal, our neighbor whose yard abutted ours in the back, yell for my dad, “Shlomo, Shlomo!” he called.

Mom wiped her hands on her apron and ran outside, muttering to herself, “shouting across the yard like a peasant.” I skipped after her. “Shlomo’s just come back from work and is in the shower. What’s the matter?” Her face was shiny and red from standing over the kerosene lamp cooking.

“Mrs. Tova, a snake; I saw a snake in your yard. I’m pretty sure it was a rattlesnake.” Mr. Segal waved and pointed his hands at our unkempt yard. The overgrown grass engulfed all the fruit trees.

Mrs. Segal stood next to him in her housedress wringing her hands. “This is a vilde country. Snakes! Got in Himmel!”

“Rattlers are poisonous. You’ll have to burn the overgrown grass in your yard,” Mr. Segal said, his face lined with concern. “It’s the only way to deal with them.”

Red blotches appeared on Mom’s neck. That didn’t bode well for anyone. “Burn the yard? Are you crazy? Besides by now the snake could be in your yard. Why don’t you set fire to yours? You’ve got plenty of weeds yourselves.”

Dad came running out in his shorts and t-shirt, his hair dripping wet. “What’s this about a snake?”

Mom turned to him. “He thinks he saw something like a snake in our yard. Something yellow. It could have been anything. Oh – and we should burn our yard.” She waved her hand dismissively.

Mr. Segal huffed. “Mrs. Tova, I know what I saw: it was a snake and he rattled. It’s the only way.”

“This is crazy. Lea,” Mom said turning to my sister, “go get Moishe. We’ll see what he has to say.” Mom held Moishe, our other Russian neighbor in high esteem, when it suited her. At least he wasn’t a Yekke, a German, who gave himself airs.

Lea crossed the street and a few moments later Moishe appeared, a rake poised over his shoulder. A noodle, likely a remnant of Dorka’s Friday chicken soup, stuck to his glistening chin. And for the next half hour, Dad and Moishe gingerly combed through the yard with their rakes held up high, so that if the snake appeared they’d be able to smash or rake him. I watched from our kitchen window while Mom set the table for our Friday night meal. The aromas of the soup and gefilte fish and chocolate cake made my mouth water.

After a while Dad came into the house, his tanned face sweaty and crestfallen. “Tova, we heard the rattle, and saw the color. It’s a rattlesnake all right and we can’t risk it. We’re going to set the grass on fire. It’s way too overgrown anyway.”

Mom’s face turned beet red, and a little vein flicked on her temple. “A fire? The only thing we have is this piece of property and you’re going to set it on fire?” Mom’s voice rose as she was warming to the subject. “I’ve been through the fires of hell, and it’ll be over my dead body that I’ll let you burn our yard and home.”

Moishe stood at the doorway. “Relax, Tove’chka, it’ll be fine. We know how to do this. It’s called controlled fire.”

Mom bore her eyes into Moishe. “And where did you learn this trick? In the shtetel in Minsk, before or after they burned your house down? I won’t lose my home because of a little snake you men are too scared to kill. Here, let me have this.” She reached out to yank the rake from Dad, but he held her off.

“We’re just going to put little fires to the grass; we won’t let them get big. Close the window,” he said. He motioned to Moishe. They marched out.

Dorka, Moishe’s wife, appeared in our kitchen. “Tova, come to our house and let the men take care of this. Please.”

Mom shoved us to go with Dorka. “I’m staying right here. These idiots will burn down the house.” Tears mingled with sweat ran down her cheeks. I’d never seen Mom cry.

Dorka put her hand on Mom’s shoulder, but Mom, her eyes blazing, swatted it off.

Lea and I stayed with Mom in the house. I wanted to make sure nothing happened to her.

We stood at the kitchen window; our eyes glued to the action outside. Dad made a torch out of a long stick wrapped at one end in one of the towels he brought home from the Sinai War. Moishe doused it in gasoline and then set a match to it. Yellow flames leaped out and Dad let the flames lick the tall grass.

Mom turned to us. “Go to Dorka; I’m going out there.”

“No, Mom, don’t go,” Lea pleaded.

“Go, go.” Mom shoved Lea and me aside.

We stayed at the kitchen window. I clutched my stomach, but stayed glued to my spot, mesmerized by our burning yard.

It didn’t take long before little fires were sprouting everywhere, enveloping the tall grass around the fruit trees. Dad lit one patch, Moishe another, and Mom followed and dumped a bucket of water onto the flames, a hiss followed. Smoke filled the air. Soon it was hard to make out the three figures as the whole yard was shrouded in haze, and an acrid smell pierced our nostrils. More neighbors came round, gawking, offering advice on how to best keep the fires under control. I kept my eyes on Mom. She seemed to have a hard time dousing the flames with her two buckets. By the time she refilled them, the flames came alive again. At one point it looked like they would consume her and Dad and Moishe.

The hens made a racket, something awful. Someone shouted, “Watch out. The flame’s getting close to the house!”

Dorka yelled, “Don’t just stand there – go get more buckets.”

I caught a glimpse of Mom. She seemed crazed. Her hair was matted and plastered onto her red, glistening face. I couldn’t see Dad or Moishe. I gasped for air, and Lea told me to get my asthma inhaler, but I didn’t budge. Two men appeared with more buckets. Mr. Siegel managed to get an extra-long hose that got water from his yard to ours. He aimed it at the wall of our house facing the yard.

Finally, it was over. All that remained was smoke. The gawkers and helpers went back to their own homes.

“Did you find the snake?” I asked.

“There was no snake,” Mom said, wiping her face in her dirty sleeve.

“The snake got burned to a crisp,” Dad said. “We found his skeleton.”

Mom glared at him. “I’m going to shower first. You’ll have to take a cold shower,” she said as she stormed inside. Dad put away the buckets and rake and followed.

The air was thick with gray smoke, and the stench clung to our noses. Lea and I surveyed the yard. It looked ghostly. The white tree trunks were white no longer, but they had survived – fruit trees sprouting in a field of ash.


Judy Stanigar was born and raised in Israel. Her short story, Fruit Trees Sprouting in a Field of Ash, draws on her childhood there. When she was a teenager, she moved to the United States with her family. She attended Columbia University and worked as a psychotherapist for many years before turning her life-long passion and love of books into writing.

Geoffrey is unraveling, in episodes

By Doug Jacquier

Geoffrey goes visiting

As Geoffrey made his way carefully along the rutted track in his ancient, poorly-suspended car, he wondered for the umpteenth time why McGee had invited him to celebrate Hogmanay at his remote mountain cabin.

He knew that McGee spent a lot of time there, now that he’d retired, observing mostly the several species of owls that populated the region and reporting his sightings on birder websites. For his amusement, he would occasionally make a false claim to a sighting of an extremely rare bird and offer entirely misleading directions to twitchers wanting to add to their tally.

It wasn’t as if Geoffrey had anything planned for New Year’s Eve. He’d long ago eschewed the fake bonhomie of such gatherings, where total bores got spectacularly inebriated as quickly as possible in hope of being forgiven for any indiscretions perpetrated during the obligatory midnight kissing and hugging. His wife, Grace, had taken herself off to just such an event.

McGee had rung Geoffrey to propose the catch-up. ‘Come and join me, you miserable hermit. We can reminisce and lie outrageously as we work our way through my collection of wines and single malts. You can stay overnight and we can groan our regrets over our stupidity as we work our way through bacon and eggs and Bloody Marys in the morning.’ Hearing no response, McGee said quietly, ‘Neither of us are going to see many more New Years, Geoffrey.’

Geoffrey agreed, knowing that McGee had played him yet again. Before he ended the call, he asked McGee if anyone else would be coming. ‘Oh, you will be surprised at who might be there. There’s any number of desperate women who would leap at the chance to jump the bones of a couple of desiccated old drunks,’ cackled McGee, from which Geoffrey concluded that they would be alone. Two emotional hermits mocking the idea of regeneration.

McGee emerged unsteadily from his cabin and said in ironic avuncular fashion ‘Welcome, Geoffrey, old boy.’ Everything about McGee had become grey, including his skin.

Inside, a log fire was well ablaze in a handsome stone fireplace, above which hung an obviously recently polished framed picture of the three of them in their younger days.

After a ‘dinner’ that comprised seemingly random items chosen from an expensive delicatessen, they retired to the high-backed armchairs set in front of the fire. McGee poured whisky in to crystal cut glasses.

‘Take a cup of kindness, old boy’ McGee said as he excused himself and returned a short time later holding a hand gun. Geoffrey stared at the gun in disbelief. ‘McGee, what are you playing at?’ McGee laughed and said ‘This? This is our after-dinner entertainment.’

McGee laid back in his chair and said ‘I’ve always seen you as an owl, Geoffrey. Sleepy eyes parading as wisdom, striking in the night but cowardly in the daylight, and despised for their habit of fouling their own nests.’

Geoffrey said calmly, ‘Well, it’s just as well you like owls.’

‘Oh, Geoffrey, you’re as transparent as a window pane. Do you remember when Grace left me for you? Of course you do. She said I’d become tiresome and stale whereas you, Geoffrey, were being endlessly re-invented. Do you know how much that hurt me, old boy? Of course you do. And you’re about to pay the price for that perfidy.’

‘McGee, where are you going with this?’

‘I’m going to oblivion but you are going to penitence.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Let me spell it out for you, Geoffrey. In a moment, I’m going to hand you the gun and you are going to shoot me through the heart. Then you are going to call the Police and tell them that I got drunk and went mad and started shooting randomly. You tried to wrestle the gun from me and it went off, fatally wounding me. So, I’m about to fire off a few rounds around the room to make it look convincing and then I’m going to give you the gun.’


‘Oh, yes. If you don’t make that promise, I will shoot you now and then turn the gun on myself. I know you, Geoffrey. If you promise me, then you’ll have to do it because you’re not ready to die. Besides, Amazing Grace is going to need you in the years to come and that will be your obligation. So … do you promise?’

Geoffrey was silent.

McGee shouted ‘You’re looking like an owl again. Decide!’

Geoffrey said softly ‘I promise.’

McGee turned and fired his first shot into the dead centre of the framed photo over the fireplace. That moment of distraction gave Geoffrey time to lunge, remove the gun from McGee’s hand and knock him to the floor.

He strode to the door and hurled the gun into the pitch blackness of the dense undergrowth. Before he drove away he hissed at McGee ‘I’m not your fixer.’

Geoffrey takes up gardening

Geoffrey had given no thought as to what he might do in his retirement. A career public servant, he’d not just survived but thrived within the Agency and made it to the finish line with his home paid for and a secure income from his superannuation for life.

Grace had many hobbies and a wide social circle and was rarely home during the day. However Geoffrey had slowly divested himself of friends, despised his family and swore he’d commit suicide before he’s take up golf or lawn bowls.

He’d never been a keen gardener in the past but now, home alone, growing things had become an obsession, albeit one with an emphasis on orderliness and strict boundaries. Over time, his wife’s random planting had turned much of their modestly-sized garden into a jungle; a riot of randomness that offended his eye and troubled his soul.

For the sake of peace, he retained some of the roses and the odd agapanthus but the rest he unmercifully uprooted and replaced them with what he saw as useful raised beds of vegetables and fruit trees in large pots.

Having used every square inch of arable land he owned (including what had previously been lawn), he had now taken advantage of the street gardening movement to colonise the verge in front of his home. He grew mostly herbs that he imagined passers-by would gratefully snip off to add to their evening meal. He even had a pair of scissors on a string hanging from a street tree.

When Mrs. Kafoops at No. 23 was taken into a nursing home, her grandson moved into her house, along with a few of his pals, allegedly with the brief to maintain the house and garden until such time as the house was sold. The parties until dawn started almost immediately.

One morning Geoffrey stood gazing in horror at the carnage in his herb bed on the verge, clearly created by vehicles possessed by those attending the latest booze-and-drug-driven bacchanal at No. 23. He began to coldly map out his dish of revenge.

Crucial to his plan were his contacts within the building industry and local government. Mysterious deliveries of gravel and sand began appearing in the driveway of No.23, blocking their cars in (or out as the case may be). Then a ‘routine’ visit from the Council building inspector discovered termites were threatening the structural safety of the building.

When Mrs. Kafoops’ lawyer was contacted by the representative of a buyer (protected by commercial-in confidence) with a half-way reasonable offer, they hastened to accept (while quietly wondering who this nutter could be).

The grandson and his cronies vanished from the scene and Geoffrey began designing his next field of dreams.

Geoffrey is without Grace

Grace had decided it was time to go. Mere existence held no appeal. She and Geoffrey had discussed ‘the end’ many times and despaired at society’s obsession with longevity. As they sat drinking coffee outside cafes, they watched ancients on walking frames grimly shuffling their way to the chemist for more of whatever was keeping them alive.

They got the ‘fear of the unknown’ thing but could never really understand why more people just didn’t say ‘Damn this for a joke.’ Except you couldn’t. Guns not handy these days, razor blades messy for whoever found you, chemists making sure you couldn’t stockpile your potions, and just as likely to fall of the chair before you could manage to hang yourself. And, of course, the nanny state forbade such crimes against humanity unless doctors said your case was hopeless and you’d already been in agony long enough to deserve an early minute.

So Grace and Geoffrey had agreed. Whoever decided first that they had had enough would help the other one. And the Devil take the hindmost became their wry catchcry.

‘The tomatoes are just about finished’, Geoffrey said, starting their checklist. ‘The birds can have what’s left.’

‘I’ve taken the screen off the top of the fish-pond’, Grace said. ‘The bin-chickens can have a banquet.”

‘Old Charles at No. 7 will take the chickens’, he said

‘You’ll take Arfer with you, won’t you?’, she asked. He reached down into Arfer’s basket and stroked the rise and fall of the German Shepherd’s belly. He nodded in his wife’s direction. They knew Arfer would pine for Grace once she was gone.

‘I’m ready’, she said. ‘Do you have everything organised for the continuing adventures of Geoffrey.’


Grace looked at her drink.

‘Are you sure there’s enough? I want to go now. No mistakes.’

He recalled bringing back the pentobarbital from his last trip to the States and the frisson of feeling like an international drug smuggler.

Geoffrey nodded so she raised her shot glass and swallowed.

They gazed out from their ageing faces as the sun set over their journey together for the last time. Geoffrey waited, to be sure, and then slipped out the back gate to the laneway that he’d used when he came home that day.

Geoffrey goes to the country

Geoffrey had moved to the sparsely populated country town after Grace’s death ended the only worthwhile conversation left in his universe. All he craved was silence and isolation. His modest savings stretched to a small, solidly built weatherboard cottage and he’d calculated that he had enough to last. He had his castle; his solitude was his keep.

He would write, grow vegetables, chop wood and read until his silence became permanent. He would keep his social interactions to the minimum required to meet the necessities of existence but not meet the social contract to exchange meaningless drivel while he was doing so. No TV and no radio and no newspapers meant that he would be aware of Armageddon when it reached his doorstep.

He withdrew cash for his needs at the ATM. He had no computer and no email address, so most of the world had no idea he existed, let alone how to invade, and steal, his time and space.

He hoped the postal service would tarry through his remaining years, providing the conduit for his writing to reach the ever-diminishing audience for such anachronistic pursuits. Yes, he would continue to ‘speak’ but on his own terms. All mail except utility bills and rate notices would be marked ‘Return to Sender’.

Geoffrey’s only form of human entertainment these days was Julie, who delivered the mail. Well, not so much Julie herself but her reports of the never-ending cavalcade of rumours about him that circulated throughout the town.

Each weekday he’d meet her at the letterbox. Most days there was no actual mail but she would pretend to rummage through her pannier bags for show. You never knew who might be watching.

Their ‘relationship’ began shortly after he moved in to the cottage, with its rambling over-grown garden and mature, if neglected, fruit trees. He was in the process of hacking away mercilessly at a jasmine vine that threatened to engulf two of the only four windows in the cottage and create darkness at noon.

‘That was Mrs. Carmody’s pride and joy once. Loved the smell.’ He looked up to see an orange-vested woman astride a low-powered motorcycle, stuffing junk mail into his letterbox. ‘My name’s Julie. What else are you going to do to the place?’ She waited briefly and then filled Geoffrey’s silence with ‘Mrs. Delaney reckons you’re going to gut the place and tizzy it all up.’ Geoffrey turned back to his hatchet job on the jasmine and she rode off. Thus began a comfortable, if eccentric, exchange between Geoffrey’s silence and the speculations that Julie carried in her bags.

One morning, Geoffrey woke from a coma-like sleep, brought on by unfamiliar exercise, to the sound of insistent knocking. Threading his arms into his dressing gown, he girded his loins to see off his intrusive neighbour. Flinging the door open, he found the space filled by a uniformed presence with sergeant stripes on his shirt and a gun on his hip.

‘Morning. Thought I’d drop by and introduce myself.’ The face had a professional smile but the eyes said otherwise. ‘Sergeant Bill Stynes.’ Geoffrey waited.

Stynes said ‘And you would be?’

Geoffrey produced a notepad and wrote his name on it.

‘Some people in the town have expressed concerns’ he shouted, until Geoffrey pointed to his ears and gave a thumbs up sign and then in a normal voice ‘.. about your welfare and asked me to look in on you.’

Geoffrey wrote ‘I’m fine.’

‘Thirsty work, policing. Any chance of a cup of tea?’

Geoffrey shook his head.

Stynes heel-and-toed his sturdy leather shoes and the smallest of smirks appeared in the corner of his mouth.

‘See you around, Geoffrey.’

A non-committal Geoffrey closed the door.

After watching Stynes depart, Geoffrey headed outside to attend to his nascent veg patch. He knew enough to know that the spring soil, having not long come off winter, was still too cold for planting. Besides, he wanted to dig in some manure and compost to the depleted ground. And there was still the fence to repair to keep out the roos and the rabbits.

He was breaking up some hardened topsoil with a mattock when he heard Julie’s approach and went to the letterbox. ‘Hear that the Sarge dropped in. What’d he want?’ Silence. ‘Kevin, that’s my husband, thought it was probably just an outstanding speeding fine. Or a warrant.’ Silence. ‘Be good to see the garden tidied up. Mrs. Carmody would like that.’ And she rode off.

Of course, Julie was now the go-to person for all matters of local curiosity about Geoffrey. Although ‘fond’ would be too strong a word, she’d come to feel a little protective of him. So she took out a bit of insurance for him by starting her own rumour that Geoffrey was an avid gun collector..

Over time, the town exhausted all the possibilities that interested them and bored indifference settled around Geoffrey. He’d been relegated to a ‘character’ and that suited him just fine.

Geoffrey is hunted down

Geoffrey opened the door after a sharp, urgent rap. Two rumpled suits with unknotted ties waved badges in his general direction. ‘Geoffrey Arthur Goodman, I am Detective Inspector Thomas and this is Detective Sergeant Willis. I am arresting you on suspicion of the murder of Grace Anne Goodman on or about February 17 last year. You do not have to say anything …’

Geoffrey knew the rest and he didn’t plan on saying anything at all.

Later, in the interview room, Thomas leaned back in his chair and said wearily. “For the benefit of the tape, Mr. Goodman has waived his right to have a lawyer present. Why’d you do it, Geoffrey? Was she having it off with someone else? That would set me off. Wouldn’t it set you off, Detective Sergeant Willis?’

‘It would indeed.’ Willis responded.


‘Geoffrey, if there’s anything you’d like to say, go ahead.’ Thomas offered.


‘I suppose you want to know how we know it was murder. Don’t you, Geoffrey?’


‘You see, we were never convinced it was suicide. No terminal illness. No history of depression. So we started looking at your business trips before you retired. And we tracked down your source in San Francisco. So, you can keep calling it suicide, Geoffrey, and claiming you don’t know where she got the drug if you like. But we’re going to call it murder.’


Thomas said ‘In my experience, it’s better in the long run to just get it off your chest. Because of your age, you’ll do time in an open prison and you’ll be out in five years. What do you say?’


‘Alright, tell us again what happened.’

Geoffrey said flatly ‘It’s all in my original statement.’

‘Did you attempt to revive her?’

Geoffrey reiterated what he’d just said. He said nothing else. He knew they were bluffing; they had no information on his source. He’d found a way to get the drug she needed and he’d found a plausible reason not to be around when she took it. Thomas and Willis were on a mission to make someone pay for having the temerity to end their days as they chose. With Grace dead, Geoffrey was the logical scapegoat but they needed a confession.

Later that night, Geoffrey was released on bail. As he was leaving the Police station, Thomas snarled ‘I know you did it, Geoffrey, and I’m not letting this go. So stick that up your silence.’

After that, Geoffrey no longer appeared at the letterbox. Julie knew why. That two-pot screamer of a copper put the accusation round at the pub.

