Home Fiction

Man Is

by Jennifer Benningfield


ONE

The middle-aged man’s hands would not stop moving—tamping down and slicking back his thin cinnamon hair, wiping the oak plywood, tickling the air—and after ten minutes he feared the worst. His eyes, agleam with anticipation, followed every contour, absorbed each color.

He looked down. The light blue polo shirt and crisp khakis provided inoffensive cover for a mild “life gut.” The white towel with thin red and white stripes running down the center had many brothers.

And he was at the head of the family.

Howie’s House. A neighborhood spot, cozy and friendly. Sitting kitty-corner from a convenience store, directly next to a laundromat, one block south of the smallest pizza joint per square foot in the whole state. A nice enough place to depressurize and re-humanize.

The bar represented one tier of a multi-tiered dream. A friend of a friend owned the space, previously leased to a seafood joint that lasted less than a year. All three men were partners in the bar—HTC, LLC—but Howie had the dream.

He glanced back at the shelves, solutions in neat rows, some clear, others murky, each neat and ready.

The door opened. Howie released a breath he was entirely aware that he’d been holding.

“See the time. 5:42 Eastern. And we’re just now getting our first customer.”

“It is an honor, a privilege but above all, a thrill. Let’s celebrate with a shot of Mark and a pint of whatever beer. Bartender’s choice. Anyway. Glad we’re not out West or I’d really feel like a sad drunk. Best seat in the house here. Right smack dab in the center. Guess that’s good form. Who cares if it’s not. It’s a free country, right.”

“One of many.”

The grimace on Old Guy Oscar’s face had little on the one that appeared when the shot hit his throat.

“Like the layout, kid. Solid selection.”

“Forty-seven brands.”

“Why not fifty?”

“I ordered what I felt necessary.”

“Huh. Smart. I suppose. One thing–that bottle of Wild Turkey? You won’t crack the top on that son-bitch opening week. Unless you open it up outta spite.”

Howie shrugged and removed the shot glass.

“Nice set-up, I mean that.”

“Just the standard luxuries.”

“‘The standard luxuries,’ huh. What a funny phrase. Funny-sounding, anyway. What do you have besides Budweiser?”

“Heinekin, Miller, Michelob.”

“Look, don’t misunderstand me, kid. We want this place to succeed. We want you to have a reason to reorder Wild Turkey.”

Howie’s face brightened with the sound and sight of a swinging door, grateful for any reason to tear his attentions from the sallow-faced fogey hunched over his drink.

“Broke any glasses yet or what.”

“Not yet.”

“Well, day ain’t over. What about food?”

“Food.”

“Yeah, ya doof. Food.”

“Why should I serve meals?”

“Did I say ‘meals’? I meant more along the lines of sandwiches and soups and desserts. Comfort food. Simple.”

“And affordable.”

“Right. Don’t be greedy, Howie. Word’ll get out.”

 Howie rapped the knuckles of his dominant hand against the top of the bar. “Suggestions duly noted, gentlemen. Need another, Oscar?”

“I hate beer. But it kills the headaches. My wife says”–Howie held out a hand, waiting for the older man to finish his final pull–“take aspirin, they won’t damage your liver!’ Yeah, right, but they can and will damage your stomach lining. Happened to a guy I know. Can’t have aspirin anymore. Or wine.”

“Teddy?”

“Big day champ! Gimme a gin and tonic and quick. I gotta wash dinner out of my mouth. My friend at work drove me by Taco Bell on the way home. I normally avoid that place but he swore I’d love the chicken burrito.”

“Gin and tonic, ya poor gullible bastard.”

After three hours, Howie’s House had welcomed a dozen guests, including seven he didn’t even know.

“Can we get a free drink for considerably bringing down the median age of your average customer or what.”

“No.” 

“Worth a shot, worth a shot. Wait, how about a free shot?”

“Also no.”

“Another one, Sammy?”

“Nah, I’m done for the night.”

“Just two? What, one for each tit?”

“I preach personal responsibility and I practice it as well. So shut your shot-hole.”

“You live a two-minute drive from here, Saint.”

“A lot can happen in 120 seconds.”

After the last man at the door had bellowed his farewell, Howie finally unclenched. Good day. Good customers. He couldn’t wait to see if they’d become regulars.

TWO

“Pretty sure the main reason this show’s so popular is people wanna see the poor bastard die.”

The bartender’s peppermint breath hit Marty’s face like a stranger’s kiss. The television screen showed a robust man seated at a diner table, stuffing his face with ludicrous amounts of red meat and white bread as a carefully gathered crowd of well-wishers gaped and hooted.

“I used to want to do that,” Marty admitted. “Well not that, exactly. Competitive eating. Yeah. Wanted to do that.”

“Get out.”

“No lie. Don’t mean like those maniacs who eat all the hot dogs up in Coney every July 4th. I just wanted to be a local legend. Found a guy in my neighborhood who used to compete at some fairs and hell, he mentored me.”

“When was all this?”

“Long time ago. I was in my mid-30s.”

“Not that long ago.”

“Feels like it. Anyway. This was in January when I had the bright idea, and my mentor decides I should aim for the pie-eating contest at the fair in Frederick that August. So I start training. An eating contest is just like a race. Gotta get in shape. Not to mention, there’s rules. They bind your hands, for instance. You gotta eat those pies just like a pig. Apple filling up your nose, all over your face. So I ate two pies a day, hands tied, while he timed me. For seven months.”

“How much weight did you put on?”

“None, fella. I started a vigorous exercise routine and drank nothing but water. I was the healthiest pie-eating son of a bitch in the whole western side of the state. So, time comes. The contest is, whoever eats five apple pies the quickest wins two hundred bucks. Big money then, fella.”

“Still is for some of us.”

“Hmm. Day of, all I ate was a carrot. That was what my mentor suggested. A carrot, or celery, something you wouldn’t touch otherwise. I got up on stage. There were four other contestants, three judges, one of ’em my pastor, ’bout a hundred people waiting. I myself drove up there with my sister and her little kids.”

Marty took another drink and winced.

“All the pies were made by women who went to St. John’s Methodist. None of that store-bought nonsense. So I’m standing there, looking for my sister and her kids in the crowd, thinking how I done all I done, how I stretched my stomach, how I never wanted to see another apple after all this, and then I see…them.”

“Them.”

“By the side of the stage. Just standing there. Paramedics. In case of an emergency. That did it. I blew before the whistle did,” Marty groaned.

“Oh no. But wait, that was before the competition started, right? You still–“

“They already had a pie in front of us. I upchucked on mine and there was…collateral damage.”

Marty’s description of infamy deferred exhausted not only him, but every other patron at the bar. The next thirty minutes passed uneventfully, with a few of the men, expressions dulled, watching the TV and others staring balefully into their beverage.

“Cold in here.”

“It ain’t cold. For the fourth time.”

“To me it’s cold.”

“Start wearing layers.”

Marty’s retort died in his throat when he felt a body occupy the stool to his left. He turned his head to see a crestfallen man, young enough to be his son, eyeglasses accentuating his sorrow.

“Barkeep’ll be back in a second. Young fella you look like you’re about to ask for some poison.”

“Broken engagement. Not my call either.”

“Aw hell. Tough luck, fella.”

“Just…you think you know somebody.”

“Understand,” Marty drawled. “Really.”

“Just between us, though. I don’t want a pity party.”

“I won’t let it slip. It’s twixt us twain. Promise.” Marty winked to seal the deal. Aw hell. Here comes Eddie. That tall sour-faced bastard’s like a real-life Lenny. Never know if he’s about to hug ya or murder ya. Come have a seat here, Eddie. I want people to think I have two bodyguards. Teddy, put your phone down for two seconds and tell Eddie how good it is. Stop subjecting your eleven followers to bar food porn.”

“These photos aren’t food porn. I have been in a meaningful relationship with each and every thing I’ve eaten. Want this last bite, Ollie?”

“No thanks. I scrounged together something before I left the house.”

“Fast bachelor dinner, huh. Beats fast bachelor bath.”

“Jukebox arrives tomorrow, fellas.”

“No karaoke machine I take it.”

“No. No singing, no dancing. Just enjoy what you spent your money on.”

“Well, I don’t break dance, but I break things when I dance!”

Marty gradually pushed himself off of the stool and performed a combination electric slide-hokey pokey.

“Marty, do us a favor. Get back on that stool and never come off it again.”

##########

Marty was the first to notice her. In an hour, the woman–allegedly named “Patsy,” although Marty wouldn’t have bet dollars to donuts–had flirted with nearly every man in the joint. Staring down the barrel of beer three, he wondered, with an exhilarating admixture of dread and elation, if he would be her very last option.

Damn near.

She used too much lipstick and not enough eyeliner. The curls on her head had seen better days, but even those had been mediocre ones.

“Into a good time?”

Her breath smacked Marty’s face like a done-wrong lover. “Not particularly. I have a good woman already.”

“Just good?”

“Good enough.”

Marty couldn’t help the short-lived leer as he watched Patsy’s leather-covered caboose shimmy over to a booth on the other end of the room.

“No great romance then.”

“She’s moved on. It is Hump Day.”

“Poor Teddy.”

Marty turned and grinned.

“A real aginner, that one. Don’t hurt yourself on that. We need you, fella. You’re the most valuable one of all of us.”

The heartbroken guy to his left was now nursing a third screwdriver after slamming back the first two. (Patsy hadn’t even tried.)

“Are they hitting it off?”

“Seems so. Either one thing is really funny or a lot of little things are funny. Marty, you don’t have a woman good or otherwise. How dare you lie to a fine lady like that.”

The older man winked and turned to his right.

“You got a lady?”

“A wife.”

“Any little ones?”

“No, no kids. We want our marriage to last.”

Marty nearly choked on the suds. “The secret is you being you and her being her. Whatever the hell that happens to be. The whole point is two individuals who know when to form the single entity. That’s how you get past all the crap.”

“So just be honest then.”

“Honesty is the best policy. That’s what they say.”

“Who’s ‘they’?”

“We don’t have time for questions like that right now.”

THREE

The jukebox, stocked with country and classic rock, had been a boon to business, but it wasn’t until the first NFL game that Howie’s House qualified as “packed.”

(Howie was quick to point out, “This is not a sports bar. It is a bar with a television that can and does show sporting events. So anybody expecting buffalo wings or drink specials is outta luck. There’s enough of them joints around here.”)

A bar packed sick with fans of American football, ready to gorge on the Game of the Week, meant not much reason to break out the shaker and the strainer, but much use of the hand towel he kept flung over one shoulder.

“My tongue feels like soggy grits,” Ollie told the well-lit man to his left.

“A Jack and Coke will solidify it. Lemme grab us a couple.”

Ollie sat at the far end of the bar nearest the TV, practically underneath it, and while he followed the sport, he would have much preferred to be at home alone. But he wasn’t the type to tell a best buddy “no.”

Every once in awhile he turned his head to survey the scene. Mostly men, mostly young or pretty young, all from “round here,” most acquaintances at the least, patrons sick and tired of their own walls, patrons for whom the drive to The Greene Turtle was too risky.

“Here we go. Cheers and shit. What’s up, man.”

“Lot of anxiety, man. Can’t explain it.”

Ollie actually could have. But what to say about feeling alone in the metaphorical middle of a lively suds shack? He pretended to listen to his friends patter, unable to filter out the people he didn’t know.

Goddamn, nothing made him feel less useful than people.

Some looked as though they hadn’t slept in days. Some looked as though they’d slept the entire day. Some were no doubt spending the last of their unemployment check. Some stunk of a day spent in the great outdoors. They wore heavy coats over shirts with no breathing room. Some were young, dumb and beyond that–Ollie happily remained ignorant. The ones who entered the establishment wild-haired and bleary-eyed were the ones to watch.

Ollie turned his full attention to the weak-kneed dentist who fancied himself a raconteur most days, a sports expert on this day.

“Defense wins championships. Then, the run game. Third, the quarterback. Very rarely does the quarterback–“

“Snyder sucks!”

“Scoreboard, baby! Scoreboard!”

“It ain’t over till the fat fella farts!”

“I’ll be right back.” Ollie walked nearly the length of the room to reach Howie, careful to not look down at any of the six men circling a table made for four.

“Full moon tonight,” the barkeep sighed.

“That one in the cap is Chuck Berg. Kind of a live wire. I know he’s been in a few scuffles in a few joints. Loudmouth, real disrespectful type.”

“I know the name. He tries to take a piss in my bar, I’ll stick my dick in his drink. And if anyone sees, I’ll explain whose drink it is, and they’ll say, ‘Oh wait, let me stick my dick in there too.'”

“We’re the Three Musketeers!”

“Name them! Name all three Musketeers!”

“Some guy, some other guy, and another guy. Who cares.”

Ollie frowned. “I ought go over there and smack that blond one off his chair.”

“Repress that impulse,” Howie warned, voice flatter than his hands atop the bar.

“I could be your muscle, Howie,” Ollie suggested. “I’ve been told I cut an imposing figure. Somebody even once told me I look like the guy who plays Wolverine in the movies!”

With the game out of hand by the beginning of quarter number four, Chuck Berg and the Bergettes headed out the door.

“Crisis averted,” Ollie noted, sounding for all the world like a man who lost his job, wife and drivers license in the same day. “That Doug Martin’s some kinda runner huh?”

“He ain’t better than Herschel Walker.”

“Didn’t say he was. Different game anyway.” Ollie coughed and pushed himself onto his feet. “Better in some ways, worse in other ways.”

FOUR

“It’s raining like a bitch out there!”

“Huh. Never seen a bitch rain.”

Sammy’s laughter meshed with the lugubrious country and western wafting from the silver box. “Never seen a bitch rain. Ollie, you’re a funny cat. Seriously funny. Another Scotch here, barkeep.”

Sammy, generally, wouldn’t shut up. Howie had, in the first few days, let concerns simmer and stew, remembering an episode of The Twilight Zone that featured a motormouth pest who drove away a bar’s patrons with his insistence on actively existing. At the first sign of dissent and desertion, Howie’d bring down the hammer, but so far the others were willing to accept Sammy as a sort of background noise.

“I hate birds!”

“Hey Teddy. Take a load off. Take a couple.”

“I was attacked by a blue jay in my own backyard today.”

Sammy, at last, shut up.

“I was out mowing my lawn. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve mowed a lawn in my life. You know, you do something for so long, you just do it automatically. Your mind isn’t even really all the way there. So I don’t notice that there’s a nest near the fence. Must have fallen from a tree. But there’s a nest there, with eggs, and just as I’m about to plow over it–SWOOSH! Mama bird comes right for my head! I had to take the mower and haul ass back to the shed. Took me an hour before I went back out to finish the job. Goddamn birds.”

“Blue jays are bastards. They attack other birds.”

“To kill a mockingbird is a sin. A blue jay, though, take out all of them you can!”

“Take ’em all out. The path to heaven is paved with dead birds.”

Sammy gave his chin a break and scratched at his sideburns. “Thinking of growing a beard,” he informed the bartender.

“Think hard,” came the reply.

“Jealous. How can somebody make it to their forties without having shaved their face at least once, tell that.”

“Would you guys eat chips if I offered ’em here or what. Pretzels, peanuts–“

“Painkillers?”

“Just say no,” Howie tutted.

“Just joshing. I’ve never touched the hard stuff in my life. Well, I did used to snort pills when I was in college. Vicodins. Just crushed ’em and snorted ’em.”

“Did you?”

“Did I. Gets into the bloodstream faster that way. Those days are behind me, though.”

“Are they?”

“They are.”

“See, I don’t know if I believe that. I believe a person’s past tells a person’s future and therefore can never truly be behind you. History tells itself. See, I believe the people of this planet are on the eve of a spiritual reawakening–“

“Howie, next one’s a double.”

“Pay attention to the world. The climate. The lawlessness. The violence, the injustice. The end of an era is upon us. Maybe we’ll all be eradicated, maybe we’ll–“

“Oh I do not come here to hear this crap.”

“Old man.”

“Shut up, Teddy. I’m not old, I’m just right.”

“Yeah, right out of your fiber pills.”

“Suck my fat old weenie.”

“Only if you iron it out first.”

“You gonna step in, boss?” Sammy whispered, trembling a bit.

“Man is a combative animal,” Howie shrugged.

“Some animals need to be put to sleep,” Sammy reminded the barkeep, warily eyeing the bickering men from his perch.

##########

Whoever the woman was, she was not Patsy. Fifteen years younger, smaller in build (but not petite), a modern woman who didn’t take fashion advice from a buck-toothed stripper/mother of three, a light jacket over a low-cut shirt, moving stealthily in flats, hair parted and tickling her shoulders. She took a seat away from the group of guys, who preferred to monopolize the stools nearest the entrance.

As Howie moved to determine the nature of her poison, the men exchanged words.

“There’s a seat here.”

“Maybe we’re not good enough.”

“She could do worse than me.”

“Yeah but not much worse.”

Sammy thought her one of the loneliest-looking things he’d yet seen, under any light.

“Wonder if she’s been stood up.”

“Who in hell would make a date in this place.”

“Oh jeez, look at this.”

“Godspeed, Theodore.”

Sammy took a careful sip from his highball glass, passing along silent thanks to the uncle who introduced him to bourbon. He’d barely finished the thought that surely no other kid in his fourth grade class had received a better birthday present that year when he noticed Teddy’s return, his gait deliberate and expression hangdog.

“Hang in there, kid. You’ll win her heart yet.”

“Heart. I already have one of those.”

“She thinks hers don’t stink. I could have her no problem. If I even wanted her.”

“Which you don’t.”

“Which I don’t, you smirky prick. Women are more trouble than they’re worth.”

“No, Ollie, they’re worth all the trouble. That’s the problem.”

It turned out to be a mouth other than Sammy’s that almost incited the first brawl at Howie’s House.

“So Marty, how’s your brother been. Still having the heart stuff?”

“Turns out it’s not heart stuff. It’s panic disorder.”

“Panic? Well that’s not so bad then.”

“Yeah, it’s good in a way, not so good in another way, y’know?”

“Not particularly, tell that.”

“A heart problem would be scarier and more intense to deal with, but it’s easy to treat, relatively. There’s a variety of medications, well-trained doctors, procedures a person can have done. With something like my brother has, where the problem doesn’t originate from an organ in the body, it’s a ‘patient treat thyself’ thing. And that involves lots of trial and error. He has to learn breathing exercises, and avoid certain foods, and get more of other foods, and man I’m glad it’s not me. He’s gung-ho, y’know, but me, wow, I’d be like fuck it. If you can’t just give me a pill to take care of it, what’s the point of trying anything else.”

The staccato chuckles stuck in the throat of the patron two seats away from the conversation caused everyone but Sammy and Marty to lift their drinks to their lips.

“Something you want to say, Ollie?”

“All that stuff’s mental. Sounds to me like your brother has a weak mind.”

Marty’s sudden silence honed Sammy’s edge. He grew restive, eyes darting–Howie to Marty and Ollie, back, back again–fingers pulling on each other–thumb to index, back, back again–and when Marty began to speak, Sammy ceased to breathe.

The words at the beginning and end of each sentence exited Marty’s mouth like the bullets from a hitman’s handgun. He did not once deign to face the target of his ire, focusing instead on a bottle of Southern Comfort on the second shelf.

“You know what you are, Ollie. You are the program guy at the baseball game. People going into the stadium to enjoy the game walk right by you, zoom. They hear you, but they don’t listen. They never buy what you’re selling.”

Sammy leapt to his feet, approaching Ollie while never taking his gaze away from Marty. He figured no one would shake at the sight of a slightly-built fellow trying to establish a physical presence, but only a world-class hole in the ass would pummel one for attempting to play peacekeeper.

“Maybe we should head outside with this, guys.”

“Maybe we should. A nice swift kick in the ass can do a guy good.”

“A nice swift bottle to the face can do a guy good too.”

“No weapons!” warned the barkeep.

Sammy watched Marty’s fingertips as they chipped away at the damp label on his Bud bottle, rolling four little logs. His attempts to engage Teddy and Howie in yak failed. The spat had altered the room temperature, and no doddering old man could goad the barkeep into setting it right once more.

After twenty minutes, the woman had abandoned a stool for a booth underneath a Budweiser neon sign left behind by the proprietors of the seafood joint. Another two minutes would pass before Sammy rose and walked to the far end of the bar, where Teddy sat and Howie stood, arms folded, watching an obese woman in a Tweety Bird t-shirt harangue the father of her child.

“Miller.”

“Shouldn’t mix, Sammy.”

“Not for me.”

The bartender, being quite good at his job, said nothing further.

Sammy took an audible exhale and delivered pep pats against his shoulders and elbows. Nearby, Teddy shook his head.

“Good luck, Sam. I told her I could make a chick orgasm without even touching her between the legs and got nothin’.”

Can in one hand, highball glass in the other, Sammy made his casual way over. He nodded down at Eddie, busy carving something into the table with a penknife.

Sammy slid into the seat across from the woman at the same time he placed the can down on the table. He greeted her, quick and low, noting the rigidness of her shoulders. He regarded her round face in its entirety, finding the lips and nose too thin, before deciding it a poor way to gauge a person’s receptivity.

She looked even more pathetic than his thoughts of her.

“Hope you don’t mind the company,” he said at last, feeling coals in his throat. “Hey, whoever he was, he’s not worth a hangover.”

Had Sammy not raised his antennae on the trip over, her smile would have gone undetected.

“How’d you guess? And you’re wrong. He’s the only one I ever thought could be the one.”

Sammy attempted sympathy. “Hard word to say. ‘Goodbye.’ Real hard to say.”

He took a sip of his J & C, lowering his head so she wouldn’t spy his smirk.

“Waste of time, miss. Feeling sorry for yourself, wondering why or why not. You know something else. A bar’s an okay place to start talking. But if you want to keep talking, there’s better places.”

“Talking.”

“That’s what we’re doing, isn’t it. We can go somewhere else and get a bite as well. I don’t cook, but I press buttons like a champ.”

“Hot Pockets?”

“Corn dogs. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if they start selling Corn Dog Hot Pockets one day. My friends say I talk too much. I need to learn to be a better listener.”

“Your friends say you talk too much? What do people who don’t like you say?”

“No idea.”

She wouldn’t stop looking at him. “Thanks, by the way. For the drink.”

“No problem. Another one?”

“No. Four’s my limit.”

“Smart.” He’d almost added the word “girl,” before the vision of her face, creased in a rictus of repulsion, stopped him.

“I needed to get out, get away, but I didn’t feel like enjoying myself. From the outside this place seemed miserable enough.”

“We have a saying in my family: Don’t hate a person based on superficialities. Get to know them, and they’ll give you real reasons to hate them. Same applies to buildings and cities.”

Her uneven teeth glistened. Sammy wondered if the redness diffused across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose was attributable to rosacea or consumption.

For a time, the two talked hypothetical Hot Pocket fillings (some ideal, some repulsive) and Sammy imagined they were sitting across from one another on a floe in the Arctic Ocean, a ready-made bottle of Jack and Coke in his hands, one large blanket doing a better job holding them in place than of staving off hypothermia. They were killing several things, time the most valuable, waiting for the Coast Guard (or an altruistic pack of hero penguins, ready to create a bridge leading to shore), hoping for the best outcome while convincing themselves anything less was not absolutely undesirable.

She pushed the can away, ending the reverie.

“Okay. Let’s go. Corn dogs or bust.”

Sammy wondered at the likelihood of both as he followed her past the late-night detritus, steeling himself for the glances from men under the mistaken belief he’d pounced on the poor girl.

He did not know what precisely he felt, only that he felt. He couldn’t deny how superb her ass looked. (Or, how superb the skirt made it look.) He held the door open, smiling as she mouthed appreciation. He watched her reacclimatize to the world outside, the brackish air, the silent roads, the buzzing yellow and orange, and he didn’t even feel the concrete smash against his face.

FIVE

The stocky man hadn’t ventured outside his half-a-home in nearly a week, the same amount of time since he’d lain prone with the intention of not rising for several hours, and he reeked of the effort to remain upright.

Who could sleep with a dwelling hell-surrounded? He could envision the flames surrounding the wooden structure, even though he could not feel them, and they were either eternal or ephemeral, with both states relative.

He tugged at the short sleeves of his light blue polo shirt with trembling hands and tried to determine the intensity of his thirst.  After a day spent in a near-constant sprint, his sock-covered feet now moved across the floor seemingly covered in honey.

Bottles on the cabinet, below the sink. A place for everything, everything in its place.

Somehow, the white hand towel stayed stuck in place on his left shoulder.

Bottles on the island that belonged atop the microwave oven, which had heated his late dinner–French bread pizza, which had also been last night’s even later dinner–and it was this thought that sent his heart racing, on the hunt for a proverbial blue shell.

The knock on the door didn’t help.

He froze, save for a comically heaving chest. Visitors were rarer than a hybrid eclipse. He gulped, wiped the sweat of his face with the sweat of his palms, and addressed the door with the friendliest yell he could muster.

“Come in! Join us!”

The surprise guest entered the kitchen, eking out greetings while the other man replaced trash bags.

“Hey Teddy. Long time no talk.”

“I tried the front door, but nobody answered, so I decided to follow the light.”

“Follow the light, huh. Good advice.”

“Who else is here?”

“Just me and my shadow and my arrow.”

The stocky man stayed on the other side of the humble island, nearest the entryway to the living area, rocking on the balls of his feet, staring pridefully at the clutter between he and the unexpected visitor. The smile on his face grew incrementally as the other man peered down into a narrow sink, spying a pair of pint glasses turned upside down atop a pair of saucers.

“You look as if you’ve been bobbing for razor apples in a tub of flour.”

“I feel better than that,” he shrugged, thin cinnamon-colored hair shining from negligence. “Take a seat, Ted.”

“I’m serious, Howie. You look like you stepped in front of someone who threw the best punch of his life.”

“I’d say sorry for the mess of the place, but it’s not really my fault.”

“You had the sloppiest workplace of any of us,” Teddy chuckled.

“Thirsty?”

Again the gradual grin as Teddy’s gaze dropped to the island, its wood as cheap and dark as the liquid in the bottles that beckoned.

“Liquor doesn’t go flat, does it?”

Howie emitted a muted belch. “With some liquor I’m not sure anyone would notice.”

In dead center sat one messy highball glass, a once-vital cube of ice shrunken to the size of a pebble. Six pristine cans of Budweiser sat off to the right, along with open bottles of Southern Comfort and Jim Beam, their caps removed. Off to the left, sealed bottles of Seconal and Valium, next to an empty bowl, plastic and light green. Between the Valium and the highball glass rested a single sheet of lined paper marked in blue slanted cursive.

COCKTAIL OLIVES (1, 32 OZ)
LIMES-LEMONS (5/5)
ICE (5, 8 LBS)
SUGAR (1, 4 LBS)
TOOTHPICKS (2, 100)
NAPKINS (1, 500)

“What’s that?” Teddy asked, jabbing a thumb in the direction of the paper.

“I…don’t know. Seriously. I do not recognize this.” He let the sheet of paper fall to the floor.

“Are you thirsty or what.” Howie crossed his arms, ankles and eyes.

“Um, well, maybe some water.”

“Knock yourself out. Fridge is full of that stuff. Take one, take two, hell take six for the road. I really don’t mind.” He re-capped the bottle of Southern Comfort. “See, now I’m paranoid,” he insisted, voice suggesting otherwise.

The hollow-eyed man spun the bottle around by its cap, ignoring the man sitting mere inches away, separated from him by shoddy and sordid things.

“Howie…what happened to your arm?”

“My arm. Ah, hmm. Accident I suppose.” He brought the appendage up to within an inch of his face, regarding the four inch long cuts in the same manner another person might a two-headed cat, or a three-legged ostrich. “Not bleeding,” he shrugged, snatching the towel from his shoulder and sending it over the few small patches of bare wood before returning it with a deliberate delicacy to his left shoulder.

You know that song ‘Piano Man’ Billy Joel? It has the line…’They sit at the bar and put bread in my jar.’ When I was a little boy, I used to think he meant, uh, actual bread. Like a slice or a stick. And I had the visual of it in a glass jar. And then I thought, why doesn’t my mom ever put bread in a jar like she does with peppers and tomatoes? Do you want something to drink, Howie?”

“Not anything that’s here, no.”

“How long has it been since you’ve had a good sleep?”

Howie contorted back a sneeze.

“Oh, wow. Two days, at least. When was the last Skins game? I had a nap before that one…been up since then.”

“Maybe you should see a doctor.”

“Did that already,” Howie snapped, snatching the Jim Beam bottle. “You’re the only one who’s come to check on me. Shows who the stand-up guys are, doesn’t it now.”

“Well, some people are busier than others.”

“I’m aware. Did I say they should stop everything just to see me? I just would appreciate some acknowledgement. A call. A text. My number’s still the same.” He sneezed, and damn did it piss him off.

“Do you want me to mention that I saw you?”

Howie lowered his head, and began bouncing his chin off his chest. He raised it back up in concert with his hands, joining them together as if prepared to fall to his knees.

“No. You tell them you talked to me. That’s how you put it. Don’t make this any more than it is.”

“I’m not even sure what it is.”

“A guy who’s hit a…odd patch. A guy who’s looking for a thrill. I’m into thrills,” the pale man stated, absent pride or shame. “Some cheap, some costly. No one’s getting hurt. They took my license. Okay. So there’s one less place for me to be a danger. You finished with the prying now, Mom?”

“How’s Kelly been doing?”

“She’s on a mission of self-discovery. And I’m not being a wise-ass. Kelly is actually on a week-long yoga retreat up in southern PA. Transform your body and your mind and your soul. Live in the present and determine your destiny. Which isn’t how that works, but, not my life, is it.”

“Week-long? Sounds pricey.”

“Might be. She’s the one paying. I’d rather not know all the gory details. With no one around to make me speak to the neighbors, the days are going by pretty smoothly. Good for her, though. She showed me the place online, looks super nice. There’s counselors, yoga teachers, chefs, people from all over the country. Everyone convenes in one place to…make things better. They encourage people to re-imagine their lives.”

“What if she re-imagines her life and you’re no longer part of it?”

“Cynical, man. You are a cynical man. Kelly loves us. She’ll be back and better than ever, and so will we. She’s a good woman. A good woman is…man’s best friend. I mean his real best friend. Forget dogs. I’ve been with some real loony chicks in my day, but none of them ever took a crap on my carpet.”

Howie’s abruptly-flushed face fixed into a constipated frown.

“Thanks for stopping by, Teddy, but rules are rules. This ain’t an all-night spot. There’s one across the street, if that’s what you’re looking for.”

Howie walked the half-circle to the seated man with grand purpose, stopping when barely an inch separated their bodies. He folded his arms and raise himself to full height, grimacing at the dark, tamed waves covering Teddy’s head.

The primitive pleadings from the abyss rose, steam-like, obscuring any further attempts at communication. Howie unlocked his arms, letting them fall limply at his sides. Without deigning to admit emotion, he reached behind Teddy and grabbed the bottle of Jim Beam, baptizing Teddy’s follicular abundance with its contents.

Teddy’s hands shot up in instinctive defense, a gesture that did nothing to block the bottle itself. The blow landed in a sweet spot by the standards of an attacker who sought to render mere temporary oblivion: just above the temple.

Some shards wound up embedded in skin, some caught in hair, and some landed on the tile floor, Teddy’s body soon following.

Howie began hyperventilating, the blood smell pinching at his skin, leaving traces of red and pink. What was left of the bottle fell from his hand, just missing a socked foot. He knocked his fists against his thighs, seeking nerve and succor from the buoyancy of flesh and bone.

As his gasps died down, Howie backed onto the same stool Teddy had occupied prior to being brained, the best of the few seats in the house. He could not tear his gaze from the floor; the rise and fall of the injured man’s chest left him rapt.

He felt his lungs expand and contract along with Teddy’s.

He clenched close to all over from the euphoria.

He held his breath.

His fingers tightened around the vinyl.

After half a minute, the experiment ended, the amateur scientist gaping and gleeful. He wiped the evidence of his ecstasy with the front of his shirt. (The closest it had come to being washed in several days.)

Throbbing, chilled fingers bottle reached for the bottle of Southern Comfort. He shakily unscrewed the cap and doused himself with the remaining liquid.

With chilled, throbbing fingers pressing against his temples, Howie let loose a succession of coughs closer in texture to death rattles. He cracked open a beer and chugged it down, tossing the empty can one-handed behind his head, coming closer to the trash can then he’d imagined.

He leaned back against the rounded edge of the island and plucked a phone from his jeans pocket. He dialed with the deliberation and dispassion of an EOD officer.

Howie listened to the trills and vowed he would present no great challenge.

“My friend’s been attacked. Someone with a bottle. He’s in bad shape. Hard hit to the head. Blood. A good amount.”

Several more sentences established that the man on the floor bleeding from the head was unconscious yet alive. Howie provided a name, an address, and a well-wish for the patient woman.

He waited. He chuckled, to start, at the sight of such blood in the water, then they grew in intensity, in length, in depth, until the man nearly toppled, Humpty Dumpty style, from his circular perch.

“Didn’t even have the decency to finish him off. Still with us.” Howie rubbed his hands.

“Lucky not to get his neck.”

“Tell that.”

“That’s where one of the major arteries is. Remember the Redskins player got shot in the leg by a robber and bled to death?”

“Okay, guys, fun’s done. Closing time.”

“Can I grab some glass as a souvenir?”

Out.”



BIO

Jennifer Benningfield’s stories have appeared in several publications, including Black Dandy, Sonder Review, Vagabonds, and Fiction On the Web. A lifelong Marylander who has been in the (mostly) benevolent thrall of words since receiving “Green Eggs and Ham” as a birthday present, her writings can be found online at www.trapperjennmd.blogspot.com.

Twitter: @JennBisz
Facebook: facebook.com/jennthebenn
Instagram: jennthebenn

The Jeweler

by Isabelle Stillman



When I was in high school, my mother started to tell us about the jeweler. He was a small man with a little grey cap and he had a store in the strip mall next to Ocean Life Hot Massage.

“But it wasn’t a strip mall kind of place,” our mother would say in the kitchen at breakfast. “It was a very luxurious, very beautiful place.” She’d pause, looking without seeing at Sally on the couch and me at the table. “Very luxurious place.” Leaning forward, as if the jeweler’s image appeared before her like a deity: “His little grey cap –” she’d tap her head in demonstration, her face dreamy – “he had his little grey cap.”

My mother was a therapist. She’d spent years working in a pastel green office in downtown Syracuse with a white noise machine at the foot of her door that was meant to keep patients’ voices from drifting into the waiting room. Years before she left her practice, the machine broke so that every few minutes the soft mush of noise turned into a string of stunted clicks, like a wind-up toy hitting a wall, after which followed a moment of silence. From the waiting room you could hear, “I’m alone” click-click-click-click “sad” click-click-click-click – my mother then – “When do you feel less alone?” Click-click-click-click. The clicking like a clock counting down her decline.

My sister Sally and I spent many afternoons in that waiting room growing up. We attended school down the street, Sally in elementary then, and I, four years but only three grades above, in middle school. When school was out, we’d walk to our mother’s office and wait for her to take us home. I always liked those afternoons: the pastel green chairs, palm fronds painted soothingly across the white walls. Stacks of magazines with white-teethed, relaxed-looking people on the covers. Sally would sit next to me, wriggling in her chair, while I tried to hear my mother’s patients through the broken machine, to piece together their stories from the flecks of voice I could catch. “I’m alone” click-click-click-click. Was it a lost love? A dead father? A spiritual crisis? Sally fidgeted while I listened for clues.

It was in that office, I realize now, that it all began. As Sally swung her legs around the chair monkey-like or put a magazine spine-up on her head to play Witch Hat, I tuned her out, stilling her limbs with an older-brotherly hand, so I could collect the facts of life that rolled like precious marbles, one by one, from under our mother’s door.

It was in that office, too, I would see later, that it all ended.

“It was too much,” our father would say of the hours Sally and I spent in that waiting room, those pastel chairs, those painted palms, when we could have been at soccer practice or studying in the comfort of our rooms. “It was too much for you. It was too much for her. It was good for your mother to step back.”

Our father was a necktied, world-certain money man, who spoke as if from notecards, carefully pre-planned, and he was as assured as he’d ever been of anything that, when I began high school and Sally neared the end of elementary, our mother should stop working.

“Too much for you. Too much for her.”

I didn’t realize then that the broken noise machine must have factored into his thinking. That our father must have noticed that our mother’s mind was going, even then.

But it wasn’t just the machine. It was also the jeweler.

“His wife was my client,” our mother would say of the jeweler in the years after she left work, leaning against the counter at breakfast. “Saadia – isn’t that a beautiful name? Saadia.”

I’d nod from across the table. By the time I was a senior and Sally was a freshmen, we’d heard the story dozens of times: Bart the jeweler had inherited Bart’s Jewelers from his father, Bart, who had passed years ago. The current Bart owned the shop, but it was run day-to-day by his wife Saadia, who was not from our town – Syracuse. She was a small crouched woman with dark skin and a tiny bun on top of her head and the rest of her long dark hair falling like a veil down her back. A nervous woman, standing behind the jewelry counter stiff and wide-eyed as if expecting a robbery.

“A soft self inside that woman needed love,” our mother would explain, and then, so as not to be perceived as violating any confidentiality clauses, “A soft self inside every woman needs love.”

Saadia saw my mother every Tuesday at noon, and every Tuesday at one, Bart came to pick her up. Each time, he carried with him, as a form of payment, a piece of jewelry.

“Paid in jewels! All those hours! Would you believe that!” our mother would say, lurching forward from the counter in awe, her gaze soaring loosely over the couch, the table, us. “I mean – the most delicate silver chain, perfect gold studs, big, bright bangles – everything – ” She’d gesture flappily as she spoke, until she lost her train of thought.

Sally, fourteen by then, delighted in the story each time, jiggling a crossed leg on the old brown couch cushions as she listened, half-eaten Pop-Tart in her hand. She was smarter than her age, but when it came to my mother, it seemed she lost all sense. She behaved every time like she’d never heard the story, took in my mother’s performance as if she were front-row at a pop star concert. “Everything!” she’d echo, and her excitement seemed to increase that of my mother.

“He had the most wonderful things,” she’d continue, arms going wild again.

Our father, at the table next to me, focused on his newspaper as long as he could.

“The most wonderful things,” and around this time, I’d stand and reach for the coffee cup in her hand. While Sally urged her on and my father tried to ignore it, I stayed in tune with what our mother needed: I was good with clues, with knowing before it happened that, lost in the story as she was, the coffee cup would soon drop. “Anything you can imagine –” I’d carve the cup from her palm – “there’d he’d come, walking into my office to find his wife –” place it far back on the counter – “little man with his little grey cap –” sit back down – “with a shining gold necklace or a magnificent pair of –”

And invariably, then: “Valeria, please.” My father would speak quietly, jaw set, eyes calm.

She’d look at him, and her face would shut. “Oh, Bill,” she’d say, turning to grab the coffee cup and slam it into the sink. “You don’t know anything.”

Our father would look back at his newspaper. From the unwavering nature of his demeanor, I picked up that he actually did know something: that he knew Bart wasn’t innocent, and, perhaps, that our mother wasn’t either. Though I didn’t have enough clues to deduce it on my own, my father’s assuredness was clue enough, and so, through high school and after, I believed him – about our mother’s illness, her possible affair – and I copied his behavior: a restrained presence, a diverted attention.

When he told us she wasn’t going to work anymore, I didn’t ask questions.

Home seemed a better place for our mother anyway: afternoons in the backyard instead of the office, with Sally instead of patients. The two of them finger-painted or strung leaves from the large oak tree with fishing wire to weave into their hair, a boom box tossed in the grass nearby. They’d dance around the yard like the founding members of a two-person free-to-be commune, until my mother, hit by a force from within her own body, would suddenly stop. She’d sit on the grass, her face stiff, a fuse blown in her mind. Sally would sit beside her, petting her hair, humming.

Sometimes I’d overhear them through my upstairs window. As I filled in college applications or finished calculus homework, their laughter would come ruffling through the branches of the tree, and then, in the space of a moment, evaporate into a hole of silence: something in my mother’s mind was broken as the white noise machine. Occasionally, in her moments of blankness, my mother would speak: “Saadia,” I’d hear through the window. “Such a soft self inside.”

She showed it to us once – the jewelry. Sally came bounding into my room one evening at the end of my senior year, fishing wire spiraled about her legs and arms, like an unlit Christmas tree, yelling, “Charlie! Come see it! Come see!”

Our mother took us into her closet and opened a large cabinet. Inside was the door of a safe. I remember, as my mother’s fingers smoothly spun the lock to each exact number, wondering what exactly her sickness entailed. And then she opened it.

Inside, rings pooled in a cluster like some ocean-floor moss next to stacks of necklaces sliced away in thick velvet boxes. Bracelets tangled together like they weren’t worth hundreds of dollars. As I stared, a surprising anger rose inside me. Her fingers tinkled softly over the pieces as if they were piano keys she didn’t want to sound, and as I watched, I began to feel the shamelessness of this gesture, the shamelessness of her repetition of the story, of her very being. The jewelry laid plain seemed to confirm my father’s theories: the diamonds as blatant as a naked body, amulets as enigmatic as dementia.

I blurted: “But what about us?” What I meant, I think now, was What do I do with this information?

But my mother only laughed. “It’s all for you,” she said as if what I’d said were a joke we were all in on.

Sally had been peering into the safe, nose to a blue-gemmed cuff, but at this she stood back and looked at our mother. “It’s for us?” she said.

Our mother seemed delighted at our lack of understanding. She took Sally’s young face in her hands. “I’m saving it,” she said as if bestowing a blessing. “For you.” She looked over at me then. “For both of you.”

“Why?” I said.

And her bright face darkened again. “In case!” she said, her hands gripping hard on Sally’s face, her arms rattling in emphasis. “In case you lose everything!”

#

They say sons fall for women like their mothers. But years of my father’s example had taught me to keep a quiet distance from unpredictability, from hints of the unstable.

Emily was nothing like my mother. She was of generational Boston stock, born and bred in a loud-talking middle class family who prided themselves on their what-you-see-is-what-you-get way of being. Her father was a callused-hands man with a loud voice and a louder laugh, and the only person Emily respected more than him was her mother.

“She lets you know exactly who she is,” she said on our first date in a run-down bar near our small New Hampshire college. “And never lets you forget it.” I remember the pride in her eyes: it was that sense of selfhood, that unapologetic strength, that I wanted.

I met Emily’s parents, Jimmy and Josie, several times – Parents Weekend our sophomore year, just after we’d gotten together, again the next year, and again at graduation. Each time I saw them, I became more certain that Emily was the person I wanted to be with and that her family was the one I wanted to join: they were brash, boisterous, secret-less. With everything on the table, there were things I could join in on, be part of. It was a great relief after years of listening through the machine or through the window.

There is a picture of the four of us from graduation, Emily and I packed snuggly between Jimmy and Josie in our blue-black robes, Josie holding a cigarette at the hip of her Marshalls jeans, Jimmy’s hand firm on my shoulder. Their smiles big and unyielding. Emily’s long brown hair fluttering across my chest. And there is a picture in my memory of the other side of the camera: my father standing stiff, his tie neat. My mother at his elbow, her eyes not on us, but the sun in the trees above our heads, her face long. Sally holding the point-and-shoot between our two families, telling everyone to smile.

Sally remained that connector. When I left for college, still uncertain of what to do with the information the jewelry had exposed, I didn’t know how to talk to my father or my mother. My father was so practiced, so prepared – it made you nervous just to stand before him; it made you nervous to have any questions, any holes, when he was so answered, so cohered. And my mother – she had so many holes you didn’t know which one to address first: so many holes that I feared, I think now, they might have been contagious. So I kept away. I wondered silently. Of him – What are you doing? Of her – what did you do?

But Sally was untroubled by it all. Where I remembered the waiting room as the before time – before, when our mother was fine – Sally remembered it as a friendly after-school activity. Where I remembered the kitchen counter and the story of the jeweler as a conflict – my mother burning in her own sick world, my father scorched against her – Sally remembered it as amusing family lore. To her, she and our mother in the yard was how it had always been. The jewels, the broken machine, the leaf dancing, our mother’s lost moments: these were the facts of her childhood, rather than the shocking changes in it. And with this definition of home in her mind, she could never understand why I left.

“Is that really the right place for you, so far away?” she said to me over the phone three weeks before my college graduation. Emily and I were planning to move to Los Angeles: she wanted to make it in the movie industry, and I wanted to be wherever she was. We’d found an apartment online and leased it without seeing, planning to pack up whatever we could fit in Emily’s parents’ old Taurus and drive cross-country the day after graduation. “Is it really the right thing for you and Emily?” Sally’s voice broke with the staticky cell reception in our kitchen at home.

“Yes, Sally,” I said. “You know Emily and you know me. This is right.”

It was – I was sure. Emily was the right person, and I’d known as much since our first date – we both had. The day before she’d affirmed it again. I’d asked her over dinner if she was nervous. “Not at all,” she’d said, pulling back her dark hair before leaning into a plate of spaghetti. “It’s gonna be a great adventure!”

 “You don’t need to worry about me,” I told Sally. “I’m sure this is the right choice.”

She sounded defeated, grumbling. “Well I’m not worried about you,” she said.

“Mom is gonna be okay,” I said. Sally had just finished her freshman year at Syracuse University, which wasn’t more than ten minutes from our house. She’d stayed close to home so she could take care of mom, going home most weekends and driving her to doctor’s appointments when our father was at work. In 2nd grade, Sally got a perfect score on a state-wide examine that enabled her to skip 3rd grade: she’d always been a bit older than she was supposed to be. “She’s on all the right meds, right? You and Dad take good care of her,” I said. “And I know she would want me to pursue life with someone I really love and trust.”

“Charlie ­– ” Sally started. But I didn’t want to talk about it. I knew what she was going to say – that I hadn’t always been there – and it was true. It was fair for her to want me to stay closer to home. But I was twenty-two years old. I had career ambitions in investigative work, and relationship ambitions with Emily.

So I interrupted my sister – my smart-beyond-her-years sister. My sister who had been there all along. “Sally – trust me,” I said. “I know what I’m doing.”

#

By the next summer, Emily and I were settled in downtown LA. Our first year together had been perfect. We woke up early and went to our respective workplaces, saw friends on the weekends, and didn’t get sick of each other, even in our 300 square-foot apartment. We fit a double bed in the corner with enough space to open the door to the bathroom and the door to Emily’s closet. I kept my clothes in bins under the bed. We had a second-hand futon that served as a couch and a guest bed, and a little bistro table where we ate meals and chopped ingredients when the counter was crowded with drying dishes. The picture from graduation sat on the small window sill above the narrow kitchen counter, my makeshift family of four filling the hole my mother and her threatening coffee cup left empty.

We were tight on money, as most young couples in LA are. I’d found work interning at a small private investigation company, and Emily was job-to-job on any set that would take her, but we were still scrimping. It was the type of situation – jerry-rigged clotheslines, poster corners peeling off the walls – that we’d look back on in twenty years and think of as romantic: how little privacy, how much love. But I knew this kind of living couldn’t last long. Emily worked hard, but her industry was tough: it could take her years of entry level work to make real money. I knew she wouldn’t want to wait that long to have a bigger place, nicer things – a wedding, a child. My company had possibilities for promotion, but if I wanted to make enough for two, I’d need something else. I know I shouldn’t have, but in the back of my mind, like the shameful story itself, I kept the thought of the jewelry. In case.

Sally came to visit us at the beginning of June. Her school year was over and she had a week before she started a summer job at a company in downtown Syracuse – something with facts and figures in the non-profit world.

When she first saw our apartment she said, “Isn’t this spacious.” She looked at me sarcastically. “And more expensive than, I don’t know, Syracuse.”

“The things we do for love,” I teased.  

Emily smiled.

We took her to our favorite places that week – the taco stand down the street and the free outdoor movie night in Echo Park. She went to work with Emily several times, joining in the mob of people on the set of a cheap daytime TV show. They came home recounting all the stories Sally told to get behind the ropes – that she was shadowing with a film class and professor was right over there or that she was bringing lunch for that cameraman, no that one, see? Sometimes Josie played the role of a fake higher-up over the phone, hamming it up to a security guard confronting Sally. They’d recount the stories to each other over dinner, laughing harder each time – “Josie in that accent to Bilman in the PCR!” – their two-person language ringing around our apartment, the sound of a real family.

Sally couldn’t come to my workplace – it wasn’t like she could watch as I filed cases of insurance fraud or helped track down a new client’s suspected-of-cheating husband. Only once did my job come up and when it did, Sally shut it down quickly. “You certainly know a lot about these strangers,” she’d said, the implication of my filial abandonment clear.

But it was fine with me – honestly, I thought it was better that way. Sally and Emily needed a chance to get to know each other. They’d met before, but only on occasions with crowds – a college football game or Sally’s high school graduation. During Sally’s graduation party, Emily had spilled ketchup on her shirt and Sally had taken her to her room to borrow a clean one. I remember watching them walk down the hall to Sally’s room from the kitchen, hoping they’d take their time coming back, get to know each other a bit: I wanted Sally on our side of the photograph. And now, that was happening.

One night, we sat on the unfinished roof of our building drinking cheap wine from plastic cups we’d gotten free from college events. Emily told a story about Josie and a stranger who had parked his car in their driveway. Her family had just celebrated Emily’s tenth birthday with a Luau themed party, and Josie, frugal Bostonian that she was, had saved the fake grass skirts, the flower leis, the crepe paper pineapple streamers. When she saw the foreign car in their drive, she’d run fuming into her storage room, pulled out the decoration boxes, and, screaming obscenities for the neighborhood to hear, attacked the car with Hawaiian décor. She knotted the wipers with deflated flamingo bodies, threw handfuls of powdered fruit punch across the windshield, stuffed pink and yellow leis in the tailpipe. Covered the roof of the car with the skirts of sheer plastic green grass.

When the driver came back, she was standing beside her masterpiece, smoking.

Emily doubled over recounting it, her dark brown hair hiding her face. “So she looks at the guy and she says, ‘We didn’t expect you at the party, but we got you some favors anyway.’ And he can’t speak he’s so stunned! He just gets in and drives his little party car down the street.”

Sally laughed, her crisscrossed legs bouncing with joy, like a child playing butterfly at circle time. “Josie is amazing,” she said, and then added, looking knowingly at Emily: “Moms – their own little worlds.”

“Tell me about it,” Emily said, taking a sip from a Spring Fling 2006 cup. “That’ll be us one day.”

“We’re well on our way,” Sally said and clinked her cup in response.

Sally and I talked about Mom only once during that week she was visiting. It wasn’t that the topic was off-limits, but I was nervous that if I brought it up, we’d only revisit the same unproductive tension about my leaving home. One day, Emily had a pre-dawn call, so Sally and I had breakfast, the two of us, she on the futon, legs fidgeting, me at the sink, pouring mugs of coffee.

“Does Emily know about mom?” Sally asked. Sally wore a faded Syracuse Orangemen t-shirt and had her legs tucked under a fleece Red Sox blanket Josie had given us when we left – her form of a blessing. I found this perfectly right – an element from each of my lives merged into one story.

“Yeah,” I said. “Of course.”

“Like – everything?” she said.

I took a sip from a mug and looked at her. “Everything,” I said. I shrugged to show her there was nothing loaded in this – what was mine was Emily’s. We didn’t have secrets.

Sally face was focused, pondering. I could see the 2nd grader, her neat scratch paper, her accurate bubble-filling.

She adjusted herself on the futon, took a careful breath and said, “Do you ever wonder if you know everything about Emily?”

She had stilled under the blanket. If there’s one thing you learn in investigative work, it’s to study body language: Sally’s stillness was a clue. Sally was never still.

I waited for a moment, then I said, “No. Why would you say that?” My voice was calm but purposeful. I thought of my father at the kitchen table, his newspaper, his proverbial notecards.

Sally’s stillness broke. She wove her fingers through her hair as she looked over our apartment: the alarm clock on the floor, the laundry bag hung over the closed door of Emily’s closet. She reached for her phone and spun it in circles against the surface of the futon. Her voice came out nervously.

“Well you know what mom would say,” she said. “Every woman has a soft self inside.” She smiled nostalgically, as if we were sharing a happy memory together. The mug felt suddenly familiar in my hands. “Emily. . . ” Sally trailed off like our mother, eyes floating around the apartment, and, as I set the mug down on the counter so I wouldn’t drop it in shock, I realized the scene of our adolescence was replaying. The soft self, the kitchen counter. Except one character had changed.

“Emily isn’t Saadia,” I said, and at the same time, Sally finished her thought: “She’s no different,” she said.

We looked at each other for a moment. Then Sally cleared her throat. One of her legs began to jiggle.

I reached for the mug again, my hand still shaking. “Emily,” I repeated. “Isn’t Saadia.” I was still trying to grasp what my sister was saying. Did she know something about Emily that I didn’t? Sure, they’d spent time together this week, but Emily had been mine for years. Emily wasn’t Saadia, wasn’t some fearful woman with a secret inner self: that’s what I’d always loved about her. Besides, we shared 300 square-feet of space – there wasn’t any room for secrets. She and Sally might have begun to make their “own little world,” but it couldn’t be anything like the world Emily and I had.

And then the clues hit me: Sally was looking at her phone, away from me. She was nervous: she was bluffing. There was nothing I didn’t know about Emily, but I did know that Sally resented my apartment, my job, my leaving her and our mother at home. She didn’t know any secrets, but she wanted me to believe they existed. To doubt Emily. To drive a wedge and get me back home.

I took a calm breath in and out. “Sally,” I said, and when I spoke it was my father’s voice. “I know you’ve always been against my moving here. I know you want me to be home with you and mom and dad. But it’s not fair for you to make things up to get what you want.” I looked at her square, feeling his necktie encircle me, challenging Sally to question, to find a hole.

When she looked up at me, she was smiling. Her old entertained self. Her battle attempted and lost, she could be my little sister again. She laughed. “Okay, Charlie,” she said. Her leg shook.

#

I’d learned in the waiting room of my mother’s office how to listen. How to get the deeper story from the surface-level clues, how to see behavior as information rather that grounds for judgment. I used these skills in my work every day, and, now I used them on my sister.

I had no grudge against Sally. I understood that she was lonely at home, that she was tired from years of managing our mother’s sickness. In all that time, she hadn’t had a significant other, a partner, even many friends. She wasn’t malicious – she just wanted her older brother to come home.

Even so, I felt strange after she left. Emily talked on and on about how much fun they’d had, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell her what Sally had done behind her back, how my sister had besmirched her new friend, wielded her like a shiny new weapon in a years-long family fight.

“I’m glad you two became so close,” I said after Emily played a new song over our little speaker, telling me that Sally had shown her the artist.  

I was working on a case at the time – a new one that had our whole office, a small firm with little reputation, involved. Some Hollywood CEO claimed he’d been conned by a mail-order bride company, that he’d sent money overseas and the woman who arrived wasn’t what he’d ordered – she neither resembled the pictures nor behaved as he expected. He’d hired investigators to try to prove that she’d scammed him, and chosen our firm specifically because the whole thing – ordering a wife, getting what he called a “dud” in return – wasn’t a good look for him, and he didn’t want anyone to catch wind that one of the big firms was working for him.

I found the whole thing fascinating – the twisted concept of marriage that some people have, the idea that you can buy a relationship – and I was surprised and honored when my boss asked me to take shifts tailing the CEO. Our best people were on the wife, but we were suspicious of this guy – the fact that he’d come to our company was red flag enough. And I have to say, I had that feeling too: the feeling that he was the culprit. That he realized he’d made a mistake in his marriage and wanted us to fall for his story and get him his money back.

I thought the case would be a good entry – a way to reset between Sally and me what hadn’t been the sweetest parting.

I called her from my car as I sat outside the CEO’s office. It was noon and the street was mostly quiet. There were palm trees and sunshine and it smelled alternately of flowers and germy air. Women walked past in shiny high heels with matching purses and I thought of Emily’s closet at home: muted colors, worn jeans. I was overwhelmed with gratitude daily for everything she was.

“Hi, Charlie,” Sally said when she picked up. She sounded normal. “How are you?” Something clattered in the background and I heard our mother’s voice. “Hang on.”

It was a Tuesday, in the middle of the afternoon, and Sally was home.

“You’re not working?” I asked when she came back on the phone. I hadn’t thought before I spoke and my voice came out sharply, accusing – what was she doing there?

“Yeah, I just took today off,” she said. She seemed not to have heard any kind of tone in my voice and instead lowered hers. “Dad said she wasn’t doing well and wants her on some new medication,” she said, and I could hear her eye roll. “So I guess I’m taking her to another appointment.” She said appointment like I knew what she meant.

“Okay. Well. Keep me posted,” I said. I didn’t understand what Sally thought her role was. Our mother needed a doctor, not a soon-to-be-unemployed daughter. Maybe I’d missed the last years, but I was there when it all started: I knew enough. “And listen to Dad.”

“Okay, Charlie,” she said flatly. She turned to say something to mom in the background again. If there hadn’t been tension when she picked up, there was now. I took a breath as she dealt with whatever our mother was doing. Muffled voices, the swishing of a blanket or towel. Sally’s laughter, sweet and clear. I didn’t want to be mad at my sister. I resolved not to push it any further: I’d go back to my original plan.

When she came back on the phone, I told her the work story. The CEO, the mysterious wife. No names, no specific facts, just the broad strokes. That I had a hunch it was him.

“Wow,” Sally said, her voice easy again. “Sounds familiar.” She laughed.

For a moment, I thought she was making another dig at Emily and me. “It does?” I said, ready to stay measured this time.

But my sister surprised me. “Reminds you of Bart, doesn’t it,” she said.

The image of the jeweler came back to me: the little grey cap, the waiting room of the office. Something shining from his hand. It occurred to me that, though I’d never seen him in that waiting room, I could picture him there clear as memory. “I never thought of it like that.”

“Like what?” Sally laughed as if I’d meant to be funny.

“I guess I – ” I started to say.

“Charlie,” she said teasingly scolding, then paused, waiting for me to take it back, to say that I’d known whatever it was. “Saadia was a mail-order bride,” she said gently, as if breaking bad news to a child. “Bart wasn’t ‘happy’ with her. That’s why she was so sad. That’s why she went to mom.”

Someone came out of the office building then. I sat up in the driver’s seat to see and realized as I shifted in my shirt that I’d been sweating.

“Of course,” Sally said, her logical self again, “he barely knew her at all.”

People were pouring out of the office now. It must have been lunch time, or else I hadn’t noticed them before.

It seemed now that I may not have noticed anything at all.

“I’ve gotta go, Sal,” I said. “My guy is coming.”

“Good luck!” she said. “And tell Emily I say hi and hope she’s doing well with everything, okay?”

“Sure,” I said. I was now in a full sweat. The sidewalk seemed suddenly to overflow with blurry faces. The CEO must have come out, and I must have missed him, even though I’d been watching the whole time. Where could he have gone?

And what was ‘everything’?

“Love you,” Sally said.  

“You too,” I said.

I drove around the block, trying to spot him among the faces I’d missed. Nowhere. He could have left the office hours ago, I realized, and I wouldn’t have known. I pulled over again and took out my phone to call Sally. Maybe she knew where he was, if she knew so much. If she knew everything.

But I couldn’t call. I couldn’t admit to her that she might be right – that she might know something I didn’t.

Instead, after a few minutes, I pulled away from the curb. Emily was working on a shoot at a studio nearby, and I thought maybe I’d bring her lunch and surprise her. But as I drove in her direction, I realized I wasn’t stopping for lunch. I wasn’t looking around for cafes or taco trucks. I was just going to her office, pulling in the parking lot, and circling to find her car. Wondering what she was doing inside. Wondering if she was there at all.

#

“She’s wearing it,” Sally said over the phone a week later. “She’s taken it all out of her closet and is wearing it all at once.”

She was laughing, that tone of amusement that her voice, I was beginning to notice, often had. Had she always been so entertained by the world? So unconcerned?

“What?” I said. I was in my car again, outside a restaurant this time. It was a fancy Italian place with a patio shaded by an ivy-covered trellis. The patrons had shiny hair and sat in groups of two and three, and above them little white lights dripped from sprawls of ivy like tiny stars. It was lunchtime. Garlic and tomato wafted through my cracked window.

“The jewelry,” Sally said emphatically.

“What?” I said again.

“She’s having so much fun, you should see her. She’s taken it all out of the safe and is dancing around in it.” There was music in the background, something with a xylophone and a low smooth voice. “Yeah, mom!” Sally said. I could picture them in the backyard, boom box on its back in the grass, oak leaves on wire woven in their hair, and jewelry, hundreds of dollars of jewelry, flung onto paint palettes, lost in a leaf pile.

“Sally, are you serious? That stuff is – valuable.” I had stopped myself from saying what I meant – ours. That stuff is ours. In the past months, the jewelry had been on my mind more and more. Emily was working so hard and making so little. In the mornings, she left for work without saying anything, too tired to talk. At night, she stress-cleaned, organizing and re-organizing kitchen cabinets, bathroom shelves, her closet, shifting our tiny table six inches to the right, six inches back to the left. She called Josie frequently, saying hello in a sweetly quiet voice, stepping outside to talk. I could tell she was tired of our tiny space, tired of entry-level work, and I needed to relieve her stress, to make her happy. I needed to provide. “Where’s Dad?” I said.

“She’s so happy!” Sally laughed again, but I didn’t understand what was so funny. Was this her way of trying to get me home again? Was this carelessness with valuable things another manipulation? She cheered for our mom again. “So, how’s the case?”

“Is the medicine not working?” I said. I couldn’t get the image out of my mind – my mother, tangled in leaves, dancing with her eyes closed, dropping a pendant necklace, my future with Emily, stepping on it. Our in case crushed.

In the background our mother said, “Who is that?”

“It’s Charlie, Mom,” Sally said. “I told him you’re dancing.”

“What does Charlie know about dancing!” Her voice had drifted away, back across the yard. I wondered which pieces she was wearing. Maybe it wasn’t all of them. Maybe only the cheap ones.

“Sally,” I said, “the medicine. It’s not working?”  

“What?” Sally said. She’d called to our mother again, drowning out my words. Then she said, “I wish you guys could see her. She was playing Witch Hat earlier. Emily would love this.”

The music got louder then and Sally seemed to forget about me. I thought again about the circumstances of her calling – the type of situation she’d wanted me to see, the reality of our mother’s illness laid out, again attempting to pull me home. But then, the joy in her voice. She sounded like Mom describing the jewels at the kitchen counter: overtaken by her own dreaminess.

“I’m sure she would,” I said. Sally didn’t need to know that I had no handle on what Emily would love anymore. “I’m sure she would.”

I looked out my car window. A waiter in a crisp white button-down walked across the restaurant’s patio, four bowls of pasta cradled in his arms. He presented them to a table of bright-blonde girls.

Sally laughed again, and I scanned the patio. Blonde, old, male.

Emily must have been seated inside.

#

I shouldn’t have kept following her but I did. To studios where she worked and to lunch and dinner breaks. She went to restaurants for most meals, I learned, and I wondered what she ate and how she paid. If she stuck to small appetizers to save money, if she was hungry after the meal. I snuck protein bars into her purse in the mornings and found them there still wrapped the next day. In early July, I followed her to the beach on a Friday afternoon. She was meant to work all night, which wasn’t unusual. The project, she’d said, was big and exciting – it might be her ‘break,’ she said, and I wondered, because I had started to wonder at everything about her, if people in the real movie business actually said that – if they actually referred to their ‘break.’ Or if, perhaps, her work, her industry, were all a lie. When she talked to Sally, did she call it that? When she talked to Sally, did she talk about her job at all? About me? About mom?

That Friday, she sat at the beach in her car, alone. She never got out and she only rolled the windows down a crack. The waves crashed rhythmically, a white noise machine, unbroken, unclicking. If she was waiting for someone, I didn’t know. If she came because she liked to see the ocean, to watch the waves through her windshield, I didn’t know.

Once I’d seen the jeweler at the grocery store in our town. He was guiding a six-pack down the conveyor belt, unsmiling. The grey cap was pushed up his head and a red line from its elastic bisected his forehead. I could picture my mother’s hand miming on her own head – “his little grey cap.” I was leaving the store when I saw him, and when I got out to the parking lot, I saw Saadia, sitting alone in a turned-off car, waiting.

At home, Emily was stressed. In between organizing and re-organizing, she consumed herself in emails and job postings, cross-legged and bent-backed on our bed. She’d sigh heavily as she lifted her clothes off the rack yet again, then laugh at herself, shrugging off her anxious behavior as she began to rearrange her clothes by color instead of occasion. She called Josie often, checking in, clearly homesick. I tried to suggest plans outside of the house – tacos or movies or a cheap bottle of wine – tried to remind her that everything we were doing, even the hard parts, were part of the “great adventure” she had envisioned. She’d smile and nod and go back to her clothes, worrying over them as if tasked with packing for a month-long vacation. I didn’t ask her if going to the beach would help her unwind, didn’t say we could even stay in our cars and just watch. I ran out of things to say at all. I longed for my father’s notecards, for his advice. But I didn’t know how to ask him for help, didn’t want to show him the holes that had formed in my plans.

On the phone one night, Sally said our mother had started writing postcards. I didn’t ask about the jewelry: I didn’t want to sound worried. I was at the tiny table, the phone on speaker while I chopped an onion.

Emily sat on our bed, bent over her screen. “Oh, write me one!” she said into the phone.

“Of course,” Sally said. “You’re on the list. We’re collaging them so we’ll put some movie stars on yours.”

“You know me well,” Emily said. “Josie too?”

“Yes, of course,” Sally said, her voice softer. “Baseball for her.”

Emily sighed. “Thanks,” she said.

I looked up to meet Emily’s eyes. I wanted to say since when are you all on postcard terms? I wanted to say how can I make you stop sighing? But she didn’t look back. Instead I asked Sally, “Who else is she writing?”

“Oh, you know, all the gals. Here, she can tell you.”

And then the phone was on speaker and my mother’s voice came through. It was wiry and high, taut with joy, and I realized how long it had been since I’d heard it. Months. Many of them.

“Hi, Ma,” I said. “How are you? You’re making postcards?”

“Charlie!” she said, loudly, in a way that I could tell she was in motion, reaching for glue or a magazine and scissors. “We’re making postcards.”

My knife stilled. My mother on the phone – she sounded happy and young, like a child. “Who are you writing, Ma?” I asked.

“Sally and Emily and Josie,” she said. And then, she paused, and I could see her in my memory slumping down to the backyard grass. Her voice came small but lovingly. “Saadia.”

The conversation paused.

Then Sally said, “All the gals,” and clicked the phone off speaker and before I knew it the call was over.

I hadn’t gotten to ask. To say, Saadia? I hadn’t gotten a moment to realize before Sally hung up that, in her illness, my mother’s fixation on the jeweler and the jeweler’s wife must not only have persisted, but evidently deepened. It was one thing to repeat the story of a woman whose husband you’d slept with, but to write her a letter? To make her a collage? I wanted to say, Sally: the meds, the treatment – where? The onion stung. I told Emily I was going outside to clear my eyes.

I stepped onto the landing outside our door. The air was gummy, the stars distant. Inside, I heard Emily shift on the bed, heard her computer slam closed and her closet door open. I thought about the postcards. I thought about Emily and wondered what kind of adventure she thought we were on. I thought about the case – the man I’d been tailing, the one we’d thought had made up the story of his wife. We’d found instead that his actions were exactly as he’d described. He proceeded through his days normally – home to office to meeting to home – while his wife flitted across the city to places he’d never imagined, places far worse than the ones in the story in his head. While he carried on, oblivious, ignorant, she rewrote every script we had given her, changed every line, scene, and role, until the movie was her own.

#

Josie died in late September.

She’d been sick for years, since I’d known her, but I guess I never knew the gravity. When Emily told me Jimmy had called to tell her it was time to come say goodbye, I’d said, “Really?”

She’d looked back at me, curious but unsurprised.

I knew I’d messed up. I knew I’d missed the clues that Josie’s lung cancer wasn’t getting any better. I’d overlooked all of Emily’s calls home, all her sighing. I hadn’t asked. In my obsession with figuring out how to Emily happy, I had missed the evidence that told me the reality.

But I thought I could fix it. I thought I could promise her more, do better. I thought she’d want that too.

We went back East the day after Jimmy’s call. I told my boss I needed a week off, and Emily quit the job she was working on. On the plane, she was stiff, a thin sliver of limbs staring blankly out the window. There was a chill in the air in Boston and the leaves had begun to turn. Emily’s dark hair against the orange foliage made such a pretty picture I began to feel guilty I’d ever let her leave the East Coast.

Jimmy and Josie’s house was decorated. Inflated baseballs bats lay on the windowsill next to Josie’s bed and a string of pennants hung between the four-posters. Red Sox balloons grazed the ceiling.

“She wanted to make it through another World Series,” Jimmy said. “So I put out her old decorations.”

In her own home, in the role of caretaker, Emily became someone I didn’t know. She moved silently and swiftly from bedside to kitchen to grocery list to file folders. She completed tasks efficiently and without stopping, and I thought of the row of hangers in the closet, of her gazing through her windshield at the ocean, silent, alone. Seeing her here, in a home, with a family, with her father’s credit card, versus in our tiny studio with her unreliable paycheck, affirmed the decision I’d been weighing for the past months: Emily needed a real life, a real home, a real family.

I was going to propose. And then, I was going to provide.  

I had planned to leave one night after Emily was sleeping, drive up to Syracuse, retrieve a ring and the rest of what we’d need to move to a bigger place from the jewelry safe, and be back before she woke up. But when I saw her so focused, so intent, I thought she didn’t need me now, she needed me after this. I didn’t ask her, then or ever, what she needed.

I just left.

I took the rental car up to Syracuse that night, letting Emily know via text that I’d be just a four-hour drive away if anything happened.

I hadn’t been home in eighteen months, since before graduation, when I’d come to say goodbye before we drove out to LA. Sally had come home for dinner that night so we could be together before I left, and I remember her eyes were circled darkly, her face pale, and our father had said proudly, “Your sister is working hard. It’s good for her.”

This time, I arrived while they were sleeping. A light glowed on the porch, but the house was dark. It smelled from the outside like a freshly baked bread loaf, wheaty and sweet, and there was a new car in the driveway – something my father must have bought recently.

