A Short Story by Kip Knott

I drink a lot of coffee. I’m talking a lot of coffee. What’s a lot? Ten cups? Fifteen? How about thirty cups? Well, I drink six Mr. Coffee pots a day. That’s sixty cups. And I’m not talking about orange-handled pots of gas station decaf. I’m talking about sixty cups of black, full-bodied, caffeinated Eight O’Clock coffee with just a pinch of sugar to honor my late wife Daisy, who I called “Sugar” because she sweetened my life.

I never looked back after Sugar gave me my first cup and an ultimatum one morning to sober me up from a particularly hard night of whiskey doubles. Her hope was to get me to trade one addiction for the lesser of two evils. Before then, it was nothing but Bloody Marys in the morning, beer after lunch, and whiskey from dinner till bedtime. After then, it was coffee, coffee, coffee.

It’s no real secret how I’m able to down so much coffee in a day. Getting up every morning at 6:00 helps. And snapping off the light at midnight doesn’t hurt either. That gives me a full eighteen hours every day to squeeze in sixty cups.

This morning, just like every other morning, the first thing I do is kiss my Sugar’s picture on my bedside table and say, “Good morning, My Sweet.” Then I make my first trip of the day to the bathroom. I usually don’t make more than five trips there a day. And I never have to get up in the night to go, which you might find hard to believe given my daily liquid intake. Sugar, who must have had the bladder the size of a gnat, had to go at least a dozen times a day and twice in the night. She’d even leak a drop or two if she laughed too long or sneezed too hard. She always said, with a touch of anger, that I must be descended from a camel because of how I could hold my water.

Next I brush my teeth, which, despite the brown rivers of coffee that wash over them daily can still be classified as pearly whites. Sugar was a dental hygienist when we met back in ’65, and imposed upon me her own rules of proper oral hygiene, which began with a toothpaste concoction of baking soda and a splash of peroxide.

After I’m showered and dressed, I commence with the coffee by firing up Pot #1 on the Mr. Coffee that Sugar gave me for our fifth anniversary. Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio wasn’t lying when he guaranteed a better cup of joe with Mr. Coffee. I’ve estimated its given me over 82,000 cups over the years, while I’ve only had to give it three new heating coils and one new power cord in all that time. And Sugar wasn’t lying either when she promised coffee could see me through the tough days ahead of me, that was if I still wanted her to stay next to me in bed every night.

I wash down my two sunny-side-up eggs, two strips of bacon, and bowl of oatmeal with my pot of Eight O’Clock while I scan the obituaries in the newspaper for any names I might know. After I do the dishes (Sugar never allowed a dirty dish to sit in the sink), I top off the two birdfeeders just outside my apartment window with the best black oilers money can buy. Then I settle in my La-Z-Boy with Pot #2 and watch the cardinals, juncos, and goldfinches fight it out at my expense.

At seven o’clock I flip on Good Morning America to see what’s new in the world. Sugar never missed it, but if I’m being honest, it wasn’t anything but background noise for me until after she passed just over a year ago. Even so, David Hartman’s deep voice was much more soothing to my ear than whiney George Stephanopoulos.

By eight o’clock I’m through with Pot #2 and ready for my walk. Seton Circle Senior Center has beautiful walking paths that snake their way through the wooded one-acre courtyard surrounded by our building. The paths are clearly marked with signs every hundred feet or so for the “Bad Memory Bunch,” as I like to call them. But my mind purrs like a super-charged engine fueled by caffeine, so the signs are lost on me.

The real trick for me every morning is to get from my second floor apartment, through the hallway, down the elevator, past the rec room, and out the doors without having to make small talk with any of my neighbors. What I see as a gauntlet I must survive just to get outside, Sugar—a true-blue people-person who loved to chew the fat with anyone willing to chew back—saw it as one of the highlights of her day. With a quick nod to Dorris Veech, the 92-year-old woman who thinks every day is Pearl Harbor day, I make it out the doors unscathed.

I take two trips around the courtyard, making sure to keep my head down except for when I check the two robins’ nests for any new progress before I go back inside, make my way past the rec room, up the elevator, through the hallway, and back into my apartment without running into anyone.

Once inside, I take my second bathroom break, then make a beeline for Mr. Coffee to get Pot #3 going, which will see me through both The Price Is Right and Let’s Make a Deal. I’ve got to admit that Drew Carey was funnier as a heavyweight back in the ‘90s than he is in his current welterweight incarnation. And that Wayne Brady is a ball of energy that puts Monty Hall to shame.

By noon I’m ready for the first forty of my daily eighty winks. Coming up fast on 80 years-old counteracts any amount of caffeine I’m happy to put in my body. Truth be told, though, I’ve never had any trouble falling to sleep. Whenever I want, I can hit an internal “snooze” button and nod off. Sugar used to blame the booze, but once she boarded me on the Coffee Express and I was still able to slip off to Dreamland as soon as she snapped off the light, she had to admit that my conscience must have been clean enough to not worry about my fate in the dark.

 When my alarm rings at one o’clock, I’m ready for Pot #4. This is the part of the day I look forward to the most. Between one o’clock and three o’clock every day, I read a book from the list Sugar wrote me before she passed.

“You’re going to need something to get you through your days once I’m gone,” she told me. “When you read these, just remember I’ve read them, too. It’s like we’re reading them together.”

With more than a hundred books on the list, and with me being a slow reader touched by a bit of dyslexia, I’ll probably never get through them all before Sugar and I are together again.

At three o’clock I dog-ear whatever page I’m on, close the book I’m reading, then settle in for the second forty of my daily eighty winks.

I’ve never been one for dreaming. I don’t know why. Instead, when I sleep I have the sensation of floating; not in the air like a balloon, but like the way I imagine a ghost must float between this world and the next. Sugar believed that it was a sign of some kind of sixth sense I was born with. She believed that if only I believed myself, I could be some kind of link between me and whatever world it was she was headed for. Now that’s she gone, though, I’m not sure what I believe in. Except for coffee.

My alarm set for 3:55 p.m. every day wakes me in time for bathroom break #3, Pot #4, and Jeopardy. While I was always a fan of Jeopardy, Sugar didn’t really come around until Alex was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the same cancer she fought. From that point on, she never missed a show, even on the days after her chemo when she needed to have a bucket nearby just in case. No amount of nausea could dampen her competitive spirit, though, and she’d mumble “Shit,” every time I yelled out the question before her. Wheel of Fortune, which comes on right after Jeopardy, was never her thing. Now, just as when she was still alive, I watch it alone.

Pot #5 fills up precisely at five o’clock every day, and accompanies whatever frozen delight I choose for dinner. Stouffer’s lasagna is my absolute favorite because it tastes as close to Sugar’s cooking as I’ve been able to find. Banquet fried chicken is also a good bet. Better, I think, than the greasy rotisserie chicken that stinks up the grocery store on our weekly trips. Tonight it’s Panda Brand Kung Pao Chicken. I still have one of Sugar’s chicken tetrazzini casseroles in the freezer, but I’m waiting for our 50th anniversary to eat it.

By the last pot of the day, Pot #6, I slow my consumption down considerably so that it sees me through the local and national newscasts, the hour between seven o’clock and eight o’clock when I record the day’s events in the diary I promised Sugar I would keep after she was gone, all my primetime shows, and SportsCenter at eleven.

By 11:30 I’m ready for my last bathroom break of the day, after which I wash up and change into the pajamas Sugar got me on my last birthday with her.

I walk back to the kitchen and pour the last cup of coffee—always the sweetest yet saddest cup of the day—from the pot. I rinse out the pot and set it on the drying rack so that it’s ready first thing tomorrow. I snap off the kitchen lights and walk with my cup of coffee into our bedroom where I set it in front of Sugar’s picture on the bedside table. I reach under the bed and pull out a solid silver urn with lapis lazuli accents. The urn is cold and never seems to warm in my hands, no matter how long I hold it.

“How was your day, My Sweet?” I ask. “My day was fine. Still just coffee. I haven’t strayed. Lots of coffee. Nothing new with the robins.”

I run my fingers along the name “Sugar” etched in deep Gothic lettering on top of the lid. “I’m not sure how much longer I can last without you, My Sweet,” I confess.

I gently unscrew the lid, reach inside, and take a tiny pinch of ashes between my thumb and forefinger before replacing the lid and sliding the urn back under the bed. I gently rub my thumb and forefinger together over my cup. Sugar’s ashes feel soft and velvety before they drift down into the coffee. I hold the warm cup between my hands just as I used to hold her face when I would kiss her goodnight, then lift the cup to my lips and drink her in.

Kip Knott’s writing has appeared in Beloit Fiction Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Gettysburg Review, The Sun, and Virginia Quarterly Review. His debut full-length collection of poetry—Tragedy, Ecstasy, Doom, and so on—is currently available from Kelsay Books. A new full-length collection of poetry, Clean Coal Burn, is forthcoming in 2021, also from Kelsay Books. More of his work may be accessed at kipknott.com

A Short Story by Eric Knowlson

The bedroom walls were adorned with loud punk-rock posters. The vanity on the right held a large mirror that sat between an impressive collection of make-up. The mirror reflected a blackened spoon, lighter and a few orange syringes. A fan buzzed in the corner dousing Setti and Easton with bursts of dry air. They sat on the bed, swinging their legs and watching the closed bathroom door. Sweat dripped from Easton’s forehead. He looked over at Setti, she rolled her teary eyes before readjusting her position in a slow and deliberate motion.  

“I hope she hurries up,” Easton sighed as he rubbed his arms.

Eventually, the bathroom door swung open with a waft of perfume. They watched as Le (pronounced like Ley) strolled into the room. She was a tall girl clothed in a careful mishmash of attire. Her skirt dripped with Harajuku bubble-gum while her studded belt, and leopard-print top hummed a forgotten punk song.

She had a round face, creamy almond skin and straight black hair. Her haircut framed her cute features ­—which were further accentuated by her perfectly applied makeup. The only cracks in her image were pricked pupils that seemed to disappear into her iris.   

“Sorry,” Le said. “You guys got here earlier than usual.”

Easton couldn’t help but feel an air of inauthenticity radiate from the bright medley of make-up and mannerisms that Le paraded in front of them. He looked over at Setti and winked.

Setti smiled, she gathered from his amused face that he was contemplating the absurdity of Le requiring fully done hair and make-up to sit at home and sell dope, especially to her friends.  

Setti softly chuckled at Le’s expense before feeling guilt for not putting on such a flawless front herself.    

Le was fiddling with something on her dresser but looked back at them with a raised eyebrow. “So, what can I get for you today?”

“We were hoping to do the same as yesterday. A front and then we’ll pay you back tonight.”

Le paused and then averted her eyes, “Sorry, I can’t today.”

“Why not?” Setti asked. “We always pay you back.”

“Have you guys?” Le feigned ignorance shrugging her shoulders.  

“Of course, we have,” Setti replied.

“Really?” Le swung her palms open and raised her eyebrows. “Honestly, I can’t keep track, I have so many customers,” she paused and squinted her eyes, before continuing, “I remember doing it a few times, but not every day. Besides, Nautic told me that I can’t do anymore fronts.”

“Can’t you just do a dub?”

Le shook her head no.

  “How many times have we helped you? Huh?” Setti quipped. “This isn’t cool.” She was angered Le would do this without warning, allow them to drive to her house, wait an hour while she got ready and then deny them.

Yet, Setti was more hurt by Le’s seemingly flippant disregard for their friendship. Before this period the three had been included in a close circle of friends. Le and Setti had been inseparable, people even mistook them for sisters. But that was then. Now that their clique had been dissolved and dispersed, like powder in a spoon, they were only left with faint traces of what used to be.

Easton stood up and glanced at the two girls, who were staring fiercely at each other and decided to fix his gaze on Le.

“Well, thanks anyways,” he said in a dejected tone. “Let’s go Setti.” Setti shot Le a malicious glance before storming out of the room. Easton slowly followed, stopping in front of Le. He wanted to affirm that there was still something left from their past friendship, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. So, he gave her a weak smile instead, before frowning again and walking out the door.

.

Outside, the Albuquerque sun was already starting to bake the ground. Despite the warmth, they shivered as they made their way to the car.

“She’s a fucking bitch. I’m done with her.”

“Yeah.” Easton thought for a moment, “But she is our friend after all, maybe Nautic really…”

Setti cut him off, “No, you believe that? You’re so gullible. She’s lying, I know she remembers. It was only yesterday for god’s sake!” Setti stiffened her body and hit Easton, “I wish you would take my side. I know she has something against me and did this on purpose.” Setti knew this because it’s something she would do. Now that the girls weren’t close, perceived slights, no matter how small, were met with passive aggressive behavior.

“I am on your side. I’m out here with you, aren’t I?” Easton hated this argument. “We’re about to get really sick. It’s not worth arguing about.”

“Okay then, what do you propose we do?” she growled and kicked the gravel in Le’s front yard, spewing rocks all over the street. “Fuck!”

“Let’s just forget about Le.”

“I’m not going to just forget about her,” Setti said mockingly. “Once we get money, I’m never buying from her again. She’s not our friend, she only wants to make money.” Easton sighed and agreed. He felt a tinge of guilt, but he had to admit Le had changed. They all had changed. He knew Setti was (mostly) venting but he wished she would let things go.

.

He changed the subject, “How are we going to get well?”

There were no more money or valuables left in either of their parent’s homes, or some of their neighboring homes, for that matter. They didn’t feel like they had parents anymore. Both had been disowned due to their parent’s shame. Easton remembers his parent’s reaction, a great wail followed by anger and tears. He tried to comfort them but they didn’t want to hear it. They said becoming a heroin addict was the worst thing he could have done. Just leave, they said.  

Setti’s parents had been worse and gotten violent with her. Easton remembers her frantic phone call, later dodging blows from her dad and haphazardly carrying a bleeding and crying Setti to his car. After their parent’s reactions, it felt unsafe to tell anyone.

They didn’t have insurance. There was no one to help them. They were stuck using. Ostracized from society and on their own, they had to adopt new rules. Neither of them could have conceived of stealing from their parents before this, but being told you are scum has a weird effect on you.

 “We could steal records or clothes.”

“We just did that.”

“Maybe textbooks or a laptop but…”

“No.” Setti waved her hand. “It’s too much work.” Despite their cold facade, they both felt guilty when they stole from actual people. They didn’t mind big stores or corporations. She nervously paced back and forth. “What about the other day when you had that money?”

“Laura and I burrowed Max’s car. We did the gas scam with his license plate. Made like three hundred each.” Easton smiled with momentary pride, “all within an hour but…” he scratched his head, “but my car’s a piece of crap and has a NM plate. Plus, Laura is a blonde white girl. People felt sorry for her.”

 “I wish I still had money. It went so fast.” Setti sighed. She had received a large scholarship disbursement at the beginning of the semester but that was long gone. Still, the thought of it made her smile. She took pride in her ability to keep up with school, especially with all the chaos surrounding her.  

“I think we have to go to Wal-Mart,” Easton shook his head.

.

The Walmart parking lot stretched on interminably, while the sun created mirages of water on the distant asphalt.  Setti or Setareh (her given name) wore light but delicately applied makeup that was beginning to run. She flipped her black straightened hair back, attempting to keep it away from the beads of sweat forming on her bronze Persian skin.

“I hate being sick in the summer, it makes my hair turn curly again.”

“I love it,” Easton replied.

“It looks like shit to everyone else.”

“For real! It’s like a lion’s mane. Majestic,” he laughed.

Setti allowed herself a smile but didn’t reply. The word majestic spawned a myriad of thoughts. She believed she was a princess in her past life and it was no coincidence she was born under the star sign Leo. She was a glowing star trapped in a frail mortal shell. Easton seemed to intrinsically grasp this. He understood her, probably more than he knew. She looked over at him with wide teary eyes and a thankful smile. But he didn’t see her. She frowned.   

Easton was distracted. He rubbed his arms again; goose bumps were forming on his milky white skin. “I’m starting to get pretty sick,” he complained as he wiped away tears and snot from his face.

“I know! You don’t need to keep reminding us,” she hissed. “Let’s just get this over with.” She pointed towards a small xeriscaped median in the parking lot, “go that way.”  

They walked in separate directions, staring at the ground.

A receipt blew in the wind, he picked it up, examined it, and threw it back down. He found another and briefly looked at it before crumpling it and littering it on the sidewalk. He looked over at her, she was looking at another receipt. He watched her study it for longer than usual. “I got one!”

 He jogged over.

It had multiple items listed; socks for 3.95, toilet paper for 8.75, laundry detergent for 21.76 and a utility ladder for 58.99.

“So, the detergent and the ladder?”

“Yeah, I’ll do the detergent. You do the ladder. Here put this item number in your phone.”  

.

As they entered the store the bright florescent lights strained their eyes. They split up and went different directions. He headed for the home and garden section, stopping at every type of ladder. He compared the last four digits of the barcodes to the number in his flip phone. After looking at a few different ones he found a match. It was a large stepping stool ladder that could extend up to a few feet. Carrying it took both hands. Just as he picked it up, she appeared around the corner carrying a large bottle of detergent.

They smiled at each other. Something about the absurdity of this scan amused them.

They decided with some consternation that it would be better to take the items to another Wal-Mart rather than trying to do it here.

“This would be a whole lot easier if it wasn’t for Le. Does she know how hard it is to hustle while sick?

“Yeah, she does. She just didn’t care.”

“Karma’s gonna get her.” Setti’s eyes narrowed, “She never has to be sick because of Nautic, but one day her luck will run out. We are out here hustling every day —sick too. I’ve seen her sick, and she can’t handle it.”

“That just proves how strong you are.”

“Ah, shut up.” Setareh blushed Lightly.” She took Easton’s hand, “Let’s go.”

They held the items and walked to the front of the store. They casually walked past a register making their way towards the bathroom. He sat down on a bench with the items while she used the restroom.  

She looked in the mirror and frowned. Her face was flushed and red, her eyes wide and alert surrounded by smudged makeup that gave her racoon eyes. She thought about Le and how she had all day to put on a full face of makeup. It wasn’t fair, she was supposed to be the glamorous one. She’d seen better days, but she consoled herself that it was okay. She was Heroin Chic. She pulled a pair of large bug-eye sunglasses from her purse and put them on. She watched herself toss her hair back and look over her shoulder at the mirror.

The motion made her dizzy, she leaned against the counter top for support and let her head droop. Life wasn’t supposed to be this way. She was a straight A student. She did everything her teachers and parents asked. She did everything right! Yet somehow, she found herself detoxing in a Walmart bathroom on a Wednesday afternoon. The absurdity made her chuckle.

She flipped her hair again, this time more slowly. She dabbed her forehead and lower back with a paper towel, threw it on the ground and exited the bathroom.

She picked up the detergent and he grabbed the ladder. His heart beat quickened. He scanned the store and to his relief it seemed everyone had forgotten them. But he couldn’t be sure. Feeling the danger served to focus him. He strolled towards the exit, behind Setti, ignoring his churning stomach that urged him to walk faster.

She held the old receipt visibly in one hand and the detergent in the other, he followed behind using both hands to carry the ladder. She walked past the greeter first.

“Have a beautiful day,” Easton smiled with a hint of irony.

The greeter nodded.

The summer heat, past the sliding doors, was a welcome relief.

“Another flawless escape!”

He loaded the items in his car and took a deep breath.

.

A few miles away, at the next Walmart they talked to a new greeter, telling him they needed to return some items. He stamped an orange sticker on each product and they proceeded to wait in line at the returns counter.

Easton’s legs bounced up and down.

“Don’t worry, we’ve done this hundreds of times.”

“I know, that’s what makes me nervous. They must recognize us by now.”

“Who cares? It’ll be fine. I just hope we don’t get that beast of burden,” Setareh pointed with her eyes towards one of the women working behind the counter. She had much too bright of makeup, especially for her worn-out Walmart uniform. Rather than making her look better, the makeup made her look worse. Her drawn on eyebrows sat in a state of perpetual exclamation that didn’t match the dreary countenance that seemed to afflict her and all her fellow Walmart employees. Her uniform also appeared to be two sizes too small. Her looks weren’t the reason they didn’t like her though.

“Next,” she squawked.

“Of course,” Easton laughed quietly.

Setti smirked, and they dropped the items on the counter.

“We need to return these items. My senile aunt bought the wrong things.”

“Well, I can do an exchange for you,” said the clerk. She eyed them suspiciously.

“Oh, no that’s okay, there is nothing wrong with them. She just buys stuff we don’t need, my mom has me return it for her.”

“Uh, huh,” said the clerk unbelieving of Setti’s story. She picked up the receipt, “I see they were purchased with a debit card. Do you have that on you?”

The clerk knew they were up to something and wanted to try to make it difficult.

“No, my aunt has it. My mom puts money in her account. Why? I don’t know.” Setti flipped her hand in a dismissive gesture, “Oh, crazy aunt Ingrid always buying useless stuff. We must keep an eye on her, ya know? If we didn’t there would be no room left in our house. Have you seen the show hoarders? That’s Ingrid for you.”

Setti was trying to keep from laughing while she spun her tale, she liked using outdated names that she dubbed, old white people names. The fact that she wasn’t white and was using the name Ingrid to describe a relative made it even funnier to her. “Oh, our Incompetent Ingrid,” Setti sighed and shook her head to mimic bewilderment.

Easton could barely keep from laughing too, he wrapped his arm around Setti’s shoulder and chimed, “it’s true.”

A look of confusion came over the clerk’s face, for just a few seconds, before she reclined back into her previous Walmart face.

The clerk grunted. The couple could almost see the gears turning in her head, she was trying to think of a way to refuse them, yet she knew she couldn’t. They didn’t need the card. They knew Walmart’s policies better than the workers did.

 She scowled and eventually pushed a button. The register plopped open. “Sign this,” she pushed a proof of return slip towards Setareh. She signed as Le Nhan, slid the paper back and chuckled.  

The clerk threw the 86.40 at them and yelled, “Next.”

.

“She really doesn’t like us.”  

“Nope.”

“It’s just because she is exploited by Wal-Mart. I honestly feel bad for those employees. They don’t understand that we are just doing a different kind of work.” Setti brushed back a few strands of curling hair.

“Work with higher risks,” Easton added. “Did you see how everyone stared at us? We are just trying to get by. We’re not doing anything wrong for once.”

“Well technically, we’re stealing, but it’s from Walmart so who cares?” She paused, letting the strands drop before flipping and shaking her hair back in a regal gesture. “If people had any idea what being addicted meant they would show more compassion. We’re not lying in bed all day nodded out, like some stereotype. No, we are out here from dawn to dusk running missions, just to be able to function. Tell me that’s not dedication.”