When the smell from old Mrs. Carmody’s cottage became unmistakable, Julie finished her round and rode to the Police station to tell them. As she left, she looked the Sergeant in the eye and said, ‘Happy now?’

Geoffrey speaks from the grave – Selected poems found in Geoffrey’s cottage

Remember the Revolution?

Remember causes
and marching in the rain against war zones
that are now tourist destinations?
Remember anger
and maintaining rage at symbolic loss
while secretly at home with the familiar futility?
Remember sexual honesty
and sleeping with whoever felt like you
and confining safe sex to heart condoms?
Remember dope
and discovering the ‘real’ you
and waking each time forgetful of the revelation?
Remember music
and believing decibels were antidotes to megatons
and lyrics could shield you from the newspapers?
Remember death
when it belonged to rock stars
and an endless list your mother claimed to have known?
Remember revolutions
and the bloody gutters of freedom
because fascism belonged to the right? Right?
Remember social action
and sitting in smoke-filled rooms with Nescafé activists
and Housing Trust women with no teeth and less hope?
Remember parents
left on some private shelf
in case they portrayed you to anybody that mattered?
Remember party politics
and seeing neighbours become Ministers
only to fall in clay-footed exhaustion at the barriers?
Remember health
when it was something other people ought to have and
you weren’t smoke-free, mineral water in hand and smiling at God?
Remember money
and how it was never going to concern you
and then you learnt the golden rule and its defensible limits?
And do you remember when the penny dropped
that the personal was the political
and you found out you had to change?
And you decided to forget the revolution?

Now that you are gone

Now that you are gone
the cruelty is ended.
You, the speaker of many truths,
are no longer taunted
by a tongue in twisted battle
with a mind no less sharp
and arms no less caring
that could not be raised in love.

Now that you are gone,
I’ll have you near me always;
Close to mind and heart,
a constant in my chaos.

But in my selfish grief,
I want you here, and now,
so that I can understand
the true order of things.

Now that you are gone,
I will cling to calls in the night
and recall your thoughts
in my struggle for the truth.

But I would rather have the magic
to conjure you at will
so that we could save our worlds together,
even worlds apart.

Now that you are gone,
You’ll never wipe away my tears
and laugh rudely with me once more,
in this world that travels on.

I must learn to live
with not one more single hour
when you soothe my soul
and make all things possible, again.

Stopping all stations

It’s the same train.
Changing carriages hasn’t altered that.
But now the impenetrable darkness of tunnels
is neutralised by a hand reached for secretly
and the knowledge of the imminent re-emergence
of familiar faces in the light.
It is possible to disembark at the station of your choice
or, in an emergency, pull the cord
and trudge off into unmarked territory,
ignoring the shaking fists of railway staff.
But no; for the time being
familiarity is more potent than adventure.
It is still permitted to re-trace your steps
and peer into carriages where you once sat.
In some your space may even still be vacant,
amongst those who are, and will remain, unmoved.
In others your seat is now occupied and
despite the comforting smiles of those you know,
it will remain that way.
you must return to your new-chosen cubicle,
to weather report conversations,
to standard gauge concepts
and to waiting patiently
for the dawn
of the courage to get off.

The Devil Takes The Could-have-beens

Beware the wine-sodden brain flailing on,
kidding itself in the darker hours,
paying homage to could-have-been.
Beware the anger trotted out,
dusted off and laid bare to reflections in a bloodshot eye,
to spring a self-laid trap.
Let there be a new start,
urged on by forebodings of irrelevance
and eternity horizontal.
Stay away from old ground,
where every night is New Year’s Eve and nothing is resolved,
or risk seeing past comrades on distant hills,
their torch-dreams kindled by motion,
pausing less and less often to look back
at your immobile figure.
Standing still,
the grubby sticks of history are consumed quickly
in those parodies of hell,
the warmthless braziers of bitter reminiscence.
Forsake all wretchedness,
for you are not plundered.
Beneath your public rags lie priceless jewels,
secreted and perversely forgotten,
whose re-discovery waits on nakedness.
Choose not to wear sackcloth
and arise from your meal of ashes,
hungry for the flesh of the world
and the hard beauty of your diamond self.

Moving memories

carefully dusted off and swathed,
packed in the boxes
along with the more trivial possessions.
Like the apocryphal cat
they can’t be left behind.
Some you will unpack,
immediately upon arrival,
as handy conversation pieces
when old friends call.
Some will remain encased, with only
an occasional furtive private inspection
to check for silverfish and mildew.
And some will be ‘forgotten’,
but will only feign death
and, like ancient terracotta soldiers,
will wait in infinite patience
ready to ambush the present.


Doug Jacquier is a former not-for-profit CEO who lives with his wife on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia. He’s a keen vegetable gardener and cook and an occasional stand-up comedian, as well as doing the best he can as husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He’s lived in many places around Australia and has travelled extensively, especially in Asia. His poems and stories have been published in Australia, the US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand and India. He has self-published two collections of stories available on Amazon and Kindle. He blogs at Six Crooked Highways (wordpress.com)

Chasing the Dragon

by Vicki Addesso

Blonde. Not white-blonde, or dirty-blonde, or tow-headed. Golden. His hair was a golden blonde. I’d hold my hand next to his head, match my wedding band against the color, and tell people, look, my son has golden hair. Blue-eyed. Chubby-cheeked. Laughter like jingle bells. My golden child.

Six years old. I see him in a far-off memory, but clear as day. Standing in front of the television set, controller in hand, playing a video game. He has become a knight in shining armor, wielding his sword against the monstrous dragon. Small fingers fly over the buttons, and he grunts as he pushes down, sways as the character on the screen that he has become battles his enemy. When this mighty miniature knight who is my little boy is defeated and consumed in flames, he slams the controller to the ground, screeching in anger, screaming not fair, not fair, not fair.

Now he is twenty-six years old. It is his birthday. Today. I stand next to the hospital bed where he is thrashing about, trying to bite out the I.V. There are fat white mittens taped onto his hands. This is the same hospital where I gave birth to him, where he was born. Back then the nurse slid tiny mittens over his hands so that he would not scratch his face. Arms moving all over the place. He looks like he wants to flap his wings and fly away, his father said. I tried to calm him, cuddling him, holding him to my breast, but he turned away, and he felt like a tight spring ready to pop. Now he is a young man. Is this the day he will die?

My son chases dragons. He is not a knight in shining armor, and he is not fighting an enemy. No, he has befriended the beast. He is a heroin addict, and when he is chasing the dragon he burns the powder on a piece of tinfoil and then closes his eyes, moves it close to his face, breathing in the fumes. Through his mouth, into his body, into his brain.

His golden hair has darkened to a light brown. It is long, past his shoulders; sometimes he pulls it back in a rubber band or pins it up into a man-bun. His beard is full. From a distance he looks like Jesus, or at least a version of what Jesus looks like to some people. To me he looks dirty, sick, and my heart breaks when I see him.

I don’t want to see him. But he comes to me. I want to send him away, but I can’t, I don’t. I give in. I give him everything.

Can you tie his hands down, I ask the nurse. He tells me no, it is against the law. I am worried that he will hurt himself, or me. I have a bruise on my left cheek and a cut on my right hand. Now I place one hand on his shoulder and the other on his chest and tell him, calm down, try to sleep. The plastic bags hanging above the bed are filled with fluids, to hydrate him, calm him, undo the damage that has been done by the dragon.

He is detoxing. Withdrawing. He has survived an overdose, but the battle has just begun. His brain is damaged. Toxic leukoencephalopathy.

Why won’t he calm down, I ask the nurse. His drug tolerance is very high, he tells me. We can’t risk sedating him. His breathing is not good.

My son is three years old when the pediatrician tells me, I’ve never seen tonsils this big, we need to take them out. My beautiful boy, so special with his giant tonsils. It’s why he would gag and gasp for air sometimes, why he never slept through the night. He would wake himself up, and me too, choking for a breath. What if he hadn’t? What if I had slept through it?

And here we are now. It happened. The night before last. I slept as he got out of his bed, walked to the bathroom, fell, and stopped breathing. His little sister heard him, a thump in the middle of the night. Mommy! Mommy, get up! I woke up and found my son not breathing. 911. Paramedic. Narcan. Ambulance. Emergency room. MRI. Brain damage.

When he woke up he could not talk or walk. His hands shook. The sounds coming out of his mouth were guttural and animal. His blue eyes opened wide and screamed. His motor and balance area. His white matter. Most likely permanent, irreversible. Wait and see. Wait and see. They move him to intensive care.

The nurse sits still and quiet on the other side of the bed.  The small room is filled with machines that click and beep and hum, flash numbers and symbols on screens. So many tubes and wires attached to my son who shifts and twists and turns under sheets and blankets.

His father is not here. We divorced soon after becoming teenage parents. He moved to the West Coast, I moved back home with my parents, and when I called him yesterday to tell him what had happened he said, too bad. Do I blame him? Do I blame us? Yes, and yes. Him for leaving, and me for everything else.

I have been standing for hours. I am exhausted beyond knowing. My husband walks into the room. He stands behind me, puts his hands on my shoulders, tells me to go home, he’ll stay. He tells me our daughter is with his sister, so I can relax, rest. I’ll stay with our boy, my husband tells me. But he is not your boy, I think. He is my boy. He’s mine.

My son was five years old when I met my husband. I was cutting hair back then, and I fell in love with his thick, dark, curly locks before I knew anything else about him. Just a trim, he’d say. Once a month for five months, and then he asked me for my number. He had just finished dental school. He lived in the town where I worked, which was not far from the town where I lived. I had gone on a few dates with some old high school friends over the years, but this was different. He was someone brand new.

A year later we married. Then it was the three of us. My husband and my son got along; they grew close.  My husband disciplined my son, firmly but lovingly. Like father and son? I don’t know. I was an only child. I was practically a child when he was born. I grew up because of him. He existed because of me. He was mine, nobody else’s, not ours.

I tell my husband that I can’t leave my son. He tells me I must. You look like death, he says, so I grab my coat and my bag and I leave. I find the restroom and as I squat over the toilet seat my thighs shake. Wipe. Stand up. Wash my hands.

When I was thirty-five I became a mother again, this time to a baby girl. My husband was so happy; we had a child. My son had just gotten his learner’s permit. Six months later he had his driver’s license and my husband bought him a nice and safe used car. I won’t blame my husband. Let’s blame the car. My son got behind the wheel of that car and took off. A key turned, and suddenly, my son was gone.

My car. Where did I park it? I didn’t. I had pulled up behind the ambulance at the emergency room doors and left it there, running. It comes back to me, a nurse saying she’ll have someone from valet services get it. Later, as I stood on the other side of a curtain while a doctor and two nurses were working on my son, someone handed me a ticket. The back pocket of my jeans. When did I get dressed? It had been the middle of the night when my daughter had screamed for me and I had found her kneeling next to her big brother who was lying on the floor of our upstairs hallway. Our daughter saved him, my son.

No tip for the valet, and did he give me a dirty look? I don’t care. I drive toward home on what feels like autopilot. I do not see roads, stop signs, traffic lights. I see my son. In court, in handcuffs. Standing there, next to three of his so-called friends, unshaven, unwashed. They’d gotten into a fight with two other young men who were selling them weed. He was seventeen. We got him out. We sold that car.

I pull over at the corner of Main and Cooper. I go inside the liquor store to buy a bottle of wine. Back in the car I call my sister-in-law to check on my daughter. She is fine, I am told. Go home and rest, I am told. I will bring her to you after dinner.

I can’t go home yet. I pull onto the parkway, just to drive, to be anywhere except in my life. But my life is stubborn and intrusive. Visions of my son over the years in various states of stupor. One year of college and that was it. Several jobs, none he could keep. Rehab, twice. Thirty-thousand dollars, times two. Still, he was not an addict. Not to me. I told myself he was drinking, smoking pot, maybe taking pills. He didn’t use needles, he didn’t shoot up. He was just doing drugs. I’d done drugs. Didn’t everyone do drugs at one point or another? Then he disappeared for a while. Gone for a month. He called. I drank. My husband said maybe it was good, that he’d learn some responsibility. Our daughter asked when her brother would visit.

When he did come home it was not to visit, but to take whatever he could from each of us. Money, jewelry, even his sister’s Beanie Baby collection. My husband changed the locks, but my son found a way in. I think back to that one awful night, the two of them at each other’s throats. Call 911, my husband yelled. I should have.

A car horn, loud and insistent. I have swerved into the other lane. I need to get off the road. I take the next exit and head home.

We stayed up that whole long night. My daughter, after the terror of witnessing her brother and father beating each other, finally cried herself to sleep around five in the morning. I kissed the top of her head, those thick, dark curls like her father’s. We are ruining her, I thought. My son and I.

My son’s face that night. Blemishes, cuts, sores, the sallow tint of his skin, his cheekbones so sharp they looked like weapons. My husband, eyes red, crying, exhausted. Somehow, by early afternoon, the three of us were in the car, headed to a new rehab facility. For another month my son was safe.

I pull into our driveway. I look around to see if any of the neighbors are about, but our cul-de-sac is deserted, everyone else at work or school or running errands.

Corkscrew. Wine glass. A sip. Another. I am alone in our home. My son is in the hospital. He has brain damage. Will he get better? Will he die? An anger, stronger than any emotion I have ever felt, fills my chest, rides up through my throat, burns in my eyes. I finish the first glass of wine and pour another, head upstairs, bringing the bottle with me. From my top dresser drawer, under my bras, I pull out the bottle of Klonopin. I swallow two with another sip of wine. I need to stop thinking. I need to sleep.

Instead, I walk to my son’s bedroom and open the door. The sour odor slaps me in the face. Clothes, garbage, clutter everywhere. The curtains drawn closed. I sit on his bed, his dirty sheets. I let all of this happen. I made this. I created this person. I blame myself. The anger is for me.

I begin my search. I am determined to find every bit of whatever he has hidden. Then maybe I will be able to see him. My golden child. Squares of tin foil with burn marks in the center. Tiny, empty plastic bags. Straws. Pipes. Empty cigarette packs.

Under his bed. In his closet. I open every drawer, pull dusty books off shelves and rifle through the pages. I tear posters off the walls. I look inside photo frames and video game boxes. I find remnants. Dustings of white powder. Marijuana seeds. Empty pill bottles with the labels ripped off. Lighters that no longer light. Matchbooks without matches. He must have been so empty to try so desperately to fill himself.

But now he can get better. I sip my wine. My son is in the hospital with brain damage, but he is alive. The doctors are cleaning him. The drugs are leaving. I lift the bottle and pour more wine into my glass. Another sip. Brains are resilient, aren’t they? Brain cells are malleable, isn’t that true? There are therapies and treatments. Miracles.

Sitting on his desk chair I notice a tear in the box spring of his bed. I walk across the room and sit on the floor. I poke my hand around inside. I feel a plastic bag and pull it out. Several folded packets of yellow and pink paisley patterned paper. I take one out of the bag.

I go back to the desk to unfold the paper. I see the powder; it is fine. It reminds me of the cocaine my first husband and I used to do. I remember the feeling, the first hit, another, and I remember the fun, and I remember how it made me need more. But I was never an addict.

I take another sip of my wine. Another. The bottle is empty. I am feeling relaxed now. The anger has dissipated. I should take a nap. I should leave the room and go to my bed and sleep. Instead, I pour the powder out on the desktop. I reach for one of the straws I’ve found. Without making neat lines, without thinking about anything, I put the straw into the small pile and lean over it. Straw in my nose. I snort. Once. Then again.

I slide to the floor. My eyes are closed. I am lying on the ground. The sun shines. A breeze blows. The grass feels scratchy against my back. Then it is dark. I hear someone calling Mommy! Mommy! The voice is distant. It is high-pitched. It is in my ear. I open my eyes and see his golden hair glistening in the moonlight. It is late, I whisper. Let’s go home, I say.


Vicki Addesso has worked in various fields over the years, full-time and part-time. In between family life and bill-paying endeavors, she works at writing. Co-author of the collaborative memoir Still Here Thinking of You~A Second Chance With Our Mothers (Big Table Publishing, 2013), she has had work published in Gravel Magazine, Barren Magazine, The Writer, Sleet Magazine, Damselfly Press, The Feminine Collective, Dorothy Parker’s Ashes, and Tweetspeak Poetry. A personal essay is included in the anthology My Body My Words, edited by Loren Kleinman and Amye Archer.  Her story, Cinnamon and Me, published by Sleet Magazine, has been nominated for a 2022 Pushcart Prize. You can follow Vicki on Twitter @VickiAddesso.

Roy and the Poet

by Andrew Plattner

From the poet who had the office three doors down, Roy stole A Green Bough by William Faulkner. This happened the day the poet moved out to start work at a university down in Virginia, where he would be teaching less and receiving better pay. There was a going-away party in the lobby of the English Department, with light refreshments. An ice cream cake, bowls of chips. Feeling vaguely sick to his stomach, Roy had bypassed all that. Well-wishers offered to carry boxes from the poet’s office down to his Audi. Roy, who envied and despised the poet, volunteered to help.

At one point, Roy found himself in the poet’s office alone with a box of books, the lid open, and he noticed the cloth-covered binding of the Faulkner book. He extracted it. Along with the poems, were mounted, modernist style illustrations. The paper was thick, the edges ragged. On the very last page, he was startled to see William Faulkner’s signature, written in blue ink, the letters quite small. A limited-edition book, just 360 copies made, the inscription said that. Roy made a stop by his office. He shoved A Green Bough into his laptop bag, hoisted the strap over his shoulder. Then he closed the lids of the box. In the faculty parking lot, the poet had a cluster of admirers gathered around his Audi. Roy guided the box in next to the others in the opened trunk. Roy then waved in the poet’s direction and said, “Hey, good luck!”

The poet dramatically walked over with his hand extended. He said, “You take good care, Roy. You are a great man.” Patronizing, as always. Everyone in the department knew that the poet had slept with Roy’s lover, Fiona.  Roy ambled in the direction of his Hyundai Tucson. He thought that the poet could be suspicious of his help . . .  open the box flaps. Wait a minute! You there!

Roy started his car, peeked once in the direction of the poet holding court by the Audi and drove away from the faculty lot. Fiona, who was still a graduate student and teaching composition classes, wouldn’t be home for another couple of hours. He made a bourbon and water, placed A Green Bough on his desk. A lovely book of poems. He wanted to chide the poet for having such a wonderful edition amongst his office books. Some people. Roy went to eBay to see what type of money this edition might fetch. Close to $1,200. It turned out this was the final collection of poetry published by Faulkner during his lifetime.

By the time Fiona arrived at their apartment, he’d hidden the book in a drawer, under a manuscript he’d written years ago. Fiona had, at best, a cursory interest in his writing. A Green Bough would remain his secret. Roy mentioned that today was the poet’s last day, and he’d even carried a box down the car for him. More than once, she had already apologized for sleeping with the poet, said it was due to her colossal insecurity. Roy and Fiona had dinner at their kitchen table, and he picked at dried-out barbecue chicken she’d brought from Whole Foods. He asked why she hadn’t stopped by to see off the poet. She’d already said goodbye, that was her response. He could see he shouldn’t say anything else about it.  Roy had been hoping to impress her with his equanimity.


He didn’t come across the book he’d swiped for another year and a half. He still lived in the same apartment, though Fiona had left. After she completed her master’s, she was offered a job at a small college in Kentucky, and she wanted to head off for there by herself. He’d felt happy with her, and when they split, she said they should be grateful for the time they had together. Before she moved out, Roy asked her if she still had feelings for the poet. She said the poet had opened her eyes, but she wasn’t in love with him any more than he was in love with her.  “Don’t blame him!” she’d said. “I just want more than this.” Roy wanted to respond that the poet had once referred to him as “a great man.” But the poet had probably said that because Roy hadn’t punched his lights out.  

Roy adored Fiona, her gray-green eyes, the way she danced around the apartment to Tame Impala or rapped along with Megan Thee Stallion. He liked waking up with her and especially when he awakened to find their limbs intertwined. He took delight in the sound of her voice. Life in the apartment hadn’t been the same since she left.

At the college, the poet had been replaced by a professor who primarily focused on the intersection of narratology and game studies. A short man with a neatly trimmed beard, a man who instead of a first name, preferred to be referred to by a letter (L). Not long after L joined the faculty, his wife had a baby and subsequently L would duck out of a meeting or cancel a class because of “the baby.” Roy supposed there might be something seriously awry with the baby, though when L’s wife, Ginni came by the office, she would have the baby in her arms or in one of those backpack carriers and the baby would be laughing and drooling like babies did. Obviously, L would rather be home with his wife and child as opposed to sitting in a room listening to a dean talk about dropping enrollment rates. L seemed a minor talent if that. Roy didn’t dislike him.