The door was open, and I remember wondering, as I pushed it open, how my father could have forgotten to lock it, but I stopped wondering as soon as I stepped inside.

The house looked like an abandoned art class. The kitchen table blossomed with colored construction paper and magazines. A pair of scissors lay open on the floor beneath a chair, and glue sticks lolled in the center of the table like plastic kindling for a fake fire. Dishes sat in the sink, piled high above the counter, and the coffee pot was still full. But the mess was only part.

The old brown couch, where Sally used to sit, wriggling while our mother told about the jeweler, had been covered in a soft pastel green, the color of the chairs in the waiting room. The walls, lit by the moon, were painted with large, soothing palm fronds.

In the middle of the table sat a card covered with glossy-papered baseballs and jerseys. “We love you, Josie,” the back side said. “We are here in case. Love, Sally and Valeria.” The last line like a known, familial sign-off.

I don’t know how long I sat taking it in but at some point I walked down the hall to Sally’s room. I tapped lightly on the door and then opened it, and a figure sat up in bed. The lump of another body lay on the other side.

Sally stood and walked softly to the door. She was rubbing her eyes and pushing her hair out of her face.

“Charlie,” she said. “What are you doing here?”

“Whose car is that?” I said.

“What?” She blinked and wrapped her arms around her body. “What are you talking about?”

“Whose car is that in the driveway?”

“Mine,” she said.

“Where’s Dad?”

Sally’s legs were jogging in place as if she were going to run away. Her face bent in discomfort. She looked up at me. “Charlie,” she said.

#

Over the next few days, I learned what had been going on in our house – the last eighteen months and the last twenty-three years. Sally had moved home a year ago, was taking classes online, had dropped out of Syracuse. School hadn’t been good for her, she said, and when Dad started to see the same things in her that he saw in Mom, he let her transfer. Dad was building a new branch of his company in Long Island, spending at first two nights a week there, now, more and more – a distance Sally said felt both right and unsurprising. She and Mom were happy: the only two members of their same old commune.

“And her medicine?” I said. We were sitting on the back porch the morning after my arrival. Sally had made coffee and was toasting Pop-Tarts. Our mother had hugged me that morning when she woke up and was now digging in the backyard at some rows of herbs.

Sally sighed. “Charlie,” she said. “Look around you.” I did: the leaves beginning to fall and pile under the old oak tree. The hem of our mother’s dress dusted with dirt and the refuse of a fall garden. Xylophonic music in the background since we’d woken up, like jovial white noise. “Mom was never on medication. I never took to her those doctors. She’s not crazy.” Sally watched as our mother knelt over a tomato plant. “She just needed. . . ” She gestured to the coffee cup she’d poured for our mother that sat on the table between us. “To hold her own coffee cup,” she said. “To have her soft self loved.” She looked up at me. “As we all do.”

I was beginning to understand who we were. The postcards, the texts. It was all of them. My mother dug the dirt at the base of the plant with care, precision. What had seemed like a lost mind now stood perfectly stable in front of me: all the inner lives I have never known – my mother’s, Sally’s, Saadia’s. Emily and Josie’s. All of the leaves and collages.

“I thought she was –” I started. The word demented seemed now too cruel to say allowed.

“I know,” Sally said.

If Sally was patient with my misjudgement of our mother’s wellness, she was hysterical at my judgement of her relationship with Bart.

“Bart?” she said, choking on the hilarity of the idea. It was the third night of my stay and I’d finally gotten the courage to ask. We were sitting at the kitchen table. The papers had been shoved to one side, and Sally nearly knocked them off gesticulating in shock at my question. “Are you serious? With ‘his little grey cap?’” Her hand perfectly imitated mom’s, and she lost herself in a fit of laugher. “What in the world would make you think she would be attracted to him? You and Dad – my God. A woman talks about a man and you guys,” she trailed off, covering her face in amused disappointment. Then she looked up in realization. “Mom loved Saadia! She would never do that to her!”

From the way she said it now, I could see the hilarity in it too. All those years thinking that story – our mother against the kitchen counter, her eyes flitting through the air, her arms winging with description – was more than it was. I could have been ashamed, indignant. But what I felt was a kind of relief. I’d been fighting some silent, uncertain battle for years – Dad and I versus Sally and Mom – and I didn’t need to fight it anymore. Dad had given it up, gone away. Sally and Mom didn’t need to be contested or controlled anymore.

And then Sally said: “We sent Saadia a package the other day.” She was scrolling through her phone. “Look,” she said, holding up a picture.

It was my mother, standing on a curb. My mother, whom I’d come to learn in the past days was a happy woman who hummed often and listened closely and spoke kindly and clearly. Her voice the same as it had been through the cracks in the noise machine. There she stood on a curb, a hand on her hip, a small smile on her face. I thought of her behind the camera at my graduation, her eyes adrift. Here, she looked straight at the camera. At her feet was a small cardboard box. Above her, the logo of a storefront that came back to me slowly. Ocean Life Hot Massage.

“The jewelry store isn’t there anymore, but we left a box in case Saadia ever goes back,” Sally said.

I felt my relief turn to sudden rage. “A box of jewelry?” I said.

“Yeah,” Sally said, happy, satisfied, as if telling me about a successful prank. “We’ve been giving it away.”

“You’re kidding,” I said. I was leaning toward her in anger, the table pressed into my chest. “That was mine. I needed that. We needed that.”

Sally looked up from the picture, unphased. “Charlie,” she said. “You don’t need anything. We sent it to people who actually might.”

I wanted to ask who. But I realized that I didn’t need to.

So I only said, “How much is left?”

And then, our mother came around the corner from the hallway. She was carrying a vase full of leaves. Her hair was long and loose like a veil down her back.

“The jewelry is gone,” she said.

“No,” I said. “No, it can’t be gone, it’s not gone, please – ”

But my mother interrupted. “Oh, Charlie,” she said. “You don’t know anything.”

#

I can still feel the curve of my mother’s coffee cup in my hand. Smooth and certain, the key to a story I’d built, written on my notecard, repeated and repeated. My mother heard what was behind the machine; I had gathered only the clues that presented themselves to me through the gaps in the noise. I had spent my life watching through the window of a parked car; she’d spent hers asking questions and listening to the answers.  

When I returned to Los Angeles, I did so alone. I did so with new knowledge and the relief and heartache brought. Sally and my mother were right: I didn’t know them and I didn’t know Emily. If my ignorance about Josie’s sickness hadn’t been enough, my leaving Boston in the middle of the night without a word certainly was. Emily was done with me and should have been. When I returned to LA, I did so alone, and I did so to leave. I’d go back home, at long last. I’d understand what had really happened, who my mother and my sister really were. I’d ask.

Josie had died on my fourth day in Syracuse. I’d spoken to Emily and given her my condolences and my love – which was real, the love. Real, if just an outline. She was staying in Boston indefinitely, helping her father with arrangements, with Josie’s frugal Bostonian belongings.

And I suspect that somewhere among those belongings, somewhere in the back of one of Josie’s closets, behind the baseball and luau decorations, was a small cardboard box. I suspect that inside was a small selection of jewelry. A bracelet, a pair or two of earrings. I suspected there was a note that came with it, folded inside one of the velvet boxes, written on a piece of red construction paper or a pretty magazine cover. I suspected as much, and when I returned to LA, my suspicion was confirmed.

In our 300-square-foot studio apartment, I packed my things. My clothes from the bins, the picture of Sally and me from the windowsill. I left the picture from our graduation behind: it wasn’t mine anymore. And before I left, I took a look in the back of Emily’s closet. On a shelf behind all the hangers sat a small carboard box. It was collaged, glistening with cartoon film reels and cutout actors. Inside sat a shining diamond necklace, a thin gold bracelet, a large black and green amulet. And folded underneath the jewels was a small handwritten note: “To Emily. In case you lose everything.”



BIO

Isabelle Stillman is a Los Angeles-based writer, teacher, and musician. Her fiction has appeared in The Voices Project and The Dillydoun Review. She is the Prose Editor for december magazine and a high school English teacher. You can listen to her music on any streaming service and follow along with her work on Instagram at @isabellestillman.



Sliding

By Jane Frances Gilles

Monica stepped onto the boulevard, the border between the neighborhood and the park. Cool grass brushed her feet between her sandal straps. It had been mowed today, she could tell, and she worried that her sandals might get stained. Concentrating, she placed each foot straight up and straight down. For the first time ever, Mother had allowed Monica to go alone to the park. All the way there, she had imagined playing on the playground without Mother watching, cautioning.

Entering the park, Monica looked up. There were so many kids on the playground. The Smith girls were here, one Sis’s age, one her own age, and one in between. They lived five blocks away in a fancy white house with green shutters. On the monkey bars their bodies wriggled and swung as they reached for one bar, then the next. Each wore a pair of culottes, which Monica had been unsuccessful in convincing Mother to buy for her. As usual, Monica wore hand-me-downs from Sis. Watching the Smith girls, Monica put her hands in the pockets of her faded pink shorts. In the left pocket she felt a piece of penny candy she had bought with her allowance. She told herself she would eat it on the way home.

So fast as to create a blur, the roundabout spun, four children riding it, the biggest of them kicking the ground to keep it moving. After a moment Monica realized it was Ned Wood who was spinning the roundabout, his jet-black hair appearing almost blue from a distance. During the school year, Ned walked to school alone. He ate lunch alone, his dark eyes watchful. Whenever Mrs. Dahl allowed it, he studied alone while the rest of the class worked in groups. If Sis were here, she’d have a theory about why Ned Wood was spinning the roundabout for a bunch of little kids.

Monica looked to the slide, her favorite. There were two slides, actually, a small one that went straight down, and a big curving one made of hills and valleys. A set of stairs led to a platform supporting a tin roof painted yellow. From this platform, the small slide was reached. Next, a ladder led up and up to another platform, covered by another yellow roof, this one embellished with orange stripes. Here was the entrance to the big slide. Monica had graduated to the big slide last year, an achievement that brought her pride. Sometimes in bed at night, she thought of the long, twisting slide. She felt her bangs blowing off her face, felt her body lean inward and slightly back against the shiny metal, riding the curves, seeking freedom, forgetting all else.

Monica saw five children at the slide – three boys from her class and two girls from Mrs. Johnson’s class. They raced up the stairs, then the ladder, careened down the big slide, shouted to one another, and laughed in such a way that she felt excluded, even though she had just arrived, even though she knew they had not seen her at the edge of the playground, hoping to slide. Monica faced again the freshly mown grass, raised and lowered each foot with care, and followed the sidewalk home, where Mother would be waiting.

§

“How was your time at the park?” Mother’s polka-dot house dress flared as she turned from her work in the kitchen. “You certainly weren’t gone long.”

“Okay.”

“Okay? Just okay? What does that mean?”

Monica took a halting breath before explaining, “There were too many kids there.” Her eyes dropped, her mind swirling like the pattern of the kitchen flooring before her.

“Too many kids? How can there possibly be too many kids at a park?” Mother turned to the kitchen counter. “You should see each of those children as an opportunity for friendship.”

“I’m sorry,” Monica said to Mother’s back.

Busy preparing apples for pie, Mother continued, “Your sister would find joy in a park full of children. Happiness! I only wish you’d have half her spunk.” Sliced apples made a gentle plopping sound as Mother dropped them into the water in the big yellow mixing bowl. “Did you take off your sandals? I don’t want dirt traipsed through the house.”

“Yes.”

Monica backed out of the kitchen, waiting to see if Mother had more to say. When Mother began humming to herself – no recognizable tune, just pitches strung together in her lilting soprano voice – Monica felt safe exiting the room.

Sheltered within the walls of the bedroom, door ajar as Mother expected, Monica sat on her bed, one of two twin beds in the small room. She glanced over at Sis’s school notebooks stacked haphazardly next to her bed and thought about the day when she would be old enough to have a separate notebook for each subject. She lay back, sinking into the chenille bedspread – hers white with a design of yellow tulips at the center, Sis’s similar but featuring a bouquet of violets. Monica thought about the park. She had wanted the big slide to herself today, no one looking at her, no questions. Maybe another day, soon. As her eyes slipped closed, Monica reminded herself that she must straighten the bedspread as soon as she got up.

§

“Dear? Dear?”

Mother’s voice brought Monica from a dream: Sis on the slide ahead of Monica, gripping her ankles. Both laughing. Momentum carrying them fast around the curves. Sis yelling, “Hang onto me.”

“It’s time to set the table for dinner,” Mother said as she opened the bedroom door. “Wash your hands first. Don’t dilly dally.” She twirled on her heels, humming again, and was down the hallway in a flash.

Monica straightened the bedspread, making certain the flower pattern was centered in the middle of the bed. She paused to look at Sis’s bed, her flowers slightly askew as always. 

Monica blinked her eyes awake in the bright kitchen. The turquoise walls were brilliant in the light streaming in from the western sky. Careful to place each piece of silverware close to its neighbor without touching, Monica set the table as formally as she knew how. She folded the white paper napkins, hearing in her mind Mother’s frequent proclamation, “We may not have all the money in the world, but that’s no reason to set aside high standards.” As was the custom for the past three months, Monica set four places at the table, even though there would be only three for dinner.

“Dinner smells great! What are we having, honey?” Father strode through the back door, kicking off his shoes and hanging his hat in the hallway. “Is it pork? Smells like pork.” Like he did every day, Father greeted Monica with a ruffle of her hair and a pinch of her cheek.

“No, we’re having hamburger hotdish with an Italian twist – a new recipe from Charlene. She says it’s a winner!” Busy at the sink, Mother added, “Go wash your hands, Burton, and join us when you’re ready.”

Half seated at this point, Father stood again, winked at Monica, and headed to the bathroom. Mother put dinner on the table – the hotdish, a bowl of boiled peas from the garden, and four baked potatoes. There would be warm apple pie for dessert. During dinner, Monica and Father were quiet while Mother recounted her day.

After helping Mother with the dishes, Monica descended the basement stairs. Even though she would soon be a fourth grader and knew she should be brave by now, Monica was still afraid of the basement. She hated how dark it was, even when daylight shown through the narrow windows. Last week she had been startled by a spider crossing her path when she retrieved pickles from the pantry. This evening she walked toward the light spilling out of Father’s workshop onto the concrete floor. As she approached, she heard a hetch-hetch-hetching sound.

Monica stood in the doorway, not wanting to startle Father. She knew about the dangers to be found in a workshop. She looked over to Father’s reading chair in the corner. The seams on the seat cushion were split in a few places, and even from the doorway she could smell its musty odor. Sometimes Father let Monica sit in the chair while he worked. She would look at Father’s book – there was always one novel from the library setting on an upended cardboard box next to the chair. Monica liked paging through those novels and puzzling over big words she hadn’t yet learned in school.

The hetching sound stopped as Father took a moment to wipe his brow. Monica cleared her throat to announce her presence.

Father turned, a broad smile on his face. “Hello, sweetheart! He removed his safety glasses and walked toward her, placing a hand on her shoulder. “I’m using the plane to smooth some wood for that bench I told you about.”

“Can I watch?”

Father smiled. “May I,” he said with a wink.

“May I?”

“Sure thing. Put on these safety glasses and stand over here.” He led her to a spot on the floor at the far end of the long workbench. Wood shavings flew up and to the side, each of them catching the light from Father’s task lamp before dropping. The smell of the wood reminded Monica of new pencils at the start of a school year. Hoping to see better, she moved closer. She felt a tingle run through her, a feeling of excitement at watching Father work. Father turned his back to her, blocking the curled shavings from flying in her direction.

Finally, he turned to Monica. “Sweetheart, don’t you have some chores to do? Or maybe a good book to read?”

As she climbed the stairs, the smell of the wood and the sounds of the plane faded to nothing.

§

Coo-OO-oo-oo. Coo-OO-oo-oo-oo. Mourning doves outside her open window woke Monica the next morning. Then she heard sounds of the railyard two blocks away where Father was already at work: the chugging of idling trucks waiting to unload; a squeal of brakes, a deep rattle, and a defining clank as two railway cars coupled; and, barely perceptible, the shouts of workers above the din. Monica found the noises of the railyard comforting, a regular reminder of Father.

Mother was working at the stove when Monica dragged into the kitchen – teeth brushed, hair combed, face and hands washed to please Mother – yet not fully awake.

“Good morning, dear. There are scrambled eggs ready for you – I’ve kept them warm in the oven. Make yourself a piece of toast.”

Monica gazed out the kitchen window as she ate, watching the neighbor Tillie and her little dog Pixie. A dachshund mix, Pixie was always at Tillie’s side, following along while she trimmed bushes, tended her garden, or watered her many pots of flowers. Monica wanted a dog. She pined for a little pup who might follow her throughout her own day. Secretly, she planned to wish for a dog when she blew out the candles on her birthday cake in September.

“As soon as I have this apple sauce ready to cool, we’ll get to work. You will weed the vegetable garden today.”

First thing most mornings, Monica and Mother worked in the yard. Monica’s favorite job was watering the moss roses that rimmed the driveway. She loved tending to these many-colored blooms, each boasting a joyful yellow pom at the center. Weeding the garden was Monica’s second favorite task. She liked seeing her progress as she worked between each row, and she felt a sense of accomplishment when she finished.

Squatting to pull the weeds that had sprouted between the peas and carrots, Monica felt the prickling heat of the sun through her summer blouse.

“Remember, don’t grab at the top. Get the root! If you learn to pull weeds like your sister, you’ll be an expert gardener.”

Last summer, Sis taught Monica to weed: “Mother doesn’t like to get her fingers dirty,” Sis said that bright June day, “but it’s the only way to do it right. Take off your garden gloves, and grab the weed low, like this.” Sis’s forefinger and thumb followed the weed’s stem down and down, met the surface of the soil, then dipped slightly below, pinching the weed and pulling it straight up, root attached. “Tah-dah! That’s exactly what you want. All the whole root. Just look at the dirt under my nails – that is how you get the root. Now you try it.”  As the bright sun ducked behind a cloud, Monica moved to the next weed and squatted as low as possible, mimicking Sis. Up came the weed with the root intact. “You did it! Great job, Moo.” Proud of her small accomplishment, and happy to hear Sis use the pet name she had given her as a baby, Monica beamed.

Now Monica heard Tillie calling to Mother across the yard. “Good morning, neighbor!” Monica looked up from her weeding.

For the first time in weeks, Mother didn’t make an excuse; she joined Tillie on the driveway for a morning chat. Little Pixie sat at Tillie’s feet, seemingly transfixed by the conversation, his head snapping back and forth between the women as though he were watching a tennis match high above him. Focused on her weeding, Monica didn’t hear much of what was said. She hummed the melody of the piece she had been practicing for tomorrow’s piano lesson. Then she heard Tillie mention Sis. Monica turned her head to listen.

“Oh, we’re doing fine,” was Mother’s reply. “Just fine!”

“Well, hun, I worry,” Tillie said,” and I’m here to help in any which way I can. You and Burt have always done so much for me.”

Mother shook her head. “Oh, don’t be silly.”

“I’m not being silly at all. For crying out loud, I lost track of how many wonderful meals you made for me after my surgery last year.” Tillie reached for Mother’s hand. “Let me know what I can do for you, please. I’m an old lady, but, like a lame mare, I can still be of good use now and then.”

“You are most certainly not an old lady. Why, your beautiful flowers are the best on the block. And my goodness, just think of all you do at church.” Mother charged on: “Say, I’ve been meaning to ask about your needlepoint project. How’s that coming?” Mother had succeeded in changing the subject.

Monica went back to her weeding.

§

“Keep your fingers curved. Try to touch the keys gently,” said Mrs. Halek. Monica was playing her scales at the start of her piano lesson, her first since school was out. Decorated in shades of green, Mrs. Halek’s living room was a tranquil refuge for Monica. Of course, Mrs. Halek herself had a lot to do with that. Her warm, easy way with children made her a popular piano teacher, and Monica had the sense that Mrs. Halek actually liked her.

“Wonderful, Monica. You have been practicing your scales this summer, I can tell. You should feel good about that.” In a quiet aside, Mrs. Halek added, “Many children skip their scales. I am proud of you – scales are fundamental.”

Monica blushed.

“Now, before I hear the piece you have been practicing, I would like to know how you are doing. It has been so long since your last lesson.” Mrs. Halek turned to face Monica.

“Fine. I – I’m just fine.” Monica repeated the words she had heard Mother say so many times in the last few months.

“I want you to know it is alright to be sad.” Mrs. Halek bent to bring her face even with Monica’s. “And if you feel like crying, well, that is alright, too.”

For a tiny moment, Monica felt emotion well up. She squelched it with a slight shake of her head.

“If you ever need to talk, you can come to me.” Mrs. Halek paused, watching Monica.

Feeling Mrs. Halek’s eyes on her, Monica tried to focus on the piano keys, admiring how they sparkled in the yellow light from the lamp that sat behind the music rack, illuminating both the music and the keyboard.

Mrs. Halek waited. Monica remained silent. “Well, sweetie, you decide if or when you are ready to talk, alright?”

Monica issued a slight nod. Her thoughts went to the piece she had prepared. She had worked hard on it, practicing even more hours than Mother required, and she had the feeling it was nearly perfect.

“Shall we take out your piece?”

Monica opened her piano book to “Summer Clouds,” her first piece in the Key of D. At the start, the piece flowed beautifully. Monica remembered to sit up straight, keep her fingers curved, and hold her wrists up. She remained conscious of the key signature and the need to play F-sharp and C-sharp, not F and C. Mrs. Halek encouraged Monica with words like “Nice” and “Lovely.”

Suddenly, Monica thought of Sis. While Monica played, Sis sang along in her mind, “La, fa-la – doo, doot-doo.” Jaunty and playful, Sis’s notes didn’t match the beat of Mrs. Halek’s metronome. Monica thought about Sis’s favorite saying: “Rules are made to be broken.” Monica’s fingers stumbled at the keyboard. Her shoulders drooped. She was only halfway through the piece, and she was losing her way. Without intending to, Monica began to sing, following her sister’s lead.

“Keep going. You can do this.” Mrs. Halek’s words sounded muffled, a dim background behind Sis’s beautiful voice. Monica’s fingers sought unsuccessfully for the right keys.

Abruptly, Sis’s singing stopped. Monica stopped playing. There were four measures left in the piece. Monica’s hands fell to her lap, and she felt Mrs. Halek’s arm around her shoulder.

As Monica left Mrs. Halek’s green living room, heading for the waiting car and Mother behind the wheel, a single tear fell.

“Hop in dear. How was your piano lesson?” Mother put the car in reverse and looked through the rear window of the Ford Galaxie as she backed out of the driveway. Her question was met with silence. Mother tried again: “How did you do at your piano lesson? Was Mrs. Halek pleased?”

“I want to go to the park.” Monica’s voice was nearly a whisper.

Mother paused. She waited. Finally, she dove in again: “Did something happen?” Again, silence. “This is a busy day for me, Monica. I can’t interrupt everything to rush off to the park. Perhaps we can go another day.”

“You let me go alone before. You can drop me off.” Monica’s tone was firm, yet she was speaking so quietly, Mother could barely hear her.

They drove on, and Mother began humming – high notes, a happy melody. At a stop sign, Mother started, “I just don’t think it’s a good idea, dear. You didn’t –” Then she looked hard at Monica. Shoulders hunched, hair falling across her face, hands fidgeting, Monica was the picture of dejection. “I suppose the park might lift your spirits. But are you sure you want to go alone? You were so unhappy the last time, you went straight to bed when you got home.”

“I want to go to the park.”

Mother’s eyes widened at the decisiveness in Monica’s voice. Without saying anything more, Mother drove to the park.

Monica closed the car door harder than she should. She knew Mother did not like to hear any door slammed. She surveyed the playground. Although several young children occupied the small slide, no one was playing on the big slide. Paying no attention to the wet grass at the edge of the park, the spilled sand around the sandbox, the bare ground near the roundabout – all of which could dirty her sandals – Monica walked straight to the slide.

She climbed the ladder to the first platform. There, a little boy with black hair approached Monica. She recognized him as one of the children Ned Wood had spun on the roundabout.

“Are you sad?” He studied her face. “You look sad.”

Monica stared at the boy. His t-shirt, too small for him, was frayed at the neckline. His sneakers were stained and well worn. Monica kept staring.

The boy moved a step closer. “Ned said your sister died. Is that why you’re sad?” Monica took a sharp breath. She stepped back from the boy. His dark eyes followed her. “I was sad when our daddy died.”

Monica stumbled down the steps. She ran, arms and legs swinging wildly. For the second time that day, sounds became muffled around her, and she heard Sis singing, this time their own version of a song they had sung together years before: “Sis and Moo went up a hill to fetch a pail of water, Sis fell down and broke her crown and Moo came tumbling after. Lah, la-la-la, la-la-lah . . .”

§

Tillie’s car rounds the curve on the street adjacent to the park. Little Pixie is on her lap, tongue hanging out and tail wagging. The windows are cracked open, and a gentle breeze floats around Tillie and Pixie, keeping them cool. On the radio, Tillie’s favorite afternoon host, Joyce Lamont, is reading her “Best Buy Recipe of the Day,” Never Fail Popovers.

“Pixie, I’m going to make those popovers when we get home, Tillie says. “I’ll give you a little bite.” She giggles.

Pixie shows his appreciation with a quick lick of Tillie’s chin.

“Stay still, Pixie,” Tillie says. “No more licking when I’m driving. Those popovers will be – Oh no! Monica, no!”

Running faster than she ever has, away from the little boy and out of the park, Monica doesn’t hear Tillie’s car coming. Instead, she hears only Sis’s singing. Tillie swerves to avoid hitting Monica. There is a squeal of brakes and a crunch of metal. Monica stops, frozen in the street, not noticing Tillie’s car lodged against a light pole. Unhurt, Tillie and Pixie peer out over the steering wheel at Monica who stares straight ahead, eyes blank. Sis’s singing continues, “Lah, la-la-la, la-la-lah. Lah, la-la-la, lah-lah.”

Neighbors flock to the scene. One by one they take in the spectacle, then check on Tillie. Some of them reach into the car to pet little Pixie, who is now shaking with fear. They watch Monica, forming a circle around the scene. Approaching police sirens interrupt Sis’s voice, and Monica recalls the wail of the ambulance siren the night of Sis’s last trip to the hospital, the echo of footsteps running down hospital hallways, Sis’s moans, the beeping of a machine next to Sis’s bed, Father’s voice telling Monica everything will be alright.

Now Mother is on her knees, holding onto Monica, her face wet with tears. Even at Sis’s funeral, Mother didn’t cry, telling everyone over and over, “I’m just fine.” Monica remembers overhearing Aunt Kate’s reply to Mother: “No you’re not fine. You need to let go.” Here in the street, Mother is unraveling. But Monica feels nothing. She is lost in the heartache of having a sister who is gone and yet so present. Every minute of every day.

Monica pulls herself from Mother’s grasp, turning to enter the park once again. Mother’s sobs rise above the distant clanging of the railyard. With neighbors watching, themselves now frozen in the street, Monica walks into the park, her gaze focused on the yellow and orange roof at the top of the slide. Monica climbs up and up. She steps onto the surface of the big slide, shimmering in the sun. She sits, waits a moment, takes a deep breath, then gives herself a push. The wind whips her bangs, and Monica leans back, riding the hills and valleys, hugging the curves.



BIO

Jane Frances Gilles is a writer and former educator living in Minnesota. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English education and a Ph.D. in education policy. “Sliding” is Jane’s first published work of fiction.









The Adverb Factory

by Steve Levandoski



“Quickly!” said renowned author Ida Rosenbalm as she helped Dedris Bêcheur, her editor since 1963, lover since 1965, and legal wife since 2015, duck under the automatic garage door to the Adverb Factory.

Decked out in black sweatsuits and skull caps, the ladies pulled Ida’s walker underneath the door just before it closed. They were inside!

“Carefully!” said Dedris, as they navigated past boxes and boxes of –ly’s.

The tennis balls on the feet of the walker made a muted thump as the two shuffled their way to the security office. They prayed that it would be empty, having phoned the night guard away using a made-up family emergency.

“Completely!” said Ida as she double checked the last camera monitor.

They were alone. Dedris needed to take a break on a big black pleather chair for a couple minutes. Her final dose of chemo had done her in.

“Almost!” said Dedris after they made their way to the boiler room that converted liquid Abverberon™ into words that describe the actions of verbs. Idris rustled through her NPR tote bag and pulled out a small thermos that they had bought on their vacation to Dollywood. That’s where they had met the nice survivalist couple who loved to talk guns, bombs, and libertarianism. She smeared its contents onto the boiler.

“Generously!” said Dedris as she snatched the container of C4 explosives from her partner’s hands, just like she did manuscripts.

Ida didn’t put up a fight today. Instead she pulled out a necklace, placed it around her partner’s neck. Then she set the timer that was fashioned out of an old alarm clock for two minutes.

Dedris held up the necklace, put it around Ida’s neck, and read aloud the inscription on the pendant. “Always!”

 Tears streamed down both of their faces as they held hands and looked into each other’s eyes. Then, giggling, each produced an airline size bottle of champagne from their pockets, poured it into regulation sized flutes, drained them, and smashed the empty glasses against the wall. The clock ticked down. “5-4-3-2 . . .”

“Finally!” they both screamed.

The blast took down the whole factory with them inside. They completed their mission and the world was without adverbs, Dedris, Ida, or her necklace.



BIO

Steve Levandoski has written for The Antihumanist and The Oddville Press and runs Next In Line Magazine. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Lisa, and their pug, Phil Collins. Steve likes most dogs more than he likes most people, which suits most dogs and most people just fine. If you find him roaming the streets off-leash, please do not chase.



In the Faded Blue Light

By Don Donato

 

Dedication
for Zelda and Nathalie
— Souvenez-vous de Paris

NOTE: Presented here are the first two chapters of an eight-part novella — continuing in the fall issue.

Chapter I.

 No personality as strong as Zelda’s could go without getting criticisms and as you say she is not above approach [sic]. I’ve always known that. Any girl who gets stewed in public, who frankly enjoys and tells shocking stories, who smokes constantly and makes the remark that she has ‘kissed thousands of men and intends to kiss thousands more,’ cannot be considered beyond reproach even if above it. But Isabelle I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self respect and its [sic] these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be.

But of course the real reason, Isabelle, is that I love her and that’s the beginning and the end of everything. You’re still a Catholic but Zelda’s the only God I have left now.

[F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1920]

 

Note: All excerpts from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters appear as they were written. Many of the errors are not annotated with [sic].

It was late in the morning when I needed to change trains in California on my way to a wayward piece of Los Angeles. I was bound for an appreciating tract of unreal estate known as Hollywood, a shining lure for believers in far-flung dreams, a district of hope for talentless “would be” actors and washed-up novelists. It always seemed fitting that a place of such tenuous promise should be situated in California, a strip of land teetering on a faulty line between gaiety and annihilation. A place where, for nearly a century, the wide-eyed have brought their fantasies and well-concealed desperation. 

I had taken a seat on a hard-wooden bench situated under the station’s eves, successfully hidden from the boorish California sun. A weedy man with a swarthy complexion covering tight, leathery skin, sitting close-by, looked up and caught my indolent stare.

“You must be from the East,” he said. “You’re from the East, right? I can tell by the lack of color in your face.”

He proceeded to introduce himself, and I feared he was about to try and sell me one of those parched, sand covered lots somewhere far from civilization for the purpose of bringing vitality to the city bound. I pretended he was speaking to someone else and reached for my newspaper. He walked toward me and took the adjacent seat. I held the paper in both hands to discourage any intention he might have had of shaking my hand.

“Paul Paulson’s the name. You new in these parts?”

It wasn’t my first trip to Hollywood. Ten years ago, I had accepted an offer from a producer to take up residence in a studio cottage to write about the “Jazz Age.”  Zelda, my wife, and I left Paris, and I attempted, as commissioned, to create a “flapper comedy.” I was, indeed, a product of the Jazz Age, perhaps, as some have said, in gauche praise or hardened accusation, that I created it. Even so, I don’t think I could have attempted to recapture such a time without Zelda. She was a flapper to her very depth.

“Yes,” I lied to the prune of a man sitting next to me. “I’m en route to a plot of desert land I purchased a while ago for the purpose of improving my faded appearance and overall health.”

“You missed it you know,” he replied.

I looked at him blankly.

“The train, you missed it.”

I pulled my watch from my vest pocket.

“It’s only 2:25. I’m waiting for the 2:40.” I put the timepiece to my ear.

“There’s nothing wrong with your watch.  You missed it.”

My watch was ticking. That brown stick of a man was right. I missed it. Not all the hope the world has ever known would bring it back. He sat as close to me now as the painted les femmes who had strolled passed me on the Boulevard du Montparnasse. Their bodies glowing proper and their desire spilling out through closed-lip smiles. In the soft blue light of a new Paris evening I had sat at a table set outside the café Le Select. Gatsby, my latest character, recently had left me. He was about to make his way in the world. I waited to hear what others would think of him. I have always envied him. His life relived each and every time someone finds him on a dusty, bookseller’s shelf. Certainly, each time his life would end in tragedy. No matter. He would try again and again. 

“Is there another train?” I shouted at the man.

“There’s always another train, but the one you’re waiting for is gone. It came early.”

I thought I heard the train coming. I rushed to the precipice of the platform and looked back down the track as far as I could.  Nothing was there. I could have sworn I heard it. The man yelled to me,” It doesn’t come from that direction.” When I turned toward the pedantic son of a bitch to tell him to mind his own business, I found him engrossed in my newspaper. I resolved to remain standing at the platform’s edge, waiting, looking back down the tracks.

After a while, the tracks began to rattle, and the 3:10, coming from the other direction, started to come into view. It approached the station, slowly but steadily. Its slowing wheels squealed against the metal rails like an overweight hog. The engine blasted air from its undercarriage, and my suit jacket blew open. An older woman held her hat down and shielded her face. The wind burst again. I bent my head down to keep the blown dust out of my eyes. There was an enigmatic clang, and the beast lumbered to a stop.

I feigned tying my shoe and watched the would-be land salesman board. I entered a car several away from him with my spirit lagging pitifully behind. It was in Hollywood where I hoped to turn things around. The money was good, 1,000 dollars a week for creating screenplays, a form of writing similar to the novel minus meaning, feeling, and thought.  Nevertheless, it afforded enough to keep Zelda in Asheville Psychiatric Hospital, and, allowed me to devote time to writing seriously again. I had an idea for a new novel. But, in spite of all this, each day my mood turned grayer and darker. Zelda weighed heavily on me. At the end of each day, the light fading slowly and sweetly with invitation, Zelda’s voice jingled again in the streets of Paris.

“Scott, Scott, let’s have a drink here. We’ve never been. Come on. Maybe someone will recognize us. Come on. We’ll drive them all crazy. We’ll kiss and carry on like they have never seen, not even in Paris. Come on, it’ll be fun.” It was hard to refuse Zelda. Her voice thrilled with an excitement which promised so much.

“Inside or out?” I replied. 

Her eyes widened, and I felt her spirit leap. I abandoned any notion of sinking into a few drinks, into a placid place, waiting and wondering if my telegram reached Max soon enough.  I wanted to change the proposed title for my new novel, which, at that moment, sat perilously at the edge of a no-nonsense printing press. I was crazy about my new title, Under the Red, White, and Blue. Max was satisfied with calling it The Great Gatsby. It never made any sense to me. There’s no emphasis, even ironically, on Gatsby’s greatness or lack of it. My new title told the story. That’s what it’s about: lost dreams in the midst of such hopeless hope. Zelda grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the entrance of the café.

“Outside, of course,” she answered, “much more scandalous. Maybe we’ll make the US papers, and Max’ll send you another letter.”

“Max has my, our, best interest, always,” I blurted out as we rushed off the street into the gathering of tables.

“Oh, he never has any fun, so he doesn’t want anyone to have any. Who cares what people think of us. What you write sells books, not who you are. Right? Right?”

“People want to believe what they read. Who can believe a drunk with an out-of-control wife?”

“Out of control? Who’s out of control?” She whipped her head toward me, and without pause, quickly redirected it to the waiter watching us from beneath the awning.

“Monsieur,” she said, her voice rose a tone. Monsieur.”  The waiter stepped out onto the street into the full dimness and warmth of the early Paris evening. A few patrons turned their heads. Some faces struck still. A woman, dressed fine and rich, turned to the gentleman sitting next to her, and whispered in his ear. He looked up, and he caught my stare.

Monsieur.” Zelda’s words now shrill. “Monsieur, a table for two. Mr. Fitzgerald and I prefer the outside. S’il vous plait.”

The waiter nodded. We followed him. The gaiety of the City’s faded blue light, promising a never-ending life of playful glances and soft laughter, peeked in as we made our way under the awning, passing among the circle-shaped tabletops. A man with a white walking cane dangling from his table, jerked his head up. His expression was tight. He looked down, adjusting the balance of his cane as he stared at its imaginary teeter. He held his head in a strict focus away from my direction. He waved to the waiter, who promptly brought his check.   

Zelda paid no attention to the uneasiness which had begun to ripple around us.

“I’ m sorry, I never, I just never…,” Zelda repeated over and over, her Alabama drawl driving and twisting each word as we bumped and ricocheted our way through the narrow table passages. Embarrassment on empathetic faces brought my eyes down. We gathered momentum as we passed between tables. With a sudden stop, Zelda landed in a chair, bounced up, and settled down with her body slightly quivering.

“I don’t care. Let’s have a few drinks and make love in public,” she said, her aging face locked stolidly before my eyes. At seventeen her beauty caused contriving, young men to meet her “unexpectedly” wherever they expected her to be. Their only wish was to share a hopeful word or two with her. She rarely touched a door or moved a chair.  She rewarded her would-be suitors with a sweet smile, followed by a glance from long-lashed eyes which she quickly hid behind a fan of Southern charm.

I stepped quicker and began to stumble. With a reckless and defeated heave, I fell into a seat next to everything that kept a fire burning somewhere inside me. I hadn’t yet regained my balance, when Zelda grabbed the lapel of my coat. “Kiss me wildly,” she said. I pulled her closer and put my hand on her knee. She lay her hand on mine and moved it inward and higher. The eyes of two courtly women darted back and forth from each other to the unfolding scandal with a syncopated rhythm of the Jazz Age. Others shrank into open-mouthed children while they pretended not to notice.

 I grasped her face, holding it motionless. The evening light fell silent to the ambient hum of increasing conversation. For a moment, beneath the titillation, beyond the boundaries of  propriety imposed by self-protective righteousness, we were what the world wanted most: the excitement of the forbidden; a glimpse of hope in the mundane; perhaps a morsel of a lost memory; and, in all its non-yielding desperation, the reality of fantasy.

 I took a seat by a window, settled in, and the train began to crawl away from the platform. The speed picked up and I watched through the window the occasional houses, made miniature by acres of buffering California farmland, pass-by at ever increasing speed. A vineyard came into sight, then quickly receded, dragging my eyes along until it disappeared. The snarled vines remained in my mind and reached so deep that my body tingled and my eyes filled. I wanted to jump out and run back and follow those vines back to where I first saw them on the train going to Lyon from Paris.

On that day I had travelled to Lyon, I was to be accompanied by a fellow whom I had met a few days before in a bar in Paris. He was a writer, but he hadn’t published much at that time. I had read a few of his stories which appeared in some European magazines, and I could see he had great talent. He was a well-built man, rather tall with a sturdy body and flaring ears. His unbuttoned vest matched his woolen sports-jacket and his white button-down shirt was wrinkled and its collar splayed open revealing chest hair.

He spoke to everyone in a low tone while scrutinizing their faces. I always wondered what he was looking for. His eyes exuded a confidence bordering on conceit that promised that whatever he found was assuredly an unspoken object of criticism. 

He insisted I call him Ernest. He hated Ernie. In all truth I hated it as well. It had a way of grinding him into the top layer of the earth’s soil where the masses spent their lives — lost and unaware.  For reasons still unknown to me, save the interpersonal tightness induced by the better part of a bottle of Beaune, Ernest consented to come with me to Lyon to pick up my car. It had broken down when Zelda, I and Scotty, our daughter, had attempted to drive to Paris from Antibes. We continued our trip to Paris by train and had to leave the car in Lyon for repairs.

After drinking the better part of the night away, Ernest and I had agreed to meet at the station a few days later and take the early train to Lyon. Through no fault of my own, I missed that train. Ernest went to Lyon, as planned. I arrived on a later train. He had called my apartment several times while waiting for me at the station. He had spoken to my housekeeper. I had told her to tell him I wasn’t at home.

When I reached Lyon, I went directly to the hotel bar to settle what was left of my nerves. Ernest walked in.

“Where the hell you been? I checked every hotel bar in Lyon,” he said.

“I must apologize. The time got away from me, and I missed the train. I was going to come looking for you, but I wanted a drink first.”

Ernest stood next to me at the bar. “And second, and third, and… which one is this?”

“Barkeep, un pour mon ami.” I turned to Ernest. “Bourbon or are you drinking the hard stuff?”

“I never touch absinth outside of Paris. Can’t trust it anywhere else.”

“Okay, bourbon it is.” The bartender brought a bottle and filled the shot to the brim.

“Scott, what happened? Were you tight and fell asleep somewhere?”

“Sleep. I wish I could sleep once in a while.” I pulled a vial from my coat pocket. “I need this stuff to maybe get some sleep.”

Ernest brought the glass carefully to his lips.

“I was working,” I said, “a deadline for a story.” 

Ernest lowered the empty glass to the bar, his fingers still wrapped around it. He barked at the bartender, “Another bourbon.”

He looked at me. “Are you a reporter now?”

He didn’t believe my story, and it was just that, a story, fiction, the stuff which lives in my head like so many orphans. This wayward child wound up in Ernest’s incredibility. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the truth. I couldn’t tell him that it was Zelda, who was unraveling like an overwound clock. She wouldn’t settle down. She kept throwing things, whining, crying, screaming. 

A few months prior, in the south of France, she had some screaming episodes when she was drunk, but I thought it came from her insatiable need for attention. I was writing day and night then. Some sober talk eventually calmed her, but this time she wouldn’t listen to me. I grabbed her. She broke free and tried to run out. I caught up with her at the door.  I couldn’t trust to leave her alone with the housekeeper. I called this doctor I had met in Le Select a few nights before. He said if I ever needed anything…. He gave Zelda an injection of morphine. It put her to sleep. That was the first time she needed the morphine to bring her back. It soon became a regular affair.

Ernest had not yet met Zelda, and I hadn’t spoken much about her. He struck me as a serious writer. I knew his work, and it was the real thing. I wanted to know him better before explaining the terrible strain my marriage had become. Zelda was restless. She missed the constant swirl of party-filled nights we spent in New York. Like all flappers she lived in a world which danced the Charleston perpetually.

At that time, when I first met Ernest, Zelda and I were living in Paris, an extraordinary timeless place where characters lingered on every corner, and night-lit cafés offered a home for the light-hearted while giving refuge to the lifeless.  It was a time when Zelda’s words still sparkled, and her voice vibrated with thrilling alarm created by the flame burning inside her. She lived life as a fairytale, a series of frivolous adventures in a world which allowed her to romp like a child in an amusement park, her beauty, her only ticket of admission. At seventeen she was the most beautiful woman I had ever known, but time had taken hold. What was once her carte blanche to life, at age twenty-six had begun to wane. Her reality beginning to trail listlessly behind.

 We found each other at an early age when I was a young Army officer stationed in Montgomery, Alabama. She was the last of a type known as the Southern belle: a rich, young beauty who manipulated the whims and fantasies of infatuated young men. I was no exception.

 The boys at Camp Sheridan were invited to a country club dance in Montgomery. The War was in full swing in Europe and we waited for our orders to come through. We knew where we were going. There were rumors about the Argonne Forest in France.

One officer, who had returned from the front, spent some time on the base before he could hitch a ride back to one of those farm states, Iowa or Idaho. He wanted to spend the rest of his life there on a small farm his father had left him. He had lost his right arm and several fingers from his left. In some deep part of me, I knew why he wanted to go back to that farm.  What he had lost in France was no matter. He wanted to find the parts of himself he had left in the rows of plowed soil and in the air that smelled of freshly turned earth.  He wanted only again to loosen familiar ground and find the dreams buried by a young boy. He took mess with the enlisted men. He had lost his taste for privilege.  As we walked together one day, he told a bunch of us, “When men die, they all die equally.”

We reached the entrance of the mess hall, and the group followed the wounded man in. I trailed behind and watched them disappear into the building. I walked a little closer and stopped a fair distance from the door. My orders were sitting on some General’s desk waiting for his signature to send me into, perhaps, the last days of my life. I began to sweat, and my hands trembled. I pushed and pulled on my damp shirt. I took a step back and then another and another. I saw the door open and someone was waving to me to come. I turned away. It wasn’t death I feared. It was the idea that all men die equally which haunted me. I had to re-write my novel and get it published. I headed to the officers’ dining club.

During my free time on the weekends I had written enough pages of some disjointed ramblings to convince myself I had a novel. I called it the Romantic Egoist and sent it to Scribner Publishing. I had made the contact through a friend who knew the editor, Max Perkins. He liked the idea, but he had objections and suggestions that needed to be made if I ever had any chance of publication. I had written for the Tiger and the Nassau Review at Princeton, but Perkins wanted something different. He wanted it all to make some deeper sense. The story was inspired by my life as a student at Princeton. How much sense could I make of that?

The War ended, and I was discharged. I wanted nothing more than to have what I had written, what I thought was a novel, published. I went back to Minnesota to try to find out what Perkins was talking about. Something was different there in the Mid-west. It was something the East had discarded or, perhaps ignored, and through no fault of its own, died of neglect.

St. Paul hadn’t changed much. The same barber shop I went to as a young boy was still in operation, and I suspected some of my locks could be found stuck in a floor crack. On the edge of town stood the wheat fields, golden and swaying in the wind, still waiting for harvest since the time I last had seen them as a much younger man.

 At Princeton I had belonged to the Cottage Club, a college fraternity of sorts. The only thing we ever grew was ambition. I associated with a group on campus known as the writers, the literary set. Edmund Wilson had the most promise. We called him “Bunny.”

“You still working on that play for the Triangle Club, Scott? Bunny said one day as we walked up Nassau street on our way to the Yankee Doodle Tap Room.

“Yep. What are you working on these days, the Great American Novel? You got the best shot you know.”

“Always with your head in the clouds, Scott. Maybe someday you’ll write that novel. It will catapult your name to the lips of every literature professor in every University in America, even Princeton. On second thought, maybe you should wait until Professor Gauss is dead. He might remember you.”

Secretly, I dreamed of nothing less. I knew I was a good writer back then, not as good as Bunny, but good, and I got better. It’s like I told Zelda many years later, “I’m a professional writer. You are not. Writers like me are one in ten million.” However, neither I nor Bunny ever wrote that Great American Novel. Maybe Bunny was right, I should keep my head out of the clouds, but I never could. It was there in the haze of the seemingly unreachable I wrote four novels and married the belle of my dreams.

 It was in Minnesota, while working on my first novel, in the frozen ground I felt unyielding beneath my feet, I became aware of what I had learned at Princeton. Success in America had become the compromise of ideals, rather than its progeny. I had come to realize that my generation had entered a time in which wealth supplanted the self, and righteousness had given way to opportunism. No character suffered more from this realization, five years later, than Jay Gatsby. By that time, hope had become the pre-occupation of the misinformed, and dreams the fertile ground for the cynical.

 I re-wrote my novel. The title changed to This Side of Paradise, and Scribner published it. It was in the time when excitement exuded from my overwhelming dreams, when disjointed feelings crashed brutishly onto blank pages. It was the time when my rarified reality, honed and nurtured in the sweet field of my homegrown truths, started to take root.   

  I had never been to a country club and the sound of it held me captive. The thick crop of its influential harvest held a sway that lifted me into the warm, close air puffed from half-lit, dollar cigars. I had written to a friend at Princeton who had lived in Alabama in the cushion of soft money. He had given me the names of a few of the “fastest” debutantes in Montgomery. As is often the case with young college men, the purported looseness of female prospects is surely more the imaginary and misguided information of virgin liars. As a consequence, my mind and fantasies remained opened.

 It was that night that I first saw Zelda. She was walking across the dance floor arm-in-arm with two female partners, who by all indications, provided more than moral support. She was the most beautiful girl of whitish-pink skin. Her auburn hair was bobbed with enough audacity to send it into large curls, bouncing recklessly. Every eye was on her. The men moved in anticipation to where she was going, and the women fanned themselves with quick flutters and bustled aimlessly. 

She had my full attention. A young sergeant I had known on the post nudged me. He had poked around the town on a few weekends, and he had heard a few things, especially about who was who in Montgomery. I dropped my stare to just catch him in the corner of my eye.

“She’s the brass ring around here, they tell me”, he said. “Every guy in Montgomery wants to marry her. She’s old Alabama money. She even lives on a street named for her family. You’re out of your league here Lieutenant.”

“Out of my league?” I heard myself repeating the words rushing from inside me. My eyes never left her.

“Lieutenant, forget it… unless you got some money that I don’t know about. If you do, then you still owe me two bucks from that card game you should have stayed out of last week.”

My eyes never moved. Her curls bounced like words which no one could ever write. Each loose winding of hair jumped to tell a story propelled by boundless energy and full of endless promises.

“What else do you know about her?” I said to the Sergeant.

“Not much, but there’s s girl I met here before who probably can tell you more. Her last name is Bankhead. I can’t remember her first name. It sounds like Matilda or something… Tallulah, that’s it.” The Sergeant glanced around the room, “There she is.”

He raised his head in her direction. “Tallulah, Tallulah,” he said in a voice loud enough to carry above the discordant chatter in the room. He waved her over.

A young woman with wavy brown hair extending to her shoulders appeared at his side.

“Well, hello, again Sergeant,” I heard from a husky voice. She spoke and moved with the subtle swing of the country club type. Her words had a sureness which came from a perpetual source of gratuitous wealth. 

“You seem to be a man with something on his mind,” she said, scrutinizing the Sergeant. “I like that kind of man. What can I do for you? … Careful, I’ve heard it all before… and tried most of it.”

My eyes were still locked on the tipsy, curled-hair debutante.

“The Lieutenant here wants to know more about her,” the Sergeant said to Tallulah, giving a quick nod toward the girl of my focus.

I felt Tallulah’s eyes fall on me. I never turned my head.

“Nice to meet you,” I murmured, “I’m Scott. I, I just…..”

“Oh her,” Tallulah said, “Booze, cigarettes and boys. And not necessarily in that order.”

Zelda still wandered about flanked by her supporters. She was returning smiles to passing men, some of whom I presumed to be suitors and others whose time had come and gone. Tallulah, her face falling motionless, paused and again directed her eyes to Zelda. Her voice fell almost to a whisper, “she’s always talking about making it big somewhere. She’s a dancer you know.”

“Lieutenant, I’m going to cruise around. I’ll catch you later,” the Sergeant said.

I turned to Tallulah. She was quite attractive. She glowed with a polish afforded only to those who commit themselves to the never-ending care demanded by social standing and made possible by the servitude of purposeless money. I directed my eyes back to Zelda.

“What’s her name?” I asked.

Of all the questions I wished to ask, this was the only one which reached my lips. The others I answered for myself in the way children create reality from far-flung fantasy.

“Why don’t you ask her yourself, Lieutenant?”

Tallulah strolled slowly toward the three women. When she reached the trio, a neat, lanky fellow with gray shoes with white wingtips approached the tipsy, pinkish debutante. His suit was a checkered affair. I was sure I had seen one just like it in one of those men magazines I was forced to read while waiting to get my hair cut. His trousers sported creases with the sharpness of a pretension matched only by his good manners. He took Zelda’s hand, kissed it. He then bowed slightly, acknowledging the flanking ladies-in-waiting. Zelda grazed his cheek with the back of her hand without a word. He uttered something. She shook her head and smiled and turned toward Tallulah, whose back was toward me. She pointed at me over her shoulder. Zelda lifted her eyes in my direction. I stared down at the floor. When I looked up, my mind fumbled. What had seemed so distant, came nearer.  Unassisted, she floated toward me, her path unwavering, her momentum unstoppable. She washed over me like a moonlit tide making its way farther and farther ashore. Her curls chattered without pause as she moved, and, as she came closer, I was struck by the lack of flaws in her skin, unblemished and undisturbed by ordinary life. Her face was composed of a calm beauty, an extraordinary simplicity and concert found in art born from subtle genius.

  She rested within a breath’s warmth of me. I wanted to speak, but my words hardened in my mouth. Without hesitation the great Lieutenant Scott Fitzgerald moved me aside and stepped forward. The smell of the leather of his boots, the secure cinch of the belt from his waist coat, and the proud protrusion of the brim of his peaked cap gave him all the confidence I envied. His words fell from my mouth.

“Scott Fitzgerald. Lieutenant Scott Fitzgerald. The pleasure is all mine.”

His smile continued speaking. It had all the invitation of a million words. His riveted eyes glistened. They were eyes which said you excite me like someone I have treasured from the time I first had met you. I wanted to take her in and show her how much he could offer her. The young belle’s eyes danced around the room with all the pretense of searching for better prospects. She abruptly turned in my direction, paused, and her voice rose, unnaturally, as if startled by an unexpected burst from an awakened star. Clearly, simply and forever, she said, “I’m Zelda.”

Not a muscle in my body stirred. I observed her every movement, looking for any hint of what she was thinking. I stood more erect. Her nearness shot through me. I rose higher and higher. The well-healed men and the polished women, scattered about the room, blended with each other, sweeping me into the mix. I knew for the first time how it felt to be a man of the world. The air grew still around me, and nothing moved but time.  It wound itself back. The house in which I had grown up in Minnesota crumbled into a ghastly phantasm. My parents no longer had claim to me. The man made of golden images and flawless manners, the man who had lived in the mind of a young boy, broke out with unprecedented vigor. In that moment I was certain that the truths of my promises had so materialized that they existed outside of me. The girl with pink skin and audacious hair, who now stood so close, became forever part of the rock formed from igneous dreams.

 I fumbled to keep her engaged.

“I heard you want to be a dancer,” I said.

She gave me a look. She appeared puzzled.

“I am a dancer,” she replied.

“I just meant a very successful one, on the stage as a big star someday.”

“New York, first,” she said. It knocked me back. It was the way she said it. It was familiar and unmistakable. It came from someone too large for the world which contained her. 

“The Russian ballet, of course, is the best, but New York and Europe will let me show my talent.”    

I had loved a socialite once before. She was a woman of my station, but she saw only a blurry-eyed Princeton student. Her rank and money had numbed her to the reality of belief. “Rich girls don’t marry poor boys,” she had told me.

I have come to realize that in fields of plenty, hope withers. The rich have no need for what might be… but, the girl who stumbled, whose hair curled in search of something beyond her reach, stepped upon fairy wings to find her footing. With each uncertain step she took, she hammered squarely the truth in a way which I had discovered so innocently many years ago hiding in the dust of a genie’s lamp.   

The band began to play a waltz. It was late, and I suspected this was perhaps the last waltz.

“Would you like to dance,” I said.

“My card is exceptionally full this evening. I’m sorry, but I’m promised to others.”

“Think of it as a contribution to the war effort,” I interjected. I struggled to keep my smile, which threatened to break in to a thousand pieces.  “I’m going overseas soon,” I added.

She looked at me a for a moment and a smile escaped to her lips.

“Never let it be said that I didn’t do my part to defeat the Kaiser,” she replied.

She opened her arms, and we touched. She was softer than I remembered women to be. Her body moved to the rhythm of the music, but, somewhere beneath that, in those moments of stillness, she held on tightly like a little girl. It was in those moments, I pressed her closer and held her in a way, I was sure, she had never known.  

The music stopped.

“I want to see you again,” I said

“I’ll be here next Saturday afternoon. I like to swim. Come back then, you will be my guest,” she said.

“It’s a date, next Saturday.”

She started to walk away, stopped, and put her hand near her mouth to shield her words.

“Bring some gin,” she added.

I watched her walk away.

“Lieutenant,” I heard someone say. It was the Sergeant approaching quickly from my flank. “Do you think it would be okay if I took a look at that list you got?”

 I had forgotten about it. Every guy in camp wanted a peek at it. I kept it hidden. It was a perquisite meant for those for whom untoward behavior could compensate for stunted dreams. The thought of going to the War, unfortunately, had made everyone a candidate, so I kept the sought-after list secure on my person at all times.

 I took the list from my breast pocket and handed it to the Sergeant. My eyes never left Zelda as she walked toward the door. The Sergeant turned to see what occupied my attention. He looked down sharply and perused the list.

“Lieutenant, she ain’t on it.”

“Who,” I said, turning my head just slightly in his direction.

The Sergeant lifted his eyebrows in Zelda’s direction.

“I know that,” I said.

“Are you going to see her again?”

There was never anything again that I was ever so sure of.  It no longer mattered that I was going to war. Perhaps it would all come to an end in the mud of France with nothing more ahead but the hazy fog of the Argonne Forest, but, on that night, in the dry breezes of the unassuming South, my past had begun in the way I had always known it would.   

“I think this one girl, Amanda Greggs, is here,” Sarge said, smiling a little. “You’re not going to pull rank on me, are you, Lieutenant? “

“No, no old man, she’s all yours.” The Sergeant started to walk away. He turned and looked back at me.

“I would hate to see a good list like this go to waste,” he said.

“Waste? No. It told me everything I needed to know.” What I didn’t know was that it told me only what I had hoped.

A few years later, in the days in Paris, when Zelda practiced her ballet relentlessly, I couldn’t help but think of that day in Montgomery when she floated to me. In Paris, alone in her room and at Mdm. Egorova’s studio, she twisted and strained, drifting farther from me, deeper and deeper into herself. She had new loves: ballet, Madame Egorova, and a prima ballerina, whom, at first, I knew only as “a dancer from the studio.” Later I learned her name was Lucienne. She had become Zelda’s new friend, frequenting cafés together afterhours.

I spent my nights at the Ritz bar, talking to persons I hardly knew. Some of them had heard of me, and some I had to inform. The gin gave me the courage to look them in the eyes and tell them with all the conviction of carnival barker that I was a writer, a real one, a novelist. “I wrote This Side of Paradise,” I would say. “I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Did you read it? Well, you must. I finished my third a few years ago. It’s called The Great Gatsby.  Now if you have read that one, I’ll buy you a drink.” 

I hardly ever had to buy that drink. Maybe Max was right. Maybe I should have developed Gatsby’s character more. No one knew who he was, but I knew who he was. In all truth, he really wasn’t anyone, not anyone at all.  He was a guy who bought drinks for people he didn’t even know.

On one of those lonely nights, a couple, dressed American, pushed up against the bar to my right. They wore jewelry, too much of it. His cuff links had initials. Her pearls dangled below her breasts as a testament to a string of martyred oysters. It was a time of seemingly forever, burgeoning wealth in America.

The gentleman stood back away from his bill lying on the bar. He cocked his head, tensed his face, and held his lips in a frown, as if protesting, with the upmost constraint, the sheer banality and personal intrusion of having to sign his name.  She sipped her coffee, legs crossed, her upper body straight and stiff. Their every movement had the theatrics of poorly scripted gentility and all the telltale crispness of new money. They were the new America. They stood for nothing, and they asked for everything. I moved closer and stood next to them.

It was a rare evening. The prolific Ernest Hemingway graced our presence with Gerald Murphy trailing behind him. Gerald was a man with no career, and he had everything to show for it. His fortune grew like wheat in the old lush fields of family businesses and was cultivated by personal indifference to it.

Ernest, dressed like a beggar, no jacket, no tie, his shirt sleeves rolled to his forearms, put his hand on my shoulder. I turned around. I took a step toward Gerald, and Hemingway’s hand lifted off me. There was enough talk about us. I loved the man, but not in that way. For some reason, a rumor started that Ernest and I were fairies. This firestorm of conjecture was started by McAlmon, a fag himself. Rumors, as rumors go, are usually at least half true. 

Gerald stood next to me at the bar.

“Hello, old man, how’s it going? It’s been a while,” Gerald said. “You and Zelda are in the papers quite a bit these days.”

“Don’t believe everything you read,” I said.

Ernest, now standing on the other side of me, leaned forward, like I was some object of inconsequence, and looked at Gerald.

“That’s true, my friend, good advice. Have you read his latest, The Great Gatsby?”

“It was really quite good, Scott,” Gerald said, his voice oscillating in frequencies and short pauses like a mother looking at her child’s penciled drawings.

“Leave him out of this,” I said, staring straight ahead at the bottles behind the bar.

“Who?” Gerald said.

“Gatsby,” I replied.

There was a momentary silence that rumbled through. I took down the glass of gin, sitting in front of me. The room was quiet. Ernest and Gerald faded away. The gin had done its job, and I felt numb to what the world wanted me to be – nothing, nothing at all.

Ernest broke the silence. “Scott, I heard you were looking for me. What did you want to see me about?”

“Barkeep,” I said, “another glass of gin.”

“Mr. Fitzgerald, another glass, sir?”

Gerald spoke up, getting the bartender’s attention. “He doesn’t need another glass.”  

The young man behind the bar looked at me with a wide-eyed stare.

“The man’s right,” I said to the young barkeep. His eyes relaxed, but for only a moment. “Bring me the god damn bottle.”

 “Very generous of you, old sport,” Ernest said. “Did I get that right? I liked the way Gatsby called his friend and enemies ‘old sport.’”

I turned to Ernest, dropped my eyes. My stare penetrated through my eyebrows. “I told you, leave him out of this.”

“Sorry about that old sp…man.”

Gerald ordered a beer. The bartender brought a glass for Ernest, and he put the bottle of gin between us. I poured myself a drink, grabbed the bottle, and put it on the other side of me.

“So, what do you want to see me about?” Ernest asked.

“Just to have a drink together. I can’t seem to write much these days. Some magazine stuff, that’s about it. And there’s another thing. No one I have asked knows where you live. Even Gerald doesn’t know where your new apartment is.” I turned and looked at Gerald. He lifted his beer and took a long, small sip, and then rested the glass back on the bar, never facing me. I made a half-turn toward Ernest and leaned against the bar. I held the gin in my hand.

“Bartender,” Ernest said. The young man turned his head. Ernest waved him over.

“Do you have any absinth?” he whispered.

“No sir, we aren’t allowed to serve it here in the Hotel. Management doesn’t want that bunch coming in here.”

“Son, they’re already here. Why don’t you ask who ever runs this joint if they might have a little private stock of it somewhere for a couple of special guests.”

“Yes, Mr. Hemingway. I’ll ask, sir.”

Ernest stepped back and grasped the edge of the bar with both hands.

“Scott, Hadley and I want to keep this place we’re in. You come around at all hours, tight, and people start to complain, and…

I faced the bar and poured the gin down my throat.

Chapter II.

Dear Scott:

… you say that you have been thinking of the past… so have I.

There was:

The strangeness and excitement of New York, of reporters and furry smothered hotel lobbies, the brightness of the sun on the window panes and the prickly dust of late spring: the impressiveness of the Fowlers and much tea-dancing and my eccentric behavior at Princeton. There were Townsend’s blue eyes and Ludlow’s rubbers and a trunk that exuded sachet and the marshmallow odor of the Biltmore. There were always Lud[l]ow and Townsend and Alex and Bill Mackey and you and me. We did not like women and we were happy. There was Georges apartment and his absinth cock-tails [sic] and Ruth Findleys [sic] gold hair in his comb, and visits to the ‘Smart Set’ and ‘Vanity Fair’ – a colligate [sic] literary world puffed into wide proportions by the New York papers. There were flowers and night clubs … and went to John Williams parties where there were actresses who spoke French when they were drunk… I was romanticly [sic] attached to Townsend and he went to Tahatii [sic] – there were your episodes of Gene Bankhead and Miriam…

[Zelda Fitzgerald, 1930]

Zelda and I lived in New York City for a while after we were married. It was a constant swirl: carefree guys I had known at Princeton, women whose intentions were poured into sleek dresses, uptown bars soaked with money from burgeoning post-war careers, and parties given by anyone who wanted to dress up his social standing by inviting a known author and his unpredictable wife. My first novel was selling, and the “slicks” bought a few of my stories. The money came in and lay in my pocket, the inside one of my sport-coat, like the calling card of a gentleman.

Harold Ober, my agent, had called me to a meeting at his office. He had great news. The Saturday Evening Post wanted more of my stories.

“Scott, have a seat. You’re going to love this. They want three more stories at double their last rate.”

Harold was looking at me hard in the eyes. It was the money that dragged a smile out of the pit of my stomach.

“Start writing more of the kind of stuff they’re looking for. The easy read, short stories. That’s what I can sell. It doesn’t matter how long it is, but no novel stuff, something that can be serialized in a few issues.”

The room was pale. The walls a wan blue. Harold sat behind a wooden desk covered with manuscripts from never-to-be heard of writers and a white porcelain coffee cup with a brown stain circling inside near the rim. A waist high radiator, sitting against a wall in the corner, shooshed steam from a tiny appendage. Harold had a habit of leaning back, tilting his chair with his hands grasped together behind his head. His eyes pierced through my silent stare.

“You working on that novel? What is it called?” he asked.

“The Beautiful and Damned, so far, anyway. I want to finish it, Harold, but I need the money. I’ll start on the Post’s stories.”

The radiator hissed, and I took a drag on the cigarette I held between my fingers. Harold sprung forward, launched by the tension of the twisted chair springs. He spoke as he flew back into his reality.

“Great, Scott. How’s Zelda?”

“Restless.”

“In New York?”

I glanced at the blank walls, no pictures, just some peeling paint above the radiator. The lower half of the solitary window to my left was obscured by the water running in narrow, helpless rivers down onto the sill. I crossed my legs, leaned forward, and put my cigarette out in the ashtray on the desk.

“The Beautiful and Damned, what do you think of the title, Harold? Will it sell?”

“I don’t know. What does Max think?”

“What do you think, Harold? Do you think the beautiful can ever be damned?”

“I’m not following you, Scott.”

“We all live in an endless eddy, Harold, forever swirling downward. We reach out from the dizzying whirl, and grasp nothing. Where once stood our imagination, there exists only its mangled images. The beautiful turns wretched, and we watch helplessly with the eyes of the damned.”

“We live in a what? I could have sworn you were sober when you walked in here. If this is some kind of writing thing, ask Max”

“Don’t you realize we are headed for a dreadful disorder of what was to be. What started on firm rock, now wobbles and teeters. It can’t last, Harold. She tries to destroy me, I try to destroy her, but all we will ever destroy is us. The beautiful are always damned.”  

“Look, Scott, you’ve been working pretty hard lately. Maybe you just need to give her some attention. That’s all.”

“Harold, I got to go.” I started to walk toward the door.

“Scott, can you have one of those stories by next month?”

I turned toward him and raised my hand as I left his office. I walked down the hall. The light from the door’s transom was nearly gone. I began to descend the stairs. The wood creaked with each step I took. I stepped lighter, but the tired wood continued its complaining. The sound was inescapable, a plaint for every time I bore my weight upon its vulnerable weak back. When I reached the bottom of the staircase, I rushed for the door, and I stepped out onto the street. New York flowed around me without favor or blame, like warm air in the heat of the summer. Cars chugged by haltingly in the traffic and preoccupied people pushed past each other in an endless flow of anonymity.

An indifference gripped me. I needed a drink. I couldn’t shake the darkness of the hallway. The faint echo of the creaking played over and over. It had the tenacity of crushing heartache born from sudden infidelity. A hopeless sadness burrowed itself firmly into all that still struggled to live within me. My chest and gut began to tremble.

 There was a bar within walking distance which was popular with the Princeton set. I headed in that direction. I wanted to stop on my way and buy Zelda something, anything, a gold necklace. I loved buying Zelda things. She loved surprises. That’s what she called them. “Scott, bring me home a surprise. Anything, anything at all,” she would say. There was a small jewelry shop on the corner of 34th and 5th. She had bought some earrings there. They were of the kind that dangled from the ears of New York women stumbling across living rooms at cocktail parties while they spilled champagne from thin-stemmed glasses. I entered the shop and laid three one hundred-dollar bills on the counter. I walked out with a necklace the jeweler said would match the earrings Zelda had bought.

“Scott, Scott,” I heard a man calling me. He was with a woman about a block or so ahead. It was Townsend Martin, an old friend from my Princeton days. He was living in New York, trying his hand at writing some plays. But it was the woman, her arm wrapped around his, who captured my attention. The shaking in my middle increased and it flowed into my upper arms. The falling night had brought a darkness which stood stark and still and bold. A ghastly image appeared and pierced me deeply, seizing my thoughts and narrowing my senses. Terror poured from my imagination. I stood frozen in the dank and coarse New York night. The woman was Zelda.  

“Zelda said that you went to see Ober,” Townsend said. “We thought you’d be at the that bar on 34th Street.” Townsend was bubbling with enthusiasm. His party spirit lay like vomit on me, and I wanted to wipe it from my body and give it to the one who deserved it most. She snuggled his arm.

“Scott, you look lost, dear. Did Harold give you some bad news?” Her words flowed slowly with the intended cold rhythm of triumphant. Her brow wrinkled. Her intent, with a calculated precision, swarmed to extinguish the dwindling spark struggling for life within me. I didn’t want to share her, not even in the least of ways, and, at times, I hated her for it. Her flirtations and secrets cut at the very heart of me. Ernest, in our days in Paris, often said I should divorce her. He didn’t understand. The dreams forged from the once formless musings of the infinitely hopeful become hardened, never to be assailed lest they fall from the heavens. No other man must ever touch her.

“Scott, what do you want from me?” She would say when I asked too many questions about what she had done with the men who had come and gone in her life. “What does it matter?” she would say. My imagination had twisted itself into bizarre shapes of her body wrapped around another. My torment tore at the fabric of my dreams,  slipping from my grasp. I wanted them back as whole and pure as I had created them. Zelda never had wanted anyone but me. Her every indiscretion was a mistake, a simple lapse of judgment of haphazard youth. I insisted she tell me about each sexual encounter, and together we would go back and recreate the truth. 

She never has told me about any of them. She uses them as the most delicate of instruments, wounding so gently but effectively, over and over. She is a selfish woman. She has taken for her own despicable use the dreams I had shared with her in those early days in the shimmering waves of the Alabama heat.