 Easton laughed. “Any job would be lucky to have us.”

“Yeah, if we could get jobs. You know, not having to steal to survive is a privilege. Most people don’t realize that.” 

“Hmm, I never thought about that before…”

“It’s tragic times we’re living in.” She coughed. “But I’m getting delirious.” Setti shook off her thoughts, beamed and lightly jabbed Easton, “Call the Mexicans already.” 

.

Easton dialed a number labeled The Mexicans. On the third ring a voice answered, “Bueno…”

“Hey, can we meet?”

“Si, Podemos. Vas a la calle de San Mateo y Candelaria,” he then switched to thickly accented English, “one East on North side.”

“Cuanto tiempo?”

“Twenty minute. Hasta pronto.”

Once at the intersection of Candelaria and San Mateo they turned to go east and then looked for the first side street that headed north.

They took a left turn. It was a sleepy neighborhood that led to a park. They pulled up and let the engine idle under the sparse shade of a park tree.

Easton called again 

“How long did they say?” asked Setti.

“A couple minutes.”

“That could be hours, they are horrible judges of time.”

“Yeah, I hope they don’t take too long,” Easton yawned, “when they give an exact time you can usually trust that.”

Setti bobbed her head in agreement and asked Easton to roll down the windows. Already the car was beginning to get extremely hot. The air-conditioner was running, but to no avail. Both their shirts were soaked in sweat. Their legs bounced up and down with restless energy. Their chests and stomachs vibrated with a creeping anxiety that had steadily increased since they left Le’s house. By now, the word anxiety was much too benign to portray what they felt. Their eyes were wide and wet, their bodies moving, shaking, sweating and changing positions. About once every minute one of them looked in the rearview mirror to find nothing but an empty street and worried thoughts.

“I’m starting to get the true terror,” Easton exclaimed. A phrase he previously coined to reference the overwhelming dread that eventually crept in during the sickness.

“How long has it been?”

“About five minutes,” he careened his head around to glance out the back window but saw a black SUV drive by. He quickly glanced forward to watch from the mirror again. He needed to watch for undercover cops.

“Fuck! Five minutes, those assholes said a couple minutes. It’s been like 24 hours since our last shot. They need to hurry up,” Setti reached into her purse and pulled out a red pack of Pall Mall cigarettes and shakily lit one. As she dragged it, the smoke burned her throat, but she held it in. Her chest vibrated with more anxious energy, but the cigarette mildly soothed her thoughts. She took another drag and started coughing violently, the cigarette flew from her mouth onto the floor. She reached down to pick it up and her coughing morphed into a quick succession of six sneezes with no space in between. Her head resurfaced with the cigarette between her lips, the filter soaked from spit and snot.

“Let me have a drag,” Easton looked over and held out two fingers but when she handed it to him, he dropped it. “God dammit,” he reached down fumbling beneath his seat, following the trail of smoke.

Setti hit him, “forget about it, He’s here! Let’s go!” 

A brand-new gold SUV drove by. Easton put his car into drive and followed it as it snaked its way through the suburban neighborhood. He used his left foot to try to blindly stamp out the cigarette.

“Did you see who was driving?” The person who answered the phone was never the driver. After receiving a call, he would use a walkie talkie to radio the driver who was closest. Because of this they never knew which driver they would get.

“It looked like Jolly Poncho.”

“Yay,” Setti exclaimed while clapping her hands.  

Jolly Poncho was a moniker that Setareh had made. The man had claimed his name was Poncho, but she felt he was lying to protect his identity. So, she decided to make up a name for him. She dubbed him Jolly Poncho, or Jolly for short. She thought it was clever because jolliness was indeed Poncho’s defining trait: he was always smiling, he was always happy to see them, and he had a jolly buddha body. Setareh knew more Spanish than Easton and always enjoyed talking to him.

“He’s like our Santa Claus. Jolly Poncho! Bringing the presents!”

Easton laughed and continued to follow Jolly’s SUV until it pulled up to a curb in front of a neighborhood house. Setti grabbed the wadded-up bills from the middle console and jumped out, accidently slamming Easton’s car door. She skipped up to the front passenger side of the SUV and got in. Easton finally retrieved the ashy remainder of the cigarette from the floor and inhaled its last spark of life.

Again, the SUV meandered forward, and Easton followed behind. They turned down a few more streets until Jolly stopped in another seemingly empty neighborhood. The mid-day summer sun was the perfect cover as it confined most of Albuquerque’s population to humid, swamp-cooled living rooms.

The transaction was made, and Setti jumped out, a large smile gracing her face. She climbed back into Easton’s car. She displayed two water balloons that had been tied and stuffed with two marble sized objects.

“He gave us two Gs.”

Easton waved to Jolly. Jolly smiled before he sped off in an opposite direction. 

“Let’s do a mother fucking shot,” Setti exclaimed.

“Yes, lets,” Easton sighed with relief, “I’m just going to go over to Comanche. I know a good place we can fix.”

“Okay, just don’t take too long. You always take forever to find a place.”

“I already know where it is, calm yourself.”

Setti slumped back into her seat and reclined. “So, hey! When I was in their car, I told Jolly, Thank God for this, but then he shook his head and got all serious. He said, No Senorita, thank El Chapo.”

“Ha! El Chapo? Isn’t he that drug lord?”

“Yeah. I suppose this is his cartel.”

“I’ve always wondered…”

“Yeah, you don’t want to fuck with these guys, they’ll kill you. Like what’s his name, he talked to the cops and then later he was found decapitated.”

“Yeah…” Easton trailed off before enthusiastically adding, “but I can’t deny they have great service.”

“I know, I love them.”

The two laughed as they thought about this. They had learned laughter was better than the alternative.

.

Setareh turned on the radio. An overplayed pop anthem blared through the speakers. It was a song by Miley Cyrus called See You Again.

Easton felt the song was cheesy and reached to change it. They usually alternated between his underground punk tapes and Setareh’s various Lou Reed and Elliot Smith CDs. Setti’s hand grabbed his and said, “Wait!” Her fingers tenderly curled around his, she squeezed once and let go. “Let’s just listen,” she said.

The words, I feel like I must have known you in another life felt prophetic. The two intimately stared into each other’s eyes before Easton looked back at the road and swerved to avoid hitting a car.

This caused Setti to laugh. “I love you so much baby.”

Easton laughed too, smiling back at her. Then he began to shiver and sway to the music. “Damn, it sounds so good when you’re sick. I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I’m actually enjoying this song.”

“See, I told you we shouldn’t change it… Except it’s making me all emotional. Le had this as her ring tone, do you remember?”

Easton nodded.

 “It reminds me of all the good times we had at her house with Krista, Braeden and everyone else. Before the junk, back when Le and I were friends.” Setti paused and then melancholically added, “I miss the old her.”

“Me too,” he mused. “but mostly, I miss the old us… Those times were special, it felt like anything could happen. We were so in love, we had friends, families. It wasn’t just us against the world, like it is now…” Easton readjusted his seat and involuntarily twitched a few times; his hands tightly gripped the sweat-soaked steering wheel. “This is intense, it’s like when you hear a song and your hair stands on end, except I’m feeling that sensation everywhere.”

 “As much as I hate being sick, I sometimes like being sick. Everything is so magnified.” She then turned up the dial and began singing along, “My best friend Leslie says, Oh she’s just being Miley.

Easton sang too, except he said, “Oh, she’s just being SETTI.”

She looked over at him and smiled. Tears were forming in the corner of her dark almond eyes. Seeing this, Easton began crying. He shook and balled while still choking out the lyrics to the song. Setti glanced at him again, this time with concern.

“It’s not because…” He wiped his large blue eyes, half laughing, half crying with tears continuing to flow. “I’m not sad, I’m okay. it’s just, it’s just… So beautiful.”

She had never seen him cry before. She looked out the window to gain composure, the blue sky seemed mammoth and the heat felt like a thick blanket wrapping the world tightly in its embrace. The huge purple mountains appeared ancient and wise. She could feel them watching her, not in judgement but in acceptance of all that she was. And the music, oh the music. It was like wind that fluttered her emotional butterflies up, up, upward to her eyes. Easton placed his hand on her shoulder, and she realized that she too was crying.   

They continued down the road; in this unique moment they felt a reprieve from the war that had become their lives. They laughed at the absurdity of the moment, two hardcore junkies crying to Miley Cyrus. For the first time in a long time they felt happy.

 Yet, they instinctively knew, like all good things, this moment was only temporary. A realization that brought more tears and a fresh gash of sorrow.

“I never knew life could be this hard. I wish we could… I wish we could quit and go back to how we used to be” Easton babbled out. “It’s like I just woke up one day and everyone I knew was addicted to heroin.”

“Yeah,” she wiped her eyes. “It happened so fast. Everything…” Her voice shook. “And everything was gone. I miss my family. I wish I still had a family. Besides you I’m so alone.”

Their feelings continued to overflow and spill from every emotional nook and cranny. Joy and sorrow released themselves in poignant bursts of tears and shivers. They remembered the good times they’d left behind. They remembered friendships past. They remembered the friends that had died. They remembered who they used to be. Maybe one day they would see their happy selves again. 

Setti suddenly felt empathetic towards Le. Yes, she had fucked them over. But they had done fucked up things to her too. They had done fucked up things to everyone they knew. Even their parents, who weren’t bad people —they just didn’t understand.

Their tears seemed to purify the monsters inside.

They smiled at each other, clasped their clammy palms together, and tried to hold the moment a little longer. The line, I can’t wait to see you again, took on new meaning. Miley had intended it to refer to her crush, but for the couple it was an ode to the transient moments in life.

Easton asked, “Is it possible to feel nostalgic for a moment that hasn’t yet passed?”

Setti didn’t answer but gripped his hand tighter attempting to hold onto the feeling.

“We can be in love again.”

 “We don’t have to use.”

“Life can be fun again.”

Despite their words, there was another force at work. Easton was driving, but something else was driving him. Something base, something reptilian was in control. It steered the wheel and guided them into a quiet neighborhood. As a passenger in his body, he parked the car by a wall between two houses.

She looked over and said, “I don’t want this to end. I think we could do it. We could be sober together.” Yet even as her lips uttered these words, her hands were pulling out the spoon, syringes and balloon.

“I think…” She tore open the balloon with her teeth

“everything…” She placed a black rock into the spoon

“is going to…” She cooked the liquid and drew it up.

“turn out…” She slid a syringe into her arm and pulled back to reveal a crimson steam.    

“beautifully…”

 Eric Knowlson
Eric Knowlson

Eric Knowlson is a writer and poet hailing from Albuquerque, NM. He is fascinated by the fleeting moments of beauty that sometimes only last seconds, but shape lives forever. He attempts to capture these transient moments in his writing. His work has appeared in The Leonardo, and Coffin Bell Journal. He can be reached at Etknowlson@gmail.com

A Short Story by Joe Phipps

Today I ran errands. I usually run the errands and my wife usually does the chores, except for cooking. She doesn’t run errands because she believes that, if one commutes to work like she does, it is bad luck to stray from one’s established route for any reason. She does not cook because she never learned how. She never learned how because she claims to be afraid of certain vegetables. I find this hard to believe but, in our five years of marriage, she has maintained her position on the matter even though she is fine with eating most of the feared vegetables when they are undetectably added to her meals.

However, the one vegetable to never enter the house: onions.

Once I asked, “What is so much more horrid about onions than any other vegetable that you are afraid of?”

My wife responded, “There is nothing so much more horrid about onions than carrots or beets or any other vegetable.”

“Then why are you so much more afraid of them that they cannot even come into the house. You are fine with other vegetables if I disguise their presence well enough?”

“It is not accurate to say that I am afraid of onions. Onions are like wolves. I find that most people do not have an accurate understanding of wolves. And, while most people are not afraid of wolves, and really why should they be, these same people would not willingly let a wolf into their home,” she said.

“I think that a pet wolf would be nice to have in the house. If we let it come and go when it wanted it could keep me company while you work, and keep deer out of the yard at night,” I said.

“If I cannot have a cat you cannot have a wolf either.”

“I’m allergic to cats, but okay. No onions.”

That was on Monday, and on Sunday I did the errands. I went to the grocery store, bought my usual assortment of food, and picked up a large bag of birdseed for the neighbor’s chickens. I told him that I thought he wasn’t feeding them enough because they look far too skinny. He told me to stop bothering him about his own birds.

I said, “I am not trying to preach anything to you about how to take care of birds that aren’t my pets. It’s not like they are your pet either, and I guess you can raise your food however you like, but in my opinion your rooster looks more like a parrot than a chicken given how skinny it looks.”

This was an exaggeration that made him very upset with me and he told me that if I cared so much about the birds I could go out and buy food to feed them myself, which I decided to do so I could watch him pop a blood vessel when I walk into his yard.

After that I went to city hall to pay our water bill. Outside were a couple of kids playing baseball. One girl hit the ball so hard that it went flying over a fence separating the field they were playing in from an apartment complex. It wasn’t really that far, but the kids had looks on their faces like she had hit that ball hard enough to create a sonic boom, and the ball had burnt up trying to leave the atmosphere. To them it was enough to pack up and go home for the day. The score up to that point had been forgotten, and in a team sport that one girl was recognized as the singular winner.

The sun was in the middle of the sky and all that was left to do errand-wise was to stop by my friend Georgie’s house to return his toolkit. I needed it to fix one of the doors after I accidentally bust it down moving in a new bed frame. My wife was concerned about the cold air killing us and demanded that I fix it that day despite loaning my tools to her brother to fix a window in his kitchen. He did not have his tools because he had loaned them to a friend who’d loaned someone his tools, and so on to the point that I am beginning to think that no one owns tools. Instead they just exist in a constant state of being used by someone who didn’t buy them.

When I got to Georgie’s he was already outside stripping the metal off a broken-down truck that had sat in his driveway for years. He was shirtless and covered in sweat. His entire upper body was pink from a fresh sunburn, and his black hair was greasy. When I pulled into the driveway, he ran over to my car and said, “I was hoping you’d stop by soon. I want to talk to you about this plan I got. I know a way that we can both get set up real nice once I get my hands on some bees.”

I responded, “I’m not exactly sure what you are trying to get at.”

“There is no way that this can go wrong man. I know that you don’t really know nothing about bees, but you got to trust me that this can really be something worth the money, and I want you to be a part of it.”

“How exactly is this supposed to work?” I asked.

Georgie said, “Its real simple man. All I gotta do is go and buy some bees and build them little bee homes for cheap, and then they start making honey like it is no one’s business, and there are plenty of suckers out there that’ll pay big bucks for honey if you tell them it is straight out of the bees’ ass and you treated the little buzzers nice. And I do intend to treat them nice. I’m going to make them little houses out of bean cans, and that is where you come in, because I went ahead and did the math on all of this and for the number of bees that I intend to buy the most cost effective way to build the houses is to use old bean cans. So, while I am out taking care of the bees, I need you to start eating beans up a storm so I can keep making them houses. And make sure that you actually eat them and not just throw them out because food waste is a real problem man.”

“How many cans of beans are we talking, Georgie?”

He said, “I don’t know. Couple a day at the start, but you should be able to slow down eventually.”

“Okay,” I said. “I got to go then. Here are your tools back. I lost a screwdriver somehow under my house. It rolled under while I was working, and I’m not going onto that snake-pit to get it. If you want to get yourself bitten you can go down there and look for it, but I don’t do snakes.”

I parted ways with Georgie and drove off back to the store to stock up on beans.

Back at the store I thought about what I was going to cook for dinner and decided that it was going to be something with onions in it to prove a point.

When I got home first, I fed the neighbor’s chickens, and then I made me and my wife two separate meals. I made her a meatloaf where I diced the onion up so small, and put so little in it that there was no way for her to notice I had slipped them in. At the dinner table I served it to her while I ate beans directly out of the can to avoid dirtying more dishes. When she asked me why I was eating something different than her I told her I was doing a favor for Georgie.

“You shouldn’t just accept everything he says like it’s always right,” she said.

“But he’s usually right. He was right about the weather. He was right about what times are best to go to the grocery store, and he was right about what horse we should have bet on at the fair. If we’d listened to him, we could spend all day wasting time like he does ripping apart machinery and partying.”

“Those are things you want to spend all day doing. Most days I want to drive to work and back. I don’t really like the job, but I like going to and from it. There are several stores on the way there that I always look through the windows of as I pass to see the decorations the owners have put up. And there is a hayfield that I think about how it might be nice to disappear into. In the summer an old farmer goes through it and bails it all up. Sometimes he smiles at me like he recognizes me,” she said.

“Those things do sound pretty nice,” I said.

“Did you put something different in the meatloaf?”

“I did.”

“I don’t like it. What is it?” she asked.

“Chives. My mother said to put them in.”

“Lair,” she said before taking a loud drink of water.

“Onions,” I said.

She took another bite and chewed it slowly. “I understand,” she said.

“I can make you another one if you want,” I offered.

“No, this one is fine,” she said as she continued eating, “but we are going to have to talk about things when I get done.”

“Things like divorce?” I asked.

“Yes, and other things like, is there any alcohol in the house?”

“We still have the bottle of wine we bought for your birthday that we never opened.”

“Good. I feel like opening it tonight.”

“That seems like a good idea. Do you plan on running away with that elderly farmer?”

“I might. If I do be prepared to get dressed up nice for the wedding, because I am going to need a maid of honor. We’ll probably get married in the fall, in the middle of his hayfield where we first met. That to me seems appropriately romantic for a second marriage. You can even bring Georgie if you want, as long as you promise that he will clean himself up. Do you think that the farmer is allergic to cats too? How unlucky would it be for me to find myself smitten by two men in a row allergic to cats? It would make me think that love and cats are completely incompatible,” she said.

“I’m not sure that smitten is the right word for it. Smitten implies something divine or forceful, and I don’t really remember it happening like that. I just remember I was here, and you were here too, and it just made sense to us to be here together. That just doesn’t feel like anyone was smitten,” I said.

“I suppose you are right, but even if I wasn’t smitten, I still think love’s an accurate word for it,” she said.

“I agree, and maybe you actually will be smitten with love by your farmer. Assuming he is not allergic to cats, what do you think you will name it?” I said.

“I am thinking of something like Turkey. I like it when animals are named for animals they are not. I think it confuses people in a good way,” she said.

“That sounds like a great name for a cat.” I said.

“And once Georgie goes and makes you rich enough to do whatever you want, what will you name your wolf?” she said.

“I think I like the name Lawrence,” I said as I began collecting her empty plate.

“Lawrence is a good name for a wolf,” she said.

Joe Phipps is a writer from Logan County, West Virginia, an MFA Candidate at Syracuse University, and a lover of comic books.

A Short Story by Brian Fountain

I reclined deep into my chair until it threatened to topple, head tilted back, frowning at the fluorescent lights. The kind that makes your skin look jaundiced and your eyes look sunken and bruised, humming softly in the background, casting everything in a sterile radiance. Every office I’ve worked in has used those lights. Every hospital I’ve ever visited, too. I can’t make the walk to my cubicle without remembering my great-aunt hooked up to those nauseating tubes, edema draining from her soggy midriff. There was a deep pain in the space between my neck and my left shoulder. My ass was pressed firmly against the paltry cushioning of the seat. My feet were falling asleep.

I rolled my shoulders and stood and stretched the ache out of my stiffened body. It was late in the afternoon and a stack of folders still needed work, but I fumbled with the words and the numbers. I reached for my messenger bag and held the straps and the buckles so they didn’t make any noise. Sometimes a small group would be gathered around the espresso machine, and then I would have to pretend that I was just stretching my legs and slink back to my desk. Today it was quiet and my decampment went unobserved. In the past eighteen months, spurred on by boredom and burnout, I had become increasingly adept at slipping out through the side doors without anyone noticing. I turned right toward the road before drifting rightward again onto the trail that ran parallel along the highway, down to the train station and then far beyond that.

It was still warm, but when I passed under shadows I could feel the coming autumn against my skin. When I was younger I could smell it, the leaves changing, getting ready to drop, the soil and the rain all different somehow. I can’t smell it anymore, but I can still feel it if I pay attention. Bumblebees were frantically collecting nectar and pollen from the few remaining thistles of the season, and I stood watching them for a moment. Their fat bodies, plump and greedy, hung loose while their wings pumped fast against gravity and their own gluttony. I hopped out of the way of a cyclist as they shot passed, then turned and continued down the trail.

I began walking the two miles to the train station because I realized that, as I gained seniority at the office, I spent progressively more time sitting in front of a computer pretending to work. I recalled my father inflating as his title went from senior engineer to general manager to vice president of operations, each promotion accompanied by a dramatic escalation in corpulence. He enjoyed wiggling his stout finger in my face when I had done something to upset him. I thought of him scolding me when I signed him over to the cheapest nursing home I could find. He could hardly remember who he was then, a year or two before he died. When I talked to him, I could tell he didn’t recognize me. I could tell he didn’t remember his own cruelty, and I wondered if it was fair to institutionalize him.

He would laugh like a child, giggle rapturously at cartoons a nurse put on the television for him. He gurgled with delight when I introduced him to my fiancée, and teared up when later I had to tell him it hadn’t worked out. He couldn’t remember her name, but his silvery eyes welled up, shimmering puddles of emotion, when I told him she had called it off. The man I knew from childhood would not have cried in front of me, and when I saw him contorted with sadness, it wasn’t concern or anger or desperation to not be responsible for the care of an ailing patient that motivated me to turn him over to the professionals, but a panic and an embarrassment I never fully understood. He used to tell me everyone got what they deserved out of life. Three months ago I was named quality control supervisor of my firm. I had put on twenty pounds since then.

The path spilled out onto a small platform which wrapped around to two train tracks. This was the end of the line, and both trains were settled there, one departing in five minutes, the other in twenty. Each going in the same direction. I sat and took a swig from the water bottle I had in my bag, then put it away and leaned back and waited.

The menagerie that streamed onto public transport always roused my contempt. Men with calloused hands and stained fingernails took seats opposite twenty-year-old women with five-year-old children. I recognized one passenger, who looked to be just beyond middle-aged, by the enormous mole that sprouted out halfway up his nose on the right side, interrupting the crevice it formed in his withered cheek. When he turned his head I saw the deep creases in the back of his neck like geological formations, canyons etched into his skin after years of erosion. I had seen him on the train a few times before. The two seats to my right were empty.

Two girls, one drunk and the other tending to her, sat in the back. They couldn’t have been older than twelve or thirteen. The drunk one spat on the floor of the train a few times and held her bangs back and I was worried she was going to be sick, but then they both got off and sat on a bench near the platform, the sober one gently rubbing the drunk one’s back. From them my gaze settled on a man scouring the garbage for any scraps of food. He found and promptly swilled the last few drops of a discarded soda can and I turned away, grimacing. Just as the doors were about to close, a woman reeking of urine launched herself on board and nestled into the seats opposite me.