Roy came upon the purloined Faulkner edition because of a notion he had about his own manuscript. It was time to look through it again. Who knew, it might read now like a dream. He might’ve been too hard on himself in a previous evaluation. It always took courage to read it. He had to use both hands to lift out the huge stack of pages and, below it, he spotted A Green Bough. He eased the stack of manuscript pages on the corner of the desk and reached for the book. He brought his fingers across the cloth cover.

He sat at his desk and turned the pages of the snatched edition. Outside the window, in the front yard of his apartment complex, were the pair of century-old black cherry trees. Their autumn leaves sparkled with ruby and gold. He tried to picture his life ten years in the future. Would he be in the same apartment, doing the same job? Twenty years? By then, would he have dumped that god-awful manuscript in the garbage? He didn’t want to live a life filled with regrets. Like A Green Bough. This wasn’t his book. Bitterness had gotten the better of him there.

The poet’s university was two states away, a morning’s drive from here, four hours maybe, if I-81 stayed clear. If Roy returned the book to him, how would that go exactly? Would he just tap on the door of the poet’s office, step inside and explain himself? I took this book from you. I didn’t mean to, I guess. But maybe I did mean to. Would the poet make a fuss? Turn angry? Or would the poet mostly be relieved? Would the poet surprisingly concede that he was an asshole, and consequently things like this were bound to happen? It was difficult to imagine what the poet would say because the poet was so capable with words. This was true when he’d been at Roy’s college. People had looked forward to the things he said, the way he expressed himself. They’d held onto his words.

Roy certainly didn’t want it getting around that he’d pinched the book. If he told the poet the story, the poet, who had left behind fans at Roy’s school, might spread it around. The chair might catch wind—could Roy be fired for this? He immediately understood it was possible. Again, on the corner of the desk, he eyed his own manuscript. The chair wouldn’t attempt to save him. Roy could mail A Green Bough to the poet. He could write a note, make up a lie about how it had come into his possession . . .  

Lame, all of it. Default settings: pettiness, mediocrity. Wasn’t it time to break loose? It struck him that only thing to do would be to return A Green Bough in person. But did he need to speak the truth about how the book had come into his possession? What would Roy do if he were to be fired? Move back to Saginaw, scratch and claw for a living? Should he just stick around in his college’s town, try to hang on to his apartment, put on a green apron at Whole Foods?

How would the poet react? Roy kept coming back to this. He had a collection by the poet somewhere in this apartment. When the poet had first arrived at Roy’s college, there had a reading in his honor. Roy and Fiona attended that together as one of their first dates. Afterward, they’d each bought a book, the poet’s most recent collection, and stood in line for him to sign it. When it was their turn, the poet reached up to shake hands with Fiona. He said his first name after she said hers. When Roy said his name, the poet said, “Yes. Hello.”

Roy located the poet’s collection after searching his apartment. He skimmed the pages. Some of the poems were about growing up in rural Indiana. There were a couple about his grandfather who had Alzheimer’s. One had to do with losing his virginity to a middle-aged librarian and then to celebrate pan-broiled sunfish filets for her, but he got preoccupied with thoughts about what had just happened to him, he burned the fish and they wound up eating dry Lucky Charms from the box. This was not a vindictive person. This was not a person who would aim to get Roy fired. Out in the world, the poet seemed careless and spoiled. But the person who authored these poems had a heart.  


Roy made the drive to the poet’s university on a sunny and chilly Thursday morning, a day when he had no classes to teach. He started south on I-81. The poet would be keeping office hours from 2-4 in the afternoon. Roy had checked on that with the university’s English Department. He’d hung up without saying why he wanted to know or who he was. The project made him feel strange and he still wasn’t certain as to what he would say to the poet. He listened to a jazz station on his Sirius radio. Life felt different to him on the drive. This was the whole point. Something else could happen, he needed to get booted from the path he’d found himself on. His parents had been factory workers, the last of the line at TRW Automotive. They lived in a modest, wood-frame house on East Genesee Avenue. They hadn’t turned into any thieves. He wanted to be the type of man who could correct a mistake. He drove on 81 through western Maryland, down to northern Virginia. Traffic was clotted, but he had given himself plenty of time. No doubt, he wouldn’t be back to his own apartment until after dark.

His used the Waze app on his phone for directions to the university, and then a school map to locate the English Building. The campus featured colonial-style buildings with terracotta roofs, lawns turned olive by autumn. Near the library, he discovered a parking lot for visitors. Once he’d switched off the engine, he remained behind the wheel. It was still a few minutes before two. He reached for the padded envelope riding in the passenger seat and pushed out of the car.

He pulled on his corduroy jacket and then carried the padded envelope at his side. The poet’s office was on the second floor. 263. Roy made a turn down a hallway in the direction of where he believed the poet’s office to be and there stood the poet in the hall, with his head bowed next to a tall, skinny male student in dreadlocks. Roy came to a stop. Classes must’ve just let out because a stream of students funneled past him. He shuffled closer to a section of the wall. The poet noticed him then, gave a nod. Then, he looked in Roy’s direction again, frowning. Roy smiled in a helpless way. The poet said Roy’s name and then held up his index finger. The student continued speaking, but he could see the poet had business. “Yes,” the poet said. “That’ll be fine.”

“Thank you,” the student said,

“You’re welcome.”

The poet turned in Roy’s direction and let his shoulders drop. “What on earth?” he said. He put out his hand and Roy reached forward to shake with him. “Are you here to see me?”

“I am.”

“Well, goodness . . . I’m right here.” He gestured to an open office doorway. He waited for Roy to step inside and after he did this, Roy wondered if the poet would close the door after them. He did not.

“Here,” Roy said, holding out the envelope as the poet passed by on his way to the desk. The poet, who must have been confused to some degree at least, opened the envelope while still on his feet.

“I don’t believe it,” the poet said. He held A Green Bough in one hand, had the envelope in the other.

“I wanted to return this to you,” Roy said. “It’s been in my possession . . .”

“Thought this was long gone,” the poet said. “Thank you, that’s very good of you . . . can’t believe this, actually. You don’t have any other business here?”

“How are you?’ Roy said. “How’re they treating you?”

The poet laughed softly. “It’s okay.” He placed the book on his desk. “You know how it is.”

Roy hoped he knew what the poet meant. Anyway, he said, “I do.”

The poet tapped at the cover of the book a couple of times. “I bought this in a bookstore in Montreal. I had to have it, spent every buck I had. Then . . .” He turned to Roy at this. In this moment, it seemed as if the poet were about to ask for an explanation. The poet might believe it had something to do with Fiona. That Fiona had pilfered the book and Roy was covering for her now. He said, “I’m trying to figure out when I last saw this.” His expression didn’t appear unkind.

Roy said, “It’s a beautiful book. I would have done the same thing. If I’d seen it . . . in Montreal.”

“Yes. So unusual,” the poet said. “Would you like a cup of coffee before you head back? We have a lounge area.”

“No,” Roy said, right away.

“I guess we never know . . . we up wake one day, and we think we know what will happen in that day, but we don’t know. Such a thoughtful gesture, I suppose . . .”

“It was a nice morning to drive,” Roy said. “I like Maryland . . . and Virginia.” In the next instant Roy wanted to say something about Fiona. That she had moved out earlier this spring and was working in Kentucky now. It was never going to work out between Roy and Fiona, but if the poet had left her alone maybe she would have stayed the summer, anyway.

“Yes,” the poet said.  

“I’m going to head back,” Roy said. He found himself swallowing.  

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Roy backed up a step. They didn’t have to shake hands again.

“Everything all right, Roy?” the poet said. He could sense there was more to it.

“Fuck you,” Roy said, his voice just above a murmur.

In a voice as quiet as Roy’s, the poet said, “Fuck you, too.”

Roy stayed in place for another moment. He departed the office. Hands in his pockets, he walked purposefully up the hallway. Outside the building, he glanced around, hoping to recall the lot where he’d parked his car. He felt adrenaline eeling down his back and shoulders. Overall, it had gone all right. Now, his mind was a bit crazy and wanted to get away from there as fast as possible.


On the clogged highway again, Roy had an image of the poet in his office turning the pages of the returned book. Trying to decipher exactly what Roy’s visit was all about. Was Roy covering for a deed done by Fiona, the spurned lover of the poet who in search of a memento had decided to steal a treasured book of his? Or, in the scuffle and shuffle of moving, had the poet himself somehow misplaced the book and through a series of events Roy had not only discovered the book but knew who its owner happened to be and out of his profound respect had driven all this way? Or, out of nothing more than spite, had Roy stolen the book and eventually come to regret his actions?

It seemed probable to Roy that the poet would land on the truth.

And now what would happen? Who would the poet tell the story to? Would he be upset at the chain of events that brought A Green Bough back to him? Demand an investigation? If the poet contacted Roy’s English Department would the chair have to pursue action? If so, would Roy confess? Resign? Roy tried to imagine a different life for himself . . . hello, Amazon warehouse worker! Have gave a quick salute to the horizon.

He could work at an Amazon warehouse, live ironically, at the far end of what he’d once dreamt for himself. What was likely to happen, that’s what he wanted to know. The poet, glad to have his book back, wouldn’t say a word about it. Everyone had already moved on. The poet would conclude that Roy was a sad, desperate, bitter man. This even though Roy had driven two states over to return a book. If only Roy hadn’t said, Fuck you. But he understood he’d made the trip so that he could say it. The color of the sky began to change as the sun sank for the western horizon. He reminded himself not to be impatient, that he would be back in his apartment soon enough. In the morning, it wouldn’t take long to prepare for his classes. He was using the same syllabus he had the previous fall.

When the traffic finally loosened, he began to feel hungry, ravenously so. Could he claim at least that today had been a step in getting on with his life? At the very least, he deserved better than fast food, yes? While going just over the speed limit, he managed to do a search on his phone. Hagerstown loomed just ahead, and he found the name of a diner there, on Eastern Boulevard. Incredible Eggs.

Inside, it turned out to be a something of a hipster joint. Young people, opened laptops, music by Arcade Fire. A waitress who might have been the age of either of his parents brought him a laminated menu. She poured him a cup of coffee. “What’s the most expensive thing you have?” he said.

“Crab cakes,” she said. “Twenty-six ninety-five, without the sides.”

“I guess what I mean is I’m really hungry.”

“We have the Big Bad Salad.”

“A lot of food?”

“You’ll be here till midnight. Twelve ninety-five.”

“I’ll go for that.”

“Want me to tell you what’s in it?” she said.

“It’ll be fine,” Roy said, holding the menu over to her. “Bleu cheese dressing, on the side.” After she walked off, he turned to the window and watched the traffic out on the street. It was dusk by then and the sky had turned the color of ripe plums.  The poet had said, Fuck you, too. He had that ready. He’d seen right through Roy.

Roy wondered about the next drive he’d take—would it be down to Kentucky to surprise Fiona? It would be terrific to see her, but that wouldn’t go well, far worse than this had. It didn’t take a minute for him to understand that. The relationship felt more over than ever.  For Thanksgiving, he might make the eight-hour drive for Saginaw through Youngstown, Akron, Toledo, Detroit, Flint. He’d nicknamed the drive from his college town to his hometown “The Rust Belt Limited.” He and his parents would watch the Lions game on TV with the aroma of his mother’s cornbread and sausage stuffing in the oven. The Lions would sometimes luck into winning one.

The waitress brought his dinner, which paused these images. The salad came in a big white bowl. A mound of lettuce, two whole boiled eggs, red onions, tuna fish, feta cheese, spinach, chicken, pine nuts, watercress. “Why, I will be here all night,” he said, in a good-natured way.

“Enjoy,” she said and slid the bill near the saucer that held his coffee cup, then stepped in the direction of another occupied table. After he unwrapped his silverware from the paper napkin, he saw the knife and spoon had water spots. On one of the fork tines, there seemed to be a bit of crusted something. He didn’t need to bother the waitress. For a moment, he scraped at it with his thumbnail. Then, he began to eat.


Andrew Plattner lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Earlier this year, Mercer University Press released his story collection, Tower. He has published stories of late in New World Writing Quarterly, October Hill Magazine, Litbreak, Sortes Magazine and The Spotlong Review. He has taught fiction writing at the University of So. Mississippi, Emory University, University of Tampa and Kennesaw State University. 


By Lyle Hopwood

The Sundown Café’s For Sale sign had hung so long in the mountain sun that the details had faded into illegibility. The plywood boards nailed across the doors of the Thunderbox Theatre were weathered to shiny silver. I drove past, imagining the street returning to life for half a minute, like a TikTok video. A multitude of teens outside, milling around the sidewalk, slouched against the wall, leaning on the green transformer boxes, smoking weed. The thump of electronic dance music shaking the arched upper floor windows. Young men in from the ranches in their cowboy boots, eyeing girls in tie-dyed tees and fishnets. Antiques stores, voracious for customers, stacked high with old gas pumps and unidentifiable iron implements salvaged from the farms.

My thoughts—half-memory, half-dream—cut abruptly. Morningside’s present main street came back into view. No ravers, no shoppers. Two dusty trucks parked akimbo across four marked spaces. A hunting outfitter with a vinyl sign Over The Counter Elk Tags Sold Here, a gas station, and an electronics store. The rest of the street was a brick façade with nothing behind except collapsing roofs.

I drove on. The scenery quietly transformed into red rocks and lofty pines with wide open green pastures between. Mom’s ranch house hid in a stand of Blue Spruce with a chicken run at the side. She’d lived here forever, growing up in the shell of the town before the rich Detroit musician arrived, liked what he saw and built his Colorado ranch. The whole town briefly resurrected itself around the unlikely core of an electronic dance music festival and its masked producer.

I parked the 4Runner beside her pine needle-blanketed truck and checked my appearance in the mirror. I’d shaved the beard. I wanted to give her the best chance of recognizing me. Mom had no phone, otherwise I’d have called ahead. I rang the bell, waited a beat, then pushed the unlatched door. The hinges must have sagged over the years because the door swished reluctantly inward, scraping the linoleum.

“Mom? You here?”

No answer. I stomped my feet to alert her as I walked to the front room. I found her sitting in an armchair with a wool throw over her lap. She had no book. The lights and TV were off. For an instant, I was afraid she was dead, mummified like Norman Bates’s mother in Psycho.


“Oh, it’s you,” she said without any hint of surprise, and moved her spindly hand off her knees to touch my face. “You didn’t tell me you were coming.” She dropped her hand and sat up straight.

I noticed she didn’t say my name. The neighbor who phoned me last week said she no longer remembered his, said I should be prepared for it. Truth is, she never much said my name. I was always ‘the boy’ to her.

“Hello, Mom.”

“I’ll make coffee,” she said, pulling off her throw and standing up. Her legs were much thinner than I remembered. As she stood, she tensed her leg, pointing a slipper toe towards the floor, disguising a tremor. I noticed her hands shook.

I gripped her elbow, helping her sit back down. “I’ll make the coffee,” I said. I asked her how she liked it. I’d never made it for her before.


Dad left her, with me in tow, twenty-four years ago, after the Thunderbox Festival packed up for the season and he had nothing to look forward to besides manufacturing more ironwork “antiques” to sell to tourists. I was just a little kid, and I understood in an inchoate way that we were going to California, where the festival’s hardcore ravers came from. But in San Clemente there were no raves. Dad never looked back and I wouldn’t have either, until Stan, Mom’s neighbor to the north, told me she had fallen sick.

“Not sick like cancer sick,” he said over a phone line with an echo that made it hard to speak because our voices came back to us a half second later. “It’s like, y’know, senile dementia.”

I’ll dement ya, the echo retorted.

I could have ignored Stan, but Yassie from Mom’s dental office phoned later. Whether she and Stan colluded, or she was just concerned Mom hadn’t been in lately, I don’t know, but she used the same image. “Not cancer sick,” she said, “But when you come, she might not recognize you.”

When I told her my Mom was still in her sixties, Yassie said it comes on fast if it comes on early.

I didn’t know if I’d recognize her either, but I was still her kid, so I made the trek out of duty, not expecting too much.


The pot was only half-brewed when Mom appeared in the kitchen. She had come to life, as if plugged into a USB port. Her eyes were alight, and she stood straight.

“The coffee smells delicious,” she said, as I filled her cup. It did not rattle on the saucer; the tremor had gone. “Did you find any cookies?”

“No,” I shook my head. “Not even Girl Scout Cookies.”

“No Girl Scouts around here. Morningside is literally a ghost town. I’ll make something. It’ll have to be margarine. I don’t have no butter.” She put her cup down and opened the pantry door. “You know, for a while it was different. The town swarmed with people back then. When DJ Klaviatura came here, everybody wanted to be here. They came in droves. Stinking clouds of what-did-they-call-it, skunk. Smelled like it. And X.”


“Ecstasy. Don’t pretend you’ve never taken drugs.” She stirred batter in a stainless-steel bowl with a cracked wooden spoon. The smell of raisins wafting from it carried me back to my childhood. She was making scones.

“I’ve never even seen Ecstasy for sale,” I said. “I think it was a Generation X thing. No pun intended.” She sure seemed to be all there. If anything, her canny intellect shone bright, like the filament in an Edison bulb. No sign of the dementia they’d warned me about. “Mom, why did DJ Klaviatura come here? I remember the big charity yard sale thing for the kids and the bounce house, but…you know, I was five when we left.”

“You don’t remember the festival he started?” She put the baking sheet in the oven and closed it. “He was a DJ. He’d toured all over the US. I guess people told him about skiing in Vail when he played Red Rocks. Then someone told him about a ski lodge in Morningside County, a Futuro house –”

“A what?”

“A Futuro house. They’re from the sixties. Like a flying saucer on stilts. Remember Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still? I have a postcard of it on the coffee table somewhere. It overlooked the ski slopes. DJ-K bought the Futuro house and Hernandez’s ranch and moved the house down the mountainside to the pastures.”

“I remember the ski lodge. Like a jelly doughnut, with oval windows all around the edge?”

She nodded.

Since I had an excuse, I checked out the piles on the coffee table, assuming the worst—that there would be unpaid bills or medical alerts. But the heap comprised election flyers, shower modernization offers and partisan local papers, the usual junk mail detritus. The room itself looked lived-in, but not hoarder-level untidy. Maybe Stan or the woman from the dentist’s had been checking in on her? It seemed unlikely. Dad said the neighbors didn’t get on with her after she started hanging with DJ-K’s posse. I got the impression country folk could do a good shunning when they put their minds to it.

“DJ-K cleared his land,” she continued. “He brought in Texas Longhorns, got a cowboy hat, shuttled in all his Detroit techno friends. Morningside was deserted back then. The founding fathers bet everything on the silver mine, and lost. The loggers never cared for the town—the roads are bad. If the Williams family hadn’t sequestered the mine’s steam train, there wouldn’t have been no reason to ever come here.”

“How do you sequester a steam train?”

She shrugged. “How should I know? But the bankruptcy trustees never found it. The Williamses built a scenic track alongside the river at the bottom, got the locomotive running and tourists bought tickets. Those were the town’s only visitors.”

“What about the Conestoga Cowboys Annual Festival?” I didn’t remember going to any cowboy festivals when I was a kid, but I scoured Morningside’s webpage before I set out, and it touted the festival as the town’s major attraction. Horse-collar races. Pan the stream for gold (ages five to fifteen). Deep fried turkey legs. Funnel cake.

“The Festival of Donner Parties and Indian Massacres? It didn’t exist ‘til 2010. All that ‘Americana’ horseshit is about fifteen years old. Don’t let anyone tell you different. People swear their great grampaw did some crap when he was a boy and everyone believes ‘em. Pow, it’s a tradition.” She sipped her coffee, then added as an afterthought, “The Oregon Trail didn’t even come through Colorado.”

The Oregon Trail computer game? I searched my memory of the beloved educational program and realized Mom meant the town had appropriated the game’s ethos for money. Once DJ-K had gone, the town dreamed up an origin story to replace its lost tax revenues.

“Magic happened when DJ-K came to town. Before that man arrived,” she said, “Morningside had six stores and cafés serving farmers, hunters and maybe a few skiers. Some get lost every year and end up here.”

The scones in the oven smelled heavenly.

She went on, “He opened the Sundown Café and people kept flowing in. He started the charity gift shop, with the autographed mugs. Second year he created the festival, the rave. He got it permitted for three thousand attendees. Soon, thousands of people were here all summer. RVs everywhere. Lord knows how they got them up the 4X4 road.” She leaned on the kitchen counter as she talked.

“Did you set a timer?” I asked.

“Don’t need no timer,” she said. She opened the oven door. The scones were golden, fluffy and full. She put them on the counter to cool.

She continued, “They bought curios, more than your father could make in the off-season—he had to get new antiques sent from China. The Sundown was always full, winter and summer, snow or no. DJ-K opened that pop-up Thunderbox Theater and people drove from as far away as Denver to dance there. The outfitters shop got remodeled as a hipster clothing store.”