“I guess we should get that drink,” I said.

Zelda linked my arm, but never released his.  The three of us walked together. My trembling, by the sheer crescendo of its magnitude, burst from my middle. It left in its wake a vacuum where once existed all that mattered. My body lapsed into a reckless state. The desperate person inside of me, incarnated from hope and vision, retched from pain.

Arm-in -arm we walked up the five concrete steps to the barroom. Townsend pulled the door open, and Zelda entered. He and I followed. It wasn’t quite five o’clock and the place was quiet. Only two young girls, somewhere in their twenties, sat next to each other at the mid-section of the bar. I drew up a stool next to them. Zelda sat to my left and Townsend next to her.

“What’ll it be?” the bartender said.

One of the young girls whispered into the ear of the other, and they giggled. They wore hats that fitted close to their heads and the design reminded me of the helmets worn by the German army during the War. Some hair escaped from the fronts and wound itself into loose, solitary curls. They wore dresses with belts which tied at their hips. The purposeful inattention of the girls to hems, which rested high above their knees, gave the impression that the impropriety was a result of innocence and naivete. They sat with their legs crossed, creating two slender cascades. The two women nearly faced each other, resembling bookends most appropriately found on the shelf in a bordello.

“A bottle of gin,” I said to the bartender. I looked at Zelda and Townsend and turned back to the bartender. “I’m not sure what they’re having.”

Zelda turned toward me and a gave me a look. Her lips were in a tight straight line. She turned her body toward Townsend. I shot a half glass of gin down my throat. How in the hell did he meet up with Zelda? What were they doing together? She could have told me anything, and I wouldn’t have believed her. Why did she hang on to him like that?

“Townsend,” I said in a tone of casualness not seen since the Kaiser asked how the War was going. “Why did you want to see me?” I could have cared less why, but I had hoped to unearth the circumstances of his meeting Zelda. My imagination by this time had invaded my gut.

“I wanted to tell you the good news,” he said. “One of my plays has been picked up by an off-Broadway company, and they’re actually paying me. I went to your apartment, and Zelda told me you had gone to see Ober. She said it would be fun to look for you.”

“I hope my thoughtful wife offered you a drink.”

Zelda turned to me. “Of course, my dear, we both had a drink, or was it two? I can’t really remember. Yes, it was two, one in the living room and one in the bedroom.”

Townsend was silent. His face fell sullen. He lifted his drink and sipped it staring into the mirror behind the bar.

“Is there anything else you would like to know, dear, or is that enough fiction for today. Fiction is what you are about? Right?”

I poured another half glass of gin. My trembling dissipated and rushed to my face as a hot blush. I turned to the girl sitting next to me. Her back was to me. I got up and stood between and behind the giggling pair of promised promiscuity.

“Scott Fitzgerald,” I said, wavering slightly as I spoke. The glass of gin was in my hand. I took a gulp.  “I’m a writer and I was struck by your whispering and laughing. I’m always in search of characters. What are you drinking? Another?”

“I don’t see why not,” said the one on my left. She looked at her near mirror image. They giggled in acquiescence. The bartender brought two martinis.

Zelda turned on her stool completely toward Townsend and held her head in her hand, supported by her arm resting on the bar.

The two tittering girls sat like two birds perfectly perched. 

The girl on my right said, “I’m not sure I want to be a character. I mean I just don’t know how I feel about that.”

“What do you write, Scott?” The other one said.

This Side of Paradise, have you read it?  And some stuff for the Saturday Evening Post.”

“No, I haven’t read it.”

The other chirped, “I have. You’re F. Scott Fitzgerald, right? I’ve read some of your Post stories. Quite good I thought. How do you think of all that stuff?”

“Townsend, you missed our wedding. I just can’t forgive you for that.” Zelda said, grasping his forearm. I continued to feed the birds with the ramblings of a man of accomplishment.

“I didn’t get your names. I’m sorry.”

“I’m Cynthia,” said the one on the right.

“Catherine,” said the one on the left.

I moved closer to them and gripped the back of their stools.

“You want to know how I think up all that stuff?”

Catherine shifted her body in my direction. Her hem rose higher by virtue of her movement, and, I was sure, by her intention. She sat complacent, addressing me with her eyes. She exposed an inch more of her leg, and her invitation soared a mile in my mind. I stood taller. My face no longer burned from the current humiliation Zelda served as a sauce to the distasteful dish she so often forced down my throat. My threatened dreams hid in a shallow refuge formed by the circle which I formed with the two stray fowl.

“You owe me kisses, you know, wedding kisses,” Zelda said to Townsend. I saw in the periphery of my vision, her head, still resting in her hand, move more to a tilt. Townsend, standing, shifted nervously.

 I turned my attention to Catherine.

“All that stuff… I don’t think it up,” I said, directing my eyes on the soft, moist intensity in her face. “It comes to me, like a visitor bringing a message.” I reached around her and grabbed the bottle of gin sitting on the bar. I poured myself another glass. I raised the bottle, shook it side to side between the girls. Catherine raised her glass. I poured generously. Cynthia sipped her Martini. “Like you two,” I said. “You’re characters waiting to be discovered.”  I took a large swallow of the gin.

Zelda sprang off her stool. “Townsend, dance with me.”

“There isn’t any music,” he answered. He remained facing the bar.

“There’s always music somewhere.” Zelda replied.

Townsend bent his head down and turned in my direction. “Scott, do you mind?” I pretended not to hear.

“Scott, do you mind if I dance with your wife?”

The thought of another man touching her cut to my core. The pleasure she would give him sickened me. It could never be undone.

“What do you want from me?” Zelda had asked me countless times over the last two years. The answer was simple. Many years later, when her life was limited by the confines of Asheville Psychiatric Hospital, when nothing remained of us except the ghost of my hope, I finally told her the answer.

 “I want you to obey me,” I said.  It was then that I understood for the first time how she never realized the purity and power of the vibration that rang out from the stars on that night we had met. She was a selfish woman. She ignored the life I set in motion for us. She had travelled alone and arrived nowhere.   

Townsend took Zelda’s hand into his and put his other hand on her back. I finished the gin in my glass and forced a smile at the girls.

“Townsend,” I heard in clear tones, “I do want those wedding kisses.” I glanced quickly at Zelda. Her back was to me.

 “No wedding kisses,” Townsend replied, “no more to drink.”

It didn’t matter what she was about to do. She had already done it.

The intensity on Catherine’s face faded into a playful look. Her cheeks relaxed into supple, rosy beds. Her face resembled that of a child, smiling about nothing. Cynthia sipped her Martini which she held continuously near her lips. She bent her head down slightly and peered through her lashes at Catherine.

“Who am I?” Catherine said, looking at me, her eyes still and directed. Her mouth broke into a strange smile. Her lips protruded, tight and wicked.

I can’t tell you who you are. I am a writer. I can show you.” I stepped back. Zelda and Townsend came into my field of vision. She had her arms wrapped around his neck. Her body hung from him.

I looked at Catherine. “Your character is a beautiful woman sitting in a bar located deep in the loneliness of the City. A successful man sees you sitting unaccompanied. He is captivated by you. He buys you a drink, tells you his sorrowful story, and you long for him.” Cynthia giggled. Her eyes widened and looked squarely at Catherine.

“That is quite a good bit of fiction, Scott,“ Catherine said.

Cynthia giggled again. She reached out and touched Catherine’s face. She took Cynthia’s hand into hers and began stroking her arm. Zelda let go of Townsend, turned around and stared down along the bar, but she never looked at me. She sat frozen, no triumphant look, no smirk of ridicule. The chagrin of misspent revenge blushed my face. Zelda’s eyes were riveted to the girls. Her face was frozen, like a flesh mask fashioned by a sculptor who caught his subject in the depths of a fantasy, disarmed and consumed.

Maybe it was time to leave, I thought.

Catherine turned her gaze from Cynthia and looked in my direction.

“What do I do now?” she asked.

I looked at her blankly. 

“What does my character do now?”

“She gets up and walks into a different novel,” I said.

I leaned in to grab the bottle of gin, which sat on the bar between the girls. When my ear passed Catherine’s lips, she spoke softly and slowly, “We do like men.”

“Scott,” Townsend said. He walked toward me. Zelda sat at the bar; a drink was in her right hand. Her left arm was draped across her stomach and it held firmly onto her waist. Her back was tense and straight. She directed her eyes forward away from the girls. On occasion, with her lips on the wide rim of her glass, she glanced at Cynthia. With increasing frequency, Cynthia’s eyes landed in Zelda’s.

Townsend stood next to me, behind the two girls.

“Got to go,” he said, “I’m a working writer now, you know.”

“So am I,” I replied, “and that’s the reason I’m staying.”

“I don’t know how you do it, my friend, out all night, sleeping it off all morning…”

“I don’t do it. It does it to me.”

Townsend looked at me. He cocked his head and his eyes squinted slightly.

“It sits right here.” I pointed to a spot between my chest and stomach. “I try to put it on the page, to get rid of it, but it never goes away. It lays in a twisted lump.”

 It was in those times when I tried to unwind this draining convolution into words, a dark cloud would move over me.  Each time I ran, frantically and futilely, from the suffocating sadness, raining down. Hopelessness would puddled around me. It was then, in those times, when I fell back on the dreams which I planted many years ago and drank the gin which made them all believable.

It was that night in the haze of that drunken New York barroom, while I pointed to the struggle in my twisted gut, in the midst of the chaos that had become my life, two opposing characters appeared and grew in my soul. One lived with intoxicated hope; the other existed in a sober hopelessness. Four years later Jay Gatsby met Nick Carraway.

“Scott, you’ve had enough, Townsend said. “Why don’t you and Zelda go home?”

“No, not ready to go yet.” I looked in Zelda’s direction. “How about you, dear?”

“I’m with you,” she replied.

“Glad to hear that’s settled,” I said. Zelda turned her head and gave me a delighted stare. She seemed to savor the last bit of my jealousy.

“Alright,” Townsend said, “I’m leaving. Go slow, Scott.”

He began to walk toward the door. Zelda called to him, “I still want those wedding kisses.”

You bitch.


References

Chapter I.
Introduction
4  “All good books are alike….”
Ernest Hemingway. “Old Newsman Writes: a letter from Cuba.”  Esquire Magazine December 1, 1934: 26.

Chapter II.
5  “No personality as strong as Zelda’s … but Zelda’s the only God I have left now.” :
Broccoli, Mathew J., Fitzgerald, F. Scott, et al., Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Random House, 1980. P. 53
17 I’m a professional … me are one in ten million.”
Stenographic Report of Conversation Between Mr. & Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dr. Thomas A. C. Rennie,” LaPaix, Rodgers Forge, Towson, Maryland, TMs (carbon), May 28, 1933, 114 pp., with note by Thomas A. C. Rennie to Dr. Slocum; Craig House Medical Records on Zelda Fitzgerald, C0745, Box 1, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

Coming in the Fall Issue: Chapter 3 & 4

BIO

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



Monte is Summoned to Building One

by Ed Peaco



Monte Thompson was trying to walk quickly from the parking lot to the heavy doors of Building One. He was hoping to stay ahead of the big boss, who Monte felt closing in on him. Derick Blockmenn, the Principal Partner and CEO of DataProbing Network, was someone to avoid. However, Monte had to be careful on his titanium hip, installed six months ago, and which had been causing as much pain as the human hip that had seemed to slowly disintegrate. In recent years, he hiked Mount Washington with three buddies, ran a half-marathon, and slogged through a mud-obstacle course. A year ago, he hit 55, and AARP ratcheted up its barrage of mail and pressure to enroll, but what was worse in that year was a boatload of torture in the left part of the pelvis. Complaining to himself, he denigrated the surgery as an old-man’s thing, but it had to be done. Rehab had been extended with physical therapy sessions, three per week. But there was more than just the physical pain. He had been taking off numerous half-days to visit neuro specialists and to take a battery of tests and an MRI to determine what was making his thinking so sluggish.

Today was one of those days when he had to slip away for a follow-up appointment at the big hospital downtown. The neurologist wanted to show Monte the findings of the MRI from a few weeks ago. Monte hoped he could dodge Blockmenn.

Entering DataProbing’s front lobby, Monte heard some banging behind him. It was Blockmenn, shoving the hydraulic mechanism of the front door, barging through the entryway, shouldering the door as if he were a linebacker, causing a metal-on-metal screech, muttering obscenities down the main hall. Monte ducked into the men’s room, hoping that hanging out there for a few minutes would be sufficient to shake the boss. Monte came to Building One rarely, to check if any of his mail was lingering at the front desk, and for the occasional staff meeting. This morning, looking this way and that, he thought the coast was clear, but he was wrong. Gangly and clumsy, with long, springy hair, graying and unruly—a twisted Einstein—Blockmenn almost knocked down Monte at the men’s room door.

“Hang on a minute,” Blockmenn said.

Then, while urinating, Blockmenn told Monte, “Get with Buster about the Natural Deep pitch. We need audio, video, text, today!” Monte wondered what Natural Deep was. Blockmenn told Monte to call Buster King, Monte’s supervisor, the hefty put-upon Managing Partner, and have him provide details. Blockmenn’s request threw Monte; he paused to gather his words. Buster was a prickly manager who tried to conceal his girth with billowy shirts. Standing by the sink, Monte phoned Buster, but the call went to voicemail, which made Blockmenn stomp away, fuming.

The DPN campus was composed of three small buildings, spread apart along a spacious greenway, with a wooded area beyond. Building One contained administration. Building Two quartered the specialists and investigators. The communication services were housed, including Monte’s team, in Building Three. “Blockhead,” as the staff called Blockmenn behind his back, could blow at any moment, for any reason. Longstanding employees said he had trouble with anger, pharmaceuticals, and substances, precipitating meltdowns and blowups, including one featuring fisticuffs with Buster and another with an investigator. A visit to Blockmenn’s office could be frightful, with swords and firearms mounted on the walls. From time to time, Monte thought about how he’d avoid those outbursts, or worse, an assault. He often cringed at the mismatch between the helping function of the organization and its dreadful creator. Like a terrible jingle that he couldn’t get out of his mind, Monte couldn’t stand the pretentious phrases of the mission statement, the fatuous boilerplate. What a load of crap!

DataProbing Network: a platform for those who need investigative solutions for casualties of catastrophic events, fraud, crime, and corruption. When government and law enforcement can’t or won’t help, DPN can perform functions tailored for the client, including investigators, litigators, scientists and communications experts, providing data-visualization tools, research resources, and voiceover video.

Eventually, Monte tracked down Buster in a meeting in which Blockmenn was ripping Buster a new one over the latest disaster. Monte listened briefly in the doorway. He learned a few things: Natural Deep was a natural gas producer. One of its offshore platforms in the North Sea had recently exploded. Blockmenn was livid about an investigator’s blunders that could lose the Natural Deep account.

“We have to be the first to know about shit like this, and know everything about it,” Blockmenn said. “Get off your lard-ass, Buster. If something blows up or somebody gets screwed, we need to be on it immediately!”

And Blockmenn to Monte: “Crap out all the appropriate proposals by the end of the day. Show them what we can do before somebody else does. Don’t waste time!”

Monte understood that this would not be a good day for slipping away for a doctor’s appointment. He shuffled back to Building Three and set aside the typical office morning chat, except for one dumb-ass Blockhead story: “I had a standing meeting in the men’s room with Blockhead!” Everybody had a good laugh, then Monte described the heap of work that had been dumped in their laps: the Natural Deep account. It was a setback for everyone and meant long hours ahead.

Monte took a moment to think about his own personal setbacks. His declining health and mental issues had recently caused the loss of a sweetie who had soured on him—one in a short list of sweeties following his divorce, including the dazzling Natalie, with whom he fumbled as she gave up on him. More important, he had trouble communicating at work: increasing forgetfulness, slow on the uptake, not finding the right words, all of which required co-workers to repeat discussions. Physically, his hip was flaring up with spiky shoots of pain, which required another visit to the physical therapist and the surgeon’s physician assistant. There would be no more running or hiking for a while, and not much walking, either. Just a mess all around.

He tried to recall when his mental fog started. It might have been with the hip replacement, or even before. Long after the anesthesia should have lifted, his head was still muddled. He went to a rehab place for ten days, then spent two weeks rehabbing and working from home, with the help of his nephew, Cable, who had plenty of time to help his uncle, as he’d been laid off from his job when the bar where he worked closed. Cable welcomed the cash Monte gave him to help with chores around the house, although Monte sensed Cable, who lived in a nearby remodeled barn, wasn’t really up to playing full-time nurse. Then again, Cable was the one who insisted Monte get a referral for a full neurological work-up, including an MRI for cognitive impairment.

—   —   —

Monte had arranged the time of the doctor’s appointment closer to lunch in hopes that his absence might not be noticed. He and Cable met the neurologist in her office to discuss the findings from the MRI. During a few minutes of pleasantries and questioning, the neurologist was looking at her screen. Then Cable piped up. “Sometimes when he talks, he sounds loopy, but not from those pills, because he won’t use them.”

“Loopy?” Monte asked.

“And a couple of times, he didn’t know where he was,” Cable said.

Grinding his teeth, Monte told Cable, “Hey, could you stop talking?”

She shot a glance toward Monte. “So, the report,” she said. “There’s no stroke, no tumor; but the scan detected mild atrophy of the brain.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” Monte said.

“Well, few very small foci of increased T2 signal in the bilateral subcortical white matter. …”

“What?” Monte lost her; nothing made sense, even after two attempts.

“You have mild cognitive impairment,” she said. “You might have early-onset dementia. The anesthesia from the hip replacement surgery some months ago may have accelerated cognitive decline. Tests show word loss and halted speech suggesting a progressive trajectory.”

“Meaning it gets worse, right?”

“Yes, you may eventually lose speech entirely.”

“Oh, that sucks!”

“There are many kinds of dementia, and there is no cure. Sorry to say.”

“Sorry to what?” Monte asked.

“I’ll set you up for a PET scan. It’ll show more about what your brain is doing.”

Cable tried to calm him down, but Monte got worked up when he heard sorry to say.  Then he stood up and walked out, reeling from the doctor’s words.

—   —   —

Back at DPN and eating lunch at his desk, Monte took a moment to calm down and count his blessings, such as they were. At least he worked in Building Three, as far from Blockmenn as possible. His team was talented and energetic. The three people in the media studio were versed in writing, editing, and producing. Each had a specialty: Michael (words), Charity (visuals), and Monte (audio) including voiceover for video. He was known for his gentle vocal tone, even when describing the worst explosions, natural disasters, and massacres around the world. Ironic that his diagnosis would affect his speech.

He and his team thought of the people in Building One as super-conservative and themselves as embracing a lefty fellowship. If anybody needed anything, Tori, the sharp-witted courier, would provide it. Tall and thin, she often speed-walked from building to building, pulling a red wagon filled with everything from printer cartridges to Earl Grey green tea. The best perk was the bucolic feel of Building Three, ensconced near trees and bathed in green space. Monte had always enjoyed walking around the grounds and into the woods on his lunch hour. A few years back, he hooked rope ladders over a weighty branch of a big oak and climbed just for fun. That was before the hip problems arose.

Michael, back from lunch, stopped at Monte’s desk. “I heard about fireworks at Building One today. Could it spread here?”

“You mean Blockhead might come to Building Three with a flamethrower? Not likely,” Monte said. “Blockhead likes to push around the sycophants in Building One.”

“I’ve been thinking about—this might seem silly—but, what about an escape plan?” Charity said. “Do we have one?”

“Like a secret passageway, a false wall?” Michael said as he chuckled.

The concerns of his co-workers, in lieu of that morning’s eruption, seemed to make sense. “Maybe we should think about that,” Monte said.

Tori interrupted this conversation with her daily visit to Building Three. She stopped, as usual, at Monte’s desk to tease him about his work. “Here you are: The Michael Bublé of Bloodbaths, The Pavarotti of Panic, The Sinatra of Sorrow.”

“Thank you very much. Just trying to make terrible events a little bit more pleasant,” he said with a little bow, while trying to get back to work.

Reflecting on the appointment with the neurologist, Monte knew he’d been lethargic and forgetful since coming back from his hip replacement surgery. He spent much more time in the sound booth than he would have before the surgery. Colleagues had to address him more than once to get his attention. He had trouble pulling words out of his mouth. Moreover, he noticed that people were seeing him speaking off a script, and when the discussion went beyond the script, he went silent as he worked through a speech block. It was scary. What was happening? Dementia, more goddamn dementia! What were his co-workers thinking? He worked through dinner and into the night, eventually collapsing for a few hours of sleep on a couch in the studio. Still he wasn’t done.

The next morning, seeking coffee, he already felt fried. Buster tromped into the studio, elbows out, standing over the three co-workers. With a loud sigh, he said, “We lost the Natural Deep project. You guys were too slow yesterday. The big guy is not happy.”

The threesome looked at each other, making grave faces. Buster conveyed again how disappointed Mr. Blockmenn was and described other work coming up.

Then Buster pulled Monte aside to ask him about his health and questioned the quality of his work. This was the first time anything like that had happened to Monte—ever. Both men remained silent for a short time.

“So, you’re the leader in Building Three. We need you, but, what’s up?” Buster asked.

“I’ve had some pain with the hip, and I don’t get enough sleep.”

“What can we do to get you back into the swing of things?”

“It’s up to me.”

“Yeah, but think about what’s going on with you. I don’t know what it is, but it might be more than just sleep. I’ve heard stuff about you, like, you’re not all there. We need you to be on top of things, all the time. Do you grasp what I’m saying?”

“Give me a little time to get myself into shape.”

“I’ll be checking in from time to time.”

No way was Monte going to use the word dementia, or mention his visit to the neurologist. How long could he fake being fully functional? Occasionally, he looked at a word and couldn’t pronounce it, or it made no sense unless he focused on it for a while. His work pace had been slowing down, and he knew that Buster and Blockmenn had become aware of it.

—   —   —

A few weeks later, Blockmenn summoned Monte to his office in Building One on a Monday morning. Monte arrived early. Blockmenn was not in his office. His longstanding admin, Victoria Deutsch, with ash-blonde helmet hair and extensive makeup, extended a hand toward a chair for Monte. “Feel at home, this is an amicable settlement,” she said.

“What settlement?”

“Didn’t he say?”

Suddenly, Blockmenn surged into the office and dropped loudly into his chair.

Victoria gave Blockmenn a stern-mother stare. “Be civil,” she told him. “Apparently, we have to start from the beginning.”

“Make it quick,” Blockmenn said.

Monte sat across from the Principal Partner, who began pushing papers into a single pile. Victoria presented a packet of termination and compensation documents.

She said, “Mr. Thompson, we know about the issues you’re confronting—”

What she said made Monte flinch. He wanted to eke out a few months more. Stuff gets around. Who blabbed? Who cares? Nobody had to tell anybody. The issues showed up every time he opened his mouth.

“—and we want to help you in any way we can,” Victoria said. “We will extend to you twenty-six weeks of severance compensation and health insurance.”

Monte felt like he was wandering in a thick fog. There was a lot of talking from Victoria that he seemed to hear from a distance. He wasn’t surprised, but he felt a little queasy. Victoria proceeded with the exit protocol. She described each document and showed the stickers pointing where Monte was to sign. The process became lengthy as Victoria recited various paragraphs that she seemed to think important.

“Thanks for the generous payout, Derick,” Monte said. “Could be worse!”

“Whaddaya mean? You want more?”

“I meant to say—”

“I don’t want to know what you meant,” Blockmenn said, fidgeting with pens and a stapler. He opened a drawer and brought out three handguns, fondling each, one by one, somewhat like he was strangely washing up with a big bar of soap. Then he placed the guns across his leather desk pad. “Which gun would you want to have?” Blockmenn asked.

“Now Mr. Blockmenn, not that,” Victoria said, with a withering gaze, as if she’d seen this routine before.

Monte recoiled. “What the hell?”

“Oh, Monte will like it.”

Monte certainly never had anything to say to Blockmenn, even on a good day, which was almost never. What a ridiculous exit interview!

So Monte responded first with a smirk, then pointed to the more compact piece. “If I must, this one, but—”

“The Smith & Wesson Governor,” Blockmenn said. “Excellent choice.” He picked up the Governor in both hands and raised it a few inches as if it were a large piece of gold.

“This one looks like the gun that Dick Tracy used from comic books and funny pages I read as a kid,” Monte said, then he snorted, which escalated to a nervous cackle. Monte was surprised with his outburst; he was scared and boiling mad. If only he could find Blockmenn without firearms, I would beat him to a pulp. Monte listened to the thumping of his charging heart, like it might explode at any moment.

“What’s so funny?” Blockmenn lurched up from his desk. “Do you think this is silly? It’s a matter of death or life.”

“Come on, Derick. What would I do with a gun? This is weird!”

In a spark of rage, Blockmenn swiped the weapon off the desk and to the floor, where it crashed with a sharp smack, spinning like a top on the ceramic tile. Seething, Blockmenn threw his head back petulantly. The gun lay spinning on the floor. Victoria sat there like nothing had happened.

Bug-eyed, mouth agape, Monte shot out of his chair, which fell back to the floor. “What’s this all about? Butterfingers! Screw you!” The gun spun slowly to a halt. Monte looked down and found that the barrel was pointed at his feet.

Victoria stooped to collect it. “Be careful, Mr. Blockmenn.”

“I’m fine,” said the CEO. “Take care of these papers. Show me where I sign. Be sure he signs the non-disclosure.” Blockmenn grabbed some documents from the desk and others from the floor, and stalked out.

Victoria leaned to Monte, close to his ear, whispering. “You deserve a reason for Mr. Blockmenn’s demeanor. He is a gifted leader, but he has challenges. He sees things. He hears things. He has treatment, but he doesn’t take heed. Today, he went off his meds, and he has upped his vodka intake. Don’t worry. Everything will be all right in the end.”

—   —   —

Blockmenn had designated Buster to escort Monte off the premises, but Buster was pulled away to deal with the current Blockhead tantrum, allowing Monte to hobble back across the green space to Building Three. He was eager to tell everybody about the disturbance that Blockmenn fomented.

 “I was summoned to Building One today, and the place was totally toxic. More bizarre behavior from Blockhead—he’s barking up and down through the corridors, he’s pulling a full-blown roid rage. He pulled out three handguns for me to examine. When he left his office, I saw he had another piece in a shoulder holster. He is absolutely unhinged!”

“Creepy, but we all know that he experiments with all kinds of alcohol, drugs, and pills. He’ll make mush of his brain if he keeps going this way,” Tori said.

“Oh, and so why was I summoned to Blockhead’s office? He fired me. This is my last day at DPN.”

Hubbub broke out as people wanted to know when, how and why; it went on for a while, requiring Monte to provide answers: Any feelers yet? Where ya looking? Try the local broadcast outlets? Great voice for radio. You’ve got connections.

“You guys know why I’m leaving, right?”

“You’re lucky,” Tori said. “You’re getting out of here.”

“Not exactly lucky,” he said, after which he looked for some way to get away from the crowd. He thought Buster would have already kicked him off the premises, but he wasn’t around. Monte went to the basement to find his plastic storage tub. He scrounged about in the tub, finding a few obsolete devices, old manuals, and binders, the rope ladders that he had stopped using, and a full set of clothes for back when he used to bike to work. He lugged all of it upstairs, where he unloaded the printed material into the recycling bin, and dumped the rest in a trash can. He kept the clothing.

He steered Tori into an empty hall. “So, I want to tell you, but you probably had some notion,” he said. “It may be early-onset dementia. Brain power just gets less and less.”

“Some of us were thinking—”

“If I’m lucky, the disease will go slow,” Monte said.

“—I wanted to say something.”

“Dementia comes gift-wrapped in many ways. Google it,” Monte said.

She briefly covered her mouth. She said, “Sorry.”

“You can tell anybody,” he said. “Tell them I said you could. I don’t want to talk about it. Maybe later.”

He spent a few minutes with Michael and Charity showing them around the soundproof booth used for making audio tracks, extolling the quality of the end result, better than your own voice. In the bottom drawer of his desk he found a dusty Doctors Without Borders tote bag, and he stuffed it with the clothes and a few books. As he packed, the idea of leaving felt better and better.

A squawk from the intercom startled the people of Building Three. The intercom was ancient and hardly ever used. The sound was loud and distorted. It was Buster. He was blurting hysterically. “Blockmenn’s on a rampage. This is real. He’s going after Monte. Active shooter alert! Active shooter alert! I couldn’t stop him. Go, go, go right now!”

Monte yelled through the halls of Building Three, “Let’s get out of here! Run to the woods!” He limped as rapidly as he could toward the trash can to retrieve the rope ladders. “Don’t go to your cars. The parking lot is next to Building One. Toward Blocker. I mean Blockhead. Who wants to run for the fence? I’m going now.” He pocketed his phone, gathered his rope ladders, hollered, “Last chance!” Then he went toward the trees. Five co-workers—Tori, Michael, Charity, and two others whose names he couldn’t remember—followed Monte’s limp-shuffle adrenaline-fueled gait across the green space into the brush. Some of the group were frantically texting and calling 911. He trudged through the prickers, the saplings, the big sycamores, and the downed-and-rotting trunks. Now he was hurting. He kept looking behind to make sure the others knew where he was. The escapees sped up when they heard a short spattering of gunshots. Monte stumbled upon two homeless men camped out with blue tarps and sleeping bags. He invited them to come along to avoid the crazy guy with guns, but they were only startled, and waved Monte away.

At last, the fence came into view. Monte hooked the first ladder over the top of the fence on the DPN side, then awkwardly climbed half way up, feeling something like a butcher knife jabbing into his thigh. He paused, then took it slow, placing the second ladder on the other side, and went over to check that the ladder was properly placed. Oh, throbbing pain! He waited for the pain to subside a bit, and he found a way to pull himself up mostly by his arms. He went back over to the DPN side to help those who needed it. Tori had trouble trudging in her sandals, and she was apprehensive about the ladders, but she managed to get over. One of the guys whose name Monte couldn’t remember, a hefty fellow, decided not to attempt the ropes. Michael said he had something like these ladders on his bunk bed growing up, and he hastened up, over and down. Charity, looking jittery, threw her pumps over the fence, and took the steps quickly. Monte followed.

“We made it!” Monte said. “So far, anyway.” He collected the rope ladders and carried them under each arm.

Charity looked around at the scrub trees and high grass lining the road, then she declared, “Whoa, we’re in the boonies. I’ve never been on this edge of town.”

“Me, neither,” Monte said. “When you enter DPN, you’re still in the city. But over the fence, we’re really out there.”

“I’ve been beamed up to another planet,” she said.

Wincing with every other step, Monte led the crew down a gravel road toward what he hoped was a main road.

“Hey, we have to keep moving,” Monte said. “We need to get far enough away so we can’t be seen.”

“Why are you toting those ladders?” Michael asked Monte.

“They’re souvenirs.”

“For crying out loud. I’ll carry them,” Michael said.

Monte fell back from the group, and they went around a bend. He slowed down, looked back where they had walked, then looked ahead. He didn’t see anybody. Panic set in.

—   —   —

Well, shit, let them go wherever they’re going, but I’m gonna sit here and feel each throb. Too loud to think. Am I thinking?

Can’t process. Getting canned: that calls for an up yours! Psycho Baby playing with guns, shit for brains. Those gunshots: that demands a full-throttle mother fucker!

Spent my best years in pig slop—that boilerplate, the pretentious crap that I wrote!

Blockhead, why didn’t you fire me long ago?

Early on: Got divorced. Then there was Natalie. Wow Natalie! Posted to Dublin. Could have followed her out of bumfuck DPN. What a sledge head I was!

Im the blockhead!

No more hikes, no more races.

Gimmy a wheelchair and fuck yourself.

Surgery stupor, now dementia, what’s next?

Aphasia, my sweetie till death?

Won’t see the guys anymore. No trails. No mountains.

No woman would mess with this mess of me.

Losing everything!

Oh, what’s this? Something’s wrong. What’s happening?

Where am I?

—   —   —

As the first one to notice Monte was nowhere in sight, Michael back tracked and found Monte on the shoulder of the road, panting, howling in a gutteral basso profundo.

“What’s wrong?” Michael asked.

“I’m kinda messed up,” Monte said. “Really lost. Scary.”

Michael pulled him up to sit and put an arm around Monte. “You OK?” Michael asked.

Monte looked around and saw the ladders. He said, “Oh, ladders. Yeah, yeah, ladders.” He didn’t want to stand up yet. Something had hit him like that wigged-out feeling from that anesthetic. “When I saw the ladders, I knew everything again—weird.”

Tori held his hand. “How do you feel? What do you need? You can’t help it, right? It’s that dementia, right? Sorry. I gotta shut up.”

“I think it was that I didn’t see you guys,” Monte said. “I was nowhere. Not sure where I was.”

“I don’t know either,” Charity said. She gave her water bottle to Monte.

“It’s a different not-knowing,” he said. “It’s not, it’s different—I can’t find the word. Sorry.”

“Hell, no. Don’t be sorry. You saved us from that madman,” Michael said. “You’re our hero!”

As Michael and Tori helped Monte get on his feet, Charity went ahead to a Smarty-Mart store. The others arrived in a few minutes. She bought bottled water for everybody. They sat on plastic chairs and called family and friends to say they were OK.

“Oh, my brain let me have that word. No, it went away. No, yes, I got it: embarrassing. A different kind of not-knowing.”

—   —   —

Monte wanted Cable to stay with him that night. Next morning, Monte’s phone was crammed with calls and texts with concerns for his wellbeing and news of what happened at DataProbing Network. Buster’s voice message: Blockhead went just-a-stumblin’, the Governor in one hand, bottle of Grey Goose in the other. I called the cops. They came in five minutes. When Blockhead heard the sirens, that was when he tried to blow his fuckin’ head off, but he botched the job. Nobody else got hurt.

—   —   —

Two days later, Tori came to Monte’s house and sat outside with iced coffee.

“I’m not going back,” Tori said.

“We’re still alive!”

“Another thing. I have a business proposition for you,” Tori said.

“Oh, really? I have no money to invest.”

Tori laughed. “Just saying, I’m gonna be a personal shopper—woo-hoo!”

“Cable gets my groceries.”

 “You’ll need more help than that. Come on, you could be my first client.”

“Not sure I’m ready for that,” Monte said.

“You can function almost all the time, except for when you can’t.”

“I’m going back to the neuro doc to have a PET scan,” he said. “That’s supposed to be the be-all, end-all for the diagnosis.”

“Then what?”

“Just carry on until I can’t, whenever that is.”



BIO

Ed Peaco is enamored with the short story. Many of his stories involve love (or like), blundering and redemption. He held editing posts at a newspaper for 27 years. In the next decade and continuing, as a freelancer, he’s writing about local music; and editing books, magazines and articles. The villain in this story, “Monte is Summoned to Building One,” is modeled on an eruptive boss. Peaco quit quickly, but Monte kept working too long. Peaco lives in Springfield, MO.





Along the Lines of Improv

by Cecilia Kennedy


Pythons move in straight lines forward. They stiffen their ribs and lift their ventricle scales on their bellies to keep pushing ahead. A straight line extends infinitely in either direction, without curving, but in a realm of infinite possibilities, where straight lines may intersect, any number of them could determine the path a python takes, and where it ends up.

#

Plagued by what she calls “brain bumps,” Peggy vows to make creativity flow on the job by taking an improv class. At work, her mind clogs with thoughts, pelted by self-doubt, so she travels twenty minutes to the theater at the edge of the Millerstown Strip Mall to take Saturday-morning classes, but here’s what she doesn’t understand: Why does all improv have to be funny? Peggy dreams of moving an audience to silence with admiration—a story so powerful that a rush of emotions builds, and people leap to their feet to applaud when she’s done.

But so far, the skits and exercises inevitably lead to bathroom jokes or characters she doesn’t understand, but she keeps going, hoping to learn something. There’s a mirror in the classroom space, which also doubles as a dance studio. In the mirror, they can practice making faces—or see other’s reactions.

Today, Bob is playing his chain-smoking character who wants to teach his student (Peggy) to play the blues, which of course requires her to sing—horribly—and she doesn’t want to do it.

“Push the note like you’re grunting one out,” he says, in his fake, raspy voice, but she doesn’t want to. Such a thing is so ugly and crass. She’d strain her neck, and her face would transform into something hideous with lines and wrinkles.

“I’m actually here to buy a guitar,” Peggy says, trying to change the scene—to avoid having to make a fool of herself, but Bob insists, and she feels cornered. She catches her face in the mirror—all red and scrunched up. She also sees the faces of the other students in the class, reflecting looks of cringe and pity. The instructor steps in, stops the exercise, moves to the next person. A hissing sound expels from the radiator-heater in the back, as Peggy follows the lines of the floorboards towards the exit, reaching her car at the edge of the wooded area behind the theater. The stream is alive with sound and movement—splashes, jumps, and sun light, but she’s headed straight home.

#

During rehearsal, right before the matinee improv production, the instructor reminds the students to listen to one another, to respond with open hearts, to let the story unfold in any way it might. Peggy tries to quiet her bubbling and fizzing brain, so overloaded with a toxic mixture of ideas and doubt, that she can hear banging on the pipes overhead, the creak of a door, a slither-sound of the wind as it rushes through the tiny holes of daylight dotted into the roof and frame of the building.

When rehearsal starts, Stan assumes a stubborn character who is waiting for a bus. Peggy tries to get him to do something other than stand there and smile and repeat the same two lines, but he won’t budge. The more he resists, the more her gestures become desperate. She jumps up and down, screaming that they’re wasting their lives, just waiting for a bus. With her entire soul, she yearns for a transformative moment on stage, a breakthrough, but at the end of the class, everyone decides that Stan stole the show.

#

Hours before the performance, Peggy reads news headlines on her phone, but they keep getting interrupted with alerts from a neighborhood website she signed up for, where frantic neighbors post warnings about car prowlers. Apparently, a neighbor has discovered that the area behind the Millerstown strip mall is overrun with unusually large pythons, and when the wildlife team and sheriff’s department split one open, they find missing people’s bones. A strong discomfort in Peggy’s stomach overtakes her, but it’s quickly erased by thoughts of the performance ahead.

#

A small audience has gathered in the theater, mostly friends and family of the other actors, but Peggy is determined to elevate the form of improv. Improv has a pure soul, and so does Peggy.

The first scene is a bank, and they’re supposed to count imaginary money and develop the story from there. Peggy’s legs feel weak and wobbly, but she stands up tall and moves forward.

“Money isn’t the most important thing in life,” she says, and when she’s said those words, she hears the doors creak open in the lobby, and she takes the sound as a sign that she’s on the right path. She’s really listening now, opening herself up to the moment. She must continue, right along the line she’s started.

“Like hell, it is,” Bob replies, and the audience erupts in laughter. But Peggy will not be shaken. Behind her, from down the hall, she hears a smooth sound, almost imperceptible, and she faces the audience head on.

“It’s the ruin of souls,” Peggy says. “We stand at its mercy, and it divides us.”

“Here, divide this and stack it,” Bob says, but Peggy persists. The smooth sound is in the wings now, and she knows this moment is pure and true.

“I’ve loved with all my heart, and I’ve earned nothing in return. All of this is nothing.”

She feels a stillness in the air, and when she looks out at the audience, and into their faces, all eyes are on her. She feels a rush of warm air surrounding her, on all sides, from behind, and opens her arms to take a bow. When she turns around to leave, the unhinged jaws of the biggest constrictor anyone has ever seen, are gaping wide, its patterned scales breaking the straight line around its lower half, coiling tightly around her.



BIO

Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection. You can find her DIY humor blog and other adventures/achievements here: (https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/



The Third Floor

by Nancy Machlis Rechtman



The battered red Volkswagen pulled up to the entrance of the grey, forbidding building. A well-dressed young woman with almost-blonde hair got out and entered through the main doors which slammed shut behind her. There was a surly-looking man in a white uniform standing by the entrance and he looked her up and down.

“Who you here to see? he asked.

“A doctor,” Diana said.

“Who sent you here?”

“My doctor, Dr. Smith…”

“That your car?” he interrupted.

She nodded yes.

“Plates are out of state. You from out of state?”

She nodded again.

“What are you doing here then?”

“My insurance is here.”

“Never mind,” he said brusquely. “Explain It to them at Admissions. You going to sign yourself in?

“I suppose so.”

“Well, I’ll let them handle it at Admissions.” He turned and started to walk away.

“Wait a minute. Where am I supposed to go?” Diana asked.

The man glared at her like she didn’t have a brain in her head. “I toldyou. Admissions.”

“Would you mind telling me where that is? I’m in a lot of pain…”

He started to walk away again, muttering under his breath.

“What did you say?” she asked timidly.

He didn’t turn around but spoke loud enough for her to hear. “Third floor.” Then he disappeared down the hall before she could ask any further questions.

Diana tried to find an elevator which proved to be almost as difficult as getting an answer out of the man in the white uniform. The halls had been laid out in a random, chaotic manner and she felt like a rat in a maze, trying to find her way to the cheese. Instead of an elevator, she found a staircase and decided that it might be her best course of action. The burning sensation in her gut was getting worse and she didn’t want to waste any more time trying to find the goddamn elevator. She opened the door to the staircase and walked over to the stairs. The door slammed shut behind her with a thud. That seemed about par for the course in this place.

Diana began to climb the stairs and after a few minutes, it seemed as if she had climbed forever. But there were no outlets, so she just kept climbing. She had to stop and catch her breath several times and considered turning back, but she was sure that eventually there had to be a way out. Finally, she reached a landing where there was a door. She reached for the handle and her heart dropped down to the pit of her stomach. It was locked. She began to pound and yell, hoping to attract someone’s attention. Finally, the knob turned and she was face to face with a pitted old lady wearing a moth-eaten terry robe and matching shower cap. The woman stared at her, then walked away. Diana looked around the drab, green hall, hoping to find someone in authority, but there didn’t seem to be much chance of that.

“Excuse me!” she called out to the bathrobe lady.

The woman turned around belligerently. “What the hell do you want?”

Diana was taken aback but found her voice once more. “Could you please tell me where Admissions is?”

The bathrobe lady stared at her in disbelief. “You’re in already, aren’t you? Why the hell do you need Admissions if you’re already in?”

“Well, I’m in, but not really in, you see…”

“Third floor.”

“I know that,” Diana said starting to lose her patience. “I just can’t seem to find the third floor.”

“You lost a floor? No one around here’s ever done that before.”

“What floor is this?” Diana asked.

“You see the sign?”

“No. No, I don’t,” Diana said wearily.

“There’s always a sign. Just keep looking.” With that, the bathrobe lady turned and shuffled off.

Diana looked around in despair. She heard strange sounds coming from behind the closed doors of one of the rooms, like an animal might make when it’s caught in a trap.

Diana felt the iron knot tightening in her stomach and realized she needed to sit down somewhere. She reached a large room with an open door. There were no chairs, only a broken-down cot. She collapsed onto it as she felt the pain get more intense, spreading throughout her entire body. She didn’t realize that she had fallen asleep until she awoke to find herself surrounded by five pairs of curious eyes. She stared back, uncomprehending at first, then bolted upright, clutching tightly at her purse.

“What have they done to you?” asked a faded old man kneeling by her elbow.

“They haven’t done it yet, can’t you tell?” insisted a young man close to her toes.

“Done what?” Diana asked, hazily.

The five pairs of eyes exchanged glances, then looked down at the floor.

“Please,” Diana said. “I’ve been trying to find my way to the third floor. Would one of you be kind enough…”

“What’s the matter with you, couldn’t you find the goddamn sign?” came a familiar and not very welcome voice.

Diana cringed, suddenly recognizing the bathrobe lady.

“What do you want the third floor for?” asked the young man in a hushed voice.

“Don’t be rude,” admonished a wispy young girl who was chewing daintily on a candy bar.

“Well, what floor are we on now?” Diana asked.

The old man giggled. “Can’t you read?”

“Seems to me she don’t know much of nothing,” pronounced the bathrobe lady.

Diana fought back her mounting frustration along with the pain that had taken over her body. “Perhaps if one of you would be kind enough to show me the sign, I could be on my way. I really am in a bit of a hurry, you see.”

“Then what were you doing sleeping like that in the middle of the day?” asked a man who seemed to be composed entirely of butter.

“Come with me – I’ll show you the sign,” said the wispy young girl, almost halfway through with her candy bar.

“Ain’t no one goin’ nowhere!” boomed a deep voice from the doorway. Diana looked up, startled, while the others simultaneously dropped to the floor and crawled under – or partially under – the cot. There stood the biggest, meanest-looking linebacker of a nurse ever seen on the face of this earth.

“Excuse me,” Diana said meekly. “Perhaps you can help me. You do work here, don’t you?”

Nurse Linebacker snickered. “I ain’t seen you around here before. You better learn now – I’m the one who asks the questions around here and you better learn that quick. So why don’t you tell me – who are you?”

“Well, my name is Diana Johnston and I’ve been trying to find the…”

“QUIET!” bellowed Nurse Linebacker. “I don’t want your whole life story – you can tell that to the headshrinker!”

“Headshrinker?” Diana repeated. Upon getting no response, she plunged on. “Well, you asked who I was.”

“Your number, you dope!” shouted the bathrobe lady.

“But I don’t have a number!” Diana exclaimed.

“Impossible!” insisted the butter man. “Everyone has a number.”

“In his case, two numbers!” the bathrobe lady cackled.

“ENOUGH!” shouted Nurse Linebacker. “Now, don’t give me no problems, or else.” She looked down and noticed the candy bar in the wispy young girl’s hand, sticking out from under the cot. In one swift motion, she grabbed it out of the girl’s hand and shoved it into her own mouth, spitting out the wrapper and swallowing the candy bar in one gulp. She then returned her attention to Diana, who had watched the feat with the candy bar in utter amazement. “So, what’s your number?”

“I told you…” Diana began.

“No, I’m tellin’ you!” Nurse Linebacker boomed. “You tell me your number or I’ll personally drag you by your ears down to Admissions and have them check your file!”

“Fine!” Diana shrieked. “I’ve been trying to get to Admissions all morning!”

“What on earth for?” asked the old man. “You’re already in.”

Diana counted to ten in her head to steady her breathing. “I need to see a doctor. So I would be very grateful if you would show me to Admissions so that I can check myself in.”

“Third floor,” said Nurse Linebacker.

Diana took a deep breath. “Could you take me there?”

Nurse Linebacker looked at her with disdain. “You can’t find a floor? All right, come on. You’re in worse shape than most.”

With that, the hulking figure gave one last furious glare to the five figures huddled on the floor, then grabbed Diana’s shoulder, whirled around, and propelled her down the hall towards a door at the end. She opened it, shoving Diana ahead of her. It was another staircase, lacking any sort of illumination. Diana stumbled, then groped her way down the stairs, Nurse Linebacker’s palm still firmly attached to Diana’s shoulder. After walking down six steps, they reached a landing. Nurse Linebacker swung the door open and pushed Diana out into the light. There was a large, block-letter sign directly across from them which spelled out “ADMISSIONS.” Diana gasped.

“Only six steps!” she exclaimed.

Nurse Linebacker gave her another withering look. “Well, you’re here. Better get a number fast. Or else.”

Another nurse approached and started clucking when she saw Nurse Linebacker.

“Althea, what are you doing in those clothes?” asked the tiny nurse.

Diana glanced at Nurse Linebacker and was stunned as she watched the previously imposing figure shrink back and cower in the doorway.

“Nothing, Ma’am,” Nurse Linebacker whispered.

“Then put back that uniform wherever you found it and get back to your room right now. And I mean right now or there won’t be any TV privileges for you for the rest of the week!”

“Yes, Ma’am. Right away, Ma’am.” With that, Nurse Linebacker – aka Althea – raced out of sight as Diana tried to contain her astonishment.

“Oh, hello, dear,” said the new nurse who resembled a parakeet with her yellow hair, darting eyes, and curious way of clicking her mouth when she talked. “Don’t mind Althea. She always manages somehow to get a hold of one of our uniforms and scares the hell out of the other patients, don’t you know.  She’s basically harmless, though. And who might you be, dear? I don’t believe I know you. Why aren’t you in your room?”

Diana looked at Nurse Parakeet gratefully. Finally, a rational being! “Well, I’ve been looking for Admissions, you see…”

Nurse Parakeet suddenly became the epitome of efficiency. “Oh, my dear, well, we can’t have that! You just come with me and we’ll fill out all the forms. Self-admitting, I suppose.”

Diana nodded her head. “Yes, and I hope you can get me to Dr. Smith soon. He said he’d try to meet me here…” She hurried to follow the twittering nurse into the Admissions office and sat down across from her.

“Name?”

“Diana Johnston.”

“Age?”

“Thirty-two.”

“Problem?”

“I’ve got this terrible pain…”

“Yes, yes. Life can be filled with pain, you know. In fact, that’s my motto. You see, I even stitched a sampler with those very words, as a daily reminder,” Nurse Parakeet said, indicating a sampler over her shoulder. Diana looked closely and sure enough, there were those exact words done in very neat little stitches: Life Can Be Filled With Pain, You Know.

Nurse Parakeet pulled some more forms from the printer and gave them to Diana. “You can write, can’t you, dear?”

Diana looked at her. “Oh, I’m in pain, but it’s not so bad that I can’t write.”

Nurse Parakeet beamed. “That’s the spirit! There may be hope for you yet. But of course, we’ll let the doctor decide. Come along with me – he’s very busy, you know.”

Diana rose slowly since the pain was becoming unbearable, and followed Nurse Parakeet back into the hall, through several corridors, and was aware of almost inhuman sounds coming from behind the doors of some of the rooms, just like those she had heard earlier. She wondered exactly what went on in this hospital, but her thoughts were suddenly cut off when Nurse Parakeet stopped short and indicated a door to her right.

“The doctor’s in there, dear. When you’ve finished, come back to Admissions so you can finish filling out your paperwork and I can assign you a room – once the doctor’s rated you.”

“Rated me?” Diana repeated.

But Nurse Parakeet was already off, fluttering back down the hall. Diana knocked lightly on the door and entered. There wasn’t anyone there and she looked around slowly. It was the strangest examining room she had ever seen. There was a long leather couch, a large over-stuffed chair, and that was it.

“Lie down!” shouted a voice behind her.

Diana whirled around. There was a short, grey-haired man with a pointed beard, round spectacles, nearly-invisible slits hiding behind the lenses which she realized were his eyes, and a nervous tic that pulled the right side of his face towards his right ear and then released it like shooting a rubber band across the room at a random target.

“Gotcha!” he cackled, rubbing his hands together gleefully.

“Who are you?” Diana demanded.

“I’m Dr. Sputz, of course. And you must be number 117053, if I’m not mistaken.”

“I don’t have a number. My name is Diana Johnston.”

“Everyone here has a number. It’s mandatory. But if you want to deny having one, we can delve into that another time.”

“I’m not denying anything! Can we please just get on with the examination? I feel like I’m on fire.”

Dr. Sputz grabbed his notebook excitedly and began writing furiously, mumbling, “Patient has severe burning symptoms, the Heaven and Hell Syndrome, perhaps.”

“Doctor, can you please hurry? It’s getting worse.”

“Of course it is! Lie down now and let’s talk about this pain.”

“Well, it’s centered around my gut…”

Dr. Sputz jumped up and down. “Wonderful! Wonderful! The pain is in the gut! Of course, if it was in the heart, it would be even better. Then we could talk about unrequited love. But the gut will do just fine for now. Lie down.”

Diana sat on the couch and noticed straps hanging down from the side. But Dr. Sputz didn’t give her the time to comment.

“I suppose I should ask anyway – are you in love?” he asked.

“Am I what? Look, I don’t think we’re getting anywhere. Do you think you can have Dr. Robert Smith paged – he told me to meet him here.”

“Aha!” whooped Dr. Sputz. “I was right! A romantic rendez-vous with your doctor. And now he hasn’t shown up. No wonder you’re in pain!”

“What the hell are you talking about? Dr, Smith was going to give me some tests to see if I need an operation.”

“Tests! Even better! I can give you tests. And then we can operate. Oh, young lady, you’ve made my day!” Dr. Sputz grabbed Diana’s hand and kissed it fervently. “Now lie down and I’ll strap you in.”

Diana looked at him nervously. “You know, I think I’m feeling better now. Maybe I’ll just go home. I’ve got to make dinner for my husband and kids anyway.” She started to get up.

“Sit!” barked Dr. Sputz.. Diana automatically obeyed. “Lie down! Roll over! Play dead!”

Diana stared at him.

“No wonder you’re in pain. Not only are you in love with your doctor, but you’re a married woman! Involved in a secret love affair! Or maybe I was right and it is unrequited love – perhaps your doctor has been using you as his plaything, a sexual object! Well, which is it?” He stopped and looked at her questioningly, his pen hovering over his notebook.

“I’m leaving,” Diana declared. As she rose, Dr. Sputz lunged forward and tackled her, throwing her onto the couch. He grabbed the straps and tied her down so she couldn’t move, then he stood up.

“They didn’t tell me you were violent!” he exclaimed, straightening his clothing. ”I will excuse it this time – the torment of psychic pain can bring us to do many strange things.”

“Psychic pain! You’re crazy. I told you, my gut’s on fire!” Diana cried.

“That’s right, of course it is after all you’ve been through. I’ll get the nurse to give you a sedative. Then, when you’ve calmed down, we’ll begin with the tests. We’ll start with something easy, ink blots perhaps.”

“Ink blots!” Diana screamed. “Let me out of here! I’ll sue you, I swear, if you don’t untie me and I mean now!”

But Dr. Sputz bounded over to the phone and spoke urgently into the receiver. “Yes, yes, a large dose – the largest you’ve got – she’s getting quite hysterical.”

A moment later, Nurse Parakeet flew into the room with a tremendous hypodermic needle, almost as long as her arm. She looked at Dr. Sputz who nodded towards Diana. Nurse Parakeet plunged the needle into Diana’s arm. The room started to spin almost immediately and the last thing Diana heard was Dr. Sputz whispering to Nurse Parakeet, “She threatened to sue.”

The next thing Diana was aware of was that she was lying on a cot in a small, drab room, and her arms were tied down. She was very thirsty and could barely swallow. The door soon opened and Nurse Parakeet entered.

“Well, what a sleepy-head you are,” she twittered. “You were a very naughty girl, you know. But we’ve decided to forgive you this time and give you another chance.”

“Water,” Diana whispered.

Nurse Parakeet handed her a paper cup. “Here, drink this all down like a good girl, that’s a dear.”

“How many hours have I been asleep?” Diana asked.

“Let’s see…you came in on Wednesday …about two days, I think.”

“Two days!” Diana shrieked.

“Now, don’t get yourself excited or, well, let’s not get into that right now.”

“Where’s Dr. Smith?”

“Dr. Smith?” Nurse Parakeet frowned. “Oh, you mean your lover. He never showed up. But it’s really better that way, don’t you think? Especially for the children, you know.”

“Dr. Smith isn’t my….” Diana stopped. What was the point? “What about my husband? I left him a voicemail to meet me here – did he show up?”

Nurse Parakeet looked at Diana pityingly. “No, dear. I suppose that’s why you’ve been in such pain. It must be hard to accept the fact that nobody cares.”

“I don’t understand. I left him a message to meet me at County General.”

“Now why would you do a silly thing like that?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why, County General’s about two miles down the road. Why would he drive there to meet you here? I suppose you were afraid he’d catch you red-handed with your doctor lover so you sent him on a wild goose chase, didn’t you?”

Diana felt the knot tightening in her stomach. “Where am I?” she asked hoarsely.

“My dear, don’t you remember anything? You’re at County Mental Health Institute.”

Diana stared at Nurse Parakeet in shock, then started to laugh. “I’m in a loony bin! My insides are on fire and I’m tied up in a goddamn insane asylum!”

“We prefer to think of it in more constructive terms, dear. We like to refer to our facility as a recreational center for healing of the mind and spirit.”

“Would you please untie me?”

“I don’t think that’s allowed, dear,” Nurse Parakeet said firmly. “Why?”

“So I can leave, of course.”

“Oh, no, my dear, we can’t have that. We haven’t even begun the tests.  And then the treatment. You’ve been rated a fifteen, you know. Oh, dear, I don’t know if I was supposed to tell you that.”

“What’s a fifteen?” Diana asked.

“Well, anything over a ten is dangerous. Fifteen is the worst.”

“You don’t understand,” Diana said, fighting to remain calm. “This is all a mistake. I’m supposed to be at County General. I’m from out of state, my GPS stopped working just before I got here. I guess I made a wrong turn.”

“Yes, well, we all take the wrong road at some point in our lives. But what on earth would you have gone to County General for? They can’t treat your problems there, my dear. You’re deep in the grip of a painful psychosis and we’ve got quite a battle ahead of us to return you to good mental health,” Nurse Parakeet chirped.

“I’m fine, believe me,” Diana insisted. “Now just untie me please so I can get my things and leave.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Nurse Parakeet said.

“Why not? I don’t belong here.”

“Because you haven’t been cured.”

“Take my word for it. I’m a new woman.” Diana tried to sound upbeat.

“Oh dear!” cried Nurse Parakeet.

“What now?”

“A new woman? I’ll have to inform the doctor that you’re exhibiting signs of schizophrenia!”

“It’s an expression!” Diana shouted. “Anyway, you have to let me go. I checked myself in – it’s not like I was committed or anything.”

“That’s right – it’s worse.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve got papers that you signed, admitting you were in need of help and giving us free rein in treating you until we’re sure you’re one hundred percent cured.”

Diana stared at her. “I don’t believe this! Look, at least let me call my husband to let him know I’m here. He must be worried sick. And I’m sure he can straighten this out.”

“No calls are allowed to the outside,” declared Nurse Parakeet.

“Why not?”

“Rules, my dear. We’ve got to follow the rules. Now, you just calm down and we’ll give you some tests to see exactly how far gone you are.”

“What if the tests show I’m normal? That I’ve been cured? Then can I go?”

Nurse Parakeet twittered. “You really are on another plane of reality, aren’t you, dear? Just relax and the doctor will be in soon to begin the testing.” With that, Nurse Parakeet turned and flitted out of the room.

Diana was in despair. How could she convince these people that they had made a horrible mistake? And what about Sam and the kids – they must think she had been kidnapped or even killed at this point. Actually, being kidnapped didn’t seem entirely inappropriate in describing her situation. She certainly was being held against her will. And what was this business about no phone calls? Her cell phone was in her purse which had been confiscated and it had no charge left anyway, but maybe she could use a phone at the nurse’s station. Or Admissions. She had to get out of here, she would have to escape. But there was nothing she could do while she was strapped down like this, and she was starting to get so sleepy again.

“Attention!” boomed a familiar voice, startling Diana out of her torpor. She looked up and there was Nurse Linebacker, or rather, Althea, standing in the doorway in a nurse’s uniform about two sizes too small for her, the buttons straining against the buttonholes, like a can of Pillsbury biscuits ready to pop.

“Althea, I’m so glad to see you,” Diana said weakly.

“Speak up!” Althea roared. “You don’t whisper to a superior. And how dare you lie down while I’m addressing you. Get up!”

“I can’t get up,” Diana said, nodding toward the straps.

“Aha!” Althea cried. “Time for the treatment to begin.”

“No, not yet. Just some tests.”

“Ha!” Althea exclaimed.

“What is the treatment anyway?” Diana asked.

Althea blanched, then glared at Diana. “Classified information. Top secret.”

“Have you had the treatment, Althea?”

“No questions allowed! Especially while you’re still lying down after I gave you a direct order! We may have to throw you in the stockade!”

“Listen, I’d like to show respect towards you, I really would,” Diana assured her. “But I’ve got to remain disrespectful as long as I’m tied down like this.”

“I won’t stand for it!” Althea bellowed as she bounded over to the cot. With one swift motion, she had ripped the straps from Diana’s arms, freeing her. Diana tentatively stretched her arms and began rubbing them gingerly.

“Attention!” Althea yelled.

Diana stood up as quickly as she could, but her knees buckled and she had to support herself against the wall. She realized that Nurse Parakeet had slipped something into the water she had given her. Her mind was foggy and she could barely stand. She knew that Althea was her only hope for escape.

“I’d like to make a suggestion,” Diana said. “I think a march might be in order to get me back in shape.”

“Quiet!” roared Althea. “Just for that, you’re coming with me.”

“Where to?” Diana asked hopefully.

“On a march. Hup, two three four, now we’re going out the door…”

Diana tried to regain control of her brain as they marched up and down the halls, Althea prodding her along. She was dimly aware that the pain in her gut had lessened considerably. Maybe she wouldn’t need an operation after all. Now, if only she could maneuver Althea towards the exit, or rather, have Althea maneuver her.

“You’re out of step!” Althea yelled. “Shape up!”

“I’m hungry,” Diana said. “I haven’t eaten in days.”

“Don’t be a jellyfish! We all have to do without. Hunger is good for you, builds character.”

“If only I could… Oh, never mind.”

Althea looked at her suspiciously. “If only you could what?”

“Well, it’s just that I had a whole bag of candy in the back of my car and if I could only get to my car…”

“What kind?” Althea’s eyes glistened.

“Milky Ways.”

“No one’s allowed outside. Rules!”

“Creamy, chewy chocolate and caramel.”

“Rules!” Althea trembled.

“I’d just run out real quick and then come back. I’d only take one for myself – the rest of the bag would be for you.”

“Rules!” Althea gasped.

“You could watch me from inside and then we could run into one of the rooms and stuff those ooey gooey chocolatey delights…”

“To the car!” Althea commanded.

Diana tried to keep up with Althea who was practically galloping down the hall. They turned a corner and there was the exit, those wonderful clanging doors directly in front of them. Diana glanced around, but no one else was nearby.

“OK,” Althea said. “No funny business.”

She stood to the side as Diana walked past her to the doors, her heart pounding. She didn’t have an actual plan since she didn’t have her purse with her car keys or her uncharged phone. All she knew was that she was going to have to make a run for it.

“Ready!” Althea yelled. “Set!”

Diana paused, waiting to hear ‘Go!’  But when ‘Go!’ never came, she turned around and there was no Althea. Instead, Dr. Sputz was standing several feet away, arms folded, with two gorilla-type guards by his side.

“You’re not leaving so soon, are you, my dear?” Dr. Sputz demanded.

Diana bolted for the door, but the guards’ cretinous looks belied their swiftness. They lunged forward and grabbed her arms, then dragged her down the hall with Dr. Sputz following, his cackle echoing behind him.

They took the elevator back to the third floor, then Diana was shoved into a bright yellow room with a cot in the middle and all sorts electrical gadgets surrounding it. She looked around fearfully.

“Let me go,” she pleaded.

“My dear, no one leaves here until they are cured. And to be cured, we must get rid of the pain.”

“The pain’s gone, I swear. It’s gone,” Diana insisted.

“Liar!” Dr. Sputz shouted. “You haven’t had the treatment yet, you’re still in terrible pain! But if you’ll behave yourself, the cure will be much easier.” Dr. Sputz nodded for the two gorillas to strap Diana down to the cot. She had little strength to resist.

“OK, we will now begin the tests,” Dr. Sputz said with forced calm. He pulled some papers from a folder and the two gorillas attached several wires to Diana’s head and arms. “What’s this?” he asked, flashing an ink blot at her.

“A train.” Diana said.

“Wrong!” he yelled.

Diana screamed as the electric shocks raced through her body.

“Aha!” Dr. Sputz exclaimed. “I see I was right! You are still in pain. No, I ask you again, what is this?”

“A cow?” she guessed.

“No, no, no!” he roared, once again motioning for the electric current to sear the nerves of her body. “Again!” he demanded. “What is this?”

“I don’t know,” Diana whispered.

“Fine, fine, that’s right,” he said, patting her on the head. “Now I will give you sixty seconds to put this puzzle together.”

“But I can’t move my hands,” Diana protested.

“No excuses!” he yelled, stamping his foot. He grabbed a stopwatch. “Start now!”

Diana frantically tried to move her hands, but she was tied too tightly. “Can’t you at least loosen the straps?” she pleaded.

“Thirty seconds!” Dr. Sputz whooped, running back and forth across the room. Diana struggled against the straps even harder. Dr. Sputz jumped up and down, looking at the stopwatch. “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two…” He glared at Diana. “Nothing! You weren’t even able to put two pieces together! We’ll have to intensify.” He nodded and now double the voltage wracked her body. Diana screamed again, then sobbed.

“Oh, don’t be such a wimp!” Dr. Sputz ordered. “We’ve got to give you some backbone – that’s the only way you’ll learn to withstand the pain of the world. Now how many fingers do I have up?” he demanded, holding up one finger.

“One,” Diana said.

“Imbecile!” he shrieked.

ZAP went the charge through Diana’s body. She felt that she was going out of her mind from the pain.

“Try again!” he shouted.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” she moaned, hoping this was once again the right answer.

ZAP! ZAP! The jolts tore through her body which was now twitching uncontrollably.

“A person has ten fingers, count them – ten!” Dr. Sputz yelled, waving his hands in front of her face.

“But you only had one up, you asked how many fingers you had up!” she said through her tears.

“Up, down, it’s all relative. But always, one has ten fingers. This is very basic, my dear. If you can’t even remember the basics, how do you expect us to help you?”

“Let me go, please,” Diana implored.

“You’re not cooperating,” Dr. Sputz warned.

“At least let them know I’m here,” she sobbed.

“The outside world is the source of your pain, don’t you see? It’s forbidden for you to have any outside contact until you’re completely cured.”

“You’re the one causing the pain!” Diana shouted.

Dr. Sputz turned scarlet. “How dare you!” he sputtered. “I’m a doctor, I cure pain.”

“I’m fine!” Diana yelled. “You’re the one who’s all screwed up. I came here with a physical problem, not psychic pain! It was a mistake! I drove here by mistake! My GPS stopped working because I needed to charge my phone and I forgot my charger. But I didn’t mean to come here, it was a mistake! And you’ve kept me here against my will, drugged me, abused me…”

Dr. Sputz jumped up and down in a frenzy. “We don’t make mistakes! Everything we do is for a reason. And there are no mistakes in life. You meant to come here. How can you deny your psychic torment? You drove here purposely whether you realize it or not!”

“I’m going to sue you!” Diana screamed. “My husband is a lawyer! I’m going to sue you and your nurses, your patients, your cots, your goddamn machines…”

“She’s hysterical! She’s out of control! Get her ready for surgery immediately!” Dr. Sputz cried as he dashed out of the room.

Diana struggled to free herself, but it was no use. A few moments later, Dr. Sputz raced back into the room, pulling Nurse Parakeet along with him. Nurse Parakeet looked at Diana pityingly.

“My dear, I thought you understood,” Nurse Parakeet sighed. “If only you had cooperated. We haven’t any options left.”

“What are you going to do?” Diana demanded, as her mind filled with dread.

“We’re going to cure you, of course,” Nurse Parakeet said.

“But I’m fine!” Diana cried.

But instead of responding, Nurse Parakeet plunged another monstrous hypodermic needle into Diana’s arm. The last thing Diana saw were the drab green walls spinning by as she was wheeled down the hall.

The six o’clock news was winding down. A pale, mousy woman stared uncomprehendingly at the TV screen. She was wearing a tattered blue bathrobe and had a scarf tied around her head which didn’t quite hide the multitude of jagged stitches that started at her forehead. Nurse Parakeet fluttered over.

“Come, dear, don’t you think it’s time you went back to your room? You really do need your rest.”

The mousy woman didn’t seem to hear Nurse Parakeet. She just stared at the TV. Althea charged over wearing old, stained yellow bedclothes. She ignored Nurse Parakeet and the mousy woman, and stared at the TV. The commentator was wrapping up the newscast.

“And once again, we ask you if you have seen this woman, please call the police immediately.” A picture flashed on the screen and the mousy woman reacted for an imperceptible moment, then sank back into her stupor. The commentator continued. “The woman’s name is Diana Johnston, she’s thirty-two years old, five foot six and approximately one hundred twenty pounds. She’s been missing for almost two weeks now and the police still haven’t got any leads. The only clue is that she left her husband a voicemail that she was on her way to the hospital – but she never arrived.” The commentator paused, whipped off his glasses, and looked gravely into the camera. “If you’ve seen anything that you feel might help, call the police at the number you see on your screen. Her husband, attorney Samuel Johnston, is offering a reward for any information that helps solve this case. Well, that’s the news for tonight…”

Althea glanced curiously at Nurse Parakeet and the mousy woman at her side, then back at the TV. “It seems to me. I used to know…”

Nurse Parakeet gave Althea a sharp look. “Used to know what, Althea?” she asked in a razor-sharp voice.

“Someone.”

“Well, we all used to know someone, now, didn’t we, Althea?”

“I supposed,” Althea agreed.

“Was this someone anyone in particular?” Nurse Parakeet asked casually.

Althea looked again at the TV screen, then at the mousy woman. “I never knew no one in particular,” Althea declared as she shuffled out to the hall.

Nurse Parakeet watched Althea, then turned to the mousy woman. “Come, dear, let’s go back to your room now, like a good girl. We’ll work on learning your number. Now, say it after me. One, one, seven…”

Nurse Parakeet put her hand on the woman’s shoulder and slowly walked with her down the hall. The woman remained silent, allowing Nurse Parakeet to guide her.

“You seem so much better, dear. No more pain. We can cure anyone here, you know.”



BIO

Nancy Machlis Rechtman has had poetry and short stories published in Literary Yard, Paper Dragon, Page & Spine, The Thieving Magpie, Quail Bell, Anti-Heroin Chic, Blue Lake Review, Goat’s Milk, and more. She wrote freelance Lifestyle stories for a local newspaper, and she was the copy editor for another local paper. She currently writes a blog called Inanities

at https://nancywriteon.wordpress.com




THE SECRET AGENT

By Robert Collings



There is a celebrated short story called “The Rocking Horse Winner” by D. H. Lawrence.  The story is so revered by scholars that you will find it on the required reading list for every English literature course in the English speaking world, and there are more translations than you can count.  It tells the tale of a disturbed kid who enters a fantasy world and rides his rocking horse so he can pick the winner of real-life races and bring money into his dysfunctional household.  The kid dies in the end after a particularly harrowing ride, and I could never figure out if he ended up picking another winner in that last ride, or whether the horses and the money didn’t really exist at all and were just symbols for something else.  “All great literature has a speculative element,” my English professor would tell us.  “Just like the boy in the story, that’s how you pick a winner.”