I could see the sun setting in the windows above her, and I looked at the feverish clouds and the mountains turning black beneath them, and then at the city buildings, their windows just starting to scintillate in the coming darkness. The train lurched and when the city was hidden from view I looked down at her. At first she was turned toward me, hand over her eyes, mouth slightly ajar. She was relatively young, not much older than I was. Her teeth were gray and worn to rows of crumbling tombstones. Her entire arm was marred with wounds. I winced as I regarded the tender landscape of pale skin, pocked with bruises and scabs.

She muttered obscenities. She rolled on the uncomfortable seats, her lithic voice a litany of fucks and shits and damn-it-all-to-hells. I absurdly pretended to not hear what she was saying, but I kept looking back at her. I kept looking at her scars. Briefly, I saw some parallel grooves of striae running along a slash of exposed stomach before she pulled her shirt back down, and I imagined her abdomen swollen with life. I swallowed hard and shifted my weight uncomfortably in my seat and tried to think of something else.

Four or five stops later the train was coming to another station, and, unsteady, she stood. One hand held up ill fitting trousers and one hand rubbed sleepiness out of her eye. She paused for a moment, waiting for the train to come to a complete halt, and limped for the door.

Fuck you bastards,” she muttered as she passed, the faint odor of soiled clothes wafting behind her like a putrid ghost. I looked for her out the window until she disappeared into obscurity, and then settled back into my seat. The sun had fallen behind the mountains and it was dark in the valley.

A while later, after a pass through a stretch of craggy hills sheathed in conifers and browning fields of grass, the train came to a shuddering halt and I made my exit. I meandered, nudging stones and watching pedestrians out of the corner of my eye until the bus finally turned the corner. I boarded, nodding curtly to the driver, and passed by a young man with his arm draped around a stroller. I walked to the back and sat down in the corner, one leg crossed over the other. I looked out the window.

Here the city was all pavement and kitschy posters and power lines and gray. Like some gruesome metastasis, its tendrils reached outward and disintegrated into shops with metal bars protecting their windows and streets that ended abruptly in dead ends and obese toddlers crying at their mothers on sidewalk corners and grizzled, unshaven faces with cigarettes hanging loosely out of frowning mouths. Police officers were gathered around a man laying on the ground, no shirt on, shielding his face from the sun. The bus stopped and the father got off, pushing the stroller along.

Gray gave way to green as we turned into a small neighborhood spiralling around a gradual slope. I had read that this squat mountain was still volcanic, that eventually it would unleash chaos in the form of steam and molten rock, belched up from some depth I had trouble imagining, that magma would gurgle up like acid reflux. In my dreams, if I chased my Zoloft with some bourbon, I saw toxic plumes and singed earth and hot hazy rage devouring these nice homes and the nice people that lived inside. Nobody here seemed concerned, though, in their houses with wrap around porches and their golden retrievers and string lights and little children bouncing their way home from school. The bus stopped by a café I frequented. A man got on, phone nestled between his right ear and his shoulder, asking about a refund.

A woman hobbled onto the bus and sat in the handicap seats. She exhaled strongly and wrapped her arms around herself. She wore a scarf that reminded me of something my grandmother used to wear. We neared the neighborhood where I lived. The trattoria I went to for lunch on Saturdays was busy. On one of the quieter roads, shaded by an overgrowth of leaning trees, a haphazard village of tents dotted the sidewalk. I frowned at them as we rolled passed. I couldn’t tell if there were more than there had been this morning.

I signalled for the bus to stop. We veered to the curb next to a dog park. I exited and turned, crossing the road in a hurry to avoid missing the walk signal, toward my apartment complex. It’s a nice apartment complex, perhaps slightly too expensive. It sits on top of a grocery store that has a wide variety of cheeses and Belgian ales. There was once a different building here. When they tore it down some of the locals protested, but that was long before I moved to the city and I never learned more about it.

A frail looking man with short gray hair stood outside the grocery store. He had a cardboard sign that I didn’t read. I knew what he wanted so I avoided looking at him.

“Any help?”

I ignored him. I walked on.

Brian Fountain is a scientist and writer who divides his time between New England and the Pacific Northwest. His work has been published in The Rival and Biology Letters. He is in the final stages of editing his first novel, and manufactures immunoassays to support his literary activities. He lives with a deeply ambivalent rabbit and is an expert on the biology of the pea aphid.

A Short Story by Susan Hatters Friedman

Once upon a time, many years ago, long before Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby or even Matt Lauer were born, there was a girl named Beauty.

Beauty was born into a family of great riches, the youngest and favorite daughter in a family where the growing girls should each be prepared for an arranged marriage. Her father was a merchant who had amassed his fortune from spice trading.

Disastrously for our young heroine, Beauty’s father’s merchant ship was captured by dreaded pirates, which caused the family to tumble into some version of poverty. Times became rough. They had to let their butler, chef, scullery maids, kitchen boys, housekeepers, ladies’ maids, footmen, valets, and even their shoe-shiners go. Unable to keep up on the mortgage for their castle, the family of five eventually had to move into an 8-bedroom, 4 ½ bath, a few blocks away from the coast. In fact, you could only see the sea with an obstructed view, which is how they got it for such a steal.

The fact that the new place was only a 4 ½ bath despite there being five in the family caused deep consternation for Beauty, who as the youngest was relegated to the ½ bath and had to wait until one of her two sisters was done showering. Lounging in her princess-pink bedroom on long mornings when she waited to bathe, Beauty dreamed of the world outside her now-impoverished neighbourhood. There could be no arranged marriage if she had no dowry. Which might free her up to become a horticulturist, or a juggler, or a doctor, or even a merchant and sailor like her beloved daddy. No one the wiser, she had taught herself to read from her father’s books when he was away losing the family fortune.

One afternoon, still drunk on mead after a night of carousing, Beauty’s disgraced merchant father stumbled upon a castle which appeared to be deserted. He strolled the grounds, lost in thought about how he would move his family to this castle without anyone realising that they didn’t belong there. Maybe they could even re-hire their servants. He laughed and did a little dance. The castle had a rose garden as far as the eye could see, some pink, some white, some yellow, and some red. Our merchant plucked a single perfect blood-red rose from the largest rose bush to bring home to his favorite daughter, his Beauty. He would present it to her with the news of his amazing luck in finding this new place for the family.   

Turning to leave, visions of his future improvements to this grand palace in his head, our former merchant was startled by the foulest beast he had ever seen. The half-lion half-bear held him cowering against the castle wall. Suddenly it spoke.

‘You have excellent taste in roses. But in my kingdom, capital punishment is the law for blood-red rose thieves.’

Our merchant begged for forgiveness.

When none was forthcoming, the merchant decided to strike a deal. He promised that if he was set free, then his most beautiful daughter would be brought to the palace, to be the fiancée of the beast. He smirked as he recognized that this would also get him out of not having a dowry.  

The beast, with his serpent tongue, informed our merchant, that if he reneged on their deal, the beast would stalk and kill every single member of the merchant’s family. He promised to do this in the middle of the night, since he was half-lion.

Then our merchant ran all the way to the carriage station with his blood-red rose. When he got home to their McMansion and sobered up, he told his beloved daughter of the wonderful palace she would be living in, with more colors of rose than she had ever seen, with her own bathrooms, and much larger than any cages at the zoo. He told her that her fiancé was quite a sight to see, if not easy on the eyes.

Beauty did what her daddy said, against her own better judgment, and moved in with the lion-bear who talked with a snake tongue.

Day after day, our Beauty grew closer to the lion-bear, who was charming in conversation, thoughtful and sweet. He regaled her with tales of his parents who, curiously, he said were a human king and queen. But she yearned for her own life, free of this lion-bear who pressured her for sex every night. Every morning he was sorry and said that it would never happen again. He would cut her a blood rose every day, and put it on the table for her to eat with her breakfast of his fresh kills from the day before. But then, each night he ravaged her again. 

Beauty started keeping a chart. It said Day time: Kind and with my favorite roses; Night time: Raped by lion-bear.

Some mornings it hurt to walk, but she loved strolling the palace grounds, and reading the titles on the floor-to-palace ceiling bookcases. She eventually found a volume about sex-trafficking and another about partner violence, and realized she had a lot in common with the victims.

One morning, Beauty finally decided that she needed to escape. She pulled together her brush for her beautiful blonde hair, her emerald necklace (a gift from her fiancé that was the color of her eyes), and her glass slippers. And she made a run for it later that day when her lion-bear-beau was out hunting for their dinner. She picked one last elegant blood-red rose and placed it behind her ear. She had only gotten a half-mile toward the carriage station when she realized she had forgotten to take any gold to pay for the ride back to the city. She didn’t want to escape only to end up raped by some carriage driver because she didn’t have enough gold for the trip.

Upon returning to the palace to grab some of the gold, she found her lion-bear lying nearly dead beside the fountain. He sensed her presence, however, and in between his shallow breaths, uttered ‘do you know I can’t live without you?’

Beauty recognized that is also what abusers always say, from the books she had read.

So she left.

Her love didn’t break the spell, and the lion-bear didn’t turn back into a prince by making a human woman fall in love with him, because it turns out that you can’t make someone love you by threatening to kill their family if they don’t become your mistress/ sex-slave. 

After Beauty escaped, during her long walks by the sea, she realized she might have some daddy issues. But moreover, she realized she had experienced some complex trauma.

Beauty decided to become a sailor like she had dreamed. She sailed all across the European empire. When she sailed to Sweden, she heard about Stockholm Syndrome, and that sounded really familiar too.

Beauty decided that the smartest thing was for her to see a psychiatrist. To talk about being sex-traded to a half-lion half-bear in exchange for her father stealing a rose. Whether or not he was really a human prince under a spell. Among other things.

Her psychiatrist was quite understanding since he too had been to Stockholm, when he was in the imperial navy.

Her psychiatrist made her feel listened to. He was dashingly handsome.

But she did not fall in love with her psychiatrist.

In fact, this story is not about how only a man’s love can fulfil a beauty’s life. It is a story about empowerment, and not sex-trading daughters.  

But her father didn’t go to prison for sex-trafficking his daughter. The kingdom wasn’t that magical.

Susan Hatters Friedman is a psychiatrist specializing in maternal mental health and forensic psychiatry. She is pursuing a Master’s in Crime Fiction at the University of Cambridge, and has studied satire writing with The Second City. Her recent creative writing can be read in The Centifictionist and the Love in the Time of Covid Chronicle. She has always loved fairy tales, but found them difficult to read to her children. 

A Short Story by Kira Rosemarie

Why would you tell me that?

Why would you tell me that? She repeated. I sat in a stammerless silence, lips folded together like they could suck back what I said. I put my hand on hers but she pulled it away, resting it awkwardly on the fold between her lap and her belly. Her wrist strained uncomfortably but she couldn’t move.

I’m sorry, I said. But it shouldn’t be too surprising. I had tried to say it gently but her flushing cheeks gave the impression I had slapped her. It was a moment that should have made everything still. The coffee cups clinked on their small-dish cousins, the other cafe patrons giggled, whispered, and hummed as they read their papers. Outside, trucks and cars sloshed by through the graying leftovers of the weekend’s icy Chicago snow. Nothing slowed for us.

It’s just… I tried to continue.

Don’t. Just don’t, she said. She tucked a phantom strand of hair behind her ear out of habit and smoothed her red waves in front of her shoulder, running them between both hands as if she could straighten her hair that way. I twisted a stray curl around my finger, then tucked it back into my topknot. Leaning forward with my elbows on the small, circular table, I brought my hands together and pressed them to my lips. I closed my eyes and pushed a long breath through my nostrils and onto the backs of my thumbs.

When all the breath was out, I started counting. One, two,

Excuse me, could I reach by you real quick? A woman asked. Our table was in front of the bookshelf that spanned the left wall of the cafe.

Hm? Oh, yes, yeah, sorry, no problem, go ahead, she said. The woman shot a prim smile at her and reached over our cups and pastries to take a slim volume of poetry from the shelf. She had used her finger to wiggle the top of the book backward at an angle before grabbing the edge and yanking – the exact technique that, had I still been in library school, I would have been mercilessly called out for in front of my peers. It damages the spine and binding of any book, even one as small as that.

I eyed our interrupter with mild annoyance. I hadn’t been the one to move for her reach, only the one to curl my lip at the way the woman grabbed the book. But I wondered what that stranger had seen. Two young women having a nice conversation? Two young women in the middle of an argument? Two sisters, two friends, two lovers?

I looked back across the table at her, but she was looking at the shelf now. The twin of the book the woman had taken remained on the shelf. Her face was less red now. Maybe she was in the acceptance stage.

She scanned the couple of rows of books at eye level, then put her finger on the top of the lonely twin’s spine, pulled it toward her at an angle, and yanked it off the shelf. It wasn’t even a necessary abuse to the binding. Since the other book had been removed, there was no tension left to necessitate the new scuff on the bottom edge of the spine, or the soft poke to the glue holding the pages together, like a manicurist pushing back the cuticle.

She knew it wasn’t necessary, she knew I’d seen, and she knew I knew that she knew exactly what she was doing.

I remembered the time in my apartment when I had just moved in and she came over to celebrate. She looked at the one, tall bookshelf that almost touched the ceiling with what I would have thought was mock awe if I hadn’t known her like I did. But I knew she was indeed impressed.

So pretty, she said. And you found this shelf on the street?

Yep! I replied. I couldn’t believe someone was ready to throw it out. She traced the crude carvings on the side. It did kind of look like someone’s failed carpentry project, but I didn’t mind. That’s just the way I like things to come to me – as projects.

Is this a new book? She said. Then it happened in slow motion: the finger on the top of the spine, the rough angular pull, the tug away from the shelf.

Don’t! I said.

What? She said, looking up at me from where she had squatted before the shelf with an expression like a homeless person had just screamed something incoherent to her on the street.

No, I mean, yes, it’s new, but, yeah, I would…I’d like to keep it that way, and if you take it off the shelf like that, it can really mess up the binding in the long run. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you, it’s a habit from school.

I thought you focused on rare books, not new ones. Wouldn’t the new spines be less fragile? Like, don’t they have better glue or something now than they did in the seventeenth century?

Yes, it was rare books, I said.

But every book is rare to you, she said, smiling. That was the thing I liked about being around her. When other people may make a joke of some old librarian hag like me, she understood, at least as much as she could. Or, no. It was less an understanding of the value of the books, and more an understanding of the value they had to me. With an understanding of the value of books, she may not have pulled the volume of poetry off the shelf like that, right in front of my face, right in public where she knew I was less likely to react.

And she was right. I did nothing, at least nothing she could see. My elbows hurt from how harshly they were digging into the tabletop. She leafed through the book and tried to seem unaffected. Did she even like poetry? It was hard to remember. I let some of the tension release from my jaw in another long exhale.

Hey.

Hey, she repeated. I opened my eyes, a little unsettled. How long had they been closed?

I’m going to go now, okay? She said. Her pupils were swimming in the dim light of the cafe and the soft refraction of fresh tears. Her bottom lip trembled.

Are, um…are you sure? I can walk with you, I said. She nodded and looked down.

Yes, It’s fine.

Um, I can –

No, I already paid. It’s fine, okay? We’ll talk later.

Oh, I said. Okay. She wrapped her scarf back around her neck and avoided looking at me while she took her coat off the back of the twisted wire chair and cocooned herself back into the parka. She fished inside the wide pockets until she found her slim, velvet gloves, the ones her father had given to her. After she put them on, she paused with the tips of her fingers together, like a little pangolin taking a break from looking for its next meal. She looked back up at me. Then back at her fingers. Again, her lower lip trembled, but no tears fell below her lashes. She gave me a quick wave, then turned on the heel of her boot, pulled the faux-fur trimmed hood around her head, and left, her small messenger bag bouncing on her hip as she walked away down the street.

I watched her until I could no longer see her through the window without straining my neck. I looked down at the table. Two half-eaten croissants and barely-sipped cappuccinos. A sigh, a sip, and a bite later, I decided to pick up the book of poetry she had left next to her plate.

I picked it up carefully. Part of me – actually, most of me – wanted it to be something symbolic. Something somehow celestially ordained to be here, just for this moment, just to connect her to me, whether it was the last time or not. I read the title: Limericks to Share with Friends and Kids. The interrupter woman passed in front of me, child in her arm as she headed for the door. Her toddler held the book’s twin and beat it against his chest, singing to himself as she waved goodbye to her friend.

I tossed the book toward the shelf, meaning for it to land lightly on the table. I miscalculated, and the book landed partway in her now-cold coffee cup. The next owner would just have to accept this piece of sticky, accidental marginalia. I tucked the now-coffee-stained limericks back into the bookshelf, where the pages curled as it leaned sideways where its partner should be.

Kira Rosemarie is a writer and artist from Kentucky currently living in South Florida. She writes short fiction and poetry and was last published on Sad Girls Club Literary Blog.

A Short Story by Scott Denis McCarthy

Many evenings along the side-road you could hear the crying coming from their back window. In a short time, someone would lift the latch to shut it. The crying was always there, but once the window was shut the noise was adequately obstructed. It was then no longer offensive. It was there but not upsetting in any true sense.

Years before this there was only one real estate business shared between six towns along the immediate coastline within a small strip of businesses by the water, midway between both extreme ends of the settled land. It was only the birthing of community then and so much of the developed land was ugly and the days quite lazy or bloated.

But the estate shop-front was very neat and seemingly hospitable, with clean white paint that did not peel in the winter as the surrounding architecture did. Normally the summer is a bad time for these places. When the weather is too hot or only pleasant or both, people are more content with what they have. We agree that it is easy to live as we are when the days are nice. Many estate agents say instead that summer is the best of times for buying and selling houses. But the old joke states that all the time is the best of times for buying and selling houses if you take estate agents literally.

Along the business strip, two sunburnt men were sitting on wicker chairs on an old balcony, playing cards and smoking. The easterly wind blew the dust from the road and made the air dry and the café tables chalky. The day was quiet but for the intermittent passing of big cars along the road sooting the air with noise and the shop-fronts in fine, hot dust. A young woman was sitting in the shade by the footpath, reading. Her husband was inside, sitting in the estate agency. It was hot, like the world was alight.

The agent was an Italian man, paunch and with small, hairy hands. He applauded the young man’s decision-making and intelligence with great vigour.

‘The place is very fine, sir. It is a very fine property altogether. And the Mrs. – your lady – will like it very well.’

‘We’re happy,’ said the young man.

‘I’m glad for that.’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘We’re happy and we’re secure. We’re all right. The four bedrooms and the little garden are all that we saw and that’s enough.’

‘You have great confidence.’

‘We’re not snobs, you see. We have the money saved but we have very few boxes to tick and are not snobs at all.’

Che palle, you are not snobs. I did not mean that you were,’ the agent said.

‘I said it only as a joke. Only playing.’

The Italian laughed, ‘Always my clients are so clever. Every time I am the stupid one, see? And you knew that the summer is the best time for houses.’

‘I knew that we needed a house with four bedrooms.’

‘Ah,’ he said. ‘You are planning, yes?’

‘It will be a good home for a family,’ said the young man, pointing outside the window to his wife sitting under the shade of the awning.

Then the agent was looking at the man’s wife.

‘The bump is very discreet,’ he said, smiling. ‘But it is surely there. You are lucky like young people should be. Undoubtedly, that is how you are.’

‘No,’ said the young man. ‘Not quite yet.’

Porco dio,’ he said, putting his hairy hand to his head. ‘I am talking improperly again. Every time I am the stupid one, didn’t I say so?’

The man shrugged.

‘I can’t talk,’ said the agent. ‘But you will take this house and be very happy. This is a place where one can be quite secure and happy, you agree with as much.’ He was smiling and his lips bounced with the nodding of his small Italian head.

The young couple moved in nine and one half days later.

The air most of the time by the house that season was stagnant and misty over their tin roof; like an insulating cloud wrapping the walls in old, dead breath. In the early mornings, women pushed babies in prams along the path, before the sun damned the day, and made somewhat of a racket by the bench under the big elm tree outside their front-window, drinking coffee from thermos cups. Some of the time the babies were the offenders, but more often it was the women speaking excitedly; new mothers, still alive to the novelty of it all. But the homeowners did not mind. The young lady was always awake and listening and not upset at all.

‘I hope those babies never grow up.’

‘They won’t,’ her husband said, asleep.

‘Morning time is always so hopeful now,’ she said. ‘Babies have no business growing up.’

‘You’re a romantic girl,’ he said, rolling over to her.

And they were trying themselves then, before the working day and before the heat.

There are certain things that are very difficult to do in summer. People are most repulsive when it is hot and when you must love someone in the heat you can almost melt into one another and it can be a very unpleasant thing. You can only try with sufficient passion to overcome the terrible presence of one another. And they tried sincerely to do it.

But the summer passed and the fall was waiting afterwards. It is a time of great expectations. You can believe that promises, even of a metaphysical sort, will animate and fulfil themselves when all of the elm leaves die and melt in the warm rain, naked and alone on the road. You believe it because the leaves and all the shrubbery come back. All season you are watching it die and knowing it comes back and in spring it happens. You are watching it die in the fall but still it is more hopeful than spring because it is lovelier watching death than the rebirth if the rebirth is an inevitability. You see it and feel quite sentimental. And they did feel very sentimental at times.

But fall passes too and winter murders the hope and then spring’s resurrection and summer again. Always and again the hope in fall. Always their hoping and watching the leaves slush in the gutters. Always the southerly fronts afterwards and the wind all through their brick home and the empty bedrooms; the rain on the tin roof and empty and cold; the hours and the years of hands clasped and trying again and tired and empty, empty, empty. Their youth marred by the actuality of things. The time always going and the shape of loneliness etched into the red brick.


One night coming home drunk; scratching at the lock with the key; old scratches all around the keyhole; the taxi driving away, in the rain. And the living room dusty and the hallway dark and quiet before keys thrown on the table, cupboards open and the bottle opened, cap on the table with the keys.

He poured them both a drink.

‘Cheers,’ she said, laughing.

They were sitting in the living room, her sprawled on the couch, him sinking in the old armchair. Rain was coming, hard, down the windows.

‘They are a lovely people,’ she said.

‘Very.’

‘And the little daughter. Wasn’t she lovely, too? What was her name?’

‘Winnie,’ he said, and drank.

‘It was one of those very rare names,’ she said. ‘Very rare like you don’t hear it very much anymore.’

‘What did I say?’