I poured more coffee and bit into a scone. It was delicious.

She carried on describing how the town sprouted like spring grass around DJ-K and his dance festival. “Barbers, tattoo parlors, a store selling iguanas and snakes. Glowsticks, whistles, pacifiers, crystals, sage bundles, second-hand LPs.”

“Vinyls,” I corrected, gently.

She nodded her head a couple of times, as if thinking how to go on. “And then he died. One minute he’s playing music for thousands at Coachinga…”

“Coachella,” I reminded her.

“Next, he’s in a coma. Then dead.” Her voice sank to a throaty whisper on the last word.

I guided her to the chair in the living room and put a plate with the remaining scones on the coffee table.

“He used to perform wearing a giant teddy bear head. A Mylar foil deal. It was 120 degrees in the dance tent in the desert. The heat and the drugs did something to his brain.”

I was five when Dad hustled me out of Morningside. DJ-K ran six of those annual festivals in the town before we left. I realized Dad might have been telling the truth. She had loved the man.

I got up to clear away her plate and cup. She didn’t hand it to me. She just let the plate lie on her lap. The flood of memories had dried.

“People didn’t want autographed mugs after DJ-K died?” I prompted.

“Denice—” she paused. “Denice, his wife, made a go of it, but she couldn’t do the music for the dancers who came to the raves. The café got a few hunters, but they tend to stick to their own kind. She sold the saucer house to a Silicon Valley tech bro for next to nothing and went back to Detroit.” Mom sighed so loud it bordered on a hiss. It made me jump, but when I looked out the kitchen door, she was okay, just mired in the past.

I switched on the lamp that stood on the ironwork end table. “You should get a cellphone,” I said, thinking about when I’d come back again. I could bring butter.

“A what?” She had closed her eyes and leant back in her chair.

“If you get a cell you can talk to people. There’s an electronics store in Morningside.”

“There’s nobody I want to talk to.”

“Should I come back soon?” I asked.

“Back where?”

I strode into the center of the room where I could see her face. She jerked suddenly and I thought her tremors were back, but it was surprise.

“Who’re you?”

“I’m your son,” I said soothingly. “We just ate your homemade scones together, like when I was small.”

She picked up her throw and shook it out to cover her legs, then rested her hands on her skinny thighs. She pursed her lips in a look of mild disapproval, as if the world never failed to disappoint. “Sure.”

I didn’t know if she had answered my question about future visits or acknowledged I was her son. Whatever magic I’d brought that briefly roused her mind guttered out. I rinsed the crockery and baking sheet and went out into the pine-scented yard, yanking the obdurate door closed behind me. The sun set between the mountains in a scarlet blaze. I left before the hairpin bends became undriveable in the approaching dark.


Born in the UK, Lyle Hopwood immigrated to the US, where she worked in clinical laboratories as a director of regulatory affairs. Reading was not enough for her, so she decided to join the conversation. She has had short stories published in magazines including Interzone, Eldritch Science, Edge Detector, Back Brain Recluse and others. More are coming soon in IZ Digital, Aurealis and BFS Horizons. Her short stories have also appeared in two German anthologies. She lives in Southern California with a holographer, her herptiles and her collection of Kalanchoe.

Next Steps for Monte

by Ed Peaco

So many annoyances had piled up—so many bewildering medical documents, so many well-meaning but annoying people calling, texting, knocking. The speech was two days away, and Monte hadn’t written more than Hello, I’m Monte Thompson.

Recently he was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, a form of dementia. In lieu of a cure, his neurologist prescribed many steps that might keep Monte’s brain staying on that plateau for as long as possible. One of the steps was to keep talking, to share his story at a meeting of the local association of The Memory Team.

Monte was nervous. His capacity for thinking and writing was slow these days, and his speech had become a bit halting. He found himself grasping for words that were just out of reach, feeling like a slug, a slug with cognitive difficulties. Anyway, it was worth a try. A few months ago, people called him a hero for what he did on his last day at work. He was proud of the job that he’d held for many years as a writer and editor, and the only person in the company who could provide voice-over narrations. It was a tough time. He couldn’t find the words he needed to talk to his doctor, or the guy who mowed his lawn, or a server at a restaurant. Who knew ordering tacos could be so hard? He was getting used to writing scripts for most conversations, face to face or on the phone. If he didn’t have a script, the outcome would be a mess. The presentation for The Memory Team group would take forever to write.

That day he began scribbling, slowly, and he decided on three topics: neurology, orthopedics and employment. Then he was disturbed by the thump of the back door. It was Cable, Monte’s nephew, bringing home two six-packs, chips and guacamole. He had the ability to distract Monte in small ways that caused big distractions. Cable lived with Monte because Cable didn’t like his father who lived in Los Angeles. Cable found a job as a bartender in the thriving city of Bristol Springs, Missouri. He kept reminding Monte what the neurologist said: Keep talking. Both of them were grappling with Monte’s dementia.

“Hey, Uncle, I got this idea for a way to write your speech. Start with the first thing that happened that day, then the next, then the next. You know what happened.”

Monte started with getting fired by the big boss, leading to an active-shooter incident and his big breakdown, all on the same day. He felt like he shouldn’t talk about certain workplace events; he didn’t know everything. He was running away, or hobbling away, on his finicky new titanium hip. He didn’t understand what the gunplay was all about. Monte led his team across the greenway to a wooded area beyond and over a fence to safety. They made it, with the help of his co-workers and his old rope ladders that he’d used at work for lunchtime workouts, back before his hip had acted up, eventually leading to pain and hip replacement last year. As he scribbled, he realized how much he’d been through in just the last year or so. What a mess! One good thing was that the hip felt better now, but the aphasia and other brain stuff were way messier.

Another interruption: Tori, Cable’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, hastened back to the house to fetch the phone attachment she needed for her customer-payment system. She was sharp-witted, a speed-walker, striding with a purpose. Her hairstyle was two-fold. On one side of her scalp, she had an undercut. Over the rest of her crown, she had long hair gathered in a ponytail with a streak of blue violet. Tori had originally worked with Monte at their old place of employment. He’d been fired and she opted to quit after the bullets whizzed by. Who could blame her? She had multiple part-time jobs now and was, in Monte’s opinion, too curious about his condition. She had unending questions. She and Cable seemed to want to mess with his business. She kept asking what he had.

“My brain is compromised due to dementia.”

“What kind?”


“What kind?”

“Primary progressive.”

“What’s that?”

“The kind where you can’t find words.”

Then she always wanted to talk about that horrific day at work.

“Do you have PTSD? Flashbacks? Nightmares?”

“No, no, and no.”

“I still think about it. Do you need help? What can I do?”

“Tori, you’re a nice person, but I’ve had enough. You’re an enterprising hustler in the gig economy, but you’re going on, chattering like a four-year-old.”

“Oh, sorry. I’d better get going.”

After he shooed Tori away, he went back to his speech. Monte liked Cable’s idea, and he ran with it, although it was slow going for the slug.

—   —   —

Monte was nervous as he entered the big room for the monthly meeting presented by The Memory Team. Tori told him that being nervous is good, up to a point. He glowered. After the preliminaries, Monte began with, “Forget Alzheimer’s or any kind of dementia. Just run your life the best you can, and do what you want as much as you can.”

Then somebody in the crowd shouted, “Easy for you to say.”

That ticked off Monte, all things considered. “Yeah, and I can say that, too.” He looked at the people in the chairs and continued to discuss his disorder. “FTD is an umbrella term for a number of brain disorders, not a bunch of florist shops,” which got a few snickers from the chairs. “Disorders like Alzheimer’s and Primary Progressive Aphasia.” He went on to explain that he was in the early stages of PPA, and he emphasized that he was thankful for this time when he could still do things almost as well as before, but more slowly and sometimes forgetfully.

“Whatever stage of your disorder, make the most of it, because you may lose what you have at any time,” he said. “Don’t mope!” That launched another laugh. Then he looked down at his pages with the three topics. Beginning again, he said, “And now, to the story of my strange and scary incident at work.”

After he described each part of the rush to safety, there was a swarm of questions about the exodus, and a heckler popped off, “You sound like a disgruntled employee, some sad sack who got the shitty end of the stick. Why are you talking about all this stuff that happened one day at work, and nobody got hurt except maybe the boss?”

“I don’t want to talk about that part of the incident,” Monte said.

“You sound like a fraud.”

“If you say so,” Monte said. Next, he summed up and finished with “Don’t mope!”

He hoped to break free from the gaggle at the podium and move to the refreshments, but he was caught. Cable gave him a thumbs up from across the room. Conversation covered short-term memory, difficulty with finding words, and spelling issues. As Monte was getting ready to leave, he saw a tall woman approaching, with a white mane of hair like spun candy.

She reached him with congratulations. “I like that title, ‘Forget Alzheimer’s.’”

“Thank you.”

“I wanted to say more, but I forgot. This is what I get for becoming a senior citizen.”

“I’m a senior citizen, too,” Monte said.

“I have more seniority than you, Mr. Thompson. Oh, I’m Nova Grimes, a writer who can’t write much anymore.”

“What kind of writing?”

“Novels of love, dissension and redemption—or revenge,” she said with a smirk.

“I used to write stuff for outdoor magazines. I’m the trail walker who can’t walk very far anymore, and I’m also the voice-over guy who can hardly talk.”

“You were reasonably fluent up there.”

“I had a script,” Monte said.

“How did you get here?” Nova asked.

“My nephew drove me.”

“My daughter Abbey and my granddaughter Celeste drive me around. Otherwise, I’m housebound.” She quickly thrust a business card into his hand. “Text me. Call me, please.”

Monte looked down at the cookie selection and when he looked back, she was gone.

—   —   —

For a few days, Monte examined Nova Grimes’ card, repeatedly. He thought about her being in the publishing world and himself a newly retired marketing scribe. What was it that she wanted from him?

Writer of original stories and novels

Editor of books and periodicals

Special projects

He googled her and found many pages of real work, but the references stopped three years ago. Monte decided he couldn’t lose anything but a few minutes of texting. She seemed to be a reasonable person. Nova replied, thanking him for contacting her and praising him on his talk and the way he handled that heckler. She asked Monte to call the next day, around two o’clock, if he were free to chat by voice, not fingers. Texting, they chatted about being retired, and Monte asked what more she wanted out of life. She replied, “I want good conversation, that’s all.” Before she logged off, she wrote, “I just want to expand my horizons.”

At the appointed time, he called and they chatted about horizons—beyond visits to church, hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and Walmart. Abbey set strict rules for when Nova was alone in the house: Don’t use the stove, don’t use the space heater, don’t answer the doorbell, and don’t go outside, all so she wouldn’t get lost or burn the house down.

“It seems a bit much,” Monte said. “Are you on your own, ever?”

“They both work at the noodle company. Sometimes Celeste comes back for lunch. Abbey calls all the time to check on me. It drives me crazy.”

“And what about your writing and editing?”

“That’s a long story. Maybe we can meet and talk about it.”

“Or, how about an early afternoon movie?” Monte, thinking he could persuade Cable to do the driving to Nova’s house, then to the movie complex, and the reverse afterward. “Think of what you want to see.”

—   —   —

As Monte and Cable arrived, Nova, wearing a long velvet top, slim tie-cuff pants, and sandals, presented her choice: “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” Celeste offered to be the driver and chaperone, but Nova said that wasn’t necessary. Celeste could hold down the fort at home.

“Working around Abbey: That’s kinda adolescent, don’t you think?” Monty said. “All those rules?”

“I’ll tell you,” Celeste said. “One night when Gramma was still living alone, she went on a long walk and Mom couldn’t find her. Mom was scared then and she’s scared still. She doesn’t want her to be on her own.”

“Why not just text Abbey to let her know where we’re going?” Monte said.

“No, we’re going, and nobody else needs to know.”

At the enormous complex, Nova took Monte’s hand as he steered her out of foot traffic in the middle of the hall. He said, “Just to make sure, this isn’t a date, right?”

“No, not a date! I was holding your hand so I wouldn’t lose you, that’s all. Isn’t it great to go somewhere other than a doctor’s appointment?”

After another few paces, Nova paused at the women’s room. Monte said he’d wait for her if she wanted to stop in. As he loitered, he thought about the time that women used in the bathroom and his mood went from puzzled, to a little annoyed, to worried and then to terror-stricken. Feeling ridiculous, he stopped a woman about to enter the ladies room, and he asked the stranger to look for a tall, skinny, elderly woman with long white hair. Monte did not see the woman who he stopped, and he had not found Nova. He went through the building with growing panic. Then, in an explosive glimpse of puffy white hair, he saw Nova and went to her. Nova was whimpering and Monte was sweating, his heart pounding. They seized each other in a smothering clutch.

“Where were you?” Nova asked.

“What happened? Where did you go?”

“Going to the movies is harder than I thought it would be.”

“I think I know what happened,” he said. “There are two doors for the bathrooms. You went out the other door, and you expected me to be right there.”

“Really, two doors?”

“Keep holding my hand.”

They found the right screen with plenty of time to chat about losing and finding each other, and feeling small in the massive maze.

Monte said, “You know, back there at the ladies room, I wanted to shout out your name, but my brain hadn’t uploaded your name yet. That’s really bad. Sorry.”

“Hey, I get it. One time, I looked at my daughter, and I didn’t know who she was. It was for just a minute. She was really worked up about that. So was I. Since it happened once, it might happen again.”

They were silent through most of the film, until the scene where Billie is thrust off the stage and the police arrest her. Nova shouted “bastards!” Another voice yelled a refrain,cops!” At the end of the film, with Billie in a hospital with liver failure, Nova expelled a soft groan.

When they left the complex, Monte was getting fretful about Cable’s timing. They needed to get back before Abbey did. Grimacing, he said, “We could be late.”

“So what? Don’t worry about Abbey. I’m still the big mama in that house, even though I’m all messed up.”

When they arrived at Nova’s house, Abbey’s car was in the driveway. They approached the front door. Loud angry voices emanated from inside.

“That’s Abbey and Celeste,” Nova said.

“You OK?” Monte asked.

Nova nodded and told them, “Stay here!” But Monte got his foot in the door before Nova could shut it. 

They all entered and faced Abbey’s rage. “Hey, here you are, little miss delinquent with your juvenile shambles of an escort. Who’s that lunkhead, the wingman?” She glared at Cable and continued. “What were you doing? You could be one of those pathetic faces on the evening news. You could be wandering into another state. You could have been hurt!”

“Oh, Abbey, we went to a movie.”

Celeste was trying to say something. Abbey told her to shut up. Cable also was silenced. Monte looked back and forth as the women went at it.

“You shut up, Abbey,” Nova said. “Nothing happened. I’m not gonna sit here all day. Your rules are good for you, but not for me. I want more from the rest of my pitiful life.”

“All of these things that I’ve put into action—the security, the rules, my calls—are for your protection, Mom,” Abbey said. “Who’s your boyfriend? Don’t tell me.”

Nova sent out a peel of laughter. “I don’t have a boyfriend. Do you, my dear?”

Celeste barked, “Gramma can do what she wants!”

Abbey said, “Sure, she can, and I can scrape her off the pavement. And as for you, baby girl with the nose ring, you lied to me. You let Gramma out of the house with that baboon!” She paused for a moment to shove Monte and Cable out of the house.

Monte hopped into Cable’s pickup and they drove the short distance in silence until Cable slapped the steering wheel and said, “I really feel a whole lot better now that we’re outta that fuckin’ cat fight.”

“It was my idea,” Monte said, shaking his head.

“To get into a cat fight?”

“No! The movie. It was only a movie.”

—   —   —

The next day, Cable was supposed to pick up his dad at the airport, but he’d forgotten about it. Larry and Monte were brothers, though not particularly close. Larry was flying in from LA for a long weekend. Monte shook the car keys in Cable’s direction and told him that he might be late. “For what?” Cable asked. “Oh, shit, my dad! But I need to get to work!” The Error Code Bar was celebrating its grand re-opening after a year of being shuttered.

“Get your ass outta here. I’ll call for a limo for your dad. He’ll want first class.”

Monte understood the reasons for his visit: to be sure Cable was gainfully employed, and to check on Monte’s health. The only enjoyment Monte could see having his older brother around would be to make a few ridiculous remarks at his brother’s expense, like when they were kids. Monte always thought of Larry as a dull blowhard, bragging about his business and getting nosy about other people. He’d made it big in the tech world and seemed perpetually disappointed in Cable. Larry hadn’t been in contact much with Monte since the diagnosis, either. He expected a less-than-happy visit. He checked Larry’s flight; it was thirty minutes late.

Once he arrived, the peaceful lull was broken; Larry barged in, grousing non-stop about the flight. Monte toted his bags up to the spare room, noting no twinges from his hip, grateful for last year’s hip surgery. But what happened to traveling light? Next, Larry was asking for wine and something to eat.

“How about cheese and crackers? No wine. Cable might have a bottle of Jim Bean.”

“Where’s Cable?”


“So, that’s something anyway. Why didn’t you pick me up?”

“I don’t drive anymore,” Monte said. “Not for a couple of months now.”


“I probably could drive, but I don’t want to. If I get stopped by a cop, even for just a broken tail light, my speech might be blocked, and the cop might think I’m stoned or drunk.”

“Are you messing with me?” Larry asked.

“In a sense,” Monte said, enjoying Larry’s confusion.

“You said you had that aphasia thing.”

“Oh, yes, aphasia, she’s my girlfriend.”

“Why are you saying such idiotic things? Is it dementia or what?”

Monte laid out the jargon, the cognitive faculties that would be degrading over time, and that there was no cure. “Too bad you weren’t here for my speech.”

“Any clinical trials?” Larry asked.

“Yes, but somebody would have to drive me three-hundred miles every month to participate. If I want to go somewhere, it won’t be to a research center for scientists to gather data for five years, and for what?”

“What about your work trauma thing?” Larry asked. “Flashbacks, trouble sleeping? Also, have you thought about selling your house and moving into an independent living place? It’s a seller’s market, you know. ”

As Monte tried to keep up with Larry’s barrage of questions, Tori came in the back door, dragging a tote bag. She looked totally drained, sweaty and tired. She and Larry greeted each other. Monte forgot for a moment that they’d met last year.

“What happened to you, little lady?” Larry asked.

“Tori has four jobs, and this one’s in a branch bank,” Monte said.

“Yes, very busy,” Tori said, trudging back to her car. Returning, she transported her bounty of a big take-out carton from Wingin’ Chickin and placed it on the table.

“Thirty-six wings. Save some for Cable. I’m not sure when he’ll be home.” She found the beer and the Jim Beam and brought it all to the table. 

“Wonderful,” Larry said. “You really understand hospitality better than my brother. I really mean it.”

Larry ate twelve, Monte six, and Tori four.

Larry asked about her jobs and how she tracked her income and expenses.

She reported about personal shopping, pet sitting, balancing the books for food-truck owners, and working in a bank during off-hours. “I always get paid immediately because I have a card swiper on my phone that funnels my money direct to my bank account. Nobody can say, ‘Oh, I don’t have it on me right now.’”

“What do you do at the bank?” Larry asked.

“If you really must know, I scrub floors and toilets.”

Larry persisted in asking her about her resourceful approach toward work, droning on and on. Tori seemed to like the attention. Monte found it annoying.

Later in the evening, Monte didn’t want to listen to Larry, so he went to bed. After a few minutes, he was awakened by Cable’s entrance and the charged voices of both Larry and Cable. Monte could heard them arguing. It was a little after midnight. Larry had knocked back the rest of Cable’s bottle of Jim Beam, and there wasn’t much beer left, either. Cable was peeved and went upstairs, stomping hard; Tori followed, and their raised voices made sleep almost impossible.

—   —   —

Before breakfast, Tori told Monte that Cable found an old bottle of Percocet pills in Monte’s bedroom and was ready to help himself. That’s what the fight was about. She was still livid. “Opioids! He’s a likable guy, but he doesn’t have good judgment. He’s not for me.”

 “I’ll deal with that,” Monte said.

 “Don’t tell Larry. Cable has too much on his plate now.”

“My fault. I should have dumped those pills long ago. Those were from my hip surgery. Cable is really stressed about his dad and his new job, but no excuse.”

Later in the morning, Monte went with Cable to get groceries. They sat in the pickup and sorted out Cable’s problems in a way that made both feel good. Cable apologized and assured Monte that he would stay on track to help Monte with the things he couldn’t do anymore.

 When they returned they found Tori and Larry at Monte’s desk, pouring over his medical and financial documents, and looking up the value of his home according to Zillow. Larry was pontificating about the gig economy and advising Tori how to successfully move into the corporate economy. Monte was absolutely furious. 

“What the hell are you doing with my stuff?”

“We were only trying to help,” Tori said. She avoided Monte’s glare and had the grace to look a bit guilty.