I’ve often wondered over the years about the speculative elements in our own lives.  For all of our bluster and our yearning, I wonder if we’re all riding some rocking horse that’s taking us nowhere.

Years ago, my wife and I lived in a condominium complex that had a large underground parking lot.  We had been assigned two stalls in the lot, and to reach the stalls from the entrance we had to drive down a long corridor to the very back of the building, and then take a hard left and go all the way to the corner where the two stalls were located.  This parking lot spanned the entire base of the building, and it had a hundred identical concrete pillars arranged in long rows in order to organize the parking spaces and keep everything propped up.  I have always had a vivid imagination, and I’m a fatalist by nature, and I’d often wondered what the devastation might look like if one of those pillars ever gave way and every unit in the complex came squashing down on my head.  I had made the daily journey through this sprawling concrete bunker for a good three years without a scratch, and that was surely a good sign.

I was on my way to work one morning and I was still in the underground.  Just after I made the turn to head down the long driveway towards the gate, I noticed a figure out of the corner of my eye behind one of the cement pillars to my right.  It looked like someone was hiding behind the pillar, deliberately trying to remain unseen.  I pretended not to notice, but after I had passed the pillar I looked in my rear view mirror and saw a young boy run from behind that pillar to the pillar on the opposite side of the driveway, and then hide again, as if he was being chased and was trying to stay hidden.  I didn’t get a close look at his face, but by his stature and his cat-quick movements I guessed he was in his early teens.  I had to stop my car until the big gate lifted up, and when I looked back in my rear view mirror I was unable to see anything.  No one seemed to be hiding anywhere, and the parking lot was empty.  I thought this was curious but I didn’t dwell upon it, and I had forgotten all about the shadowy figure by the time I got home that evening.

A few days passed without incident.  Then, on another morning when I was backing out of my parking stall, I noticed the same ghostly apparition at the far end of the lot.  I stopped the car and squeezed closer towards the window to get a better look.  The mysterious shadow was much further away than it had been before, but it had to be the same kid.  This time, he was ducking behind one pillar, hiding for a few seconds, then dashing to the next pillar, hiding there for a few seconds, then jumping over to the next pillar, hiding, and repeating the sequence until he reached the main driveway.  He had moved out of sight, but when I rounded the turn at the far side and headed towards the exit gate, I saw him suddenly dash out from the pillar beside me and run behind the car to the other side of the driveway.  He had been so close that he almost brushed against the bumper.  In a flash, he reached the next pillar and ducked behind it, like some stealth fugitive on the run.  When I stopped for the gate I was close enough to him to see the tips of his sneakers sticking out from behind the narrow end of the pillar.

I cracked open my door and twisted my head back and shouted out, “Hey there!  Hey!  You there! What the hell are you doing there?”

I saw him pull his feet back, but there was no other movement.  My voice echoed through all the concrete, followed by eerie silence.  The metal gate creaked open, and I headed out. 

The building had not come crashing down on my head, but I still thought about the incident in the parking lot all day.  Perhaps this shadow-kid was a homeless person in need of food and shelter.  Or a harmless demented kid from some institution who got lost and didn’t know where he was.  I worried that I had not said the right thing to him as he hid behind the pillar.  He had to know that I had seen him, so he must have been waiting for my reaction.  I kept going over the words that I had used, and comparing those words to the words that a more sensible, mature person might have used to fit the situation.  I worried that I shouldn’t have used a crude word like “hell”, which made me sound like our gruff building manager.  I was not a gruff person.  And I had repeated the word “there”, which made me sound like a frightened person grasping for words, and I was not that, either.  Perhaps I should have said, “Hello, can I help you?”  Or, “Son, do you need a lift?”  I was ashamed of myself for not using more appropriate language to draw the mysterious kid out into the open and prove to him that I was not intimidated by strange figures in concrete parking lots.   

I drove back through the parking lot that night with the eyes of a hawk, but I saw nothing.

“Do you know there’s someone down in the underground, sneaking around like a thief?” I asked my wife when I got home.

“Oh yeah, I see him all the time,” she replied

This surprised me.  “You see him all the time?  Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I dunno, he seems harmless enough.”

“Harmless like a thief.”

My wife laughed.  “You worry too much about everything.  No wonder your mother called you a worrywart.”

“That’s because there’s lots to worry about,” I said, only half-joking.  “Haven’t I told you this before?”

“I know teenage boys because I teach them,” she said.  “They’re all a little whacko.”

This may have been the sort of simple explanation we all look for, but there was something about the mysterious shadow-kid that I found unsettling.  I had been appointed to the condominium council the year before, and I’d been assigned the job of keeping an eye on the building to help keep things in order and see if anyone was violating the by-laws.  My title was “Bylaw Officer” if anyone asked.  I thought this was a good excuse to speak to Joe the building manager and bring up the general topic of shadowy stick-figures loitering in the underground at all hours of the day and night.

“It’s not all night,” Joe muttered.  He was fixing something in the boiler room because the fixit guy hadn’t shown up, and he didn’t want to be bothered.  “Just all day.  His name is Gray.  He thinks he’s a secret agent.”

I’m rarely at a loss for words, but this stopped me cold.  “He’s what?  What are you talking about?”

“His mother says he never sleeps.  He reads all night, and by day he’s a secret agent.  So far, he hasn’t stolen anything or killed anyone, as far as I know.”

“What, you talk to his mother?”

“I asked her about him, sure.”

“So what did she tell you?”

“She’s crazy, too.  They live up in 308.”

“Besides telling you she was crazy, did she tell you anything about her son?”

Joe kept working.  “She didn’t go so far as to call him a nut case, if that’s what you mean.”

“What does he do?  Doesn’t he go to school?”

“Kids do whatever they want these days.  He goes to school, he doesn’t go to school.  Who the hell knows?”

I was losing patience with Joe’s indifference, but I stayed calm.  “Joe, I just want to know what that kid is doing in the underground.”

Joe smiled, but kept working.  “You just called me ‘Joe’ so you must be pissed about something.”

This was true, and I was irritated that Joe had read my thoughts.  “For God’s sake, all I want to know – “

“You’re in charge of the bylaws, aren’t  you?” Joe interrupted, still smiling.  “He thinks he’s a secret agent.  There’s trouble ahead if you don’t do something.  We have a bylaw against loitering, so do your job.  His mother didn’t call him a nut case, but I will.  Gray Whipple.  Ever notice how all these nut cases always have funny last names?  Whipple, Gripple, Schmipple…it’s a strange world. ”

I thought about the strange world we live in.  “There’s a bylaw against loitering,” I mused.  “But I don’t know if it applies to someone who lives in the building.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Joe said.  “One little spark can cause a fire that burns the building down.  Then the whole city follows after that, and then who knows?  You gotta nip these things in the bud.”

I couldn’t help following Joe’s reasoning to its logical conclusion, and I did not relish the thought of being the condominium bylaw officer responsible for putting an end to civilization as we know it.

Joe seemed pleased that I was not arguing with him.  He nodded towards his toolbox and said politely, “My last name is Smith and I’m happy with it.  Can you hand me that goddammed wrench?”

Unit 308 was directly above the boiler room.  I’m not sure what compulsion drove me upstairs because no one had ever complained about the secret agent kid, and I certainly didn’t want to be accused of letting the power of my office go to my head.  Still, my curiosity pulled me into the elevator and a few seconds later I was at the door of unit 308.  Maybe Joe had a point.  There might be big trouble ahead if I didn’t put an immediate stop to this nonsense, and I’d even been warned in advance by no less an authority than the building manager.  I gave a few gentle knocks and listened for the sounds of movement inside.  I heard very faint footsteps, followed by the click of a bolt lock.  Then the door opened just enough for a nose and mouth to poke through.

“Yes?” came a wary female voice from the narrow crack in the door.

I tried to sound as cheerful as I could.  “I live in the building, ma’am.  I’m on council, and I’m in charge of the bylaws.”

“Oh, dear,” said the voice, and the door opened up to reveal a pale, tiny woman in a housecoat.  She wore no make-up and her hair was tightly pulled back in a bun, with long, wiry strands shooting out everywhere as if the static around her head was overwhelming.   

“Ma’am, there’s nothing to be worried about,” I assured her.  “Don’t be concerned.  Are you Mrs. Whipple?”

She nodded warily.  “Yes…”

“Do you and, um, Mr. Whipple live here with your son?”

“Mr. Whipple does not live at this address.  His address is now in Heaven with the angels.”

This startled me, and I was not sure how to respond.  I collected myself and said, “Is it just you then, and your son?”

“Is this about Gray?” she whispered.  “Oh dear, oh no – ”

I again tried to reassure her.  “I told you not to worry.  I don’t want you to be upset.  I just want to speak with your son.”

“He’s not here.”

“Do you know where he is?”

“He’d down in the parkade playing his game.”

“What game is that?”

“The secret agent game.  He’s hiding from his enemies.”

“Ma’am, can you tell your son that he shouldn’t be loitering about?”

“Oh, I tell him, I tell him,” she assured me.

“His behavior is an infraction of the bylaws, and he’s frightening some of the tenants,” I lied.

“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…” she kept repeating.  

Before I could say anything more, tears began to spill out of this tiny woman’s eyes and roll down her cheeks.  “Oh dear…I’m so sorry.  I don’t want any trouble.”

I now felt guilty for making her cry.  “Mrs. Whipple, please – “

“He was always a strange boy,” she interrupted through her tears.  “When he was little he would always tell me that he was standing outside of himself and looking at his own thoughts.  He said his thoughts told him to put his pajama top on backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, over and over and over again before he’d go to bed.  Oh, it worried my husband so, and it all gave him a heart attack and sent him to Heaven with the angels.  I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I don’t want us to have to move.  Please, please, please…”

She broke down sobbing and I knew the conversation was at an end.

“Don’t worry,” I assured her.  “Ma’am, I’m sorry, too, for bothering you.  Nothing’s going to happen, I promise.”

There is no trick to getting the upper hand on a secret agent if you’re the only one with the keys to the secret doors.  I took the elevator back down to the basement and unlocked the door to the surveillance room, and within seconds of stepping inside I spotted Gray Whipple’s blurry image on one of the screens that showed the far wall of the parkade.  I then went outside, hustled around the south side of the building, and quietly entered the parkade through the emergency door.  Access to this door from the walkway also required a key that no secret agent could ever possess.  My stealth maneuvers brought me immediately into the west end of the underground, where I was now only a few feet away from the elusive shadow-figure.  He had his back to me and he was crouching behind the pillar next to the wall so no one from the adjacent driveway could see him.  He was startled when I slammed the door and he immediately snapped his head around and sprang to his feet.  He made a rather half-hearted attempt to run past me to the next pillar, but I stepped deftly in front of him and blocked his path.  I was now face to face with the mysterious secret agent and I looked squarely into his eyes for the first time.

Secret agents may look handsome in the movies, but all I saw in front of me was an emaciated, sallow-faced schoolboy with sad eyes and a quirky, half-open mouth that gave him a frozen look of bewilderment.  He had a pile of bed-hair slanting off in one direction that needed a good plastering down.  But it was the expression in his eyes that almost knocked me over, and I was immediately reminded of someone I knew as a child and who I hadn’t thought about in years. 

There was a park near where we lived, and in the summer there was this guy at the park who sold ice-cream to the kids.  This guy was severely handicapped, and I remember how he was strapped into the seat of his little refrigerator cart with a big leather belt.  He would drool and you couldn’t understand what he was saying, and the only part of his body that he could move were his fingertips.  He would furiously tap-tap-tap his fingertips on the side of his cart, but no one ever understood what he meant, and no one paid any attention to him anyway.  We would drop our money into his cup and take our ice-cream, and the poor guy was never cheated out of anything as far as I knew.  I remember how my friend had never been to the park before, and how he reacted when he saw the ice-cream man for the first time.  I remember the look in my friend’s eyes as he stared down upon the drooling man, paralyzed into silence, and tap-tap-tapping a message that no one ever heard.

The uncomprehending sadness that I saw in my friend’s eyes all those years ago was the same look that I now saw in Gray Whipple’s eyes, as if he had suddenly come upon me all strapped down and bent at the spine.

“Goodness,” I smiled.  “Does the look of me shock you that much?”

“Nope,” he said.  “I see you down here.  You don’t see me, but I see you.”

Despite the nervous look in his eyes, I was surprised at how self-assured his voice was and how calmly his words were spoken.

“Ah, but you’re wrong there,” I smiled.  “I do see you and that’s why I’m here.”

He did not respond, and I suspected he was waiting for me to give up and wander away.

“I had a little chat with your mother just now, and she told me a bit about you.”

“My parents gave up on me a long time ago.  I love my mother, she doesn’t bother me.”

I kept my voice even and just quiet enough for him to hear.  “Are you a real secret agent?” I asked.

“Maybe,” he replied, calmly.

“I used to have a little secret of my own, and you might be interested.”

I thought this might change the look in his eyes, but he didn’t waver and he didn’t answer.

I said, “When I was a kid, younger than you, I had this bizarre fear that I’d get run over by a car, or hit by lightening, or whatever.  Ever had that fear?”

The boy didn’t miss a beat.  “It’s not a fear,” he said calmly.  “I look forward to it.”

I was not going to be deterred by such an obnoxious remark.  I continued, “One night I put my pajama top on backwards by mistake, and I didn’t die the next day.  To me, this was a sign of good luck.  So every night I put the top on backwards before I put it on the right way.  Then I got to thinking, well, ten signs of good luck were better than one, so I started to put the top on backwards ten times, so I would have ten times the protection from certain death the next day.  It all made sense to me at the time.”

I waited for Gray Whipple to display some sense of neurotic kinship over this disclosure, but he seemed oddly unmoved.

I smiled, and then added, “Funny thing is, it seemed to work.  I grew out of it.”

“Your parents should have had you locked up,” he said, impassive and unsmiling.  “My mother tells everyone that story.  She thinks somebody out there will give her the answer she wants.”

“I just gave you the answer, didn’t I?”

He looked away momentarily, then turned to me again.  I knew there was little chance of any bonding with this kid.  He said, “If you’re happy with yourself, that’s up to you.”

“I asked you if you were a real secret agent.  Are you?”

“I like being a secret agent.”

“Do you like hiding from your enemies?”

 “I hide from them, and then I get them in the end.”

“Am I your enemy?”

“Probably.”

“Do you have lots of enemies?”

“My share.”

“But no friends, I take it?”

“You don’t have any friends either. Don’t try to fool me, and don’t think you’re better than me. I know what you’re thinking.”

“You read my thoughts, do you?”

“I’m an observer of my own thoughts.  Your thoughts are your own business, but yes, I can read them.”

“How do you observe your own thoughts?  Is there another person inside of you?”

“Maybe I come down here to find out.”

“Have you found the other person yet?”

He considered this.  “People think they can hide their thoughts,” he finally said.  “They think their own thoughts are their sacred property.  But the truth is, their thoughts are just as public as any walk through the park.”

“Can you read my thoughts?”

“You’d be surprised.”

“Would you be surprised to learn that I have plenty of friends, and you’re wrong?”

“You have social acquaintances, and that’s all you have.”

“You know this, do you?”

“When you read the obituaries every day, do you weep for every name you see?”

“I weep for my friends, I don’t weep for strangers.  You’re spouting a trite philosophy, and it’s not even a proper comparison.”

“Well, I don’t think so.”

I was determined to make my point.  “We all die,” I continued.  “But if we’ve formed a bond in life with another person, call it love, call it friendship, call it whatever you want, then their death hits us harder than the death of a stranger.  It’s a perfectly normal way to think, so don’t pat yourself on the back for being so clever.”

The secret agent was unimpressed.  He said, “Just ask yourself, what’s gonna upset your so-called friends the most, your death or the loss of their property?”

“I hear you read all night and don’t sleep.”

“Yeah, sometimes.”

“Well, I read too, and I can tell you that you’ve just mangled a quote from Machiavelli.  The proper quote deals with the loss of your father and the loss of your inheritance, and which one drives you to despair.”

“Same difference.”

I shook my head.  “No, it is not the same.  Everyone loses their parents, but not everyone loses their inheritance, so don’t go around making up trite comparisons to impress your friends.”

“You’re not my friend, and l don’t have any friends if that makes you feel any better.”

It occurred to me in that moment that I’d been drawn into an annoying conversation by a kid I had known for all of five minutes.  I’d had enough, and it was time for the lecture.  “My feelings don’t matter here,” I said firmly.  “I’m a resident of the building, I’ve been elected to Council, and I’ve been appointed to enforce the bylaws.  I didn’t come down here to engage in idle philosophies with a boy who lives in a fantasy world.  You’re loitering down here.  I’m here to tell you to stop it.  Will you stop it, or do I go back upstairs to your mother?” 

“I told you, my parents gave up on me years ago.”

“Your parents didn’t give up on you,” I shot back.  I leaned closer to him to make sure he couldn’t slip away.  “They were unable to handle you.  Everyone gets to the point where they can’t handle something, and instead of running from it, which some people can’t do, they just leave it alone.  They leave it alone in order to preserve their own sanity, and if your mother has left you alone then she has a dammed good reason for it.”

The kid seemed intrigued by this reference to his mother, and he didn’t move.  I said, “Now I’m done with this discussion and I’m done with you, except for one thing…”  I was now carefully slicing each word off my tongue.  “One tiny, last little challenge.  You say you can read my thoughts.  You say my thoughts are as public as a walk in the park.  Okay, then I challenge you to read those thoughts.  I’m going to think of something and I defy you to guess what it is.  I have a picture in my mind.  I absolutely point-blank defy you to guess what that picture is.  And when you make the wrong guess, as you most certainly will, I’m going to tell you again to take your secret agent act out of the parking lot and go observe your own thoughts somewhere else and quit making your mother cry herself to sleep.  Do you understand me?  I’m thinking of something.  I have a picture.  Tell me what I’m thinking.”

The boy looked at me as a hunting dog might look at a squirrel.

“You have a picture in your mind of three oranges on a red tablecloth,” he said.

We stared at each other for the longest time and Gray Whipple never changed expression.  He still had the same look of sadness in his eyes that had struck me from the moment we began our strange discourse.  Even now, when he knew that he had been correct and had guessed exactly what I had been thinking, his expression gave up no hint of satisfaction.  If anything, his sad eyes seemed more deeply set into his skull and they looked sadder than ever before.

“That kid’s a mind reader,” I told my wife later that evening.  “For the life of me, I don’t know how the hell he did it.”

“Did you tell him not to loiter in the parkade?”

“I’m not sure what I told him.”

“I keep telling you, you need a holiday.”

I had assumed that Gray Whipple would be back playing his secret agent game the next day.  But I didn’t notice him in the underground after that, although he may have been more careful to hide behind the pillars and only dash out when I wasn’t around.  My wife hadn’t noticed him either, but I knew that all the remonstrations in the world from the bylaw officer could never intimidate this kid, or deter him from whatever secret mission his private demons had forced him to undertake.  Still, I didn’t see any more of him and I decided to leave well enough alone, which was a bit of a minor victory as far as I was concerned.

About a month after our little chat in the underground, I was driving by the high school and I spotted Gray Whipple on the sidewalk.  There was a group of kids marching ahead of him who were all involved in some sort of animated, frenzied discussion.  There was about ten of them pressed together in a tight pack.  They were flailing their arms and laughing and shouting furiously over each other as they hurried along, spilling onto the roadway, oblivious to traffic and anything else that was not a part of their exclusive little world.  Gray was not a part of their world either, but he was following close enough behind to give an onlooker the impression that he was a buddy trying to catch up.  A stranger would assume that he, too, would soon become one of the laughing kids without ever suspecting that he never intended to take those last few steps.  He was wearing a black hoodie-type jacket and he had the hood pulled tight over his head as if he did not want anyone to recognize him.  I slowed my car and I watched him walk along, hunched over with his hands in his pockets and his head down, staring blankly at the sidewalk, always keeping a few deliberate steps back from the raucous mob in front of him.  A part of me wanted to call out to him and ask him to read my thoughts, but I thought the better of it and kept driving.

Not long after that, I ran into Joe the building manager.

“You hear about that kid?” he said casually.

“You mean Gray Whipple?”

“Yeah, the secret agent kid.  Police came around here, told me the kid made his way over to Highway 17 and then walked right into traffic.  Tragic thing.”

At that moment, I had a vision of poor Mrs. Whipple in her hallway and all that static hair.  “Is his mother okay?”

“She doesn’t come out,” Joe said.  “Nothing much she can do.”

When I told my wife the news, she was saddened but not surprised.  There was a pause as we thought about the most appropriate thing we should say to each other.  Then she said, “He wouldn’t have had a happy moment, ever.”

“You’re a D.H. Lawrence scholar, aren’t you?”

She seemed baffled by my question.  “Well, give me your quote and we’ll see.”

“Do you think it’s best to go out of a life where you have to ride a rocking horse to find a winner?”

“You could get a PhD in Lawrence and you still wouldn’t know what it all means.  The highbrows say they know, but they’re full of it.  It’s cynical, and that’s all they know.”

I thought about this.  I said, “We don’t really know if both kids ever found what they were looking for, the kid on the horse and the kid in the parkade.”

“Maybe they did find what they were looking for, and they couldn’t deal with it.”

I thought abut this, too.  “You know how Paul and Peggy fuss about that cat of theirs?”

“That cat has nothing to do with D.H. Lawrence, and you desperately need a holiday.”

“Humor me.  I’m talking about our best friends who we’ve known for over thirty years.”

My wife nodded.  “Yes, yes, they’re our best friends.”

“You talk about the highbrows being cynical, but how cynical are you?”

“When you stop speaking in riddles I might answer you.”

I hesitated, and then popped the question.  “When you die on the same day as their beloved pet, who garners the most grief – you or the cat?”

My wife was never slow to miss the point, and she did not hesitate.  “The cat, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

I lay awake that night thinking about Gray Whipple.  I don’t believe he ever did find what he was looking for before he decided to step out into traffic and put an end to his own thoughts.  If he was indeed capable of observing those thoughts, all he would ever find was more sadness – exactly like the kid on the rocking horse.

We are all born into sadness, burdened by challenges known only to God, and tied together by secrets so deep that even a secret agent can’t find them.



BIO

Robert Collings is a retired lawyer living and writing in Pitt Meadows, B.C. The Secret Agent is Robert’s second appearance in Writing Disorder.  The Tears of the Gardener is archived in the Spring 2021 edition.  Robert has also published online in Euonia Review (eunoiareview.wordpress.com), Scars Publications (scars.tv), and Mobius magazine (mobiusmagazine.com).  His stories appear in print in cc&d magazine and Conceit magazine, and all are found in Robert’s collection called Life in the First Person

Robert has not won many awards in his lifetime, although he’s proud of a “Participation Certificate” he received for coming dead last in the 50-yard dash in the third grade. 







Vanishing Pop-Tarts

By Crystal McQueen



If you just ignore the hunger pangs, you can return to your dream. Your body feels sluggish as your brain tumbles out of sleep. You mentally argue with yourself. If you just ignore the cramping, it will go away. Your body takes no stock in such arguments and images of cinnamon rolls and tripled stacked pancakes and double-sized blueberry muffins roll through your mind. You flip onto your stomach with the hope that the pressure will suppress the gnawing pangs, but daylight creeps behind your eyelids, drawing you further out of sleep. But you don’t want to wake up. Not yet. You still feel so heavy, so sleepy.

Then, Pop-Tarts. Fresh from the toaster. The strawberry kind with icing, melted butter sliding off a browned edge. Your stomach turns, and you almost groan aloud. Last time, you slept too late, and all of the Pop-Tarts were gone by the time you made your bleary-eyed way out of bed.

You begged and pleaded with your mother to buy more on her next grocery run, but she insisted they were too expensive for breakfast and were gone in a day. A box of Lucky Charms cost less than one box of Pop-Tarts and would last three times as long. But what is money to you? You, whose life savings consists of $18.28, ten of which you found in the gutter as you walked home from the bus stop. So, you whined and complained that it wasn’t fair your sisters got some when you didn’t. It took most of the morning, but you convinced your mother to buy Pop-Tarts one last time.

So, you waited. You reminded. And you relished the moment your mother would come home from the grocery store. Two weeks of food for seven people filled her battered Cadillac to the brim and didn’t always last until the next grocery run. Four gallons of milk, half a dozen boxes of cereal, egg noodles, and mac & cheese pulled at the thin plastic as you heaved as many parcels as you can carry onto your bony arms, the handles digging sharply into your tender flesh. Your eyes roamed each sack, seizing your precious Pop-Tarts the moment you found them. But your mother forced you to wait until morning.

Now, the light insists you are wiling the daylight hours away. Still, you refuse, your bottom lip sticking out petulantly against your warm pillow. Reluctantly, you push yourself up, eyes resolutely closed, and feel your way down the metal ladder of your bunkbed. If you wanted the good stuff, you have to be quick. You can’t waste time sleeping when the sun is up.

You hold out a sluggish hand in front of you as toys bite at the soles of your bare feet like gnats. You stumble as you make your way to the door, the pale light highlighting the veins in your eyelids as you pass into the hallway.

Your hands trace the corduroy wallpaper on either side of you, some of the pastel strings loosening from the paper due to this very practice. But you like the way the texture massages your fingertips. Your mom says the hall is too narrow to carry anything straight, but you love it, the walls hugging you.

It’s darker in the hall, colder. The air conditioning raises gooseflesh on your bare limbs where your worn-out Beastie Boys t-shirt doesn’t cover. Its soft fabric is coming apart at the arm pits and fraying about your knees, but you love it anyway. Where it came from, you do not know. It’s yours now.

Slowly, you lay your head against the wall as you walk, your hair emitting a soft shush, your bare feet soundless vessels across the maroon carpet. The house is quiet. So quiet, you believe you must be the only one awake.

But, a creak of the recliner stirs in your ears, and you freeze. Your eyes fly open, a sliver of moon through the skylight exposes your folly, and your heart pounds. You wait.

The hum of the air conditioner vibrates through the silence. You hold your breath. Your skin tingles. You pray you misheard.

There was no sound, you try to convince yourself.

The recliner footrest slams into place, and a cough like ground up gravel echoes through the hall.

Your body trembles.

This is a mistake. A terrible mistake. You thought it was morning, but he won’t care. You’re out of bed. That’s all that matters. You want to run back to your room before he catches you, but it is as though the carpet has a hold on your feet.

You’ll say you were sleep walking. Or maybe you’ll say you had to pee. But, why hope? He won’t listen to your excuses.

The scent of whiskey precedes his heavy footfalls.

You close your eyes, regressing to that childish belief that if you don’t see him, he can’t see you. You swallow a whimper as he takes the corner too wide and thumps into the wall. You cling to your nightshirt, the fabric a crumpled mess in your sweaty hands.

You wait for him to jerk you out of the shadows. You can feel the ache in your shoulder as though it has already happened. His hand clenched on the back of your neck. The bone-rattling shake. You promise yourself you won’t cry this time. But you know will.

You want your mother, but even if she were here, it wouldn’t prevent the beating. But it would be less.

Please let it be less.

You hear the flip of a light switch, and you flinch, your eyes clenching tighter as blood pumps through your racing heart.

The bathroom door slams, and your eyes fly open. You stare in disbelief at that beam of light under the door. Your mind races, celebrating, screaming in relief.

He didn’t see you. He didn’t see you.

You hear his pee hits the toilet water and on the floor tile where he misses. You back away from the light, your fists still clenched in your shirt.

You don’t look away from that gleam until you slip into your room.

You are careful to avoid toys on the floor, the streetlight – your false sun – illuminating teddy bears, and building blocks, and half-filled notebooks that litter your floor. Any other time, finding a spot of carpet to step on would be a great game. Any time but now. You have to get back in bed before he finishes in the bathroom. Before he checks on you.

Your two younger sisters sleep peacefully in the bottom bunk, curled together like tiny dolls, blissfully unaware, and you envy them.

You step on the first rung and ease your body up, your mind screaming at you to both go faster and not to let the bed creak.

Again, you hear him cough, and you race up the last steps, flopping on your mattress. The bed, like the streetlamp, betrays you, jiggling long after his coughing fit stops.

You hold your breath, not daring to move. You wish you could climb under the covers, but you can’t move. Your muscles ache, your stomach twisted in knots as your breath comes in shallow spurts.

You wait. You wait and you hope, holding your little body as still as you possibly can.

Footsteps in the hall. Are they coming toward you or back to the living room? You can’t tell. He coughs again, a hacking cough, a cough you’d know anywhere. Closer than before. You wish you can turn away from the door. You try to relax your face, but spiders with their icy legs crawl across your skin.

Your chest hurts. It screams for air, but still, you don’t breathe.

You just want it to be over.

Let it be over.

And, then it is.

A familiar metal clanks from the recliner footrest, and your whole body relaxes. Your breath comes in and out in haggard gasps.

Still, you do not crawl under the covers. Still, you wait as your heartbeat struggles to right itself. Only when you hear the resounding snores do you allow yourself to draw your knees to your chest as one hand flings your wolf blanket over you and the other draws the pillow more evenly under your head. You promise yourself you won’t open your eyes again until morning.

Sleep eludes you. So, you sink into daydreams. Dreams where you slay dragons. Dreams where you are brave. In your dreams, you’re never afraid. You’re never a coward.

You lose yourself in these fantasies because anywhere is better than here.



BIO

Crystal McQueen lives in the suburbs of Northern Kentucky with her husband and two children. She attends classes at EKU’s Blue Grass Writer’s Studio, pursuing a MFA in Creative Writing. She finds inspiration for her writing through her passion for adventure – whether it be backpacking through nature, exploring the secrets of the city, or traveling to far off lands. For more information, please visit crystalmcqueen.com





SOMETHING, SOMEWHERE ELSE

by Margaret E. Helms



Eleanor Trask clung to the notion that one day she would become somebody. Now, somebody was standing in the frozen foods aisle of Lucky’s Supermarket wearing an army green coat with a hood of matted fur. She recognized me before I did her. 

“Goodness gracious me, is that you Terry?” Eleanor aggressively shook my shoulders and drew me into a nonconsensual hug. “You’ve developed such a pretty face.”

“It’s been so long,” I began, “and thank you?” 

The only things in her cart were bananas and cough syrup. Eleanor had dyed her hair the color of lukewarm beer in a red solo cup. It was still cut short, like it had been our whole childhood, but it had turned brittle and stringy. By the brand-name rainboots and her designer purse, I could tell she had gotten a sliver of the life she had wanted. Eleanor had modified herself. Her breast implants looked like two hot air balloons, but she had dark circles the size of golf balls under her eye sockets. Not even Botox could save Eleanor from Lucky’s LED lights. In her hands was a bag of frozen carrots. 

We talked about her husband, Bill, and how they were coming up on their fourteenth anniversary. There was much to brag about, like Billy Jr. being almost five feet tall. 

“Where’s Charlie at these days? Is he doing well?” 

My questions must have overwhelmed her because she squinted at her bag of frozen carrots and bit her bottom lip morosely. “Charlie?” Eleanor hesitated.

Charlie was her older brother.

“God only knows where Charlie is. Last I heard, he was in Atlanta. Did you know Atlanta is the next Hollywood?” Eleanor began to beat the bag of carrots against her shopping cart. “You know, a production company wanted me to audition for a tooth whitening commercial, be the after in a before-and-after, but I just told them I was way too overcommitted.” She continued to smack the frozen carrots against her cart. An older woman at the end of the aisle looked at us with a concerned expression. “But enough about me,” Eleanor raised her voice. “Bill says that him and you are both in the Christian book club together?”  

“Me?” I rubbed the back of my neck. The only version of her husband I’ve ever known was the one from their biennial Christmas card.

“These carrots!” Eleanor cried. “They clump together into one gigantic frozen chunk, and you have to break them up yourself. Every bag is like this. It’s exhausting.” 

Mustering up all the empathy I could, I began to do the same with a bag of diced hash browns. It dawned on me that Eleanor Trask was no longer Eleanor Trask. Now she was Eleanor Trask Smith. The realization was disappointing. In fourth grade, she tried to change her name to Gwendolyn. She was sick of our male classmates waving their small boney fingers in her face and croaking, “E.T. phone home.” Eleanor didn’t realize that changing her name to Gwendolyn wouldn’t stop the teasing. She would still be the shortest kid in class. She still wore pink converse, and thick headbands and had a cheetah print backpack. Every cooties-fearing boy dreamed about teasing her. At the top of every “fill in your name” blank, she wrote in pink ink, XOXO Eleanor Elaine Trask, a.k.a. Gwendolyn.  

“It’s funny. I can’t remember much about our childhood,” Eleanor lied. The carrots sounding like a maraca as she dropped them into her cart. “Not the little things or the big things. I wish I did, but I don’t.” She looked past me, her eyes far-off, amid the galaxies and supernovas. “And for Charlie,” her penciled in eyebrows pulled together. “I’ve loved him seventy-seven times, but seventy-eight times was just too much. Some days, I wake up and wonder if he’s all alone with no one who loves him even just a little.” 

“I’m sure that’s not the case,” I looked down at my feet. 

“Well, if it was, I wouldn’t mind. He deserves whatever he gets. I’ve known that for a long time now. You’ve known it too. Wouldn’t you like to be proved right?” 

My silence was validation enough. For years, I had wondered what all Eleanor remembered, but she was a master in self-deception. She always knew more than what she told herself and others. Surfacing her delusions required psychological warfare, but it was too late in the afternoon, too cold and rainy, to battle with Eleanor. 

#

The summer before our seventh-grade year, Eleanor and I stole the bunny from Courtney Billingsley’s front yard. Our bodies were slippery from sweat and river-water. The smell of sunscreen and my mother’s banana scented tanning oil trailed behind us as we soared home on our bicycles. Eleanor’s bike was pink and blue, with a basket and a bell.

The heat index was over a hundred degrees, and Courtney Billingsley was reclined in a striped lawn chair, looking dehydrated. The girl was a year younger than us and had the loudest walk in Alabama, according to Eleanor. Instead of a lemonade stand, Courtney had a cardboard box with the phrase “Dutch Rabbits for sale” painted on the side. The green paint was runny, so Courtney overcorrected by adding a dozen dollar signs like some type of diversion. As we peddled by her house, she bobbed her head at us as if to prove that she was conscious. 

“How much you think they are?” Eleanor’s bike made a screeching bark as it came to a halt. She put her hands on her hips. “You know there’s a law against that?” 

“What?” I was a few feet ahead—always faster. 

“You gotta name the price. Everyone knows that.” Throwing her index finger to the sky, she swung one leg over her bike and marched towards Courtney Billingsley. The backs of her thighs were blood splotched from her seat. Her bulky blonde hair bounced as she pranced through the yard, her pink Soffe Shorts swaying side-to-side. For a second, I watched her, then I followed. 

By the time I reached them, Eleanor had seized a bunny, holding it in her sunburnt arms. The bunny had a blackish-blue stripe on its back, but the rest was white. One of its ears dropped while the other shot up like it had just heard something outrageous.

“How shillyshally,” Eleanor exclaimed. She thought words like shillyshally made her sound smart. “Look at its floppy ears. Little thing must be a mutt. Oh Terry, I think I’m in love.” 

“The others have stripes too,” Courtney tried to strike a conversation. 

Eleanor acted like she did not hear, “What should we name him?”

“Name him? You gotta buy him first,” the girl protested. 

Everything about Eleanor was childlike. Her wrist was jam-packed with Silly Bandz, and her short blonde curls were pinned back by butterfly clips. Yet, her poised lips and milk-white teeth teased maturity. With a smile like that she could convince anyone of anything. One devilish grin was all the insight I needed. The idea was mutual. The performance was sporadic. Together we darted off like a pair of madcap mice. Out of her chair flew a Courtney Billingsley, puking up her lunch mid-scream. The bunny’s feet wobbled in the air. It had no say in the matter. Eleanor threw its limp body into her basket, and I swear, at that moment, that bunny and I made eye-contact. 

It must have been the adrenaline that had me imagining sirens, but I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting a patrol of cop cars in hot pursuit. Houses morphed together, and the street names twirled as we peddled farther and farther away from the scene of the crime. 

Once we reached our street, we stopped to check on our new friend. Eleanor was already embellishing the story. Apparently, the Billingsley girl had barfed Cheetos all over her favorite pair of shorts. The bunny squirmed as I held it in the air, trying to identify its gender. 

“His name is George,” Eleanor declared. 

“George? That’s a stupid name for a rabbit.” My criticism fizzled under Eleanor’s confident glare. “I guess he sort of looks like a George.” 

“George sounds like royalty.” 

“Well, George needs a home because he ain’t staying with me.” I had nothing against the bunny, except that it wasn’t a dog. If I went home with a stolen bunny, my parents would never let me get a dog. George would always feel lesser under the shadow of my almost-to-be dog. “I got to be home for dinner in like thirty minutes. You take the bunny.”

“George,” Eleanor corrected me. “And the survival rate at the Trask household is under five percent. If you care anything about George, you’ll take him.” 

“If he goes home with me, he’ll just die of boredom,” I rebutted. 

“If he goes home with me, he’ll die of neglect and starvation. So, try to top that, Terry.” The way she flicked her tongue when saying my name and tilted her chin with a smile made me uneasy. It was if my name was a joke that everyone else understood except for me.

The Trask household lay ensnared by thickets at the end of the street. The grey-wood shack was balanced on a hill and had a basement, which I had always envied. There was nothing desirable about the basement. It was full of cobwebs and aged hunting gear, humid from flooding. There was an old cistern that was both arousing and petrifying. My favorite thing in the basement was a freezer stocked with an endless supply of ice pops. The bulk packs could fuel us through any summer activity. 

Sometimes, I’d fantasize the basement was my own. The walls would be painted dusty red. There would be a pool table and an expensive leather sectional. While Eleanor would sing into her hairbrush, I would circle luxury bath towels from home décor magazines.  We often pretended we were something, somewhere else.

As we approached the house, I could see her brother’s Mango Hellcat parked in the gravel driveway. How he got the money for a barely used sports car at seventeen was a mystery to me. However, this kind of unexplained materialism was a Trask Family trademark. Each of them lived out their separate indulgences, but Eleanor’s were by far the most glamorous. Every year, her first day of school was treated as a grand entrance into society. Her phobia of being late to a trend left her with a closet full of Webkinz.  One Christmas, it was Ugg Boots, then a year later it was the Nintendo. She was dissatisfied with everything but the moon.  

#

We walked our bikes around the side of the house. The Trask’s backyard consisted of a shed cloaked in kudzu and a spoiled hammock. There was no guard dog since Mr. Trask hated noise. The house reeked of something burning all-year-round. 

The mission was to shelter the bunny in her basement, but we were blocked by Charlie, who was basking on the concrete steps. 

Fearlessly, Eleanor demanded he move.

“Where’d you get the bunny?” Charlie took a sip from his Styrofoam cup. Charlie was always sipping on the same purple drink. 

“His name is George,” Eleanor huffed. Unable to get past him, she began to throw elbows. I wondered if she had just realized how stupid the name George sounded. 

 As a baby, Charlie had a split in the roof of his mouth. Despite being fixed in one surgery, his upper lip had a slight but permanent hook to it. There was something alluring about the Trask boy. It was the same kind of allure one gets while driving past a car wreck. Once, he took Eleanor and me on top of the high school so we could watch him set off his car alarm as people walked by. “Always keep the simpletons on their toes,” he would say. A week after getting his driver’s license, he ran over our neighbor’s mailbox and made one of his girlfriends pay for it.

My parents would talk about Charlie, thinking I wouldn’t know who they were talking about. “He’s a reckless insubordinate thug with no future,” they’d say.  

To the world, he was the scum of society. To me, he was Eleanor’s older brother. Sometimes before school, he’d braid her hair so that her short blonde hair would look like dingy shoelaces in his double French braids.  

“Just give me the bunny,” Charlie spoke warmly. 

“What are you going to do with him?” Eleanor yanked the bunny away from his reach. 

“Put him in a box or something. I haven’t thought that far ahead. Listen, keeping a bunny is a lot of upkeep. You’ve got to feed it, and entrain it, and clean out its poop. If you pay me…” 

“Pay you?” I intervened. 

“I’ll take care of it, and you can see it during visiting hours,” Charlie said. 

“We don’t want no visiting hours.” I shook my head.  

“But Charlie…” Eleanor squeezed the bunny and looked up at him with pouty lips. “I don’t have any money.” When Judy Stern sold her world’s finest fundraising chocolate at lunch, Eleanor was never short of money. 

“You can pay me back later,” Charlie said. 

It was almost time for dinner. Eleanor held the bunny tightly to her chest. The bunny’s eyes caught my attention. They looked like two smooth marbles, perfectly round. Eleanor and I used to compete to see who could draw the roundest circle. One of us would always win, but neither of us were ever perfect. George, however, had won effortlessly—with his two perfect eyes. His little bunny nose began to twitch in anticipation. With a sigh of defeat, Eleanor handed the bunny to Charlie, who promised to take good care of him. 

#

At dinner, I ate quickly, anxiously awaiting a call from Mrs. Billingsley. It was just me, my mother, and two bowls of beef stroganoff. Of course, my mother had no idea of my misconduct, but she would once Mrs. Billingsley called. Then she would throw a fit. My father would march me over to their house and make me apologize. I always thought he was too conventional. When I tried to quit basketball, he forced me to play until the end of the season. Eleanor never had to do things like that. 

Our mothers were friends, but our fathers hated each other. My father would say that Mr. Trask treats children like dogs. So, logically, Eleanor would be an inside dog, and Charlie would be an outside dog.

A carousel of scenarios was turning inside my head. Images of transforming my father’s tool shed into a bunny crib spun into mental plans. I’d paint the walls blue and hang up an informational poster about bunnies. I began to theorize over why George had one good ear and one floppy ear. If Mrs. Billingsley called, I’d have to return him. 

When it had seemed that I had dodged the inevitable, the home phone rang. 

 Avoiding my mother’s eye-contact, guilt began bubbling inside of me. My mother called my name. It was Eleanor. She wanted to know if we could have a sleepover. 

“Please Mom, I promise I won’t ever ask for anything again,” I yelled from the kitchen table. Bounding out of my chair, I found my mother’s arm and begged to go. 

My mother agreed, so I mounted my bike and fled back to the Trask home. By the time I reached her house, the sky had just begun to fill with orange and pink clouds; the sun hung just above the tree-line. Charlie’s Mango Hellcat was gone, and Eleanor sat at the street’s dead-end with a box of chalk. On the asphalt was something red and yellow. As I approached her, the blob took shape. She was drawing Saturn with all of its eight rings. 

“Where’s the bunny?” I asked. 

“You mean George? He’s with Charlie.” She began to shade the edges of the planet with purple chalk. “Him and Daddy got in a fight, so he left.” 

Their fights often occurred at the end of every month and always on Christmas. Charlie was always getting into it with his mother, though. Often, he provoked her. Once I witnessed her chucking all his dirty laundry in the front yard. Another time, she slung a cutting board at him, so he had to get one single stitch above his right eyebrow. Mrs. Trask was a small woman, but she had a fierce throw. 

“What if we spent the night in the hammock?” Eleanor began filing the chalk box to match the colors of the rainbow. “That way, we catch him when he comes home.” 

“Sure. I wonder what he’s doing. George the bunny, I mean.” I looped my finger in my braid. “Not Charlie. Who knows what Charlie is doing.” 

“I do.” Eleanor raised her head with a face of disgust. “He’s with Sandra,” she murmured. Last week it was Elise. 

It wasn’t our first night spent in the hammock. There was a thin navy blanket designated just for these special summer nights. Anything thicker would be too hot. We’d wrestle over it, trying to protect our legs from the mosquitos. “Next time, we’ll use bug spray,” we’d always say.

That night Eleanor told me that Venus was almost 200 million miles away from earth and that Jupiter was a beautiful tornado that no one could approach. We drew animals from the stars: elephants, jellyfish, and dragons. To her, the galaxies were expanding like a balloon, but in my world, there were only crickets and an obnoxious toad. 

For an hour, we twisted and coiled until the wind finally rocked us to sleep. I was always jealous of how Eleanor could remember her dreams. They were so outlandish while mine were plotless. I’m sure that night was no different—no flying or falling. Instead, I thought about the things I read of. Toxic algae in Botswana, angry Sea Turtles, and the Cheng Han Dynasty. Alone, I floated throughout the oceans of Europa— a shell of ice above me and bottomless waters below.   

#

It must’ve been 2 a.m. when headlights peered around the corner of the house. I woke in a cold sweat. It took a few nudges to knock Eleanor out of whatever comical dream she was having. I remembered our poor George, probably in the trunk of his car suffocating in a duffle bag. 

“Wake up. Charlie is home,” I whispered. 

Eleanor leaned over me for proof. Then she gasped. 

There was a girl pressed up against the hood of his car. Eleanor ducked behind me as if she had got caught doing something wrong, but I watched. Something inside of me detested her, but at the same time, I was her.  My heart was racing and torn and fearfully excited, just like hers. With quiet giggles, the couple began to shift towards us. As they stumbled down the hill, I realized that their destination wasn’t his room. They were walking in our direction. A more awful realization then came to me. This was Charlie’s sex hammock. Chill bumps crawled up my body as the beef stroganoff cycled round in my stomach making me nauseous.

“Oh, please no,” I shrieked. Then in one compulsive motion, I flipped out of the hammock, bringing Eleanor with me. We hit the red dirt with a thud.  

The girl squealed, and Charlie stopped eating her face. With catlike movements, Eleanor sprung to her feet. Charlie began swearing at us while the girl gripped his arm awkwardly. The whole time I sat on the ground uselessly. 

“We want George back,” Eleanor crossed her arms.

“The bunny?” It seemed as if he had forgotten. “Grow up, Els. I swear you’re such a pest. You’re really going to ruin my night over a rabbit?” 

“His name is George,” she yelled.  

“Shut up. You’re gonna wake Mom and Dad.” With a finger over his lips, Charlie looked over his shoulder nervously. The house was silent. “Look. Let me take Sandra home. Ight? Just wait in your room till I’m back, and then I’ll show you the bunny. Just don’t go in my room.” 

Inside the house, Mr. Trask was passed out on the recliner. ESPN was running its Games of the Century. Once inside her room, we leaped into her bed and were back asleep within seconds. While sleeping, I scratched one of my misquote bites until it bled. We would’ve never admitted it, but we were glad to be back inside. 

The best part about summer was sleeping late into the morning. This time when I awoke, Eleanor was propped up on her elbow, staring at me. 

“I think George is in his room,” she alleged.

“Is he not home yet?” I sat up in bed. My hair was a bird’s nest.  

Eleanor nodded her head towards the window and said, “His car’s not here. I bet he stayed the night with Miss What’s-Her-Face.” 

“Why don’t we just go in his room?” 

At first, the question was preposterous. Over the past year, Charlie’s room had grown increasingly guarded.  At the end of all his sentences was, “Just don’t go into my room.” Eleanor was highly aware of this, yet her reluctance to the idea softened. We talked about George. We planned to feed him carrots in the mornings and celery at night. Eleanor would buy a cage, and I’d buy a water feeder. Our plans were simple. George was one of us now. Eventually, we gathered up enough courage to get out of bed and go to Charlie’s room. 

One might have thought we were entering Chernobyl. With precaution, we gently pushed the door open and tiptoed in. The smell of AXE deodorant and dirty cleats was intoxicating, so I held my breath. Above his bed was a poster of Muhammad Ali beating his chest over a fallen Sonny Liston. Under the window was a dusty keyboard. 

“Make sure you look everywhere,” Eleanor ordered. 

Scavenging through his room, I found Rambo and The Sandlot on videotape. Under his bed, I discovered a hoard of dollar store love roses. The glass tubes were stacked neatly while the paper roses were discarded in a pile. Inside his Algebra textbook, I also found a creased envelope addressed to Tampa, Florida. 

George was nowhere to be found, and I could tell that Eleanor was upset. Her cheeks started getting pink, and she began to pace around the room.

“I don’t get it. Where could he be?” She sounded exasperated. 

To know everything was a goal of hers. That’s why she wanted to go to space one day. Yet, Charlie was always out of her reach, and that drained her. With slumped shoulders, Eleanor walked to the keyboard. Blue sunlight bounced off the creamy keys. 

“You know Charlie taught me to play a few years ago,” Eleanor said. She poked at the power button. “But I was little, so I don’t remember much.” Then she pressed down on a key. The note was sharp and low. “He tried to teach me how to play ‘Don’t Stop Believing,’ but I was so bad he gave up. He’s really good, you know. You wouldn’t think it, but he is.” 

She was trying to find the right notes, for the right tune, to bring back some ancient memory of her and her brother. I watched her fiddle through bad chords and hand slips. 

“What are you doing in my room?” 

Leaned up against the door frame was Charlie, twirling his car keys. 

“I’m fed up, Charlie,” she shook her fist. “I want to see George. I know you have him. Where is he? Is he at Sandra’s? She can’t even dress herself, let alone take care of a…” 

“Why are y’all in my room?” Charlie scowled. 

“We want our bunny,” I yelled. “We stole him, okay? I didn’t want to, but it happened, and we got to take care of him. All your sister wants is to see him. That’s all. If you didn’t want to take care of him, then you shouldn’t have taken him in the first place.” 

Now he was looking at me. 

“Next time ask before going into my room,” he said. 

“We’re sorry,” Eleanor looked at her feet. 

The two stood across from each other. Eleanor’s back was to the piano, and her hands were behind her back. Uncomfortable from the silence, I began to rock on my heels. Then Charlie asked her what she was playing. After admitting she had forgotten how to play, he offered to reteach her. Together, Eleanor and I peeked over his shoulder. We watched his hands hop across the board effortlessly. While his fingers danced, Eleanor laid her left hand on his back tenderly. With a soft grin, he started the song over from the beginning. 

It sounded like funeral music to me.

“No, no, no,” I lunged over the keyboard, ripping the cord from the outlet. “Stop it. Just stop. You can’t just keep on not telling us where George is. I want to know where George is.” 

Eleanor backed away. This time she was sore at me. 

“You really wanna know, then fine. You asked for it—just remember that. I gave it away. I gave your stupid rabbit away. There was no way y’all would be able to take care of it. You know that. It’s better off where it is now.” 

There was nothing more chilling than an Eleanor Trask tantrum. It was the kind of wailing that involved fingernails, runny noses, and the gnashing of incisors. Trembling, she told him that she’d never forgive him—as long as he lived. We then watched her scurry out of the room, howling the name George down the hallway. 

“How could you be so cold?” I asked him.

“What’s it to you? It’s just a bunny.” In an effort to stay assertive, Charlie tossed his hair back, but I could tell by the hot tears in his eyes that he was miserable. 

“Who did you give the bunny to?” I asked. 

“No one.” Charlie turned his face away. 

“Do they go to school with you?” I pressed on.

“Leave it, kid. Just leave it alone, alright.” His ears were turning red. 

“Do I know them? Is that why you’re not saying anything? I’ll find out. You can’t hide it from me. Me and George have a connection.” 

“I lied, okay,” Charlie flapped his hands forcefully. “I lied. You caught me red-handed. I didn’t give your precious bunny away. You happy?” 

“Well, where is he?” I twisted my lips. 

“You really want to know?” He waited for me to respond before he repeated himself. 

“Yes,” I replied quickly. Of course, I wanted to know. 

With a quick gulp, his face twisted, and his dark eyes caved like a sinkhole. Someone once told me that confidence was being detached from one’s fears. For the cold-blooded boys like Charlie, the rules were flipped, and it was fear that bred their confidence. I followed him out of the room. The house was lifeless, and the screen door swayed from the breeze. Walking behind Charlie, I realized how small I was. We went outside to the concrete stairs—the only way to the basement. The sun was directly above our heads. 

The basement was soured by mildew so that when I inhaled its dense aroma, my nose and throat turned cold. One beam of light entered from the dimmed window—clashing with the floor. Under its spotlight, Charlie stood in the center of the room with his hands in his pockets. There was no cardboard box, no iron cage, no sound of breathing. With a tight chest, I looked at the well and then Charlie. Biting the inside of his cheek, he denied my speechless accusation.

Dragging my feet, I walked towards the freezer in a daze. There was no distinction between my heartbeat and breathing. There was only the echo of my steps. It was only a bunny, and it was ours for one fleeting moment. The freezer lid popped as I thrust it open. As the white mist began to clear away, all my chaotic thoughts were silenced. 

The bunny’s round eyes were frozen. Its arms were overextended, but its legs were curled into its prickly chest. When Charlie lifted the bunny from the freezer, its body went limp. I was too shocked to cry.  

“He’s all yours now,” Charlie scoffed. With a frown, he shoved the frozen bunny into my chest and walked away. I pleaded for him to take the bunny, but Charlie was already up the stairs. My body began to revolt. The bunny was stiff. Appalled, I began to gag. It was so cold—so dead. A fraction of me wanted to toss it down the well, but I couldn’t. This was my first-time holding George. Staring down at the lifeless creature, I pictured a dozen Dutch Rabbits skipping through the snow with little rabbit tracks tracing behind. “So long George,” I shuddered. Something odd possessed me, and I kissed the rabbit’s pea-sized head. 

Then I laid George back in the freezer.  

#

With her knees drawn to her chest, Eleanor sat on the curb by her fading Saturn. Her face was puffy, and her nostrils were rosy. Still stupefied, I sat down beside her. 

“This is all your fault you know,” she sniffled. 

There was no way to respond to this. My hands were still cold. 

“I said that he should have stayed with you, but you didn’t listen,” Eleanor started. “I knew that something like this would happen, but no. He went with me and now he’s gone. Now he’s happy with some other family that’s not us. They’re going to give him a new name, and we’re never going to see him again. George is lost forever, and it’s all your fought.” 

A peculiar image of George sipping tea with my mother and my father popped into my head and made me chuckle. He wore a red suit like The White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. My parents were both teachers. Back home, my father was probably trying to fix the drainage problem, and perhaps my mother was folding clothes while listening to talk radio. In the summers, we would stay up late and play cards. In the mornings, my father would scramble eggs for my mother and me. 

“What are you laughing about?” Eleanor got defensive. 

“You know my parents think you’re a bad influence on me,” I lied. As soon as the words slipped my mouth, I regretted it. It wasn’t true, but Eleanor believed it in her fragile state. 

“It’s not safe,” Eleanor sobbed. “It’s not safe here. And Charlie. I hate his guts—I really do. I hate him so much. You’re lucky you know that, Terry? You have people that love you. What I would give just to have one person who loves me back.”  

That was the first time I pitied Eleanor Trask. 

I should have said that I loved her, but I didn’t. When she tried to bury her tears, I should’ve put my arm around her. Instead, I thought about George. 

Could a rabbit love, I wondered? Craning my neck backwards, I looked up to the sky. An omniscient Charlie was looking down on me with a smile. As the freezer door began to close, I had no thoughts. The four walls that trapped me were replaced with blackness so that there was nothing to observe but darkness. It wasn’t the cold that killed me. I died from suffocation. 

The bunny was never spoken of again, so I knew that she knew. I wondered how long it took for her to find out. She must’ve been reaching for an ice pop one afternoon only to feel an ice-block of fur. What had transpired in the basement was a mystery to her. At first, I felt guilty for all our silent lies, but over time it became another one of our games. We were too stubborn for honesty and too deep in our pride. As time elapsed, the memory became another one of our forgotten dreams. We were Pangea, two continents drifting farther and farther apart. 

#

It was sleeting when I left Lucky’s Supermarket. It was the middle of the afternoon, but the sun was already setting. Little pellets of ice beat against the rows of cars. Water trickled off the hood of my jacket and onto my face. It took three forceful twists to crank the ignition. I rubbed my palms together until the air vents spat out warm air. On my windshield, small snowflakes were swept away by small steams of rainwater.

Maybe, somewhere in Atlanta, the Trask boy is playing Journey on a grand piano. After the show, he’ll call his younger sister Gwendolyn. They’ll talk about secret clubs with elevated platforms and truffle butter—vaunt the life they now live. Gwendolyn will tell Charlie about a supermassive black hole caught on a telescope. She is an astrophysicist with Hollywood hair. They’ll reminisce over their childhood crimes, curse all their exes, then promise to call next week. Two hundred miles away, I am renovating their basement. The concrete floor is stained. Upstairs, my paintings are framed on freshly painted walls. My name is monogrammed on their kitchen towels. On the doormat are my pink bunny slippers.

What a beautiful façade it all was.

How we all wanted to be someone else.



BIO

Margaret Helms was born in Texas but grew up in Decatur, Alabama, where she draws inspiration for many of her stories. She is currently working towards her undergraduate degree in Journalism while studying creative writing at Murray State University. When she is not writing, Margaret baristas at a local coffee shop where she spends the bulk of her free time reading. This is her first publication. 








Dr. Rocktopath’s Horror-Style

by Nabho Banerjee


I

With graduation and MaskEx just a few weeks away, there was little else in those days that I had on my mind besides entering the good graces of Dr. Rocktopath. I’d made it through school more comfortably than most thanks to my alignment with a major crew, and soon, I’d be able to leave most of my more uninteresting responsibilities behind. And as I had always presented myself as quiet and diligent in front of Dr. Rocktopath, I couldn’t have been more optimistic about my chances given the past few years. So, while I didn’t allow it to show on my mask, it was quite jarring to hear my corpsebrooder Mike start talking to me about Ouranos.

He said, as I walked into sensecraft class still empty but for him, “Hey, corpsebrooder, you notice Ouranos has been looking at the poster for the graduation speech lately?”

I replied, “What do you mean? Like as if he wanted to apply?”

“Yeah man, I’m sick of it. He thinks he’s being real wormfashion about it, but I wasn’t born yesterday. And he has the gall to harbor a look of sorrow in those penshade eyes.” Mike’s spillshade eyes twinkled with anger as he said this. My stomach sank.

“So what do you think? Is it serious enough to tell Joey? To be honest with you, I don’t think Ouranos will be too much of a problem. Keeps his head down well enough. I think telling might even end up being a bit wormcrooked and may not be worth the trouble.”

“Trouble? You’re a Reapsake, aren’t you? ‘Trouble’ sounds like something those worms in That Freaky Vibe would say. Well I’m going to tell him. I’d rather claim the recognition than see an opportunity go to waste. You can understand that, can’t you?”

Though disturbed, I nodded and turned forward. Class was filling up and from what I had heard, today Dr. Rocktopath planned to give a lecture about history relevant to sensecraft, some of which I had heard before in his freshman artcraft class. This was one of my favorite things to hear spoken about; the topic exhilarates my intellectual curiosity like nothing else, so to speak, and since now it would be in my favorite class, I was all the more eager.

Immediately after Joey and the other Reapsakes arrived and sat down, Dr. Rocktopath walked into the classroom handsomely disheveled and slouching as usual. His swordshade eyes were cast down, as if shrouded in a veil of nightish mist. I had seen him quite late in the evening before and his mask had a much sprier disposition then. I assumed he was up late pretty often.

Dr. Rocktopath said, “Today’s topic may not end up being all that accessible for many of you. That’s ok. This is the beginning of a new direction I’ll be taking this class and since you’ll all be graduating soon, you’ll be perfect for allowing me to experiment for next year’s seniors.”

He turned on the projector and, while narrating, he started to flip through many familiar graphs, diagrams, and lists of axioms children are exposed to at very early phase of their schooling. They are rarely ever deeply understood by the youth at large—memorization is the focus—but, from my own research, it seems that higher authorities consider this facet of instruction essential for promoting the assimilation of foundational concepts encountered in formal artcraft and sensecraft studies.  The class sat bored until he reached a slide titled “Kaali.” A murmur buzzed through the room. Most of the students looked up.

“Kaali—most of you have heard about this before. But, also for most you, this is the first time you’ve heard it mentioned in school or in any sort of academic context. I’ve decided to introduce you to this now, rather than let you get to it for the first time in college. I don’t know why more educators don’t do it like this, but I’m positive that you’ll be incentivized to go much farther and faster with your sensecraft in the long run this way. MaskEx will also be far more enriching for you all.”

I had a good idea of why. Dr. Rocktopath is no ordinary teacher, though he is certainly an extraordinary person. I have no way of knowing the way he looked before MaskEx, but now, at least, he has a pulse to his eyes and an asperity about his mien that I find quite compelling. He is a man of intellectual qualification far above the likes of Springside Prep—rumor has it that he is really a National agent working on a secret project and furthermore, that he enjoys special research privileges (though I had never seen any having been used at the time). There were other rumors, but none quite as wormshadow, and I cheerfully installed this rumor’s essence as part of my private image of him. He is a brilliant mathematician and is reputed to be a fine engineer, but he is truly gifted—as much as any savant—at artcraft and sensecraft. Some of his personal presentations of artcraft he had shown us in class freshman year had pretty severely put to shame industry standards—I had never before felt the pain of laughter in such abundance. But beyond these details, I don’t know too much else for certain, as, truth be told, I’ve always been rather intimidated by him. Nevertheless, I knew that if I could acquire Dr. Rocktopath’s tutelage after graduation, nothing could ever make me happier.

He went on, “There are two theories about the origin of our word ‘Kaali.’ One is that ‘Kaali’ comes from a linguistic heritage that implies the thesis, ‘the land that causes sacrifice.’ Interesting, eh? The other is that the meaning (usually taken to be at the same peg of the conceptual hierarchy) is more accurately, ‘star brain.’ Maybe you think that we would have settled upon one of these theories by now, but you’d be surprised at how genuinely bimodal the space of ‘expert’ opinion still is.

“Personally, I think there is likely no way to resolve this particular issue and that it is not necessarily important. Cause? Effect? Does that really matter to us? Looking at things on a bigger scale, in fact, can reveal the differences between these theses to be meaningless in a functional sense—and they are certainly not antithetical—convergence!

“But it’s still important to keep in mind, this is another triumph of the development of Language studies through past generations and into the modern world. The discourse about the theory-level nomenclature has honed in on the most interesting aspects of cause and effect: the physical source of the outcome and the physical outcome itself. Of course, discussion about the source in this case is more abstract. We can talk about numbers all day, but knowing a distance to a place is not enough to know or predict qualitative details. All we really have to go off of is Incursion!

“At any rate, don’t get too bogged down in all of this background. What you need to remember is that, when we practice sensecraft, we are able to do so only because we have knowledge that Kaali exists. The principles to which we are thus given access allow us to control our experiences in ways that may be quite difficult to realize under not-so-different circumstances. Unfortunately, according to my analysis, understanding of these principles have done nothing constructive for the state of our youth up to the point of MaskEx.”

A bolt of hysteria flashed from his eyes and briefly quivered upon his mask. This was likely lost on most, but certainly not on me.

“OK, now we’re going to practice spectrum inversion, which we’ve done many times before, but now we’re going to think about it with Kaali in mind. Take out your screen-sheets, everybody.”

Screen-sheets are panels of clear plastic, each a different plain, pure color.

“We’ll be using nightbracket and sunpetal. We’re going to do the usual. Nightbracket to sunpetal, sunpetal to nightbracket. But now (and I admit this is still relatively hand-wavy, but bear with me, it works), we’re going to think about Kaali. The ‘folk’-level impressions you likely have currently will be sufficient to begin. Think about that place and what it could really ‘mean’ as far as the existence of your life and your mind are concerned. Then shrink that area of relevance to your cognition and senses. Again, we’re not really embarking on anything new in principle; but now use Kaali as your starting point—as if you had a sort of psychic connection to the place…because, of course, you do, in a way, at least.”

I forced my mind to set aside what Mike had said earlier and did as Dr. Rocktopath instructed. I achieved the inversion with unprecedented ease, which both unsettled and delighted me. I looked over at Mike and saw that he was still struggling. As a corpsebrooder, I was obliged to offer assistance, though I was careful to be particularly wormfashion about it in the presence of Dr. Rocktopath.

II

As I recount the events that preceded my class’ pivotal MaskEx, it’s occurred to me that, you, the reader of my thoughts, may very well inhabit a region of existence that’s, in some ways at least, “different” from mine. But what does “different” mean on a fundamental level? I’d be a liar if I said I understood the answer, but I think know the answer, and it is this: things may not actually be so different in a material sense—what I’m getting at has to do with the cardinality of our abstract ideals. In other words, while our corresponding stations in nature may obey the same transcendentals bound to counting, resulting in mutual decodabilty of thought and language, our lived experiences may still differ in terms of barest meaning—matters concerning sense of proportion, direction, fundamental attribution—these sorts of things.

Of course, a possible consequence is that our school lives might differ. At Springside Preparatory Academy for Boys, we study mathematics, physics, chemistry, artcraft, music, sensecraft, Language, and physical education; each student has his own schedule of classes. But besides academic subjects, the most important lesson children learn from a young age is that to err in front of adults is fine, for the most part—it’s among other young people that standards of behavior must be strict. Therefore, by teenage years, before adulthood and MaskEx, a set of crews fills out a copious and rigid social structure. Defiance of this structure is dealt with swiftly and mercilessly. So too is solicitude.

Now, to my dismay, Ouranos apparently dared to oppose these strictures. I’d met Ouranos in freshman artcraft class. The guy was absolutely brilliant at it and his enthusiasm was infectious. I don’t know how he did in his other classes, but he was so talented at artcraft that Dr. Rocktopath took a personal, vested interest in Ouranos’ education. I admit I was slightly jealous of him for that, but I could sense Dr. Rocktopath saw a bit of himself in Ouranos, and I liked Dr. Rocktopath enough to be happy for him for that. I even worked it into my internal narrative that Dr. Rocktopath had looked somewhat like Ouranos before MaskEx.

It wasn’t too bad of a look: ellipsoid mask, long hair, just a trace of pudginess in the lower wormjacket. But besides a rather arresting voice, he had nothing that quite turned heads. His eyes were common penshade and his mask was not defined in the least. There was even a faint air of meekness about him, somewhat like a puppy that gets bigger in size, but is incapable of fully maturing. Lastly, he had a sort of jolty fidget about his manner that often confused me because it seemed so subtle, yet so striking at the same time—I was never completely sure whether or not anyone else had ever noticed, as I had never heard anyone comment about it—and, if that was because it was, in fact, so obvious, I would have felt silly in having brought it up. But all in all, he did not experience too many problems in his daily life. A new mask would certainly put him in a fantastic placement in society post-MaskEx, I was positive.

But now, all sorts of complications arose. If Mike was right that Ouranos was gunning for the graduation speech, it was only a matter of time before he was in serious trouble with the Reapsakes. And as it would surely displease Dr. Rocktopath to see Ouranos come to harm, that bothered me greatly.

***

In the evening, under a darkening sky strewn with stars seeming as flecks of bone, we gathered at our usual meeting place behind the school. The stiff smell of pine perfused from the blackness beyond encircling bushes.

Joey, leader of the Reapsakes, began, “OK corpsebrooders, Mike says he saw that worm Ouranos looking at the poster for the graduation speech. That’s not going to fly. I didn’t spend a week torturing Kelp over there for those dollfashion lines for nothing. And I don’t need people getting the wrong idea now that I’m about to experience the apogee of my time at this fine institution, especially just because that trash is about to be rescued by MaskEx.

“So I think it’s important we don’t waste this opportunity. This has got to be used to send a message. We’re going set an example for any other Inferior who thinks he could ever experience the position of a Superior. I want the adults hearing about it too.”

Joey’s best corpsebrooder, Reza, said, “Yeah, that sounds wormshadow. Ouranos is unaligned, which means we don’t even have to be too wormfashion about how we do it.”

All the Reapsakes nodded eagerly, their eyes sparkling in many hues of bloodshade. I tried to look the same way as my peers, but I felt my mask tremble as I thought about what was going to happen to Ouranos. And as I was a known corpsebrooder of the Reapsakes, Dr. Rocktopath would surely hold me just as culpable as any of the others.

“Kelp!” Joey barked, “I want your serpent and I want you to steal your mother’s tube-cartridge maker and lighter fluid again. We’ll also need something for scraping. Besides the serpent, I mean.”

Kelp said, “OK, sure thing.”

“Yeah, it had better be a sure thing. You know, it makes my blood boil when people act this way. Ouranos appears a touch too fain to view his life as part of some kind of adventure—as if his existence is seasoned by some ‘special’ sort of contingency. Or some such nonsense. Well, I’m going to make sure no one will forget who’s who or what’s what around here again.”

Everyone clapped.

“Oh, and one more thing. Will…” Everyone’s eyes turned on me.

“I’ve received word that you may have some differing views about this.”

“No, I—“

“Now, I really hope you haven’t been a spy from those worms in That Freaky Vibe all this time…or could it be that your corpsebrooders with Ouranos?”

“I assure you—“

“Enough. Hey, don’t worry, I for one trust you. So guess what? You’re going to be the chief Executor during the session. And everyone’s going to know about it. Even that blowhard Dr. Rocktopath.”

“…No problem,” I said.

***

After reflecting for some time after the meeting, I decided to find Ouranos to at least give him whatever warning I could. Cutting off Ouranos’ ambitions at the source would be risky, but most efficient.

But it was not long after I began my search for him the next day during our daily break time that Joey entered my mind.  Joey was a natural-born Superior. That’s not to say I think there can be any other kind of Superior. But Joey’s mask was especially lean and fierce-looking and he often wore outside of school a wormshadow outfit comprised of denim shorts, sunpetal sneakers, and a large doubledark t-shirt.

My own relationship with Joey and the Reapsakes had started a year and a half ago through my brother. Spotting me walking home with him one bracing, cloud-painted day in the spring, a senior Reapsake had caught up to us and said to me, “Don’t tell me you’re Kelp’s brother or something. Not just dragging him around like the trash he is? He’s ours you know…no one enthralls him without our authorization.” He knocked the pear on which Kelp was munching out of his hand.

“Indeed I am. Don’t ask how I got such a wormshadow draw of the—”

“I guess it happens. Hey. So we have an opening in the Reapsakes and you look like you could be a pretty wormshadow corpsebrooder.”

I didn’t think long before I agreed to join.  I’d spent enough of my life unaligned to find a good measure of satisfaction in that immediate moment of Acceptance.