‘Whatever her name was, she was just –‘

‘She was called Winnie,’ he said. ‘Didn’t I just say she was called that?’

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I was rambling, wasn’t I darling?’

‘It’s not all that rare anyhow,’ he said. ‘Not really.’

‘O.K.,’ she said, staring out the window to the street. ‘It’s not that rare. You’re right, it’s not really rare at all.’

‘But yes, they’re good folk.’

‘Yes!’ she said. ‘And daughter Winnie – isn’t that how they called her? Daughter Winnie?’

‘I don’t know. I was drunk.’

‘Well,’ she went on. ‘She was just so so so lovely. Just like – huh? What’s a lovely thing she’s like?’

‘She’s a swell kid.’

‘Doesn’t this happen all the time? If I try to think of things like that then I can’t think at all,’ she said. ‘Go on, what’s a lovely thing like Winnie? Anything lovely or nice at all. I can’t think –‘

‘Jesus, what the hell,’ he said. ‘Get something to read or another drink. You’re chewing my ear off.’

‘I just can’t think is all.’

‘It looks that way,’ he said. ‘It does look like that.’

‘You’re doing it again.’

‘I’ll get you another drink,’ he said, finishing his own.

‘I’ll have more ice in mine this time.’

He filled her tumbler to the brim with ice, then the rum and some water. All in the house was quiet. The electric light above the kitchen-counter was humming but it was still quiet all around. He took the past day’s papers and the drinks back down with him.

‘This is a lot of ice,’ she said, drinking, starting again. ‘Oh! Remember when the ice in the pail had gone slush at the party and so they sent Winnie for more from their big ice machine and from the dining table we could hear the clinking of the new, hard ice in the pail coming from down the hall? Clink, clink, clink, that’s what it was like. And she being so little, the pail bigger than her head! Don’t you remember that?’

He went on reading.

‘Don’t you remember when the pail –‘

‘I’m reading the papers,’ he said, not looking up. ‘Can’t you see that?’

‘Yesterday’s,’ she said. ‘All of it is old, old, old; boring, boring –‘

‘Get yourself something to read, won’t you?’

‘I don’t read,’ she said. ‘I can’t read anymore. Our books are too sad.’

A quick gust threw the rain on the window like small pebbles on the pane.

‘Oh, but darling,’ she went on, ‘couldn’t we be drunk together and talk all about that fabulous house tonight and their strange paintings and the big long driveway all lined with little-big trees I didn’t know the names of or –‘

‘Look, now –‘

‘— even the brightness! Wasn’t it so bright and warm in their place? Even with the rottenness outside. Very good bulbs, I was told, but I didn’t believe it,’ she said, stopping to breathe. ‘It was a real adult place. That’s what I was thinking when we were drinking champagne in the billiards room. But we drank slowly, like gentlemen, didn’t we? I don’t even know what billiards –‘

‘Look,’ he said. ‘You’re getting all excited. Look at yourself, you’re all worked up and too excited now.’

‘I do it when I can’t think,’ she laughed. “I’ve had too much champagne and I can’t think at all at all.’

‘And I don’t mean to antagonize –‘

‘Never, never, never!’

‘Would you stop?’ he said, looking up at her.

‘Let’s both not read,’ she said. ‘Let’s be drunk, just like we really are.’

‘Christ.’

‘Let’s ask big drunk questions,’ she said. ‘Like: what’s the loneliest you’ve ever been? Maybe not that one, but even still. And if the answer is sad we can kiss and make it all fine for each other. Put the papers down, would you?’

‘Look,’ he said, putting the paper on his lap, picking his tumbler up from the stand. ‘I found a fellow who’ll sell us that cat you talked about.’

‘Oh, you have!’ she said, standing up, drinking her rum, water, and ice.

‘Sure. Didn’t I just say it?’

‘I’m so happy I could laugh and laugh,’ she said. ‘What sort of a cat? Is it like the really clean and grand ones I showed you before? Or the handsome ones I wanted so badly in the store we walked by that day in the fall?’

‘It’s a cat. The guy said it’d be healthy.’

‘Oh, I don’t even care if it’s the dirtiest, most rascal cat in the whole world!’ she said. ‘I’ll give it one of the spare rooms and spoil it with lots and lots of cat luxuries. Those exist, don’t they?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘A whole room for a cat! That will make it a really really really grand, royal cat, even if it is a rascal breed.’

‘Mm-hmmm.’

‘And if it’s a boy I’ll call him Prince and if it’s a girl I’ll call her Queenie to be very monarchical about it. And we’ll have a nice little time in its palace-room during the day-time,’ she said, thinking. ‘Sometimes we’ll lounge around all day and I’ll become very cat-like with her. But when you get home I’ll be me again so I can be close to both of you.’

The wind was still throwing the rain onto the window and the tin roof in big blows. Under the light of the black lampposts out front the night looked like static on a black, dead television screen.

She went on, ‘But what was I talking about before?’

‘I don’t know. Nothing. We were always talking about the cat.’

‘That’s right. It is such a pretty thing to think about,’ she said. ‘All drunk and I say I can’t think but now, look, all I’m thinking of is the cat and the cat-palace; me and royalty and us three at the end of the day.’

‘I have re-read this paragraph three times now.’

‘Sometimes it’s like we really can have the whole world. I was ashamed by the loveliness of that house tonight and all the luxurious people and daughter Winnie being so lovely. I was ashamed only from jealousy, but that’s still a real shame, isn’t it? But if you think about it, we really can have –‘

‘Hell,’ he said. ‘I’m getting another drink before bed.’

‘O.K.,’ she said. ‘Maybe me too, please. I need to be calmed, don’t I?’

‘Sure. And maybe you do.’

‘Less ice this time.’

‘All right.’

‘Really, though,’ she said, finishing her glass.

‘You’re too damned particular about things.’

Scott Denis McCarthy is a young Irish ex-pat living in Victoria, Australia. His favourite writers are Bukowski, Dostoevsky, and Emily Brontë.

A Short Story by Hayden Sidun

I sank into a worn-out leather seat on an airplane en route to San Francisco. Natural light was absent from the airplane as it flew through the dark sky in the early hours of the morning. Almost every passenger had fallen asleep since the flight embarked in Queens, but for me, tonight was no different from the past six caffeine-fueled nights I had spent in my Manhattan hotel room. It was around the third or fourth hour of the flight that the caffeine wore off, and I finally closed my eyes and slipped into a light slumber. Hours later, the satisfying shaking of the fuselage as the wheels hit the tarmac disrupted my nap. Looking out the window, I smiled as the warm California sun shone through the window and hit my arm.

Luggage in hand, I strolled out of the terminal and took in a breath of San Francisco’s salty bay air, smiling as the scent hit me for the first time in days. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and called an Uber to pick me up from the airport and take me home. After about ten minutes, a spotless white sedan with an Uber sticker on the back windshield pulled up to the curb and came to a halt. The driver rolled down the window as he ran his hand down his long, graying beard and yelled, in a heavy Russian accent, “Uber for Greg?”

I gave a subtle nod and walked over to the car. Placing my hand on the door handle, I opened the door, careful not to damage the door or the car’s opulent white paint as it swung toward me, and stepped into the back seat, putting my bags at my feet. “Thanks, man,” I said to the driver as I closed the car door and listened for the quiet thud it made when it was securely shut. The car started moving after my seatbelt clicked. At least he cares about my safety, I thought as a small grin took form.

My mind wandered as we drove away from the airport. A sense of relaxation and calmness washed over me as I slouched in my seat. I looked out the window and rested my cheek on the palm of my hand. As we got onto the freeway, a short glance at the windshield revealed to me the rolling green hills of San Bruno. My eyes got heavier as I became more comfortable, but I decided it would be best to hold off on that until the journey had come to an end. Sitting up, I folded my hands into my lap and gazed ahead in awe as the fog began to blanket the hills. The fog was familiar, but it has never failed to amaze me, not even after decades of living in the city.

A strange silence had settled in the car, and I was itching for conversation. I could only imagine what my Russian driver thought of me as the Soviet stereotypes that my teachers taught me in grade school came to the forefront of my conscience. Would he be open to conversation? I thought. I rubbed my face and looked at the road-focused driver.

“What’s your name?” I asked. My face became white-hot as I realized that I could answer that question for myself with a simple glance at the app.

He exhaled. “Sergei.” His monotonous voice echoed in my mind.

“Are you from Russia?”

Sergei turned around and glared at me. A deafening silence filled the car like helium in a balloon, and I could only imagine what he would say. “Why do you assume I am from Russia?”

“Um, I thought, you know, with the accent…” I scratched my head as the fear this would be an uncomfortable ride arose within me.

“What about the accent?”

I gulped as beads of sweat formed on my face. I rubbed my neck and let out a nervous laugh. “I’m sorry.”

Sergei groaned and shook his head as he focused his attention back on the road. “I am from Vol’no-Nadezhdinskoye. It is outside of Vladivostok.” Reaching into the center console, he took out a small package of wintergreen gum. I let out a faint chuckle as he unwrapped a single piece of gum and shoved it into his mouth.

“What brings you to San Francisco?”

“I have a new job. It pays well.”

My smiling mouth ajar, I raised my eyebrows and held in a laugh. “Wait…is this your job? Don’t they have Uber in Russia?”

Sergei glanced into the rearview mirror and exhaled as he stared at me with nothing but pure disgust. “Pft,” he exclaimed before muttering something in Russian.

“What’d you say?”

Sergei sighed and smacked the center console. “Damn you! Why do you ask so many questions?”

Wagging my finger, I responded, “Well, you’re clearly not making any effort to make this a comfortable ride. At least one of us should drive the conversation.” I chuckled, but Sergei could only sigh. I suppose I was foolish to believe he had a sense of humor.

“I call an American company on the telephone, and they say they would give me a job if I move to America. This job in America pays better, so I leave the farm to my cousin Vladimir because he would better take care of it than the rest of my kin. I leave Russia—forever or not—to begin a new job as an assistant to some hotshot businessman in a big, triangle building in the middle of the Financial District in a city so big it would make every Russian shit their pants.”

“You work at Transamerica Pyramid? No shit! I work there too!”

He raised his eyebrows. “Did I ask?”

I nodded. Impatient for the ride to be over, I took my phone out of my pocket. Seeing no missed calls or texts from my wife—or any other notifications, for that matter—I exhaled as I turned it off and threw it onto the seat next to me. I looked out the window, noticing for the first time we were back in the city. I looked around, hoping I could find something to do on my own, and childhood memories of going on long car rides filled my mind. When, after a solid two or three minutes, my fruitless search proved unsuccessful, I chuckled and said, “You know, it’s funny. These Uber rides are always so awkward.”

“What is awkward?”

“It’s just—”

“It is just what? Does my accent offend you? Do my stories insult your American conceitedness?”

Throwing my hands in the air, I respond, “Hey man, I’m only doing my best to make this an enjoyable experience for both of us.”

Sergei turned a corner and pulled over. I didn’t know what to think about this pit stop; we were only a few miles away from my house. He turned around once more and locked intense eye contact with me as he said, with the tone of a teacher scolding an unruly student, “Get out.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Excuse me?”

“You offend me. Get the fuck out of my car.”

“Now hang on a second, I—”

“Get out!” he yelled.

Flecks of saliva landed on my face as I picked up my bags and thrust the door open. I unbuckled my seatbelt and threw it off me as I stepped out of the car, pulling my bags out after me and throwing them on the ground. Standing on the sidewalk, I said, “One star, asshole.”

“Same to you, ublyudok!” he yelled back. I slammed the door and stood on the sidewalk. I racked my brain for ideas about how I would get home as my means of transport slipped away to the next unfortunate passenger. I smiled and laughed as I gave Sergei the finger and watched him drive away. I decided to complete my journey on foot as I turned away from my former driver; after all, home wasn’t too far away.

Out of nowhere, a roaring engine pounded on my eardrums, followed only by a loud crash coupled with shattering glass. The familiar hubbub of bustling traffic on the city streets was disrupted by an endless wave of tires screeching and car horns honking as unsuspecting drivers rushed to avoid the wreck. Some passersby screamed as they ran away, while others walked into the street to catch a closer glimpse at the wreckage. I turned back around in shock, and my heart skipped a beat when I noticed it was Sergei’s vehicle that suffered the awful blow.

I stared at the wreckage as time stood still, and, without a single thought crossing my mind, I picked up my bags and ran toward the wreck. I almost drowned in the sea of spectators holding up their phones, every single one of them filming the scene of the crash. Standing next to the mercilessly-destroyed driver-side door, I glared at these insensitive spectators and, channeling my inner Sergei, yelled, “Fuck off, you animals!” My heart sank as I watched a mere two spectators put their phones away, but turning my attention away from potentially appearing on YouTube, I looked around for something to break the window with. Hearing a clock ticking in my head, I closed my eyes as I bit my lip and punched the window with my white-knuckled fist.

The window shattered, and glass scattered throughout the vehicle. My bloody, glass-pierced hand throbbed as I forced myself into the car and grabbed Sergei by the shirt collar as I checked for a pulse, hoping I would feel something but knowing, in the very back of my mind, I would feel nothing. Thick red blood oozed out of the gaping crack in his skull as water flows down a raging river. Flecks of blood flew through the wrecked vehicle as I shook his lifeless body and screamed, “Wake up!” I couldn’t help but regret that my business degrees failed to prepare me even slightly for a godawful situation like this.

My eyes flung open as I snapped back into reality. Taking deep breaths, I looked around and saw nothing but row after row of airplane seats occupied by passengers waiting to disembark as they looked out the windows, checked their watches, and tapped their feet on the ground. Looking out my window, I saw the deep blue water of the San Francisco Bay shimmering in the morning sun. My head snapped forward as a voice on the intercom announced, “Good morning, passengers. This is your captain speaking. It is now 8:42 AM, and we will be landing in San Francisco in a few short minutes. We have enjoyed flying with you over these past eight hours, and we hope to see you again soon.”

As that announcement came over the intercom, the man sitting next to me tapped me on my shoulder and asked, “You okay, bro?”

I spun my head around and looked at him, and he raised his eyebrows as he stared back at me with puzzled eyes. I looked down at my hands and suit, elated that there wasn’t a single drop of blood on me, and I looked back at him as I rubbed my forehead. “I’m fine,” I said through a yawn. I looked around the airplane in awe, trying to convince myself that Sergei was a mere figment of my imagination.

He gave a subtle nod. “Alright. Just checking.”

I called an Uber to pick me up as I walked off the airplane and made my way to baggage claim. After a few minutes of waiting and watching strangers’ bags pass me on that monstrous conveyor belt, I retrieved my bags and walked out of the terminal, pulling my bags behind me. The bay breeze brushed past me as the salty smell of sea fog hit my nostrils. Sitting down on a cold wooden bench outside the terminal, I couldn’t help but envision my ride home as vivid memories of my dream surfaced.

That’s when a spotless white sedan with an Uber sticker on the back windshield pulled up to the curb.

Hayden Sidun is a high school student and an author of short fiction. Outside of school and work, he is involved in local politics and enjoys writing stories and listening to country music in the early hours of the morning. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, of which he is a proud native.

A Short Story by Ellen Sollinger Walker

I

Full moons were good omens for David and me. One night, when we had started dating, he spread out a blanket in the meadow. We held each other, under a veil of stars, tracking the ball as it floated above us like a bright beacon, like a harbinger of good fortune.

“That’s our lucky moon,” he said, pointing. Two years later we were married, under a full moon.

With David, I felt reborn and alive. He said to me, “Hey, girl, you look so good,” a line he stole from a cowboy movie. On Saturdays in his truck, we meandered down country roads, buying fake turquoise jewelry and cheap Depression glass from back woods thrift shops. 

The feel of his skin under my fingers was soft and warm as kid-glove leather. When it rained, we stayed in, made love for hours, watched three movies in a row, and sipped greyhounds from cracked ceramic coffee mugs.

He had a great talent for charming people into doing things for him. One day, he asked to borrow a garden tiller from a neighbor and next thing I knew, the neighbor was tilling our soil. In a big-brimmed gardener’s hat, David watched, spouting comical stories as he leaned against a pole for sugar peas.

Once, when two bald eagles were circling above our house, he lay with me in the grass watching their graceful waltz on a bright blue dance floor.

II

After one year of marriage, my new job took us to a remote Native American village on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. It was then David remarked he had a direct line to the spiritual world.

“When my father died,” he said, “I saw his spirit rise up from his body.”

“I think that happens a lot,” I retorted, not believing him.One weekend, driving through the majestic rain forest on the Pacific coast, we stopped to locate a hidden spring we had read about. Walking a path through fir trees, red cedar, spruce and western hemlock, we searched for the outlet pipe carved into a hill where supposedly, the stream of crystal-clear glacier runoff from Mount Rainier flowed.

“Maybe we’re in the wrong place,” I said after some time, as we walked through the deep, pungent forest, ferns up to our knees, hanging curtains of moss above our heads. But he assured me we were in the right spot. Disappointed in our failure to locate the spring, we headed back in the direction of the car and there, to our amazement, was a white pipe protruding from the embankment, with water flowing out in a clear stream.

“I swear, that pipe wasn’t there when we first walked by,” David said and I agreed. We filled twenty jugs of the magical water, the sweetest we’d ever tasted.

In a serious tone, he said, “The spirits are messing with us.” I was still skeptical.

A few weeks later, though, I became convinced David had an inroad with the supernatural.

I was stepping out of the shower one morning before work when I heard a crash.

“What was that?” I yelled. David had already been diagnosed with a terminal lung disease. Pushing the cannula connected to his oxygen machine into his nostrils, he turned on the light. An antique painting of Mount Rainier had broken its string and crashed down onto the glass dog bowl below it, smashing it and spewing water everywhere.

“Wow, the spirits must be angry about something this morning,” I quipped, combing my wet hair.

I drove to work, through a dense forest of ancient cedars covered with bright green moss. When I walked into the office, my cell phone rang. It was David.

His voice sounded shaky and serious.  “My nephew Danny was killed in a car accident last night.”

“Oh, my God, no,” I whispered. I felt my heart dip like a kite that has lost its air, all breathless and flimsy. Then, I remembered the spirits had sent us a message that morning.

III

David was hospitalized in December. The terminal disease was clogging the delicate membranes of his lungs; the tissues were becoming damaged and scarred. He was slowly suffocating.

He looked sweet in his green hospital gown. A few days before he died, the nurse put him in a recliner like he was royalty, accepting guests. Friends came to visit, old railroad buddies and their kids. The sparkle in David’s gray-blue eyes faded like a chameleon loses color on drab, gray stone.

When all his guests left, I climbed into his hospital bed with him; he had lost so much weight, we both fit easily. As we held each other, the cannula pushed oxygen into his nostrils, and his hands felt cold and lifeless. “Cannula,” we laughed. “Sounds like a tasty Italian pasta dish.”

“Look,” he said, pointing out the window. I twisted my head to see what it was. “There’s our moon,” he said and then in a croaky voice, “our lucky moon.”

He was going to die and no one, not even his doctors or nurses, had told him. So, that night, in his bed, I tried to tell him.

“You’ll be with God soon, you know,” I said, tracing the wrinkles on his hand with my fingers. “You’ll get to see your Mom and Dad again.” What a stupid thing to say. How did I know he would be with God and see his parents? How could I know what would happen to him after he died? And there was still time for a miracle.

He looked at me, dumbfounded.  

In the middle of the night, my phone rang. It was David’s pulmonologist.

“You should come right away,” he said.  “We need to put your husband on a ventilator.” I threw on clothes and rushed to the hospital. The road was lit by the gleaming globe. Are you our lucky moon?  I whispered.

When I arrived, David was sedated and asleep. I said my good-byes to his closed eyes and wept, holding his lifeless hand. Then the ventilator was thrust down his throat and we never spoke to each other again.

IV

David died at Christmastime and, as a result, we hadn’t been able to give each other presents. The gift he never received was a photograph I snapped on our trip to Glacier National Park, reprinted on canvas. Thin slices of glaciers in the process of disappearing were nestled between the crevices of steely mountain peaks. I unwrapped the picture and hung it by the fireplace. Alone in the house now and a widow, I hoped this photo would bring back happy memories.

When I got home from work that night, the picture had fallen off the wall and was right-side up on the floor. I rehung it firmly planted on the hook. The next night after work, it was on the floor again. Disquieted but determined, I hung it on a different hook.  The third night it had remained stationary, but a larger photograph of a hidden waterfall framed in glass had lost its grip and fallen to the floor. It too, was face up, directly below its hook, the glass intact. It was as if someone, had carefully lifted it off the wall and, with great love, set it down. I wondered, Is David trying to tell me something?

A few weeks later, BNSF Railroad, David’s former employer, contacted me by phone. The woman said he had been defrauding the railroad for years, even before we got together, and I needed to repay the $45,000 he embezzled.

I hung up. My brain froze. I grabbed a small pillow from the couch and put it over my mouth. A scream crawled up my spine and I howled as the rage boiled through my body. I could have killed someone. But I was alone, just me and my fury. How long did I scream? Hours, certainly hours. Then, I hurled dishes against walls. The Carnival-glass bowl David had given me shattered into a million small shards; the wine glasses we had toasted each other became dust; the plates for our new home splintered into tiny ceramic arrowheads; the Vaseline glass collection he was so proud of, thousands of dollars worth, smashed to the hardwood floor, firing glowing green fragments into the air. The pile of orange, green, lilac and fuchsia glass looked like the remains of a destroyed kaleidoscope.

I collapsed on the floor, stared at the TV, went to bed, couldn’t sleep. In the morning, I reluctantly went to work.

After work, I walked into the house, stopped in my tracks and gasped. The glacier picture lay upside down on the floor in the middle of the room, like it had been flung, Frisbee-style. The canvas, as if in a rage, had been mutilated with a sharp object, possibly a knife or a scalpel. This time, I was sure it was David. He had carved out the glaciers from the steely mountains that once protected them, leaving holes in the photo like many missing eyes.

V

I talked to a work colleague who was Native American, about pictures falling off my walls. He listened intently and said, “You need to perform a smudging ceremony.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“The smoke will wash away dark thoughts and unwanted energy or emotion that clings to a space after someone’s death. David has not yet left your house.”

I agreed to try it. I was ready to try anything. Before the end of the workday, my colleague had given me a bunch of dried sage, wrapped with cotton string and small brass finger cymbals.

That evening, following his detailed instructions, I lit the dried sage like a cigar and walked around my house, allowing the smoke, which smelled like ancient cedar, to float into all the corners of all the rooms. Tibetan finger chimes were also part of my ceremony, their ethereal, heavenly sounds rising to the ceiling with the smoke.