“Is this the snooping economy? Whaddaya say, big brother? Hey, Tori, you know everything from Larry about the schmooze economy and the boot-licking economy. How about the go-away-and-don’t-come-back economy!” His hands shook as he tried to gather up various papers from the desk.

“Uncle, I don’t blame you, but just chill. Dad, why do you have to keep doing this shit?”  

Tori turned to Cable and said, “Larry has some good ideas for my employment.” She turned and left the room as Cable stood there shaking his head, not knowing what to say.

“This is fucked up. So, now what?” Monte asked.

“We really need to talk about things once you’re willing to listen,” Larry said. “Not that you ever will though. At least Tori gets what I’m saying.”

“I’ve listened long enough. You need to listen to me! I’m done with this.”     

Cable helped Monte collect his documents and put them in a briefcase. Then Cable suggested he and Monte take a walk around the pond at a nearby park to calm down a bit. Getting out of the house would be good.

When they returned, Larry’s luggage was gone and Tori’s belongings that she’d had in Cable’s room were gone, too. A short note was on the kitchen table propped up with a juice glass. In Tori’s handwriting, the note said, Taking UAL to LAX. We tried our best. Bye!

“What? Isn’t this weird? Larry and Tori? This makes no sense.” Monte said.

“Really screwy, for sure,” Cable said. “I get my dad; he’s been like that all the time. But Tori? Yeah, my fault. Anyway, I gotta go to work.”

Monte noticed a text from Larry: “Will call you soon.” He wanted to send a snarky reply, but that would start another dustup. He wouldn’t reply. He needed peace and quiet.

—   —   —

Monte tried to reach Nova every day for almost a week with no response. Cable told Monte that he was moping, and he agreed—moping about the crap from Larry, which Monte understood as issues that he needed to deal with, but it just bugged him that he couldn’t reach Nova. With a stroke of brilliance, he called Celeste. She told Monte that Nova was under the weather but she would be up for a visit any time, cleared by Abbey.

So, Monte asked Cable for a ride to Nova’s place, once again.

During the drive, Monte recalled some fragments of things Nova had said about losing parts of your brain and about which disease was worse: Alzheimer’s or word-loss disorder. Either way, you could end up in the same place.

“Wow, that’s really depressing,” Cable said.

“Well, it’s my world now,” said Monte. “Just trying to get a handle on things.”

Once they arrived, Cable announced he would stay in the pickup.

“Hey, Abbey’s just protective,” Monte said. “OK, that ‘wingman’ comment probably still stings. So stay here. I’ll be out soon.”

Abbey’s door-bell camera sounded Monte’s arrival. When he stepped into the living room, Abbey gripped his shoulder and apologized for her previous outburst. “I’m glad you came, but take it easy.”

With a gentle knock, Monte entered Nova’s room. He found Nova in a chair with a book in her lap, possibly sleeping. “Hey, Nova,” Monte whispered. “How are you?”


“What are you reading today?”

“Sorry, I’m not grasping who you are.”

“Oh, I was with you when you yelled ‘bastards!’ in a full theater.”

“I did?” Nova said. “I did!” She looked up at him and grinned. “Monte!”

“Yes, it’s me!” 

“Now Abbey will let me go places with people we know, if I keep in touch. Juvie stuff, but better than nothing. She decided you’re OK.”

“How did that happen?” Monte asked.

“Celeste bombarded her with all the good stuff she found about you online, those outdoors articles and the speech at The Memory Team.”

“How does Celeste make it from the doghouse to the penthouse so quickly?”

“She’s smart.”

He sat next to the bed as they chatted about the movie. She did seem pretty wiped out. When he went back to the living room, Abbey asked him how Nova looked.

“I’m not sure, she might have just been tired,” Monte said. “Anyway, she had a laugh.”

Back in the pickup, he told Cable about his visit.

“So, what you’re saying is, it was good, but maybe watch movies at home,” Cable said.

—   —   —

Next morning, Monte made a protein breakfast of eggs and sausages. He asked Cable to take him to the beginning of the rail trail. It was a great day for a hike and he wanted to make the most of it. Cable said he could drop him off, but he couldn’t pick him up until later. The bar was changing its decor and Cable would have to work a double shift. Monte was OK with that; he had packed plenty of water and a few energy bars. The day was sunny and his hip wasn’t giving him any trouble. It was so calming, being outside. After a while, he went off the trail onto a hilly path, just to see where it went. In no time, he ran into a guy riding an ATV. He hopped off his four wheeler and accosted Monte with a threatening stance. He told Monte that he was standing on his land and he needed to leave. Spontaneous conversations were the worst for Monte. He was jittery as he hoped words would pop out. He started to talk but every lane of speech was blocked. There wasn’t any script for this! He made an about-face and went back to the trail, shaken by the encounter. He hoped he wouldn’t see that guy again.

Monte didn’t check his phone until lunch, when he found a long text from Larry telling him that he and Tori would come back later that day, and apologized about the invasion of Monte’s documents. Tori also sent voicemail apologies.

“We went to LA for a little fun and I ended up getting a job there in mobile banking, thanks to Larry,” she said. “I got just a week to pack, fly and find a place to live. Isn’t that great!”

At first, Monte was annoyed with Larry, then thought he should learn to be more amicable. After all, Nova was working through family issues; he could, too.

As he finished his hike, he called Cable to see when he would be able to pick him up.

“Not yet. Stay at the trailhead and hang,” Cable said.

Monte sat on a stump for a while, then strolled around the area, noting a stream, a run-down house, and a highway sign decorated with bullet holes. Weirdly, a stretch limo rolled slowly up to the trailhead. The doors opened and piling out of the vehicle came Larry, Cable, and Tori. They seemed excited to see him.

“Hey, we’re on our way to the restaurant of a great country club, Three Sycamores,” Larry said. “We’re all going.”

Monte was sizing up Larry, wondering how he could so easily help Tori but not his son or brother. What was going on? At least Larry came back. Maybe he was going to be reasonable after all.

“Hey, how’s the hip?” Cable asked. “I took a long dinner hour. I brought you clean clothes. You can shower at the clubhouse. You’re really ripe.”

“Monte, smile, OK?” Tori said. “What did you see on your walk?”

“A grumpy guy. I tried to talk to him. It wasn’t pretty.”

“Well, keep talking,” she said. “I looked up aphasia.”

“Yeah, I know about that, too,” Monte said, as they climbed into the limo.


Ed Peaco is a writer of short stories and a freelance writer of articles about music. His work has appeared in The MacGuffin, Alabama Literary Review, Santa Fe Contest, and other journals. During the COVID years when musicians were locked out, Peaco had very little to write about for an article. However, music can be funneled into the short story, such as Langston Hughes’s “Dance.”


Seeing Jean

by Jenny Falloon

            I’d had little contact with my father in the year since my mother’s death. I would have had none at all if my sister Carly hadn’t phoned me on three occasions to tell me how he was coping with his grief – a phrase that always irritates me for some reason – and to invite me to drop by her condo in San Francisco for a drink. She said he would be there. And there he was, sitting on the ivory-colored sectional that she must have paid at least six grand for, each time with a different woman.

            The first was Claudine. Stocky, French, and with a bosom that preceded her like the prow of a ship, she had been our cleaning lady for years and was married to a seaman from Liverpool until he died of lung cancer. She knocked over a vase on the mantlepiece back when I was in college and snoozing on the couch one hot afternoon, Intro to Calculus on my lap, and I awoke to a stream of Liverpudlian invective.

            The last time I’d seen her was at the memorial service, where she sat in the front row dabbing her tears and gazing up at the portrait of Mom in a pink ski jacket that Carly had had transferred – nicely, I must say – onto a cloth banner that swayed softly in the breeze off of Richardson Bay.

            Was she still cleaning the house for Dad, making him little cassoulets he could keep in the freezer, even an occasional tarte tatin? Vacuuming the carpet around the LazyBoy where he would lounge watching Fox News after a day perfecting the teeth of Marin County adolescents, with a double martini and a bag of Doritos? He could do worse, I thought, hanging up my jacket.

            I try to look smart when I’m seeing my sister. She told me once that I dressed like a slob, and she may have been right. So I went to the consignment store in town – back when stores were still open when they wanted to be, and you didn’t have to be a dentist or a barber to be essential – and some older man who was my size and had a modicum of taste had died, fortunately, so I got some lightweight trousers and a blue sport jacket for summer and three Massimo Dutti T-shirts that, even if I say it myself, make me look quite dashing. With Mom gone and no girlfriend right now, I listen to Carly.

            The second woman was Eva. Lean in that feral way that women have, with impeccably cut silver hair, Eva had been married for years to a wealthy cardiologist and lived nearby. She had been hovering since he died – felled, fittingly, by a heart attack – waiting for Dad to be freed from his current marriage so she could slide him like a piece of quiche into the next.

            Eva would be seated at the kitchen island, her lovely legs crossed, during our annual Christmas party, when the mansion was home to five fully decorated Douglas firs –  my mother, God love her, being no stranger to vulgarity – when I drifted in, the underachieving son looking for a grilled prawn or two, as though she were the lady of the manor, slicing the salami or buffing the red wine glasses.

            The third one was Jean.

            “Is he seeing Jean?” Carly was in her kitchen trying to open a bottle of Pinot Noir. It amazes me that Carly, the smart one, the achiever, the one that causes Dad to nod sagely and his brown eyes to glaze over when he speaks of her, can prosecute a wrongful death lawsuit but not open a bottle of wine without a mess.

            “Let me do that,” I say, gallantly, in my Massimo Dutti shirt.

            Her long brown hair is loose, not wound up in a bun in typical I-brook-no-nonsense fashion. Is she in playful mood? She is a smart woman, my sister, a little driven perhaps, and I watch her take me in as she does now with a sort of perpetual despair.

            “It’s OK, I’ve got it. And yes, he is seeing Jean, as you so coyly put it. As would seem to be his right.”

            “I know. I know.” There is a platter of cheeses on the marble counter, sweating in the warm June air. Cambozola, Manchego, Cheddar, Gruyere, and a couple of creamy French ones that only Carly will ever have heard of.

            “What about Eva?”

            “That was short lived. As I thought it might be. There’s not a lot there.”

            “And there is with Jean?”

            “Well, there’s more, I guess.” She sighs. “I don’t know, Brian. This is new for us all, isn’t it? Especially him. Seeing him with someone else still upsets me. I have this weird sense that Mom is looking down at me saying, Are you going to put up with this? But what can we do? We can’t expect him to stay single forever. He hates being alone.” She raises her eyebrows. “He’s even talking about signing up for eHarmony.”

            “Omigod!” Online dating. Somehow you never picture your parents doing anything like that. But I can see him at it, gazing out of computers across the land,, good-looking for his years, affable, well off, still has his hair, not thin any more but doesn’t have that belly men get, good listener, droning on about restaurants, movies, travel, walks on the beach. Sex.

            She hands me a glass of wine with bits of cork in it. “You need to go and see him now and then and stop blaming him for Mom’s death. You have to accept what’s happened, Brian. He misses you. I think. You’re the son. That kind of thing matters to him. You could advise him on this stuff, other women, how to behave if he ever meets someone he doesn’t already know.” She puts plates and paper napkins and olives and nuts on a tray, and we look at the two of them sitting stiffly on the sectional – the joys of open plan – like soldiers peaking out at the enemy.

            Dad is wearing a short-sleeved shirt Mom bought him years ago and what look like cargo pants. What next? A man bun? Tattoos? He’s an orthodontist! I remind myself, picturing him fishing around in the closet, wondering what to wear for a date with Jean, his wife’s best friend, whom he’s never liked anyway. And I feel sorry for him, a little, having to start again with the whole shebang. Finding someone new.

            “She’s someone he knows,” Carly says, sotto voce,  as we head in. “She’s been around forever.”

            She even looks like Mom. A little taller but the same stocky build, the thick blonde hair, the heart-shaped face, the sweet smile. People used to think they were sisters.

            Journalism was still a career all those years ago when she and Mom drove out from Toledo, Ohio, in an old red Mustang that had been my grandfather’s. Before the Internet changed everything. The job still had some status, a future even. Jean had a Bachelor of Arts degree, the right progressive politics, and she had no trouble getting entry jobs with local newspapers or NGOs, always with the hope that one of them would lead to something better.

            But it never happened. Things would start out well, the job would seem like a good fit, she was sure this was it, but then it would end. Either the job wasn’t for her, or they’d decide she wasn’t for it. She failed to meet deadlines. And she was chronically late. Not just now and then, with reason, but often enough to suggest a resistance to turning up on time, anywhere.

            “They’ve let her go!” Mom hung up the phone in the kitchen one weekend morning, blue eyes wide in dismay, looking at us all seated around the breakfast table. “I’m not surprised! She was late again this week. Why does she do it?” – she clasped her forehead with her palm – “and he’s finally said Enough. Now, of course, she thinks she’s been mistreated. But he’s been warning her for weeks!”

            Dad and Carly and I ate our scrambled eggs and bacon and hash browns quietly, the clouds drifting across a pale blue sky. We’d been hearing about this for weeks, seen it coming. Instead of seeming a villain, the boss had been earning my sympathy. I pictured him in a shabby office somewhere off Market, Jimmy Stewart with thinning hair, smoking, sleeves rolled up, working always to a deadline. And there was Jean, arriving late again.

            “She doesn’t want to work,” Dad topped up his coffee. “She wants to be a lady of leisure. Always has. That’s what her mother was, and that’s what she wants to be. Feminism is all very well, but some women just want a life of ease.” He paused, expecting Mom to object. Then he went on.

            “Would you hire Jean?”

            But short as her stint with Bob had been, it changed her life. That was where she met James, charismatic James, James of the golden crowns, one on each side. You couldn’t miss them amongst those impeccably white, even teeth, golden flashes whenever he smiled. And James smiled a lot. “$2500 at least, each of them,” said Dad.

            James had an MBA from Berkeley, four young kids, and an angry wife. He was a corporate exec with one of the big oil companies, with a couple of pals in low-level crime. Drugs were available, as were women. But by the time Jean caught on to this, she was smitten. James was Black. He was racy. She was hoping once they were married – she was pregnant already with William – and he discovered the steady pleasures of suburban life, he’d dump the dodgy pals and stay home at night.

            And he did get an expensive divorce from the angry wife, and take up golf, and make a lot of noise about being a father to William and Genevieve (who came along later, by which time he and Jean were married). But the marriage was turbulent from the start. There were always other women. This led to rage and despair and threats of divorce from Jean, followed by apologies and promises and devotion from James, as he threw himself loudly into family life. And for a while, a kind of shaky domesticity would reign up there in the split-level.

            We happily fell in with this, Mom in particular. Driving home after a barbecue or a party at their place, Dad would announce grandly that James was ‘Okay’ after all, he’d done well for himself, while Affirmative Action may have helped, and we’d all been too quick to judge the marriage. Even Jean’s left wing politics weren’t that bad if she didn’t drone on too long.  

            We were fooled, of course. It always came to an end. There’d been someone else all along. It was all so different from the tidy white bread life we were living.

            “Do you still blame your father for what happened?¨

            She is still on the plump side. Zoftig, they call it. James is in New York now with his third wife, a sitcom actress twenty years his junior. I wonder vaguely what lockdown has done to a career in sitcoms. There is a butterfly pin on her dress, and only now, as I’m helping her on with her jacket, do I recognize it. I am taken aback and shouldn’t be. Dad will have been getting rid of Mom’s things. And why not? Who knows? Maybe it was a gift from Jean.

            “Not as much as I did.”

            Mom listened to Dad. And this was not the first time she had fallen asleep in a bathtub in a hotel in a foreign land because she’d taken too much Ambien. But this time Dad had fallen asleep too, in his pajamas, watching Bridge Over the River Kwai. The combination of big dinner, lots of alcohol, hot bath, and Ambien had been fatal.

            “You know, Brian” – I heard a lecture coming. No matter how old you are, there’s always a lecture coming – “your Mom always did what she wanted. I know. And I’ve known your Mom for decades.”

            “You think I don’t know that?”

            She didn’t seem to hear me. “People do foolish things all the time. We can’t blame your father for something your mother persisted in doing.”

            We look at Dad and Carly on the balcony, admiring the roses. She has inherited the gardening gene.

            “Did you know it had happened before?” I say.

            “It had?”

            “In Istanbul. But he got there in time. Same thing: big dinner the night they arrive, too much to drink, late back to the hotel, she’s anxious about the next day and her shoulder hurts, so she takes a hot bath. She did it all the time. He stays awake – he’s supposed to – she calls out to him now and then, he can hear her in the tub. Only this time he didn’t. Stay awake. No one was told then either. Just Carly and me. Not even you.”

            We are silent.

            “I know I sound bitter. And you’re right. She did what she wanted. But he is a doctor, Jean, a medical man. And she listened to him, she always did. Remember that time in Disneyland? The Ambien should have been stopped. Somehow. She took it like it was Aspirin.”

            I feel exhausted, suddenly, tired of talking.

            “You know what I hate most?” I’d never said this before, not even to Carly. “That she died in such a dreadful way. Did you know one person a day dies – drowns – in a bathtub? In the States. One a day, on average, 355 a year. As though it makes any difference, whether you die crossing the street or in a bathtub.”

            “I’ve got bad news.” He was calling from the hotel. Then he stopped, and I thought maybe something was wrong with his cell phone. But he was still there, l could sense him there on the line, and when he didn’t say my name, I had this weird sense that he’d forgotten it, momentarily.

            Hearing his ghostly voice at that hour in the darkness of my room, I wished suddenly that I wasn’t thousands of miles away, that I’d taken this one last trip with them. That I was sitting there in the hotel breakfast room with its morning buzz, a café au lait steaming in front of me, in one of those sturdy white cups they use, Mom across from me with a sly wink if Dad were to make one of his stupid comments about the French.

            I pictured the dentists and their spouses yakking about whether to go to The Louvre or The Pantheon or do a Bateau Mouche on the Seine, where to meet for dinner later on, and letting Mom know if the rooms were big enough (never) and the showers hot enough (rarely), and annoying everyone, certainly the French and the English, with their loud American ways.

            I pictured the waitresses scurrying in and out with the pots of coffee – Decaf, Hazelnut, Viennese, Expresso – and filling up the trays with sausages and bacon and scrambled eggs and scalloped potatoes – we’re in France! – and the bowls of fruit salad, the croissants, the brioches, the blueberry muffins in their wire baskets, and those little silver bowls with the strawberry jam.

            “Brian,” he said, bringing me back to the dimness of my room. “I have bad news, I’m afraid. I’m so sorry. Your mother died last night. Here. In the hotel. She drowned in the bathtub.”

            It is three months now since I saw him at Carly’s, and it is the end of summer. Lockdown has been eased, so I drop in late one afternoon. Covid worries him, but I’m young and I’m skeptical. I wear a mask. I do as I’m told. But that’s it.

            It is warm still but the day has a bite that seems to come from nowhere, that has me thinking of dead leaves on gravel, of cold, wet, winter.

            I knock gently, firmly. I am family. When there is no answer, there is a split second of panic. But he is only 62, I say to myself. I let myself in and call out in the hallway. What if he is cavorting with Jean in the bedroom or the shower or worse, cavorting with someone he’s met through eHarmony, someone twenty years younger. Like James. There was no car in the driveway, but who knows?

            On the island in the kitchen, where Eva would swing her lovely legs, are the remains of a ham sandwich – he never would eat his crusts – a can of Stella Artois and a bag of Doritos. The big carved wooden bowl – the Nigeria trip? – that for years displayed mangos and papayas and other exotic fruits, now holds s bunch of bananas, a jumbo pack of KitKat, and a pair of binoculars that have been knocking around for years.

            Mom had the living room windows replaced two or three years ago, and Claudine must have been at them of late with Gallic zest, for there is not a streak to be seen. I look across Raccoon Strait at Angel Island, green and lush as always, and I think of Carly for some reason. What goes through her mind these days when she stands here and looks at this view? Does she think of the girl she was growing up in this house? Does she have moments when some part of her would would give it all up to be that girl again? Certainly not.

            I can see him down there among the roses. He was always the gardener. Mom had no patience for it. They would go to the nursery once every year in spring, and she would buy impatiens, petunias, lobelia, maybe a gardenia, and he would buy a single rosebush, for her, usually a David Austen. The last one, the summer before lockdown, had been Vanessa Bell.

            “Are you still seeing Jean?” I call out, heading toward him across the lawn.

            “No. I’m not.” He straightens up and grins at me above the bushes, secateurs in hand. “It’s great to see you, Brian.  It really is.” The old, crooked smile. He’s gained some weight.

            To my surprise, I’m disappointed. I haven’t forgotten that day at Carly’s. They would be an odd couple, my father and Jean, but those are some of the best. Mel Brooks and Ann Bancroft. Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti.