But I soon found that my responsibilities to the crew took a bigger toll on my life than I’d imagined. Time I could have spent developing my natural aptitude at sensecraft and building a bond with Dr. Rocktopath went instead into meetings and strategy sessions. That I was so close to escaping the responsibilities of my position in youth and finally being able to approach Dr. Rocktopath had been shedding light on an ever-wilting outlook on life. But now, if I crossed Joey and my other corpsebrooders, I shuddered to think of how even MaskEx could save me from the memories of the consequences.

***

Though my thoughts continued to trouble me, I persisted in my search. I simply couldn’t let Dr. Rocktopath come to think ill of me. Too many are blinded by his light, but not I! I had to make him know that one day.

I finally spotted Ouranos in the lunchroom. There was considerable bustle and cheer about the place, which wasn’t surprising given the time of the year. I walked past congratulatory banners and through festive paper streamers of black, white, and freshfall to reach him at a table in the far corner of the room.

 Dr. Rocktopath was just getting up from talking with him and I saw that his eyes looked easier than usual, as if a major tension had been released from some internal wire from which they hung. He gave me a small nod as I passed him to join Ouranos.

Ouranos did not seem very surprised to see me. We had never been the closest of corpsebrooders, but we had always gotten along.

“What’s up, Will? Long time no see.”

“Yeah, I’ll say.”

“What brings you over to boring old me?”

I veered from telling him the real reason immediately and said, “Oh, uh, mainly just curious what’s up with you. We haven’t talked since freshman year, can you believe it?”

“Yeah, we were in artcraft, weren’t we? That was such a wormshadow class to have freshman year.”

“…I agree. It was fantastic. And I saw you were talking to Rocktopath just now. You two seem to have quite the relationship.”

“Yeah, it’s one of those mentor-disciple type things, all right. Tomorrow he wants me to give a presentation in senior sensecraft.”

“Oh, no way! I’m in that class! What are you going to present about?”

“It’s going to be about my independent research this past year. I’ve been studying Incursion in depth and I’m going to give your class a sort of primer on its history and what we’ve been able to learn from it. Don’t be too impressed, though, Dr. Rocktopath gave me all the materials I’ll be using and he’s going to be coaching me some more tonight. As I’m sure you’re aware, Incursion is really discussed as more of an artcraft thing at such a basic level, but Dr. Rocktopath says he’s been developing a more integrated approach to his teaching methods that features Incursion at the forefront of both artcraft and sensecraft. He calls it “horror-style.” Not sure what his proofs are yet, but it sounds pretty wormshadow, doesn’t it? He’s fucking brilliant.”

I swelled with anticipation and said, “Now I’m really looking forward to that. That’s exactly the kind of stuff I wish we spent more time on.”

He said, “Yeah, I guess a problem is that so many aspects of this subject area are so abstract that it’s easy for young people to tune out, let alone comfortably process even more fundamental knowledge. It’s a question of educational direction. If we focused more at a young age on how to think abstractly—if there was a field of ‘abstractology’ for example—”

“You mean something like…semiotics?”

“Nah, I mean something a notch more general and directive. That would be a separate didactic effort.”

“How so?”

“Consider PE. The point isn’t to teach you a particular sport or anything. When done right, the point of PE is to get your wormjacket to kind of “know” how to function properly. The specific activities are just used to teach toward that goal. So if, just for example, semiotics is swimming, epistemology is track, and hermeneutics is sprints (and so forth), ‘abstractology’ (there’s an ideal name for this somewhere) would be PE.”

I thought for a few seconds and was impressed at how much his framing helped me understand his point. It was no wonder Ouranos was so good at artcraft, with skills like that.

Then, at that moment, I spotted Mike and Reza on the opposite side of the lunchroom prowling behind one of the few female teachers at the school. They were looking lustfully after her and trying to be wormfashion about it. Joey was trailing them, observing, but also keeping his eyes on some corpsebrooders of That Freaky Vibe.

“Ouranos, sorry to change the subject, but listen. I’m actually here for another reason. Some of the Reapsakes are saying you’ve been considering applying to be the graduation speaker.”

Ouranos looked down and away. He said softly, “Yeah. I knew it was only a matter of time before one of them noticed. What can I say? If I’m ever going to be a public speaker after MaskEx, I need to practice. I’ve got plans! Ambitions! I’m sure you can understand that. Don’t you?”

“Understandable, Ouranos, but as much as it doesn’t bother me personally, that’s not going to fly. You know you’d trounce him. Joey will literally have your head.”

He didn’t respond for a few moments and kept looking at the floor. Then he said, “I know. Believe me, I’ve thought about the consequences of challenging Joey. But for me, even the fantasy of prevailing worth it. When I think about seizing this opportunity, I actually feel happier. As in, that happiness plus the despair of the truth does more psychic good for me than to live with the despair alone. The effort of putting up those mental barriers just hasn’t proved worth it to me and I doubt they will. I fucked up, corpsebrooder. And I know not to be sad about what’s going to happen. Now that you’ve so compassionately let me know my suspicions were true, I’m going to give that presentation tomorrow everything I’ve got. I’m going to make sure Dr. Rocktopath, at least, will never forget me for who or what I really I am.”

I didn’t know what to say next, so I leaned back and stared up while Ouranos gazed blankly into space. My thought processes slowed considerably.

Suddenly, Ouranos’ eyes became fearful, then indignant. He said, “Hey! Come on, leave me alone. I don’t know what you’re talking about, so stop making my life hell.”

Joey, Mike, and Reza slinked to our side from my rear. They looked angry.

Ouranos continued, “Come on Will, I thought we were corpsebrooders. I haven’t done anything against you or your crew.”

I knew what I had to do. I said in a hoarse hiss, “Just be glad you’re not suffering yet. Yeah, in fact, you owe me. If those teachers weren’t over there, I’d—”

Ouranos got up with a look of frenzy over his mask and said, “Spare me, buddy. I know how to make your heart drop. And the only conversation we’ve ever had that I in any way enjoyed was the one during which you offered me your rather farcical explanation for ghosts. I had a good laugh afterwards, it ended up really helping me along with my artcraft.” With that, he walked briskly away.

Mike broke out of a frightful stare at Ouranos’ distancing back and said, “Nice, Will, you did that real wormshadow and wormfashion.”

Reza said, “Indeed. Intimidation is most effective when the subject is made to realize it will result in a consequence that’s inevitable, insurmountable, and unknowable. That worm is going to suffer.”

Joey patted my breast, saying, “I knew all along that sanctioning your recruitment would turn out to be a wise decision. Tomorrow afternoon will be productive.”

I glanced across the checker-floored way to the foyer and saw Dr. Rocktopath speaking with Ouranos with an arm on his shoulder. Ouranos did not appear as if he wanted to talk. They were speaking so quickly, I discerned only the words “wormcrooked” and “desolation” from the lip movements of Dr. Rocktopath before I had to look away. I smiled back at Joey, Mike and Reza, trying hard to project that all was wormshadow, but internally, I felt as though I may as well have never had any crew of corpsebrooders at all.

III

As you may have surmised, members of our community receive new, flawless masks at the end of our time in high school. Our custom has been practiced since time immemorial and is intended to alleviate the turmoil accrued in the minds of the more troubled ones of the youth, like Kelp. Many have attempted breeding the importance of masks out of us, but in our recent history, the more we’ve tried to stray from our present nature through conscious effort, the more our in-born predilections have intensified.

However, if one’s original mask is damaged too greatly before MaskEx, it can be impossible to complete the ceremony and ritual of MaskEx. If not for Ouranos’s action upon seeing the Reapsakes the previous day, someone like me would have been doomed just as gravely as Ouranos was given the severity of an indiscretion such as mine.     

As I sat in sensecraft amongst my corpsebrooders, macerating in this rather unfavorable reflection, Ouranos walked in. He looked ready to deliver one hell of a presentation. I started again to become excited in spite of myself, though hearing the sniggers of Joey and the other Reapsakes behind me still sustained the pit in my stomach.

Dr. Rocktopath helped Ouranos set up the projector and soon he was ready to begin. Ouranos said, “Hello! Today, Dr. Rocktopath has asked me to talk to you in some detail about Incursion. Most of you, no doubt, know what Incursion is on a basic, ‘folk’ level, but today I’m going to tell you what’s important about it for your educational objectives. And if you’re wondering about my own purpose, let’s call this a personal exercise, or something maybe just a bit more than that.

“To give you a brief description of Incursion in case you need a refresher: it is essentially the deployment from a long conjectured but relatively (with regard to our recorded history) recently verified origin (Kaali) of (what you could think of as) predatory pieces of Entertainment. Since it’s utterly useless to speculate about the beings or agencies that create these projectiles, you can say, as such, that our world is a place where Entertainment comes to us as a natural phenomenon. This Entertainment cannot be used and is not intended for mere recreation, however. All Incursive specimens instigate feelings of unbeatable despair within unsuspecting viewers. Depending on the composition of the specimen and on the individual audience member’s biology, there can be stages leading up to the final psychophysical disintegration. Bowdlerizing is not really effective since there are rarely scenes in particular that we can pick out as being pivotally offensive or harmful—we can spend hours on analysis and remove a scene or section we are sure is the ‘culprit’ only to find that the effort has proven futile. Thorough training and mastery of sensecraft is necessary before Incursion can be properly digested. The training requires a rather hardy mindset, however, and most people choose to forego it unless they are pursuing higher levels of directly related study. Things have gotten much safer this past century in any case, so this is understandable.”

All the while, Ouranos flipped through slides showing images of archaeologically groundbreaking examples of Incursive projectiles. Some of it looked even newer than the glimpses of contemporary stuff I had seen.

“So, it may be somewhat confusing that everything we know about how to do artcraft (and, as I hope you’ll see, sensecraft) has been derived from the axioms we’ve been able to establish from studying Incursion. The reason for this, which I’ll return to, is that, because the results of viewing Incursion by regular people are predictable, studying it can lead us to extrapolate general theories and eventually build formal systems.

“I’d now like to go through three examples in detail. Afterwards, I’ll say a few words about how this is relevant to sensecraft, though I’ll let Dr. Rocktopath elaborate more thoroughly on that discussion tomorrow. Of course, since I’m a student just like you all are, I won’t be offended if any of you decide to leave.”

I heard the scrape of two or three chairs directly behind me, but Ouranos didn’t pause. The next slide popped up immediately.

“The first example of Incursion I want to talk about is a film, originally found as a tube-cartridge, called Psychopathic Chump. This film concerns the life of a young man named Liam. We don’t know anything about where the man is from, but, as you can see, his eyes are nightbracket, not any kind of bloodshade. Same with his love interest, Wendy; neither are her eyes any kind of bloodshade. Actually, in most Incursive projectiles, eye color tends to be freshfall, nightbracket, or deadpetal, but oddly, never bloodshade, doubledark, sunpetal, or burnglower. The reason for this specificity is unknown.

“From the onset, Liam sees himself as a thoroughly unlucky person. Most experts agree that he does not have anything exceptionally ‘wrong’ about him, especially to an extent so as to warrant the kind of behavior patterns he displays in the film. But it seems to be the case that wherever Liam is from happens to exert some kind of pressure, either through society as a whole or some particular branch of society, which influences Liam to gradually turn from a troubled but well-liked student into a delusional, privately crazed, and eventually megalomaniacal deviant. After humiliating himself at a college party, he decides the “final straw” has been drawn. Enough is enough, so to speak. He also becomes fixated on the only girl there who didn’t participate in the ensuing mockery, Wendy. He becomes convinced that his future happiness will be forged out of the agglutination of some sickly wormfashion attainment of his ‘professional goals’ (which by now amount to planetary domination—retribution for his perceived negative life experiences) with his success in having a genuine relationship with Wendy. From here to the end, we will come to see that there is something catastrophic about witnessing and falling into empathy with the afflictions of Liam. He ends up rebelling against his parents’ wishes, drops out of college, and starts a cock-fighting operation in an attempt to raise money for an “impactful” trip to his nation’s capital. After a series of increasingly poor business decisions, however, he gets into a fight after being confronted by a childhood enemy-turned-partner, is horribly beaten up in front of Wendy on the night he had planned to ask her to be his one and only beloved, and subsequently falls victim to a spiral of hopelessness that eventually drives him to suicide. At the end of all this, for reasons that aren’t so clear, even to me after hours and hours of study, Wendy becomes insane with sorrow after hearing about Liam’s demise and it is implied that she lives the rest of her life suffering incurable, insoluble misery.      

It may sound like quite a ludicrous reaction, a device you may expect to find in second-rate artcraft, but in this case, the laughter that might be induced in viewers does not tend to last long.

“The best framing to communicate the ensuing feeling I can think of is this: imagine someone slit your throat and pushed you off a cliff. You fall, but somehow, the way you were pushed and the tumid bulge of the rock-face make it so that you catch every single nook and cranny on the way down. And all the while, you’re picking up speed, spraying on the stoneshade. And that’s really what this is. It’s a jagged kind of assault, as if that sort of thing squeezes the most possible negativity and hopelessness out of mental space as one can imagine.”

The screenshots on the slides had been, for the most part, unexceptional, even boring looking. I struggled to determine how this film could be so dangerous as to be classified as Incursion.

“Next, I want to talk about another film called Eclogue of Aldebaran, The Follower. Again, the location of this film is not clear, but it is theorized to take place on a planet either in the solar system of the star Aldebaran or in some vicinity thereof. The characters, as you can see, look much like those from Psychopathic Chump, but the setting is more rural, dim, and antiquated. The main characters are named Ero and Zelmgorsutrix. Besides one spoken line, the film is entirely silent.”

Apart from his eyes and clothing, I thought that Zelmgorsutrix bore a strong resemblance to my own Kelp.

“Anyway, Zelmgorsutrix, a young independent farmer, falls in love with Ero, a beautiful girl from a noble family. To the audience, it is obvious that this love is puerile, unhealthful, and destined to fail. Still, as we’ll see, the trick of the film seems to be to unfold the story in such a way as to deprive the audience of choice in how they hope the film will end. No doubt thinking he’s being brilliantly wormfashion, Zelmgorsutrix bonds himself to Ero’s elder brother, Kin, in a pathetic effort to get closer to Ero herself. This fails immediately, as Kin puts Ero (who has committed some unexplained indiscretion) to work in the castle morgue, spraying corpses with a kind of magical solution that prevents maggots from hatching under their skins. The number of corpses is apparently so absurdly massive that Zelmgorsutrix never has a chance to make himself seen by Ero. Knowing her to be working in such an environment also has a profound effect on Zelmgorsutrix’s creative impulses, as he starts to compose what he calls ‘criminal’s poetry’ as his only leisurely amusement. When he at last gets close to Ero one evening in a hidden, labyrinthine garden, under a naught-bound sickle moon, Kin stumbles upon them and cuts off Zelmgorsutrix’s nose for daring to approach a female in his family. In fact, thanks to a spy, he had known about Zelmgorsutrix’s feelings and intentions all along. He had lied about putting Ero to work in the morgue, and was just waiting for the right moment to deal punishment for Zelmgorsutrix’s impropriety. His words to Zelmgorsutrix as he hobbles away in agony are, ‘Serves you right, you peasant. I’ll have your parents hunted down for giving you that showy name.’ All the while, despite ourselves, we are compelled to root for Zelmgorsutrix, rather than to write him off as the blithering, delusion-driven fool he clearly is.

Instead of satisfying this coerced desire, the film has Zelmgorsutrix hang himself in Ero’s garden with his pockets stuffed with his unpublished manuscripts. As the denouement proceeds, we are shown Ero grown up, with an adopted daughter; but, for no given reason, she is so ridden with anguish over Zelmgorsutrix that the only thing she can do to equal in expression her feelings for him in her fantasies is to read her daughter the things he wrote before he died. In a final montage, we are shown an alternate reality in which Zelmgorsutrix and Ero had successfully run off together to what looks like a deserted region of their planet. There they are depicted to be exceptionally happy.”

There was a break in the slides.

“So now I’ll say a bit about why these two films are important. Both of them engage in an offensive maneuver against our nascent cognitive wiring in a manner such that we often come to sense some underlying mechanism of damnation unfurling against us, but that we are nevertheless ultimately unable to resist or rebuff. Notice, in particular, how the instances of suicide in both films are resolved not with derision, but, rather to the contrary, with glorification and indulgence. And yet, it is naïve, at best, to categorically dismiss the material on critical grounds. From these two examples, we see that the presence of (and integration with) genuinely captivating filmmaking technique—from syntax to dialectical dynamics to aesthetics, and so forth—transforms what we would perhaps otherwise evaluate as crass and amateurish artcraft into fatal poison. National research has confirmed this to be the case for the vast majority of untrained people both pre- and post-MaskEx. In fact, research of that type could only commence once protocols were developed to make sure advanced researchers were not permanently damaged. But since those protocols had to be developed from scratch and need to be updated periodically…well…you all know what that means. And further, to reemphasize an especially important point: because Incursion is reliant upon and emblematic of natural laws that force predictable outcomes, we’ve been able to use it to develop a logic-pointed technical field like artcraft. And as I’ve already alluded to, we eventually got to sensecraft too.

“Now, for my last example of Incursion, I want to talk about an Incursive chapbook titled A Linearization of Nonlinear Space-Time: Reduction to a Vile Creature.” He flipped to a slide showing a triptych of pages with blocks of ordinary-looking text and pulled out some notecards to read off of. “Immediately, you can see that this title attempts to be both jeering and alarmingly all-encompassing.

“Now, I’ll admit that even I’m not overly familiar with the history or extent of this piece, and am considering this specimen for the first time along with the rest of you. But according to Dr. Rocktopath, it’s especially valued among experts for its literal purity. The characters are denoted only as letters and all descriptions are, from what we can tell, universal. As in, given the qualifiers or descriptors used in the text, there’s nothing we can imagine that would be divergent in relatablity between different intelligent interpreters. The only meaningful differences between subjects are (again, from what we can tell) their gender categorizations and name-letters. Seemingly solely through their arrangement and order, the individual fragments of text generate what we call a ‘dramatic progression’ as the output of their integration. In this way, the example demonstrates that it is possible to devise a system of symbolic objects that invokes irreducible ‘feelings’ by drawing from an idea-bank populated only with conceptual constituents subject to quantitative decomposition, like the material precepts of chemistry or the hard logic of digital computing. From a place of pure intuition, this area of investigation may seem paradox-ridden and, for all intents and purposes as far you’re all concerned, it is. As you can see, it can be difficult to imagine how this text could even be compared with the previous examples—you really don’t possess the tools or experience needed to understand what exactly you’re looking at.

“And that’s why there’s no point in trying to summarize this one. I’d have to invent and use a different level of vocabulary in order to describe what’s going on here without you all having dedicated your lives to deep, intensive study. Maybe we can conceive of some true adept managing to do this in a successfully relatable way, but no one has yet unraveled that part of the code of nature that would make such conceptual commutableness possible at a secondary school level. But therein lies the inscrutable beauty we wanted to expose you to with this piece.”

He glanced at the clock readied to make a final statement. “Now, seeing as this is sensecraft, I think I owe you a few additional words before Dr. Rocktopath takes back over tomorrow. It turns out that the formalism we’ve been able to extract from Incursion can, in concert with recognizing and understanding the implications of Kaali’s very existence, be used to develop ways to control our subjective sensory experiences. Since Incursion has demonstrated that Kaali knows our species’ neurosensory processes to perfection, we can deduce that the machinations that empower Incursion can be analyzed and repurposed so that, with thorough education with a well-devised praxis, you will all, should you desire and in case the refreshment of MaskEx fails you, be able to create a world of your own, through the power inherit in your very own biology. Most importantly (perhaps), with enough practice, you’ll have a means of self-rescue should you ever be unwittingly exposed to Incursion.” At this point, something prompted Ouranos to look around the room and he nodded off at a slight angle toward the floor. Then, a look as if he had a sudden realization quickly flashed on his mask.

He quickly recovered his composure and with a bit more haste (and, looking back, perhaps with a hint of reluctance), he went on, “As a last point, I’m not sure if Dr. Rocktopath has mentioned this to you before, but I feel obligated to tell you: if you want to practice sensecraft to its full effect and efficiency, use the thought of Kaali, the source of Incursion, as your starting point—as if you had a sort of psychic connection to the place…because, of course, you do, in a way, at least.”

The bell rang. As gripping for me the period had been, I was still surprised that no one had ended up leaving early, given that it had been a student lecture. When the bell stopped ringing, it was so silent that the room felt almost empty.

Dr. Rocktopath looked winded with satisfaction. His eyes scanned back and forth over the class and he said, “Well there you have it! Now that’s what I call horror-style! Let’s have a round of applause!” Everyone started to oblige well enough.

“Mike? Joey? You two doing all right? Starting to feel a bit— different?”

I turned to Mike and, though he clapped and smiled, the spillshade of his eyes shone diligently, fierce and cold. But I discerned a twitch in his mask as I looked back up to see a wash of pride erupting over Ouranos’ juddering mask.

Then, as I came to grasp the situation at hand, a wave of anguish overcame me and caused me to keel. In hindsight, it was so obvious! After all, unlike the first two examples, there was no indication that the last example had been merely a fragment. And Ouranos’ unflagging exuberance gave his words such sway and momentum, that nobody had come to question him. Furthermore, since Ouranos had had his eyes set on his notecards, it was no wonder why he had remained unaffected.

I craned my neck up and behind me and saw that Joey and the Reapsakes were also on the floor, along with the rest of the students, their masks contorted into unspeakable formations and unable to let out any noise. Joey was trying to keep his eyes trained on Ouranos, but I could tell his will was failing him.

Dr. Rocktopath said, “Don’t worry about your other classes, I have pre-written slips for all of you. You’ll be spending the rest of the day with me. Your parents have been informed as well. I hope that by the end of our time this afternoon and evening, we can all move in a new direction together. You should all be compelled to work for a more constructive state of the youth after MaskEx. Won’t that be nice?”

Though my heart reeled and my mind sizzled, I was thankful more than anything. After all, what an opportunity I now had to get closer to Dr. Rocktopath! Indeed, in the coming days and weeks, and especially into and after MaskEx, I came to truly cherish Ouranos’ lecture and the advent of Dr. Rocktopath’s horror-style.



BIO

N.J. Banerjee resides in the SF Bay Area in California. He holds a BA from UC Berkeley in Molecular and Cell Biology and an MSc from University College London in neuroscience. This is his first published work of fiction.







Orphans of the Savannah

By Adam Matson



I went to Kenya to avoid mating rituals. The year I was twenty-six about half of my friends got married. I went to weddings all summer. Sat at the singles tables, wondering if this was all there was to life. You can only browse so many Williams and Sonoma wedding registries before you start to feel the choke of settled life.

I was living in Boston, working in a marketing firm. I had a tiny apartment. Cubicle in a downtown office. It was the life high school and college had prepared me for, and it left me feeling utterly soulless. I showed up to work every morning and immediately felt tired. The window beside my desk looked directly into another office building. I watched the people sitting in cubicles in the adjacent building, wondering if their lives were any more interesting than mine.

Every Thursday my friends and I gathered at a bar on Beacon Hill to drink and discuss our dynamic and accelerating lives: engagements, internships, jobs, promotions. We called this meeting the Thursday Club. Week after week we toasted and laughed, ordered $16 martinis. I felt like a mouse running on a wheel.

On a Thursday night in October I left work and shuffled up the hill. The group was already a round deep at the bar. Brendan and Mary announced their engagement, and Tyler Dunn knocked over his chair jumping up to buy their next drinks. As we toasted the happy couple, I thought: what crap will I order them from Williams and Sonoma?

Then I made an announcement of my own.

“I’m going to Africa,” I said. “To work with elephants.”

Everyone stared at me. Why? was the primary question. And for how long? And what the hell for?

I was going for three months, volunteering at a wildlife orphanage in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park. Why for so long? Because I didn’t think a two-week vacation would cure my cubicle blues. I knew nothing about elephants, except that they were mercilessly slaughtered by poachers for the ivory in their tusks, sometimes leaving their baby offspring to fend for themselves against predators and the elements. In my mind I pictured an orphaned elephant stumbling across the savannah, lost, hungry, alone, and for some reason I felt a deep kinship with the animal.

None of my friends could believe that I would quit my job. They knew how hard it was to find that good job, that downtown job we’d all dreamed about in college.

“So you’re just leaving everything?” my friend Julie asked. “Everything you’ve worked for?”

I shrugged. Everything what? I had no answer she or any of them would find acceptable. Julie and I had been officially broken up for about six months, though there were still occasional late-night text summons. We would quickly hook up, and watch long hours of insipid television.

“I might be back,” I said to the table. Nobody bought my next drink.

My plan was to arrive in Kenya in November, during the shorter of the two rainy seasons, volunteer with the elephants until February, then spend a week at the beach in Mombasa, before returning home. But as I rode the bus through lush terrain on the road to Tsavo, I started to suspect my stay might be longer than a few months. I had spent four years in Boston, suffocated by traffic and humanity. The grasslands in Southeast Kenya seemed to spread out forever, rolling upward in green hills to the mountains. The pressure in my chest began to loosen.

The Tsavo Elephant Orphanage was owned and operated by a British couple, Alice and Donovan Price. Donovan was a veterinarian from a wealthy family, and had lived in Africa most of his life. Alice had originally wanted to be a painter, attended art school in Paris, then inherited some money and went to Africa seeking adventure. In Kenya she met her future husband while out painting in the bush. At the time Donovan was tracking lions, before he switched his focus to elephants. I was surprised to learn the Prices had no children, and unsurprised later when Alice told me, while sitting in a mud bath with a baby calf, that the elephants were her children. If anyone in the States had said this to me, I might have laughed. But Africa was different. The land was ancient and truthful. It had been around long before humans, and would survive long after we followed the many species we had already crowded out.

For the first few months I slept in a bunkhouse. Employees and volunteers lived, ate, and slept on-site. There were no two-bedroom apartments with a pool and a gym nearby. The nearest large town was Voi, a rambling two-hour drive from the orphanage.

The manager of day-to-day operations was a Kenyan named George Odhiambo. George lived on the grounds in a small, one-story house with his wife and four children. He spent much of his time taking the orphaned elephants out for walks in the park, where they would meet, and hopefully bond with, the wild elephants that lived there. One of my duties was to join George on these walks. We were sort of chaperones, taking the young ones out for day trips, then rounding them up, and bringing them back to the orphanage at night.

            “Are you married, Jeffrey?” was the first question George asked me when we met, followed by: “Do you have children?”

            “No, and no,” I said.

            George introduced me to his family before even taking me to see the elephants, and his wife Sophie fed me lunch. His children roped me into a game of soccer in their dusty yard. From then on George seemed to take a personal interest in my lack of spouse and offspring, coaching me on the importance of perpetuating the life cycle.

            My primary duty at the orphanage, as I had sort of expected it would be, was to clean up shit. Elephants produced biblical quantities of excrement, which I had to scoop out of their living areas. The shit was then packaged up and transported to various locations for use as fertilizer.

            “This will be your best friend in Tsavo,” George said, handing me a shovel.

            “The shit is actually very important to us,” Alice Price explained to me, one day when I was covered with excrement. “It tells us whether the animals are healthy or sick, if they are dehydrated, if the food we give them is providing proper nourishment.” She listed all the ways in which animal excrement could be abnormal, and told me to keep an eye out for aberrations.

By the second month I did develop a keen eye for elephant feces. I sent a long email home to my friends in Boston detailing everything I had learned about excrement, and its animal health implications.

“Sounds like you are full of shit, Jeff,” Tyler Dunn replied.

Julie asked when I was coming home.

            Most volunteers stayed at the orphanage for a week or two, before returning to wherever in the world they kept their real lives. Some just seemed to want to get their picture taken with an elephant. Many arrived assuming that the elephants would take an instant liking to them, that they would make lifelong friends with a majestic, ancient beast. Americans especially were miffed that the elephants could be shy and aloof.

            Elephant babies were like human babies, in that they primarily responded to, and wanted to be around, their mothers. When they were orphaned, they often had to learn to trust humans as surrogate parents. Many of the young elephants suffered from serious emotional trauma, having witnessed their mother being slaughtered by poachers. They were wary of humans. They didn’t want to be petted. Very young babies often did not survive their transition to the orphanage. The first time I saw a baby elephant die I felt a deep emptiness, like a profound personal rejection. Alice told me that the baby died because it did not recognize me as someone it could trust to feed it. So it did not eat. It died because it missed its mother. I cried in my bunk that night, and called home to my own parents the next day.

            “Life is fragile, sweetie,” my mother said. “All babies need to know they have a mother.”

            Then she passed me off to my father, who recommended I send my resume to a consultant, so I could present “this elephant thing” in the most advantageous light.

            In the wild, elephant families were oriented around the females, with the leader of the family group generally being the oldest and wisest cow, the matriarch. Aunts and sisters helped raise the young calves, and together the group traveled and nurtured each other, the mothers teaching the children how to find food and water, how to survive. When a young male reached his teenage years, he usually turned sexually curious and aggressive, like humans. Unlike humans, the teenaged males turned their sexual attention on their sisters and cousins, at which point the mother would expel them from the group, leaving them in the wild to fend for themselves. Males were welcomed back during mating season, but otherwise they were basically encouraged to get lost. Sometimes they formed their own groups, passing the days fighting for status and the right to impregnate the females. Or they became loners, rambling the plains on their own, guided by an inner spirit and agenda.

            After the rainy season the nights turned warm and dry. George and I often roamed the grounds of the orphanage after dark, smoking a joint, checking to see what nocturnal activity might be astir.

            “How many brothers and sisters do you have, Jeffrey?” George asked.

            “One brother, one sister.”

            “Why did your parents give up?”

            “Children are expensive,” I said. “We live in Boston. There are too many people already.”

            “I have thirteen brothers and sisters,” said George. “I don’t even know all their names.” He laughed. “Of course I do. We live in Nairobi. And I always know when they are nearby. It is the same with elephants. They always know who is here.”

            I thought of my own siblings. We were not close. My brother and sister could have worked in the cubicles on either side of me, and I still wouldn’t have seen or heard from them until Christmas.

            George stopped to listen to the breeze. “Wait a minute,” he said.

            I stood perfectly still, thinking I was about to be mauled by a lion. George walked quietly through the darkness toward the facility’s perimeter fence.

            “I hear my old friend,” he said.

            Assuming it was safe to move, I followed George to the fence. I could feel a significant presence, like a large area of warmth, wafting toward us. Normally I would have attributed this feeling to the weed, but after two months, I could easily smell the earthy musk of an elephant. I could even tell it was a male.

            “Do you see him?” George asked.

            “I smell him.”

            “He is ten yards away.” George leaned on the fence. “Kamari. Come to us, my good friend. Kamari!”

            Vibrations rippled through the ground. Against the navy blue glow of the star-dotted horizon a great blackness formed.

            “There is my boy,” George said.

            I knew the elephant stood right in front of us, but I could not see him. Instead I felt the soft thud of his trunk against my face. I froze. The rough skin wormed over me, and then a large blast of air hit me in the face.

            “He is checking you out,” George said.

            “He doesn’t think I’m food, does he?”

            “Jeffrey. They only eat plants.”

            “I know.”

            The elephant huffed, a long, deep exhale. The trunk poked me a couple more times, then vanished back into the darkness. The vibrations rippled again beneath my feet.

            “That is Kamari,” George whispered. “He is like you, Jeffrey, a lone bull. But gentle. His name means moonlight. We call him that because he usually comes at night. Two months since the last time I saw him.”

            “I didn’t even see him,” I said. “He felt big.”

            “He is the biggest elephant you will ever see.”

The end of three months came quickly. Just when I was starting to become a real connoisseur of elephant feces, I found myself pricing tickets for a flight home. I still planned to spend a week at the beach in Mombasa, now that the weather was hot, but I did not look forward to returning to Boston. A few of the orphans were starting to recognize me. One or two would trumpet at me when I took them for their afternoon walks.

            I roamed the grounds of the orphanage, listening to the night sounds of Tsavo. There were no grinding machines, no honking traffic. I could breathe. Thinking about Boston conjured nightmarish visions of cubicles, wet asphalt, crowded subways. I did miss my friends, and I badly wanted a pizza. But I did not want to give up the open spaces.

            A few days before my departure, Alice Price called me into her office.

            “So you’re leaving us?” she asked.

            “I don’t really want to,” I admitted. “I like it here. I feel like I’m just starting to understand things.”

            “You’re good with the elephants, Jeff. You are patient and gentle. They respond to you. Many people think they like animals, but not everyone can connect with them.”

A warm breeze wafted through the open windows of her un-air-conditioned office. Outside I could see two orphans playing with an old tire.

“If you want to stay here,” Alice said. “We can hire you. It would not be a Boston salary, but you could live here at the orphanage, and there are not many expenses.”

I stared out the window, watching the young calves rolling the tire through the orange dirt. I wanted to join them, see if they would let me play.

Alice smiled. “What do you think?”

“What if you get sick?” my mother asked, when I called home with the news.

“I’m surrounded by veterinarians,” I replied.

My father put it more bluntly. “We didn’t put you through college so you could babysit animals, Jeff. Tony and Sharon are working their asses off. What’s your problem?”

After law school my brother had landed a job at Leechman and Cross, a downtown firm, while my sister was quickly ascending the communications ladder with the Boston Bruins.

“Two out of three ain’t bad,” I told my father.

I didn’t make it to the beach at Mombasa either. Alice set me up with a small room in the bunkhouse, where half a dozen of us lived full-time. I began spending nights with the baby orphans, sleeping on a cot next to a new arrival, sometimes for months at a time. The babies required feeding every three hours, even at night, and they needed to know that a warm body was nearby, for comfort. I learned to sleep with my arm dangling off the cot so that a baby could nudge me with its trunk. I even crawled off the cot and slept beside them on cold nights.

            For two years I slept with baby elephants. After a couple of months I no longer noticed their overpowering smell. Nor did it occur to me that I had developed that smell myself. I did not interact with many female humans at the orphanage, especially any close to my own age. So I did not think about my smell. Mostly I thought about the babies, and focused on feeding them milk and Similac, getting them past those crucial early months until they could finally eat grass and tree bark.

Not all of the babies brought to the orphanage survived. Generally the younger the calf, the less likely it was to live. Many came in weak or sick. Others refused to eat. Some had injuries from poachers or predators. One morning I awoke to find my charge had died during the night. We had named her Kala, and she had only been with us for two days. Her eyes in death were gray and filmy. I sat on the floor and leaned against her for a long time. Even though I had only known her briefly, her passing felt like my own child had died in its crib. I often cried when the babies didn’t make it. Alice later told me that she couldn’t sleep the night after losing a baby. George kept a list of all the elephants that passed through the orphanage. He made sure each one had a name, and he could recall each of their stories. I learned to carry the deaths as a compromise, a tradeoff for saving the others.

Every afternoon I walked the orphans in the park. The wild elephants found us easily, lumbering over to greet the orphans with trumpeting or trunk-hugs. George and Alice could recognize many of the elephants in the park by sight, and by many I mean hundreds. Sometimes they could pick out an ex-orphan from a long distance. There goes Lucia, we raised her twenty years ago. There’s Alphonse, he always comes around when his friend Sydney is nearby.

One afternoon George and I were watching an elephant family playing in a mud hole with a few of our orphans, when George spotted a giant on the horizon. It was a bull, and an old bruiser from the looks of him; his tusks were only short nubs. A typical elephant his size would have tusks five feet long.

“There is my old friend!” George cried, and he began walking toward the giant. He cupped his hands to his mouth. “Kamari!”

To my surprise, the elephant started walking toward us. I expected the ground to shake, and puddles to ripple, like when the T-Rex shows up in Jurassic Park. But when the old bull arrived he greeted George by trumpeting and flapping his ears. He draped his trunk over George’s shoulders, and George clapped the rough skin with a dusty hand. Kamari stood almost thirteen feet tall, well over twice my own height. After inspecting George he threw his trunk over me. The tips of his snout gummed my face like a pair of fat fingers.

“He remembers you,” George said.

I was mildly flattered. I had only met him once. In the dark.

“He does not forget. He’s a good man. Aren’t you, my old friend?”

Kamari stood with us for a while, watching the babies in the mud pool. The adult females watched Kamari attentively, but did not seem too concerned about him. Eventually the elephant family moved away, and George and I rounded up the orphans. Kamari waited until the mud hole was empty, then waded in himself.

During my third year in Kenya, there was a terrible drought. The land turned a crispy golden orange. Grasses shriveled and disappeared. Streams and watering holes vanished like dreams upon waking. In the park, and elsewhere, animals died by the thousands. It was boom time at the orphanage.

I started traveling across Kenya with Donovan to retrieve orphaned elephants from various wildlife refuges. While riding the bumpy rural roads Donovan religiously applied sun tan lotion (he was a melanoma survivor), and educated me about the troubling history of human/elephant relations in Africa.

“Droughts force the animals to look for food anywhere they can get it,” he told me. “They raid farms, destroy crops. A single elephant family can consume a farmer’s entire crop in one meal. Understandably, the locals become agitated.”

“So their solution is to shoot them?” I asked.

“It’s their livelihood,” Donovan said. “Would you starve an elephant or your own child?”

“My child, probably.”

He grinned. “This problem will likely never be resolved. Elephants are like jet airplanes, they require lots of fuel, and lots of space to move. The human population grows, and cuts into their natural habitat. We save what we can.”

Tsavo was located in one of Kenya’s more arid regions. We felt the drought harder than many places. Alice spent weeks at a time overseas, fundraising, and contracting with bottled water corporations to import water for the orphans. Still, many of our charges died from dehydration, and every day we found corpses in the park, not just of elephants, but birds and other animals. Donovan told me that the drought was nature’s way of culling the population, but that didn’t lessen the tension at work. We all spent many sleepless nights attending to malnourished orphans. Everyone grew restless, waiting for the rain.

On a scorching afternoon I hiked through the park in search of Barnaby, a five-year-old calf who had wandered off during the previous day’s walk. By now I felt fairly comfortable in the bush, keeping a vigilant eye out for snakes. With the drought many plants and trees had died, and visibility extended for miles. I stopped every few hundred yards to scan the horizon with my binoculars. I could hear George in the distance calling Barnaby’s name. Barnaby had been with us nearly since birth, so we assumed he would not know how to find water in the wild. If we did not recover him within a day or two he would die.

After two hours of searching, I had seen no live animals, just one or two carcasses. Many of the herds had left to look for water. Where they expected to find it was anybody’s guess. Elephant matriarchs could remember the paths to watering holes for years, even decades. The family groups relied on the matriarchs to survive. I relied on my canteen, which was almost empty, and I was three or four miles from the orphanage. I leaned against a tree to catch my breath.

My first indication that something was wrong came as a feeling, like when the pressure drops right before a storm. I was sitting at the edge of a cluster of trees, not far from a dry creek bed. The air suddenly seemed devoid of all life.

I heard a rustling in the tall grass, thought it might be Barnaby, and called his name. Waited. Barnaby would come crashing out of the bushes, anxious to be led home. But the grasses remained still. I could no longer hear George crying out.

“Oh, shit,” I whispered.

The lion stepped out of the grasses, his enormous head and all-seeing eyes turned directly toward me.

I had no weapons, and little strength. I thought about climbing a tree, and if I hadn’t been exhausted I would have probably remembered that climbing trees was no problem for a lion.

This one looked starved and emaciated. I stood up, tried to straighten my posture. Animals needed to know who the alpha was, who was master of the territory. I thought maybe I could bluff the lion.

But looking into his eyes I could see there would be no bluff. A lion’s stare was non-negotiable, his intent uncompromising. This was his yard. I was the intruder. He would go for my throat. I would die under the scorching Tsavo sun.

Then I felt vibrations in the ground. The grass parted, and out stepped an enormous elephant. The lion and I both turned at once.

It was Kamari. I recognized him by his bulk and his lack of tusks. Incredibly, sheltered beneath Kamari was Barnaby, hiding from the sun under the bull’s stomach. Barnaby stumbled and dragged his trunk. He was dehydrated, close to death. But he let out a fearful trumpet when he saw the lion.

The lion growled back. Kamari stamped the dirt with his foot. Slowly he stepped into the clearing beside the creek bed and stood between my tree and the lion. He extended his ears and lowered his head. I whispered his name, my throat parched and dry. The lion backed off toward the grass. He growled over his shoulder at Kamari, before skittering back into the brush, his body lowered to the ground like a scolded housecat.

When the lion was gone Kamari turned to me, lowering his ears. Light-headed with relief, I peeled myself off my tree and approached him. Barnaby trumpeted weakly. Kamari poked my shoulders with his trunk.

“Thank you, Kamari,” I said in a low voice. “Thank you, my friend.”

Kamari nudged Barnaby and they started walking. Sighting the horizon through my binoculars, I saw that he was leading the calf toward the orphanage.

“Think I’ll tag along,” I said, my heart rate down-shifting to normal.

We reached the orphanage around sundown, and I returned Barnaby to his pen. I met George by the fence. Together we watched as Kamari stood off in the distance, staring at us with quiet nobility.

“He saved my life,” I said, after telling George what had happened. “Barnaby’s too. If not for that elephant I’d be dead.”

“He’s a good man,” George agreed.

“Why doesn’t he have any tusks?” I asked. “What happened to him?”

“Poachers. Shot him and cut off his tusks with a chainsaw. Left him for dead. We found him in the savannah, hundreds of miles to the west. Years ago.”

“And he still trusts humans?” I asked. “If I were him I would step on every human I saw.”

It was shockingly easy for an elephant to kill a person. A strong swipe of the trunk would do it.

George shrugged, watching as Kamari ambled back into the park. “Maybe he forgives.”

The drought eventually gave way to a generous rainy season, raising the spirits of everyone at the orphanage, humans and elephants alike. Kamari remained nearby for most of this time period. George said that he probably wanted to be near a reliable water source. This gave me the opportunity to learn a bit about the elephant everyone called “the old man.”

Nobody knew for sure how old Kamari actually was, but Donovan estimated that he was around 40, judging by the progression of his teeth. Despite the fact that Kamari had been viciously shot and maimed by poachers, he seemed relatively at ease around people. He allowed Donovan and Alice to perform periodic wellness checks, inspecting his mouth and trunk and feet. Kamari’s favorite treat was apples and strawberries chopped up and mixed together. Once he had his snack he would let the orphanage staff inspect him.

For weeks I made an effort to ingratiate myself to the gentle bull that had saved my life. I fed him apples, rubbed his trunk, doused him with cold water from a hose. Once or twice I cleared the orphans out of the park’s better mud holes so that Kamari could have a mud bath all to himself. Despite his enormous size, which generally would have given him status, he remained deferential to his peers, allowing other animals to eat, drink and bathe before he took his turn.

“Tell them to get lost, Kamari,” I implored him as he stood patiently watching a trio of calves rolling in the mud. The young ones had more than adequately covered themselves, and now seemed to be playing for fun.

Kamari walked over and nudged me with his trunk, then stood there like a big, dumb dog, sort of wagging his tail.

“Okay, old man. Have it your way.”

It was almost by accident, however, that I discovered Kamari was far from dumb. During my lunch breaks I liked to take a sandwich and a beer out just beyond the camp’s perimeter fence and sit in the shade of an acacia tree. There I would read the many books I ordered online. One afternoon I was reading a collection of humorous essays, and laughing to myself in the shade. I was so engrossed in the book that I did not notice Kamari had snuck up on me, until his hulking mass blocked out the sun.

“What’s up, my friend?” I asked. He was staring at me curiously, his trunk raised up to scent the air. “Listen to this.”

I read him a particularly funny line from the book and, unable to help myself, burst out laughing. Kamari lowered his trunk and made a low groaning sound, like a trombone.

“I don’t have any apples,” I told him. I read him another passage from the book, again laughing to myself. Kamari repeated his trombone call, then stepped forward and wrapped his trunk around my shoulders.

“You have a sense of humor, don’t you?” I said. Every time I laughed Kamari trumpeted at me, which made me laugh even harder, at the absurdity of carrying on with an elephant, like a couple of playground chums.

From then on I continued to order humorous books off the internet, and whenever Kamari came around, I read them to him. I even started to believe that the big bull genuinely liked me, for something other than my apples, or the refreshing blast of the hose. He would listen to me read and laugh, blow his trombone, and poke me with his trunk. Sometimes he stood listening to me read for over an hour.

But Kamari lived on Tsavo time, and as often as he would show up to say hello, he would also vanish, wandering back into the park, sometimes not returning for weeks or months.

The year after the drought I went with Donovan Price to Amboseli National Park, to advise a group of park rangers how best to approach and handle orphaned elephants. We trekked out into the savannah on a breezy afternoon, under a sky so vast we could see many different weather systems. To the east the sky was crystal blue, but on the western horizon the blackish clouds of a storm gathered over Lake Conch. To the south stood the arresting majesty of Mt. Kilimanjaro, crowned with snow, clouds swirling over the purple peak.

The grasslands extended in all directions. A herd of zebras galloped to safety away from us. Across the plains, clusters of elephants lumbered toward water, like diesel trucks grinding along a distant road. We did not encounter any orphans on our expedition, and the elephants we did come upon kept a cautious distance. But as we set off for base camp in the late afternoon, one of the rangers literally stumbled over the carcass of a lion. Everyone gathered around the corpse. It was uncommon to come that close to a lion under any circumstances, and unless the animal was sedated or dead, you didn’t want to.

Immediately we noticed that the lion was female, and that it had not died of natural causes. A bullet hole oozed drying blood at the base of the animal’s skull. Donovan and a senior ranger knelt by the lion and inspected the wound.

“Just shot,” the ranger said to Donovan.

Together we fanned out to search the tall grass. It was illegal to shoot lions in the park, but poachers, and unscrupulous game hunters, did it anyway. It was not long before I heard the hooting signal of one of the rangers. Following the calls, we found two men crouching beneath a cluster of trees. One was a bearded white man holding an enormous rifle, and I recognized a Dallas Cowboys tee-shirt under his camo vest. The other was black, probably a local tribesman, likely the hunter’s guide.

The senior ranger spoke to the local man in Swahili, a heated conversation, culminating with the guide surrendering a weapon of his own.

“Now wait a minute,” said the white man in a thick American drawl. “I paid good money to come out here. And I don’t plan to return without my prize. Maybe there’s some way we can work this out.”

To my surprise, everybody in the group turned to me. The rangers knew I was American, and maybe they figured I could decipher the hunter’s intentions. I shrugged and stepped up to him. He was bigger than me, and older, but my blood was boiling from the sight of the dead lioness, and I was in no mood to negotiate.

“You broke the law,” I said quietly.

He smiled at the sound of my voice. “From what I hear the law is open to interpretation, partner.” He reached into his vest and pulled out a leather wallet, stuffed with American hundreds.

I spat on the ground. The man’s smile vanished. One of the rangers noticed the money. He took the man’s wallet. The cash disappeared into the senior ranger’s uniform, and now a new conversation began, in Swahili, much less hostile than before.

“Looks like there won’t be an arrest,” Donovan muttered behind a swig from his canteen.

Another ranger called out a greeting from the brush, stepping into the clearing to join us. Grinning, he cradled a yawning lion cub in his arms.

“Well, look at that,” the hunter said.

Donovan walked up to the American. “So you killed two lions today,” he said. “Where’s the rest of your money?”

The hunter made no reply. The ranger set the lion cub down, and the senior officer announced in English that it was time for everyone to go. The cub sat shaking on the ground, crying out for its mother. The rangers began walking away through the bush, leading the hunter and his guide back to their kill. Donovan Price frowned at me.

“My country, not my blood,” I said.

He turned and followed the rangers, shaking his head.

I bent down and picked up the lion cub.

I named him Max, short for Maximus, after the fictional Roman gladiator from the Ridley Scott film. It could not have been a less appropriate name. My adopted lion, whose upbringing I had undertaken personally, was not a warrior, a fighter, or even a scrapper. He was a gangly, dim-witted kitten, and I had no doubt that he would grow up to be a big, dumb, tail-chasing lummox- the fool of the animal kingdom, rather than its king.

“What did you bring that home for?” George asked me when Donovan and I returned to the orphanage. “That is not a house kitty. Do you know what he will grow up to be?”

“When he comes of age, I’ll turn him loose,” I said, as George’s children crowded around to fondle a real, live lion cub.

“He’ll kill you first,” George said. “It is sad what happened to his mother, but you should have left him to die. You deprived another animal of a meal.”

“Just be glad your mother didn’t leave you in the bush, George,” I muttered.

George laughed at me. In fact, everyone laughed at me, in between warning me that my new best friend would one day grow up to kill me.

It did not take long before we all came to suspect that something was wrong with Max, besides his unprecedented affection for other creatures. When he initially arrived at the orphanage he was sluggish, listless, and his appetite waxed and waned. He would collapse at, or on, my feet, and lie there for several minutes, eyes pinched shut, mouth wafting open and closed. Donovan took Max to a veterinary clinic in Nairobi. When he returned he informed me that Max had cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart.

“He won’t live, Jeff,” Donovan told me. “I’m sorry. We saved him from one death, but we cannot prevent the other.”

I took the news with the same feeling of rejection I always felt when one of my elephant babies passed away. Nature was either mercilessly fair, or pitilessly unfair, depending on how you looked at it. One thing we had all come to understand was that death would come when it wanted to. But as I took Max back to my room in the bunkhouse, and laid him down in the used dog bed I had stolen from George, I told myself that Max didn’t know he was sick. He would not understand that he was supposed to die, not like a person would when diagnosed with terminal heart disease, or cancer. He was an animal. He would grow up however I raised him. And so I decided to see him through to his natural end, however soon or distant that might be.

 Nobody at the orphanage wanted to adopt a lion.

“When he grows up, he’ll want to kill the elephants,” Alice Price told me as we discussed the cost and logistics of raising Max. “In the meantime, I’m worried he will stress them out, making their survival in the crucial early months that much more difficult.”

“If we socialize him, the elephants may accept him,” I theorized. “Like they do with rhinos, or George’s dogs.”

“A dog is a domesticated animal, Jeff. Elephants will know what Max is. Many of them have already seen lions in the wild. Some have had family members killed by lions.”

I was under no delusion that I could train Max to be a big, cuddly housecat. Playful though he was, in time he would grow dangerous. His instincts would kick in. He was a predator, not a pet.

“If he wasn’t sick, I might feel differently,” I told Alice. “I know our animals sometimes die. I accept that. But nature seems determined to kill Max. That’s why I want him to live.”

Many at the orphanage were determined to let nature kill Max, including Donovan Price, who was more pragmatic than the rest of us. But I could tell Alice agreed with me on some level, that none of our charges were inherently worth less than any others. None were to be outright abandoned. We had several discussions about Max before reaching an agreement. I agreed to help pay for Max’s housing, feeding, and medical costs out of my own salary. Alice agreed that we could keep Max for as long as he wasn’t a problem. And so, despite the majority view that I was an idiot and my pet should be euthanized, I began the long and tedious process of trying to civilize the young lion cub.

For the first few months of Max’s life I kept him with me at all times. He slept in the dog bed in my room in the bunkhouse. I bought a collar and a leash, and brought him with me wherever I went. I kept him well-fed. Because of his heart condition, he needed medications frequently, and it fell largely to me to provide him with them. In the evenings I talked to him and played with him, and tried to socialize him to the other staff members at the orphanage, most of whom, including George, looked at him like they wished they had a rifle.

My first concern with Max was the safety of the elephants. I was not sleeping with the new arrivals as much anymore, but I volunteered to resume this duty, reasoning that I could take care of two babies at once. Max could spend time with the elephants, and they with him, and hopefully they could grow accustomed to each other. The older orphans at the facility, as Alice had predicted, were wary of Max. Some were terrified of him. I tried to reason with them by showing them that Max could be pet and handled and fed, and that he wouldn’t kill me, but there was only so much I could do to convince an elephant to disregard millions of years of evolution.

For his part, Max seemed to like the elephants. He would rub up against them, and try to convince them to play. I kept him away from the larger animals that I thought might step on him out of fear or anger, but I found that he enjoyed being near the babies. He crawled into their pens and slept beside them, and they seemed grateful to have a warm companion to sleep with. He licked and cleaned their faces, and shared bottles of milk with them. His favorite trick was to lie on his back while a young elephant rubbed his belly with its trunk. The first time I saw him receiving this treatment, I immediately grabbed my camera so I could film it.

“You see?” I said, showing the video to George. “He’s just a big kitty.”

“He’s going to be much bigger soon,” George said.

Max grew up to be a slightly undersized adult lion. His heart condition made him smaller and weaker than he should have been. He often had trouble eating, and he developed asthma, which kept him laid up and sluggish for days, especially during the rainy season. When he reached the age when I became concerned that he would rip off some part of my body while trying to play with me, I took a chunk out of my meager savings and built Max a holding pen near the facility’s bunkhouse. We all decided he should not live near the elephants, as many of them were still (or more) afraid of him. Soon we had a regular schedule of feeding and cleaning him. Donovan took over the more complicated medical duties, giving Max injections of the medications we couldn’t mix into his food. The other staff members grew to not hate Max, and since I spent all of my free time hanging out with him so he would grow accustomed to humans, he even allowed a few of the other staff to pet him or feed him his meals.

But a remarkable bond formed between Max and several of the orphans he had cuddled with as babies. There were about a dozen elephants that grew up thinking Max was one of them. His best friend was a gregarious male named Burton. Sometimes in the afternoons, when I took this particular group for a walk in the park, I brought Max along with them (now walking him on a chain). I made sure he was well-fed and well-medicated. Max would walk alongside Burton with the gentle canter of an aging horse, the two of them nudging each other and stopping to inspect things like bugs and grass. Together we rambled through the park on our walks: a naïve American, a happily-stoned lion, and a cohort of half-tamed elephants, none of us ready for the wild in the strictest sense, but all of us following the path back to our origins.

*

In the summer of my eighth year in Kenya, changes began to take place at the orphanage. Donovan Price’s melanoma returned, and he went to England for several months of treatment and rest. Alice spent about half her time in England with him, and the other half trying to balance all the responsibilities of the orphanage. George took over some of her administrative duties, and I stepped up behind him to take over maintenance. With Alice gone much of the time, fundraising for the orphanage suffered. Max regularly needed costly trips to the veterinarian in Nairobi, and I worried that budget cuts at our facility would ultimately hurt him.

There was another complicating factor that nobody could control.

“Farmers are taking over the elephants’ natural habitat,” George told me, as we received more and more orphaned and refugee animals. “The government, of course, supports the farmers. Sympathy for the elephant is declining.”

Sympathy for the elephant had earned a victory in Kenya in 1989, when many African nations officially admonished the ivory trade. Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi publicly burned thirteen tons of confiscated ivory. Still, poachers continued to hunt and kill elephants, and this problem resurfaced as rapid population growth created more sympathy, as it were, for humans.

Reluctantly, Alice Price cut several staff members from the orphanage, even as we continued to take on more animals. She kept me on, telling me over the phone from England that I was an asset to the elephants, and that my status as a westerner could help with fundraising from the United States. She expanded the volunteer program, and opened the facility to tourists.

“So now we are also a zoo,” George told me.

The orphanage became a regular stop on the safari circuit, especially among wealthy families with children. Children could touch and play with real, live elephants. And for many of these new western visitors, I became the unofficial guide.

Several of our older orphans could be relied upon to play their part for the fundraising effort. Burton, perhaps the friendliest elephant I had yet encountered, even let kids ride him. Marina, a playful seven-year-old female, seemed to relish performing the mud bath routine for camera-happy onlookers. Other elephants earned brownie points simply for touching tourists with their trunks. The interspecies curiosity, it seemed, was mutual.

One old man who did not seem interested in the onrush of strangers was Kamari. He came around the orphanage less and less, usually only during droughts, often arriving at night. I would encounter him out by the fence on random evenings, his hulking warmth a welcome presence. I did not mind performing PR for the good of the company, if it helped raise donations for the cause, and helped keep my job secure. But I had not come to Africa to be surrounded by Americans, with their compulsive need for attention and receipts.

Kamari seemed to sympathize with my feelings. He met me at the fence and clamped his big trunk over my shoulder, releasing epic sighs of breath.

“The times they are a-changin’,” I told him, assuming he would appreciate the wisdom of Bob Dylan. “And we don’t need a weatherman, do we?”

The tourists were naturally drawn to the elephants, but they were also curious about our resident lion. Everyone wanted to see Max, especially children, even though many of them ran from his cage, screaming for their parents. I did not let anyone touch or pet him, for liability reasons. But when a crowd gathered, I would saunter into Max’s pen myself, roll the big doofus onto his back, and rub his belly, while he purred and flicked his tail.

“How do you keep him so docile?” a pretty Australian volunteer asked me, as I was talking her through Max’s feeding routine.

“Heroin,” I said. “Max is a serious junkie. Mostly he just sits around and watches TV.”

My joke got a laugh, and for a moment I remembered what it was like to flirt with someone, but the truth of my comment wasn’t far off. As Max’s heart trouble worsened, his circulation grew poor, and he often staggered around on aching joints. I would find him sitting down early in the morning, licking his elbows and feet. Donovan gave him morphine for the pain, and Max’s demeanor, if not his health, did seem to improve. He drooled a lot, but at least we could approach him.

At some point, amidst the onslaught of tourists, I became fixated on the idea that I could train Max to do tricks, make him perform a sort of circus act, and that this would help lubricate the wallets of park visitors and would-be donors.

“Bad news,” I told Max as I walked into his pen with a bag of his favorite jerky treats. “You have to earn your keep.”

I made sure he’d eaten his breakfast each day before beginning our training, hoping he wouldn’t mistake my hand for a snack. But even though I plugged him full of jerky, and took many time-outs to rub his belly, Max proved a mostly incompetent disciple. Unlike dogs, who responded to verbal cues, and had a natural inclination to please their masters, cats responded only to food, and didn’t have the slightest interest in pleasing anyone. I tried to get Max to do basic tricks, like turn a circle, stand on an elevated platform, and roar on command. But the only “trick” he truly excelled at was lying down so I could tickle his fur.

“He’s too old for tricks,” George told me, repeatedly. “And he’s a wild animal, as you keep forgetting.”

“But he listens to me,” I protested, even as Max lay sprawled in a shady corner of his pen, mouth open as he snapped at imaginary bugs.

“It is you who does not listen,” George said.

So what, I thought. The orphanage was full of doubters. Alice Price came around for my morning training sessions and stood silently outside Max’s pen, arms crossed. Donovan was only slightly more encouraging, admitting that I sure could make Max lie down. But everyone’s skepticism only made me more determined to tame the wild beast. I could not explain why it was so important for me to do this. I just had to make Max obey. Nobody I had ever known had tamed a lion. It was not something they taught you in college.

After months of training, I managed to teach him one new trick. He could sit down, most of the time, if I raised my arm and held a piece of bacon jerky. But once I had given him the jerky he would simply remain seated, sometimes licking his paws, usually just staring out toward the grassy hills of the park.

“Max, you have to do more than just sit there and look stupid,” I told him.

He yawned at me.

“I see you’re making progress,” George said, leaning against the wood frame of the pen.

At the edge of the facility I saw Kamari standing by the fence, flicking his tail and staring at me. George turned and waved at the elephant. Kamari released a deep sigh, and walked back into the park.

“Another critic,” I said.

The rainy season brought fewer tourists, which was all right with me. Tsavo was alive with the scents of healthy flora, and I spent long afternoons taking the orphans for walks in the park. The wild elephant families welcomed the newcomers into their groups. One by one we released our orphans back into the wild. They joined the herds, roaming across their territory, visiting us once in a while, if we were lucky. Occasionally we would get a particularly aggressive cow who would attempt to adopt an orphan as her own, although “kidnap” might be a better word than “adopt.” In these cases George and I would have to approach the group and separate the calf, which usually caused the adult cow much distress, and more than once I worried that I would be stepped on or trunk-swiped.

“You would fight too, if it was your child,” George said.

I nodded. “I’m sure I would.”

“Soon you will have to choose a mate, Jeffrey. Start making babies of your own.”

“Someday, George,” I said, playing out our old joke.

Sometimes I wondered what would happen if I returned to Boston, to the American dating scene, after spending nearly a decade interacting primarily with large, non-verbal mammals. I had not “dated” a woman since leaving the States, and in Tsavo there were very few women around. I had no interest in tourists, and I was often too busy to consider hooking up with a volunteer. I was long out of the game. American women would eat me alive.

But this was exactly the type of concern I had come to Africa to escape. News from back home featured an avalanche of weddings and birth announcements. My nominal salary at the orphanage prevented me from attending any weddings. Every Christmas when I went home it seemed there was a new baby to meet, all identically cute, each making me miss my elephants, while feeling relieved that I personally did not have to take care of any human babies.

Meanwhile babies continued to arrive at the orphanage as well. George and Sophie welcomed their seventh child, a daughter, and we had our own celebration, hosted by Alice and Donovan. George’s younger children rode elephants. His older children came home from school in Nairobi.

It was not uncommon for relatives in Kenya to come for long visits when a baby was born. Among the extended family came George’s youngest sister, Rashida Odhiambo. Rashida was two years older than me, had studied both in the United States and England, and was so beautiful she shocked my dormant longing for The Female back to life. George, once again a happy father, ensured me that Rashida was single, and would enjoy being entertained while she was in Tsavo.

Suddenly I was unable to concentrate. The presence of Rashida wafted around me like a lightning storm on the plains. Desperately I combed the dusty attic of my memory for any salvageable romantic souvenirs. In Tsavo it was not really possible to date in the American sense. There was a village near the orphanage, but dinner and a movie were out of the question. If I wanted to spend time with Rashida, there was really only thing I could do: invite her on my walks with the orphans, and converse with her in the park. So that’s what we did. Every day. Until finally I decided to impress her with Max.

“What’s the closest you have ever been to a lion?” I asked her about a week into her visit.

“I have seen them in the savannah,” she replied. “But not close enough to worry.”

“Well, I have a lion here that’s too dumb to be dangerous.”

She had seen Max a couple of times, of course. He was impossible to miss. But with all the baby celebrations and family time, she had not yet been properly introduced to my own adopted son.

I took her to Max’s pen for his evening feeding. She watched from outside the cage as I fed Max a heap of meat, mixing in his nightly pills. Meanwhile, I explained how we had found Max, and the efforts I had made, largely unsuccessful, to civilize him.

“Mostly he’s like the orphanage mascot,” I said.

“Except instead of waving a flag, he eats you.”

I fed Max another sizable helping of meat. When I was confident that he was adequately stuffed and medicated, I invited Rashida inside the pen.

“Oh, my goodness,” she whispered as she carefully stepped inside.

I closed the gate behind her. She smiled nervously, glancing between Max and me, and I wondered if this was actually a good idea. Normally the only people allowed near Max were staff at the orphanage familiar with his handling procedures. I took Rashida’s hand and led her over to where Max lay, flicking his tail beside his food dish. I pulled a handful of jerky from the bag of treats I always brought into his pen and set them down in front of him. He gobbled the jerky down in one soundless bite, then, as I crouched beside him, flipped over onto his back. I rubbed his sturdy chest. He opened his mouth and purred, a strange habit he had developed, which I thought meant that he was both happy and perhaps having difficulty breathing. Gently I guided Rashida’s hand to his belly.

“Oh, Jeffrey, he is so strong,” she whispered, her fingers dancing across his coat like a breeze tickling grass.

“He’s basically a big pussycat,” I said, as Max nuzzled my hand. “I don’t usually bring people in here. If he had not been raised in captivity, we couldn’t do this.”

That’s when I heard the hiss.

My hand froze, and Rashida froze, and Max’s whole body went stiff. He suddenly flipped over onto his paws. I stood up, stepping in front of Rashida.

“What is it?” she whispered.

I glanced around the pen. It was dusk, and blue pools of shadow covered the ground.

“Easy, Max,” I said.

The hiss came again. There was only one thing in the world that absolutely terrified me, and that was snakes. In all my years in Kenya I had miraculously avoided encountering a serpent, even while out in the bush, a winning streak I attributed to vigilant, maybe even paranoid, attention.

I followed Max’s gaze, and saw the snake coiling against the wall of the pen, not fifteen feet away. Max’s pen was not impenetrable. It was encircled by a three-foot concrete base, and encased in wood framing with steel wiring. He could not escape, but there were many ways for other creatures to sneak in.

“Oh my god,” Rashida said when she saw the snake. It was three or four feet long, and as it uncoiled and raised its head to challenge us, I saw the steely dark scales of the black mamba. Silently I cursed myself. There was no excuse for my stupidity. Now I was locked in a cage with an innocent woman, a poisonous snake, and a lion.

Max lowered into a crouch. All traces of food- or drug-lethargy vanished. His eyes became orbs of deadly truth. I had never seen Max in attack-mode before, had erroneously allowed myself to believe he did not have an attack-mode. Now the wild had taken hold of him.

I backed slowly away from the confrontation, steering Rashida toward the door of the pen. Feeling the latch with my fingers, I tried to open the gate without taking my eyes off Max.

The snake opened its mouth and hissed, then lunged forward. Max pounced, swiping with his paw. The blow sent the snake flying through the air. It clattered on the ground, and Max pounced again, his jaws snapping at the snake’s head.

Rashida buried her face in my shoulder. I turned and threw open the lock on the gate. We both jumped out of the pen. I slammed the door shut behind me, locking it.

“Will the snake’s venom kill him?” Rashida asked. We watched as Max slapped at the snake with his paw.

“Shit, I don’t know,” I said. Another wave of panic swept over me. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” she said, wiping her brow.

“I’m going to get Donovan,” I said.

Heart pounding, armpits pouring cold sweat, I ran across the facility to Alice and Donovan’s house.

When we returned to the pen, not even two minutes later, Rashida was standing beside the gate, smoking a cigarette, and Max lay calmly by his food dish, flicking his tail.

“Where is it?” Donovan asked, clutching a long pole and a net.

“It was in there,” I said. I looked at Rashida.

“He ate it,” she said.

Around the same time I developed a crush on Rashida, Kamari developed his own crush on a young former-orphan named Nara. When nature informs a bull elephant it is time to mate, he enters a state of testosteronic frenzy called musth. Estrus, the cow’s period of fertility, sometimes only lasts a few days a year, and this tight window of opportunity can turn an otherwise reasonable male into a menace. Bulls will engage each other in vicious, tusk-thrashing combat for the right to chase down a cow, mount her, and deposit his seed, with all the speed and romance of a college freshman. The cow then rejoins her family group, whereupon the matriarch encourages the proud bull, in no uncertain terms, to fuck off, while the females celebrate the hopeful pregnancy with trumpeting and the flapping of ears. Over the years I witnessed the elephant mating ritual many times, and it always made me wonder what would happen if the same dynamic was adopted by humans. Every month when the moon was right all the men in a given area would gather in a pit, or an arena of some kind, and fist-fight each other until one lone bloody survivor was left standing. This champion would then run after the ovulating woman, corner her somewhere, and subject her to a hurried bout of consensual (or non-consensual) sex. Forgoing all the sticky social components of the long human mating process, the happy couple would return to the woman’s family, whereupon her mother would kick the strutting suitor out of the house, then shower her hopefully-pregnant daughter with kisses, cake and mimosas.

Neither the traditional, prolonged human method, nor the blunt, expedient elephant method of courtship and reproduction seemed quite right to me. I could not imagine fighting another man for the right to essentially rape a woman I liked. But the minefield of human social relationships seemed equally daunting. The lonely hours surfing dating websites, the asinine conversations over sushi and wine, the silent inadequacy of knowing you didn’t make enough money- all seemed like proof of a rigged game. I thought of Rashida, a beautiful, intelligent, dynamic woman, and I could easily see myself falling in love with her. But just as easily I saw her feeling unsatisfied by me: an asocial wanderer with no money who felt more comfortable around elephants than people. I almost wanted the simplicity of the elephant mating ritual. I could have sex with a beautiful woman, then her family could tell me to get lost. With no other choice, I could return to the jungle and continue to live quietly among the animals.

            Nara, the object of Kamari’s affection, was a gregarious female who frequently acted as a liaison between younger orphans and the elephant groups in the wild. We first noticed that Kamari was interested in her when her family group approached a popular watering hole, and was soon accosted by a bull in musth. Kamari appeared and stood guard over the watering hole, and the other male eventually backed off, deferring to Kamari’s hulking size. Kamari then assigned himself to bodyguard duty, and continued to watch over Nara whenever she and her family were drinking and bathing.

            “I have never seen him pick a girl before,” George said, as he and I and Rashida watched Kamari lingering off to the side of the watering hole, like a shy boy at a middle school dance.

            “Do you think the old man has a chance?” I asked.

            “I don’t know. He may have to fight for it.”

            “All men are the same,” Rashida scoffed.

            Kamari’s crush came to a head a couple of days later. Another male, younger than him, but armed with a full set of tusks, challenged Kamari near the watering hole. I had seen bulls fighting and play-fighting before, but this was the first time I felt scared by a fight. Kamari’s mangled tusks were only stubs, and though he was bigger than his opponent, he could easily be impaled in combat.

            Nara’s family group watched with what was either mild concern or solemn disinterest as Kamari and the other bull tore up dust. Kamari was indeed a fearsome warrior, his mighty feet shaking the ground when he stomped. But the other bull deflected his lunges, shoving Kamari away, prodding him with his tusks. For a moment I thought I was going to watch one of my best friends in Tsavo die a brutal death. There was nothing I could do to stop the fight. George and I were working hard to corral the frightened orphans, and in any case there was no way a person could break up a grudge match between two bull elephants.

            The fight ended with the other male pinning Kamari’s head and trunk to the ground. Shaking and flailing, Kamari failed to throw his opponent off, and eventually he bowed in submission. From a distance I could see that his body was bleeding from several puncture wounds, but none of the gashes seemed to be pouring blood. The other male stepped back and Kamari stood up and moved off. He lumbered away into the bush without even a backward glance, and this effectively ended his would-be courtship of Nara. The victorious bull approached the awaiting female group and mounted the young cow.

            “It’s not his fault he cannot fight,” George said when we were back at the orphanage. “If he had his tusks he would be like Alexander the Great.”

            “Instead some Chinese trinket shop is selling his ivory,” I said.

            Rashida was more circumspect. “Maybe he can find another girlfriend,” she said. “One who likes a gentle man.”

            “That’s not how it goes in the wild,” I said. “The females always end up mating with the biggest assholes. Boston is the same way.”

            “Nature favors the takers, Jeffrey,” George said. “You see what you want, you take it.”