“Please, David,” I said gently, “Please find peace and leave this house.”

The next day, my best friend, Paula came to the house for dinner. I reached into the cabinet where I kept my favorite dishes and there, hidden away behind the plates, to my astonishment, was my unwrapped Christmas present from David. Shaking, I sat down with Paula and laid the gift on the table.

“Wow,” she said.

It was a stunning silver necklace with a cross of bright white opals, each stone luminous and oval-shaped, like a waning, disappearing moon.

Ellen Sollinger Walker self-published a memoir/travelogue titled Just Where They Wanted to Be: The Story of My Amazing Parents (2nd Edition). The book chronicles her parents’ circumnavigation in their own 36-foot sailboat and is available on Amazon. She also writes fiction and creative non-fiction. Ms. Walker’s first career was as a classical pianist and teacher. She returned to school at age 42 and earned a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology. She worked as a counselor and psychometrist for 20 years before retiring and moving to sunny Florida.

A Short Story By Michelle Hasty

May 16, 1951

Her screams could be heard from a mile away, the Rushton Banner reported; the Evening Star claimed it was three. The papers agreed on the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Evers: the couple was “devoted.” Other details were similar between the articles. Vance Evers, a known prankster, left his home in the Rushton River Valley community at approximately 6:45pm, on May 15, 1951, and returned close to midnight. Corrinne Evers sat sewing in the front room, when a knock sounded at the door. She asked who was there, the visitor refused to answer, and she threatened to shoot. When no answer came upon her repeated request, Mrs. Evers fired a 12-gauge shot gun. Mr. Evers died later that night at Murray County General, victim of his own tragic prank, leaving a wife and three children.


Present day

Corrinne Evers stands at the window twirling the wand hanging from the blinds. Warm morning light bathes the sitting room. Five windows look onto the facility’s grounds, and Corrinne walks to each one, opening the dusty slats. She wants them replaced with curtains that can be drawn back or better still, taken away to give the residents a clear view of the back gardens, the koi pond, and hills. This request will need to wait, however, because she is already in trouble with the day shift nurse, and breakfast has not yet been served.


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff/shift:
Cheryl Drake, day nurse

Day/Time:
Thursday, 5/24, 5:00pm

Resident of concern:
Mrs. Evers

Behaviors exhibited:
stealing, eloping, lying
non-cooperative during interrogation
-refused sleeping pill
-needs reminder of facility policies
-losing cognitive function?

Recommendations:
-better served on the other side?


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff/shift:
Nan Kelton, night nurse

Day/Time:
Friday, 5/25, 5:55am

Resident of Concern:
Mrs. Evers

Behaviors exhibited:
I asked about taking the bread from the kitchen; she says she does not remember doing that or going out back to the pond. She did ask me if I had a nice vacation and if the ocean was warm, so she remembered where I had gone. We talked about how the sand and water are different colors in the Atlantic and Gulf. I like the wide, brown beaches on the East coast, and she prefers the soft white sand and warm, green Gulf.

She read to the group from that paper she gets until it was meds-before-bed time. Mr. Frandall asked where Quito was from the article she read out, and she showed him Ecuador on the map and then did a google earth view of the place. She told the group about how Quito runs through the equator so water swirls the opposite way when you flush a toilet there. After I delivered everyone’s medicine, I came to the desk and did not doze off because I was working on a story for a contest in the newspaper.  Mrs. Evers did not leave her room all night.

Recommendations:
I will keep an eye out for her in case she comes out of her room again. It is possible that she is hungry and that is why she took the bread. Four residents have complained about the new cook. I will offer her some yogurt before bed tonight. I also will remind her of the policy about going out after dark. She has been here for only a few weeks and may not remember all of the rules.


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff/shift:
Cheryl Drake, day

Day/Time:
Wednesday, 6/4, 5:01pm

Resident of concern:
Mrs. Evers

Behaviors exhibited:
-stealing, lying, inciting controversy and unrest
-bread in her room—again
-says she is making fish food
-agitated by weather in newspaper (no outdoor activities planned this week)
-read newspaper to sitting room gathering
-political debate ensued: raised voices, elevated blood pressure

Recommendations:
Night staff, watch her. Our residents’ safety is at stake.


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff/shift:
Nan Kelton, night shift

Day/Time:
Thursday, 6/5, 6:10am

Resident of concern: Mrs. Evers

Behaviors exhibited:
After dinner last night, Mr. Frandall and some of the others asked Mrs. Evers to read another article from the political section. I told Mrs. Evers that I had heard about yesterday’s lively debate. She asked if she had been “banned from reading,” and when I said that she had not, she said, “Good. Everyone, regardless of their age, has a right to know what is happening in the world.” Mr. Frandall participated in the discussion that followed, and when I checked his blood pressure at bedtime, it was not elevated.

Mrs. Evers left her room last night about midnight. (I know that is what time it was because I had just submitted my story for the contest, and the deadline was midnight.) I waited to see what she would do. She had the yogurt container of bread in her hand, and she went out the back to the koi pond. I went to the kitchen windows and watched from there so she couldn’t see me.

She went out, looked up at the crescent moon, and then sprinkled the bread crumbs on the water. She sat on the stone bench and watched the fish come to the surface to eat the bread for about ten minutes. The moonflowers have bloomed, and she stopped at the trellis to smell them. Then she came back in and went to her room. I am not sure she was awake because I accidentally knocked over a plastic pitcher that was on the counter and it went clattering to the floor. Mrs. Evers was barely down the hall, and she should have heard it, but she never turned around.

Recommendations:
I will ask Mrs. Evers about getting up and feeding the fish tomorrow when I get to my shift. Also, re: Mr. Frandall, you might check to see if he is sneaking salt. The cook is concerned about the residents’ salt intake and is sparing. Miss Lister has her own shaker that her grandson brought her. She has been asked not to share, but this could be a contributing factor with Mr. F.’s blood pressure.


At the end of a long day, Cheryl Drake unlocks the door that leads from garage to kitchen and punches in the code before her alarm sounds. Depositing her bag and the mail on the desk, she retrieves an aluminum pan from the refrigerator and checks to be sure the contents have thawed. She cooks five entrees every Sunday afternoon and freezes them so on weeknights it is easy to pull something out and heat it. Landy will be home by 6:00; they will eat at 6:30. That should be plenty of time for Cheryl to put the signs in the yard and compose the email.

The signs are small plastic circles with a red slash through a picture of a dog lifting its leg. A point at the end of the sign sticks into the ground. Cheryl found these on the internet in one search. They arrived in a small yellow package in the mailbox today, with another sign that says, “Thank you for respecting our grass!” This came free with a purchase of five of the little circles. Cheryl places one sign at each end of the grass about a foot from the street. Then she estimates the middle, places one there, and one between each of the remaining spaces from middle to end. Cheryl decides the “Thank you” sign is most effective by the mailbox, positioned in the ground at an angle from the purple clematis vine climbing up the wooden post. She stands at the edge of the pavement surveying her work. Landy will not enjoy having to move these signs when he mows the grass she knows, but she also knows he will not say a word about it.

Cheryl returns to the kitchen and marks a straight line through “signs out” on her daily To Do, then sits to open her laptop. Letting the clinical director’s address autofill after a few letters, she pauses over the subject line. She does not want to give too much away, but she wants to catch Dr. Poston’s attention. With three facilities to oversee, Dr. Poston’s approach is to trust the nursing staff to make most decisions among themselves, and she rarely overrides or questions. Cheryl settles on “C. Evers: concerning behavior,” and begins to compose a description of Mrs. Evers’ behavior earlier that day.

Paranoid and defensive best characterize Mrs. Evers’ response when she entered her room during lunchtime. She told me I had no business being in her room or going through her personal things. I explained that I was bringing her mail, and I showed her where I had put it on the end table next to her Bible and the picture of her family. Consideration of a move to our memory care section may be warranted as paranoia is a common symptom associated with dementia. Cheryl considers citing a source here. She still subscribes to the Journal of American Medicine though she no longer thinks about becoming a doctor, but she is behind in her JAMA reading. The study she remembers is a few years old and could be unreliable now. She does not include the reference.

Nor does Cheryl include the fact that she entered Mrs. Evers’ room uninvited. It was lunchtime, and the older woman returned to find the nurse sitting in her green chintz chair reading newspaper articles she had removed from the Bible sitting on the end table. As Cheryl sends the message and hears Landy’s key at the door, the question that has been forming in her mind all day takes a definite shape: did Mrs. Evers know it was her husband at the door that night? If so, what does that mean for the other residents? Is she dangerous? What is my responsibility here? This last question is the real one, the heart of any matter for Cheryl Drake. What does duty demand of me?

While Cheryl and Landy sit at their kitchen table eating chicken divan, the residents of the Fernlake Care Facility are also having their evening meal. The day staff uses a table separate from the residents, but the night staff disperses and sits at the tables with the residents. Nan chooses Mrs. Evers’ table so she can make sure that Mrs. Evers eats well. The conversation is lively at the table because Miss Lister asks Nan about her vacation, and Mr. Frandall tells a story about picking up a set of false teeth on the beach thinking they were a shell. Mrs. Evers makes a dramatic show of offering her pie to Nan at the mention of the dentures, and the table erupts in laughter. Miss Lister’s salt shaker does not make an appearance.

After dinner, the residents gather in groups to play cards or watch television. Nan finds Mrs. Evers in the sitting room poring over the newspaper. Nan watches from the doorway, pretending to write on her clipboard. Mrs. Evers turns several pages, holds a section up and studies it, then puts it down and rushes out of the room barely noticing Nan, who steps out of her way. Mrs. Evers walks to her room. Nan follows. Mrs. Evers’ door is open a bit, and Nan sees her taking a loaf of bread from her closet. What is this about, Nan wonders, but it is time for her to begin the nightly medication rounds.

When she makes it back to the desk that sits in the center of the two hallways leading to residents’ rooms, it is close to 11:30pm. Nan often spends a half hour or more with some of the residents when she takes their pills to them at night. Mr. Frandall wanted to relay another story from the dentures trip week, his memory jogged by the success of the tale at dinner. Miss Lister asked Nan listen as she recited the Psalm she says each night at bedtime. This part of her job makes Nan feel useful.

The part of her job that Nan least likes is filling in charts on the computer. She is nearly finished when she remembers Mrs. Evers’ agitation over the newspaper. Nan goes into the dark sitting room and is relieved to see the pages just as Mrs. Evers left them on the couch. Nan is supposed to do a walk-through in each room to be sure things are neat, but she often forgets and hears about it from Cheryl in Staff Notes the next day. She picks up the paper and sees that Mrs. Evers was looking at the weather. Cheryl mentioned this. Nan sinks onto the couch. The weather is unremarkable. Sunny to partly cloudy all week, temperatures in the low 70s. What else matters here? Nan knows she is overlooking something. The page contains the daily weather, the moon phase, and a heating and cooling company advertisement at the bottom. Nan thinks about the last time Mrs. Evers went out at night. She had been looking at the weather. Or something on this page. The moon? Could this be what upset her and sent her out to feed the fish? Does she think they need to be fed when there is a full moon? But the moon tonight is a crescent shape. The same shape Nan had seen in the sky when she saw Mrs. Evers outside before. Nan heads back to the desk and sees Mrs. Evers walking down the hall toward the kitchen. Nan follows.


Nursing Staff Observational Notes
Fernlake Care Facility

Staff:
Nan Kelton

Date/Time:
6/18, 7:30am (please note that I have clocked out)

Resident:
Mrs. Evers

Behaviors exhibited:
I followed Mrs. Evers last night and sat with her on the stone bench while she finished sprinkling the bread crumbs for the fish. When she turned back from the water, she saw me, and her face was alert. She was not sleepwalking.

The moon tells me it’s time, she said.

Corrinne, he calls, and I know I must go, for I have seen the moon.

It is my offering to him, my way of honoring his memory.

Your husband’s?

Yes. I will tell you the beginning, she said.

I think that means she will tell me more in time, but this is what I know now… Mrs. Evers and her husband and their three children moved out to Rushton, Oklahoma, from Tennessee in 1950. A tornado had torn through the town earlier that year, and people were moving away from the city proper because it was a tornado alley. Mr. Evers was a roofer and got hired to work with a company building subdivisions. He went ahead to find a house for the family to live in, and Mrs. Evers went months later by herself with the children on train when he got the house fixed up enough.

Mrs. Evers says the house he had found was out of town a little ways, on a road with almost no other homes in sight, one across the creek, and one about half a mile away. At first she felt isolated and missed their life in the city, but then she said the place started to feel more like home and to show her some of its treasures—that’s how she put it. The creek ran clear and cold, and she and the children would spend hours with bare feet wading and catching crawfish. She made a garden and grew tomatoes and cucumbers. She had a few neighbors, Mrs. Petersen, up the road, and Mrs. Hollands, the preacher’s wife across the creek. Sometimes Mrs. Evers was afraid being alone at home, especially at night because around the time Mr. Evers died there was a thief out in that area breaking into houses and stealing from porches and sheds.

Mr. Evers worked nearly every day, even on Sundays. Sometimes he would not come home until the next night. Mrs. Evers did not know where he went, and when she asked, he would laugh, and tell her that was for him to know and her not to find out. When he did come home, after supper he would grab the last slice of loaf bread or what was left of the kids’ crusts and take the children to feed the minnows. The girls would clamor around him, fighting over who got to be on either side, usually the older two would win, and he would toss the youngest up onto his shoulders. They would head down through the tall grass to the creek and toss bits of bread to see the minnows come up to the surface to gobble the crumbs. Mrs. Evers watched them from the kitchen window as bands of pink light streaked the sky. She could see the children lean into Mr. Evers as they stood on the rocky creekbank. He was a rough man, she said, not given to affection, but he adored his children and attended to them gently. They would stay out till the light was gone, and he would tell them about pranks he played on his boss as bedtime stories.

Mrs. Evers stopped and said she would tell me the rest later, that she needed to go to bed. I will continue to watch out for her.


Cheryl bites the inside of her jaw as she reads the lengthy note Nan has left that morning. Nan’s descriptive story does not mention any concern about Mrs. Evers’ potential danger to other residents. Cheryl wonders why she is the only person at the facility who is able to see the possible harm. She regrets not telling Dr. Poston about the bird argument. It would provide a solid example of Mrs. Evers’ desire to stir up trouble. Yesterday in the sitting room, Mrs. Evers said that a male cardinal is evolutionarily programmed to feed any open mouth in its sight. It will even feed koi like the ones out back, Mrs. Evers claimed. Chaos ensued. Miss Lister became upset at the mention of evolution. Mr. Frandall argued the science, and then everyone demanded to go outside to test the theory. They wanted to pretend to feed the fish and see what the cardinals would do. It was not a scheduled outside time.

Dr. Poston responded to her email by requesting additional observations and suggesting that she call one of Mrs. Evers’ children for their perspective. Great plan, Cheryl thinks, who better to ask than people who have hardly been around her for the last thirty-five years? But her job is to follow her superior’s orders, so she retrieves Mrs. Evers’ file and dials the number listed for Willene Evers.

Willene gives Cheryl little of her time and less information. She talks to her mother every few weeks, and she has not noticed any slippage of memory or coherence. Willene laughs when Cheryl asks about this and says, “Mother? Nah. She always knows exactly what she is doing.” Cheryl does not think it appropriate to ask more questions, especially any about Willene’s father, but after she hangs up, Willene’s flippant answer repeats itself in her mind. Was she telling me more than it seemed?


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff:
Cheryl Drake

Date/Time:
6/18, 6:12pm

Resident:
Mrs. Evers

Behaviors exhibited:
Under Night Staff’s supervision, Mrs. Evers organized a turn about the grounds after dark last night to see moonflowers resulting in the following:

– Hydrocortisone ointment administered to four residents for mosquito bites

-Miss Lister’s knee iced and wrapped to alleviate swelling caused by uneven terrain

-Mr. Frandall repeating shooting star story, blood pressure elevated

Recommendations:
Residents are not allowed out after dark. Mrs. Evers needs to be reminded of the peril she is putting others in with careless suggestions and hapless plans.


Nan reads Cheryl’s notes and the pink post-it attached reminding her to please straighten the sitting room at bedtime. Is Cheryl’s concern that Mrs. Evers is not coherent or that she is too coherent and cannot be easily controlled? Footlights and stepping stones would seem an easy solution to the problem. She will ask Dr. Poston about this in their next conversation.

The next morning Nan enters her last note into the computer, and checks her watch. It is too early to call Dr. Poston. Nan had hoped to have a conversation with the director along with the observational notes she leaves. She knows that Cheryl will read them first. Should she abandon protocol? She decides to leave the form, but adds a note asking Dr. Poston to call her when she has a chance. This way she is sticking to the procedure of noting objective facts, but she can explain more when they talk. Maybe if Cheryl understands the story better, she will stop her campaign to send Mrs. Evers to the other side. It had taken little prodding for Mrs. Evers to tell Nan the rest of the story as they sat together on the stone bench the night before.

One night, Mr. Evers went out fishing after supper. That night he did not take the children out to feed the minnows. Mrs. Evers had heard about the thief striking at a house just down the road, and she had asked him not to go, told him she was afraid, but he laughed and said, “You know where the gun is, and you know how to use it.”

It was a dark night, cloudless, with just a thin crescent moon. She had put the children to bed and was mending one of the girls’ dresses when she heard three quick raps on the door. Ice spread in her chest as she stuck the needle into the fabric and laid the dress in her chair. The sounds at the door came again, this time with a kind of a rhythm, tap tappa tap. Tap tappa tap.  It was not the double, no-nonsense knock of Mrs. Hollands from across the creek, come to borrow thread.

“Who’s there?” she asked.

Silence.

“I said, ‘who’s there?’”

Silence.

“Name yourself and your business or I’ll shoot.”

Silence.

Then tappa tap tap.

A great weight flung itself against the door from the other side and the lock broke free from its catch so only the chain kept the distance between her and the intruder. The toe of a black boot shoved itself in the narrow space. Mrs. Evers was a good shot. As the eldest, with no brothers, she was her father’s hunting companion many a cold morning, and she knew how to handle a gun. She felt the cold metal and smooth wood in her hands, and she acted quickly.

The explosion rattled the windows, but she did not hear the sound. The noise she heard was her own voice, a low, growling, No, recognizing the boot wedged in the door as her husband’s.

Before leaving, Nan goes to the small office where she can have some privacy for the call to Willene, per Dr. Poston’s suggestion. Nan wants Willene’s view included so she cannot be accused of bias. It is an hour later on the East coast. Willene is brisk at first. As I said to the other nurse, Mother can be a pain, but I promise that she is a pain on purpose. But when Nan describes the after-dark outing Mrs. Evers’ organized for the residents to see the moonflowers and listen for the owl, Willene laughs softly and seems to relax. She likes to walk around after dark, always has. When we were kids, after that night, after it happened, we would wake up to her coming back in the door in the middle of the night. It scared us at first, but then it just got to be something she did. She always said my father was prone to wander, but she did her share.

Nan’s scalp prickles with Willene’s words. Last night, in the dark, with the sound of frogs croaking and the spicy-sweet scent of the moonflowers, Nan felt in her own heart Mrs. Evers’ sorrow, her need to make this strange offering summoned by the crescent moon. Now, as she steps from the fluorescent glare of the facility into the bright daylight of the humid June morning, Nan feels questions creeping into the edges of her thoughts. Did Mrs. Evers know it was her husband at the door? Does she feel compelled to honor her husband because she made a mistake or because she succeeded at what she intended?

The next morning Cheryl arrives early for her shift and finds Mrs. Evers straightening up the sitting room. Mrs. Evers’ good morning sounds tired.

Night staff didn’t clean up last night? Cheryl arches an eyebrow.

I couldn’t sleep and was in here a good bit of the night. I told Nurse Kelton I would take care of it.

Cheryl starts to open the blinds. The wand has fallen off one window, and she has to stand on a chair to rotate the short piece left at the top. Mrs. Evers holds the chair steady.

These blinds are terrible. Look at this. Cheryl holds up a finger she has raked along one of the yellowed slats. Her finger is caked in grey dust. We should see about replacing them with curtains that can be drawn back. Cheryl says and steps off the chair.

Or maybe just leave them bare. It is nice to walk into a bright room first thing in the morning.

Mrs. Evers heads off to breakfast, and Cheryl returns to the central desk.

Sighing, she starts fill out a Staff Note of Concern form. This will go straight to Dr. Poston. Night staff needs a formal warning that certain duties cannot be ignored.

Michelle Hasty is new to fiction writing. She has taken fiction and poetry writing courses and most recently worked with middle grades author and writing coach Hayley Chewins. A former high school English teacher, she currently teaches graduate education courses at a small university in Nashville, TN, where she lives with her husband and sons.

A Short Story by Andy Betz

I packed my Chevy S-10 with guns and ammo, bows and arrows, picks and shovels, flares, tires, tools, how-to manuals, can goods, clothes, knives, first aid kits, medicines, gasoline, propane and butane tanks, silver coins and a box of various springs, Raman noodles, bottles of beer, bottles of Jack Daniels, tequila, beans, beef jerky, camping supplies, toilet paper, ropes and climbing supplies, batteries and hand-held radios, maps, a roll of heavy plastic, a cooler, two lanterns with fuel, and as much water and barbed wire as would fit.

Then, and only then, I departed Atlanta and drove for the mountains taking only back roads.

My goal was to make the North Georgia Mountains by night and establish a defensive perimeter.  By morning, all hell would break loose and everybody else would be trying to escape whatever wrath would befall the stragglers.

Just after sunrise, the shooting began.

I parked overlooking a small town so the sunrise would be at my back.  I heard the gunfire and saw the first fires at the most distant buildings.  The screams could be heard even from my position.  A few rifle shots ended the chaos, but not the crazed exodus on the roads exiting the town.  I didn’t have to listen to the radio to learn the cause or the order of events transpiring.

All of that information was useless to me.  A historian might find comfort in knowing the truth when facing the end of civilization.  I find comfort in remaining mobile or hidden; preferably both.

My maps (roads and trails) are of the TAG area.  At the border of Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia, the TAG hosts a variety of caves, streams, cliffs, nooks, and crannies in which a man could shelter unseen for as long as his provisions provided, then life off the land afterward.  I had enough on my old truck to last two months, maybe three, if rationed.  I knew of a few caves in which I could drive my truck into and seal the entrance from prying eyes.

I would have to rig a few booby traps and a few decoys to prevent survivors from discovering me.  I wish I had a dog, a German Shepherd or Jack Russel, for company and alarms.  I would have jettisoned the propane and butane I loaded (meant for trade and for starting fires) for the canines and what they offered.