            “Do you have time for a cup of tea? Better yet, a glass of wine?” He looks off to the west. “Is the sun over the yard arm? What does that even mean?” He shakes his head in bemusement. “What is a yard arm? I have a nice Chardonnay in the fridge. I just opened it last night, and I only had one glass.”

            “Sure. I’ll take a glass of a nice chardonnay.”

            We go up to the deck and sit down with our Chardonnay and some Doritos looking out over Raccoon Strait.

            “Brian,” he says. “What is this farce you have to go through if you don’t want to live the rest of your life alone?” I don’t know where he’s going with this, so I sit tight with my Chardonnay.

            “She says I came on too strong for her. When I kissed her in the hot tub. That I behaved inappropriately. That’s the word these days: Inappropriate. Inappropriate for what? A meeting of the United Nations? A sex club?”

            “We had gone to this restaurant in St. Helena. It was a bed and breakfast place, too, nice place. That’s why they had the hot tub. And it was her idea. After dinner, which was good, she suggested we try the hot tub. Can you imagine me in a hot tub? Your mother hated anything like that. We’d had some wine, of course, and I had a brandy and she had Drambuie, I think it was, and we were feeling mellow. So we toddled over to the hot tub and there was no one else around, so we disrobed and got in. And then after awhile I tried to kiss her. I did kiss her. Fulsomely, as they say. Isn’t that what hot tubs are for?”

            And now, she isn’t returning my calls or answering my emails. I don’t know what she’s so upset about. She’s not an ingenue. She knows what men are like. Good Lord, if anyone knows what men are like, it’s Jean. I have gone from ‘Prominent orthodontist, newly available!’ to ‘Harasser of dead wife’s best friend.’”

            “Don’t worry about it, Dad. It’ll blow over. Women are in a strange place these days. #MeToo and so on. They want men to behave better.”

            “I get that. I support that. But do they overreact at times? I assumed that if we were going to a hot tub, she was open to a certain kind of behavior.”

            “They do. Sometimes they overreact a little. But they’ll sort it.”

            “This may seem odd to you, to someone of your generation, but I was never unfaithful to your mother, not once. I married her and that was it for other women. They just didn’t interest me. Not even a one-night stand, at one of those dental conferences in Cleveland or Miami, where women were all over the place.”

            “Did you just come on too strong?”

            “I must have. I can be clumsy. I don’t know what they want. Maybe they don’t either.” He looks off into the distance.

            It had rained last night, an indication of cooler weather to come. He’s let the lawn go, I’m thinking as I sit there, the grass is getting long. I could come by and do it for him every couple of weeks. Keep track of the women in his life, give him some tips, as Carly would say. Go easy on the lunging.

            “Do you remember that time years ago,” I say, “when Mom and Jean took all of us kids to Disneyland? By train. Overnight. It was the Coast Starlight Express that ran down the coast. You dropped us off in Oakland, and we got into Anaheim the next day. We stayed in this Godawful motel with hideous green carpeting that was filthy, and the furniture was crap, legs broken, that kind of thing. And Carly got sick. She had a cheeseburger with onions and chips and a coke and two pieces of lemon meringue pie. And she threw up. On The Pirates of the Caribbean.”

            “I don’t. I guess you had to be there.”

            “Anyway, we wanted to stay another day, and it was okay with the motel, of course –  Who would want to stay there? – Jean was okay with it, and Mom phoned you to say we were staying another day, and you said No. You wanted us to come back. And Mom went along with it. I never understood why. Why you said No, and why she went along.”

            I had to get it out, once and for all.

            “If you could be so sure about that, so sure that Mom would do what you said, why couldn’t you do that in Paris? With the Ambien. Take it from her? Hide it. Do something. Just not let her have it when she was taking a hot bath late at night after lots of alcohol?”

            He sighed. “Brian, you have to stop blaming me for your mother’s death. She did what she wanted. Not always but in recent years. She loved running those trips, that’s what you forget, or maybe never knew, that she was good at it. Very good.”

            We watched as a lone sailor tacked his sloop into the wind and headed away from us toward Richardson Bay. Then he slapped his knee briskly, glad the moment was over. “I’m trying to be more likable, Brian, a better man, less of a bully. That’s why the thing with Jean was such a shock.”

            He was right. I was going to have to let go of my bitterness. Mom had chosen how she wanted to live, fatal as it had turned out to be. I had to make peace with that, with the randomness of life, its chaos.  I looked at him sitting there with his hapless expression and the nutty notion that he could change. Who does that? I had never been close to my father. I’d always been a Mommy’s boy. I guess I resented his favoritism for Carly. But what parent is perfect? Can you have two kids and not prefer one to the other?

            And looking down at the rose garden he was so proud of – maybe it was the Chardonnay on an empty stomach, I’d had no lunch – I seemed to see the whole business newly, the mess ups we human beings are so good at, our foolishness: Mom and her determination to keep doing something well past the point of wisdom, Dad in his pajamas snoring on the bed while Alec Guinness strutted about in Burma, Jean’s breasts floating in the hot tub like rubber cupcakes, and finally the lunge in for the kiss.

            And I imagined Mom smiling up at me, as always in the lingering days of summer, her dress a shaft of pink among the roses, the lawn behind her sloping down to the water, shaking her head in sorrow and disbelief: What a stupid way to die.

            As it turned out, Dad is a new man these days. Maybe not as I expected but then, I’ve never never lost the woman I love, never had to start all over again.

            He’s cooking, for one thing, decent stuff like Curried Prawns and Fish Stew. He’s golfing less and reading more. Last time I let myself in, there was a paperback copy of Madame Bovary on the dining table. Used, thumbed, it had seen life. Poor Madame Bovary. Even being French didn’t save her. She should have lived now. Was Claudine reading Flaubert while she ran the washing machine? In English?

            “You’re reading Flaubert?” I said, taking a beer out of the fridge.

            “Well, I thought I’d give it a try.” He looked a little sheepish. “A copy showed up at the clinic, and I’m always hearing it praised.”

            He doesn’t watch Fox News anymore, and he listens to NPR. He says. He even misses a chance, these days, to make fun of the French, which is a good thing. He is seeing Jean again. They are planning a trip to Marseilles next year.

            She phoned him a few weeks after the hot tub incident, as we call it, like Incident at Little Rock, or The Ox-Bow Incident. Maybe she felt she’d been hasty, that he wasn’t exactly Harvey Weinstein. Maybe she’d reflected on the shortage of good men around here or on how much Dad is worth. Crudely put, I know, but I don’t trust her, after The Hot Tub Incident.

            And I was going to tell him that he shouldn’t either, that Jean may be a little nutty, the James years may have given her strange notions about who men are, their lusts.

            Then I thought about it – without involving Carly, for once – and I decided it’s none of my business. If he wants to see Jean, why shouldn’t he? She wouldn’t be my cup of tea. Too plump, too much with the fake smile – like Mom at times – too unpredictable.

            But really, it’s up to him who he sees, what he does, the risks he takes.

            It’s his life.


Jenny Falloon studied English Literature at UC Berkeley and years ago wrote articles for San Francisco Bay Area sailing magazines. She has lived in Canada, the US, The Bahamas, England and, currently, Spain. Since retirement, her writing has won prizes in the U3A Javea and Xabia Book Circle. Her short stories have appeared in The Writing Disorder, Belle Ombre, Tales From a Small Planet, CafeLit, CommuterLit and Eclectica Magazine. She writes satire, memoirs, flash fiction, and short stories. 

Chapter V.

“Like me to write you a little essay on the Importance of Subject?  Well the reason you are so sore you missed the war is because war is the best [emphasis original] subject of all. It provided [sic] grasps the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get. What made 3 Soldiers [written by John Dos Passos] a sweet book was the war. What made Streets of Night [written by John Dos Passos] a lousy book was Boston. One was as well written as the other. I can hear you telling me I’m all wrong. Maybe I am. Love is also a good subject as you might be said to have discovered…. And don’t for christ sake feel bad about missing the war because I didn’t see or get anything worth a damn out as a whole show, [and] not just as touching myself, which is the deep, romantic view point, because I was too young. Dos, fortunately, went to the war twice and grew up in between….”

[Ernest Hemingway to Scott Fitzgerald, 1925]

The summer sunlight poked through the leaves of the Chestnut trees standing along the wide Boulevard Montparnasse. Ernest and I sat on the terrace of the Café La Closerie des Lilas. Shafts of bright, clear light descended from above, falling on the tabletops where their reflections burned like sanctuary candles. A bottle of light, red wine sat between us. He poured me another glass.

“Congratulations, Max wrote me that he decided to publish your novel,” I said. I knew I would get no thanks.  Ernest’s first novel, The Torrents of Spring, was rejected by a London publisher. I convinced him to send his second one, The Sun Also Rises, to Max Perkins at Scribner. Max wasn’t all that impressed, but I assured him that Ernest was the real thing and that it was important to get him now.

“You don’t box, do you? Ernest said. “I would guess not. The problem with you, Scott, you’re afraid to get hurt. Do you know how to tell time? “That was one thing about Ernest: it seemed he never cared about getting hurt. He thrived on risks, like he had something to prove.

He looked up at me with pupils black and wide, almost suggesting he wasn’t sure I could successfully operate a watch.

“I’m boxing with Callaghan this afternoon. We need a timekeeper.” He finished off the wine in his glass.

“Sure, sure,” I replied, “but why do you do it, why the boxing? Didn’t you see enough fighting in the War?”

“You’ll never get over it, will you?” he said while he poured himself more wine. He lifted the glass toward one of the streams of light and inspected the contents as he swirled the glass. He was right. I missed the greatest opportunity for any writer of my generation. Ernest had told me once that in war all of life is experienced in a day.

“It’s not my fault,” I protested. “It was over before I could get there. Tell me, what was it like?”

“It’s never over for those who were there. What happens to a man in war cannot be told. It must be felt.”

He stood up abruptly. “Are you coming?” he barked.

He made his way from the terrace and started walking up the Boulevard. I hurried and caught up with him.

“Where are we going?” I asked.


“You just had a half a bottle of wine.”                                                                                  

“I don’t like to drink too much before a match.”

We walked about two blocks, turned down a side street, and stopped at a pair of wooden doors. He pushed on the right one. It resisted. He pushed harder, and the worn door began moving, scraping along the cement floor. It was an abandoned warehouse. A thin canvas mat lay in the center. Ernest stepped onto it, stripped off his shirt and started throwing punches at the air.

“Do you have a watch?”

I pulled my watch from my vest pocket.

“Each round is three minutes. You say ‘start’ and ‘stop’ when it’s time.”

It was the War he was throwing in my face. I wanted to say, “where are the gloves. I’ll go a few rounds with you.” What I wanted to say and what I wanted to do were quite different. In truth, I was afraid to get hurt. Only to experience war could have made me take chances, lie in wet, muddy trenches with every nerve in my body quivering, digging my fingers into the mushy ground, the concussion of impending death exploding around me. What did courage feel like? I may never know, but I wanted to see and hear it, the kind of fearlessness that Ernest threw around so naturally.

He stopped throwing punches and walked up next to me, tipped his head to an area at the back of the large vacant space. He spoke in a near whisper, “You see that guy over there?”

I looked and saw a man pushing a broom. I looked back at Ernest.

“He’s Austrian, fought the War. He says he wasn’t on the Italian front, but I think he’s lying. The son-of-a-bitch could have fired the mortar that knocked me unconscious, nearly killed me. He’s moved his family to Paris, trying to start over. He’s one of the ones who got away, Scott.”

Wouldn’t Ernest ever stop fighting the War? Before I could answer, I heard the sound of the door scarping on the concrete floor. It was Morley Callaghan. He was carrying a duffle bag. Morley was an American spending the summer in Paris with his wife. He was a reporter turned writer and did some boxing in college. Ernest knew him back in the States. I had run into him a few times at the cafés in the Quarter.

Morley didn’t waste any time. We exchanged greetings and he opened the duffle bag and took out the gloves. Ernest grabbed a pair. Morley stripped off his shirt and put on the other pair.

“Alright, Scott,” Ernest said, slamming his clenched gloves together, “three minutes a round.”

I looked at my watch and I said, “start.” The two men squared-off. Ernest threw a few wild punches. Morley blocked them and countered with more measured blows. I kept an eye on the time. At three minutes, I yelled, “stop.” Ernest took most of the punches, but it just seemed to whet his appetite for more.

I shouted, “start,” and the punches started flying again. By the fourth round, Ernest looked like he was ready to collapse. His face was dripping with sweat; his hands dropped lower. The man seemed to welcome punishment. I studied Ernest’s face closely. It was frozen into a stolid mask. His eyes looked in Morley’s direction, but their focus went beyond his opponent’s punishing gloves. For a moment, I had thought I was looking at the cold strength of courage, but there was something wrong. Ernest didn’t appear like he was fighting to win. He was just holding on. I was sure that in his own mind, in some twisted sort of way, he believed he was winning. From what I had come to understand about him was that anyone could throw punches, but only a real man could take them.

My mind began to drift. Each bruising snap on Ernest’s skin fell on me; its sting was strangely familiar. Each blow penetrated my exterior and landed squarely deep inside me. Each strike pealed a painful soberness. The shoes of the man of the world were conspicuously covered with Minnesota mud. I stepped back. The glaze in Ernest’s eyes, his unwavering focus on the shimmering distance, chilled me. I knew now what I saw. From the ghastly ash of his fears, grew a strong, vital tree, but it did not survive from courage. It grew only from desperation.

My attention was drawn back to the match. Morley had caught Ernest with a right hand in the mouth. He hit the canvas. His lip was bleeding. His mouth full of blood. Morley turned to me. “Scott, how long was that round?” 

My watch! I glanced at the time. It was just over four minutes.

Morley grabbed Ernest by the arm and helped him to his feet.

“God damn you, Scott, I knew you let that round go too long,” Ernest yelled as he pulled off his glove and headed for the bathroom to try to stop the bleeding.

“Morley,” I said, “he thinks I did it on purpose. He thinks I wanted to see him get hurt.”

“He’ll get over it.”

He probably would, but I don’t know if I would. What was I thinking? He was tired and vulnerable. I had let him down. He was my peer, a writer who created truth from worn, ragtag pretense. His disappointment in me clawed at my inner fabric, a whole cloth that I had woven in night’s darkness out of thread plucked from hope and imagination. I had never walked in the mud of Minnesota. My parents were unknown to me. I had burst into the world as a novelist at an early age. The world had quickly swept me up in Alabama as one of its highest members. This was the seminal fiction which had become the hardened, immutable character of self which I had created. I could not bear to be re-written.

Ernest came out of the bathroom. His upper lip was bulging from tissue paper he had stuffed under it. I wanted to apologize and explain it was an accident. Before I could speak, with his finger putting pressure on his lip, he looked at me. His words were loaded with accusation,

“If you wanted to take a shot at me, why didn’t you put the gloves on? You couldn’t do it, could you?”

“I didn’t want…“ I said.

He interrupted, “I don’t want to talk about it now. Meet me at Gertrude Stein’s tonight.”

I nodded and walked out.

I walked up the Boulevard to the rue Palatine where Zelda and I were living at that time.  When I came in, she was sitting by the window in the pallor working on a painting.

“Home early, aren’t you?” She said.

“I thought you might want to come to Gertrude Stein’s tonight. It’s Saturday. We’ll stop at Les Deux Magots first for a drink.”

“Where were you, or shouldn’t I ask? Who were you with?”

“Ernest, watching him box.”

“Of course, who else?” She stopped painting and turned toward me.

“And he’ll be there tonight?”

“What difference does it make?” I replied. I sat on the couch straining to appear nonchalant. Zelda stood up and stood in front of me.

“You spend more time with him than me. That’s the difference it makes.” She paused, her face straight and stern, her eyes sure, and blurted, “in bed and out.”

What? What was she saying? All those rumors started by McAlmon, and now this. I got up. I was speechless. It was the worst thing she had ever said to me. I began to walk toward the door.

“Wait,” she said, “there’s something else.”

She went into the bedroom and returned with the briefcase in which I kept my latest manuscripts.

“What are you doing with that?”

“I’m coming with you for a drink.”

I didn’t understand, but I was still reeling from her remark. I couldn’t focus on anything else.

We left the apartment and walked north toward the Seine. I didn’t know what to say. Any vigorous defense that I wasn’t a fairy just gave the proposition more credence. Any divergent discussion smacked of changing the subject out of guilt. We walked in silence.

The café was crowded. We sat together at the bar. No one recognized us, and, for the first time, I hoped no one would. I hunched over. My face hovered over the cracked and stained wood of the surface of the bar. A woman, sitting at a table behind me, said in a hushed voice.” Isn’t that what’s-his-name, the guy who writes those stories in the magazines?” I turned my head just enough to catch sight of who this woman was, but the table was clean and the chairs empty.

Zelda lifted the briefcase onto the bar and opened it. I watched with interest. She removed my yellow legal-sized pad and lay it on the bar. I glanced at the open page. It was in Zelda’s handwriting.

“You’re writing another article?” I asked. “Which magazine? Are you using Harold as the agent?”

“No, I’m tired of having you added as co-author,” she replied.

“You know you won’t get more than a few hundred dollars for it without my name.”

“I don’t care, Scott, I want something that is mine, just mine. That’s what you like isn’t it? Self-sufficient women.”

“This is about Lois, again. Right?” I shuffled my feet and grabbed my drink, digging-in and bracing for the concussion of accusations.

“All those women in Hollywood had a career. They were someone, not of someone.”

I picked up the yellow pad and started reading.

“What’s this? It’s about us. What publication is this for?

“It’s a novel.“

She lit a cigarette, crossed her legs, and turned away from me, surveying the room. There was no place she could hide.

I turned and put her squarely in my sight.

“This is garbage, amateur babble. It’s about us. You used material I want to use in my next novel. You’ll ruin me.”

I slammed my drink on the bar. Some gin jumped out. It sat in a small puddle as a reminder of the frustration and, more deeply, the disappointment from which it had sprung.

“Lois’ career had nothing to do with it. She believed in me. She gave me the confidence to be who I am.”

Zelda stood up. People began to stare.

“And who am I, Scott, one of your characters whom you push around with a number two pencil, erasing this and adding that?”

I took a quick glance around. I directed my eyes straight ahead, away from the crowd. I lifted my drink and whispered. “Sit down, people are beginning to look.”

Zelda raised her voice. “Isn’t that what you want?”

She turned to the crowded tables. She raised her right hand high into the air, addressing the patrons. “I present to you the great F. Scott Fitzgerald.”  She bowed and swooped her hand in my direction.

I grabbed her by the arm and pushed her back on to the bar stool. My eyes were fixed on the floor. I couldn’t bear to see the face of anyone who might have mistaken me for a desperate boy from Minnisota. Zelda took the yellow pad and began to put it back into the briefcase. I grasped her arm and tightened my grip.

“Remember, no novels. Isn’t that ridiculous ballet enough for you?”

She got up, took a step back from the bar, her eyes never leaving mine, and pulled her dress over her head and tossed it on the floor. She stood there in a white satin slip with a plunging neckline and a hem high above her knees. She began pirouetting away from the bar and knocked into a table. The glasses wobbled and wine spilled onto the sleeve of one gentleman’s sport coat. Diners squirmed in their seats, moving their chairs in anticipation of where they would be safe from her next onslaught. She stopped at a table.

“I’m Zelda, the wife of the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald,” she declared, “I’m sure you know him. He would be happy to give you his autograph. In fact, it would be the only thing he’s written lately.”

 She continued circling the room and arrived back at where I was sitting. She curtsied, looked at me, picked her dress up from the floor, and said, “Now, is that ridiculous enough for you.” I ordered a double gin. She took the briefcase off the bar, held it by its sides and swung it violently. Yellow pages fluttered through the air and fell helplessly to the floor. She threw down the briefcase and walked out of the café without another word. I looked down at the floor. I saw the pages I had written in the South of France during a time of betrayal, pages which were flesh and bone.

There on the floor lay Gatsby. He was as real as the person I was. He first introduced himself to me while I was living on Long Island in New York. I began to know him quite well. I wrote some pages about him and sent them to Max. He insisted that this character needed a past, a boyhood, some plausible experiences responsible for making him the man he was. My mistake was that I acquiesced and created what I thought should be Gatsby’s formative past. For some time after that he stopped visiting. The pages I reserved for him remained empty.

In that summer, secluded in Provence, I continued to try to write Jay Gatsby’s novel. Zelda was restless and resentful. She knew how to wound me. She met a French aviator on the beach and spent every day and too many late nights with him. I was convinced something happened in that time that could never be repaired. The person I had become, the person created from life-giving conviction, now had suffered a shattering blow. For the first time since the stardust of my dreams had become the sculptured rock of my firm belief, I had felt a quaking.