            “That’s what a bully does.”

            “Shut up, George,” Rashida said. “You asked Sophie to marry you four times before she finally said yes.”

            “But I did not give up,” he said. He gave me a nudge. “It is a good thing a poacher did not take my tusks.”

            Kamari did not return to the orphanage after his defeat by the watering hole. He went off to wherever it was he always went. I often pictured him in some distant corner of the park, living among other elephants, venerated for his age and wisdom. Or perhaps he spent his nights ravaging the crops of local farmers, waging war against humans as vengeance for taking his tusks. Wherever he went, I knew I would never see it. I respected Kamari’s privacy. We should all be allowed a corner of the world where we could disappear.

            Two weeks after the birth of George and Sophie’s baby, the happy couple finally ran out of food to feed their visiting relatives, and most of the relatives left, taking with them the air of celebration. I returned to nursing baby elephants, to shoveling shit, to quietly begging American tourists and visitors for donations to support the orphanage. The usual functions of the job now seemed less important to me, like the air of purpose had been let out of the balloon. I realized that it was not going to be easy for me to go through the routine of my day, thinking about Rashida, but not seeing her. Once my eyes had been opened it was impossible to pinch them shut.

            Rashida remained at the orphanage longer than her relatives. I saw her speaking with Alice Price a few times, and I started to hope that she might join us permanently. She continued to observe me feeding and caring for the young orphans, and watched me interacting with Max.

            “Do you like it here?” I asked her one afternoon as we took the orphans into the park.

            “I do,” she said. “I have been visiting many of the national parks, seeing many animal rescues. I am preparing for my new job.”

            “What’s your new job?”

            “I am going to help run a rescue,” she said. “Not just elephants. All kinds of animals.”

            “At one of the parks in Kenya?”

            “No,” she said, smiling. “South Africa. I leave in a month.”

            I felt the rest of the air squeeze out of the balloon, the familiar combination of rejection and fate, like when one of the elephants died, only deeper- the certainty that the course of nature did not steer itself through me.

            “That is why I came to visit George and his babies,” she said. “I will not see them for a long time. I will miss my family.”

            “I’m sure they’ll miss you,” I said. “It’s been fun having you here. I know I-”

            I stopped, caught myself, thought of how ridiculous I sounded. Then decided to tell her anyway.

            “I don’t meet many women here,” I said. “Mostly elephants. They’re friendly, but it’s not the same.”

            Rashida laughed, touching my arm. “Jeffrey, you can come visit me in South Africa. You know how to save elephants. We would welcome you.”

            I nodded. It was a familiar promise I had heard many times in Boston. Let’s meet up for drinks. Translation: we will not see each other again.

            We walked on under the afternoon sun. Rashida would leave Tsavo, and my life would go on as it had been before she came. Maybe George was right, that life favors those who take what they want, not those who wait around for the rain.

The SUV arrived at the orphanage in the height of the dry season. A black Mercedes, only the tires smeared with orange dirt. Government.

            Alice and Donovan had worked a long time to ingratiate themselves with the government of Kenya. The Tsavo Elephant Orphanage, from a PR standpoint, was good for the powers that be. Wealthy foreigners worked together with native Kenyans to preserve nature’s bounty. Even more convenient, the orphanage largely footed the bill. We received minor subsidies from the government, but the real privilege they granted us was the opportunity to locate our facility in the national park. It was not often that they came around to remind us that we were ultimately their guests.

            George summoned me to Alice’s office after the official had already been in there for about half an hour. Normally I was not privy to the Prices’ interactions with the government. I quickly ran to the bunkhouse and changed into a fresh shirt, washed my face and hands, then joined George in the office. Alice was seated behind her desk, her face a mask of dissatisfaction. Donovan leaned against the wall behind her, staring at the floor.

            The official did not rise from his chair in front of Alice’s desk, but instead flashed me a curt grin. Sweat beaded his forehead. He did not introduce himself by name.

            “Jeff is Max’s primary handler,” Alice told the official. “He oversees feeding, administers medications, and serves as host to tourists who wish to see Max. In this capacity, Jeff has fostered a great deal of good will, both for the orphanage, and for Kenya.”

            “Tourism is important,” the official said. “But you have always been clear about your purpose here, Mrs. Price. You are running a rescue operation. Not a zoo. A zoo is different.”

            Alice sighed minutely. “You are correct, sir. This is not a zoo. Max is merely a guest. An exception, not the rule.”

            “An exception. The lion is a dangerous exception, yes? A lion can kill a man.”

            “An elephant can kill a man,” George said quietly. Alice glanced at him, and he said nothing further.

            “This is a special case,” the official said, smiling at Alice. “You do good work here, Mr. and Mrs. Price, and we would like you to continue to do good work. But for a special animal, there will be a special fee.”

            “What special fee?” I asked.

            The man smiled at me, but did not answer.

            “We run on a shoestring budget, sir,” Alice said. “Perhaps you mistake us for wealthy, but most of our funding comes from fundraising.”

            “We also provide veterinary expertise to many other organizations,” Donovan added. “For which we are not compensated.”

            The official stood and adjusted his suit. “I will return next week to conclude our discussion,” he said.

            He did not shake any hands on his way out the door. Alice, Donovan, George and I stood silently in the office, listening to the SUV rumble away.

            “Another smiling thief,” said George. “My country is full of smiling thieves.”

            “What did he want?” I asked.

            “Thirty thousand,” Alice said.

            “What? Is he out of his mind? That’s two salaries.”

            “It’s more than that, Jeff. It’s many elephants.”

            She looked at me, and I could see that she was not pleased by the situation. I had never considered that any government official would have a problem with Max. He cost a lot of money, yes, but he also raised money, and the good will he extended as an ambassador to Tsavo was immeasurable.

            “What are we going to do?” I asked.

            “Unfortunately we need the government to be friendly,” Alice said. “Without their permission, we do not run an orphanage at all.”

            She leaned back in her chair, but did not look away from me. I saw that this was not a negotiation.

            “You’ve given him a good life, Jeff,” said Donovan Price. “We all have. I never thought he would live this long. You have both impressed me.”

            I looked at George, who was shaking his head. I had begun to sweat again. I wished I had not changed my shirt for that smirking bureaucrat.

            “One thing that is better about the United States,” I said. “There you can choose to bribe someone.”

It was a long, silent drive to Nairobi. I doped up Max more than usual with painkillers for his aching joints, and he snored peacefully in the trailer behind Donovan’s truck.

            When we arrived at the hospital Max was pacing anxiously. He knew about the vet. He’d had many visits over the years, had received many shots. The standard procedure was for a veterinarian to come out to the trailer and give Max a sedative. Only when he was unconscious would they bring him inside the facility for care.

            The doctor shook hands with Donovan, and nodded at me. I kept my arms crossed over my chest. Both Max and I saw that the doctor had a lengthy syringe in his hand. Two medical assistants wheeled a gurney outside, and parked it beside our truck.

            “Is that it?” Donovan asked the doctor, indicating the syringe.

            “This is it,” the doctor said.

            “You’re just going to do it in the parking lot?” I asked. “Like shooting a damn horse behind the barn?”

            The doctor looked at me, but did not say anything.

            “Perhaps we could give a Jeff a minute,” Donovan said. “Max is a special friend to him.”

            “I can bring him inside and sit with him,” I said. “He won’t hurt anyone.”

            The doctor, his assistants, and Donovan spent several minutes in conversation, before reluctantly agreeing to accommodate my request. One of the assistants went inside the hospital, and came out a moment later holding a shotgun. I shook my head, and fed Max several handfuls of his favorite jerky. Then I attached a chain to his collar.

            “Come on, bud,” I said. “Let’s walk.”

            Max stretched his long, slender bulk, and the medical assistants took a precautionary step backwards. I felt strangely validated by their caution, proud that they respected Max’s power. It was safer and more practical to euthanize a lion in his cage, where the situation could be controlled, but it was also cowardly, I thought. You didn’t shoot a king through a set of bars. You granted him his dignity, let him walk to the gallows.

            I led Max through the hospital parking lot. Drivers stopped their cars to stare. Inside, activity came to a standstill. Doctors, technicians, and surprised visitors watched as the lion strode coolly through the corridors. Max glanced around like a kid being brought to a new school. In all his life he never seemed to fully understand his own power, that he could command any creature on earth with a simple stare. Instead he only seemed to want to not disturb anyone.

            We took him into an examination room, and attached his chain to two steel locks on the floor. Max made a cursory sniff of his surroundings, then lay down, looking to me for guidance. I gave him another handful of jerky.

            “That’s it, bud,” I said. “Look at me.”

            I continued to feed him while the veterinarian gave him the shot. Donovan leaned against the wall, shaking his head. “Safe trip, old boy,” he murmured. Max glanced briefly at the prick of the syringe, but turned back to my hand and the jerky.

            “We should leave him now,” the doctor said. “It is safer.”

            “I can stay,” I said.

            No one argued with me. They left me sitting on the cool linoleum floor. I fed Max the rest of the bag of jerky, and he nuzzled my hand with his nose. He tried to flip onto his back, but the chain kept him fixed on his stomach. He rested his head next to my leg.

I thought about the empty pen back at the orphanage, now a useless structure. Five useless years spent trying to save a sick animal, only to have a government conman drive up one day in a fancy car and tell us it was all for nothing.

Max was going to die anyway. I had always known this. I thought about his enlarged heart every time I looked at him. But we were all going to die one day. Given the certainty of death, why not live?

It was October when I returned to Boston. October was my favorite month. Sunny days and cool nights. I went for long walks at night. Glanced into bars, but didn’t enter them. Passed street vendors, and drug dealers, and panhandlers, and crowds of yuppies staring at their phones. All the predators of the urban jungle. I tried to walk off the shame I felt for betraying Max. At the same time I wished I had my lion to walk the streets with me. Boston, a city that parted for no one, would have kept a respectful distance from the king.

Alice and Donovan told me when I left Tsavo that I could return at any time, and my job at the orphanage would be waiting for me. I told them I was going to Boston for at least a month, but the truth was I didn’t know how long I would stay, or what I would do.

My father wasted no time making me an appointment with a job consultant. I visited my brother in his South End apartment, and my sister in her Newton home, and did my best to play uncle to my nieces and nephews. Children were certainly louder than elephants, and I preferred quiet.

The Thursday Club had long since disbanded. I made some effort to track down my old friends. The ones I found were invariably busy. They invited me to meet for drinks at 9:15 on a Wednesday night, but told me they had to leave by 10. Between their jobs and their kids they just didn’t have any time, they all said. It was my obligation to understand this.

I met Julie for lunch at a coffee shop near her office. In the span of ten minutes she threw more words at me than I had heard in any given Tsavo week, pouring forth about her current job, her former job, her marriage, her divorce, her lack of children.

“So you’re back,” she said, taking a deep breath. “I can’t believe you were gone ten years, Jeff. Didn’t it just fly by?”

I told her I didn’t think so actually.

“It’s the next ten I’m worried about,” she said. “My twenties? Fine, I admit it, I did not strategize. I picked the wrong guy, the wrong job. I was young. But now I know what I want. It’s time to get it. You wouldn’t believe the dating scene, Jeff. It’s horrendous. It’s a full-time job.”

“Sounds like no fun,” I said.

“What are you going to do now that you’re back?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know that I am back.”

“You can probably spin the Africa stuff to your advantage. Some employers love that shit. Everybody has the same resume anyway- college, Master’s, internships- it’s like, how do you distinguish yourself?”

“Do you like your job?” I asked. I was having trouble concentrating. A flood of people washed in and out of the café.

“It’s good,” she said. “They give twelve weeks maternity leave. That’s what I’m focusing on now. I’ll be thirty-five in December. I need to be married in a year, first kid nine months after that, second kid within fifteen months after that. Still up in the air about the third kid.”

I noticed her coffee mug was already empty. I was just starting to sip mine.

“It’s time that’s the problem,” she said. “You go to work every day, and then you wake up, and bam: you’re forty. I wasted five years with Scott. Now I know better. I just wish I hadn’t spent so much time learning my lesson, you know?”

I didn’t think she would understand that in Kenya time was more of a theory than a fact, so I didn’t bother saying so. She glanced at her phone, typed a hurried text message.

“My break is almost up,” she said. “I have to go to Neiman Marcus to return a sweater. We should meet again, Jeff. I can do lunch on Thursday. Or dinner next week? Can I let you know?”

“Sure,” I said.

“I can’t believe you don’t have a phone. That’s crazy. I’ll get you one next time I see you. You’ll be back to normal in no time.”

She laughed, and about fifteen seconds later she was gone. I stared down at my coffee. The cup was still half-full, so I decided to stay and finish it. A young couple stared at me the way a lion would stare at a snake. After a moment I realized they wanted my table.

That night at home my mother gave me a lecture on time that was virtually identical to the one Julie had given. There seemed to be this wall that one hit at some point in adulthood, and I was approaching it. Once you hit the wall, everything was too late. The good job, the wife and kids, the IRA- too late.

“You should ask Sharon about online dating,” my mother said, meaning my sister. “That’s how she met Jim, and it’s worked out very well.”

“You really don’t own a single suit, Jeff?” my father asked me, glancing up from his MSNBC.

“Oops,” I said.

“Well, we’re glad you’re home, Jeffrey,” my mother said. “I’m sure you’ll always remember your African adventure.”

*

I flew back to Kenya in November. It was the rainy season, the quiet time, when the land focused on nourishment and life. Alice gave me back my little room in the bunkhouse, and George greeted me with the news that Sophie was pregnant with their eighth child.

Soon I was once again sleeping with the elephants, shoveling out their shit, taking them for long, leisurely walks in the park. Keeping an eye out for snakes. After a month or two, I finally addressed Max’s empty pen. George helped me dismantle it. We sold the materials for scrap.

Time stood still in Kenya. Boston time obviously was a straight line, an express train, and you had to try to leap on to get to where you were going. As I stared at the distant mountains, I felt that my life had become a circle, a floating mass without direction, and while this theory promised a certain sense of freedom, it also lacked purpose. I felt like I had done this all before, and that when I did leave, ultimately, it would be like the passing of another elephant. I was here for a while, and then I would be gone.

In the evenings I walked the perimeter fence with George. We passed a joint back and forth, and I congratulated him on the coming of another child.

“Now we have to focus on you, Jeffrey,” George said. “Soon I will have eight children, and you will have zero.”

“You should just give me one of yours,” I said. “Not this one, obviously, but maybe the ninth or the tenth.”

George laughed. “By the time I have my tenth, it will be twenty years since the first one. That is a lot of life to give to the world.”

“Maybe you should give the next twenty years to your wife. What about her life?”

The stars began to dance on the horizon. A breeze picked up off the grassland.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I know that smell.”

“Oh my goodness,” George said. He extinguished the joint, peering out into the darkness. “Is it our old friend?”

A hulking black mass shifted among the shadows.

“Kamari,” we both said at once.

I felt the tremors in the soil beneath my feet, and a moment later the giant bull was standing in front of us. He blew us a deep gust of breath.

“I have not seen the old man in months,” George said.

Kamari draped his trunk over my shoulder. I laughed, and Kamari sounded his deep trombone. I patted the thick coil of his trunk. “It’s just us now, old friend,” I told him. “Max is gone.”

He sighed again, and stood with us for a while beside the fence.

“Usually he does not come in the rainy season,” George said, rubbing behind the elephant’s ear. “Maybe he missed you, Jeffrey.”

The breeze picked up, and in the distance we heard the trumpet of an elephant. Kamari cast his all-knowing gaze on the bush. Seeing him again now, meeting an old friend in the loneliest hour of the night, I felt my old sense of purpose start to stir. I decided then that I would take a little more time to think about where I wanted to be. The orphanage in Tsavo was only one place, and there were many places in the world I had not seen. There were elephants in Thailand as well. Or I could visit Rashida in South Africa.

Kamari gave me a final poke with his trunk. Then he turned and lumbered back into the darkness, his husky silhouette shrinking before the stars. He would return eventually, when the voice he followed reminded him of old friends. In the meantime he would roam the savannah, in search of fresh grass or a cool watering hole, not beholden to any clock but his own. Kamari would always be a wanderer, sometimes happy, mostly alone, and I knew that in my own way, so would I.



BIO

Adam Matson’s fiction has appeared internationally in over twenty magazines including The Berkeley Fiction ReviewThe Poydras Review, Crack the Spine, and Terror House Magazine.





THE COLLIER KIDS

by Tetman Callis



            The Steins had a daughter who was friends with the Collier Kids and a son who was older and listened to rock-and-roll on the radio. Jeff Chorus was on his hands and knees in his front yard pulling weeds and heard Back in the U.S.S.R. coming from the Steins’ house next door. He whispered to the weeds, They’re Commies. A few weeks later he began listening to rock-and-roll on the radio and he became a Commie, too. But he was not a Collier Kid. (What is a Collier Kid? Jeff’s mom would say it is a child of between five and fifteen years of age and it lives on the block and its last name is Collier, Beausoleil, Wheeler, or Stein, and it is up to no good.)

                                                                             •

            The Girl in the Green Dress lived in a family that wasn’t on the block for long. If she had another dress no one ever saw it. When it hung out to dry on the clothesline in her back yard in the morning, no one saw her.

            Her mother got drunk one summer evening around sundown and got in a screaming match with the Beausoleils. Jeff’s mom came and got him and his brother John, who was a year older than Jeff.

            Come help me close the windows. Don’t dawdle. Do it right. Now, the two of you wait in John’s room until I tell you to come out.

            Later, the Collier Kids told Jeff what had happened.

            That lady? She was standing there on the curb.

            She had a bottle of booze in her hand.

            She went down in front of the Steins’ house and was standing there screaming across the street at us.

            We don’t know what it was. She wasn’t making any sense.

            We started screaming back.

            Yeah, you don’t scream at us and think you can get away with it.

                                                                             •

            The Stuarts’ father was Major Stuart, United States Army. He went to Vietnam. The mother was Bunny. The Major came back and he and Bunny sat on folding chairs in their carport and burned letters in a coffee can. She was young and he was young, too. They called each other Mom and Dad. She had black hair and white skin and was nervous. He never smiled and rarely spoke and was always somewhere else. He didn’t like kids, not even his own. They were Abel and Baker and were younger than Jeff. They played soldier and scientist and astronaut together.

            The Collier Kids came over.

            Abel and Baker, what stupid names.

            Your mom has a stupid name, too.

            Yeah, and your dad doesn’t even like you. I heard him say so.

            Bunny came out of the house.

            You trash get out of my yard!

            A ragged and dirty pair of panties was in the dirt in the yard. Where was it from? Grant Collier carried a long thin stick. He picked up the panties with it. He held them up, dangling from the end of the stick.

            You call us trash? We don’t leave our dirty underwear out in our front yards. Ooo, they smell bad, too.

            He flipped them at her. They landed on the porch at her feet. She started crying and went back inside.

                                                                             •

            The daughter of the Bridges was Viola and she wasn’t friends with anyone on the block. She went steady with Reggie Cotton when she was in sixth grade and he was in second.

             Someone set fire to the Bridges’ yard and burned one of their bushes. No one knew who did it and everyone knew it was the Collier Kids.

                                                                             •

            The Farmers moved out and moved back in three years later. The Farmer boys were friendly before they moved away. They came back and they were snotty and wouldn’t be friends with anyone.

            The Collier Kids passed by on the sidewalk and Mr. Farmer saw them. He stood behind the screen door.

            If you kids set one foot in my yard, I’ll call the police!

            The Collier Kids stopped. Grant Collier lifted up one of his feet from off the sidewalk and he put it down with the toe touching the Farmers’ yard.

            You mean like this?

            An hour later a police cruiser pulled up in front of the Farmers’ house. Two officers talked with Mr. Farmer.

            There’s not much we can do. Maybe you could put up a fence. Have you tried talking to their parents?

                                                                             •

            The Collier Kids knew what everybody did on the block. Sometimes they snuck into people’s yards at night and spied.

            Mister York drinks.

            So? Everybody drinks.

            No, he drinks booze, stupid.

            Lots of it, too.

            We seen him.

            Have you seen his wife?

            She’s huge!

            She hardly ever comes out.

            She probably can’t get out the door.

            Nunh-uh. I seen her come out. She came out through the door.

            Mrs. York slowly waddled to the car. Mr. York opened the door for her. The Collier Kids said Mr. York was taking her to the hospital.

            What other place could she go?

            The Collier Kids tittered and whispered and watched. Jeff watched and was quiet.

                                                                             •

            Mr. Collier was Sgt. Collier, United States Air Force, and he went to Vietnam. He was in the air force since World War Two. After he came back from Vietnam he retired and drove a long-haul truck. He had a plastic dildo and Penthouse magazines in the cab and sometimes he was gone for weeks. He and his wife had four kids. They all had blue eyes and blonde hair.

            The oldest was Rose. She never lived on the block. She was away at college when the Colliers moved in, then pregnant and married to the most acceptable likely suspect. They stayed married until the accidental baby graduated high school, then it was Splitsville for Rose and she left the country. Her bridal shower was at Jeff’s house. His mom sent him and John out to the front porch to play or read or whatever they wanted to do, just stay out of the way and don’t get in trouble. Rose was the most beautiful girl who had ever set foot on the block. Her beauty and her smile and her confidence stunned Jeff. She smoked long cigarettes and he almost couldn’t look at her.

            Ronny Collier smoked pot and played the drums in a rock band and football on the high school varsity team. He rode a motorcycle and hung out with hippies in the park. He sat on his motorcycle outside his house and talked to Denise Wheeler and Traci Stein and there was Jeff.

            Hey, Jeff, are you a pansy?

            Jeff had heard of reverse psychology and the soft answer that turneth away wrath.

            Yes.

            Ronny and the girls laughed.

            Grant Collier was a year older than Jeff and was the leader of the Collier Kids. He had the same innate confidence his siblings had. Several of the girls were in love with him.

            Simon was the youngest and was a year younger than Jeff. He stood in a little red wagon and wore one of the Wheeler girls’ bikinis. From a string around his neck hung a homemade sign that read Come See Twiggy. Grant Collier and Mary Wheeler pulled the wagon down the sidewalk.

            Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the world-famous model Twiggy! Come see her, only a nickel!

            A transistor radio played and Simon danced.

                                                                             •

            Jeff mowed and edged the lawn and swept the grass and dirt on the driveway into a pile. Bobby Stein and Charles Beausoleil ran through the pile and kicked it around. Jeff yelled at them and swept it up. The boys ran through it and scattered it again. Jeff grabbed them and pushed them. They fell down in the grass.

            He pushed us!

            Ow! That hurt! Mommy!

            The Collier Kids crossed the street from the Beausoleils’ front porch and surrounded Jeff.

            What did you do?

            Those little boys! You just pushed them down!

            You bully! Pick on someone your own size!

            Yeah! How would you like it if someone grabbed you and threw you down?

            Somebody should do that!

            We should teach him a lesson!

            Grant thrashed Jeff and held him down and punched him in the forehead and raised a welt. Jeff lay on the sidewalk and cried after Grant was done. The Collier Kids went back across the street. Jeff got up and went home. Later the doorbell rang. It was Mary Wheeler and Francine Beausoleil. Mary had been his girlfriend the year before, for a few weeks.

            We’re sorry, Jeff.

            Yeah, Grant said he didn’t really mean to hurt you.

            Jeff said, Get the hell out of here! which is what he had heard his mom say to them just the week before when they were playing on the Choruses’ front porch and raising a racket. He closed the door.

            He was eating his lunch and the doorbell rang again. His mom answered. Francine and Grant told Jeff’s mom what he had said. She thanked them and closed the door and beat Jeff. She sprained her wrist. That evening at Kingdom Hall she wore an Ace bandage.

            Oh, I did this spanking Jeff.

            She smiled the way people sometimes do.

                                                                             •

            The Beausoleils had six girls and a boy. The oldest was already married and gone. She had two miscarriages and kept photographs of them on a small altar in her living room. There were also candles and a photograph of Jesus Christ.

            The other five girls and their mother were loud and even when they talked they screamed. The boy was the youngest and stuttered. The father was sick and no one ever saw him. The Collier Kids said he had emphysema and was holed up in the back bedroom, hooked up to an oxygen tank.

            The Beausoleils had two Dobermans and a something else. John Chorus practiced for the cross-country track team. He ran down the sidewalk and the dogs burst out of the Beausoleils’ front door and went for him. He jumped and spun around whooping and sprinted for home. He vaulted over the chainlink fence around his front yard and collapsed on the lawn. The Beausoleils shouted and screamed at the dogs until they came home.

            Before the Beausoleils had three dogs, they had eight. Someone called the police who came and made them give four away. Before this they kept a horse in their back yard. The police came that time too and the Beausoleils got a ticket and had to stable the horse on the edge of town.

                                                                             •

            Jeff’s dog was Dog. Dog’s half sister one litter back was a dog with a real name and that was Calamity. She peed every time she got excited and she got excited a lot. She peed on Jeff when he was holding her on the patio.

            Ooo! Stupid dog!

            He threw her into the back yard. She landed and screamed. Jeff’s mom came out and the neighbor behind them came over.

            Jeff, what happened?

            I don’t know, she was just out in the yard and started yelping.

            Jeff’s mom and the neighbor picked up Calamity and looked her over.

            She must have stepped on a bee.

            Yes, that must be it.

            The neighbor looked at Jeff. Jeff knew he knew.

            Jeff’s mom gave Calamity to the Humane Society a few months later.

            She just wouldn’t stop peeing.

                                                                             •

            Topeka Sally’s family kept the dog that birthed Calamity and Dog.

            Mom, Topeka Sally says they’ve got a fertile bitch.

            Jeffrey, don’t you ever say that word!

            Jeff didn’t know which word and was afraid to ask.

            Topeka Sally had a brother whose name has been forgotten. He and she looked almost exactly alike although they weren’t twins. She was in Jeff’s second grade class and was his first girlfriend on the block. She and her brother and Jeff played Knights of the Round Table and used sticks for swords and round metal trash can lids for shields. Topeka Sally was the fair princess who had to be rescued. They made a hell of a racket with those trash can lids.

            You kids cut that out!

                                                                             •

            Topeka Sally’s family moved out and the Wheelers moved in. Dan Wheeler raced go-carts at the go-cart track and fired rifles at the rifle range and gigged crawdads and frogs at the reservoir. He gigged a racoon and skinned it and tanned its hide and hung the hide on his bedroom wall.

            If Jeff could choose his own big brother, it would be Dan.

            Dan’s sisters were Denise and Janet and Mary, in that order. Denise was the first leader of the kids on the block. She outgrew that and grew into boys and clothes and music, and Grant Collier took over.

            Janet Wheeler was not fat and she was not ugly. She was merely the plainest. Also, she didn’t have a belly button. When she had appendicitis and almost died, she was rushed to the hospital and cut open. When the doctors sewed her back together, her belly button was gone. She showed the other kids.

            See? I’m not really human. I’m an alien from outer space.

            Mary was the prettiest. She and Simon Collier started going steady when they were ten. All the kids knew they would get married when they grew up. None of them knew they would break up as soon as they got to high school, and that Simon would grow up to be more beautiful than any of the Wheeler or Beausoleil girls, a stunner in spiked heels.

                                                                             •

            Jeff’s mom put up a metal garden shed. She made it from a kit to replace one blown away in a dust storm. It was new and empty. Jeff was with the Wheeler girls.

            Jeff, let’s go sit in your shed.

            We can play spin the bottle.

            You’ll win every time.

            Jeff and the Wheeler girls closed the sliding door of the shed. It screeched. Light leaked in. They sat on the cinderblock floor and spun an empty Coke bottle, the glass kind with the shapely waist. The bottle rattled on the floor. Jeff won every time.

            The door screeched open and the light flooded in and there was Jeff’s mom. She was tall.

            You girls need to go home now.

            The girls left. Jeff’s mom took him into the kitchen and held him firmly by his shoulders.

            Look at me. Look at me! You must never, ever, be alone with girls again. Do you understand me?

            Yes, ma’am.

            Jeff was lying. He did not understand her. He never understood her.

                                                                             •

            Dan Wheeler told stories.

            We came from Arkansas. We called it Our Kansas.

            Our grandma used to sit on the front porch with a four-ten twenty-two over-and-under in her lap. There were gopher holes in the front yard and whenever a gopher would pop his head up, she’d blast him.

            One summer all the kids in our neighborhood had a war. We had firecrackers and sticker bombs and we built forts and dug trenches. We even dug tunnels that went up to the enemy lines. Then we put a whole bunch of firecrackers at the end of the tunnel and blew up the enemy trench. And we had a sticker torture chamber as big across as your back yard, Jeff. If you were captured, they made you run back and forth across it until you talked. If you still didn’t talk, then they rolled you around in it.

                                                                             •

            The Angelos were an older couple. They painted their lawn green in the winter. Nobody knew if they had any children. Nobody ever saw anybody visit.

            They had a low rock wall around their front yard and it was topped with a high wrought-iron fence painted white. Sometimes you could see Mrs. Angelo in a big floppy orange straw hat working in her flower beds up by the house. You could call out a hi to her and she would usually hear you and look up for a moment and wave. She wouldn’t come down to the fence to talk. The Collier Kids said Mr. Angelo painted her in the nude.

            You’re kidding!

            Does he really?

            He does not. How do you know that? I’ve never seen him painting anything.

            Me neither.

            We snuck in their back yard and we saw it.

            You did not. How did you get in their back yard?

            Yeah. Their back wall is like twenty feet high.

            No. It’s only twelve.

            It is not. How do you know that?

            Well, it’s not twenty.

            We measured it.

            You did not.

            Yes we did. You weren’t there. You don’t know.

            You saw him painting her and she was naked?

            Was he putting paint on her? Why was he putting paint on her?

            He wasn’t putting paint on her, stupid. He was painting her picture.

            Oh. Well why didn’t you say so?

            I did.

            He said he was painting her. That’s what it means.

            Oh.

            You’re so stupid.

            Shut up, I am not.

            So what did she look like?

            We only saw her back.

            Did you see her butt?

            No, she was sitting down.

            You guys are lying. You didn’t see anything.

            Yes we did. You don’t know. You weren’t there.

                                                                             •

            Every weekday evening at 5:30 Mr. Angelo’s boxy little four-door sedan turned onto the block. He drove slowly, hunched over the steering wheel, peering through his little round glasses and never turning his head either this way or that.

            The first kid to see him called out, Mr. Angelo! Mr. Angelo! The other kids took up the cry and dropped whatever they were doing and ran down the street to the Angelos’ house. The first two kids to arrive opened the gate to the driveway. Mr. Angelo drove in, smiling brightly and squinting through his glasses, looking neither to the left nor the right. The kids closed the gate behind him. He parked and went inside his house and came back a minute later with a bag of hard candy. He walked down the sloping driveway to the gate where the kids waited. He didn’t open the gate. He smiled and through the wrought-iron bars he handed each child a piece of candy.

            One for you. One for you. One for you, and one for you . . .

            Thank you, Mr. Angelo! Thank you, Mr. Angelo!

            When every kid had a piece of candy, Mr. Angelo went back inside. The kids unwrapped their candies and popped them in their mouths.

            Hey! Litterbug!

            We put the wrappers in our pockets!

            Yeah!

            No littering in front of the Angelos’ house!

            Pick that up!

            No one knew how the gate-opening custom had begun. Billy Johnson taught it to Jeff and in those days it was Jeff and Billy and his brother Mark and Topeka Sally and her brother along with Reggie Cotton and the Hausers and a couple of the Goldfarbs. They all moved out except for Jeff and Reggie, who handed the custom down to newcomers. With all the Collier Kids and Choruses and Ganders and Stepps there were sometimes a score of kids running down the street at 5:30, pacing the boxy little sedan and often outrunning it.

            Mr. Angelo! Mr. Angelo!

            There even were times the Collier Kids waited at the open end of the street for the first glimpse of Mr. Angelo’s car.

            Here he comes!

                                                                             •

            Across from the Angelos were the Beys. They had three kids. Marie was the oldest. Jeff thought she was fat and ugly and he did not like her. She thought herself fat and ugly and she did not like anybody. In truth she was not fat, only full-figured, and she was not ugly, but there was no one to tell her that, not even the mirror on her wall when she plucked her eyebrows.

            The youngest Bey was Cass. She was Debbie Gander’s best friend and was skinny and gangly and had a big nose. Often she could be found at church with her mom, religious in a Protestant way.

            The middle Bey was Peter. He was removed from the general student population when he was fourteen for bringing a gun to school. Ten years later he was sent to prison for a stretch for a string of residential burglaries. Thirty years after that, he was killed in a shootout with federal agents who had come to arrest him for smuggling guns to Mexico.

                                                                             •

            The Twins were friends with the Collier Kids but they weren’t Collier Kids. Their dog had puppies and they carried two of them, a black one and a white one, one day to every house on the block and asked, Do you want a puppy?

            The Colliers said, No, we already have two dogs.

            The Beausoleils said, No, we have way too many dogs already.

            Jeff’s mom was in the front yard when the Twins came by.

            Hi, Missus Chorus, do you want a puppy?

            Later that afternoon Jeff’s mom said, They’re such darling little girls, and those puppies are so cute, I couldn’t resist.

            She named the puppies Inky and Spook. They got along with Dog and were never allowed inside. Jeff reflected sunlight from a small mirror and moved the reflection back and forth along the back yard’s rock wall. Inky saw it and chased it. He ran and jumped but couldn’t catch it. Spook never saw it and chased Inky instead.

            The Twins threw a big birthday party and had a live rock-and-roll band in their carport. It knew only one song, the Birthday one by the Beatles, and played it over and over. Everyone on the block went to the party except for Jeff and John, who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and could not have gone even if they had been invited, which they were not, because everybody knew they were Jehovah’s Witnesses and didn’t celebrate anything, so why bother?

                                                                             •

            Nobody knew anything about the Two Guys. An immobile ‘54 Chevy lived on the street by the curb in front of their house. The Collier Kids said the Two Guys lived with their mother.

            I’ve never seen her.

            We’ve seen her.

            She hardly ever comes out.

            They had a fence like the Angelos’ but not as high. They didn’t bother anybody and nobody bothered them. They had two crabapple trees in their parkway. Summertime everybody pulled the crabapples off the trees and threw them at each other in crabapple wars. The hard little crabapples were thrown by their stems and stung when they hit flesh.

            Ow! I’m telling!

            No, you’re not.

            Yeah, don’t be such a big baby.

            After a crabapple war the street and sidewalk were littered with crabapples. The kids stepped on them and smashed them flat.

                                                                             •

            The last house at bottom of the block was often empty. No one knew why.

            It’s haunted!

            Yeah, that’s why no one wants to live there.

            You believe in ghosts?

            Sure! Everybody does.

            Everybody knows there’s ghosts.

            We went there one night and we heard it howling.

            You did not.

            You don’t know. You weren’t there.

            It’s a bad luck house. Ask Jeff. Isn’t it, Jeff? That house? The haunted one? Where you cut your leg that one time? It’s a bad luck house, right?

            I don’t believe in luck. It’s against my religion.

            Gah, I can’t believe that. That’s so stupid.

            Everybody believes in luck. You’re just making that up, Jeff.

                                                                             •

            The bottom of the block was a dead-end cul-de-sac everyone called The Bulge. The kids on the block, the Collier Kids and any of the other kids who wanted, played baseball there. Home plate was always on the south side and nobody knew why. Line drives could break a window at the haunted house or dent the fender of a parked car. Pop flies could end up in Mrs. Angelo’s flower beds or bounce around in traffic on the four-lane street that ran beyond the low wall at the base of the cul-de-sac.

            Go get it!

            Get the ball, Simon!

            No! Gah, I didn’t hit it out there. You go get it.

            Simon, you’re such a chicken.

            You shut your mouth, you bun-hugger! Or I’ll smack it shut.

            Jeff, will you get the ball? Mary, ask Jeff if he’ll get the ball.

            Jeff?

            Yeah, I’ll get it. Wait till these cars go by.

            Hurry, Jeff! It’ll get smashed!

            You guys! Let him wait. Jeff, be carful.

            Did you hear what Francine said? She said, Jeff, be carful.

            Be careful, Jeff!

            Don’t worry, guys, I’ll be careful.

            And so he was, and so he retrieved the ball, and so the game went on, until it was time to go home for dinner, time to start a new school year, time to take a summer job, time to grow up and move away and leave the block behind.

Summer is for Swimming, Shopping, and Stealing

            A loose clot of kids walked along beside the four-lane street. There was no sidewalk. A trail was worn along the shoulder, above the curb. The trail went through desert—pale brown and red sand and dust, small rocks and some gravel, mesquite and creosote and goat’s-heads, nightshade with blue flowers and yellow seedpods, stunted yuccas, tumbleweeds both rooted and free-rolling, and tufts of desert grasses and wildflowers. Across the street was the neighborhood of tract houses where the kids lived. On the side where the kids walked, the desert stretched almost a half-mile to a mobile home park. Four tall radio broadcasting aerials stood in the desert, arranged in a large diamond. Guy wires stretched at taut angles from the towers to industrial screw eyes anchored in concrete blocks on the desert floor.

            The kids wore swimsuits under their t-shirts and shorts, and flip-flops or tennis shoes without socks. They carried beach towels and suntan lotion; one or two carried packs of cigarettes and books of matches. They ranged in build from lanky to slender. The oldest was fourteen and the youngest was ten or eleven. Billie Jean Beausoleil was at that age where she seemed to have shot up like a weed after a summer rainstorm, her arms and legs long and rail thin. She was the youngest of the Beausoleil girls, the only blonde, and would grow into a stunning beauty. Francine Beausoleil was next-oldest and would be starting junior high in the fall. She wore glasses pushed up on her nose and always seemed to be squinting. Cindy Beausoleil was Grant Collier’s age and would come to be deeply in love with him, hoping they would marry, but Grant never married. Janet Wheeler, the girl who’d lost her belly button to emergency surgery, was also Grant’s and Cindy’s age. She would later be a bartending biker-chick riding Harleys in the Colorado Rockies. Mary Wheeler would start junior high with Francine and Simon Collier in the fall. She and Simon had been going steady for almost two years. They were the couple that seemed so natural, it seemed they would marry, but they broke up when they got to high school and, same as his brother, Simon never married. He and Grant carried themselves with an androgynous grace and assurance. They were not effeminate but they were not masculine. The only other boy in the group was Jeff Chorus. His parents were religious and strict. He was neither graceful nor assured.

            The kids’ destination was Crystal Pool, a private spring-fed swimming pool in a small and run-down park that had seen better days, its tall cottonwoods scattered over dried and dying Bermuda grass and a sparse array of battered picnic tables. It was a fifteen-minute walk from their block to the pool. In the summer, at least one and usually most of the kids made the walk at least once and sometimes twice a day, six days a week. The pool was closed on Wednesdays for draining, cleaning, and re-filling.

            Crystal Pool was large and circular. Its deepest point was in the middle and was over fourteen feet down. It was a challenge to reach the bottom and none of the kids ever did, which didn’t stop them from saying that they did. A dock stood in the pool to one side of the deepest point. Two diving boards, one low and one high, were on the dock. The deck around the pool was large and concrete; around that were grassy areas, with mulberry and mimosa trees around the perimeter. There was a raised lifeguard station, a kiddie pool, indoor showers that everyone was supposed to use before swimming and no one did, and an awninged area with ping-pong tables. Admission was by membership only and the number of memberships was limited.

                                                                             •

            Grant and Simon fought in their front yard. Simon was getting the best of it. Grant picked up a loose brick from the garden and tossed it at his brother. Their mother’s voice came through the opened kitchen window.

            Grant! You stop throwing bricks at your brother! And put that back in the garden where you found it! The way I had it!

            Yes, ma’am.

            Jeff walked over from his house across the street. He carried a beach towel.

            Hi, Grant. Hi, Simon. You guys wanna go swimming?

            Sure, Grant said.

            No, Simon said. I’m not going anywhere with Grant. He’s a futt-bucker.

            Their mother’s voice came through the window.

            Simon! Watch your mouth! Hi, Jeff!

            Hello, Missus Collier.

            You boys going swimming?

            Yes, Grant said.

            No, Simon said.

            Let’s go, Grant said to Jeff. I already have my trunks on underneath my pants.

            Me, too.

            I need to get a towel.

            Grant went in and got a beach towel, and he and Jeff walked to the pool. It was still early in the day. They swam for a while, then they stretched on their towels and took the sun. Grant had cigarettes and they each smoked one.

            Ohmagod, look, Grant said. Look—over there. The German Woman.

            Jeff looked. All the kids knew about The German Woman. She always sat in the same place, with a friend or two, on towels in the grass near the perimeter fence and the trees. She had a baby and sometimes she nursed it. Right there! She let down a strap of her bikini top and she did it! Jeff had heard about it but he hadn’t seen it until today.

            Wow! he said quietly.

            Did you see her nipple?

            Yes! It was as big as my thumb!

            It’s the baby that does that.

            Wow!

            On the way home they passed by a garage sale. Two card tables set up on a driveway, peppered with an array of stuff, all of it marked with homemade price tags and none of it worth anything. A woman sat in a folding chair. Grant and Jeff looked at the items on display. Grant asked the woman about a set of salt and pepper shakers and Jeff stole a necklace of fake pearls.

            Easiest job ever, Jeff said after they walked away.

            I didn’t know you were such a little thief.

            Sometimes.

            Have you ever shoplifted?

            Oh yeah. You?

            Yeah. We do it all the time, at Gibson’s and Northgate. Where have you shoplifted?

            I haven’t done it much. I stole a squirt gun from TG&Y right at the end of the school year. I was scared I was gonna get caught, but I didn’t. And before that, when I was little, I stole a little racing car from Sprouse-Reitz. That time I got caught.

            You did? What happened?

            I was only four. I really wanted that car. It was one of those little ones with a friction motor. You could see it through the body. I still remember it had a price tag on it and it was twenty-five cents. I asked my mom to get it for me but she wouldn’t, so when she wasn’t looking, I took it and stuck it in my pocket.

            Did they catch you at the store?

            No. I didn’t get caught till after I got home. It was winter and we were wearing our coats. When we got home, my mom took our coats to hang them up. She always checked our pockets in case me or my brother had picked up a rock or a bottle cap or a dead lizard or something. And she found the car. With the price tag still on it.

            I bet she beat your butt.

            No, she didn’t. I’m surprised she didn’t. But she took me back to the store and she got the manager and told him. He squatted down in front of me and grabbed my shoulders and told me what a bad boy I was and how I should never ever steal anything again. I was crying so hard.

            I guess the lesson wore off.

            Yeah. Have you ever been caught?

            Nah. It’s easy to get away with it, especially if there’s a bunch of us. The people in the store never know who to watch.

            This was true. Should they watch the skinny girl with the long legs? She didn’t seem to be any trouble, at least not yet. Those other two girls, the ones who looked like they could be her sisters—the older one seemed mostly interested in one of those boys. Interested enough to steal for him? Best keep an eye on her. But she’s talking a lot with that other girl who looks about her age. Damn, there’s a lot of kids in this bunch. Where’d the one with the glasses go, the one who was squinting? There, she’s down that aisle, with the other girl who looks like the little sister of that other older girl, and with that boy, one of the tall skinny ones. He looks a little, you know . . . that way. That other one must be his brother. Then that other boy—he doesn’t look like he really belongs with them. But it’s clear they’re all friends. Some little gang of suburban hoodlums. Spoiled rotten. Probably haven’t seen the inside of a church since they were baptized. Assuming they’ve been baptized. Little heathens. What are they doing? Those three are all clumped up there and whispering. And those other two are obviously up to no good. Best just to clear them all out of here, they’re not going to buy anything. You kids. Hey! Hey! You kids—you need to buy something right now, or get out. Don’t make me call the cops.

                                                                             •

            The Store—the term for teen shopping before there was The Mall, before The Internet was more than a dream. It was how they asked permission or flat-out said it—Mom, can I go to The Store? We’re going to The Store, okay? Mom—where is she? Where are you, Mom? Going to The Store! Sometimes their moms might ask, What store? Which store? How long are you going to be gone? Don’t be gone too long, okay? Okay, Mom! and they’d be out the door and down the street, to cross the four-lane and then the desert and descend upon the Gibson’s or the K-Mart or the Sears Roebuck, or the favorite shops at Northgate Center, stopping usually at as many as a half-dozen, buying what they wanted or what they could afford, stealing what they could get away with—and they always got away, until later—and creating the disturbance clots of teens are known for, a ripple or sometimes a rip in the bourgeois continuum.

            Grant Collier and his brother Simon, and Francine Beausoleil and her sister Billie Jean, and Jeff Chorus, the weird one, walked through the desert past the broadcast towers, on their way to The Store. Jeff  decided to start fires.

            It’ll be really cool, guys!

            Gah, Jeff! No, it won’t!

            Jeff had some matches and set three small bushes on fire. The winds were calm and the fires burned out before they could spread.

            Shit! I was hoping for something bigger.

            Jeff, you’re such a pyromaniac.

            You’re going to get us in trouble.

            This is boring. Can we go?

            Let’s go, guys. I wanna get to The Store.

            Grant led the way but Billie Jean held back.

            I’m going home. I don’t feel very good.

            The chili cheese burrito she’d had for breakfast wasn’t setting well, and she didn’t like Jeff. He was creepy. He wasn’t like Grant and Simon. He was always looking. And then writing things down in that stupid little notebook he always carried with that stupid little stubby pencil. And then doing idiotic things like setting bushes on fire in the desert. He was going to get them all in trouble.

            Billie Jean turned and headed back home and the others continued through the desert and into the mobile home park. They discussed the possibility of making easy money through door-to-door seed sales—These old geezers are always planting flowers, they’d buy everything we had to sell, Grant said, and Jeff said, Yeah! I sold seeds door-to-door the summer after second grade and it was great!—but Grant didn’t ask how much money Jeff had made and Jeff didn’t tell that he hadn’t made squat and it wasn’t great, the sun was hot and nobody wanted to buy seeds from some little kid knocking on the door and Jeff’s mom had ended up having to buy all Jeff’s stock, most of which she had no use for even though she gardened, just to pay off the company that had shipped the seeds to an eight-year-old boy and why had she agreed to let him do that, anyway? Sometimes she just didn’t know what she was thinking.

            First stop after the mobile home park was Sears. The Sears outlet was big and it had everything, except pants that would fit Grant and Simon. They looked and Francine told about a fight she’d had with Debbie Gander, and Jeff—what the hell was he doing? He didn’t have any money and his mom bought all his clothes anyway.

            Yeah, I heard that fight. I was in bed already but my window was open and I could hear you guys screaming at each other. What was it about?

            She’s just a scaggy bitch who thinks she’s hot snot on a golden platter, but she’s—Jeff, what the hell are you doing?

            I’m stealing rubber bands offa socks. Look—I’ve got five already. And these two demonstration polarizers off sunglasses. These are really cool.

            And he’s ripping price tags off pants, too.

            Jeff! Gah, you’re so—.

            Words failed Francine and she turned away from Jeff. What she wanted to do was smack him a good one. She had never liked him and she didn’t see how that was going to change. She wandered over to the socks display and picked out a pair.

            They left Sears and headed for K-Mart. On the way there they passed by the Taco Box and along a concrete flood control canal. Two bikes were parked in the desert above the bone-dry canal and two boys were down in it.

            Let’s see what they’re doing, Grant said. He led the way and he and Jeff scrambled down the steep side of the canal, Jeff almost losing his balance and having to run the final few feet and colliding with Grant to check his momentum. The boys in the canal were several years younger than Grant and Jeff.

            What’re you guys doing?

            Nothing. We’re not doing anything.

            It was hard to tell what they were doing. They were skittish. Who were these older boys who had come down and what were they going to do?

            Grant led the way and he and Jeff scrambled back up the side of the canal. Back at the top, Grant turned to Jeff and grinned. He had a subtle grin, his deep violet eyes hard to read.

            Let’s push one of their bikes down.

            He and Jeff grabbed one of the bikes and pushed it down into the ditch.

            Let’s go.

            Grant and Jeff caught up with Simon and Francine, who had continued on toward the K-Mart.

            What were they doing? Francine said.

            Nothing.

            Why did you push their bike down? Simon said. Did they say something to you?

            No. I just wanted to. It was fun. They shouldn’t have left their bikes up there.

            Yeah, that was stupid.

            Boner-heads.

            They walked on and approaching them were two girls crossing a large and open desert lot, coming their way from the direction of the K-Mart. The girls were no one they knew, a couple skinny blonde girls in shorts and simple tops and tennis shoes, passing by off the starboard quarter. Looks were exchanged and then words, in the manner common to groups of young and hormone-inflected bipedal great apes, their thumbs opposed to their fingers and their demeanor opposed to all strangers.

            What’re you looking at?

            I’m looking at you. Wanna make something of it?

            I’m seeing skinny ugly scags.

            Yeah, I’ll make something of it. Whadda you wanna make of it?

            You’re already made but you’re too dumb to know it.

            I’m seeing you and your face looks like the doctor tried to push you back in when he saw you coming out of your mother.

            You guys sure hang out with an ugly bitch.

            It’s the best they can rate.

            Jeff flipped off the girls. Any time, any time, one of them said. Jeff said, Yeah, any time, you whore.

            Same to you.

            You would.

            You whore!

            Like you!

            Fucking bitches! You’re the ugliest pieces of trash I’ve ever seen!

            White trash from the gutter!

            You bastards!

            Jeff continued flipping off the girls.

            Fucking whores!

            Come and say that to my face!

            Grant and Jeff started walking to the girls. One of the girls bent and picked up a rock. Grant and Jeff stooped and picked up rocks without breaking stride, then charged the girls at a run. The girls turned and ran away, not stopping until they had crossed a six-lane street.

            Jeff and Grant dropped their rocks and rejoined Francine and Simon. They continued on their way. Francine was upset.

            Those ugly pieces of cheap trash! Who the fuck do they think they are? We didn’t do a fucking thing to them!

            I know.

            And they walk by like they think they own the whole goddamn world and pick shit with us! Ooo, I wish I could get back at them!

            Simon had turned and was walking backwards.

            You’re gonna get your wish, they’re coming back.

            The four kids stopped, and Grant and Jeff ran through the desert toward the girls. This time the girls held their ground. Grant and Jeff stopped.

            You cheap whores!

            You fucking bastards!

            You can kiss my ass, you scag!

            You’re what your mom pulled out of the toilet after it got clogged!

            Grant and Jeff returned to Simon and Francine. The two girls walked by them, about thirty feet away, also headed in the direction of K-Mart.

            Our big brothers are going to knock the shit out of you!

            What big brothers?

            You liars! I don’t see any brothers, big or little.

            Who would want to be the brother to a scag like you?

            Oh, I’m so scared. Pretend brothers and real whores.

            When they got to the K-Mart, Francine stopped at the Customer Service desk to have her bag from Sears stapled shut. The two blonde girls were with three boys now, and they walked past in single file, boy-girl-boy-girl-boy. You sons of bitches, one of the girls said, and, Way to tell ‘em, one of the boys said.

            I want to look at tennis shoes, Francine said to Grant and Simon. She led the way to the shoe department, with Grant and Simon and Jeff in a loose formation trailing behind through the aisles. She looked at girls’ shoes while Simon and Grant looked at boys’ shoes and Jeff took out his little notebook and stubby pencil and wrote something down. The two blonde girls had followed them. One moved toward Grant as though to confront him. She didn’t see Simon standing at the end of the aisle she was passing by. He stuck a foot out and tripped her, and as she stumbled, Grant gave her ankle a quick, sharp kick.

            Whoops, he said.

            She started crying. The other girl said, You’ll see who you kick next time!

            I’ll kick you, Grant said.

            The three boys who had come in with the two girls approached. Grant said, Let’s go, and he and Simon and Jeff and Francine quickly left the shoe department. We can get out through the garden center, Grant said. They did, and as soon as they were outside, they ran across the K-Mart parking lot to a bank next door, saw they weren’t being followed, and walked the rest of the way across parking lots and a street to Northgate Center, where they stopped at the TG&Y.

            There was a soda counter and they sat on stools. Simon and Francine had money and ordered cokes. Grant had money and chose not to spend it. Jeff had no money. He and Grant ordered water. The woman working the counter said, I don’t give water but there’s a fountain around the corner.

            Grant and Jeff went around the corner to the fountain. They were in aisles stocked with decorative stuffs and started looking at them. There were polystyrene cones for making who-knows-whats. Jeff pinched the rounded pointy top off one of them. Grant frowned.

            Jeff! How would you like it if someone tore the end off and you wanted to buy it?

            Yeah. I guess you’re right.

            Simon and Francine finished their cokes and went to look at some rings in a pair of display cases near the store’s front door. Grant joined them while Jeff stayed in the decorations and used his stubby pencil to poke holes in small packets of glitter. He opened a small packet of six yellow plastic gems and took four. He walked to the greeting cards aisle and looked at cards for a couple minutes, returned to the decorations aisles and took the other two gems, then joined his friends at the rings.

            These ones are really neat, Simon said to Francine.

            Yeah. Look at this one.

            They’re sterling silver, Grant said. He studied one display case. There was a lever on the side. He moved it and it freed the rings to be taken out and tried on. Not all of the spaces in the case had rings.

            Jeff took a ring and tried it on. It was tight. He had trouble removing it. He got it off and put it back, then felt stupid when he could have stolen it. He made up for this mistake by stealing another, although it turned out to be too big. Grant stole one and Jeff didn’t notice. Grant told him about it later and showed it to him.

            It fits my finger perfectly.

            Cool! I didn’t even see you take it. That proves how smooth you are.

            Simon and Francine looked at the rings in the other case.

            Look, Simon. I want to try on one of the littler ones.

            Maybe them’s be the ones. We be see them’s be.

            Simon tried to move the lever on the side of the case. A man in a suit was there by his side.

            What are you kids doing?

            We want to see these rings.

            You should ask for help. Someone would be glad to help you.

            We didn’t see anyone here.

            The man said nothing to this. The floorwalker who was supposed to be working this department was—who knows where? He was going to have to have some words with the GM about her. This was not the first time she had wandered off during her shift without telling anyone where she was going. Bathroom breaks were fine, as long as she didn’t take an unreasonable number of them and she let someone know. And she secured her station before she left. She hadn’t. Those cases were not secured. They didn’t have alarms, but they had locks. And they were left unlocked. He hadn’t counted the number of rings in them before the store opened this morning—that wasn’t his job—but he wouldn’t be surprised if there were fewer there now than had been sold.

            You kids gonna buy anything? If you’re not gonna buy anything, it’s best you leave.

            Gah.

            Come on, guys. Let’s go.

            We don’t want your stupid rings anyway.

            Let’s go to Toys By Roy, Grant said. We need to get Tiffany something.

            Baby Tiffany! It’s going to be her six months’ birthday!

            She’s so cute!

            You guys, it’s so great you’re uncles. What’s it like?

            It’s not like anything, Jeff.

            We’re not any different.

            They spent ten or fifteen minutes in Toys By Roy.

            What do you get a baby? I can’t decide.

            She’s spoiled enough already. Let’s go.

            They stopped by a Hallmark card shop and spent a few minutes. It was a small shop with open views and several employees on duty. The kids quickly determined they would not be able to steal anything.

            Let’s go.

            We need to get some pants.

            They went to J. C. Penney, where Grant and Simon spent a while trying on pants till they could find some they liked and that fit them. They were long-legged and narrow-waisted. And the school dress code had changed. Vive la Revolution!

            I’m so excited! We get to wear blue jeans to school!

            Jeff, are you gonna wear blue jeans this year?

            I dunno. My mom doesn’t want me to.

            She dresses him in outfits.

            Why doesn’t she want you to?

            I dunno. She just doesn’t.

            Well, just do it. What’s she going to do, follow you to school and pull your pants off? I could just see it. Come here, Jeff! Take those off right now!

            The kids laughed. Jeff didn’t know about classes and class differences and class consciousness. He knew it was very important to his mother what other people thought. And not just any other people, but the neighbors.

            What will the neighbors think?

            It looked like the neighbors would all be wearing blue jeans to school come fall. At least the boys would.

            It’s so unfair, Francine said. You guys get to wear pants, and now you’re gonna get to wear blue jeans, but us girls still have to wear dresses.

            It’s because you little darlings look so sweet and innocent in dresses.

            Fuck you, Grant.

            Grant and Simon tried on pants and Francine told them if they looked good or not when they came out of the dressing rooms. Jeff tore price tags off pants.

            Jeff, would you stop that!

            Jeff did. He went off to another part of the Men’s and Boys’ section and stole a Boy Scout pin that he gave to Grant, and he passed through the Women’s and Girls’ section and stole a 14-carat gold-plated bracelet with two cultured pearls on it. Mrs. Collier had given her boys money to buy pants and when they finally found pairs that fit, they bought them and they and Francine and Jeff left and crossed the desert back to their neighborhood.

                                                                             •

            The Colliers had a camper in their driveway, up in front of the carport. It used to be mounted in the bed of Mr. Collier’s old blue Chevy pick-up, when the family were younger and the truck and camper were newer. Now the truck was more useful for hauling other things, and the camper was more useful as a clubhouse for the kids.

            Jeff sat curled on one of the small side bunks and wrote in his notebook. He wrote, I stole this notebook. Simon and Grant and Billie Jean and Mary Wheeler were on the other side bunks and the larger upper bunk. It was late afternoon and the sun shone in through the small windows. The camper door was open.

            You shoulda come with us today, Mary, we had fun.

            Sorry I missed it, Grant.

            Let’s play prostitute, Billie Jean said. You guys wanna play prostitute?

            Mmm . . . I dunno.

            Irtsquay eethey ooshday agbay at-they effjay, Grant said.

            Squirt the douche bag at Jeff? Why?

            He doesn’t know what it is.

            Jeff, do you know what a douche bag is?

            Yes.

            What is it?

            If you don’t know, Simon, I ain’t gonna tell you.

            Oh, you don’t know. He doesn’t know.

            Yes, I do. But I don’t talk about sex.

            Do you understand pig Latin, Jeff?

            No. What is it?

            It’s what I was speaking when I told Mary to squirt the douche bag at you.

            Don’t worry, Jeff, Mary said. We don’t have a douche bag.

            You guys, I don’t wanna play whore, Simon said.

            Then don’t.

            I’ll be a whore with you, Mary, Billie Jean said.

            No, thanks.

            I got a idea, Grant said. Pretend you’re thieves, like the normal life we live.

            There was more and Jeff wrote as fast as he could, but he couldn’t keep up. He was still writing when Janet and Francine came in.

            Jeff, why are you always writing in that notebook? Janet said.

            I want people to know. What it was like.

            What what was like?

            Us. What it was like for us, here.

            You want people to know? Francine said. What people? Who’s ever going to read that? That’s stupid. No one cares about us. We’re just a bunch of white-trash kids.

            A pack of thieving little heathens, Grant said.

            No one could read his handwriting anyways, Simon said. Have you seen it?

            No.

            Let’s see it, Jeff.

            No, Jeff said. He put his notebook and pencil in one pocket and started pulling things out of another pocket.

            Hey, I wanna give you guys this stuff.

            He pulled out the bracelet and the ring and the six yellow plastic gems.

            This ring doesn’t fit me, it’s too big. Whoever it fits can have it.

            The kids tried the ring on and passed it around.

            Hey, it fits me.

            Janet held up her hand and showed it. She had the ring on her thumb.

            Can I keep it?

            Sure. Francine, do you want this bracelet?

            Francine took it and looked at it and put it on.

            Sure, okay.

            She never grew to like Jeff, but she came to find him tolerable. The bracelet helped. It also helped that he thought they were all worth writing about, even if it was stupid and no one would ever read it.

            And here, Mary and Simon, these jewels are for you. Two for you, Simon, since you’re the guy, and four for Mary, since she’s the girl.

            Thank you, Jeff.

            Thank you, Jeff.

            Mmm, wow. Yellow plastic rubies. Don’t I get anything?

            Grant, I already gave you the Boy Scout pin.

            Oh, yeah. That’s right. I forgot.

            There was more, but before Jeff could write it down, he heard his mother calling him from across the street.

            Oop. Gotta go. Grant, you gonna go swimming tomorrow?

            Sure. Probably.

            Okay. I’ll come over and we’ll go.

            Okay. Not too early, though.

            Jeff went home and it was almost dinner time.

            Jeff, I want you to wash up and set the table. Did you have fun today?

            A little. We went to The Store. Grant and Simon got pants, and Francine got a pair of socks.

            Is that all ?

            That’s all.

Making Love

            It was early in the morning and it was quiet until Grant and Billie Jean set off a firecracker by the front door to the elementary school. Jeff and Simon were walking away from the school and the blast echoed down the street. Simon spun around to look.

            Ahmm, they’re gonna get in trouble.

            But they didn’t.

            Later Jeff saw that Grant and Simon and Francine had gone into the camper, so he crossed the street to go into the camper, too. The door was closed and he opened it.

            Ohmygod! God! Shit!

            Grant and Simon and Francine scrambled to put out their cigarettes. Then they saw it was Jeff.

            You scared us to death, Jeff!

            But they didn’t die, not yet. Jeff and Francine smoked three cigarettes apiece, and Grant and Simon two apiece.

            We might go to the store this afternoon.

            I wanna come, but I gotta do some yardwork first.

            Jeff went back home to do the yardwork. His mom set him to edging around one of her flowerbeds with a flat spade hoe she had just bought. He didn’t know how to use it but how hard could it be?

            Hard enough.

            You can’t do anything right! Now tear all that fencing out and go back and do it right! Then when you put it back in, you make sure you set it up straight!

            He tore all the fencing out and took up the flat spade hoe and wondered why he couldn’t use the clippers, he knew how those worked. He thought his mom should go to hell but the Devil probably wouldn’t take her—his very thoughts, without fear of Divine retribution—and he looked across the street and saw the roof vent on the camper going up so he knew the Collier Kids were in there smoking again and one of them, probably Grant, was working the hand-crank to open the vent.

            Jeff finished the edging and set the fence up again and cut his thumb and his mom came out to inspect his work.

            I’m probably going to have to tear all that fence out. You can do it after lunch. And then I want you to do your brother’s chores. And don’t give me that look! You know I already told you about that! The days he has his work at the hospital, you need to help out! He does all the work around here. You need to stop being so lazy and take more responsibility. Now get inside and eat your lunch. Are you listening to me?

            Yes, ma’am.

            Beyond her, across the street, he saw Grant crossing the side yard to go to the Beausoleils’. Jeff hated his mom. Everybody else got to have fun but he had to be his family’s slave. And his brother’s work at the hospital? Ha! His brother was a candy-striper who worked as a projectionist at the hospital theater. He got to sit on his ass and watch movies all afternoon.

            After lunch and after tearing the fence out and doing his brother’s chores, Jeff crossed the street to the Colliers’. Debbie Gander was in her carport and called after him.

            They’re not there.

            Where are they?

            Debbie pointed and it looked to Jeff like she was pointing at the Wheelers’ house. He started to go there and Debbie called after him.

            They’re not there.

            Where are they?

            They left.

            Where to?

            The store.

            Jeff turned around and went home. Those sons of bitches. They went to the store without him. God damn it. He could just imagine all the fun they were having. They’d probably come home with a giant haul. Steal everything they could get their hands on. A dozen silver rings. Gold-plated charm bracelets on every arm. Maybe even pairs of pants and packs of cigarettes. Those asses. Jeff knew they didn’t care about him. Not really. Oh, they pretended. Shitfuckers. They probably didn’t even really want him for a friend.

            He knew what it was. Why they probably didn’t really like him. It was because he cut all his hair off at the start of summer. It had been down to his nose. He had the barber cut it down to the stubble. That was almost two months ago and so it was longer now, but still. They had called him Peach Fuzz when he first did it.

            Hey, Peach Fuzz! Wanna go swimming? Aren’t you scared of sunburn?

            No.

            He was scared of his parents and wasps and horses and talking to Aimee Chambers, the girl he truly loved, and he was scared of getting beat up, but he was not scared of sunburn.

                                                                             •

            It was cool in the living room in the early afternoon. Jeff sat in his dad’s chair and read one of his mom’s Readers Digest Condensed Books. Not as interesting as Ball Four. That was one of his dad’s books. A paperback. Jeff was reading it earlier in the summer when his dad caught him and took it away.

            No, Jeff, you’re too young for that.

            It was good. It’s where he learned the word shitfuck. That was a cool word. Too bad there weren’t more opportunities to use it.

            This Readers Digest book, it was okay. Didn’t have any swear words, though.

            Then it said something about making love. Making love. Wait. The way it said it. They took all their clothes off and made love. Wait. Wait wait wait.

            Oh my god. That’s what making love was. Fucking! Holy shitfuck! It was fucking!

            Was it really? He read it again. It seemed to be that was it. Fucking. Oh my god, and all this time he’s been saying how he wants to make love to his girlfriends. He didn’t mean fuck them. Was that what it meant, really? It was hard to tell from the way it was written in the book. He’d have to ask Grant. Grant would know. Grant knew blow job, jack off, and cunt. He even knew cornhole. He was bound to know making love.

                                                                             •

            They were gone all afternoon, since before lunch. Jeff kept glancing across the street to see if he could see if they had come back without anyone seeing that he kept glancing across the street. But his mother saw. She had super-human X-ray radar vision, just like Jimmy Gander said.

            Have your friends come back yet?

            I don’t think so.

            Why don’t you go check?

            I haven’t seen them.

            No way was Jeff going to go check. Have everyone on the block—which at that point was no one, the street was empty, but you never could tell who might be looking out a window—have them all see him crossing the street like some mangy heartbroken starving lost dog? Or worse yet, like some thirteen-year-old Peach Fuzz whose friends had left him behind?

                                                                             •

            The vent was up. Grant, Simon, Mary, Francine, and Jeff sat in the camper and smoked cigarettes. Grant held up his hand, his fingers splayed.

            Look, I got another ring.

            Cool! I wish I could’ve gone with you guys.

            We missed you, Jeff.

            You did?

            That’s such bullshit, Mary. We did not miss him. We did not miss you, Jeff.

            Gah, Francine, that’s mean.

            What, Simon—it’s true. You guys may have missed him, but I didn’t.

            We missed you, Jeff. We had a good time, anyway.

            Even Francine missed you. She has a secret crush on you.

            Gah, Grant! I do not!

            Yes, she does, Jeff. When you’re not around, all she talks about is you. She wants you to take her in your manly skinny Peach Fuzz arms and make love to her.

            God-damn, Grant, shut the fuck up! Or I’ll smack you!

            Grant, Shmant, smack your pant.

            What? Simon, you’re so weird.

            Hey, Grant?

            Hey, Jeff.

            I was reading in a book today and it said something about making love, and I always thought that making love was like telling someone that you love them and writing poems to them and giving them flowers and rings and stuff, but in this book it made it seem like it was fucking.

            That’s because it is.

            Oh, my God, Jeff—you didn’t know that?

            No, Simon, I didn’t.

            I thought everybody knew that.

            What book were you reading?

            It was one of my mom’s Readers Digest condensed books.

            Things are getting hot at the old Readers Digest. Hey, guys, let’s play Truth or Dare. We won’t do any of that crazy stuff people do with truth or dare. We’ll make it sensible. We’ll play that, let’s see—the truth will be, tell your darkest secret that you don’t want anyone to know, and the dare will be, fuck Mary for twenty-four hours.

            Grant, you’re so full of it.

            You’re just jealous, Francine.

            Um, hey, guys, do I get to have any say in this? I can’t fuck for twenty-four hours. You’ll have to start without me.

            Oh, Mary, you’re no fun.

Hookie

            Jeff got up a half-hour late. His mom did not say good morning.

            Young man, I woke you up on time. You have only yourself to blame if you’re running late.

            Yes, ma’am.

            And I expect you to do your chores before you go to school this morning. Don’t dawdle.

            Yes, ma’am.

                                                                             •

            Grant and Simon and Mary and Francine and David were all waiting in Jeff’s carport when he came out.

            Gah, Jeff, what took you so long?

            Yeah, we’re gonna be late.

            That’s first bell. Did you hear? First bell just rang.

            Let’s ditch.

            Gah, Grant.

            Well, we should. I don’t wanna get there late.

            Me, neither.

            We should go.

            The kids walked.

            That’s second bell. Second bell just rang. We’re gonna be late.

            Yeah, no way we’re gonna get there on time.

            The kids walked.

            That’s final bell. I don’t wanna go in after final bell.

            Me, neither.

            I hate it. If I’m late, my teacher makes a big deal of it in front of everybody.

            Mine, too.

            Let’s ditch First.

            Okay.

            Okay.

            We can miss First, anyway.

            That’s right. They take attendance but it doesn’t count.

            It doesn’t?

            No, not until Second.

            Then why do they take it if it doesn’t count?

            They want all the little boys and girls to do their very best to get to school on time.

            Why doesn’t it count First period?

            They know some kids are gonna be late. It’s Second that counts because that’s the one where they decide how much money the schools get.

            The more kids they have, the more money they get.

            Oh. I didn’t know.

            Did you think they just gave the schools however much money they wanted?

            I thought they just gave as much as the schools needed.

            Jeff, if they did that, we would have new Science books.

            Our Science books don’t even know we’ve been up in space.

            Stupid school.

            The kids wandered streets in the neighborhood between their block and the school. A stray dog saw them and followed them.

            Hey, puppy.

            Are you lost, little dog?

            What a cute little dog.

            He’s got a collar.

            Probably he got out of somebody’s yard.

            The kids reached the northern edge of their neighborhood, where the streets and houses ended and the desert began. The school was a block away. Francine looked in that direction.

            I’m gonna go, guys. I’ll get there before Second, and when the bell for Second rings, I’ll go in.

            David looked at Francine, and then at the others.

            I’m gonna go, too. Are you guys gonna keep ditching?

            Yeah, I think so.

            Mary, do you wanna keep ditching?

            Yeah, I’ll stay with you guys. What about you, Jeff?

            Sure.

            Francine and David headed to school. Grant and Simon and Mary and Jeff headed back down the street they had just come up. The little dog followed them for a while and then it went away.

            Adults were around and were not oblivious. A couple of women in the neighborhood saw the kids.

            Aren’t you kids supposed to be in school?

            It’s eighth-grade ditch day, and we’re ditching. They let us.

            Oh. Okay.