It would have been worth the trade every day of the week, twice on Sunday.

By noon, I found the dirt road leading to where I wanted to go.  Traveling in daylight is dangerous at any time in the backwoods, twice as so today.

However, I did not have the choice. 

Once I crossed the first wooden bridge, I took my car jack and separated a few load bearing beams and watched it collapse.  On foot, a few might still pursue my tracks, but via a car, they had better find another place to go.

I am not much for sharing today.

A few more miles and I dislodged a few choice rocks on the road.  Today, they will offer a choice to people wishing to wheel supplies toward my destination.  After a rain or two, their presence will cause erosion of the road and wash it out.  Even by foot, only the most determined would find me.  By the time they did, they might find more than they bargained for.

By sunset and I found the caves and my first thought.

I kept going to the smaller caverns further ahead. 

If anyone else knew what I know, and in these parts, they most certainly did, they would set up camp here.  The large caverns can shelter RVs and campers and the lot.

They cannot defend them though.

When I finally backed my truck into the small cavern, I took a pistol and a rifle and made my way back down the road to erase my tracks with some bushes I cut to sweep the road.  The wind was picking up and it was going to rain soon so the road would tell no tales.

A few strands of old barbed wire from a downed fenced, tied with more discarded beer cans (to rattle when bumped) and I was ready for first watch.

Then second.  Then third.

It was supposed to be a silent night tonight.

Just past midnight, I saw the headlights of three cars through the trees, up-road from my position.  More were coming.  Within twenty minutes, the parlay of the people turned to gunfire (it echoes it the hills).  I watched a total of seven cars with headlights slowly dim over the next two hours.  Maybe those people tried to keep a calm head and sleep off their differences.

Maybe not.

By morning, I used my binoculars to get a better look.  The cars were rough, but intact, and the camp fires still smoldered.  It took a few more moments to see ten people piled on the roadside.  Two men with shotguns gave a kick to each so their bodies would roll down the ravine into the dense woods.

These two were dangerous and too assured to be this obvious.  If I were part of their party, I would remain hidden and look for movement from the hills.  They displayed no supplies and no qualm about murdering to acquire some.  I remained inside my cave, behind the brush I used to cover the entrance with last night, still, and waiting.  If someone was watching for movement, they would not find mine.

These two, now three, when the third emerged from under a car, noticed the smoke from what must have been a campfire or two back at the larger cavern.  Rarely does the smell of smoke pique curiosity more than now.

With shotguns and rifles in tow, the three got in line and began the short walk.

They never made it.

Before I left home, I outfitted my Remington 742 Woodsmaster with a nice 40x scope and a standard 4 round magazine filled with 180 grain 30-06 shells.

I could miss but once.

My first shot entered the leader’s skull and dropped him instantly.  He was last in line so when he fell, the other two hesitated for a second.  That second was all I required to acquire the first man and hit him square in the chest. 

The middle one did not know which way to turn.  He won the lottery when I missed with the third shot.  I guessed he would retreat to the cover of the cars.  He tried and then thought differently.  When he broke in a full run forward, he was too easy to miss.

I reloaded the rifle and holstered my pistol before moving toward their bodies.

I couldn’t do anything for the ten they killed last night.  The bloodstains on the far side of the cars mimicked knife wounds.  The blood stains in the back seat of each of the three cars came from something much worse.

I guessed I had but a minute before someone came tracking the shots.  If they found me, I would be victim number 14 this day.  I grabbed two of the shotguns and a pistol and ran back to hiding.  By leaving a rifle and their provisions, whoever did come would guess these three died while looting, or at least during the attempt.  The disgust of the cars and the smell from the other victims might turn them away.

If their stomachs could withstand the carnage, they might take the cars and strip the bodies and leave the scene better equipped than when they arrived.

If their brains were made of lesser stuff, they might come looking for me.

I now had more firepower than the ability to use at my disposal.  But use it I would.

Fortunately, the group of six that did arrive (4 men and two women) wore the clothes of vacationers without access to a washing machine.  They vomited from the scene, a few made the sign of the cross, and the rest stripped the bodies of the three on the road.  They even managed to get all three cars started.  By the sounds of the engines and visible oil smoke, they wouldn’t last for long.  The youngest of the four men dragged the three naked dead men and pushed them over the edge into the raving with the rest. 

It wasn’t the most moral disposal of remains, but it was the most logical.  Most likely, word would spread of the corpses up the road a piece, dissuading all but the most inquisitive from my part of the road.  If the sight could not protect me from visitors, the smell most definitely would.

It took the better part of two weeks for the wild critters and bugs to decrease the smell.  Occasionally, one or two people, looking very thin, would use a wheel barrow to carry the recently deceased to my area and properly bury them. 

In essence, where I lived in solitude was now the new “Boothill Cemetery” of Old-West fame.

What this meant for me was no additional worries of accidental discovery.  I went a bit further up the road and gathered berries and set traps for small animals.  I updated my maps and charted water sources, the direction of their flow, and their purity.  With each foray, I refilled my empty bottles and the single bucket I brought.  With each foray, I chanced someone would be waiting for me at my cave so I dispersed my provisions into 3 interior locations and 3 exterior locations.  Each cache, wrapped in a plastic tarp, with the food, water, a few tools, and a single weapon lay ready for an immediate withdraw should I find myself on the run.

By September, there was a chill in the air and leaves began to fall.  Cover became a scarce commodity.  By October, I saw the last of the funerals from the large cavern.  I did not recognize the lady, but I did the men with her.  They looked raged.  I saw a few shotguns in tow.  I also saw three sets of bare feet.  It took nearly four hours for the men to dig the pathetic, shallow grave they laid the women to rest in.  I set my binoculars down and removed my cap in respect.  I saw their best effort that day.

Perhaps, it was time for them to meet me.

The first snowfall came early and I had just finished insulating my cave the best I could.  My original provisions, not parceled in hiding, were almost at an end.  I still had the alcohol and the propane.  Maybe I could offer them in a trade?  All I had to do was design an opportunity for first contact with my neighbors.

By what I guessed was Christmas Eve, I saw a single young woman walk the road toward the graves.  She prayed over a few, but left a note on the rocks covering the last grave.  She placed a yellow painted rock on top of the note, turned around to scan the hills, and began her walk home. 

I waited three days before I made a midnight run to retrieve the note.  To help fool the girl, or anyone else, I left a similar blank sheet of paper in its place.  I even took a circuitous route back to the cave, should I be tracked.

It was all for naught. 

She was standing at the false entrance to my cave.  I created this illusion to trap intruders in a much smaller version of what I call home should they prove hostile.  I could wait them out or burn them out (if need be).  Today, all I had to do was ask her to come out.

“Come out with your hands up” was my only order.  She complied and exited with both arms upward and palms facing forward.  He coat was threadbare and her shoes did not match.  I had the shotgun pointed at her when she spoke softly.

“We are in need of your help.”

Then, she fainted.  I had to carry her into my cave and seal the entrance with a few timbers and the weight of my truck.

I laid her on my cot and began checking her for wounds and diseases.  To the best of my knowledge, she was malnourished and hypothermic.  I could not build a fire with the front entrance sealed, so I used my only bottle of butane to light my camping stove and provide heat.  I boiled some water and dropped in a bouillon cube for taste.   If she came to, the beef jerky and a few boiled beans would be hers.  I gave her my wool blanket and moved to watch both her and the entrance.

Then I waited.  Then I read her note.  It said what she previously said.  I returned to waiting.

It was morning before she awoke.  She did not scream or move about when she saw me with my 12 gauge.  All she did was smile.  I pointed to the “soup” and the jerky and made the motion to eat.  She sat up and kept covered while eating both.  I didn’t press her when she finished.

I didn’t have to.

Ann, she introduced herself, said she was sent by her father to find me.  She called me the Caretaker.  When I asked why, she said it was obvious.

“That day my family walked here when they heard the gunshots was not by accident.  We wanted to do a bit of exploring before the ugliness came to this part of the woods.”  She let that sink in while she adjusted the blanket.  “We saw what you did that day.  Father told me to look to the hills and not the men on the road.  He is, I mean was, a police officer before he retired.  I was to remain far enough back so as not to be seen, but to warn the rest if you did not do what you did.  I saw the muzzle flash from this cave.  I didn’t know it was you, at first, but I knew you took care of those men.  Thus, the name, Caretaker.”

Now it was my turn.  “You spoke of needing my help.  What kind of help do you need?”

“Father told me not to spend so much time searching for you.  That is until last week.  Our radio is still working.  We have heard of those who are sick are coming.  They will soon overwhelm us.  Father says then they will infect us.  From what the radio reports, it is not their fault they became infected, but it is our duty not to become so.  We have some supplies, but what we need most are firearms, ammo, food, and clothing.  Can you help us?”

“How do I know any of this is true?  This could be a ruse to lure me out in the open?  Why should I trust you?”

She picked up the cup of my “soup” looking for a few remaining drops.  I did the same with coffee back when I had time to let my mind wander, forgetting I already finished my coffee, forgetting about the world and all of its problems.

“I have no proof with me.  However, if you come with me, you can meet Father at the large cave.  Listen to the radio and make your own decision.  Until you do, I am at your mercy.  You can kill me now; I know you have the ability.  Or, you can do the right thing and help.  Remember, once the sick finish with us, they will come for you.  Maybe not immediately, but from what the radio says, the sick are like locusts.  They will find this place.  I did and that’s all the proof you need.”

I fed Ann then clothed her to withstand the cold December wind.  She said her father taught her how to shoot, but I was not yet ready to arm her.  I informed her I would go to her camp and speak with her father.  Ann could carry one of the cached supplies that was on our way.  I would carry the firearms and ammo.

By midnight, I heard the broadcasts from her father’s radio and designed a plan with him.  He would send Ann and three of her brothers back to my cave to arm, eat, and eat again before returning.  To help, I gave Ann the keys to my truck.

“Let your brothers ride in the back with the supplies.  Distribute it to everyone as you see fit.  I have more elsewhere.  We will meet there if all goes poorly.”

“Caretaker, where will you be?  I want to be with you.”

I figured it was her mother that the brothers buried that day months ago.  Ann’s family died that day.  I never had an inclination to be in that position of caring for others, watching them die.  Ann’s father saw a few of the supplies I brought for something special.  His face revealed his understanding.  I didn’t need to tell him.  He would tell Ann if I couldn’t.

I took enough to lace the road leading to the main cavern with enough booby-traps, punji-sticks, single shot shotgun triggers tied to strings, shotgun shells buried just under the ground positioned over a board with a nail on the primer, metal springs ready to launch a bundle of rocks, and finally, a few sections of thin ropes strung both high and low in the woods to trip or decapitate mobiles who needed to be slowed down.

Then I waited.  I am always waiting.

But not for long.

The sick may be physically problematic, but by no means mentally impaired.  Some walking in pairs, some alone, one was even riding a bicycle.  The rest either pushed shopping carts with a few supplies or walked with wheelbarrows loaded with something important enough to walk with.

I fired the first shot.

Then the next 29 from my Romanian SKS.

I had 10 of these magazines loaded just for this type of contingency.

I dropped only the vanguard of the invasion.  The rest soon arrived in vehicles.

I quickly retreated to the next stage.

I climbed the hills and began firing with my Remington.  No sense saving the 30-06 ammo for the only gun using this caliber.  When I finished, I left the rifle so as not to encumber me on my next dash.  Being healthier than the sick, being armed, and knowing the landscape, I had the advantages.

During my next extraction, I retreated to a wooden bunker of fallen trees and my full propane cylinder and pump 12 gauge.  I opened fire with the shotgun before I opened the valve on the cylinder.  I then ran into the woods.

The first vehicle moving through the propane field ignited it exactly as planned.  The car and its occupants burnt quickly.  The remainder of the invaders halted in retrospect and began to flank the road, oblivious to all of the hidden traps.

By my count, who remained numbered a few dozen, but between the noise and the fire, more would come.  All I did was purchase a few days of time.  Even victory would come with a price-tag of eviction. 

Many of the sick fell prey to the traps in the woods.  Eventually, even the most insistent retreated from whence they came, evidently to regroup.  I found Ann’s family packed and ready to depart from the large cavern.  The brothers were already setting fire to anything they could not bring (it wasn’t much except for their broken-down RV and the salvaged remains of three bloody cars). 

We all rode in my truck back to my cave.

Formal introductions aside, I offered all I had to the five of them, for I had now thrown my lot with them.  We fought a few more skirmishes with more of the sick while we still had the advantage of a defensive position.  However, and there always is a however, by the time mid-January rolled in, we had to roll out.  Ann bid farewell to her mother and others buried near the road.  We dug-up the remaining supplies and each of us carried our share.  Ann and her Father road in the truck while her brothers and I walked. 

Starting with half a tank of gas, maybe two weeks of food, maps detailing nothing in the direction we decided to travel (West), and a few good firearms and ammo, we began our trek.

The last radio broadcast from the truck indicated most of civilization was damaged beyond repair, looters thrived in the towns and streets, the sick owned the cities, and the six of us began living our lives one day at a time for as long as possible.

I had but a single day to prepare for today.  I hope to make the most of it.

Andy Betz has tutored and taught in excess of 30 years. He lives in 1974, and has been married for 28 years. His works are found everywhere a search engine operates.

A Short Story by Joshua Hill

He woke up everyday to go to work at a reasonable hour. He brushed his teeth, combed his hair and drove an economy car to an office building. His life was fairly hum drum. His job consisted of documents, numbers, and Microsoft Publisher. The pay was enough to afford a small unit on the third floor of an apartment complex. The buildings of which were situated around a green area that surrounded a pond. There was a fountain that would go off in the summer. In the winter, the pond would freeze over, and the families that would normally go on walks around it would return to their homes.

He loved the pond. It was perhaps the sole reason he had chosen the apartment on the third floor. There was a window that faced the water, and be it summer or winter he enjoyed watching the pond change with the seasons. In Autumn, the leaves would turn a brownish auburn and fall gently on the surface. In the winter, snow fell on the water slowly crystalizing into ice. Every evening upon finishing work, he would sit on a wooden bench, and stare out at the pond. The bench he sat on was engraved with the words “In memory of Sylvia.” Sometimes when he sat he would think of Sylvia. What kind of person must she have been? Did she enjoy the pond as much as he? Did she too, love watching the seasons pass over?

He loved her name. In his life, he had never come across someone named Sylvia. This was a name of an artist, or a poet. Someone who wore large scarves in the winter. She was probably from somewhere exciting like New York.

Sylvia loved opening the windows of her apartment on hot summer days on the upper east side. She loved records, and took great pleasure in placing the needle on the phonograph. She would listen to classical music, her favorite being Gabriel Fauré, and her favorite song being “Après un rêve.” She would play the record and the notes would gently trickle down to soothe the people below.

What had brought Sylvia to this pond? What had brought her so far away from the hustle and bustle of the East Coast? Could it have been that she desired the quiet to write her own great works of poetry? Perhaps the pond gave her a sense of the serene that New York could not provide.

She had come originally to visit family living here, and she had seen this pond. She had fallen in love with the tranquility it provided. She had imagined the kaleidoscopic colors of the leaves changing and falling over the water. She had written a poem that was beautiful, and then let the paper take off on a stray gust of wind. This was a poem just for this place. She had immediately planned on moving to be near the pond. Her life in New York no longer suited her. She had told her publisher simply that she was “inspired.” She had packed her belongings in a bright red suitcase and journeyed back. She needed to be near this place. She took a red eye flight and arrived as sun glistened through the windows of the airplane. She walked with a confident stride as she wrapped one of her scarves around her long black hair.

“Her hair, must’ve been black” he thought.  As dark as night, with a distinctive shine. A shine that was natural. She was the kind of person who just had natural shiny hair. Hair that fell down over her shoulders, in a way that would be accentuated by her elegant scarves. She had taken a taxi from the airport holding a small black notebook brimming with poetry, ideas, and drawings of her lovers. He imagined the warmth of her touch and the smell of her breath. She was a person who smoked cigarettes, yet had sweet smelling breath all the same. Something about her breath always felt comforting. Like a warm blanket, a souvenir from a faraway home. 

She gripped her black notebook as the taxi wound down the streets taking her to the pond. The taxi was taking her home. The driver was unaware of how sacred his mission was, for him it was another fare. However, for Sylvia he was an honored guide fulfilling her destiny. Sylvia looked outside of the taxi window. It was raining and the water droplets made a sound of music as they pitter pattered on the windows. She closed her eyes and imagined the pond, the blue water, the cascading leaves, and the ubiquitous sense of calm. As the taxi pulled up to the complex, she kept her eyes closed. She exited carrying her red suitcase, and walked towards the pond. She sat on the bench. The bench that would one day become “her bench” he thought. She let a rosy smile cross her lips as she looked upon the water. She felt tempted to immediately draw out her little black notebook. To write a poem, to write about how she felt. Yet, she did not. She stayed frozen in awe of the beauty. She looked at the water, she felt the wind on her face. She smiled a deep, peaceful smile, and faded away.

He opened his eyes and took a moment to reflect on the disappearance of Sylvia. He looked back towards the pond. The pond that had given him a sense of belonging for as long as he had lived on the third floor. Rain gently began to fall on the surface, and he got up to slowly to return to his apartment.

He felt the raindrops gently hitting the pavement. The wind passed over uttering the whispers of those he had never crossed. That night as dark filled the air, he heard the poems of a faraway place too beautiful to exist on paper. Poems that would only ever exist falling gently with the seasons, over the pond.

Joshua Hill is a writer, cartoonist, and poet from Colorado.

A Short Story by Germán Mora

With her forced, sweet voice, Marisol tells Jesus he’s a great lover.  Lying on a second-hand bed with a hospital blue sheet draping her naked body, she says that this has been the best fuck she’s had in years.  He turns toward her, gives her a little smile, and nods.  He silently prays not to have caught anything from her but turns ashen at the realization of just having broken his oath – the one thing he promised his wife he would never do when he left her with his baby daughter fifteen months ago.  The plan was simple:  He’d go to Phoenix, where he’d get a good job working with his cousin and save some money to bring her and the baby over to Arizona.  Instead, he now sits at the edge on a filthy bed next to a prostitute who has absorbed the summer smell of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor – salty, oily, and putrid.

Jesus throws on a canary yellow shirt and slips on his underwear with its inner pouches, one on each side, sewn in by his wife so he can hide in each of them five twenty-dollar bills folded into squares.  He peers inside his gray socks, where he’s storing the rest of his savings – eighty dollars in all, split equally between them.  They’re there, so he slides his feet into the socks, finishes getting dressed, and says thank you in Spanish to Marisol.  On his way downstairs, deflated and somber, Jesus wonders whether he should offer his regret to Rafa for not having being proper with his wife, but when his friends turn their heads toward him, Jesus rewards them with a thumbs-up and a strong smile. 

“I hope you had fun upstairs,” Rafa says with derision, and his words make Jesus feel small.

“Nothing like a good lay to end a week of hard work,” Antonio says in his fake Sonoran accent, lifting his beer in celebration.

His words pounced on Jesus, who has wanted to slam Antonio for wondering aloud about him this evening.  Antonio whines that Jesus is too skinny and too young for construction work.  When taking a piss earlier in the evening, Jesus heard him saying that he, Jesus, kisses himself in the mirror after seeing his pretty reflection.  Yes, pretty was the word he used.  All of them laughed, and Jesus imagined him enacting his words by hugging his compact, barrel-chested torso and kissing the air with his serpentine tongue.  I’m not one of those, Jesus thought, and to prove it, he strayed upstairs to screw with Marisol.  Jesus wishes he could whisper this to Rafa so he could understand.  Jesus suspects Rafa would.  Whenever Jesus has fucked something up at work – letting the cement go dry, nailing the wrong beam, or protesting like a jerk – Rafa would place his hand on Jesus’ neck and ask him to do another task.  “You’ll learn.  Just take it easy,” Rafa would say.

“She almost gave me my money back once she saw this,” Jesus says, grabbing his crotch.  He then winks and forces a laugh.

“Who would have guessed that Hondurans are such stallions?” Antonio asks.  He claims to be from Mexico, but Jesus recognizes his real accent – southern Honduran, like his own.  Antonio has said Mexicans get better chances than everybody else, and Jesus suspects he’s right and surmises that’s the reason behind his shamming.

“I’ve been in this business for a while, and let me tell you something:  Hondurans ain’t what they say,” Doña Juana declares in her Nicaraguan accent, slamming an empty shot glass on the table, a wooden box that used to contain something useful.  “This skinny boy is talking bullshit.”

Jesus sits next to her and feigns being serious by studying her squinty brown eyes, framed by unruly black eyebrows that match the color of her unkempt hair.  Jesus throws his arm over her broad shoulders, and with a grin, he says, “We’re not all like your husband, and by the way, you just stole forty bucks from me.”

“What you’re talking about, boy? I’m no thief!” Doña Juana says, shaking her head.  “I barely break-even with those deadbeat girls.”

Doña Juana looks like someone in her late forties and not thirty-four as she says.  She’s fond of wrapping her short, burly body with tight shirts and short mini-skirts that make her broad legs look like an upside-down, thick stump poorly cleaved with an ax.  She refers to her middle-aged prostitutes as girls, and Antonio contends that by some conservative accounts, Doña Juana has more experience than the other three girls combined.

“You break even?” Rafa asks in his Sinaloan accent as he sets his warm beer can on the wooden table.  “That’s bullshit!”

Jesus noticed that Rafa’s mood had changed earlier in the day.  Rafa was atop a ladder when he let loose of a bucket full of copper rods.  The rods almost hit Antonio, who was below him caulking a window sill.  Antonio yelled that Rafa was getting weak in his old age, a complaint Jesus had heard from others in the squad.  Rafa calls himself a veteran of his trade, and his weather-beaten skin proves it.  Doña Juana, who knows him best, insists his working days started when he was old enough to carry a shovel.  Now that he’s turned fifty, Jesus thinks, he might just be tired of carrying it around.

“The girls bring only drunks like you to my bar,” Doña Juana replies.

Jesus looks around, realizing that the bar used to be the combined living and dining room of some past family – with its seating areas, each consisting of four wooden boxes, surrounded by four to five plastic, dingy white, outdoor patio chairs, probably passed along by so many owners to be beyond the point of calling themselves second-hand.

“They bring customers only?  That must be why they have to clean your filth,” Rafa says, putting his hand on his forehead.  “Don’t they pay you rent too?”

“The girls would have to pay for that no matter where they live,” Doña Juana counters. “I’m doing them a favor, if you ask me.”