Where was Gatsby? Why did he leave me like this? I had gotten to know him quite well. His lofty visions for himself rivaled those of God Himself.  Not even the passing of time could counter the perfection of his Platonic reality. He had met the girl of his dreams, but lost her, but, no matter, she would be his … not again…she would be his as it was meant to be when it was meant to be. I sensed, however, there was something he wasn’t telling me. It bothered me greatly.

It was on the darkest of those nights in the South of France when Gatsby came back to me. Provence settled still and quiet on that night. The easy, hushing sound of the tame tide floated through the open window. The light from the lamp on my desk reflected a warm glow on the yellow paper that waited patiently. Zelda had left earlier with Jozan, her Frenchman, and hadn’t yet returned. I was alone.

The night was warmer than usual. The slow-moving breeze from the sea was missing. I rolled up my sleeves, and sat at my desk, looking blindly through the window at the white moonlight tracing a path on the sandy beach. It was near midnight. The emptiness of the room and the stillness of the night pressed on me, and I sat immobile, paralyzed. A short, soft effort of air crept unexpectedly through the window and the paper on my desk fluttered.  I picked up my pencil and wrote, “he could climb to it, if he climbed alone.”

I heard a rustling sound and glanced out the window. I thought it was Zelda returning. I heard it again and realized it was coming from behind me. I turned, and there was Gatsby. He walked around the room, nervously, his hands in his pockets, his head down as if he was thinking. He stopped.

“You know, you got it wrong”, he said, measuring each word. “She’s not the girl of my dreams. She is my girl, in spite, of my dreams.”

I now knew what he was hiding. He had fallen out of the heavens, where in his imagination, he had aligned the stars to his whim and landed harshly on the earth. I sat again at my desk and wrote quickly, “[He] forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.” I poured myself a half glass of gin, took it down in a gulp. I dropped my head into my folded arms lying on the desk and began to weep. 

I picked up my manuscript lying on the café’s floor. I finished my second glass of gin and looked out the open door. The fading, soft blue of the evening had begun. The night falls slowly in the summer in Paris. In a few hours an excited darkness, which plays recklessly among the lights of the street cafés, will blend, seamlessly, with the beckoning starlight, and the city will awaken. I walked out and made my way through the growing dimness toward Gertrude Stein’s salon.

I passed through the Jardin du Luxembourg, continued walking up the rue de Fleurs, and stopped at number 27. I proceeded through the covered passageway and entered the courtyard. A flower garden occupied the center, and I circled around on the path until I came to the atelier. The hum of conversation soaked through the door.

I knocked, waited, and no one answered. I tried the door. It opened, and Alice, Gertrude’s partner, greeted me.

Gertrude Stein was an American writer living in Paris. She supported local artists and writers and was a collector. Matisse and Cezanne hung on the walls. Picasso sketches, attached by tape beneath the paintings, fluttered as I passed by them. I navigated my way through the crowd to a table set against the side wall, where I poured myself a drink. Someone was pushing their way through the crowd. It was John Dos Passos.

“Dos, have you seen Ernest?”

“Yea, he’s around here. He’s tanked.”

“I was to meet him here,” I said, wondering if he had mentioned anything to Dos about this afternoon.

“I’ve never known Ernest to carry a gun,” Dos said.

“He has a gun?”

“Right, I just thought you should know. Oh, I saw Zelda, at least, I thought it was her, on my way here. She was walking down the rue Bonaparte. She seemed to be in a hurry. I called to her, but she didn’t answer. Anything wrong? What’s going on?”

“Dos, you were in the War.”

Dos gave a short nod. His forehead wrinkle; his brows flexed down, forming a straight, dark line.

“Would you get upset if someone asked you about what it was like?”

“I wrote a God damned book about it. You read it…Three Soldiers. Everything I had to say about it is in there. No one, who was in the war, wants to talk about it. Is Zelda’s stomach giving her trouble again?”

“Zelda… her stomach? No. It’s just a…a…yes, I read Three Soldiers, but I want to know more.”

“I wrote that in the trenches. At night I wrote in the light of the artillery bursts.”

My body straightened. My head rose. My balance faltered, and a wave of excitement usurped my thinking and shot through my chest. My limbs went weak. It was the romance of it all, like a pre-pubescent girl reading her first scene which penetrated her shielded desire in the way it was meant to be touched.

Dos’ face relaxed and he looked away from me. He stared blankly into the crowd.

“Scott, forget about the war. Sometimes at the beginning of what you thought was a great event, proves itself to be anything but.” He turned back in my direction. “What’s going on with you and Zelda?”

“Dos, I need to find Ernest.”

I lifted my drink, stood on my toes, and looked around the room. I spotted him standing near the Matisse collection on the other side of the room. I slid my body sidewise through the crowd. I heard Leo, Gertrude’s brother, lecturing to Ernest, another man, and a woman.

 “If you look carefully,” I heard Leo say, “you will see that Henri doesn’t paint things. Like he once told me, ‘I paint the difference between things’.”

I pushed my way through the last few people, and Ernest turned to me.

“I want to talk to you,” I said, “about this afternoon.”

His face hardened into a mask of tense skin and contracted muscles. He looked down at the drink in his hand, snapped his head up. A strained smile appeared on his face.

“I’m fine, nothing to talk about.”

I wondered where he was hiding the gun.

“Scott, Scott.” Someone was calling me from within the crowd. I walked closer. It was Alice.

“There’s a man at the door who said that he’s here to speak to you.”

“Speak to me? About what? What’s his name?

Alice pushed passed the few persons standing between us. “He said you wouldn’t know his name. He said he works at the warehouse.”

Ernest was standing behind me. He looked at Alice.

 “I asked him to stop by,” he said. “I told him Scott would pay him ten francs to hear about the War.”

Why didn’t he just shoot me. It would be far less painful.

Ernest followed Alice and they disappeared into the crowd.

I was left standing alone, only the gin remained. The hum of the crowd became distant and foreign. I faced the wall, my spirit swirled and fell farther down into an emptiness where once existed inexorable expectations. From the bottom of this pit, I heard a woman scream. The room went quiet. Ice clinked against the bottom of a glass. I turned around and saw the crowd compacting itself forward. I stood on a nearby chair to see what was going on. A semicircle had formed around Ernest and the Austrian. Gertrude pushed her way to the front and stopped with a jerk when she reached the pair.

 “What are you doing? she said. “Have you lost your mind? Put that gun away.” 

The Austrian was pale, a sweat had broken from his forehead. Ernest was staring intently at him with the gun cocked and pointed.

Cosa hai da dire? Ernest asked, his eyes daring the Austrian to answer.

Niente, Io ho fatto niente.

“Where did you learn the Italian? In Austria? No reason to speak Italian in Austria.”

“Yes, some Italian and some English.”

“Bullshit,” Ernest yelled out. “You learned it at the front.”

“No… I was not at Italy.”

Ernest stepped back, lowered the pistol and fired a shot into the floor. A flash ripped from the barrel; a crisp bang bounced off the walls. Alice stooped down and covered her head. Shrieks erupted from some of the women in the room. The first line of onlookers stepped back. Some standing behind stumbled and were caught by others behind them. Smoke floated around the room, and reality seeped from the odor of gunpowder. I stepped off the chair, squeezed my way to the side of the room, and pressed my back on the wall.

The Austrian’s arms, extended in front of himself, were shaking. He flipped his hands up as if to shield a bullet which may come at any moment. Ernest again pointed the gun in his direction. The Austrian fell to the ground, covering his head with his arms. His entire body was quivering. He tried to speak, but his breathing was too rapid, and his mouth shook so much that his words were just bursts of empty air.

Ernest, with his arm extended and the gun trained on the man, stared down at him and asked, “How many children do you have?”

“Three,” the Austrian mumbled.

Ernest yelled out, “Scott, where are you?”

I remained silent. He yelled louder, “Scott, where the hell are you? I thought you wanted to experience the War.”

Yes, I wanted to know the War, but from the bottom of a trench, holding on to the moist security of the firm and trusted earth.

“Get up here, Scott.”

I started toward the action. I reached the front but stopped far enough away. I had heard stories how soldiers had to wipe the blood and body parts of their comrades off their faces.

“Scott, it’s up to you. Do I shoot him?”

I took a step closer. Ernest was wobbling, his head bobbing.

“Why is it up to me?”  I answered. “Why would I want an innocent man to be shot? A man who’s done nothing to me. A man with a family, a man who had the misfortune of being dragged into this bizarre mess. I can’t stand to see him suffer anymore.”

Ernest turned toward me; his arm with the gun was still extended. He walked closer. He reared his head back, put his arm down, and grabbed the pistol by its barrel. He thrusted it at me. I took it from him. His head swayed back, and, with his body wobbling side-to-side, he focused his glazed eyes on mine, and said, “Now you know what war is about.”

Chapter VI.

“Dear Sheila….

I want to die, Sheila, and in my own way. I used to have my daughter and my poor lost Zelda. Now for over two years your image is everywhere. Let me remember you up to the end which is very close. You are the finest. You are something all by yourself. You are too much something for a tubercular neurotic who can only be jealous and mean and perverse.  I will have my last time, though you won’t be here…I wish I could have left you more of myself.  You can have the first chapter of the novel and the plan. I have no money but it might be worth something…I love you utterly and completely.”

[F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1939]

The train began to slow. I heard the door between the cars open and the conductor walked past. He continued to the front of the car and grabbed the back of a seat whenever the braking caused an unexpected bounce or shove. I braced my foot on the back of the seat in front of me, resisting the forward movement. The station appeared and the conductor announced my stop. I disembarked and hailed a taxi.

The driver dropped me at the Garden of Alla on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. The Garden consisted of a dozen or two of newly constructed bungalows, which sprouted up around a main house. The bungalows served as temporary residences for many of Hollywood’s celebrities and writers. Their comings and goings frequently landed in gossip columns, and their nearsighted, unbridled doings brought an air of frivolity to the place, and too often, the police. I often wondered if someone misspelled “Allah”, or, if God had refused to lend his name to the establishment.

It was only a few days that I had been in Hollywood. I spent most of my time alone. Zelda was still confined to Asheville Mental Institution in North Carolina. On my first day in the Gardens, I needed cigarettes. I walked a short distance up the block and entered a drugstore. There was a couple sitting at a table near the counter. The young man turned to the girl and held her face gently. She ran her hand through his sandy hair and pulled him close. Their lips met sweetly, and soon, they were lost in passion. People began to stare. A chill ran through me. A clammy sweat crept over my body. People and objects began to recede. I reached out and held onto some shelving, holding tight. I pulled hard, and harder, trying to bring myself back. There was a crisp snap, and I fell. I sat on the floor, and for all my efforts, I held only a piece of the shelf in my hand. The young couple was gone.

I spent most of my time at the Studio working on a script. After a few days, I had had enough of the stale, humid air in the cottage on the Metro lot, and I decided to stay home and write. The truth was, no matter how many words I put on the page, I never really wrote anything. It was all gone: the azure tide of the Mediterranean fading into the tenderness of the night, love that vibrated like a tuning fork struck on a star, and a green light marking the dock of the orgiastic future. All gone. What could I do? I needed the money. I continued to churn out scripts, blueprints from which directors and producers built their dreams, and, without reserve or chagrin, their wealth.

In the late afternoon I took a walk in the light of the fading promise of the California sun. When I was midway down the block, five or six cars, swerving and rumbling, rounded the corner. They paraded up the street, recklessly, some side-by-side, others trailing closely behind. The caravan stopped at a bungalow across the street, not far from where I stood. Men and women alighted from the cars. I recognized a writer from the studio, Bob Benchley. He noticed me staring.

“Is that you, Scott?”

I couldn’t ignore him. I pushed myself toward the crowd.

“Scott, come over here. Why don’t you join us? We’re celebrating a good friend’s engagement and, you know, it’s Bastille Day.” A wide, smirking smile appeared on his closed lips, his flushed cheeks bouncing up like two red balls.

I forced a smile and nodded.

“Oh, I want you to meet someone,” he said. He called into the crowd, and a young woman, a bit tipsy, stepped forward.

“Merriam, this is F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

He turned in my direction. “Merriam wants to be an actress. I’m helping her get her start.” He opened his eyes wide and raised his brows. The woman looked at me. Her face was still, her eyes glaring. She seemed shocked that I was still alive.

Bob grabbed me by the arm, and we entered the bungalow. The small drawing room was filled with laughter, erupting loud and abrupt, conversations mingled together into a sonorous hum, men and women gathered in smiling groups, and I sat in a chair in the corner. I lit a cigarette and the smoke swarmed around me.

Through the haze I caught sight of a woman, a decade or so younger than I was I guessed, clinging to the arm of a man dressed in a waistcoat I had seen adorning the stiff and royal in Europe. I heard him addressed as Marquess. The woman stood proudly at his side, her head raised, her hair golden, and her slim body moved with a sophisticated sway. Her smile, manufactured and undirected, beamed by the virtue of her association with a marquee, and, unmistakably, by her arrival as a woman of society.

It was a few days later when again I met the woman with the golden hair and sophisticated sway. She and I were guests at a Writers’ Guild dinner dance at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles. Her name was Sheila Graham, a gossip columnist. She belonged to the class of finest people who had swept me up years ago in a country club in Montgomery. I had learned she was engaged to marry the Marquee, nevertheless, I found her interesting, and in a most scandalous way, exciting.

We sat alone at our adjacent tables. Everyone had gone to the dance floor. She didn’t notice me watching her. I got up and walked around the back of our tables. I stood behind her, and asked,” Would you like to dance?” She looked at me over her shoulder, smiled, took my hand, and we began to dance. No one had felt so right in my arms since a young, southern belle melded into my dreams.

As I held her in my arms, my thoughts wandered back to the familiar flicker I had seen from Catherine’s terrace that night in New York when the heavens had fallen. The dream-laden stars had lain before me like the fading embers of a temple filled with prayers burned beyond recognition. As we moved smoothly across the floor, I was struck by the realization that what was started by imagination and dreamed into reality had faded and fallen even farther away. Gatsby lay buried in the stillness of a dusty warehouse. In Paris I had struggled to write my next novel. I had reached down, time and time again, into the ash of a once successful writer to the find words, but all I came upon was the gin, the crooked floors of the Montparnasse cafes, and flirtations I re-scripted in my mind into genuine approval. Death lives in many twisted forms. Had I lost Zelda? Now, in the city of fantasy and oversized opportunity, I would rise again, but I knew I could no longer climb alone.

Sheila’s younger years and familiar, golden hair pulled on the hands of time. I reached out to her from the dizzying downward whirl. I thought she could give me all I needed to start again. However, it was sometime later that I discovered, in fright and panic, there was something Sheila did not have. It was Zelda’s alone to give.

The Marquee was called back to Britain for a while, and, in spite of her pending nuptial, Sheila and I began seeing each other regularly. In fact, she ended her engagement, and she and I behaved in the manner of the infatuated. We danced at all the clubs and spent the nights together. We shared our lives in all the known ways of a couple, and in a way that I had never imagined.

Sheila always had to keep up appearances. Her column had made her a target in Hollywood. When your career is taking shots at anyone who’s worth writing about, that is anyone who fell off the straight and narrow of the sinuous Hollywood line, you needed to keep your guard up at all times. She could make or break any up and coming actor. All she needed to do was to ignore him. Then he or she would come pounding on her door, giving her dirt they just dug up in the back lot from some jaundiced garden put there by an avarice producer or studio head. However, in spite of her high profile, there was something about Sheila which ran deeper. Below all the sophisticated mannerisms and cordial voice, I sensed a tentativeness, her movements were sharp and stiff and her words measured. What I saw was a little girl, a vulnerable little girl.

I lived in Encino and Sheila had an apartment in Hollywood. Photos of her family hung on the wall in the parlor. The picture of her sister, Alicia, appeared as a woman of her late teens. The photo was possibly taken at her debut into society. Her father and mother, shown together, bore the stately dress of the time. The mother was bound tightly at the waist, her long dress bunching at the rear as a proud protuberance of excess, popular with the British aristocracy of the time. Her father sat dominantly strait, his hands folded in front of him and his moustache, adorning a straight upper lip, painted a picture of a captain of industry and family.

 My favorite photograph was of Sheila at an early age, dressed in a simple, white dress standing next to her older brother. He was decked out in the fashion of a part-time sportsman and a fulltime pursuer of leisure. There were photos of an aunt and uncle or two. One of the uncles stood beside an Aston Martin with the top and windows down, resting his elbow on the opened door frame. His smile invited anyone with sufficient means to join him for a day of carefree roaming. 

Sheila and I left my house in Encino, where we had spent the night. She was driving, and we were en route to her apartment in Hollywood. I wanted to know more about her. Maybe it was the writer in me seeking to find whatever it was which made a character come to be who he or she was. Or maybe I just wanted to hear more about the aristocratic way of life, reaffirming my place among my peers.

“Tell me more about your sister?” I asked.

Sheila lifted herself slightly off the seat, seemingly, to settle more comfortably.

“There’s not much to tell. Like me, she went to a boarding school in North England and married a few years after she had graduated from Cambridge.”

Sheila gripped the wheel higher up, bringing her hands closer together, as if she needed more control.

“I don’t think I saw any photos of her husband. Did I miss them?”

She kept her eyes directed on the road. “No. It was a short marriage. Divorce you know.”

“Oh, sorry to hear that. What is she doing now? Hope all went well.”

She didn’t answer. Maybe there was some affair, and she didn’t want to go into it.

We rode in silence for a few minutes.

“How did your father make his fortune?” I asked, instantly regretting the topic, thinking that perhaps I might have touched into another sensitive area.

Sheila turned the wheel hard. We jerked to a stop on the side of the road. She was in tears. She bent her head down on the steering wheel. She was crying steadily, gasping for air.

“Your father,” I said, putting my arm around her shoulders, “I shouldn’t have asked. I’m sorry.”

She picked her head up. “It’s all a lie,” burst out between the sobs. She dropped her head back onto the steering wheel.

I remained silent. I didn’t want to upset her with any more questions.

“I was raised in an orphanage from the age of six. I never knew my father. My mother was an alcoholic. I have no family, no sister, no brother, no anyone. My real name is Lily Sheil. My mother and I shared a room in London with a wash woman. She had the bed and we lived on the couch. She couldn’t support me any longer and sent me to live at the orphanage until the age of fourteen. You mustn’t say anything about this. Promise me, promise. You are the only one who knows.”

“But the pictures…” I said.

I had them made by a photoshop in London.

“Even the one of you in the white dress?”

“No, it was a picture of my mother and me. I had them take her out and add a suitable brother.”

 At last, the mystery of her deeper vulnerability, which I sensed in her every word and movement, unraveled before me. A valley of ash, which grew like wheat had become true and yellow through the magic of a fairytale nurtured so carefully, lived on so gaily. The Great Sheila.

I remembered the advice that Gatsby had given me on that miserable night in Provence. One could continue to climb to the top of his ineffable imagination only if he climbed alone. I wept for him and me that night. Again, a tear rolled down my cheek. I knew then that Sheila had “wed” her “unutterable visions” to my “perishable breath,” and she could never again climb alone. In the way Gatsby loved Daisy, in the way I loved Zelda, I then knew Sheila loved me.

Chapter VII.

 “… It is very quiet out here now. I went in your room this afternoon and lay on your bed awhile, trying to see if you had left anything of yourself. There were some pencils and the electric heating pad that didn’t work and the autumn out the window that won’t ever be the same. Then I wrote down a lot of expressions of your face but one I can’t bare [sic] to read, of a little girl who trusted me so and whom I loved more than anything in the world — and to whom I gave grief when I wanted to give joy… It was all fever and liquor and sedatives…

 “I’m glad you’re rid of me. I hope you’re happy and the last awful impression is fading a little till someday you’ll say ’he can’t have been that black’.”

[F. Scott Fitzgerald to Sheila Graham, undated]

Sheila never really understood the extent of my illness.

One night we were having dinner in her apartment. We had run out of wine, and she picked up my glass.

“No, you shouldn’t do that,” I said, putting my hand over the top of the glass. “I have TB.”

She exhaled an audible breath, air of incredulousness. She would get exasperated when I would insist that we change our seats in the theater when someone near us was a “cougher.”

“What makes you think you have TB?”

“I’ve had it since college.”

“How bad is it? What did the doctor say?” Her words challenging and staccato.

“He never said anything about it. I never told him about it. I was afraid he might send me to a sanitarium.”

“How do you know you have it?” Her voice grew to a higher pitch.

She didn’t understand the facts. I leaned forward and waited for her attention to settle coldly in my eyes. I told her the ugly truth.

“My father died from it, and don’t you know that writers are very susceptible to lung diseases. Whenever you hear a writer coughing, move away from him.”

She answered matter-of-factly. “Don’t you think if you had TB, I would have gotten it from you by now?”