            The women weren’t fooled for a second. One of them called the police.

            I’d like to report some children wandering the neighborhood. Teenagers. I think they’re supposed to be in school. No, I haven’t seen them do anything. They’re just walking down the sidewalk. One of them is a girl wearing a really nice coat. Rabbit-fur, I think. No, they don’t look like hoodlums. They’re just kids, but I think they should be in school. What? Oh, they’re white, I think. They look white. No, you don’t need to send anyone to my house, but if you send someone to patrol the neighborhood, you’ll see the kids. They should be in school. Okay. Thank you.

            The kids stopped at the end of a dead-end and sat on a low rock wall for a few minutes. Grant said, The reason people aren’t suspicious of us is because Mary looks like a sensible young girl in that coat—

            That’s a nice coat, Mary.

            Thank you, guys. I like looking sensible.

            And Jeff, you look like a brain—

            It’s those glasses, and his short hair.

            And I look like a sensible young girl’s boyfriend, and Simon looks like my brother.

            But I’m her boyfriend.

            That doesn’t matter, Simon. She looks sensible enough to pick me.

            Gah, Grant.

            The kids crossed the four-lane highway that bordered their neighborhood there and walked into the desert where the unpaved streets led up to a Minute Market. At the Minute Market they bought candy bars with their lunch money and stole pieces of penny bubble gum. There was a pay phone out front.

            Jeff, you sound an awful lot like your mom. You should call the school and pretend you’re her and make up an excuse for being absent.

            Okay. I’ll tell them I had an asthma attack. Do you know the school’s number?

            No.

            The pay phone had a phone book, but the school was new and the phone book was old. No call was made.

            In the lot next to the Minute Market was a row of four old shacks. They were stuccoed concrete block ruins that had been there as long as the kids could remember. When the kids were younger, the shacks had been haunted. Now they were just dirty and empty and tumble-down. The kids went into one of them and stayed for a while and talked about nothing. They tired of this and Grant said, We had probably better go to school. The others agreed. They left the shack and headed back to their neighborhood. When they neared the school Grant said, Jeff, you go in first, and we’ll follow a few minutes later, so it doesn’t look like we were all ditching together.

            Okay.

            Jeff went in first. It was during class so he had to stop at the office to get a pass.

            Hi. I’m Jeff Chorus. I’m late because I had an asthma attack and had to stay home till it was over.

            The secretary looked at her list.

            Jeff Chorus. We already called your mom, Jeff. She said you left for school this morning on time.

            The secretary gave Jeff a pass. He went to class. It was one David was in, too. They exchanged glances. In a few minutes the announcement came over the school P.A. system.

            David Stepp and Jeff Chorus, report to the Administrative Office. David Stepp and Jeff Chorus, report to the Administrative Office.

            They reported. The secretary was strictly business and did not smile.

            You boys have a seat. Mister Mitchell will be with you shortly.

            David and Jeff sat in two of the tube-frame-and-plastic chairs that infested institutional spaces. Two uniformed police officers came out of Mr. Mitchell’s office and for a second Jeff thought he and David were about to be taken to the D-Home in cuffs. The D-Home. No one knew where it was and everyone knew it existed, knew it was where they put you when you were a kid and they wanted to put you in jail and they couldn’t because you were a kid.

            The officers were smiling and walked by David and Jeff without looking at them.

            Boys.

            Mr. Mitchell stood at the door to his office. He was a slightly overweight middle-aged man with glasses and a small handlebar moustache and he wasn’t smiling.

            Come in. Have a seat.

            He pointed to a red vinyl sofa. The boys sat.

            When did you leave home for school this morning? Why were you late? Where did you go? What were you doing?

            The boys told him. They didn’t say anything about Grant or Simon or Mary or Francine.

            Do you know where Grant and Simon Collier are?

            No, they didn’t know, though they admitted the Collier brothers had ditched with them.

            All right. I’ve talked to both your mothers. They will be here at lunch to pick you up. You can go back to class now. Be sure to be here at the front office when the lunch bell rings.

            Yes, sir.

                                                                             •

            At lunch his mom was waiting at the office when Jeff got there. She took him home in her station wagon.

            Don’t try to lie your way out of this. I don’t need to hear a single thing out of your mouth. David and his mother were at the school when I got there. She took him home. He told us what happened. He tried to talk you all out of it. He only ditched because you did. Wipe that look off your face. You hear me? I knew you kids were going to sneak out and cut school. I heard you talking about it in the carport before you left. You can’t fool me. You’re always up to no good. You’re never going to amount to anything. You can’t even find your way to school. I’m going to walk you to school tomorrow. That way I’ll be sure you don’t get lost. And don’t you dawdle about getting home from school today. I’m going to feed you a sandwich and take you back to school. Your father will talk to you when he gets home from work tonight. I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes his belt to you. You’re not too old for a good whipping.

            They got home and she fed him a sandwich and he didn’t taste it. White bread and mayo and American cheese. She took him back to school. He stayed there until it was time to come home, and he came home.

            Now you stay in your room. And don’t let me catch you doing anything enjoyable tonight.

            Yes, ma’am.

            Jeff stood in his room. He did not sit down. Would that not have been enjoyable? He bit his nails. He stood at his window and looked out at the block. The sky was infected with broken low gray clouds. The lightest patch was oddly bright. Jeff thought that if that had been where the sun was, it would have been on a late morning of a winter’s day in Australia. He didn’t think he’d ever go to Australia. Might as well dream of flying in outer space, captain of a warp-drive Federation starship. Seemed about as likely.

            He saw Grant and Simon and Mary sneaking down the street along the fronts of the houses. They looked like spies in a movie or a TV show. They got to the Colliers’ house and tried to sneak in through Grant and Simon’s bedroom window but it was shut. Mary continued to her own house, walking down the sidewalk now, and Grant and Simon went inside their house via the front door. Jeff looked at his clock. It was an electric clock with a second hand. The time was 4:18:11. Jeff bit his nails.

            Jeff stood in his room for two hours. His dad got home from work and came into Jeff’s room with Jeff’s mom.

            I oughtta tan your hide, boy. I’d beat some sense into you if I thought it would do any good. Your mother and I have decided you’re not getting any dinner tonight. You’re to go straight to bed. Brush your teeth, get ready for bed, then lights out. You hear me?

            Yes, sir.

            And you are not allowed to keep your door closed, Jeffrey, until we give you permission. And there will be no more talk of asthma attacks. Since your excuse for being late to school was that you had an asthma attack, we’ve decided that your asthma is all your imagination. I don’t ever want to hear another word from you about it. Now do as your father told you.

            Yes, ma’am.

            Jeff brushed his teeth and got ready for bed. He didn’t need to turn his light out, it wasn’t on. It would be more than an hour before the sun went down. The sky was still cloudy and gray. He got into his bed and after a few hours of feeling frightened and sorry for himself, and pissed off at David for lying about whose idea it was to ditch, and envious of Grant and Simon and Mary for spending the whole day out, and hungry, he also felt hungry, he drifted off to sleep, his last thoughts being of Mary and Mary is really nice she’s the prettiest girl on the block she has a good sense of humor she is never mean to people i’m glad i got to go steady with her a few years ago that was when was that we were playing on the playground it was friday the thirteenth and i ran into her and we knocked each other down and it was an accident i hate friday the thirteenth she broke up with me i think it was she really wanted to go steady with i can’t remember . . .

                                                                             •

            His mother didn’t walk him to school the next morning. He walked alone. Within a half-block of the school grounds, in front of everyone who was gathered in front of the school, all umpity-hundred of them waiting for the first bell to ring and the school doors to open, Jeff’s mother drove up in her station wagon.

            Jeffrey! You come here!

            Jeff came there.

            You didn’t do your chores this morning!

            She slapped him. The sound of the slap rang out like a shot.

            You didn’t tell me you were leaving for school!

            She slapped him. The sound of the slap echoed off the school building’s front walls.

            You didn’t mop up the water you spilled in the kitchen!

            She slapped him. The sound of the slap resonated in the mountain canyons on the distant horizon, scattering rabbits and birds.

            Jeff’s mother drove away and Jeff crossed the street to the school. He stared straight ahead and did not look at anyone.

A Rude Northern Race Did All the Matchless Monuments Deface*

            Jeff Chorus broke his hand. The sinister one. In a fight in Gym class with a short and stocky seventh-grader.

            Plaster casts for broken bones in those days, even for parts cartilaginous as young teens’ hands. Many kids signed the cast, as was the custom, Grant and Simon being the first.

            The three boys went up to the elementary school of an evening after dinner. Autumn in the desert city, jacket weather. They had nothing better to do—

            this is not true. They had a world of knowledge to learn—physical science, biology, chemistry, history, literature, philosophy, poetry, art, music, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, any language that was not American English—a world about which they knew almost nothing and their parents sometimes less, though their parents knew enough to be viciously suspicious of any learning too far removed from the Bible or Home Economics. Remember what the Good Book says about philosophers. And all those artists and poets and lazy bums who write novels? Everybody knows they’re drunks and drug addicts, fornicators and faggots and unspeakably worse things, all Hell-bound down the wide Perdition Highway. All boys needed to know was enough to get a job and keep it, and all girls needed to know was enough to get a husband and keep it. Any more than that was just so much stuff peddled by people who didn’t want to do an honest day’s work. Wouldn’t likely know how. Everybody knew this. Didn’t need to go to school to find it out.

            So Jeff and Grant and Simon, two eighth-graders and a seventh-, went a-strolling in the gloaming. The front gate to the school grounds was unlocked. The elementary school had started as a cottage school and the cottages still stood, still used as classrooms for the lower grades. The boys wandered among them.

            Look!

            What.

            What’d you find.

            This window’s open.

            A casement window on one of the cottages was slightly ajar. Jeff and Grant pried it farther open. Cast-handed Jeff bashed in the screen. He took papers, school assignments the kids had done—finger-painting and collaging and filling in blanks—from off the high, broad window sill and dropped them in a shallow mud puddle. Simon and Grant reached in and scattered to the cottage floor whatever books and papers they could reach.

            Instantly, Grant sprinted toward the front gate. Jeff looked after him and toward the main building.

            Janitor! Run!

            Jeff and Simon ran away from the front gate and back around the main building to the back gate beyond the gym, a full city block away. The back gate was locked, the fence chainlink and eight or ten or twelve or twenty or who knows how many feet high, you couldn’t just jump over it. Grant approached, walking up the sidewalk along the street outside.

            You guys, I saw the janitor run into the office.

            Oh my God, he probably called the police.

            I think he did. We should get out of here.

            Simon scrambled over the fence. Cast-handed Jeff tried but couldn’t.

            Shit. Guys. I can’t climb this fence.

            Here. Let me help.

            Grant climbed over the fence and helped Jeff get over, and the three boys walked into the twilight streets heading away from the school, certain a police cruiser was about to pull up at any moment.

            But none did. The vandals returned to their encampment and regaled themselves long into the night with tales of their exploits, of the ten thousand windows shattered at the Palace of the Ventanas, the million volumes scattered from the shelves at the Imperial Library of All Knowledge, of the paintings ripped from the walls and cast into the muddy streets in front of the Temple of Beautiful and Somewhat Obscure Objects, and of the thrones they would someday occupy and the nations they would rule.

*John Dryden, “To Sir Godfrey Kneller,” 1694.



BIO

Tetman Callis is a writer living in Chicago. His stories have appeared in such publications as NOON, Atticus Review, Cloudbank, Four Way Review, Book of Matches, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and best microfiction 2019. His stories “Georgey-Dear” and “Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Pickles and Fries” have appeared in The Writing Disorder. He is the author of the memoir, High Street: Lawyers, Guns & Money in a Stoner’s New Mexico (Outpost 19, 2012), and the children’s book, Franny & Toby (Silky Oak Press, 2015). His website is https://www.tetmancallis.com; he can also be found on Facebook.






The Advantages of Being a Lit Mag Editor

By Lou Gaglia



The best reason for being a lit mag editor is the money, which far outweighs any corny sense of accomplishment that comes from putting out a product with literary merit. In fact, there are so many reasons for being an editor that I couldn’t possibly catalog them strictly, in order of importance, so I’ll start with money and then think up other advantages that come to mind and write them down before I forget them.

The Money

Editors of lit mags quite often receive generous donations from unknown sources and buy coffee shops and send their kids to college on such donations. I personally know an editor of one major mag who quit his day job as a toy store manager.

“Because of this one person’s generous donation,” he told me recently on his yacht, “I’ll never again have to call a lazy employee to aisle three to help a snotty customer.”

Despite the many unsolicited donations that pour in, most editors hang onto their day jobs, but the smart ones realize they don’t need to be working stiffs any more.

“For a while I was making no money, just reading stories and selling fruit on street corners, and I was thankful whenever I could crash with one of my buddies,” said one editor acquaintance to me. “Most of the time, though, I slept in garbage cans and read stories in the early mornings. I even received some submissions right there in my favorite garbage pail because several writers somehow knew where I was. But now, after a series of very generous donations, I run my lit mag from the comfort of my own garage. I can feed the kids and afford roofing caulk, and later I’ll retire to a condo in Hilton Head or the Hamptons when the time comes and I’m old and feeble and don’t know what a comma is anymore.”

“You’re very lucky,” I told him.

“No, I’m smart,” he said, “and you’d be smart to take up editing yourself. Do you know where to place commas at?”

“Sure, I know where to place commas at,” I said. “What do you think I am?”

“I don’t know what you are,” he answered, “but you ought to try it anyway.”

The Acclaim

My grandmother died long ago, but when I was a small child, she gave me some advice and I’ll never forget it. We were sitting in the living room staring at the walls when she turned to me and grabbed the front of my shirt collar and lifted me up to her face.

“When you get older,” she said to me, “you ought to be an editor of your own literary magazine. They make—” (she was struggling to hold me in the air) “—they make oodles of money, and they are patted on the back by some of the most—the most prominent…”

She couldn’t hold me any longer, so she dropped me, and she never did tell me who would pat me on the back.

Still, I never forgot her words of wisdom, and I’d sure like to make oodles of money someday. One of my editor friends recently showed me his gold cuff links and his private golf course.

“Your grandmother was absolutely right,” he said to me on the fifteenth hole. “We editors have it made. And it’s not just the donations that roll in. It’s the praise we get from some of the most—the most prominent—the most—” He urged me to the next hole because an impatient foursome of editors was up our backs, and he never did tell me who would praise me.

Later, while we were hunting our slices in the woods, he said to me, “Do you know, I was on an assembly line when I decided to start my own lit mag. I was picking ice bags off conveyer belts and brown bagging my lunch, and I couldn’t even feed my own family or the parakeet. But last month I was rich enough to tell my floor manager to stick it. And do you know why?”

I was busy hunting for my ball in the weeds and didn’t answer right away, so he lifted me by my shirt collar. “Do you know why?”

I still didn’t answer because I didn’t remember the original question, so he dropped me in the weeds.

Only later did I recall what he’d asked me. I never did find out why he told his floor manager to stick it. His secretary seldom answered the phone after that, and I came to understand that I was no longer part of his Will.

It’s Easy Work

Being an editor is much easier than most other jobs, because a smart editor only needs to put his feet on a desk, grab a red pencil, and read the first paragraphs of five hundred stories, and if he likes a paragraph, he flips it onto the Read This Later pile. He chucks the others into a bin, then copies and pastes rejection slips for the poor chumps.

“The only pain in the neck part about it for me,” said my friend the former toy store manager, “is that I have to change the names on the rejection slips so that they fit the rejected writer. I wish to God they all had the same name.”

“Why not just address it, Dear Writer?” I suggested.

“Too impersonal. I’m not heartless, you know, and one of those writers may very well be an anonymous donor down the road. So no, I make sure to address rejections personally. That’s why in my submission guidelines I ask writers to include their nicknames.”

“Nice.”

“Last week, though, I had to address three different rejection slips to writers nicknamed Cuddles. It was embarrassing.”

“Still, it all sounds like easy work,” I said.

“That’s true, and if writers keep calling themselves Cuddles, I can always copy and paste that name too, so I don’t have to keep typing it.”

We were walking along his garden pathway. He sighed.

“So, it’s all pretty easy for me, I guess. It doesn’t take much effort to chuck a story onto the reject pile, or ask my wife if she thinks a story is okay or if it sucks. But in a way, it can be rough. Writers are sensitive over rejection—too sensitive, if you ask me—and some of them fall into such bouts of depression. That’s all I need—for some writer to take a swan dive off a cliff because of one of my rejections. If the cops find one of my rejection slips in his pocket, I’m sunk. I tell you, it’s tough having such power.”

We stopped for a martini at the edge of his garden, near statues of other prominent editors and proofreaders. He sighed.

“You can’t blame yourself if a writer takes rejection personally,” I told him.

But he wasn’t listening. He was dabbing at his eyes with a tissue. “I sure hope Cuddles is all right.”

A Family Tradition

Admittedly, editors face enormous pressure—especially one powerhouse editor that I tried to interview. She flipped out on me at Starbucks and made a scene in front of the patrons (who didn’t look over anyway) after I politely asked if she’d teach me where commas go. Most editors, though, are pretty even-tempered, which leads me to one last advantage of being a lit mag editor: it can bring families together.

My friend the ex-toy store manager now runs a family-run rag. He is listed as its founding editor, and his momma is editor-in-chief.  The magazine’s headquarters also doubles as a bakery (“so we can pay the online fees” he explained to me when I knit my brows).

“Momma is a huge help to me,” he told me inside the bakery, over coffee and donuts. “Not only does she run this place, but she knows a good story when she reads one. She replies to some writers personally, but she’s really fast with the slush.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you wouldn’t believe how many submissions we get that are written in crayon. She automatically rejects those and it saves me so much reading time, it’s amazing. And then there are stories about mice. It’s specifically written into our submission guidelines that we don’t like stories about mice, yet writers insist on sending them to us. She does a word search before she even reads a submission, and if mouse or mice show up at all, or even vermin, she sends them form rejections without batting an eye. I’m different, and probably foolish. I read entire pieces. But sometimes I’ll get through almost a whole story, and in the very last paragraph there will be some mouse hurrying across a room, and I’ll roll my eyes and reject it. But Ma, well, she’s amazing. She whips through submission after submission, automatically rejecting stories that end with “The End” or “That’s all, folks.” I don’t even look at an ending until I get to it, so whenever “that’s all folks” shows up at the end, I realize I just wasted my time. I guess I still have a lot to learn.”

He pointed to the bakery counter where a dozen workers took orders and filled boxes with baked goodies.

“See those people? They’re my cousins and aunts and uncles, our proofreaders. They’re some of the richest people in America. And little Sally there…” He pointed to a back room where an older woman sat with a young girl who was drawing circles onto paper with a red crayon. “She’s learning how to get rid of improperly placed commas.”

“Well, isn’t that something,” I said.

“Frankly, buddy, you’d have to be a chump not to be an editor,” he said. “I mean, between the donations, the baked goods, the golf, and the boating, how can you beat it?” He paused. “Well, what do you say, pal?”

I tried to answer but my mouth was stuffed with a bite of cream donut, and I must have had a powder mustache or something, because he looked away with a smirk.



BIO

Lou Gaglia is the author of Poor Advice and Other Stories, and Sure Things & Last Chances. His stories have appeared in Columbia Journal, Eclectica, Blue Lake Review, The Writing Disorder, and elsewhere. He teaches in upstate New York and is a long-time T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner. Visit him at lougaglia.com





LOUISE 

by Inez Hollander



I didn’t want to ask for money in a letter to our son.  I told Heinrich at the time that Henry certainly shouldn’t deprive himself. Maybe some cigarette money for Heinrich, if he could spare it. We knew Henry had enough troubles, living out of a suitcase in Paris, and sleeping on park benches. 

I opposed the letter Heinrich wrote. We are a proud people and don’t like to ask for help. Asking for money is what panhandlers do, and begging is beneath us. It is not dignified. It is not how I was raised.

But Henry, bless his heart, would always write back, even though we hadn’t seen or heard from him in years. Poor Lauretta sometimes asked if her brother had died in France. Maybe Heinrich feared that too. He was always eager to hear from Henry, and maybe more so since he had fallen ill. Henry was our only son, you see, and for a long time, he had been the only hope to inherit the tailor business which my father had started after he learned the business in London, from the best— only the best! 

As a boy of six or seven I used to sit at my grandfather’s workbench and read to him while he sewed. I remember him vividly in those moments when, pressing the hot iron against the seam of a coat, he would stand with one hand over the other and look out of the window dreamily […] I remember the expression on his face, as he stood there dreaming, better than the contents of the books I read, better than the conversations we had or the games I played in the streets. 
~ Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1939)

When it became my turn to write something, I told Henry how the cherry tree, lilac and apple tree were blossoming. Some years we just had enough apples to make a pie. I guess Nature sometimes falls on hard times, too. America, that land of plenty that relatives were writing about to us in Die Heimat was not something we had felt in recent years, but then my family didn’t come here for the plenty. Germany was wrapped up in endless wars. America became the escape hatch for both our families, to make sure our men didn’t turn into cannon fodder. 

The three grandfathers and the two great-grandfathers are huddled near the stove talking about the Franco-Prussian war. 
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

I sometimes wonder whether we were punished for our dereliction of duty. Prussians, my family, we like to show up and do the job, no questions asked. I’ve always taken orders— that’s how I was raised. Once I had a wart on my finger and it was unsightly, and I asked Henry what to do with it. “Just cut it off!” He said, and I did what I was told, as I always do. Blood everywhere— even on the nice dishes, covered in blood, and then Blutvergiftung. And Henry thought it all hilarious.

Two days later, [Louise] shook her bandaged finger at him shouting: “And you told me to do this?!” Then she slapped him repeatedly. Miller never forgot this bewildering and nightmarish experience.
~ Mary Dearborn, The Happiest Man Alive, A Biography of Henry Miller  (1991)

But to make a long story short as they say here, I never had any problems with following orders and discipline and doing what you have to do, so if I had been a man, I would have enlisted, even if it meant fighting the country where I was born. We were all Americans now. How I suffered when Henry was living with us again— the Great War was in its second or third year and all Henry did was lie in bed till noon. No job to go to, just lolling about. One morning it got me so mad that I filled a bucket of cold water and doused him with it. “You either enlist, or get a job!”  

And what did he do?  

He got married to Beatrice to stay out of the war. Call me superstitious, but all this draft dodging has weakened our family. We escaped the war and arrived in America alright, but we could not flee our past or cancer, craziness or the clap. Maybe we were cursed, paying for the sins of our ancestors.

It always seemed astounding to me how jolly they were in our family despite the calamities that were always threatening. Jolly in spite of everything. There was cancer, dropsy, cirrhosis of the liver, insanity, thievery, mendacity, buggery, incest, paralysis, tape-worms, abortions, triplets, idiots, drunkards, ne’er-do-wells, fanatics, sailors, tailors, watch-makers, scarlet fever, whooping cough, meningitis, running ears, chorea, stutterers, jail-birds, dreamers, story-tellers, bartenders… 
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

When Henry wrote that long letter from Paris after Heinrich asked him for money, I was a trifle offended by his mention of madness and epilepsy in his letter, but it’s true, it has been rampant in my family. I grew up around it and I, as one of the sane ones, had to keep up appearances while taking care of my mother, and sisters (and Lauretta!) the best I could.  

It taught me discipline. And making do. And not asking too much of others. And staying strong. I have always tried to stay away from emotion— it stirred up too many things, so I learned to be quiet inside and out. It’s better not to ask too many questions or demand too many things. Heinrich was different. He was the talker, and even more so with a little Schnapps. I only talked when necessary. It baffled me how Henry could be such a scribbler. So many words. How did he know so many? If only words could sell like tailored suits or pretty bonnets.  

… this flow and rush of words, this wild, mad, fantastic talk that swelled and grew and gathered momentum—a stream, a torrent, a flood. 
~ Michael Fraenkel, on Miller’s echolalia in “The Genesis of the Tropic of Cancer”, The Happy Rock (1945)

Henry was such a bright little boy, but when he quit his job and wouldn’t want to help take over the tailor business, I thought he had gone mad! I tried to convince him that he needed to help Vati, or rather keep an eye on Vati.

A joint corporation of father and son, with mother holding the boodle.
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

The tailoring business wasn’t doing so swell and instead of cutting cloth or waiting for the first customer, Heinrich would grab his hat and left! Gone for his 10 AM drink. I told Henry to keep an eye on him and prayed our son might warm to the business. My father was a fine tailor, and every man should learn a trade to pay the bills and feed the mouths at home. 

In the past every member of our family did something with his hands. I’m the first idle son of a bitch with a glib tongue and a bad heart. 
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

But alas, I’m not sure Henry learned anything. It was beneath him to serve others or maybe his heart wasn’t in it. It made me anxious, if not terrified. 

She got us so damned jumpy with her anxiety that we would choke on our own spittle. 
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

I would nag every day and ask how the shop was faring, but Henry would clam up. I knew his head was drowning in words. Words, words, words, and maybe not the words I wanted to hear. Maybe he merely tried to spare us both. No, I never cared for a single book he wrote… Anyway, with the way he went on about some of the customers, I should probably have been relieved that he never took over the shop: He would have run it into the ground!

They were ticklish bastards, all these old farts we catered to. It was enough to drive any man to drink. 
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

Once or twice he grumbled something about who had died, which meant business and black cloth and maybe paying one of the outstanding bills, but the customers were not his thing. I always wanted to know who had died, but even that he wouldn’t disclose. Or when I bothered him long enough, he’d blurt out silliness like: “the dead guy was a bartender who picked his nose with a rusty nail—hail and hearty one day, dead the next!” Imagine that! Picking your nose with a rusty nail! Henry didn’t care about the business or learning something new! He would rather hang out with Ferd Pattee in the back of the shop whose only joy in life was… cheese! 

He was passionate about schmierkäse and Limburger especially— the moldier the better. In between the cheeses he told stories about Heine and Schubert, or he would ask for a match just as he was about to break wind and hold it under his seat so that we could tell the color of the flame. 
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

It was a world of men. Women ruled the roost at home, but all I had was Lauretta. Heinrich was surrounded by men. Clients, friends, and anyone he’d meet when drinking. Henry may have been introduced to Heinrich’s many “friends”, but ach, es tut mir leid, it did ja nichts, gar nichts for his professional life or future. 

The men my father loved were weak and lovable […] No shred of them remained—nothing but the memory of their blaze and glory. They flow now inside of me like a vast river choked with falling stars. 
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

I never could get a grip on Henry, or Heinrich for that matter. And because of it, I felt so alone. The two men in my life were missing in action, and I could complain all I wanted. Nothing ever changed.

In those days, women were barely more than workhorses. Unfortunately, my mother didn’t have any alternative. It was just her luck that she got stuck with a son who hated to work.
~ Henry Miller, “My German Heritage”, Reflections (1981)

Who knows, maybe I made it worse. I had hit a wall with them. They were out of reach and untouchable. As if they were as good as dead, or crazy, and locked away like my poor sister. 

These days, we might say that Miller’s dad suffered from a “burnout”. His temperament, however, might have been close to Henry’s in that both father and son simply “dropped out”. For Miller senior this turned into an intense relationship with the bottle but for the son it was more like a rebellion of the heart, that is, a dropping out in favor of a life of the arts and senses. The dad was a dipso, the son, an Epicurean.  
~ Inez Hollander 

Henry was such a daydreamer. Coming home from the tailor shop, he was in a world all his own, and I couldn’t reach him. It worried me. When you’re in your head so much, you go mad, and I had had enough madness in my life! Henry once told me that we were all mad because of incest and inbreeding but I highly doubt it… although when I hear people talking about his books, I wonder how much madness there is in his writing.  

Each morning I write a new book, walking from the Delancey Street station north towards the Waldorf. On the fly-leaf of each book is written in vitriol: The Island of Incest. Every morning it starts with the drunken vomit of the night before it makes a huge gardenia which I wear in the buttonhole of my lapel, the lapel of my double-breasted suit which is lined with silk throughout. I arrive at the tailor shop with the black breath of melancholy, perhaps to find Tom Jordan in the busheling room waiting to have the spots removed from his fly. 
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

Madness. A living death, that’s what that is. When we travel inward, we meet our own demons and if we listen too much to those, we go moldy and mad in the head. Better ignore those voices. It’s not reality. The imagination can be a gateway to hell. I know that for a fact. I have seen it in my family. Far too much of it. So all I do is stay the course and not dwell on things too much. For sanity’s sake. For the family’s sake.

I am the very essence of that proud, boastful Nordic people who have never had the least sense of adventure but who nevertheless have scoured the earth, turned it upside down, scattering relics and ruins everywhere. Restless spirits, but not adventurous ones. Agonizing spirits, incapable of living in the present. Disgraceful cowards, all of them, myself included. For there is only one great adventure and that is inward toward the self, and for that no time nor space nor even deeds matter. 
~ Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1939)

Henry’s favorite aunt was Emilie, so I remember writing Henry in Paris about how I would pay her a visit, bringing cake, fruit and homemade boiled ham. The poor soul loved to eat. She looked healthy but then she didn’t have a care in the world. They have regular hours to eat and sleep, but still it is a living death. I was always glad when visiting day was over.  

When Henry was still living with us, she loved gazing (and barking!) at the moon. She was queer even as a child… Then, one day, she was sitting on the stove. The stove was lit but her skirt had not caught fire… yet! Something had to be done. She could light the house on fire and kill everyone in it.

She was fond of Henry and since he had no job to go to, we told him to take her on the trolley and the train and to the country where the home was. When Henry accompanied her, he said she was quiet. She asked about the moon and whether he had brought any liverwurst. He said she seemed to trust him. He said she was half-witted but to him she was a saint. He was upset when he came back. In fact, he was in a state. 

Walking down the gravel path towards the big gates Mele becomes uneasy. Even a puppy knows when it is being carried to a pond to be drowned. Mele is trembling now. At the gate they are waiting for us. The gate yawns. Mele is on the inside, I am on the outside. […] Two great, round eyes, full and black as the night, staring at me uncomprehendingly. No maniac can look that way. No idiot can look that way. Only an angel and a saint. 
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

Henry said she must have remembered what he called the “bug house”. He remembered it from when we used to visit mother on Blackwell Island. Henry was a grown man, but I could tell he had been crying. He scolded me. Why couldn’t they just let her be? Have her sit by the fire and dream the day away? Why, he said, must everybody work— even the saints and angels? I had nothing to say. She might have set the house on fire— that’s all I know. But Henry was a romantic— that was his German blood. And yet, his words did linger, which is why, I think, we never moved Lauretta into a home.  

In the end, things didn’t work out for Henry at the tailor shop. He was just… too different and contrarian. 

I had need of nobody because I wanted to be free, free to do and to give only as my whims dictated. The moment anything was expected of me or demanded of me I balked. 
~ Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1939) 

He had always been like that. When I told him to walk, he ran and when I told him to sit, he’d dance. When I told him to pursue Cora, he pursued a widow twice his age, and when he suggested marrying her, I’d had enough of his rebellious ways. I was rummaging through the knives’ drawer, and for a moment I think he thought I would bring out a knife and threaten him, but all I did was slam the drawer shut and wag my finger in his face. I told him he was not going to throw his life away for a woman who might be barren and exploiting him. For once, he may have listened. 

Usually, it was the other way around. After all, I didn’t want him to write, so he became fixated on being a writer, verdammt nochmal. On Emilie’s old sewing table, he wrote, in the front parlor. Even after I asked him to sit away from the window. When the doorbell rang or visitors were expected, I’d rush in and Henry fled into the closet. I just didn’t want to answer any questions. Scribbling was not respectable enough. Artists can’t pay the bills. Having to answer questions about Lauretta was hard enough. Heinrich disagreed. Told me I censored the boy. I didn’t even know what that word meant until I looked it up. I merely put him inside the closet. The closet of American literature, Henry sneered once. 

I would stand in the dark, choking with the stink of camphor balls until the neighbor took leave. Small wonder that I always associated my activity with that of a criminal. 
~ Henry Miller, “Reunion in Brooklyn”, Sunday After the War (1944)

I wanted Henry to succeed but all that scribbling business was poppycock and fiddle sticks. When you have two children and your youngest can’t even finish school, you need all the help you can get to provide for the family. I had hoped Henry could be there for us, but I fear I drove him away. He was such a good boy. And such a bright child. What a waste of talent! Yes, we had plenty of fights. I nagged and scolded, but he was slippery as an eel. He did whatever he wanted. And that was that. He was out of my hands.  

Mothers can be fatal to their sons […] She that gives life also blocks the way to freedom. 
~ Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae (1990)

My mother was the Northern type, cold, critical, proud, unforgiving and puritanical […] It was against her, against all that she represented that I directed my uncontrollable energy. Never until I was fifty did I once think of her with affection […] I felt her shadow across my path constantly. It was a shadow of disapproval, silent and insidious like a poison injected into my veins. 
~ Henry Miller, The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud (1946)

Haunted. Maybe that’s too strong a word, but I felt haunted by Henry’s lack of success. Not as a writer but as a man who can feed his family. That came first, though clearly not for him. It went from annoyance to aggravation. And I started to badger him. 

She belittled me constantly. Any effort I made was never good enough. She tried to scold and shame me into respectability.  
~ Henry Miller, “My Mother”, Reflections (1981)

It breaks my heart. I know I pushed him away, but maybe I also, eventually, pushed him to write. 

When finally I found the courage to write what I’d been storing up for years, it came pouring out into one long relentless tirade. Beginning with the earliest memories of my mother, I had saved up enough hatred, enough anger, to fill a hundred books.  
~ Henry Miller, “My Mother”, Reflections (1981)

No! Didn’t I say so earlier?! I never read anything he wrote. I had a feeling it wasn’t meant for my eyes. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be known as the mother of Henry Miller, the author. And when his books couldn’t be published here, I knew it was because he wrote scandalous, daffy things. That’s his contrarian side, you see? We rage because we want to rebel. 

It was only natural that I should become a rebel, an outlaw, a desperado. I blame my parents, I blame society, I blame God. I accuse. I go through life with finger lifted accusingly. I have the prophetic itch. I curse and blaspheme. I tell the bitter truth. 
~ Henry Miller, “Uterine Hunger”, The Wisdom of the Heart (1941)

I love all those men who are called rebels and failures. I love them because they are so human, so ‘human-all-too-human.’”
~ Henry Miller, The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud  (1946)

 And maybe he was still rebelling against me, writing those dirty books. I did my best I could to be pleasant and civil. But I knew he had rejected me. When I heard his first novel was called Clipped Wings, I had the uneasy feeling that he was trying to tell me that I had clipped his wings. But apparently it was a book about messengers, and his first real job. He lost that manuscript. He lost so many things. His common sense is one thing. And maybe he lost me as well, or rather we were both lost to each other.  

The mother from whose loins I sprang was a complete stranger to me. 
~ Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1939) 

It was not for lack of trying. I loved him dearly even though I could never utter those words. It was simply not done in my family.  

His mother was wearing a fur muff and he never forgot the pleasure of slipping his cold hands into the warm fur. From his talk I would guess that was the only kind of warmth his mother could give him, against snow and cold, animal fur and no human warmth. 
~ Anaïs Nin, January 1935, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, vol. 2: 1934-1935 (1967)

I loved him and just didn’t accept his life choices. Although June, his second wife, had something to say about that, which shook me profoundly. During a Christmas dinner, when I, once again, inquired about money and jobs and making something of yourself, she said: “If you don’t accept him as a writer, you’ll never have him as a son.”  

June was drunk. But sometimes drunks tell the truth. I knew that from Heinrich. He sometimes made more sense when he was drunk than when he was sober. So maybe I drove Henry away, and drove him abroad. Who can say? For years and years, he was gone.

It has been found that phantasies [sic] of exploring the mother’s body, which arise out of the child’s aggressive sexual desires, greed, curiosity and love, contribute to the man’s interest in exploring new countries […] In the explorer’s unconscious mind, a new territory stands for a new mother. He is seeking the “promised land”, the “land flowing with milk and honey.” 
~ Melanie Klein, Love, Guilt and Reparation & Other Works, 1921-1945 (1975)

When he finally did come home, it was such a happy family reunion! To see him walk through the door! He was late but for days we had been anticipating his arrival. We had hung up new drapes and made lunch, Lauretta and I, and when he stepped into the hallway, full of life, and stories of Paris and Greece, I had to excuse myself and wipe away some tears in the kitchen. It was like, like the…verlorene Sohn. I wanted to hug him, and kiss him and hold him but did none of the above. When it came time to go, I rushed toward him, wanting to put my arms around him but something in him made me recoil. Stepping back, I focused on his sleeve instead. I held him back momentarily and picked at a loose thread that was sitting there.  

The climax came when, just as I was about to slip into my overcoat, my mother in a tearful voice came rushing up to me and holding me by the arm, said: “Oh Henry, there’s a thread on your coat!” A thread, by Jesus! That was the sort of thing she would give attention to! The way she uttered the word thread was as if she had spied a leprous hand sticking out of my coat pocket. All her tenderness came out in removing that little white thread from my sleeve. Incredible—and disgusting! 
~ Henry Miller, “Reunion in Brooklyn”, Sunday After the War (1944)

When Heinrich died, Henry arrived too late. To allay his feelings of guilt, I told him that Heinrich had told the nurses about his “wonderful son,” which moved Henry to tears. Or so I think. Unlike me, he cried easily. When he kissed Heinrich in the coffin, he most certainly wept. I did not, as I think one should only weep in private. One puts an unnecessary burden on others when they see you cry. People don’t know what to do with tears or grief.  

With Heinrich gone, the house became very quiet and solemn. Lauretta started looking after me when I felt more and more fatigued. I couldn’t even finish my letters to Henry.  

Dear Henry, thank you for the gift. Mother is fine. I am taking good care of her. 
~ Lauretta Miller, in a 1944 letter, Henry Miller Collection, UCLA

In 1945, Emilie died. Annie and Mary rushed to her bedside for a last embrace. She had been living in that asylum for more than thirty years. It surely was a mixed blessing, her death.  

Henry and I lost touch again. A letter here, a letter there, an occasional check, even though I told him not to, for now he had two children of his own in a house overlooking the Pacific. After the hullabaloo of Paris, I thought he might get bored there but he seemed very content. Maybe he was finally growing up, being an actual father… the father he hadn’t been to Barbara, the daughter he had with Beatrice, his first wife.  

And then, one day, the doorbell rang, and imagine what? Lepska, Henry’s third wife, and the kids filled up the house with blondness, gaiety and joy. Two little angels… and Tony looked so much like Henry when he was that age! Lauretta and I were over the moon. I wanted to buy them gifts but being too ill, I couldn’t make it to the store. Lepska made pictures of the visit and when I received them in the mail, I showed them off to whoever wanted to see them.  

In those years, we also had an unexpected visit of a man by the name of Alfred Perlès, who had lived with Henry in Paris. He told me all about what a great writer Henry had become. I told him that Henry had always been a good boy. Maybe that was a strange thing to say. Maybe it implied that he was a good boy but not a good man but what I meant is that I saw his promise to be a good man when he was a little boy. For a moment, a tear welled up in my eye, and not wanting to show my emotions, I turned away and coughed. Mr. Perlès may have noticed it and may have even told Henry about it. I wish that would have been the last of it.  

When I became really ill with cancer of the liver and could no longer take care of myself or have Lauretta look after me, Henry came to care for me and although there were things I wanted to say to him, all that came out was past recriminations. I failed him and I failed myself.  

And now it is too late. The end is near as I become weaker every day. I struggle and resist, not because I want to hold onto life, but because I am worried about Lauretta. Henry said he will take care of her but he never took care of Beatrice and Barbara, so how can I trust him? I wish Heinrich were here to reassure me about Henry. And Lauretta. I wish I could unsay some of the things I blurted out when Henry helped me out of the bed this morning. I wish I knew what I know now. I wish… 

========== 

Louise Miller died on March 21st, 1956. When our mothers die, part of us, our childhood, a part of our identity, our achievements die with them.  

Yet Henry remained haunted by her presence. He simply could not wash her out of his system. Even in the funeral parlor, Henry claimed, she would have her eye on him: When stooping over her coffin, one of her eyes opened and stared at him. 

Having been born half an hour after midnight on December 26th, 1891, Miller also blamed her controlling, retentive womb for failing to deliver him on Christmas Day. At the same time, Miller couldn’t have blamed it all on Louise’s womb. When describing DH Lawrence, Miller was essentially describing himself: “He was a man struggling to free himself from the womb. He could not get born.”[1]

Undoubtedly, this started his strange fascination with the womb as a source of creation and destruction, attraction and repulsion, life and death… and always the struggle to get born (and reborn). Or in the words of his friend and fellow writer, Michael Fraenkel: “Miller who pries into these orifices, openings, crevices, Miller in the symbolic belly of the whale, is not simply the scatophage or the irresponsible, but Miller the suffering man who has entered ‘the festering’ wound to cleanse it, to be cleansed, to come clean of the past, to be born.”[2] 

His gnarly obsession and fixation with his mother didn’t fade over time. He would go looking for many mothers in the relationships he had with women but he could not finish the unfinished business with his mother.  Until late in life, when people asked him about her, he always mentioned her lack of warmth and love.  

It is striking, in this context, that Miller wrote that his earliest childhood memory was not a memory of his mother, but a remembrance “of the cold, the snow and ice in the gutter, the frost on the window panes, the chill of the sweaty green walls in the kitchen” (Tropic of Capricorn). One could see this as a metaphor, or rather, a metonym of the coldness of his mother. 

In his writing, and real life, he hadn’t been able to fix this relationship but in his dreamworld, which he cultivated and relished, he managed to get to Devachan or what we call Limbo in Catholic theology. In his dream, the first person he meets is his mother and overwhelmed with emotion, all he can say is “Mother, dear Mother.” His mother has undergone a complete transformation. She is everything she wasn’t in real life, i.e. a loving, tolerant and proud parent.  

At the end of the dream, which really feels more like a vision than a dream, his mother fades away to return to Earth. It triggers a panic in him, not unlike like the panic of a little boy who has lost sight of his mom in a busy shopping mall.  

But then he suddenly sees her again, on her way out. She’s waving goodbye: “With that I stood up, my eyes wet with tears, and giving a mighty shout, I cried: ‘Mother, I love you. I love you! Do you hear me?’ I imagined that I saw a faint smile illumine her face and then suddenly she was no more. I was alone, but more alone than I had ever felt on Earth, and I would be alone, perhaps, for centuries or who knows, perhaps through all eternity.”[3] 

Miller had found, and finally lost his mother again four years before he’d die himself. The existential dread that follows makes sense. Mothers allow us to exist but when they don’t or can’t see us and appreciate us as mothers (anymore), we may feel invisible and dead. This dark, black hole is the one Henry tried to fill for most of his life. It explains the sex, it explains the dysfunctional sex, it explains his relationships with and writing about women. He was damaged. But then so was Louise… 
~ Inez Hollander 



BIO

Inez Hollander, Ph.D., is a writer and translator. In 1999, she published a biography of the American novelist and journalist Hamilton Basso with Louisiana State University Press, which were followed by two memoirs, Ontwaken uit de Amerikaanse droom (Amsterdam: Archipel, 2004) and Silenced Voices (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008).

In spite of the long overdue #MeToo movement, Hollander feels that Henry Miller’s work deserves a second hearing. She tries to do this in her new, creative nonfiction manuscript and bio-memoir Crazy Cock.

Following his life and work through the different and most important women in his life, she has channeled the women’s point of view and feelings which are so woefully absent from his autobiographical novels. This puts Miller in a different light, as a man, and an important American writer.



[1] Henry Miller quoted by Michael Fraenkel’s Bastard Death: The Autobiography of an Idea (Paris: Carrefour, 1936) 41-42.

[2] Michael Fraenkel, The Genesis of the Tropic of Cancer”, The Happy Rock, A Book about Henry Miller (Berkeley: Packard Press, 1945) 49.

[3] Henry Miller, “Mother, China, and the World Beyond,” Sextet (1977; New York: New Directions Book) 164.

Bradyphrenia

by Justin Reamer




‘IT’S-A ME, MARIO!’ Mario. Next my pillow, smiling. Blue eyes glowing. Red hat. Letter M. Red M. Large nose. Large to pull. Eyes opening. My eyes. Mario looks. Sees me. Smiling. I tired. Mario smiling. ‘It’s-a me, Mario!’ Shouting. Happy. Eyes gaze on Mario. Mario friend. Mario my best friend. He like me. Mario happy. Brown hair under red hat. Black moustache. Hair different from moustache. Why different? Must like hair-dye. Wears red shirt. Red shirt under blue pants. Blue pants with yellow buttons. White gloves. Brown shoes. Mario happy. Me? Waking up. Tired. Still waking up. Mario wake me up. Eyes still adjusting. Hands still, feet still. Yawn. Tired. Body under covers, in bed. Feel warm. Body under covers. Bed comfortable. Humming of lights. Hmmmm… Low hum. Hmmmm… Very low hum. Hmm… Very, very low hum. Hmmmmm… Not too loud. Hmmmm… Humming not bad. Quiet. Not loud. Loud hurts my ears. Mario smiling still. Cannot feel my feet yet. Still in bed. Hands still, feet still. Can’t move. Feel tired. Why tired? Just woke up. Not move yet. Don’t feel like. Need to lie. Few minutes. Few if okay. Few I need. Few more, I need now.

   Dryer loud downstairs. Hrrrrmmmm! It rolls. Hrrrrrmmmm! Very loud through muffled floor. Hrrrmmm! Continues to run. Very loud for ears. Very loud when close. Hrrrmmmm! Muffled when away. Not so loud. Slightly quiet. But loud even through floor. Hrrrrmmmm! Don’t like loud. Loud bad for ears. Can’t stand. No like. No like at all. Hrrrrmmmm! Continues to run. Mommy does dryer. Dryer for laundry. She uses for laundry. Does laundry with dryer. She like. I no like. Too loud. Hurt my ears. Hrrrrmmmm! Lights hum in my room. Hmmmm… Lights hum quietly. Hmmmm… Quiet unlike dryer. Hmmmm… Dryer too loud. No like dryer. Mario no like, either. Hurts his ears, too. Dryer loud for him. So says. I like quiet. You like quiet? Quiet nice. Soothing. Better for me. Too loud bad. Too loud hurts. Still in bed. Hear dryer downstairs. Dryer for laundry. Never want to be around. Bed warm. Bed comfortable. Mario like bed, too. Mario is my friend. We like bed. Bed nice and warm.

   ‘Good morning, Oak!’

   A voice. Know that voice? Whose voice? Mommy’s voice. Mommy nearby. Mommy in my room. Mommy be here soon? Mommy, I know. Mommy nice. Mommy, I like. Mommy nice. Mommy nice to me. Mommy, I like a lot. Reads me bedtime stories. Mario like her, too. Mommy in my room. She has nice voice. I like Mommy a lot.

   Mommy: ‘Time to get up, sweetie. We have to get you to school.’

   Mommy entering room. Mommy now in room. Turns lights on brighter. Ow! My eyes! Hurts! Pain! Ouch! Hurt eyes. Eyes hurt. Close lids. Burns. Eyes burn. Eyes hurt. Huge owie. No like owie. Owie bad. Owie really bad. No like owie. Owies hurt. Need boo-boo bunny. Boo-boo bunny help pain. Boo-boo bunny make owies bye-bye. Boo-boo bunny good. Mario like bunny. Me like, too. Need bunny. Eyes hurt. No like hurt eyes. Owie. Owies hurt. Have bunny? Have bunny, Mommy? Need bunny. Eyes hurt. Please bunny. Like bunny. Need bunny. Eyes hurt. Please bunny. Need bunny, Mommy. Eyes hurt. Owie. Owie bad. Owie bad. Mommy? Speak.

   Mommy: ‘Sorry, Oak.’

   Still pain. Owie. Painful sting. Couple seconds. Bunny not here. Where bunny? Eyes hurt. Need bunny. Bunny. Where bunny? Eyes hurt. Owie? Owie going away? Still hurt. Voice? Voice speak.

   Mario: ‘Oh, no!’

   Mario shout. He upset, too.

   Mario: ‘Mama mia!’

   Mario upset. Lights hurt eyes. Both our eyes. Hurt both.

   Mommy: ‘Sorry, Oak. I know it stings, but I didn’t mean to hurt you. I really am, sweetheart. Are you okay, honey?’

   Agh! Wanna scream! Really wanna scream. Hurt eyes. Agh! I feel…What feel? Eyes adjust. Light not so bright, not so loud. Feel…better…Feel…okay…I okay. Mario okay, too. Smile. I laugh. It funny. I like laughing. Laughing fun. Laughing good for me. Laughing, I like. Eyes hurt no more. Mario like, too. No more pain. We like a lot. Happy, we are.

   Mommy: ‘I’m glad to see you’re okay, Oak.’

   Mommy smiling. I like Mommy. Mommy nice.

   Mommy: ‘We have to get ready for school, okay?’

   School? School. Place go every morning? Mommy take me? Is school? Yes. School. Place with tables and chairs. School. That’s name. School. Lights humming. Hmmmm… Low hum. Hmmmm… Still hums, even in bed. I hear. Hmmmm… Can hear lights. Hmmmm… Not loud. Okay. Mommy around. Important. Mommy nice. Trust Mommy.

   Mommy: ‘Are you ready to get out of bed, Oak?’

   Bed? Still lying. Body under covers. Should get out? Ready yet? Covers warm. Like warm. Warmth nice. Take myself out? Body ready to move? What do? Body get out of bed. I get out of bed. That I going do. My hands and feet out bed. Remove covers. Move hands and feet. Get out bed. Must get out of bed. Can get out of bed. Will get out bed. I get out bed. Shall succeed. Make Mommy happy. No make Mommy angry. Mommy angry when stay. Mommy no like stay. Get out make Mommy happy. Mommy nice when happy. Need make happy. Scary when angry. Need make happy. Be good boy. Nice when Mommy happy. I happy, too. Feeling my feet…my hands…my arms…my legs…still…slowly moving…now move. Pull off covers. Move feet. Move hands. Pull myself out bed. Feet on ground. Standing. Standing two feet. Out of bed. In bed no longer. Mario in arms. Mario happy, too. Mario out of bed, too. Me and Mario happy. We out of bed.

   Mommy: ‘Great job, Oak. Now, it’s time to take your medication.’

   Lights humming in background. Hmmmmmm… Low hum still. Hmmmmmmm… Very quiet. Still hear. Not so loud. Mommy reaches. What reaching for? Bottle. Brown bottle. Brown bottle, white cap. Look funny. Rattles. Rattles like maracas. Venomous? Is it? No, not venomous. Rattlesnake venomous. Bottle not. Bottle rattle, though. Sounds funny. Stings my ears a little. Ch! Ch! Ch! Ch! Rattles. Bottle rattles. Loud. Ch! Ch! Ch! Ch! Hurts my ears. Mommy stop? Please? Hurts. Please stop. Grab bottle, but Mommy snatch. ‘It’s okay. We’ll just make sure you get your medication, okay?’ Bottle open. Pwuh! Puts finger in bottle. Grabs square. White square come out. Fingers hold it. Holds what? White square? What is? Pill? Oh, no. Pill taste bad. No like pill. Mommy hold, look at me. Avert gaze. Lower eyes. No want pill. Pill taste bad. Gross.

   Mommy: ‘Now, put this in your mouth and swallow, okay, Oak?’

   Puts in mouth. Taste bitter. Yuck! Very gross. Taste terrible. Want to spit out. Swallow, though. Must swallow. Swallow make Mommy happy. Mommy nice when happy. Be a good boy. Swallow bitter pill. Taste terrible. Mommy happy, though. Better when Mommy happy. Close bottle. Put away. Rattle stop. Takes out another. Repeat three times. All yucky, all gross. Don’t like. Taste bad. All them. Tastes blucky. Must swallow, though. Swallow, Mommy happy. Like my Mommy happy. I good boy. Swallow. I swallow. Mommy happy. I good boy. Mommy happy now. I happy, too. Me good. I love Mommy. Mommy the best.

   Mommy: ‘Okay, Oak. Time for you to use the bathroom, oaky?’

   Bathroom? What that? Bath. B-A-T-H. Bath. Water. Splashing water. Lots of water. Toys inside. Soaps and suds. Bubbles. Warm water. Bath. Bathtub. That bath. Room. R-O-O-M. Tables. Chairs. Couch. TV. Nintendo. Rug. Carpet. Room. That room. Bath-room. Bathroom. Room where bath is. Room I take bath. Bathroom. That’s bathroom.

   Mommy: ‘I’ll get you dressed after you go potty, okay?’

   Mommy grabs hand. Holds hand. Walks with me. Walk toward door. Grabs doorknob. Fingers rotate. CATCHIKH! Doorknob rotates. Door opens. ERRRRREEEEEEE! Door screeches. Ouch! Loud in ears. Very loud. Hurts. Really hurts. Tears in eyes. Really painful. Can’t stand. Really hurts. Really hurts a lot. Really…

   Mommy: ‘It’s okay, Oak. I have you. You’re going to be okay. Come with me.’

   Mommy comforts me. Feel calm. Voice soft, soothing. Relaxing. Like her voice. Voice nice. Voice very nice. I like Mommy. Mommy really nice. Mommy best. Okay now. I okay. Will be okay. Walk down hallway. Leading me. Holds hand. Another door. Already open. Lights buzzing. Hmmmmmm… Low hum. Hmmmmmm… Walk into room. Room big. Bright lights. Blue paint. Hmmmmmm… Lights hum. Always humming. Hmmmmmm… Giant bowl in corner. Leads me toward it.

   Mommy: ‘Time to go potty, Oak.’

   Giant bowl in front. Leads me to it. Bowl full of water. Has seat. Seat like chair. Opens seat. DUNK! Porcelain. Seat clanks with porcelain. This bowl has water. See handle. Silver handle. Flushes. Oh, no! No like flushing! Flushing loud in ears. Hurt my ears. No like. Please, Mommy. No like. Please.

   Mommy: ‘It’s okay, Oak. Just go potty, okay?’

   Okay. Make Mommy happy. Like Mommy happy. Need to make. No make in pants. Makes Mommy angry. Need to make. No make in pants. Be a good boy. Hold my butt. No make in pants. Need to make. Hold my butt. Make Mommy happy. No make in pants. Go in white bowl. Make Mommy happy. Be a good boy. I good.

   Mommy grabs waist. Lifts me off ground. Flying. I fly. Feet dangling. WHEEE! This is fun! I airplane. I like flying. Flying fun. Can do more? Land on seat. Mommy place me. Need make. I high above ground. Feet dangling. Can see floor from above.

   Mommy: ‘Go potty, Oak. Are you ready?’

   Need to make. Hold butt for Mommy. No want Mommy angry. Need to make. Wait for Mommy. No make in pants. Make Mommy angry.

   Mommy: ‘I am going to take off your pants, Oak, and then you can go potty. Are you ready?’

   Chick! Button unbuckled. Zzzzp! Zipper lowered. Pulling down pants. Feels funny. Feels very funny. No like. No like. Cannot stand. Please stop. Please stop, Mommy. No like. No like. Tears. Mommy…

   Mommy: ‘It’s okay, Oak. I’ve got your pants down. Now, you can go potty.’

   Butt on seat. Cold seat. Brrrrrr! Very cold. No like cold. Brrrrrr! Shiver. Very cold seat. No like cold seat. Brrrrrr! Then go. Need make. Make now. Pluck-plakh! Make. Spsh! Splash in water. Sound funny. Feel better. Less pressure. Pluck-plakh! More sound. Spsh! Another splash. Sound funny. Less pain. Make in white bowl. Not in pants. Make in bowl. Pppppffffffffft! A sound. Funny sound. Sounds funny. Ppppfffffft! Funny. Funny sound. Laugh. So funny. Can’t stop laughing. Butt speak. Butt sound funny. Why butt sound funny? Why speak in funny? Ppppppppppfffffffpppppptt! Butt speak again. Laughing. So funny. Laugh. I like sound. Sound funny. Can’t stop. Pppppffttt! Laugh more. Funny. Like funny. Butt funny. I like butt. Butt an old friend. We old friends. I like butt. Mario like, too. Make funny sound. Make Mommy happy.

   Mommy: ‘All right. That’s enough, Oak. Let’s get you down, okay?’

   Mommy bend over. Grab waist. Fingers wrapped around me. Lifts me. Flying. I fly again. Land on the floor. Feet on floor. Feel feet on ground. Ground very still.

   Mommy: ‘I’m going to pull up your pants, okay? Then we’ll get you changed.’

   Fingers grab pants. Lifts them up. Feels weird. No like. No like at all. Zzzzzp! Zipper up. Chick! Button buttoned.

   Mommy: ‘Good. Now, I’ll flush the toilet.’

   Toilet? What that? Mommy look at bowl. Giant bowl. Hand out, lever reached. That bowl. No! Loud in ears. No like flush. Flush bad for ears. Tears in eyes. Please, Mommy. Please no. Hurt ears. Please. No me like. Hurt ears.

   Mommy: ‘I’m going to flush this, okay, Oak? You might want to leave the room.’

   Leave the room? An exit? Move head. Door behind me. Open. Move legs. Run behind door. Wall. Brown wall. Crouch. Crouch on ground. Cover ears. Giant waterbowl loud. Too loud. Cover ears. Don’t like pain. Hurt ears. PHECH-EWWWW-WHOOSHHHHH! Loud flush. Very loud. AHHHH! Hurting ears. Ouch! It hurts. Can’t stand it. GAAAAHHH! Hurts ears. No like. Make it stop! Make it stop! Painful. Make it stop! QUA-QUA-QUA! More noise. Toilet painful. Tears in eyes. Really hurts. Can’t stand it. Really hurts. A lot. Gaaahhhh! Make it stop! Make it stop! Hurting me. Gaaahhhh! Cannot compute! Cannot compute! Head no work. No work. Make it stop! Pounding head. Cannot compute. Pounding head. Head against wall. Brain won’t work. Gaaaaahhhhhh! Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Banging head. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Head banging. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Too much noise. No workie! Gaaaaaaahhhhh! Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! No workie. No workie. Bad. Bad! Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Bad. Too much. Really bad! Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! No workie.

   Mommy: ‘Oak, what are you doing?’

   Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!

   Mommy: ‘Oak, stop that! You’re gonna hurt yourself.’

  Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!

   Mommy: ‘Oak, cut it out. Stop banging your head. You’re going to hurt yourself. Stop it, you hear me? Stop it!’

   Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Gaaaahhhh! Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Ugh! Collapse. Back on ground.

   Mommy: ‘Oak?’

   Tired.

   Mommy: ‘Oak?’

   Tired.

   Mommy: ‘Oak, are you okay?’

   Tired.

   Mommy: ‘Oak, sweetie, are you all right?’

   Tired.

   Mommy: ‘Oak?’

   . . . . .

   Long pause.

   Mommy: ‘Oak, it’s okay, honey. Mommy’s here.’

   Brain back. Tired.

   Mommy: ‘It’s going to be okay.’

   Wake up. Stand.

   Mommy: ‘You ready to get up and get changed?’

   Yup. I love Mommy. Tired, but love Mommy. Time to get up. Get up. Change.

   Mommy: ‘Sorry I hurt your ears, Oak.’

   Mommy nice.

   Mommy: ‘It’ll be okay.’

   Love Mommy.

   Mommy: ‘Let’s get changed, okay?’

   Mommy help me. Mommy change. I change. Clothes change. Change clothes. Downstairs we go. I like Mommy. Mommy the best. Continue downstairs. Mommy the best.

Table. Brown table. Shiny table. Shiny table glowing under yellow light. Light humming. Hmmm… Table brown under yellow light. Yellow light illuminate room. White light far off. Table brown. White and yellow light, both on ceiling.Mario on table. Mario happy. I in chair. Sitting in chair. Waiting for Mommy. Mommy here, too. Someone else. A voice.

   Voice: ‘What happened to Oak, Mommy?’

   Sister. Emily. Emily’s voice.

   Emily: ‘Why was he crying?’

   Mommy’s voice.

   Mommy: ‘He was upset, Emily. That’s all. Why don’t you eat your breakfast, okay?’

   See Mommy’s voice. Eyes gaze at table. Mario in lap. Mario see Mommy, too. Mario understand. Emily speak.

   Emily: ‘Okay, Mommy. I still think he’s weird, though. He cries too much.’ No understand. Weird? What mean? Buzzing lights. Hmmmmm… Low hum. Hmmmm… Not loud. Quiet enough. I like quiet. No hurt ears.

   Mommy: ‘Now, don’t say that about your brother, Emily. He’s just different. That’s all.’

   Humming lights. Hmmmm… Low hum. Hmmmm…

   Emily: ‘But why can’t he be normal like the rest of us? He always wastes so much time. He’s such a weirdo.’

   Weirdo? What mean? What weirdo? Who? Weirdo? Barking dog. Arf! Rover. Beneath table. Arf! Barking. Arf! Arf! Barking a lot. No like. Mario no like, either. Humming lights. Hmmmm… Low hum. Hmmmm…

   Mommy: ‘Just eat your breakfast, Emily, so we can go to school. Sound good?’

   Clang! Bowl on counter. Really loud. Clang! Ding! Dang! Bowl on table. Very loud. Need cover ears. Ears can’t stand. Hurts ears, noise does. No like. I no like at all. Lights hum, too. Hum like bumblebees near flowers. Hmmmmm… Low hum. Hmmmm… Hovering bumblebees in garden. Hmmmm… Pollen tasty. Hmmmmm… Low hum.

   Emily: ‘Yes, Mommy.’

   Humming continues. Blowing air vents, too. Whirr. Whirr. Wind blowing. Whirr. Whirr. Hear in ceiling. Whirr. Whirr. A soft blow. Soothing to Mario. Soothing to me. Nice. Like wind. Nice wind. A voice. Hear it? Whose? Mommy’s. Mommy speaks.

   Mommy: ‘Now, Oak, I’m going to pour you some cereal, okay? Let’s eat breakfast so we can get you to school.’

   Brown table glows in yellow light. White light even brighter. What saying?

   {Breakfast school?}

   Are they words?

   Emily: ‘No, we’re not having breakfast at school, Oak. We’re having breakfast here. You’re not that stupid, are you?’

   {Stupid?}

   No not say. What mean?

   Mommy: ‘Emily, be nice to your brother. Eat your cereal, okay?’

   Humming lights. Whirring breeze. Mario smile. Mario understand.

   {Breakfast school?}

   Smile. Mommy smile. Smile back. Why smile? Mommy speaking.

   Her voice: ‘Yes, Oak. We’ll get you to school. Let’s eat your breakfast, okay?’

   Cling! Bowl on counter. Ouch! Loud. Very loud. Hurts. Hurts ears. ‘I’ll pour you cereal, okay?’ DING-DING-CLANG-DING! More crashing. Ouch! Loud. No like. Really no like. Hurts ears. No like. PSH-WHOOOOSSSSHHH! Pouring of liquid. What that? Not sound good. No like.

   Mommy: ‘All right, Oak. Eat up.’

   Mommy’s hands. Hands on table. Bowl. Bowl placed in front. Front of me. See in my eyes. Bits and orts. Grains. Food grains. Food grains floating in liquid. White liquid. What liquid? Milk. White liquid milk. Silver thing. Silver utensil. Spoon.

   Mommy: ‘Eat up, Oak.’

   Cling! Spoon on bowl. Ouch! Hurts. Not nice. Crunch, crunch, crunch! Chewing. Sister chewing. Emily chewing. Chewing cereal. Gulp! Swallow. Swallow cereal. Cereal down throat. Cling! Spoon again. Collides with bowl. Hurts. Cover my ears.

   Mommy: ‘Right, I forgot your earmuffs. Here, Oak. Use these.’

   Earmuffs over ears. Muffs good. Muffs better than none. Allow me to quiet. Quiet always nice. Going to eat cereal. Going to grab spoon. Going put food in mouth. Going to chew. Going to swallow. See my hand lifting spoon. See put food in mouth. See me chew. See me swallow. Can eat cereal. Can grab spoon. Can put food in mouth. Can chew. Can swallow. Fingers move. Move fingers. Fingers twitch. Raise hand. Right hand. Hand reach bowl. Fingers grab silver. Can do it. Can do it. Can do it always. Fingers silver wrapped. Lift right hand. Milk flowing in curve. Grains flowing in. Lift hand to head. Spoon in mouth. Close mouth. Wrap lips around. Move spoon out, hand backward. Chew grains. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Chewing. Tastes sweet. Soggy. Very soggy. Like moist sugar. Gulp! Swallow. Liquid down throat. Grains down throat. Repeat. Clang! Spoon against bowl. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Chewing. Gulp! Do again! Tastes good, too. Repeat. Repeat. Want more. Scooping and scooping. Bowl empty. Full. Stomach full. Feel better. Food good. Cereal good. Not bad. I like. Mario likes, too. We both happy. Wait Mommy. See what Mommy says. Mommy knows best.

   Muffs off.

   Mommy: ‘All right, Oak. I’ll brush your teeth for you. Let’s go upstairs, okay?’

   Scratch head.

   {Upstairs?}

   Confusion. Not sure. What she want?

   Mommy: ‘To the bathroom, Oak. We’ll brush your teeth.’

   Bathroom. Flushing toilet. No like sound. But bathroom. Understand! Love baths. Mario, too. ‘It’s-a me, Mario!’ Mommy.

   Mommy: ‘No, Oak. Mario doesn’t need his teeth brushed. Please leave him here.’

   Takes Mario.

   Mommy: ‘Let’s brush your teeth.’

   To bathroom. See Mario soon. Bye, Mario! See you soon! Mommy hold hand. Walk stairs. Back to bathroom. Lots of walking. Stairs big. Move up. Reach the top. Hallway above. Go in door. Shhhhh! Water running. Faucet, sink. Emily. Emily brushing teeth. Chigga-chigga-chigga! Scraping teeth. Sounds weird. Shhhhh! Still running, water in sink. Shhhhh! Sounds nice. Not too loud. No hurt ears. Me like. Mommy standing at sink.

   Voice: ‘Okay, Oak. We’re going to brush your teeth, okay?’

   Drrrruurrrr! Open drawer. White tube. Long and white. Long and white with cap. Fwit-fwit! Cap off. Plickew! Paste on brush.

   Mommy: ‘Open wide, Oak.’

   Open my mouth.

   Mommy: ‘Say, “Ah!”’

   Open mouth.

   {Ahhh!}

   Brush in mouth. Scrubbing teeth. Feels weird. No like. Brush. Brush continues. No like. Chigga-chigga-chigga-chigga! Scrubbing teeth. No like. Hurts teeth. Chigga-chigga! Chigga-chigga! Brushing. Minty taste. Gross. Blucky. No like. Taste bad. No like. Chigga-chigga! Chigga-chigga! Brushing finish.

   Mommy: ‘All right, Oak. Rinse out your teeth.’

   Ptooie! Spit out paste. Gross. Mint gross. Taste bad. Bleckh! Disgusting. No like. Taste really bad. Ilkh! No like. Gragga-gragga! Water in mouth. Schwuck-schwuck! Shake head. Water in mouth. Ptooie! Spit out. Disgusting. Bad taste. Taste gone. Better.

   Mommy: ‘Great job, Oak. Now, we’ll go to school. Come on, Emily. Let’s go.’

   Bring Mario?

   Mommy: ‘No, Oak. Mario must stay here. He can’t be in school. You can bring your shell, though. How about that?’

   Green shell. I take. Shell in pocket. Go to school. Bye, Mario! See you soon! Must go to school. Shell stay with me. I like shell. Shell soft. Soft in hand. Shell good. Like shell. Like shell lots. Go school. We go school. School nice. School good. Shell good. Shell nice. Shell like. Like shell. Go school now.

   Mommy: ‘All right, Oak. Let’s put on your shoes.’

   Shoes? What shoes? Look shoes. Shoes where? Mommy find thing. Picks up.

Desk. Big brown desk. White light. Buzzing. Bzzzzz… Buzzing white lights. Bzzzzz… Buzzing loudly. Very noisy. Loud. Distracting. Hurts ears. No stand. No standie. Very loud. No like. Need quiet. Bzzzzz… More sound. Scratch, scratch. Pencils. Lots of pencils. Pencils on paper. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Many pencils. Scratching paper. Very loud. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Very loud on every desk. Very, very loud. Makes anxious. Bzzzz… Low hum. Scratch, scratch, scratch. No stand. DV-VWVWVWVWVWVW! Roaring engine. Mama mia! Sharpener. Even louder. Hurts ears. Hurts a lot. DV-VWVWVWVWVW! Roar. Bzzzzz… Ugh. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Gah! ‘Enough of the pencil sharpening. Get back to your seats.’ Shell in hand. Twirling shell in hand. DV-VWVWVWVW! Roar too loud. What do? No standie. No stand. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Ugh. Bzzzzz… Ouch. Too loud. Must cover ears. Ears hurt. Must cover. DV-VWVWVWVWVWVW! Covering ears. No stand. No stand. Covering ears. Too loud. Too loud. No workie. No…

   Voice: ‘Oak, are you okay?’

   Hand on shoulder.

   Voice: ‘It’s okay. Here are some headphones. You can use them.’

   Quiet. Headphones on. Quiet. Much better. Shell in hand. Feel good. Much better. Calmer. Feel calm. Soothing. Like Mozart. Mozart nice. Mozart good on ears. I like Mozart. Mario like, too. We both like. Both happy, too. Teacher walk in front. Name? Think of name. Thinking. Mrs. Ashby. Mrs. Ashby talking. What say? I no know. Voice next me. Woman. Tall. Give me headphones. What name? Ms. Janca. J-A-N-C-A. Sounds like ‘YAHN-kuh,’ not ‘JAN-kuh.’ Janca with j sound like y. My what word? Trying find. What word? Help? Other word? Aid? She my aide. She Mommy’s friend. Mommy like her. Ms. Janca like Mommy, too. I like. Mario like, too. Both happy. Like Ms. Janca. Ms. Janca helpful. Ms. Janca good. Ms. Janca nice. I like very much. She always good. I’m happy always.