Jesus beams a forced smile, having heard this before.  Soon after deciding to go to Phoenix, he and his extended family borrowed the five thousand dollars needed to pay a coyote for help with crossing the border, money he’s still repaying in $300 monthly installments.  After trekking through the desert and making his way to Phoenix, Jesus griped to the coyote about having been left with a sip of water and a bite of food for the ten-mile hike across the desert.  “You’re here now, aren’t you?” the coyote said to him.  “I did you a favor, so stop bitching about it.”

Jesus’s tongue is now sharpening itself against his canines at the prospect of lashing out at Doña Juana’s false tales of doing any favors for anyone, but he reins in his tongue and says nothing.  He feels it’s unbecoming to test his fate.

“I bet you say the same thing to your husband, perhaps when he’s on all fours cleaning up puke,” Antonio says with a grin, lifting his finger in the air, as if he were piercing a vapid idea floating above him.  “I’m doing you a favor, honey,” he adds, mimicking Doña Juana’s raspy voice, damaged from years of smoking.  “It’s all for your health.”

“What can I say? I’m a sucker,” Doña Juana says, lifting both hands in the air as if she were a priest in the midst of a sermon.  “Sadly, useless fuckers like you take advantage of good Samaritans like me,” she adds with a thick grin.

“A good Samaritan?” Rafa asks in disbelieve.  “What’s next?  Comparing yourself to Mary Magdalene?”

“Since you mention it, my friend,” Doña Juana says while nodding, “I should be sanctified by the Pope himself for the hard work I’ve done for this community.”

Doña Juana has seduced city workers into coming to her brothel to dispense advice to her customers.  A few weeks ago, a young gringo suggested in his thick accent that grasping some English words eases the burden of landing work.  Doña Juana elbowed Jesus and pushed him toward the gringo, who passed Jesus a colorful pamphlet with pictures of brown kids with crooked smiles crouching over a book.  Above them, it said in Spanish, “Free English Classes in Your Neighborhood.”  Jesus held the pamphlet with hesitation.  Doña Juana snatched it, flipped through it, and pointed at a bolded entry: “Saint Brigid Catholic Church.  Saturdays.  4 to 6 pm.”  Jesus decided to start attending without telling Rafa after Doña Juana insisted on it.  “Rafa has nothing to show for it, so why are you following him like a puppy dog?” she said.

Now in the bar, Jesus stands up, thrusting his warm beer can into the air and loudly proclaiming, “A toast for Doña Juana, the patron saint of the whores and all their useless fuckers.”

The men sitting at the other tables cheer, and Jesus smiles in delight.  He scans the room, looking for more approving faces, but his gaze stops at Rafa, who glares at him while shaking his head in slow motion.  Although Jesus feels secured within the cocoon created by Doña Juana’s brothel and Rafa’s protection in this part of town, he wonders whether he would be better off somewhere else, in a calm place far from the commotion of this part of town, a place where Jesus could make more money than is needed to pay his loan.  Jesus even told Rafa two weeks ago he had heard from other construction workers that there were others like them in the suburbs getting better jobs.  Rafa discouraged him, saying that he would be paying more rent in the suburbs so it would be a wash. 

Now Jesus wants to say he’s sorry to Rafa for dismissing his thoughts.  “Life’s too short, Rafa,” Jesus says instead.  “Just lighten up.”

“Well said, Jesus,” Antonio chimes in.  “We’re here to have fun, not to think.”        

“One more beer, Rafa?” Jesus pleads.  “I’ll pay for it.”

“You’ve already thrown enough money away for one evening,” Rafa responds, and then directs his gaze to Doña Juana.  “She should be the one buying us beer with her cut of what you just paid upstairs.”

“What else does the Mister want?” Doña Juana asks, bowing her head as if she were having a royal audience.  “Would your Eminence want me, perhaps, to let you and your loser friends stay here for free?”  She then leans forward toward Rafa, placing her elbows on the wooden box.  “Or maybe your Eminence could give me the honor of allowing me to wipe his holy ass?”  She leans back and gives him the finger.

“You’ve never picked up our tab, even though we’ve been entertaining you with our conversation for all these weeks,” Jesus says to her with the sincerity that only a newcomer could possess.  “It’s only fair.  We’re providing a service too, you know.”

She laughs so violently that the buttons of her tight, plaid shirt almost burst.  She places her sweaty palm on Jesus’s cheek.  “I like people like you,” she says.  “Cute and dumb.”  She resumes her laugh, sliding her hand from Jesus’s face to grab her drink.  “You should work here.”

“I knew it!” Antonio shouts.

Jesus feels a tsunami of heat rising toward his head.  He realizes his smile has disappeared, so he wills his facial muscles to contract, only to discover that they do it with hesitation, the same hesitation his entire body is offering, as if it were about to go on strike.

“Leave the kid alone,” Doña Juana orders.  “He has a lot to learn from me.” She glances at Jesus and says, “Maybe we can make some money together, perhaps using those pretty lips of yours.”

Antonio nods and says, “I sure can see you working upstairs.”

His words leave Jesus speechless.

Earlier in the evening, Jesus had suspected it was stupid to go out tonight, particularly with Antonio, whom Rafa used to recommend when contractors – or White Knights, as Rafa called them both for their skin tone and the color of their aging vans – needed another set of hands.  Rafa now recommends Jesus when the White Knights descend on their neighborhood, Highlandtown.  He started doing that ever since Jesus told him about getting married at age seventeen once his girlfriend got pregnant with his baby girl.  “It was what was expected of me,” Jesus explained after Antonio quizzed him about marrying someone he barely knew.

“That’s all that you can think of,” Rafa barks at Doña Juana. “How to prostitute others so you can make money. It’s disgusting.”

“Your babbling stopped being cute just about half an hour ago,” Doña Juana says with a tight smile. “You need to calm down, or I’ll throw your sorry ass out!”

Rafa mutters something back at her, but stops mid-sentence.

Jesus interjects, “We’re just tired of busting our asses for nothing.”

“Well said, Jesus,” Antonio slurs.  “We should demand more money.”

Jesus smirks at those words.  A few weeks back, after seeing a sign pinned on a bodega’s board asking him and others not to accept less than ten dollars from the White Knights, Rafa implored Antonio and Jesus to band together.  Antonio blenched, his body bulky and clumsy, and mumbled under his breath, “I can’t.”

“Yes, you should,” Doña Juana coos at Antonio, mocking his fake accent.  She then lets out a hearty laugh that practically shakes the table.  “These good-for-nothing drunks won’t do it.”

Antonio’s face becomes ablaze with anger at being found out.  Jesus has never seen him like this, even after Rafa stopped giving him praise.  Every morning, Antonio goes out with them, and when the White Knights don’t pick him, as if he were yesterday’s news, he displays no emotion.  He just stays there, waves at Rafa and Jesus, wishing them good luck, and strays away, searching for other opportunities.

“We’re not like your whores!” Rafa barks.

“Really?” says Doña Juana.  “Didn’t you beg me for work when you arrived in Baltimore?”   She then leans forward, adding, “I remember you saying ‘willing to do whatever around here,’ or was that bullshit?”

Rafa turns his gaze to Jesus, who tries to appear normal but nonetheless feels bad for Rafa.  Jesus thinks he should have known better than to cross Doña Juana.  The first time Jesus met him at the bus station in downtown Baltimore, Rafa told Jesus not to trust anyone, particularly White Knights, who may stiff him once the work is done.  He said it was pointless to argue with them or to go to the police – just learn from it.  It’s just fate.

Tonight, it seems Rafa hasn’t learned much because he stands up, staring at Doña Juana with a murdering look, shoves his chair out of the way, and marches toward the bathroom.

“Oh! How delicate,” Doña Juana derides. “The mister’s mad.”

Antonio seems to ignore her, gazing at his beer instead.Doña Juana places her rough hand on Jesus’s and waves him in with the other.  Jesus leans in, and she whispers, “Don’t let them drag you into their shit.”

Jesus leans back and turns his gaze toward Antonio, who’s still brewing silently.  Jesus grabs his now empty beer can and clinks it against Antonio’s.  “One more?”

Antonio’s red face has faded away to unveil its typical caramel color.  He clinks his beer back against Jesus’s.  “Sure.”

“I’ll get them,” Doña Juana offers, waddling her way to the bar.  She says something to her husband, who then rushes to the kitchen.  Rafa emerges from the bathroom, and Doña Juana calls for him.  She goes to the kitchen, and Rafa disappears behind her.

Antonio tilts his head toward Jesus and narrows his eyes.  “Was she good?”

“Who?” asks Jesus.

“Marisol.”

“Oh.”  Jesus considers the question for a moment. “Yeah.  Of course.”

“Of course,” Antonio repeats with a smirk.  “Did you like it?”

“What?”

“Never mind.” Antonio runs his fingers through his hair and leans back against his chair.  “Where are our beers?”

Jesus stares at Antonio.  “You’ve slept with her?”

“Who hasn’t?”

Jesus throws his arm over Antonio’s shoulder and asks him with a smirk, “Was she good?”

Antonio turns his head toward Jesus, who catches a blast of Antonio’s leathery scent.  Jesus smiles at him but then feels Antonio’s gaze sweeping over his face.  “Why?  Do you want me to show you how to do it?”

The words jar Jesus, who removes his arm from Antonio’s shoulder.  Jesus then creeps away from Antonio, who looks into Jesus’s eyes as if he were telling him that he found Jesus’s question, if not Jesus himself, disgusting.

Rafa charges out of the kitchen, marred and stomping hard, heads directly for the door, and storms out of the house.  Jesus and Antonio follow him outside.  It’s only four blocks to their house, heading east along Pratt Street, but the frigid air of this February evening tightens Jesus’s muscles and slows his pace.  He’s a few steps behind Antonio, keeping a measurable distance from him.  Rafa is still seething, and Antonio keeps telling him to let it go.

“What happened?”  Jesus asks, the cold air stabbing his lungs.

“We need to do it tomorrow,” Rafa announces.  “When they come and offer us work, we all have to ask for ten dollars an hour.”

“But they could go elsewhere,” Jesus counters.

Jesus wants to tell them it’s idiotic to expect that the White Knights would pay that much.  He had to leave Phoenix because there were so many people asking for work that contractors could offer six dollars an hour and get enough hands in the air.  Jesus asked his cousin where there might be less competition, and he told Jesus to go east, where he had a trusted acquaintance – Rafa.  On this cold evening, Jesus also wants to ask Rafa why, of all months, he had to pick February, when there’s the least amount of work.  Instead, Jesus says nothing.

“Once they drive all the way into the city,” Rafa responds, “they won’t waste their time going to another place, and there won’t be many people looking for a job on a Sunday.”

“I’m with you, brother,” Antonio says as he gently elbows him.

Both of them slow down and turn to see Jesus, their faces beaming with anticipation and intoxication.  Jesus gives them a little smile and nods.  Antonio and Rafa smile back and bob their heads simultaneously.  Antonio steps forward, rests his hand on Jesus’s shoulder, squeezing it slightly, and bellows out, “United will never be defeated!”

Jesus grins, puts his hand on Antonio’s shoulder, both looking as though they were about to start dancing at a quinciañera, and repeats, “United will never be defeated!”

Both laugh.  Antonio throws his arm on Jesus’s shoulder, nudging his body toward Antonio’s and making his head bow under the pressure of his arm.  Antonio playfully grinds Jesus’s head with his knuckles.  “This kid will be all right,” Antonio yells to Rafa, who is almost a block away, staggering to their home.

Jesus feels a warm fluttering in his heart.  He hugs Antonio and says, “You’re drunk.”

“Yep,” responds Antonio, who then releases Jesus and starts ambling up the empty street.  Jesus follows him a step behind, grinning all the way to their home.


The row-house that Jesus now calls home, one that he detests, is similar to Doña Juana’s, at least in size and layout.  It differs in that every room is cluttered with foam mattresses, each covered with second-hand sweaters and winter coats that serve as both blankets and outfits for the nine people who live in the house.  After opening the door, Jesus slinks upstairs to the room he shares with Rafa and Antonio, passing through the stink of tobacco and alcohol that comes from the dormant bodies lying on the mattresses.  In their room, Jesus leans forward to grab a toothbrush from his backpack, only to come across a small, blonde Barbie doll, handed down to him last month by a tall woman living outside the city in a beautiful brick house with a faulty chimney that needed urgent repair before the arrival of winter.  He pulls the doll out of the backpack and places it gently against his heart, knowing that he left Honduras to look for better opportunities as much as to escape the responsibilities of being a father and living with a wife for whom he has no feelings.

“Is that for your girl?” asks Rafa.

Jesus glances over his shoulder and sees Antonio plop onto his mattress.  “Yes,” Jesus whispers soft enough for Rafa to hear but not loud enough for Antonio to ridicule.

“And for your wife?”

Jesus looks away.  He feels small telling Rafa he’s better off without her.

“What happened in the kitchen?” Jesus asks Rafa, glancing at Antonio, who snores with the roar of a great critter.

Rafa sits on the floor, his back leaning against one of the walls. “She thinks I’m fucking up your future.”

Jesus crawls toward Rafa and sits next to him.  “Why?”

Rafa sighs and rubs his eyes with his hand.  “She has plans for you.  She said working for the White Knights is not the way to go.”  He folds his arms, hugging his body.  “She also said my days as a construction worker are almost over.  Getting old.”

Jesus nudges Rafa’s leg with his.  “She was pissed off, so she was trying to get into your head.  What does she know about anything?”

Rafa stares at the doll that Jesus left lying on his mattress.  “I suppose,” he responds with a brooding tone.  “Time to sleep now.  We have work to do tomorrow.”


The next day, Jesus and his comrades head north along Highland Avenue, carrying their backpacks, full of gloves, candy bars, and a plastic bottle filled with tap water.  They are still a bit inebriated and had only instant coffee and a stale piece of bread for breakfast.  Not many people are walking or driving on this February morning, and the alcohol has not worn off enough for his body to register how cold it actually is.  As soon as they turn on Fayette, Rafa reminds everyone about the plan, which Jesus believed earlier today was just the result of last night’s intoxication and scorn.  He thinks Rafa will reconsider, once he sees others at the corner waiting for work, but it is only the three of them today.  They stand motionless at the street corner, dropping their backpacks next to a stop sign.  The cold air gradually invades their bodies, draining any desire to talk and lifting the fog that cloaks Jesus’s memories of the money spent last night:  almost a full day’s pay.

“For what?” he thinks.  “A headache and a regret?”  He understands he needs to recoup the money for his wife, but just for a moment, Jesus thinks of not sending any.  He then pictures his daughter.  Unlike the image of his wife, foggy and foreign, that of his child is always alive in his mind.  However, he suspects he may not be a good father because once his daughter was born, he realized he would rather spend time playing soccer than changing her diaper.

A muddy van finally pulls in, and two bearded men step onto the street, wearing overalls and equally dirty jean jackets that cover their over-sized bellies.  Jesus wonders about the thinness of their outfits, particularly in this weather.

One of them says in broken Spanish, “You three.  Seven dollars.  Six hours.”  He motions his index finger in the air to create an imaginary circle, adding, “Back… afternoon.”

Rafa shakes his head and counters in English, “Ten dollars an hour.”

The men from the van look at each other for a second, confused.  Then, they both respond in both English and Spanish, “No, no…. seven dollars.”

Rafa puts his hands in front of himself with his palms facing the men, spreading his fingers as wide as possible while repeating in English, “Ten, ten, no less.”

The two men from the van exchange some words between them that Jesus can’t understand, but their expressions have turned from confused to tense.  The one who speaks broken Spanish turns and says, “Seven dollars hour.  Only two.”  He then points to Antonio and Jesus, while the other man points to Rafa and waves him off.

Antonio stares at Rafa with an emotionless expression for a second.  He turns to the two men and asks for eight dollars.  The White Knights exchange looks with each other and then nod.  Antonio grabs his backpack and marches toward the van.  Rafa turns his gaze toward Jesus, who then looks away.  Antonio, who now is near the van, yells to Jesus in Spanish, “Let’s go.  It’s cold.”

Jesus considers his request, feeling a lump trapped in his belly.  He sighs, hoists his bag up onto his back, and strides by Rafa, not wanting to exchange any words or looks with him.  Antonio squeezes by the front seat and sits in the back, and so does Jesus, who can’t help looking through the window and seeing Rafa, who is on the sidewalk, staring at them with a surprised look.

“He’ll be alright,” Antonio says.  “His turn to wait for us.”

Jesus wants to shut him up but chooses to remain quiet.  For a brief moment, Jesus wonders if he could jump out of the van and join Rafa, but he tells himself that he can’t because Antonio and the White Knights will be very mad.

“You speak English?” Jesus asks Antonio in Spanish.

The White Knights climb into the van, and Antonio asks him in English if they’re having a good morning.  They mumble something Jesus takes as a yes.

“Learning,” Antonio whispers to Jesus in Spanish.  “Doña Juana helped me.”  He looks out as the van chugs along, passing by boarded-up houses.  “We can’t depend on Rafa forever.”

The van heads west, rolling through a maze of dilapidated buildings.  Antonio elbows Jesus and then discretely points at the White Knights, as if telling him to pay attention to his next move.  With a syrupy voice, Antonio tells them this is a great van, the best ride he’s ever had.  The driver nods and lets out a little smile.  Jesus turns to look back, hoping to see Highlandtown, but now it’s more of a memory than a distant object.  He looks through the other windows.  Everything is unfamiliar.  He fidgets on his seat.  The image of Rafa’s somber face weighs on him, and even though it’s stifling, Jesus suspects he’ll eventually defeat this familiar feeling, if nothing else, by the firmness of his faith in fate.

Germán Mora is a native of Bogotá, Colombia.  He is the author of over thirty scientific articles and has a PhD in biogeochemistry.  He lives in Baltimore, where he serves on the faculty of Goucher College, teaching students to be better stewards of the natural environment and takes creative writing classes with some of his own students.

A Short Story by Emma Merchant

Cars passing under the Kansas City junction of highways sang together a beautiful harmony of engines and tire squeals, while bright fluorescent lights lined the ceiling of the tunnel and bounced off cars all the way through to the other side. Many of the speeding drivers lived there and traveled the same route every day, but others were only experiencing it for the first time. Among the newcomers were eight-year-old Rebecca and her father, coasting in a small, burnt-blue Subaru on their way through towards Denver.

“What does J-C-T mean, Papa?” Asked Rebecca, pointing towards a large traffic sign.

“Junction. Like, ‘conjunction-junction, what’s your function?’” He responded in song, remembering the silly tune he taught his daughter during her first Grammar class.

Before the hectic city, they had driven through long stretches of highway sided by old, shabby neighborhoods which appeared to dissipate further with every gust of wind. Rebecca had asked her father what was wrong with the houses, and who could possibly survive in a building so thin and small. He took a few minutes to digest the question before answering her,

“Many people cannot afford to fix up the house every time something breaks. And if they can’t afford to fix things, they surely can’t afford to buy a whole new house. Does that make sense?”

It hurt Rebecca deep down when he said that, reminded her of their own home in Florida– the one they were leaving behind. The home she had grown up in with both parents, to which no future home will ever compare since her mother left them for another man. It would just be the two of them in a house, and the thought made Rebecca nervous in a new way. She couldn’t quite place what it was until she remembered that her father would be working in an office. Full-time. What was she to do all day while he was gone? School in Denver would only go until 1:30 p.m. on most days–according to her dad.

“A junction is an overlapping of streets, highways, train tracks, or other transportation. See? We just went under and over many other roads and now we are crossing the river.”

She looked through the window at the passing city around her. They had moved through the thicket of traffic and into a dark, industrial side of downtown, made of stained, damaged, burnt brick structures that cast an ugly shadow, making it appear to Rebecca as though the streets were buried in soot. She could not see the ground through the darkness of the shadows, and she wondered how people living in Kansas City could see anything. Did they move here to start over after their mom abandoned them, too? Does anyone ever stay in the same place for their whole life? Would her mom ever come back to them?

Rebecca’s dad interrupted her thoughts again, saying

“See, kiddo? The river divides Missouri from Kansas, but Kansas City continues through both!”

She looked out ahead of them and the winding road began to stretch open on either side, exposing soft, rolling hills with pleasant grass and even some wildflowers. The clouded sky began to slowly part and reveal the light aqua tableau behind. It immediately felt like a different place. But they had only gone a short distance, and were still in the same city. Rebecca was baffled at how different she felt now that they had left the darkness of downtown. All the way through Florida and the southern Midwest, Rebecca had not noticed such a drastic difference in one city, in such a short period of time. She drifted into absent thought again, wondering if this view through the windshield would remain for the rest of their journey; if this is what she had to look forward to in the new place she’ll call “home.” She didn’t know very much about Denver, other than it had no beaches but many mountains. Her father wouldn’t stop talking about the mountains and the many trips and adventures he had planned for them. Hikes and boat rides and journeys together, where they could bond and become a two-person family of their own.

“I see, Dad. I like the Kansas side better.”

She glanced at him, how he gripped the steering wheel gently but firmly–the same way he held her hand, and she felt a knot form in her throat. Her eyes stung and she swallowed.

“I love you, Dad. I can’t wait to get there.”

Emma Merchant was born in Washington State and has spent her life exploring the world. Many of her stories are inspired by fond memories of traveling.

A Short Story by Max McCoubrey

Claire made her way through Merrion Square toward the entrance of the National Gallery. The day out was a well-deserved break from her responsibilities at home and, as she neared the impressive building, a flush of freedom warmed her face. It felt as if she’d escaped from jail. She walked along the granite ramp, through the grand columns, and, once inside, she reached for a copy of the gallery map.

She’d spent many hours lost in wonder, roaming the halls of the gallery, admiring Irish masterpieces, Italian Baroque, and Dutch masters. But Claire was on a mission to see a particular painting. She’d watched a documentary about how artist Gareth Reid won the honour of painting Graham Norton’s portrait, and she wanted to view it for herself. She found room twenty-three on the gallery map and headed in that direction.

Claire made her way into room twenty-three and, in the exact moment that she saw Graham’s portrait, she also saw a man standing in front of it. There wasn’t any part of him she didn’t recognise. There in front of her were the long legs that had wrapped themselves around her, the arms that had held her when sobs of shock racked her body, and the lips that could deliver the sweetest kisses she had ever known in her twenty-nine years on this earth.

As if he could sense her presence, he turned slowly toward her and away from the portrait. The years fell away as he searched for recognition.  Finally, it came.

“Claire,” he said softly.

A flicker of a smile fought its way from the corner of his mouth and tried to make the journey to the centre.  His eyes registered shock.  She let his once familiar name fall.

“Leo.”