“No, when I’m having an upbreak, I stay away.”

She continued looking at me for another moment. I thought she was about to say something, but she dropped her head, lifted her fork, and poked at her food. She had a serious air of concern about her. She looked up, her eyes penetrating me.

“Is that why you wear the hat and scarf?”

“The breeze can be a problem for me. It can create a chill which is undetectable but devastating to the lungs of a TB patient.”

“But this is Los Angeles,” she countered.

“You just don’t understand, do you?  It’s different for me.” I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I had other problems.

Metro fired me two weeks after assigning me to write a balcony scene for a movie called, Gone With the Wind. It was my last project for the studio. I was writing some stories for Esquire, but money was a problem. It was barely enough to keep up with Scottie’s expenses at Vassar.

My difficulties, however, ran much deeper. My dream, so purely conceived and carefully cultivated, was gasping for breath. My existence, my place as a writer, was crumbling. Everything hinged on publishing a successful novel.

The magazine stories didn’t take much out of me. They were nothing more than a lot of fluff, the superficialities of life framed in entertaining words and catchy phrases. A novel was quite a different matter. It is truth which separates the good works from the great.

In the beginning years, I only needed the intoxication of youth to bring real life to the page. In the wake of time, in the crush of coursing disappointments, it took all my strength to look at what was and what is. I could face it only in the numbness of the gin. I drank steadily.

At night I would read to Sheila sections of my novel as I completed them. One of the perils of truth is that it has a way of being just that. I had entitled my new novel, The Last Tycoon. It was partially inspired by my relationship with Sheila. Her character, Kathleen is in love with Stahr. He is attracted to her because she resembles his dead wife, Minna. Unfortunately for Kathleen, Stahr is still in love with his deceased wife.

Sheila began ignoring me. She said little during dinner. She would often sit by the window, staring off into nothingness. One night, as I walked to my room to do some writing, I said, “dear, why don’t you go for a walk. It might make you feel better.” I was about to open the door to my room, and I heard in a soft, slow, voice trailing off into an inaudible word or two.

“Why don’t you divorce her…”

I stopped and dropped my eyes to the floor.

“I will, I will,” I said, never turning around. “I have had enough. She told her psychiatrists that I was insane and should be committed. I can’t take anymore.”

I entered my room. I was alone and knew instantly there could be no divorce. To divorce Zelda would be to divorce myself. We wed the first time I saw her. An unknowing fantasy stumbled out of the blue light of the night, fell into a poor boy’s dreams, and emerged into my flesh and bone. Gatsby was wrong, terribly wrong. I needn’t go it alone to reach “the incomparable milk of wonder.” Zelda needed to stop being so selfish and do what I said. Together it would be as it should be. She could give me something which Sheila never could… my past.

Sometimes the path to personal demise is built from what is perceived as unexpected opportunity. After being fired by Metro, without a salary for the first time, Walter Wanger, a producer, hired me to write a script in collaboration with a young writer, Budd Schulberg. The movie was set in Dartmouth College. Budd and I needed to go to New Hampshire.

My TB was acting up. I was running a low-grade temperature, so Sheila accompanied me to New York. From there, Budd and I continued on to Dartmouth, and Sheila waited for my return at the Weylin Hotel in the City.

I really don’t remember much. It started with some champagne which Budd and I drank on the plane. When he woke me up in a hotel room in New Hampshire, it was three days later.

“I called Sheila. I didn’t know what to do. She wants you to call her,” Budd said.

He told me I had blacked-out last night after two days of drinking. It had happened to me before. I needed to get to a doctor and stay in bed for a few days with an intravenous drip. The vomiting and nausea, the shaking, the night sweats, but I had to do it.

I arrived back in New York. The whirl around me quickened. Wanger pulled my contract, and I couldn’t stop drinking. Sheila arranged for me to see a New York psychiatrist, Dr. Hamilton. The doctor’s path and mine had crossed a few times in Paris in 1925, and he knew about my drinking. Sheila also had told him about what she considered to be my hypochondriasis.

A knock came on the door of our hotel room. I was sitting on the sofa. Dr. Hamilton entered and pulled up a chair next to me. I took the bottle of gin from my coat pocket and took a mouthful.

“A psychiatrist, I never knew what kind of doctor you were. You don’t mind if I take a drink now and then, do you? It’s much preferable to the resulting alternative.”

“The shakes,” he replied.

He opened his bag and took out a bottle of pills.

“Take one of these every six hours. It will help.”

He checked me into New York Doctor’s Hospital. We talked for an hour each day for the next two weeks. On our last meeting, Dr. Hamilton leaned back in his chair. His focus piercing me.

 “This fear of having TB and your other hypochondriacal symptoms do not come from any fear of dying. Your drinking is not related to this.”

“Fear of death? Death may be what I need.”

“Of course,” he responded, never moving his head, his eyes now meeting mine. “Then you would never grow old.”

A wave of tingling started in my arms and shot through my chest making my heart pound. The tingling shot to my legs; a weakness overcame me.

“Let it go, my friend, your adolescence is over. Bury the past and let it lie in peace.”

 I fumbled in my coat pocket. I put a cigarette in my mouth. My hands were trembling as I held the match. I took a drag, stood up, and ground the cigarette out in the ashtray on the desk.

“I have to go,” I said.

Sheila and I returned to Hollywood. I took a bottle of gin to my room and continued working on my novel. Stahr, my main character, continued to reveal himself to me. I began to see how different he was from Gatsby. It was what Dr. Hamilton had said that made it all so clear. Stahr had buried his past. He was a man deprived of hope. Gatsby was a man of untethered, boundless hope. His only mistake was that he invested it unwisely. It was this difference which the doctor had failed to see. It is hope that separates the beautiful from the damned. I knew I needed to see Zelda.

I told Sheila I was going to Cuba with Zelda for a vacation.

“Go to your Zelda,” Sheila told me. “I had a life in Hollywood before you, and I will have it again.”

The spinning, the chaotic downward whirl, ­ quickened. The gin, money a constant worry, every day ripping the life of a novel from my guts, not knowing if I would ever see Sheila again, Zelda walking a thin edge, and my past fading with each breath I took. I could no longer reach out. I simply held on.

I picked up Zelda at Asheville Hospital, and we flew to Cuba. I continued drinking. There was a cock fight and I rescued one of the chickens. A group of men chased me, caught me and beat me. Zelda remained at the hotel and prayed during the entire trip. I drank. We flew back to New York, checked-in to the Algonquin Hotel. We were thrown out.  Zelda went back to Asheville. I checked into Doctor’s Hospital, checked out, continued drinking, and flew back to Hollywood. My TB was back, so Sheila stayed with me in Encino. I wanted to kill her, but I couldn’t find my gun. I drank some more. I slapped her. The police came. Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post rejected to serialize what I had written of The Last Tycoon. The world was a blur.

It was all slipping further from my grasp. No one wanted to read F. Scott Fitzgerald anymore. Zelda wasn’t getting any better, and Sheila…. I needed to see her.

She consented to see me, and I met her at her apartment. She opened the door and threw her arms around me. It was what I needed.

Encino was dreadfully hot in the summer, and I found it hard to breathe. I moved to an apartment in Hollywood. My breathing didn’t improve. I even had trouble climbing stairs. How ironic, Gatsby once told me that to climb to it, I must climb alone…if only I could.

I had to stop drinking. It was the only way back to the dream-hardened path I had begun to walk so early in life. Sheila’s apartment was on the first floor. I moved in with her. I stopped drinking and wrote every day. It hurt without the gin. Every part I touched deep inside brought a beckoning memory, and when I reached out, it faded into the darkness in the way the blue of the Paris evening succumbed to the night.

Two weeks ago, on one of my better days, I took a walk to Schwab’s drugstore. I needed cigarettes. I entered the store, walked toward the counter and I began to feel dizzy and weak. I remember falling.

“Scott, where have you been? Sit down, have a drink.” It was Ernest. He looked around and spotted the waiter. “Monsieur, gin pour mon ami.”

I sat down at the table below the chestnut trees on the terrace of the Café La Closier des Lilas. Spindles of light, bright and scintillating, streamed down from the openings in the canopy of leaves moving gently in the soft breeze.

“Tell me about this new novel you’re writing,” he said. Ernest was bubbling with excitement. He was truly happy to see me.

Before I could speak, he stood up. He began waving to someone.

“Gerald, over here,” he shouted.

I turned my head and saw Gerald Murphy heading toward us.

“Scott, haven’t seen you around. Working on something new?” He dragged over a chair and took a seat at the table.

“I was just about to tell Ernest about it,” I said.

“Gertrude Stein said you must be working on something. That’s why we haven’t seen you,” Gerald interjected. “Sara and I read your last one…stellar, my friend, stellar. Sara said she thinks it could be one of the best novels of the twentieth century.”

I wasn’t sure what novel he was talking about.

The burning shafts of sun light began to glow brighter until they obliterated the space around us. I sat warm in the brilliance. The breeze lifted me. I spun and tumbled in the blinding light and came to rest on a dusty road. It ran through an empty, barren field, perhaps, a farm left fallow. Long leaf pines, their wide trunks, sparse and nestled close together, stood straight and tall on the sides of the road. The sun, hidden by the clouds, warmed the moist air, which clung to me in the way known only in the Alabama heat.

A young girl stepped out from the dark, barrier of pines. She had the most beautiful whitish-pink skin. Her auburn hair was bobbed with enough audacity to send it into large curls, bouncing recklessly. It was Zelda, young as the day I had met her.

“Scott, I’ve been waiting for you. Come on we have a long way to go.”

She linked her arm around mine. We continued walking. The dark pines became fewer, and pink dogwoods gathered on the sides of the road. A sweet smell soon swarmed around us as the dogwoods were joined by the crape myrtle, whose gentle branches, sprouting purple flowers, hung over the road and watched silently as we passed. 


Don Donato received a Masters of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard University, College of Extended studies, in 2019. His graduate interest was studying the writing of the Lost Generation living in Paris in the 1920’s. In addition to short stories published in various journals, Don has written a novella, In the Faded Blue Light, in the voice and style of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the form of “memoir.”

Don Donato: Dod401@Alumni.Harvard.edu

The Scarville Garnet

by Christina Phillips

            The air was abuzz, static and anticipation tangling and tangoing in the vents of the motel room. Their dance raised the hair on the arms of the two teenagers renting the space, but they both pretended nonchalance. One, the taller of the two, was standing barefoot with her heels pressed against the baseboard of the bathroom door frame, and the other had in his hands a pencil and a measuring tape, his eyes trained on the marks he was leaving on the wood grain.

            “See?” At his prompting, the tall girl stepped forward and turned to look. “5’10, just like I said. Not tall enough for the second-floor window, even if I boost you.”

            She rolled her amber eyes and pushed past him to grab her beer off the bathroom counter. “You win, Cash. Back door it is.”

            Cassius watched, eyes bloodshot and hungry, as she lifted her hips to sit on the counter, brought the bottle to her lips, pulled a knee to her chest, still as enticed by her effortless grace as he’d ever been. His good mood only went as far as her face, though, which was solemn. Maybe even a little worried. “Could you do me a favor and pretend you’re having fun? You’re not a good time when you act the cynic, Rhea, and you know the role looks better on me anyhow.”

            He couldn’t help smiling to himself as her whole body stiffened at his remark. “Me? Not a good time?” She sounded unaffected as she lowered the bottle into her lap, but Cassius knew every lilt in her voice was meticulously crafted.

            “Oh, not as good of a time as you used to be,” he snarked, knowing the playful tone would do nothing to soften the words as he leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed. “I bet you couldn’t cheat a hand of blackjack now if you tried. What happened to that girl?

            A shaky breath taken behind her curtain of hair. A moment of hesitation. “Maybe she grew up.” Oh, and wasn’t that a raw line? One more push ought to get him what he wanted.

            “Well, I wonder why she’d go and do a stupid thing like that.”

            Her head snapped up, and he had to bite his lip to keep from grinning at the anger in her eyes, the way she looked at him like she hated him, like she could punch through his rib cage and rip out his beating heart. God, it was orgasmic. “Because—” That first word was barked out with all the fire he could’ve wanted, but by then she’d caught on to his game and knew to withhold his prize. She forced herself back into nonchalance, into a cool and unchallenging posture. She spat out some ineffectual comeback, something she wished would hurt him but knew wouldn’t.

            Silence was strung up and hanged like a convict between them as her pleading eyes betrayed her unbothered body. He waited just long enough for her to decide she really wanted his apology before he gave it, crossing the threshold with open arms and a kissing mouth. In the fluorescence of the bathroom light, the scarlet of her outgrown box-dyed hair fell over his cheeks that flushed the same shade, and he whispered to her how important it was to him, too, this job that would set them up for life, this rock they were stealing that would pay for their white picket fence.

            The gem in question was known as the Scarville Garnet, named for the sleepy little town in which it resided, the same town that had been the backdrop for the tiresome and tireless parade of miseries Rhea had to look back on as a childhood. But amidst the concrete greys and bruise blues of that time, a scarlet beacon gleamed just the way it had under each year’s July sun when the fat, happy man who owned it had carted it out to the county fair. She remembered vividly the smell of the cotton candy, the popcorn, the sweat of a hundred people packed into the fairgrounds’ assembly hall to see a man in a fancy linen suit with a Cuban cigar hanging from his lip beam over his prized jewel. And years later, when she and Cassius had been passing through the area and heard whispers of a supposedly abandoned mansion and the supposedly cursed gem that had supposedly done unspeakable things to its owner, Rhea couldn’t believe her luck.

            The two of them had talked, of course, about getting out of the life, of settling down together somewhere and making for themselves a domestic little idyll, but the words were only ever exchanged between sheets. So Rhea had put together the whole plan herself and presented it to him all in one go, so that all he had to do was say yes. She’d had him sky-high on adrenaline at the mention of the largest garnet in the country, willing to say anything to make the heist happen. Yes, he’d help her paint their mailbox and yes, he’d love it if they got a dog and yes, he’d make an honest woman of her as soon as he could, just as long as he could get his hands on that rock.

            Cassius was not much the convincing actor, but Rhea was every bit his captive audience.

            Arriving back in town and actually casing the target had revealed a few holes in Rhea’s meticulous plot. For example, she’d had them climbing in through the second-floor window on the north side of the house, so as not to risk agitating a creaky staircase, but they were higher up than she’d recalled.  

            “How do you know it’s even on the second floor, anyway?” Cassius had asked as they were arguing over it.

            “Because you used to be able to see it at night, through the window,” she’d responded, not for the first time that evening. “He never wanted anyone to forget the look of it, his success.”

            “Some success he is now,” he’d muttered, growing bored of her vexation.

            That first fight on the subject had been days ago now, though they’d continued to squabble over it in bursts, and these spats had culminated with Rhea insisting he measure her exactly so they might reach a conclusion. This was fine by Cassius, of course, since putting a matter to bed usually meant taking Rhea to bed, and today was no exception; what had started on the bathroom counter had continued into the shower and had ended in the motel’s moth-eaten sheets.

            Rhea lay there in the dying afternoon light, arms wrapped around Cassius’s broad chest as it rose and fell with sleep. She was sick with desperation that he hold her, but his hands stayed tucked beneath his head, indifferent to her raucous yearning. Things would change soon, though, she thought to herself. He would change once everything else did.

            The moon rose on the night of the heist, and as it approached its zenith, Rhea poured two shots of dark rum and passed one to Cassius. “To the end of the line,” she announced triumphantly, holding out her glass.

            “To our biggest score yet,” Cassius amended, clinking his glass against hers. Both downed their drinks to chase their malcontent and wished there were time for another round.

            The two were thieves by trade, of course, and they’d gone through every motion what felt like a thousand times over. Looking inconspicuous as they approached the house, scaling the fence, picking the lock—it all came easy, and Rhea was damn near bored with the song and dance, but the thrill for Cassius was unlike anything else. There could be no wrong moves, no misplaced steps, no breath taken out of turn. It was his passion, really, doing what he knew to be wrong, and his heart pounded as his nimble fingers played the lock pins for fools.

            The house was the belle of the ball as far as Scarville went, but that wasn’t very far. White brick and black trim that looked stately under blue skies were almost ghostly in the silver starlight, but the thing that really chilled Rhea’s blood as she gazed up at it, waiting for the lock to crack, was, sure enough, that crimson glow pouring from that window, exactly as she remembered it. Even when Cassius got the lock figured and tugged her wrist to beckon her inside, she had a hard time tearing her gaze away from the light.

            When she stepped over the threshold, she thought she’d looked so long at it that it’d glazed her vision scarlet, but when she rubbed her eyes and came away with the same view as before, she realized the whole inside of the house was awash in the glow of the garnet.

            “The hell is going on in here?” Cassius muttered, balled fists rubbing ferociously at his eyes.

            Rhea tried not to choke on her laugh as she nudged him with her elbow. “You expected to steal a spooky cursed gemstone from a house that looked perfectly normal? It’s a good thing you aren’t the brains on this one, babe.”

            Cassius scowled at her quip and turned to find a way from the room they’d entered, the kitchen, to the stairs. Rhea knew she should be doing the same, but she squinted around, trying to find the source of the light. It seemed to evenly bathe the full kitchen, but—was it her imagination, or did it get stronger out in the hall? Yes, it did, and there it was, getting brighter again around the corner, smearing blood all over the crown molding, and there—

            “Cash,” Rhea whispered over her shoulder, hoping he’d hear her. “Cash, the stairs—it’s coming from the stairs.”

            He wasn’t far behind, and soon they were creeping up the winding spiral staircase, squinting against the light that was verging on blinding the further up they went. In fact, Rhea was sure the light must’ve been doing something to her eyes, because she could swear the railing was wrapped in veins of dark, throbbing stone, that the light bent, warped, reached for her and for Cassius.

            As far as Cassius was concerned, all of this was shaping up to be the heist of his life. His heart hammered as he inhaled and smelled danger mingling with the smell of dust and old mothballs. He could barely feel his own body past the staticky sensation of adrenaline, and he certainly couldn’t feel it as his unnerved lover reached for his hand where it rested on the banister.

            The stairs brought them to a hallway, right across from a door, and from the crack between it and the hardwood spilled all this horrible crimson light. Cassius was across the corridor in a stride, but Rhea clamped a hand around his wrist. “Cash—Cassius, this doesn’t feel right. Something’s not—”

            “What, you’re gonna sprout a moral compass right here? Right now?” His face, awash in red light and anger, looked like the gargoyle on the roof of the Scarville Chapel. He tore her hand off his and slammed the door open, all thought of subtlety left at the foot of the stairs.

            At first, the light was so blinding that Rhea couldn’t see what lay beyond the door, but as her eyes adjusted, she wished they hadn’t. She wished she were Oedipus, eyeless in her agony, for what she saw was too terrible to see.

            This had been the fat, happy man’s room, once; that much was made apparent by the luxurious four-poster occupying much of the space. But the man was no longer fat, nor happy, and it appeared this was no longer his room, but the garnet’s.

            Emaciated, his face locked in a cry of utter anguish, the man was held to his ruined mattress by the garnet, which stuck out from amongst his splintered ribs like crystalized viscera. It seemed to have grown roots that had slithered into him, following the paths set out by his veins, before bursting through his skin, through his palms and his eye sockets, his feet and his mouth. The roots had continued growing, snaking up the bed’s posters and down onto the floor, embedding themselves in the very foundations of the house. And with all the damned, hellish light, it was impossible to tell what was garnet and what was dried blood. But then, Rhea did not want to know.  

            She hadn’t realized she was weeping at the sight until Cassius took a step towards the bed and her voice cracked as she tried to yell his name. She swallowed and tried again, louder this time: “Cassius! Please! Please, no, it isn’t worth it!” She was screaming and begging and pleading and crying, praying to a god who clearly couldn’t be real that her love would turn around, scoop her up, and take her away from this nightmare she’d found herself in.

            But he didn’t.

            Rhea’s throat bled with the force of her scream as Cassius reached out and tried to grab the garnet. Tried and failed because it was the garnet which grabbed him. Sheer panic washed over her as scarlet light spilled out of her lover’s eyes and mouth and bathed the room, as it shredded his skin and seared his bones and lit him up like a neon vacancy sign. His name was on her lips, but it couldn’t fill his ears quite so well as the blood she saw leaking from them, trickling down his neck and pooling in the hollow of his throat.

            She could barely see through her tears, but she saw as the roots of the garnet crawled up Cassius’s neck, and she could hear the sickening crack as they turned his head and locked what had been his eyes on her.

            And it occurred to her that there was no saving him. There was only saving herself.


Christina Phillips has been fascinated with words since before she could read them. She is a proud hard of hearing woman and, as of the fall of 2022, is a junior studying English literature and creative writing at Texas Christian University. She’s previously been published in Neologism Poetry Journal.