   Tap on shoulder. Tap on left shoulder. Poke. Hurt little. Ouch. Flinch. No touchie! No like touch. Hurt a bit. Skin hurt. No like. No like at all. No touchy. But mean something? What mean? Attention? What wrong? Mozart playing. Headphones on. Move head left. Move eyes left. Peer over shoulder. Woman kneel. Kneeling on ground. Head at eye level. Long, dark hair. Cream skin. Blue eyes. Gold necklace on neck. Very shiny. Voice speaking. Can’t hear. Hands over head. Remove headphones. What happening? Buzzing lights. Bzzzzz… Low hum. Bzzzzz… Barely hear. Bzzzzz… Ms. Janca. Look in eyes, speaking. Voice, I hear. Voice, I see. ‘Hey, Oak. It’s time to take out your iPad. Mrs. Ashby says we’re going to do reading this morning. Are you ready?’ iPad? Not with me. Ms. Janca has. Not me. No have. She has.

   Janca: ‘Here, let me take out the iPad for you.’

   Eyes watch. Pull off purse, Ms. Janca. Lower on ground. Reach for clasp. Click! Clasp open. Zip! Unzip zipper. Hand reach inside. Rumble, rumble. Fingers dig purse. Rumble, rumble. Digging, searching. Rumble, rumble. Still digging.

   Janca: ‘Aha! Here it is!’

   Fingers grasp item. Pull out. Black rectangle. Big black prism, rectangular, come out bag. Zip! Zipper zipped. Click! Clasp shut. Purse back over arm. Black rectangle. Big black rectangle. Dark screen. Silver back. Case enclosed. Enclosed red case. iPad? Is it? Black rectangle iPad? Tablet? Called tablet? Yes, is tablet. Also, iPad. iPad, it is.

   Janca: ‘Here is your iPad, Oak. Here, let me open it for you.’

   Mess with iPad. Fingers moving, eyes moving. I watch. Watch Ms. Janca move fingers.

   Janca: ‘Here it is. Now, when I give it to you, plug your headphones in, okay?’

   Will do. Put iPad on table. Plug in headphones.

   Janca: ‘Now, we’re going to read Maniac Magee with the rest of the class. Are you ready?’

   Nod. Ready read. Ready learn. Reading nice. Push sideways triangle. Play. Text on screen. Highlight so I read. Voice read. Ears listen, eyes follow along. No read without iPad. Too hard. Headphones help. iPad good for reading. Follow along very well.

   Going to read. Going to sit in chair. Going to sit still in chair. Going to watch iPad. Going to listen to iPad speak. Going to hear iPad’s voice. Going to follow along. Going to follow highlight. Going to follow highlight text. Going to read book. Going to read Maniac Magee. Going to read with rest of class. Going to understand book. Going to learn. See me read. See me sit in chair. See me sit still in chair. See me watch iPad. See me listen to iPad. See me hear iPad’s voice. See me follow along. See me follow highlight. See me follow highlight text. See me read book. See me read Maniac Magee. See me read with rest class. See me understand book. See me learn. Can read. Can sit in chair. Can sit still in chair. Can watch iPad. Can listen to iPad speak. Can hear iPad’s voice. Can follow along. Can follow highlight. Can follow highlighted text. Can read book. Can read Maniac Magee. Can read with rest of class. Can understand book. Can learn. Can do anything. Can be me. I like me. I can do it!

   Stare at iPad. Black letters. Letters? Letters: alphabet. Alphabet? Alphabet: a, b, c, d, e, f, g… Letters make words. Letters a and s = as. Letters d, o, and g = dog. Letters make sounds. G = guh like baby: Goo-goo, ga-ga! D  = duh like Banjo: Duh-huh! B = buh like sheep: Baaaaahhhhh! M = muh like cow: Merrrrrrrrr! U = uh like Goofy: Uh-hyuh-uh! Letters make sounds. Sounds make words. Words reading. Looking iPad screen. Voice speaks. Highlight appears. Highlight moves with sound. Voice in ears: <Chapter 2. ‘Everybody knows that Maniac Magee (then Jeffrey) started out in Hollidaysburg and wound up in Two Mills. The question is: What took him so long? And what did he do along the way?’> Voice continues reading. Ouch! Kick under table. Flinch. What that? Hurt. Leg hurt. Voice read. Can’t listen. Kick again. Ouch! What that? Who hurt? Look up. Boy. Front of me. Cross table. Smiling. Kick me? Again kick. Ouch! Hurt! Flinch. Lot pain. Boy smile. Laugh. He kick me! Boy name? Steven. Steven Hayworth. Steven kick me! Kick again. Ouch!

   {Stop…}

   Speak no. Hard speak. But try. Hurt. Leg hurt. Steven laugh.

   Steven: ‘What are you gonna do about it? Idiot.’

   Kick again. Ouch! Hurt. Stop! Please. Please stop. Steven laughs. Laughs hard.

   Steven: ‘That’s what you get for being an idiot!’

   Mad. Can’t stand it. Throw headphones off. Gaaaah! Stop! Kick again.

   Steven: ‘Take that, retard!’

   Ouch! Hurt.

   Steven: ‘That’s what you get for being an idiot!’

   Laugh. Not funny. Cannot compute. Cannot compute. Cannot… Scream! Head bang. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Brain! Cannot compute. Cannot compute. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Cannot compute. Sensory overload. Cannot compute. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Information breached. Brain jacked. Cannot compute. Sensory overload. Cannot compute. Too much noise. Cannot compute. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Head banging. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Cannot compute. Cannot compute. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! ‘Oak, stop banging your head! You’re going to hurt yourself.’ Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Cannot compute. Cannot compute. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Cannot compute. Cannot compute. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Brain! No brain! Brain! Screaming. Crying. Head banging. Tears in eyes. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! ‘Oak, stop it!’ System shutdown. 3, 2, 1… Disconnect. System terminated. Time to recalibrate…

   Janca. Voice: ‘Oak, what’s wrong?’

   Exhausted. Very tired. Very, very tired. Uhhhhnnnnnhhhhh…

   Steven. Voice: ‘Ha ha! You’re an idiot!’

   Sleepy. Can’t think. Can’t pay attention. Sleepy. Feel tired.

   Janca. Voice: ‘Steven, stop being mean to Oak. You must behave.’

   Sleepy…Very…Tired…Very, very tired…

   Ms. Ashby. Voice: ‘What’s going on, Cheryl? Is something wrong? Why was Oak banging his head?’

   Sleepy…Cannot pay attention…Very, very tired…Uhhhhhhhhhgghhhhh! Feel sick. Very, very sick…

   Ms. Janca. Voice: ‘Oak is sick. I’ll take care of him.’

   Janca bend. Grabs hand.

   Voice: ‘Come on, Oak. Let’s get you outside, okay?’

   Hold hand. Help me on feet. Ugh. Feel very sick. Legs feel wonky. Can’t balance. Lights hum. Hmmmm… Hmmmm… Low hum. Hmmmm… Hmmmm… Very sick. Legs wobbly.

   Janca: ‘Come on, Oak. I know you can do it. Let’s go to the hallway, okay?’

   Help on feet. Move feet. Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. Step forward. Little step. Me no like. But tired. Need hallway. Noises too loud. Room too loud. Need rest. Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. Holding hand. Janca carry. Ms. Janca nice. Like Ms. Janca. Nice lady. Happy with her. She make happy. Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. Near door. Door come close. Janca: ‘We’re almost there, Oak.’ Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. Tired. Very tired. Cannot stand. Janca: ‘Almost there.’ Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. Tired…Left foot, right foot. Ptuck! Hand grab door. Click! Hand rotate knob. Errr-errr! Door creek. Janca open door.

   Janca: ‘All right, Oak. Let’s go in the hallway, okay?’

   Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. Errr-errr! Door creek. Kthunk! Door close.

   Janca: ‘Sit down, Oak, okay? Just sit and relax.’

   Sit down. Brain tired. Very tired. Need rest. Recalibrate. Tired. Sleepy. Sleep now. Sleepy…

Bzzzt! What now? Where? Where I? Bzzzt! Bzzzt! Buzz? What that? Black brick? Bzzzt! Bzzzt! Black brick. Always buzzing. Black brick buzz. Buzz like a bee. Bzzzt! Bzzzt! Office. Quiet. Office. Tikka-takka-tikka-takka. Fingers on board. Typing? Tikka-takka-tikka-takka. Typing? Typing. Keyboard. Fingers on keyboard. Tikka-takka-tikka-takka. Person typing. Who? No know. Tikka-takka-tikka-takka. Typing. Weird. Quiet. Nice, quiet. Where I? Hand in pocket. Reach inside. Find object. Grab. Pull out. Shell. Shell here. Green shell. Koopa shell. Soft. Soft in hand. Look at shell. See top. Green top. Shapes. Count shapes. One shape. Two shapes. Three shapes. Four, five, six. Seven, eight, nine. Ten, eleven, twelve. Thirteen. Thirteen shapes. Thirteen shapes on top. What this? Not same? Shapes not same. Two not same shapes. One shape: six sides. Hexagon. Like beehive. Bumblebees. Bzzzz! Hexagon many. Other shape: three sides. Triangles. Like Egypt. Egypt pyramid. Mummy. Oooooh-oohhh! Scary movie. Scooby-Doo. Triangle many. How many? One, two, three. Four, five, six. Seven. Seven hexagons. Other? One, two, three. Four, five, six. Six triangles. Hexagons: seven. Triangles: six. Thirteen shapes on top. Shell many shapes. Rotate. Rotate shell. What this? White rim. White rim, round shell. White rim. Top and bottom. Not same. Rotate. Hand rotate shell. What this? See bottom. Bottom shell. Bottom not same. Shapes not same. One? Round. Round circles. Black round circles. Other? Four sides. Not same. Long and short. Rectangles. Lot rectangles. How many? Circles. Count circles. One, two, three. Four, five, six. Six circles. Rectangles? Count rectangles. One, two, three. Four, five, six. Six rectangles. How many total? Shapes. Count shapes. One, two, three. Four, five, six. Seven, eight, nine. Ten, eleven, twelve. Twelve shapes. Six circles. Six rectangles. Feel good in hand. Like shell. Feel good. Shell nice. Miss Mario. Wish had Mario. Mario friend. Shell nice, miss Mario. Shell fine now. A voice. Someone speak. Ms. Janca.

   Janca: ‘Hey, Oak, are you feeling okay? You seem to be fine.’

   Okay. I okay. What next? Where go?

   Janca: ‘Well, Oak, we’re going to recess, okay?’

   Recess? What recess? Playtime? Is playtime? Playtime nice. Where go? Playtime? Playtime nice. Play good. Like playtime. Where go next? Janca hold hand.

   Janca: ‘What’s this?’

   Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Hear sound. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Sound outside. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! On roof. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! But what? Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Scratchy sound. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Sound nice. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! What sound? Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! What be? Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Tap sound? Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Sound no know. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! No know sound. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! What is? Titta-titta-titta-titta! No know. Voice. Ms. Janca. Janca speak.

   Janca: ‘It’s raining!’

   Rain? Is rain? Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Sound rain? Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Sound rain. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Go to window. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Look out. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Watch window. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Watch rain. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Hear? … See rain. … Hear? … Hear nothing. … See? Drops. Rain. … See rain. Sound quiet. … Rain see. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Sound on. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Sound hear. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Rain is sound. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Sound rain. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Think? Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! What think? Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! What same? Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Sound same. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta tatta-tatta-titta! Think. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Mind. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Mind past. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Was outside. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Rain. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Water. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! From sky. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Clouds. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Dark. No sun. Titta-titta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Dark clouds. Wet. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Ground wet. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! I wet. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Puddles. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Jump puddles. Titta-tatta-tatta-tatta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Laughing. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Mud. Muck. Mud muck. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Dirty. I dirty. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Is rain? Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Rain, yes. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! I okay. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Why now? Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Sunny before. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Voice. Speak.

   Janca: ‘It seems like it’s raining, Oak. You might have recess inside.’

   Ms. Janca speak? Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Ms. Janca speak. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! How know? Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! No know. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Not sure. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! How know? Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Not sure. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Ms. Janca think fast. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! She quick. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! She fast. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! She think very fast. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Magic. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Like magic. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Think like magic. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! She magic always. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Wish magic, too. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Janca speak.

   Janca: ‘Ready for recess?’

   Speak.

   {Recess rain?}

   Janca speak.

   Janca: ‘Yes, we’re going to recess.’

   {Rain know?}

   Janca: ‘Rain? Oh, it’s raining. It’s okay, though. We’ll just take you to recess, okay, Oak?’

   Still know no. Recess inside? Okay by me. Recess fun.

Recess. Classroom. In classroom. Lights hum. Hmmmm! Hmmmm! Low hum. Hmmmm! Hmmmm! Soft sound. Hmmmm! Hmmmm! Nice on ears. Hmmmm! Hmmmm! Not too loud. Hmmmm! Hmmmm! Like more. Nice in ears. Like much. No bad. Enjoy hum. No need bunny. I okay. Enjoy hum. Hum nice. Hmmm! Hmmm! Sound okay. Me okay. What this? Shape. Look. Need look. Like look. Need look find. See shape now.

   Eyes look down. Rectangle. Rectangle in hands. Top? Gold. Gold top. Bottom? Red. Red bottom. Both form rectangle. Top? Gold top. Middle gold top? Blank screen. Black screen. Black screen blank. Why blank? Not on. Power not on. Where power button? Find soon. But more. Words. Words top screen. What say? S-U-P-E-R. S = sss like snake. Hiss! U  = uh like Daddy. Uhhhh… P = puh like balloon. Pop! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider. Eeeek! R = ruh like dish-dish. Ruhruh-ruhruh-ruhruh-ruhruh! What say? Super. Soup-errrr. Super. Like Superman. Super. Next. What say? M-A-R-I-O. M = muh like cow. Moo! A = ah like dentist. Ahhhhh! (Brush no fun. Brush bad.) R = ruh like dish-dish. Ruhruh-ruhruh-ruhruh-ruhruh! I = ih like Emily. Like mad. Ihhhhhh! O = oh like Mommy. Like ear hurt. Oh! What say? Mario. Like friend. Mario best friend. Mario my friend. Word mean friend. Mario. What say? Super…Mario. Mario Superman? No. Not Superman. Mario super. No same. Super Mario = Mario super. No Superman. Superman Mario no same. Different. Mario different. Mario Mario. Not Superman. Next. What say? B-R-O-S. B = buh like sheep. Baaaah! R = ruh like dish-dish. Ruhruh-ruhruh-ruhruh-ruhruh! O = oh like Mommy. Like ear hurt. Oh! S = sss like snake. Hiss! What say? Bros. Bros? What mean? Bro. Ah! Brother. Luigi. Mario’s bro. What say? Super…Mario…Bros. Super Mario Bros. Mario, Luigi. Super Mario Bros. Word bottom screen. What say? N-I-N-T-E-N-D-O. N = nuh like horse. Neigh! I = ih like Emily. Like mad. Ihhhhhh! N = nuh like horse. Neigh! T = tuh like tree. Tap! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider. Eeek! N = nuh like horse. Neigh! D = duh like Steven. Duh-huh! O = oh like Mommy. Like ear hurt. Oh! What say? Nin…ten…do. Do? No, doh. Like cookie. Cookie dough. Yum! Nin…ten…doh. Nintendo. Say Nintendo. Like Nintendo. Like a lot. Nintendo good. What this? More. Two shapes. Circles. Red circles. Two red circles. Round red. Round red circles. Letters. A. A = ah like dentist. Ahhhhh! B. B = buh like sheep. Baaah! What say? Ab. Ab? What ab? No know. No sense. Oh, well. Ab = buttons. Okay. Other sign. Black. Black cross. Plus sign. Like plus. One plus one. 1 + 1. Black plus. +. Plus. Arrows. ó. Lot arrows. ß. Left. à. Right. Up. Down. Button? No know. Oh, well. Right top. Words. First. What say? G-A-M-E. G = guh like Rover. Grrrrrrrrrr! A = ah like dentist. Ahhhhh! M = muh like cow. Moo! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider. Eeek! What say? Game. Like tag. Game. Next. What say? No know. Sign. Draw finger. Finger draw. &. What mean? No know sign. No know. Oh, well. Next. What say? W-A-T-C-H. W = wuh like baby. Waaaaaaahhhhh! A = ah like dentist. Ahhhhh! T = tuh like tree. Tap! C = cuh like clock. Cuckoo! Cuckoo! H = huh like me. Like me run. Huh-huh-huh-huh! Wa-tuh-chuh. Wahhh-tuh-chuh. T quiet. Watch. Like Daddy. Daddy’s wrist. Be a clock. Watch. Game…Thing?…Watch. Game watch. Game watch? Sport clock? Ball clock? Why clock on ball? Kick ball with clock? Won’t break? No. Game. Eye game. Like Pac-Man. Pac-Man game. Maze game. But clock? Why clock? Pac-Man like dots, not clock. Eat dots. Ghosts? Ghosts clock? Nee clock? Like clock? No, no clock. Ghosts like Pac-Man, not clock. No need clock. None do. Both in maze. Maze no clock. Eye game clock? Think so. Game watch? No know. Oh, well. Eye game, though. Know that. Turn on? Want on. Where button? Turn. No left. Turn. No back. Turn. Ah! See! Grey circle! Push! Screen light. Turned on! Colors. Many colors. Pretty. I happy. Word? Word flashing. What say? P-A-U-S-E. P = puh like balloon. Pop! A = ah like dentist. Ahhhh! U = uh like Daddy. Uhhhh… S = sss like snake. Hissssss! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider. Eeeek! What say? Pause. Mean stop. How go? No know. Need find. Find button. Button help. Where button? Need find button. Button need find. Where be? Find button? Need find. Shapes. What shapes? Round. Grey. How many? 1…2…3… Three round shapes. Ovals. Grey ovals. Words. See words. What say? First. On top: G-A-M-E. G = guh like Rover. Grrrrr! A = ah like dentist. Ahhhhh! M = muh like cow. Moo! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider. Eeeek! What say? Game. Game. Like tag. Tag a game. Button? No. Not button. Next? Words. What say? T-I-M-E. T = tuh like tree. Tap! I = ih like Emily. Like mad. Ihhhhh! M = muh like cow. Moo! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider. Eeek! What say? Time. Time…like clock. Numbers. Minutes. Time. Where I next? No know. Button? No. Not Button. Next? What say? P-A-U-S-E. P = puh like balloon. Pop! A = ah like dentist. Ahhhh! U = uh like Daddy. Uhhhh… S = sss like snake. Hisss! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider. Eeeek! What say? Pause. Mean stop. No more. Stop. Pause. Look screen. Same word? P-A-U-S-E. P = puh like balloon. Pop! A = ah like dentist. Ahhhh! U = uh like Daddy. Uhhhhh… S = sss like snake. Hiss! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider. Eeeek! What say? Pause. Same word? Yes. Pause = pause. Words same. Button? Yes. Button. Press button. Push! Screen on! Screen work! Yay! What this? Music. Music play now. What for? Need know.

   What screen? Shapes on screen. What shapes? No know. Why? Need know. What shapes? No know. Lots of colors. Bottom screen? Shapes. Lot shapes. What shape? No know. Count sides? Count. One…two… three…four. Four sides. Sides same? Same sides. Four sides same. What shape? Four sides. Same. No long. No short. All same. What shape? Rectangle? No. Not rectangle. Square? Yes. Square. Shapes squares. Color? Brown. Brown squares. How many? Lots. Lot squares. Lot brown squares. What make? No know. Need. To. Think. Need think. Think. What brown? Sweet-sweet? No know. Is sweet-sweet? Sweet-sweet brown. What like? Sweet-sweet think. Think sweet-sweet. Four sides. Wrap. Brown. Sides same? No. One long, one short. Square? No. Sides no same. Sides different. Rectangle. Not sweet-sweet. Table? Table brown. Is table? Think. Need think. Think table. Table think. Shape? Sides. Four sides. Same? No. Not same. One long, one short. Not same. Square? No. Not square. Rectangle. Square not table. Chair? Chair brown. Is chair? Think. Need think. What shape? No know. Sides? Lot sides. Many sides. Have four? No. Not four. No chair. Not square. Chair not square. Not square. Dirt? Dirt brown. Square? No know. Sides? No know. No sides. Dot. Dirt dot. Lot dots. But brown? Brown, yes. But bottom screen? What screen like? Other screens? What has screen? TV? TV has screen. TV play eye-play. Bottom screen? Brown? Brown, yes. What be? Hmmmmmm… Look feet? Look feet. What see? Floor. See floor. Else? Ground. See ground. What like out? Dirt? Dirt, out. Dirt ground? Dirt ground, yes. Ground same? Ground same, yes. What bottom screen? Mmmmm… Ah! I know! Ground! Ground bottom screen! Ground = brown squares. Ground bottom screen. Top screen? Top screen. Look. Shapes? No shapes. But one. What shape? No know. Count sides? No count. Blob. Shape blob. Color? White. White blob. One white blob. What be? No know. Other shapes? No. No shapes. Color? Blue. Shade blue. Blue color. What make? No know. Wait! Look bottom! Look bottom. Ground. Ground bottom. Feet ground. Ground feet. Walk ground. Ground walk. What not ground? What blue? Look up. Lights? No. Not lights. Lights not blue. Lights white, not blue. Lights hum. Hmmmm! Low hum. Hmmmm! Not lights. Blue else. What be? Boards? No. Not boards. Boards not blue. Boards white, not blue. Boards four sides. Boards rectangles. Boards not blue. Blue not boards. What be? What this? Art? Draw? Draw. Top page. Top page blue. What blue? Sky. Blue sky? See window. Look up. Blue. Lot blue. What see? Sky! Blue sky! Blue sky top screen! Top screen blue sky! What blob? Puffy. White. Puff. Cloud! White cloud! Blob = cloud. More shape? Two. Two ground. What shape? No know. Count sides? No sides. Blobs. Blobs like cloud. Blobs like cloud in sky. Color? Green. Both green. Both different. One left, one right. Left blob: dark. Right blob: light. Left: dark green. Right: light green. What be? No know. What green? Searching. Wall? Paint. Shade. Green. Flat. Big. Blob? No. Not blob. Wall not blob. Wall wall, not blob. Blob not wall. Luigi? Luigi…Searching…Hat = green. L = green. Shirt = green. Blob? No. Not blob. Luigi man, not blob. Blob not Luigi. Yoshi? Yoshi… Searching…Skin = green. Nose = green. Arms = green. Legs = green. Tail = green. Hands = green. Blob? No. Not blob. Yoshi Yoshi, not blob. Blob not Yoshi. Plant? Plant…Hmmmm…Searching…Leaf = green. Stem = green. Needle = green. Tree = green. Grass = green. Bush = green. Blob? No. Plant plant, not blob. Not all plant. Bush? Bush blob. Bush plant. Bush plant and blob. Plant bushy blob. Plant blobby bush. Plant bush and blob. Plant blob and bush. Aha! Plant blob! Blobs plants! Other shapes? Yes. What shape? Mario! Mario friend. Like Mario. Mario nice.

   Buttons? What do? No know. Buttons: Ab and plus (+). Ab: red circles. Plus (+): cross. Cross arrows: ó. Up. Down. Left. Right. What do? Try. Push button. Ab same? No. Different. Two circles. Right: A. Left: B. Say Ba. Ba? What mean? Sheep? No know. Ba different. B and A. Try? Try. Which? A first. Try A. Press button. Push. Boing! Whoa! Jump. Mario jump. A = Mario jump. Press more? More press. Press more. Push. Boing! Push. Boing! Push. Boing! More push. Boing! Boing! Boing! Boing! Boing! This fun. Jump fun. Like jump. Like Mario jump. Mario jump fun. Like fun. Like Mario jump. Always fun. Next? B. Red circle. What do? No know. Try? Try. Press button. Push. None. None? How? Try more. Push. None. Push. None. Push. None. Push. None. Push. … None. What? None? Odd. B = none. B = not fun. None not fun. No like. No like none. None no like. No like not fun. Not fun no like. No like B. No press. Next? Plus (+). What do? No know. Try? Try. Press button? Press button. Which? Up. Up first. Press up. Push. None. None? How? Try more. Push. None. Push more. None. Hmmmm… Up like B. No work. Why? No know. Next? Down. Try down. Press button? Press button. Push. None. Push. None. Push. None. No work. Why? No know. Oh, well. Next? Left? Left. Try left? Try left. Press button? Press button. Push. ß. Push. ß. Push. ß. Push. ß. Push. ß. Whoa! Walk. Mario walk. Walk left. Mario walk left. Left = Mario walk left. Left = Mario walk ß. Hold? What do? No know. Try hold? Try hold. Hold left? Hold left. Hold button? Hold button. Hold. ß. Walk. Mario walk. Walk left. Mario walk left. Not same. No stop. Keep walk left. Walk left no stop. Mario no stop. Mario keep walk. Mario keep walk left. But wall. Wall stop Mario. Mario no stop. Mario keep walk. Mario walk wall. Mario keep walk left. Mario walk left wall. Fun. Hold ß = Mario keep walk left. Hold ß = Mario walk ß ∞. This fun. Like fun. Like Mario walk. Like Mario keep walk. Mario walk fun. Like fun. Like Mario. Mario friend. Next? Right. What do? No know. Try? Try. Press button? Press button. Press right. Push. à. Push. à. Push. à. Push. à. Push. à. Whoa! Walk. Mario walk. Walk right. Mario walk right. Right = Mario walk right. Fun. Like. Like lot. Hold? What do? No know. Try? Try hold. Hold right? Hold right? Hold. à. Walk. Mario walk. Walk right. Mario walk right. Keep walk right. Mario keep walk right. No stop. Mario no stop. What do? Hold à = Mario keep walk right. Hold à = Mario walk à ∞. Whoa! More shapes! See more shapes! Stop! Must stop! See shapes. Must see. How? Push button. Which button? Oval. Grey oval. Bottom oval. How know? I know. Say P-A-U-S-E. P = puh like balloon. Pop! A = ah like dentist. Ahhhh! U = uh like Daddy. Uhhhh… S = sss like snake. Hiss! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider. Eeek! What say? Say Pause. Pause = stop. Pause stop eye game. Push pause? Push pause. Push. Game stop. Word show. P-A-U-S-E. What say? P = puh like balloon. Pop! A = ah like dentist. Ahhhh! U = uh like Daddy. Uhhhh… S = sss like snake. Hiss! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider … Eeek! What say? Pause. Pause = stop. Eye game stop. New shapes? Must see shapes.

   New shapes. New shapes screen. What shapes? Noise. Hear noise. Noise approach. Pause. Pause game. What noise? Voice. Funny voice. Sound funny. What voice? Whose? Voice. Speak.

   Voice: <WHAT ARE YOU PLAYING?>

   Odd voice. Shocky. Shocky voice. What voice? Look voice. Boy. Boy front me. Sit in chair. Boy in chair. Chair boy. Boy chair. Who boy? No know. Make noise. Chair noise. Noise chair. VWOOM!  Whoa! Chair move. How move? Things. Round things. Round on bottom. What be? Think. Wheels. Chair move wheels. Who boy? No know. He loud. Voice loud.

   Voice: <WHAT ARE YOU PLAYING?>

   Owie! Loud. Voice loud. Hurt ears. No like voice. No like. Hurt ears. No like voice. Hurt ears. Stop. No standie. No like. No standie. Hurt. Hurt lot. No like. Need phones. Where phones? Need phones. Ears hurt. No like. Need phones. Need…

   Hand on shoulder. Look. Who be? Ms. Janca. See Ms. Janca. Hand on shoulder. Look in eyes. See face. Open mouth. What say? Speak.

   Janca: ‘What’s wrong, Oak? You look upset. Do you need your iPad?’

   Hold ears. Ears hurt. No like. Shocky voice loud. No like. No like.

   Janca: ‘I see. You need your headphones. Here. I’ll give you your iPad.’

   See Janca. See Janca pull bag. Janca pull bag. Janca open bag. Janca reach.

   Janca: ‘I found it!’

   Pull out brick. Black brick. Long brick. Rectangle.

   Janca: ‘Here you go, Oak. Here’s your iPad.’

   Reach hand. Grab iPad. Push button. Touch screen.

   iPad: <My ears hurt.>

   Janca: ‘I see. How can we help you with that?’

   No know. No think. No workie. No like loud. Loud voice. Press button.

   iPad: <Voice is very loud.>

   Janca: ‘Whose voice, Oak?’

   No know. Try talk. No talk. Press iPad? Press iPad. Press button.

   iPad: <Boy in chair.>

   Janca: ‘Oh, I see. That boy. Oak, that’s Tony Burns, one of your classmates. He’s trying to be your friend.’

   Friend? Why friend? Mario friend. Like Mario. Who Tony? No know. Why friend? What want? Want to be friend? Why friend? No know. No sure. Need know more. What do? Look iPad. Press button.

   iPad: <He wants to be my friend? I didn’t know. His voice hurts my ears.>

   Boy in chair look. See boy in chair. Chair boy speak.

   <I’M SORRY. I DIDN’T MEAN TO HURT YOUR EARS.>

   Ow! Voice loud. Very loud. No like. Hurt ears. No like. Ears hurt. No like. Cover ears. No like. Really hurt. Ouch. No like. Need phones. No like. Janca look. See Janca look. Speak.

   Janca: ‘I see, Oak. His voice hurts your ears. I’m sorry.’

   Janca look Tony. See Tony. See Tony look. Tony watch. Janca speak.

   Janca: ‘Hey, Tony. Could you turn down the volume on your computer?’

   Look Tony. Tony speak.

   Tony: <Yes, I can turn down the volume on my computer. Does this help?>

   Janca speak.

   Janca: ‘Yes, that helps. Thank you, Tony.’

   No hurt ears. Feel better. Like quiet. Tony voice better. Like lot more.

   Janca: ‘Hey, Oak. Do you feel better now?’

   See Janca speak. Look iPad. Press button.

   iPad: <Yes.>

   Janca: ‘Good. Now that you feel better, I’m going to tell you something you might like to hear.’

   What? What be? Gift? Eye game? What be? No know. Glee. What be? Need know.

   Janca: ‘I see the excitement on your face, so that’s a good sign. Well, Oak, did you know that Tony likes Mario, too?’

   Tony like Mario? No know. How like Mario? I like Mario. Tony like, too?

   Janca: ‘Yes, Oak. He loves Mario, don’t you, Tony?’

   Tony speak.

   Tony: <Yes, I love Mario. He’s fun to play with. Can I play with you?>

   Tony like Mario? Cool! I like Mario! Mario friend. Mario nice. Mario’s friend, mine also. Like Mario’s friends. Tony new friend. Like Tony. Tony cool. Like Tony. Mario like, too.

   Janca: ‘So how about you play together?’

   Look Tony. Smile. Excited. Press button.

   iPad: <Yes! I would love to!>

   Janca smile. Janca speak.

   Janca: ‘All right, Oak. Feel free to play together.’

   Smile. Smile real big. Make new friend. Tony new friend. Like Tony. Tony nice. Excited. I happy. I happy always. Mario happy. Mario like, too. Mario make friend. We make friend. New friend happy. We play eye game, Mario and Luigi.

Notanda

I never thought I would write this short story. Prior to graduate school, I was working on a novel pertaining to some personal interests which I will not mention, but when I returned to graduate school this past fall, I took a course called Disability Studies with Dr. Christine Neufeld, which led me down this path. In LITR 590, I began researching autism in literature and the many stereotypes that permeate throughout fiction in general. When I researched this area, I discovered an article by Claire Barber-Stetson entitled the following: ‘Slow Processing: A New Minor Literature by Autists and Modernists.’ In this article, Barber-Stetson argues how modernists revolutionized narrative via the method of stream-of-consciousness with writers like Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner each writing in a way that is fragmented and cacophonous instead of straightforward and monolithic. Then she mentions how autists like Tito Mukhopadhyay began developing the subgenre of ‘Slow-Processing’ to subvert neurotypical cognition like the modernists did and, in doing so, illustrate autistic consciousness to neurotypical readers so they can comprehend the autistic mind. As an Aspergian myself, I became intrigued with the endeavor and sought to replicate this genre myself. Like my forebears, I hoped to capture autistic consciousness and transcribe it on the page so people could understand it. By illustrating it, people might be able to understand autism, and that was what I hoped to do.

   Writing ‘Bradyphrenia’ was no easy task. I needed to understand the psychology of nonvocal autists who are ‘on the lower end of the spectrum,’ as they say. For this reason, I needed to do lots of research, so I began reading the books by nonvocal autists like Naoki Higashida and Tito Mukhopadhyay so I could understand their cognition and began taking vigorous notes on their psychology. The most poignant of them was Higashida’s The Reason I Jump because it offered lots of insight into nonvocal autistic consciousness. At the same time, I read Joyce’s Ulysses very closely so I could absorb his style and replicate it on the page to master the art of ‘slow-processing.’ I performed several writing exercises accordingly to practice this foreign style, and lo and behold, Oak was born. After several exercises, I managed to capture Oak and his mind, and I wrote the piece you see before you. In doing so, I captured autistic consciousness, which I hope readers find enlightening. I worked hard on it, but I’m glad I did.

   In capturing autistic consciousness, I created a piece not only unique and unorthodox since it diverges from neurotypical cognition, but also human and childlike since it portrays a character with whom the reader is sympathetic. As a character, Oak is innocent and childlike, exploring his world with insatiable curiosity and mirthful whimsy and wonder. His imagination runs wild, and his efforts to understand it, although sometimes impeded by outside obstacles, never cease as he tries to overcome them in various ways. Deep down, all he really wants is to be understood, so when he makes a friend at the end, he finally achieves his goal, although he may not always comprehend his environment or its inhabitants at first glance. This desire for both under-standing and companionship is something we all share, and in this desire, we identify with Oak and recognize his humanity as a sentient being with thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires which is not much different from our own. In doing so, we empathize with him and understand the autistic condition better, for we can now see others as we see Oak in this story. As Tolstoy once wrote, the sole purpose of art is to teach us empathy, and this, I believe, I have accomplished, so I am glad to share it with everyone. Now, I think, neurotypicals can, perhaps, understand we Aspergians and autists more so we can avoid further confusion. In doing so, let us build a better future for neurotypicals, autists, and Aspergians alike. This, I hope for us all, so let us strive for a brighter future together. Anyway, thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed the piece.



BIO

Justin Reamer is a poet and a fictionist from Holland, Michigan. His work has appeared in several feuilletons such as Straylight Literary Magazine and The Sampler. He is currently attending Eastern Michigan University to obtain his M.A. in Creative Writing.



Sandman

By Kate H. Koch



            A blur of glass and color flashed past Ted’s eyes. He watched it move up, steadily higher and higher, until it came to a gentle stop at the sixth floor.

            “Glass elevator,” the man sitting across from him mused as he watched it climb back down. “Classy.

            Ted offered no reply, tracing a finger across the thin grey lines of the lobby table beside him. Smooth, cold, hard. He’d always liked marble.

            “Classy,” the man repeated. “Don’t you think?”

            “Loosen your tie.”

            “What?”

            “Loosen your tie, Ripley.”  Ted hissed the words through gritted teeth. “If we go in there and you look desperate, you’ll blow it.”

            “I’m not desp—”

            “When you’ve got a pitch like this, you don’t grovel,” Ted looked up at his partner, watching the kid fidget with the cuffs of his shirt. He sighed, and continued more gently. “Look, I get it—I was nervous during my first pitch, too. But you have to be firm in there. Remember, this isn’t just any million-dollar idea.”

            Ripley smiled back sheepishly.

            Ted scanned the crowded atrium as he spoke. His partner was right, the headquarters of Apophis Incorporated were designed to impress. Light poured in from the tall windows high above him, bouncing off the smooth white floors and against the polished stone walls. It jumped into every nook and cranny, daring any visitor to find an imperfection. His eyes settled on a large plaque against the back wall:

SEMPER VICTORIX.

            His mind wandered to Tori. She’ll get over it.

            Ted settled deeper into the velvet lobby chair. “We’re not some door-to-door salesmen, Ripley,” he continued. “That’s one thing I need you to remember. We belong here, so you have to act like it.”

            Ripley tugged at his collar. “Ok,” he stammered. “Ok—but, if that’s the case, shouldn’t we look professional? They all do.” He gestured toward a group of businessmen milling around the lobby’s entrance. “I mean, it’s—it’s a pitch, Ted. And I get that it’s your idea, and that you’ve done this before. But, they’re expecting professionals, aren’t they?”

            “They’re expecting to be disappointed.” Ted reached across and hooked his fingers around the knot of Ripley’s tie. “They’re expecting something they’ve seen before. But that’s not us, Ripley. I told you on the train, stop trying to amaze them. They’re here to be amazed. This—” he yanked on the tie, leaving it to fall lazily over Ripley’s chest. “This thing we’ve got is going to provide that amazement.” He sat back with a satisfied grin. “We’re doing them a favor, and they need to see it that way.”

            Ripley fussed with his loose tie and said nothing for several moments. At last, he mumbled about the time.

             Ted gave no indication that he’d heard the kid. On days like this –days when image mattered—Ripley could be infuriating.

            To be fair, he was likable enough. And useful, too. The resume he’d given Ted certainly proved that. A certified wunderkind, the kid had graduated top of his class the previous year with degrees in computer science, finance, and statistics—all before he’d turned twenty-two. He could code in his sleep if he wanted to. And he never said no.

            Ted needed a decent business partner this time around, and Ripley certainly fit the bill. Even so, he couldn’t abide the kid’s insistence on shuffling around with his tail between his legs, an unspoken apology always hovering over his lips. The thought of being lumped in with someone like that made Ted’s skin crawl.

            But it would be worth it, in the end.

            “Did you bring the papers?”

            “Yes,” Ripley replied.

            “And?”

            “Well, if they sign it, they’re locked in. But I added a couple of clauses in there that’ll make our lives easier.”

            “I’m listening.”

            Ripley rifled through the papers in his briefcase. “Like, I—where is it? Oh—like if they sign, they work exclusively with us, but we can sell the—”

            “Don’t say it.”

            “Right, sorry. Right. We can sell it to anyone. Complete control on our end.”

            Ted leaned back, a broad smile spreading across his lips. “Not bad.”

            “You know, my brother and I were talking last night. He actually reminded me of one of those old wives’ tales about dreams.” Ted shot him a warning look, and Ripley quickly added, “No, I didn’t tell him about this thing. Totally unrelated. But he told me that some people say that if you die in a dream, you don’t wake up. That’s wild, right?”

            Ted raised his eyebrows. “Wild.”

Ted watched Ripley’s eyes dart around the room, searching for any excuse to get going.

            “Let’s head up now.” The plea tumbled out of Ripley’s mouth. “Floor fourteen, right?”

            Ted made a show of glancing down at his watch. “We’ve got a few minutes.”

            Ripley gave a half-hearted laugh. “Come on, Ted. Please.”

            Ted held his partner’s gaze for a moment. And then, with feigned exasperation, he made his way towards the elevator.

*

            The receptionist on the fourteenth floor had thick dark hair that fell elegantly over her narrow shoulders. She looked young, twenty-two, maybe, and smiled warmly as the pair exited the elevator. Ted smiled back, nudging Ripley. From the corner of his eye, he saw the kid’s face go red.

            “Ted Brace and Dennis Ripley.” Ted knew better than to speak too formally. “We’re here to see the investment team.”

            “I’ll let them know you’re here.” The girl stood. “Is there anything I get you while you wait?”

            “We’re fine, thank you,” said Ripley.

            Ted glanced at his partner, who absentmindedly tightened his tie as he spoke. When the girl moved out of sight he reached over and tugged at it again. “I told you to loosen that damn thing. We’re doing them a favor. Remember that.” He paused for a moment before adding, “You can tighten it before you ask her to meet you for a drink.”

            Ripley gave a nervous laugh.

            “I’m serious, kid.” Ted gave his partner a gentle shove. “I know that look. I had it when I met Tori, too.”  

            The blush crawled back up Ripley’s cheeks, and he looked relieved when the receptionist returned.

            “Mr. Brace, Mr. Ripley, they’re ready for you. If you’ll just follow me…” 

            They followed the girl –who quickly introduced herself as Ivy LeMay— down a wide hallway. The walls here were glass, too, but thick and textured for privacy. Ted could see the shapes of desks and the blurry figures hunched over them. Ripley started to fidget again.

            “It looks like they’ve got the room booked for you two for the next hour,” Ivy began. “That’s typically a good sign, Mr. Brace.”

            “Oh, I doubt we’ll need the whole hour, Ivy. But Ripley and I appreciate the sentiment.” Ted made sure to linger on his partner’s name.

            Ivy smiled at Ripley. “You’re welcome.”

            The trio turned a corner and faced the entrance to the conference area; another glass room, filled with other blurry shapes.

            Inside, three people sat around a sleek wooden table. Ted and Ripley shook hands with each of them. Ms. Maria Harper, tall and severe, Mr. Ryan Kelley, well-groomed with a permanent scowl, and the real prize: Mr. Amos Bell, whose net worth hovered somewhere around $108 billion.

            Ted felt his heart beating against his chest.

            Ryan spoke first.

            “Well, gentlemen, we’ve heard a lot about you, and you’ve piqued our interest.  Maria here says you’ve promised us ‘the pitch of our dreams.”

            Ted chuckled obligingly. “Maria’s not wrong about that. What I’ve got here really is the stuff of dreams, especially for an advertiser like Apophis.” Still standing, he placed his hands on the back of his chair. “But I could stand here and talk at you for the next hour, or—”

            Ryan raised his eyebrows. “Or…?”

            Ted hoisted a speaker onto the table. “Or, Ryan, I can show you how to level your competition to the ground.” He looked around the room expectantly. “I just need one of you to take a sleeping pill for me.”

            “Why?” Ryan look on warily, leaning back in his chair.

            “That’ll spoil it.” Ted winked. “And everyone here knows that any investment requires a little risk.”

            None of them offered any reply. From the corner of his eye, Ted could see Ripley wiping beads of sweat from his forehead.

            “We could get someone from the lobby.” Ripley’s voice shook as he spoke. “Offer them $100 to come up and test it out?”

            Maria smiled. “Sure, that s—”

            Ryan leaned forward. “Come on. Anyone down there could be working with you for all we know.” He rolled his eyes. “I’m sorry, but if that’s the best you can do…”

            “Why don’t you test it for us, Mr. Kelley?” Bell looked up at last. “I think everyone here would agree that you owe us a favor after your little stock experiment last year.”

            Ryan’s face went white.

            “Besides,” Bell continued, searching Ted’s eyes for any hesitation, “if this thing works, then you have nothing to worry about.”

            Unfazed, Ted held out his hand to Ripley, who offered him a small bottle of pills from his pocket.

            Bell held up a hand. “No. Let’s use one of ours.” He turned to Maria. “Miss Harper, didn’t you just finish a campaign for a fast-acting sleeping pill?”

            “The one for plane rides?” Maria asked, unzipping her bag. “I might have some on me now.”

            In a moment, she slid a pill across the table to Ryan.

            Bell smiled. “Good luck.”

*

            Maria was right, the sleeping pill worked quickly. Soon, Ryan slumped forward over the conference table, snoring lightly. Ivy tip-toed around him, placing three cans of soda in the center of the table. In his corner, Ripley had set up his laptop and a small speaker.

            “Orange, cherry, and cola—perfect.” Maria turned to Ivy. “That’s all, thank you.”

            As Ivy moved towards the door, Ted cast a glance at Ripley to see the color rising in his face again.

            “Alright,” Ted settled into his chair. “I just need one more thing from the two of you: What would you like Ryan to want?”

            Maria raised her eyebrows. “‘To want’?”

            Bell leaned back in his chair. “The cola.”

            “Good luck,” Maria looked down at her sleeping colleague. “He hates those.”

            “Perfect.” The corners of Ted’s mouth twitched. “Ripley?”

            Ripley opened his laptop, quickly typing strings of code. Ted turned back to the investors.

            “In a few minutes, I’ll be in Ryan’s head. I can make him dream about anything, anything, and that means I can make her want anything, too. With the Sandman Update.”

            “You’ve danced around this for a while now,” Maria replied. “What exactly is the Sandman? I think I speak for everyone here when I say this isn’t going forward until we get some information.”

            Ripley carefully slid a stack of papers across the table to Ted. He passed these around without looking at them. This part – the graphs and numbers— had always bored him—it was why he’d scouted Ripley form MIT anyway.

            “Ripley, want to tell them how it works?”

            “The Sandman opens up new avenues for advertising through soundwaves and sleep cycles.” Ripley tightened his tie. “By installing this update in the software of your phones, electronic home assistants, computers, et cetera, Sandman will release a soft hum, and those soundwaves interrupt the sleep cycles of anyone within 30 feet of it.”.

            Maria flipped through the pages before her. “What do you mean by sleep cycles?”

            “Sleep stages, I should say.” Ripley corrected himself. “The hum gently interrupts stages I-IV until it permeates the target’s REM stage.”

            Bell pushed his papers to the side. “Once you get to REM sleep, Mr. Ripley, that’s when you get into the dreams, I take it?”

            “Exactly.”

            Maria narrowed her eyes. “But how do you control the dream? You’ve interrupted the stages, then what?”

            “Then we plug in a string of code that manipulates the soundwaves to produce a specific effect in the target’s brain.”

            “It’s like writing a script,” Ted jumped back in. “That code changes the way the hum sounds. It adds pauses, changes pitch… the code basically creates a unique pattern for the hum to follow.”

            “And that controls the dreams?” asked Bell.

            Ted smiled. “A good line of code can do just about anything.”

            Silence fell over the room.

            At last, Bell spoke. “Apophis is successful because we don’t tolerate mistakes.” He paused, straightening up in his chair. “You’ve certainly intrigued me, but I like to know that I’ll see a quick return on my investment. If you can’t promise that for me in eighteen months, then I don’t see a future for you here.”

            Ted sighed. “I can’t promise one in eighteen months.”

            “Well, then—”

            “But I can promise one in eighteen minutes.” Ted bit his cheek. “Let’s get things started before that sleep aid wears off, though.” Ted jerked his head in Ripley’s direction. “Feel free to look through those papers while we wait for Ryan here, but now…”

            Ripley switched the speaker on. For minutes, no one dared to speak as Ryan’s eyes flickered in his slumber.  

            “One last thing.” Maria turned to Ted. “Have you thought about the FCC? Lawsuits? Competitors? This thing won’t do us any good if we can’t get it off the ground.”

            “Why?” Ted asked. “There’s no legal precedent for something like this. There’s no hacking, no theft…” 

            “That’s true,” she replied. “Dreams are uncharted territory, and that lack of legal precedent will make outside litigation difficult, to say the least.”

            “I think,” Bell began, toying with his pencil again, “that we’re being shortsighted. You boys know the story of David and Goliath, yes?”

            Ripley nodded. Ted Raised his eyebrows and said nothing.

            “Well,” Bell continued, “it’s always told as a feel-good story, but there’s much more to it than that—it’s a cautionary tale about poor planning, when you think about it. If a giant worries about every little thing in its way, it dies. But, if you crush David before he can grab a slingshot, you have nothing to worry about at all.”

            Bell leaned back in his chair. “And that’s one of the benefits of being a giant like Apophis: we get to keep things pretty contained. If we keep everything in house, the FCC won’t know to grab their slingshots. Do we understand each other?”

            A smile spread across Ted’s lips. “Absolutely.”

            Ryan stirred in his sleep. Maria gave him a sharp nudge. He blinked in the light, the embarrassment and annoyance clear on his face. With a grunt, he reached across the table for the cola and drained it in one gulp.

            Bell laughed and extended a hand to Ted. “Well then, let’s make a deal.”

*

            The brassy numbers on door 436 glared at Ted as he approached. They stuck out against the white paint behind them, gleaming obstinately yellow in the low light. Ted shoved the key into the scratched lock, feeling his heart lift a little as he did so. His days here were numbered. Finally.

            Before he could turn the knob, his phone buzzed in his pocket.

            “Hello?”

            “Ted, hey” Ripley said, breathless. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this whole thing.”

            “Stop,” Ted fought to hide his annoyance. “I told you when they signed that contract, we have nothing to worry about.”

            “I know,” Ripley persisted. “But everything in there—no FCC, Goliath—”

            “Ripley, I don’t think you understand the gift that’s been handed to us.” Ted turned away from the door and lowered his voice. “Forget the FCC, forget the legal bullshit. You’re not just in a new tax bracket, kid. You’re in a new life. Go call that secretary and celebrate.”

            He ended the call before Ripley could reply.

            Tori Brace stood with a wooden spoon over a tall soup pot, and didn’t notice her husband walk in. Ted had called and told her not to expect him until late tonight.

            “Hello, beautiful.”

            She spun around. “Hey! Where were you today?” Short, mousy brown curls framed Tori’s face. She had small, bright blue eyes that disappeared when she smiled, but tonight they searched Ted’s face with concern. “You didn’t say when you called.”

               Ted grabbed her in his arms and kissed her. “What do you think of this place?”

            She blinked. “What?”

            “What do you think of this place?” Ted gestured around the cluttered studio apartment. “What do you think of it, really?”

            “Ted, if this is another—”

            Ted held a hand up to silence her. “Humor me.”

            Tori bit her lip. “You know how I feel about it. This place works for us. We don’t need another—”

            “This place worked for us. But who wants to live here?” Ted grabbed his wife’s shoulders, guiding her towards the kitchen cabinets on the opposite wall. “You know what’s behind the bowls in there?”

            “Ted…”

            Ted opened the cabinet door and playfully lifted one of Tori’s hands up towards the bowls. “You know what’s back there, right?” He watched his wife’s fingers tremble slightly. She’d glued on a new set of fake nails, baby pink. Ted inched them closer to the shadowy corner of the cabinet. “Well, Tori?”

            She tried to pull her arm away, but Ted held it firm. “Ted, I don’t want to do this.”

            He pushed her hand closer, imagining the eight long, spindly legs so near her fingers. “Answer me.”

            “Spiders. Ok? A hundred tiny, disgusting spiders.” He didn’t let go. “Please, Ted.”

            Ted dropped Tori’s hand, just a breath away from the cobwebs. “Exactly. Spiders. Flies, roaches, who knows what else? You hate it here. Admit it.”

            She moved back to the pot on the stove. “You know I hate when you do that.”

            Ted followed her. “Come on, you know I wouldn’t actually let a spider get you. But you can’t lie. This place is awful and we both know it.”

            “Fine.” Tori turned to face him. “But we can’t afford another move. We talked about this.”

            Ted wrapped his arms around his wife. Lowering his voice, he moved his lips towards her ear. “But we can.”

            Tori squirmed, exasperated. “Ted, I’m not doing this aga—”

            “I had a meeting today, Tori. A big one.”

            His wife went still. “What kind of meeting?”

            “I pitched the dream idea. We’re calling it the Sandman.” Ted hugged her closer. “They bought it.”

            “The dream idea? My idea?”

            “The dream idea.”

            Tori spoke slowly, cautiously. “Ted, I came up with that idea in school. I told you about it when we started dating.”

            “Tori,” Ted hugged her closer. “It doesn’t matter—”

            Tori broke free and turned around. “Yes, it does. It was my idea, and we made a deal. I know you remember, Ted.”

            He did remember. They’d been the two poor kids in business school with stars in their eyes. He remembered lying in bed with Tori, promising never to become one of those miserable couples who crossed each other at every turn.

            “I’ve got your back, you’ve got mine.”

            But when he made that promise, Ted didn’t think he’d still be living in a shitty apartment with brassy yellow numbers on the door.

            “Try to think about it logically. These guys were old school. Old boys club-types. The idea had a better shot if Ripley and I pitched it alone.”

             “You took your assistant?”

            “He’s not an assistant,” Ted interjected.“He’s the one who writes the code for it.”

            “Whatever he does, you took him and not me?” Tori stared back at him, gripping her spoon like a weapon.

            Ted stretched out his arms. “Babe, I already told you why. Think about it: you already tried to pitch this, and it fell flat. I mean, you said so yourself.”

            “Yes,” she responded slowly. “But that was one bad pitch. One.”

            “And you haven’t pitched it anywhere else since.” Ted smiled back with sympathy. “And I get it –I know how much those rejections hurt. I just didn’t want to see this great idea die because of one bad pitch.”

            Ted watched Tori’s anger soften, but she continued, “Still, you didn’t even think to tell me? Why couldn’t I have been in the room at least?”

            “I should have told you. I messed up” He watched the corners of his wife’s mouth tremble. “It was a great idea—something you get once in a lifetime; I couldn’t just let that go. But you’re my partner in the business now, so the pitch doesn’t matter.”

            Tori turned back to the stove. “I’d better be.”

            Ted pulled his wife into his chest again. “Of course you are. And you know what? We’ve already got a pretty successful thing going. They paid big money for it.”

            “How much?”

            “They offered ninety million.”

            Tori blinked. “Ninety million? Ninety million dollars?”

            “Ninety million dollars.”

            Tori leaned her head against her husband’s shoulder. Neither of them spoke for several minutes. At last, she asked “What does that mean for us?”

            Ted’s lips curled into a smile. “It means that you won’t have to live in a dump with spiders in the cabinets. With yellow wallpaper that smells like piss. It means you don’t have to buy shitty plastic nails again.” He put his knuckle under her chin to raise her face up to his.

            “It means that I’ve got your back.” 

*

            A passerby likely wouldn’t look twice at the headquarters of Sandman Industries. Ted had resisted the urge to roost in a glitzy high-rise; he knew discretion would benefit him in the end, so he and Ripley had set up shop in squat building at a strip mall on the edge of town. The old GNC next door had been empty for years, much to Ted’s delight. No nosy neighbors.

            Ted looked over the list of new clients before leaving for the night. He had just finished writing the dream code for a new prescription. In a few hours, that obscure blood pressure pill would be a household name.

            Ripley sat next to him, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Should we add something about the side effects before we send this one off?”

            Ted didn’t bother to look up. “Why?”

            “Don’t we have to? We don’t want someone to go in without underst—”

            Ted slapped Ripley on the back. “Go home, kid. You’ve done your time.” Ripley looked up at him with bloodshot eyes. “We don’t need to add anything—it’s a dream, not a TV commercial. We can do whatever we want.”

            “But don’t we owe it—”

            “Go home, kid.” Ted threw his jacket over his shoulder. “Unwind with Ivy and don’t lose sleep over this.”

            Ripley smiled. “Maybe you’re right.”

            Ted laughed. “Of course I am. How long has it been now? Two years?”

            “Just about.”

            “Looks like I was right about a couple of things,” Ted said with a wink.

            Ripley stood and cleared his desk. “She’s been asking when we can get dinner with you and Tori again. How is Tori?”

            Ted sighed. “Good question, I haven’t looked at the calendar. I’ll let you know.”

            “How is Tori?” Ripley repeated.

            Ted chuckled and moved towards the door. “She’s fine kid. The way you always hound me about her, I’d think you were interested if I didn’t know any better.”

*

            Tori smiled as her husband sauntered into the brightly lit apartment. She stood at the tall window in the living room. Life on Fifth Avenue continued busily below her.

            Ted tossed his jacket over the leather sofa and stopped to admire his wife’s silhouette against the setting sun. She’d started dressing better after the first Sandman check came in, he thought, and he was pleased to see that she’d used some of the money to tame that frizzy hair. As he approached, Ted reached out an arm and twirled Tori around in full view of the window before kissing her neck.

            “Ted,” she pushed away slightly. “You’re going to put on a show for the neighbors.”

            “I don’t mind.”

            She extracted herself from his grip. “You hate PDA.”

            He shrugged. “Not anymore.”

            Tori raised her eyebrows. “Why’s that?”

            Ted could sense the gears turning in her head; he could almost see the word secretary flashing across her mind.

            “Do I need a reason?”

            “Does the reason wear stilettos?”

            Ted laughed. “Maybe you should get yourself a pair.” He thought about whether this little game would be worth the fight tonight. As Tori’s hands started to shake, he added, “Come on, you know it’s not that. I got a big new client today. Guess it put me in a good mood, but if you’re…” His voice trailed off.

            Tori’s eyes went wide, “Oh God, I’m sorry Ted. Honey, I’m sorry. I always do this.”

            “It’s fine.” He poured himself a drink and settled in the kitchen.

            “Ted…” She placed a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry. I just haven’t been sleeping well lately.”

            Ted knew why, but he raised the drink to his lips to hide his smile. He’d been careful—hiding the speaker, wearing discreet earplugs to bed. Maybe the sleep wasn’t great, but she hadn’t asked him for a favor in weeks.

            “Who’s the new client?” Tori pressed.

            “Pfischer. The pharmaceutical company.”

            “Nice!” Ted could hear the relief in her voice. “What are they selling now?”

            “I can’t exactly say.” He took another drink. “The CEO had me sign a bunch of NDAs before we got started.”

            Tori traced her fingers around the nape of her husband’s neck. “Not even with your business partner?”

            Ted felt her plastic nails through the fabric of his shirt. Dammit, Tori, do you always have to look cheap?

             “Not even you.” Ted turned and took her hand in his. “You’re still wearing these, huh?”

            Tori pulled her hand away. “Ted, I want more out of this company.”

            “You own half of it.”

            “But it doesn’t feel like it.” Her voice was gentle. “It was my idea, Ted. I need more of a say.”

            Ted took another drink.

            Tori sat down beside him. “I’m serious. You know I’d be good. When it comes down to it, we have the same qualifications. Same school, same grades…”

            Ted rolled his eyes. “And yet you still interrogate me like I’ve got a mistress for every day of the week when I get home. Do you really think you have the nerve to sit in contract meetings all day? They don’t tip-toe around your feelings, babe.”

            Tori balled her hands into fists to keep them from shaking. “Give me a chance to prove that I ‘have the nerve,’ then. I have a right to be there.”

            “We both know you can’t handle it.”

            “I can.”

            Ted drew his wallet out of his pocket. “Yeah? Then you might as well make yourself stand out.” He threw his credit card onto the counter. “Buy yourself a pair of stilettos.”

            With that, Ted stood, drained his glass, and moved toward the bedroom. He’d almost reached the door when he heard his wife’s voice.

            “I can’t do this anymore, Ted.”

            He turned to face the kitchen. “Do what? Whine about not having to—”

            “I want a divorce.”

            Silence.

            Ted wandered back to Tori’s side.

            “This hasn’t been working for a while. We both know it, Ted.”

            “So you want a divorce? A messy, legal, nightmare divorce?”

            Tori nodded.

            “You want to lose this lifestyle? You want to go back to shitty spider cabinets?”

            “I’m not losing anything. I own half this business.”

            Ted felt his face go white. “Well, I mean—”

            “My name is on all the documents. I know it is, I was there.” Tori turned to face her husband. “It was my idea, Ted. My idea. You don’t even know how I came up with it.” She paused for a moment, before adding. “You and I both know I could ask for a lot more than half.”

            “Then you’re asking for half?” Ted asked.

            Tori locked her eyes on the back wall. “I’m asking for half, and I’m going out to find more clients. We’ll split the business, and from here on out I’m keeping anyone else I sign on. You can do the same.”

            Ted reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. “Honey, I told you, it’s an old boy’s—”

            “I don’t care.” She shrugged him off. “That’s my proposal. You can take it, or I can go for the whole business.”

She stood. “You decide, Ted.”

            “Tor—”

            But the apartment door slammed shut before Ted could finish his thought.

*

            A week later, Ted stood over the kitchen counter. Watching the remnants of a strong drink settle in his glass.

            “What are you doing here?” Tori asked from the doorway.

            “I think we need to talk about this.” Ted poured himself another glass of scotch in the kitchen. Ripley’s words echoed in his ears: “Some people say if you d—”

            “It’s been a week, Ted.” Tori’s words pulled him back to reality. She hadn’t moved from the doorway. “I told you I’d give it a week but I’m not changing my mind. We don’t need to make this difficult.”

            Ted pulled out a chair and motioned for her to sit. “I know. But that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about this.”

            Tori took the seat next to her husband. Wary. “I won’t be vindictive.”

            “I know.”

            “Then what’s to talk about?” Tori pressed. “I’m filing tomorrow. You can be there if you want.”

            “I told Ripley not to come in today.” Ted’s words muddled into one another as he slumped over the kitchen island, his fingers still firm around the scotch glass.

            “What does that—Ted, what do you want to talk about?”

            “He couldn’t be there—” Ted caught himself. “You wanted to go to Hawaii.”

            “Yes.”

            “You talked about that when we met.”

            “Ted…”

            “Used to look up pictures of the beach. Remember that?” Ted swallowed. “Used to say you wanted to fall asleep under a blue and white umbrella.”

            Tori closed her eyes. “I did.”

            “But we never went. Why didn’t we go?” He looked directly at Tori now, her face swimming in his eyes. “We had the money.”

            “You’re not making this any easier, Ted.”

            “Why didn’t we go?”

            Tori turned to face her husband. “Because I wanted us to have a reason to go. I wanted it to be special.”

            Ted nodded.

            “What did you want to talk about, Ted?”

            “I can’t—I can’t do this if you hate me. I had to be here to make sure you don’t hate me.”

            Tori put her hand on his. “I don’t hate you, Ted.” Her tone was soft. “We just aren’t good for each other anymore.”

            Ted drained his glass. “That’s true.”

            “Should I call someone? Ripley?”

            Ted stood quickly and his head spun. “No—don’t call Ripley. I’m leaving.”

            “Goodbye, Ted.” Tori wiped her eyes.

            “Goodbye.” He paused.

            Ted waited until the lock clicked behind him. After a few moments, he closed his eyes and sent the code.

*

            He’d waited until the next morning before he called the police. When the paramedics arrived, Ted tried to shake his wife awake, explaining that she had been completely fine the night before.

            The funeral had been hard, but the wake was worse. In the receiving line, he took pulls from a flask between shaking hands. He didn’t need to be sober, everything the mourners said blurred together anyway.

            “I’m so sorry Ted.”

            “Dying in your sleep. If it has to happen, that’s the way to go.”

            “At least it was peaceful.”

            That part was true. Ted had paid special attention to Tori’s comfort as he’d written the code. Calm, white sand beaches, a warm, comfortable tide to carry her out to sea. He couldn’t think of a better way to die in a dream.

            Eventually, a familiar couple shuffled up to him.

            “Ted,” Ivy pulled him into a hug. “I’m so sorry. Tori was—I don’t even have a word for her. She was incredible.”

            “Thanks, Ivy.” He replied, before taking another pull.

            “She was like an older sister to me,” Ivy continued. “Just a brilliant mind, and so kind.”

            “That’s true,” Ted replied, blankly.

            “I’m sorry, Ted.” Ripley looked at him with bloodshot eyes. “I know what a loss this is. There will never be anyone like Tori.”

            “Exactly,” said Ivy. “She was one of a kind.”

            “She was,” Ted replied, taking care not to slur his words. “She was. Ripley, I’m going to stay out of the office for a while.”

            “Yes.” Ivy spoke for him. “Yes, Ripley will take care of everything. And I’ll even come in to help –I mean, I already understand how it affects people, anyway.”

              Ripley threw his arms around Ted, who stumbled under the embrace.

            “I’ll take care of it.”

            “Thanks kid,” Ted whispered, taking a long pull as he watched the couple walk away.

*

            Back in the apartment, Ted sat on the edge of the sofa, watching the ice cubes crash into each other as he swirled them around with the dregs in his glass. He knew eventually he’d have to enter the bedroom –whether to sell the bed or gather his belongings—but he couldn’t face it yet.

            Besides, some part of him welcomed the sore neck and stiff muscles he’d get after sleeping here. Maybe if he did enough penance here, he wouldn’t feel sick when he saw Tori’s hairpin, or a box of her fake nails.  

            Ted’s phone buzzed next to him. Ripley’s name flashed across the screen.

            NEW ACCOUNT? WHAT’S THE “HAWAII” CODE?

            Even in his stupor, Ted felt his heart drop. He rubbed his eyes before replying:

            DON’T REMEMBER. DON’T WORRY. PROBABLY TOOK CARE OF IT.

            Before he had time to set the phone on the nightstand, it buzzed again.

            OK. I’LL HAVE IVY FILE IT.

            A pause, and then:

            ANY IDEA WHAT KIND OF PLACE IT WAS? COMPANY? INDIVIDUAL? JUST SO I KNOW HOW TO FILE THE CODE.

            Would Ripley piece it together?  He shook the thought from his head. He’d been careful. No one would know. 

            IGNORE IT. IT CAN WAIT. GO HOME.

            Ted tossed the phone on the couch and ambled into the shower, desperate to scrub the sweat and guilt from his skin.

*

            A loud rap at the door jolted Ted awake. He looked over at the clock on the mantle.

            12:30 AM

            Ted closed his eyes. They’ll leave.

            Another rap, and then another. Ted swore and pulled himself up from the sofa.

            Ripley stood in the doorway, holding a bottle of wine. “Ted,” he beamed at him.

            Ted stared, bewildered.

            The kid stumbled in. “I brought a bottle.” He held up the wine. “Thought we could celebrate a little.”

            Ted rubbed his eyes. “What are you doing here?”

            “Celebrating, Ted. We’re celebrating.” Ripley wandered into the kitchen and began searching for a corkscrew.

            Ted followed. “Celebrating what?”

            Ripley wrenched the cork out from the bottle. “Tori’s life. Get some glasses.”

            “What?”

            “Glasses. Wine glasses.”

            Ted pulled two down from the cabinet while Ripley sloshed the wine over them. It glugged and splashed, speckling the dark drops all across the marble counter.

            “Raise a glass,” Ripley commanded, “to an incredible woman. Tori was one of a kind.”

            “Kid, what the hell do you—” Ted tried to protest, but Ripley was already shoving the glass into his hand.

            “We’re celebrating Tori’s life, Ted. It’s what people do.” Ripley smiled at him with wild eyes. “We owe it to her, to honor her memory.”

            “I’m really not in the mood.”

            “Drink.”

            He met Ripley’s gaze. Did he know?

            Ted put the glass to his lips, draining it. The minute it touched the counter, Ripley was pouring again.

            “It must be hard,” Ripley continued. “I know what she meant to you.”

            Ted drained the next glass. “She meant a lot.” Ripley’s face blurred as he looked back at him. The only things in focus were those eyes, wide and bloodshot.

            “You know how much she meant to me?” Ted asked.

            “Of course I do,” Ripley responded, already gathering the glasses for another pour. “It was easy to see why you fell for her.”

            Ted smiled. Relieved.

            “Anyone would fall for her,” Ripley continued. “We should focus on the happy times you two had. I remember the first time the two of you came out with Ivy and me.”

            “The Hibachi bar,” Ted pulled his glass towards him, spilling most of it over his shirt. “We talked about when we knew each other in college.”

            “Yes,” Ripley’s voice sounded more distant. “Ivy thought that was adorable.”

            Ted rested his head against the marble countertop. “It was.”

            “And you two talked about all those big dreams you had.” Ripley laughed hysterically. “Remember? You said you wanted to make a million dollars.”

            “Mhmm,” Ted nodded his head slightly.

            “And Ivy loved Tori’s—she was just telling me about it. Those two talked about how badly Tori wanted to see Hawaii. Do you remember that, Ted?”

            Ted was hardly listening now, laboring just to keep his eyes open. 

            “We were just talking about it, before I got here.” A smile stretched across Ripley’s face, pulling back his ruddy cheeks. “You were right, Ivy’s pretty great—observant, at least. But hey, we’re drinking for Tori, not my girl. We need some music. Where’s your speaker?”

            Ted jerked his head towards the living room.

            “Perfect.”

            The lyrics soon floated into the kitchen.

            I’ve just closed my eyes again…

            “You like Gary Wright? Dream Weaver?” Ripley called, but Ted had had enough. His head ached, and the marble felt so smooth and cold. He didn’t even mind the wet wine spots against his skin. It would be so nice to sleep here, so easy…

            Ted hardly registered the click as his apartment door swung shut, nor soft hum from the living room, fainter than his own measured breathing. As it rose, he became aware of how heavy his body was, how it seemed to be pulling itself towards the ground. It had been a long day, an awful day. His muscled screamed out for rest.

            That hum was so sweet, so soothing. Where had he heard it before?

            Ted rested his head against the marble. Tori had never liked it. I bet she’d have gotten rid of it after she left. Ted felt his eyes droop. I bet she’d still wear those cheap nails, too.

            He succumbed to sleep before the Sandman’s hum hit its crescendo.

*

            Ted awoke to the sound of rain. Not heavy, but enough to ruin a nice pair of shoes.

            Perfect. Ted groaned and stretched his arms, slowly easing himself up from his chair. The clock across the room read 10:43. Ted looked around. Shards of glass glittered across the kitchen floor.

            Ripley, he thought. Too drunk to clean up.

            As Ted stumbled around the kitchen to sweep up, he caught a glimpse of a soft blue glow on his right. He turned towards it, watching the light ebb and flow under the bedroom door.

            Until then, Ted hadn’t registered the pounding in his own head. He sighed. What could he expect after last night?

            The light grew more intense.

            What did I leave on in there? Ted rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

            As he made his way towards the bedroom, the glow stretched farther across the floor. When Ted closed his fingers around the doorknob, he heard seagulls in the distance.

            “What the—”

            The door flung open, and Ted stumbled onto a beach. The sand burned white hot beneath him. A short distance ahead, he saw a woman resting under a blue and white umbrella.

            “I’ve got your back,” she called to him, not bothering to turn around.

            “Tori?”

            “You’ve got mine.”

            “Tori, I’m sorry.” Ted tried to walk towards his wife, to get away from the thick, stinging sand. He felt his legs sinking deeper in with every step. “Tori, please. I’m so sorry.”

            “I’ve got your back.”

            Clear blue waves began to break against the shore. Each reaching slightly farther than the last.

            Ted looked down to see that the sand had reached his waist. In the distance, the sun began to set against the horizon. The waves pushed closer and closer to Ted.

            “Tori—” the hot sand had swallowed his torso now. “Please.”

            “You’ve got mine.”



BIO

Kate H. Koch has synesthesia, which means every sound flashes as a color before her eyes. Her vivid condition inspires her to create dark, colorful writing, and this has helped her during her time as a graduate student at Harvard Extension School, where she is pursuing an ALM degree in Creative Writing and Literature. You can find Kate’s work in Corvid Queen Magazine, Flora Fiction, The Metaworker Literary Magazine, Club Plum, BOMBFIRE, Cholla Needles, and Z Publishing House’s Minnesota’s Best Emerging Poets of 2019: An Anthology, as well as a script for ESPN and poetry forthcoming in Belle Ombre Literary Journal. You can also find her writing on her website: katehkoch.com



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