The name jumped from her lips and waltzed into her heart as if it had always been there, which in a way it had.  It had been so long since she had entertained it and she was surprised to find that its use sent a sprinkling of warmth thru her like a lit firework on route on its sky journey to light up a million dark places.

Another visitor to the gallery, an elderly lady, intent on seeing Graham Norton full on in centre tapped Leo on the shoulder and said, “You’re masking my view of Graham, dear.”

Leo took two steps to the right and even though that brought him nearer to Claire he made no attempt to greet her warmly.  He stood awkwardly and remainted silent.

She cleared her throat.

“I saw you on Graham’s television programme a while ago, you played beautifully.”

He didn’t answer. She thought he looked well.  The scarf around his neck brought out the blue of his eyes and his black frock coat gave him an illusion of mystery. She remembered that his sartorial elegance always made him an imposing figure and marvelled at how mature he had grown in the years since she had last seen him. He still had a preference for black shirts and black jeans.

“Yeah, I’m on a clock,” he motioned to his wrist which didn’t have a watch on it. “I promised Graham I’d look in on his portrait and I’ve done that so….”

“Of course.” 

She watched him walk away, pull the big white door open and her eyes stayed with him as he pressed the button on the lift.  When he had disappeared, she stood looking at Graham’s portrait for a long while. Lost more in remembrance than the present. She eventually wandered away and went in search of the William Orpen painting of Count John McCormack.

She overheard a little girl ask a question.

“Who’s the man in the statue at the front?” The little girl was looking out the window.

“That’s William Dargon,” the lady pointed to it. “The people of Ireland would not have this lovely gallery if it wasn’t for him.”

Claire was still lost in thought. She was thinking of piano man and the day he had come to audition for her late night gig.  After he had wiped away all competition and secured the booking, he had not thanked her. Instead, he had set his boundaries.

“I’m just here because I need some new equipment,” he had said emphatically.

She wasn’t sure if this was honestly or rudeness, but she listened anyway and forced a smile. She was tired. She had to take what she could get, attitude or no attitude.

Playing pop or popular music was ‘selling out’ in his opinion and he played it only to save the money the philistines paid in and then he’d run away as fast as he could with all the jazz lessons he could afford and a Hammond organ with vibrato, reverb and harmonic percussion.

She tolerated the derision night after night until one time when she was tired and hungry and fed up waiting to be paid and she suggested he leave, or else hand back some of the money as a protest.

“Couldn’t do that,” he said sarcastically, “that’s the only reason I am here.”

Claire tried to push back the memories but they grappled with her and won. Now, mentally, she was in the car beside him as they drove to Limerick.

“It’s not Borris on Ossory.” he said exasperatedly. “It’s Borris in Ossery, don’t you know anything?”

She had been relaxed beside him for once and was telling him a funny story about their last piano player fixing their car when the fan belt went in Borris, by using her tights. 

He was missing the point of the fun story.

“It’s a medieval Irish kingdom which existed from the first century until the Norman Invasion in the twelfth. Do you understand that?” 

He changed gear and stole a glance at her to make sure she had heard him correctly.  She had not spoken for the rest of the journey.

Claire brushed her hair away from her face and for no logical reason began to smile at the memory.

She heard the little girl’s voice high above the whispers of the public viewers. “What’s a turret?” and immediately Claire knew she was talking about Ireland’s favourite painting, “Meeting on the turret stairs” by Burton.  She waited for them to leave and then alone in the room stood in front of the painting and reflected on it.

A moment of unrequited love captured in talented brush strokes. She heard a noise.

Leo was standing with the gallery map in his hand. “The guy who painted it…”

“Butler. I know”

They stood together aware of a strong vibration. 

“Time has been good to you,” he finally whispered.

His voice brought her to a faraway place. The rasp in it always had attracted her, but today, it held a power over her too.  She remembered how once it had made her feel safe.

After a show in the midlands of Ireland in the mid-winter, during a storm ,they had packed the car  with their three encores ringing in their ears  and Leo , deciding he would drive for the first hour of the journey home sat into the driver’s seat and turned the ignition key.

Nothing.

He turned it again.  Again nothing.

His voice was a flat as the battery.  “Did you leave the interior light on?” he said accusingly.

She opened the door and took out her overnight case.

“Tomorrow I’ll call the AA,” she said. “I’m staying here, you figure what you’re going to do and we’ll meet whenever you have done that.”

She encountered his stony face again, at the reception desk.  She was looking for a room.  So was he. The receptionist told them she had only one double left. Claire booked it and he followed her wordlessly.

“You can use the bathroom first,” she said throwing her bag on a chair by the window and turned on the muted television.  The light was like that of a silver moon.

He said he wanted to apologise for being rude and told her he had a lot on his mind. He felt he had a vocation and had, after much deliberation decided to enter a seminary.  She felt a salty tear cascade from her eye and bunji jump to her shoulder.  It was closely followed by others and they were even more closely followed by sobs she found difficult to control.  If she could have saved her privacy by bolting out the door, into the car and driven to Dublin she would have but she was trapped.

He was staring at her with disbelief in his face and she was mortified.  His shock was apparent. He was not the only one who had not expected this reaction.  Instinctively he reached for her uplifted face and comforted her.

What had followed next was the unforgettable part. She blinked and marvelled at how the painter had captured the longing in the eyes of his models.

She shifted her gaze from the painting to Leo.  She saw in his eyes an expression that told her that he had lived a lot since that night the best part of a decade ago. Those blue eyes were wiser now.  They had seen a lot of life. He had made adult decisions and leaving the seminary was one of them. “I had some bad experiences. It wasn’t what I thought it would be” he was all he was prepared to say.

“Could we start again please?”  He moved behind her and looked over her shoulder “I would love to begin again.”

She turned around and looked straight at him. His face was so famous now. His music sold in millions. She looked at his familiar fingers. 

“You’re so well known,” she pushed a stray hair away from his face.

“That wasn’t what I thought it would be either,” he kissed her fingers.

She took her hand away, reached for her business card and pressed it into his.  “All my contact details are there,” she pointed to the list of information under her name. “This was an unexpected meeting so you may need time to think.”

“I don’t need time to think.” He looked closely at the card. “I’ll be in touch first thing in the morning!”

“Enjoy the painting,” she whispered and left him alone in the room.

Claire walked into café to calm herself with a cup of tea and, even though she didn’t notice him, Leo had followed her and was standing by the stairway, the fingers so familiar were putting her details into his phone.

Max McCoubrey is a freelance writer living in Dublin Ireland. Her background is in show business and she often draws on her experiences in her stories. Her work has been published in Qutub Minar, Pioneer Magazine, Ireland’s Own and Little Gems.

A Short Story by John Sheirer

They had been hiking for half an hour when Ben stumbled over a root hidden under a layer of leaves. He lunged forward and caught himself by grabbing his sister Beth’s shoulders.

“Holy shit, Ben!” Beth grumbled as she staggered but managed to keep her much larger brother from falling. “Walk much, doofus?”

“Hey!” Ben said through a grimace. “Mom said I reached all my developmental milestones faster than you did.”

“And you’re going the other way faster, too,” Beth replied. “But, seriously, you okay?” she asked as they both stopped to regain their balance.

Ben held a nearby tree as he flexed his right leg. “Nothing three or four operations won’t cure.”

Twenty yards ahead on the trail, Alex and Kelly, their spouses, stopped their lively pace through the autumn New England woods. Alex turned and shouted, “You guys all right?”

“Just fine!” Beth said, waving. “Keep going, honey. We’ll catch up.”

“No you won’t,” Kelly called out with a laugh. “It’s okay. We’ll see you at the car.”

Alex and Kelly always walked ahead of Beth and Ben during their weekly Sunday afternoon hike. Their visits to various trails in the area had become such a ritual that they even hired a babysitter to watch Ben’s toddler, Monty, while they hiked. All four were excited for the day when Monty could join them without whining and needing to be carried after ten minutes.

Ben sighed. “Yeah, okay,” he called ahead to their faster soul mates. Then he spoke softly to his sister. “Those two are in such great shape it makes me ashamed.”

Beth laughed. “Tell me about it,” she said. “Alex gets up an hour before me to exercise each day.”

“No kidding?” Ben responded. “Kelly waits until after work, then runs for an hour on the treadmill.”

“We’re pathetic, aren’t we?” Beth asked. “Early forties going on seventy.” They both laughed.

“We couldn’t be too pathetic if we convinced those two to marry us,” Ben said.

Beth replied, “What do they even see in two broken-down farts like us?”

“It sure isn’t beauty or money,” Ben replied.

“Must be our personalities,” Beth said with a fake smile.

They resumed walking. This time, they had enough room to walk side by side on the widening trail. If either one stumbled, they would have no sibling ahead to catch them.

After a few minutes of silent hiking, Ben’s knee loosened up, and their step quickened. Sweat glistened on their similar broad foreheads. They even closed the gap behind Alex and Kelly by a few yards.

“Speaking of personalities,” Ben said between deep breaths, “did you visit Mom this week?”

“Yeah,” Beth replied. “I went Wednesday instead of the usual Tuesday. Meetings all afternoon on Tuesday.”

“I went before work on Monday,” Ben said. “It was nice to spend an hour with her in the morning. Her room gets good light.”

“Was she surprised when you showed up?” Beth asked.

Ben laughed. “Yeah. She wondered if I got fired. I told her that people were allowed to be late for work now and then if they’re visiting their mother in the nursing home.”

“I’ll bet I can guess what she said about that,” Beth said.

“Okay,” Ben replied. “On three. One, two, three—”

“Then you should visit more often!” they sang out in unison. Then they shared a dignified, understated high-five. Alex and Kelly turned, laughed, and kept walking.

“Did she say, ‘like you sister Karen’?” Ben asked.

“No,” Beth replied, “but I’ll bet she was thinking it.

“I wish I could visit as often as Karen does. I’m sure you do too,” Ben said.

“We just don’t have the time that she does,” Beth said.

“I confess to being jealous that she can work from home,” Ben said. “I don’t actually want to work from home, mind you. When I’m home, I like to forget about work.”

“Me too,” Beth replied. “And I’d get so fat with such easy access to my personal chocolate supply. But it does give her a lot more time to visit Mom than we have.”

“Yeah,” Ben said. “It’s hard having the best sibling ever.”

“People overhearing that comment might think you’re bitter and petty,” Beth said.

“I am not bitter,” Ben said.

“And only a little petty,” Beth added with a chuckle.

“Well, sure,” Ben said. “And Karen knows we love her.”

“It’s been hard since her divorce,” Beth said.

“She told me that she’s glad she didn’t have kids with him,” Ben said.

Beth lowered her voice. “Don’t tell Karen, but I never liked that turd. She deserves much better.”

“Let’s get her on Match.com,” Ben suggested. “Not quite yet, but soon. She’s almost fifty”

“But she’s definitely not showing her age, unlike us. Maybe she’ll find a guy who can keep up with her,” Beth said.

They slowed their pace, giving up on catching the speedsters ahead of them.

“You’ve got a bug,” Beth said, pointing at her brother’s beard.

Ben slapped at this face with quick, staccato movements.

“Let me,” Beth said. They both stopped as Beth reached up to her brother’s face and flicked the bug away.

“Thanks,” Ben said, smoothing his beard.

“You’re welcome,” Beth replied as they started walking again. “You can repay me by coming to visit me when I’m in the nursing home one day.”

Ben laughed. “I’m older. I’ll be there first.”

“Just by one year,” Beth said. “You never know.”

“We’re lucky,” Ben said. “Those two …” he pointed to Alex and Kelly. “They’ll outlive us by a decade easy. They’ll take care of us when we’re old and feeble.”

“That’s a terrible thing to say,” Beth mock protested.

“Tell me you haven’t thought about it,” Ben replied.

Beth hesitated, looking deep into the woods. “Okay, sure I have. I’m terrible too. But I would never say it out loud.”

“Maybe we should,” Ben said.

“Should what?” Beth asked.

“Say it out loud,” Ben replied. “We should talk about this stuff sooner or later.”

“Yuck!” Beth said, a pained look on her face. She pointed to the side of the trail. “I’d rather drink out of that mud puddle over there.”

“Beavers probably peed in that puddle,” Ben said.

“I don’t care,” Beth insisted. “Drinking beaver pee would be better than talking about getting old and going to a nursing home.”

“True,” Ben said. For a moment, they were quiet. Only their dragging boots and heavy breathing rose above the ambient forest sound.

“Do you have one of those thingies?” Ben asked.

“Thingy? What thingy?” Beth replied.

“You know,” Ben said. “Instructions for what you want done if you end up brain dead or something. A living will.”

“I guess we are talking about this,” Beth said.

Ben raised both hands above his head as if surrendering to a greater force. “I don’t want to either, believe me,” he said. “But we should.”

“There’s no water near here,” Beth said. “So, no beavers to pee in the puddles.”

“Lots of squirrels, though,” Ben said. “With these dry leaves, they’re loud as bears.”

They walked in silence again. Step, step, step. Breath, breath, breath.

“A bear attack might be okay,” Beth said. “Maybe we’ll die quick.”

“Best way to go in a bear attack is quick,” Ben agreed.

“Don’t want to hang on if a grizzly bear chews your face off,” Beth said.

“Grizzlies are brown bears,” Ben said. “We have black bears in New England.”

“Smarty pants,” Beth said. “Brown, black, grizzly—doesn’t matter. They all bite hard.”

“Yeah. Dad was smart about that. You know. Dying quickly,” Ben replied. “Even finished shoveling the driveway so nobody had to finish it for him.”

“Smart and courteous,” Beth said.

“I always admired that about him,” Ben replied.

“You’re starting to look like a bear with that bug-catching beard,” Beth said.

“Kelly likes it,” Ben replied.

“Heart disease is hereditary, you know,” Beth said.

“Have you gone to a cardiologist?” Ben asked.

“Alex made me. Last year,” Beth replied. “The quack said my heart is great. What does he know?”

Ben snorted. “Those two must have been plotting. Kelly nagged me until I went last year too.”

“And?” Beth asked.

“Yeah, I’m good too,” Ben replied. “If you can believe anything a doctor has to say.”

“Not like they went to medical school or anything,” Beth mumbled, kicking a fallen tree branch.

“Hey,” Ben said, “remember how good Mom was at helping Karen when she got sick about ten years ago?”

“You mean when she had H1N1 and then it turned into pneumonia?” Beth asked.

“Yeah,” Ben replied. “Mom dropped everything and went to her. Stayed with her for three weeks until she could go back to work.”

“I’ve always felt a little guilty that I didn’t help or even visit,” Beth said.

“Me too,” Ben replied. “We thought we were too busy with our own jobs and lives and whatever. Some siblings we are, huh? But Mom was there for her.”

“Mom’s the best,” Beth said.

“Yep, the best,” Ben echoed.

Ahead, Alex and Kelly were taking turns sprinting twenty yards and then waiting while the other sprinted to catch up. Sprint, wait. Sprint, wait. Sprint, wait.

“Those two should have married each other,” Ben said with a chuckle.

“I’m sure they did,” Beth replied. “In an alternate universe.”

“Seriously,” Ben said. “What should we put in our living wills?”

Beth spoke with her eyes fixed on the trail ahead. “Well, don’t pull the plug just because you want all of our big inheritance.”

“Yeah,” Ben said. “There’s probably a few hundred dollars at stake.”

“Mom and Dad weren’t exactly big savers,” Beth said. “And the money from the house is mostly going to the nursing home.”

“What if you have a stroke and can’t talk?” Ben asked.

“Wow,” Beth deadpanned. “Oddly specific. But okay. I can’t talk. Can I still feed myself?”

“Yes,” Ben replied. “Soft foods only.”

Ben pointed to a patch of poison ivy just a few feet off the trail. Beth nodded and maneuvered to keep extra distance from the evil weed that had plagued them both since childhood.

“Can I still walk even if I’m mute and subsist on bananas and apple sauce?” Beth asked.

“Can you now?” Ben laughed, pretending to trip her. “Yeah, but slow and with a walker so you don’t fall and need knee surgery like me.”

“How about going to the bathroom by myself?” Beth asked.

“Number one or number two?” Ben replied.

“All three,” Beth said.

“Yeah,” Ben replied. “You can still handle basic bathroom stuff alone.”

“Then don’t shove a pillow over my face yet,” Beth said.

“Yeah,” Ben said. “Same here.”

Alex and Kelly had stopped sprinting and were stretching to let Beth and Ben catch up.

“What if we can’t read or follow a basic conversation?” Ben asked.

“What if we forget which cabinet we keep the coffee in or say something really fucked up, like, ‘You know, that Trump fella really wasn’t so bad after all’?” Beth asked in a doddering, foolish voice.

“Holy shit, yes! If I ever start rambling about rigged witch hunts or fake news, kill me on the spot, obviously!” Ben replied.

“Because of coffee or Trump?” Beth asked.

“Yes!” Ben replied with a smile.

“Gotcha,” Beth replied.

“You should be having this discussion with little Ben, Jr.,” Beth said, casting Ben a sideways glance and holding back an equally sideways grin.

“That’s not Montague’s name,” Ben said, feigning annoyance.

“I know,” Beth said. “But it’s so fun to think of little Montague as little Ben, Jr. Who is he named after again? Kelly’s paternal great-granduncle twice removed or something like that?”

“Something like that,” Ben said, allowing himself a chuckle. “I honestly can’t remember. But everybody loves the name ‘Monty.’”

“Yeah, that is a seriously cool name for a three-year-old,” Beth conceded. “Years from now you can yell from your hospice bed, ‘Monty, where’s my butterscotch pudding?’”

Ben called out in a sing-song voice to match Beth’s, “And I need my bedpan emptied again, Monty!”

Beth cringed. “Yikes, that escalated quickly.”

“The conversation or the trail?” Ben asked.

“Both,” Beth responded.

From up ahead, Kelly called back, “Are you guys yelling for us?”

“No!” Ben and Beth shouted in unison, exchanging mischievous looks.

As they trudged ahead on an uphill part of the trail, their smiles gradually faded. Sweat renewed on their foreheads, and they were huffing too hard to say anything.

When at last they crested the peak and started back down the slope, their breathing returned to normal.

“It is a comforting thought that Monty will be around when Kelly and I are old,” Ben said softly.

“Yeah,” Beth replied.

“I don’t plan on nagging him to come see us the way Mom does to us sometimes,” Ben said.

“What’s the old saying?” Beth asked. “‘Make a plan and watch God kick you in the nuts?”

“Fair point,” Ben replied, “even if your quote isn’t quite accurate.”

“Parents nag. Kids get nagged at,” Beth said. “It’s in the official job descriptions.”

“What’s up with you and Alex?” Ben asked. “Are you thinking about it?”

“We’re about the same place we’ve been from the start,” Beth said. “We’re happy with our cats and small laundry loads.”

“You’d be great parents,” Ben said.

“Not as good as you and Kelly,” Beth replied.

“Thanks, sis,” Ben said. “And you’re both welcome to nag Monty to come see you guys in the nursing home when the time comes.”

“That kid will have so many grandparents to visit that he won’t have time to hold down a job,” Beth said.

“If all goes well, he’ll be retired by then,” Ben said.

“God, it’s so weird to think about that little guy being retired someday,” Beth replied.

“Yeah,” Ben said. “It was probably weird for Mom and Dad to think of us as grown-ups too.”

“I still think it’s weird that we’re grown-ups,” Beth replied.

“Speak for yourself,” Ben said. “I have no intention of growing up until I have to.”

“Sorry, dude,” Beth replied. “You drive a minivan. That makes you a grown-up.”

“Damn,” Ben said. “That’s a good point. Okay. I give up. I’m a grown-up.”

Ahead, Alex and Kelly were moving again. Beth and Ben noticed that they had almost reached their cars parked in the little gravel lot at the trailhead.

“Praise Jesus, we’re almost back!” Beth said, wiping sweat from her forehead.

“What if we get so bad that we can’t recognize each other or those two up there?” Ben asked, pointing to their spouses.

“That’s a whole different story,” Beth said. “I don’t mind the walker or a little help in the toilet, but not having my mind working or forgetting who I love would really suck.”

“As if your mind works now,” Ben said.

“True,” Beth replied. “Also, I’m rubber and you’re glue, bug guy.”

The brother and sister caught up to their spouses as they waited by their respective cars.

Alex had unlocked their Subaru and was drinking deeply from her water bottle. Beth admired how her long brown hair flowed down her back as she surprised her with a hug.

“I still recognize you!” Beth said with a laugh as she kissed Alex’s face on both cheeks.

“That’s good to hear!” Alex replied. “Let me know right away if that changes, okay?”

Ben gave Kelly a bear hug. Combined, the two big men probably weighed as much as a medium-sized black bear.

“Let’s go home,” Kelly said. “You guys were so slow that the sitter’s probably wondering if we’re ever coming back. And the Patriots game starts in an hour.”

“Can’t miss that!” Ben said through gritted teeth as Kelly slipped into the driver’s seat of their Honda minivan.

“Your husband loves him some football,” Beth said to Ben as they met halfway between their cars.

Ben laughed. “I’m sure he’ll insist on watching the Patriots in my hospital room before they make any decisions about life support and heroic measures.”

“For you or him?” Beth asked.

“Either,” Ben replied. “Depends on whether the Patriots are winning or losing.”

“Do you suppose straight couples have conversations like this?” Beth asked.

“Some of them, sure, I guess. Straights can be as normal as we are,” Ben said. “But Mom and Dad never did.”

“True,” Beth said. “But they didn’t seem to talk about anything important. Maybe that’s a generational thing.”

“Or maybe we just didn’t hear them talking about it,” Ben said. “Who knows?”

“We could ask Mom,” Beth said.

“You go first,” Ben replied.

“We should probably have this conversation with Monty for real,” Beth said.

“Oh, lord,” Ben sighed. “I guess. But not for a few years, okay? Toddlers don’t need to hear this kind of talk.”

“Yeah, we’ll dump this on him when he’s a teenager who hates talking to us as much as we hated talking to Mom and Dad back then,” Beth said with a laugh. “He’ll love that!”

Their laughter ended quickly, and they shared a meaningful look.

“For now,” Ben said softly, “let’s look for the forms and maybe talk to a lawyer, make this stuff official.”

“Okay,” Beth said. “If you insist. And let’s all go see Mom one evening this week. All of us. I’ll call Karen. You and me. Kelly and Alex. Monty, too. She’ll be as excited as Mom to have us all together.”

“Will they allow that many of us in Mom’s room at one time?” Ben asked.

“Maybe. We might break a few rules, but so what?” Beth said. “It won’t be the first time.”

“Or the last,” Ben replied. He pulled his sister into a hug. Neither remembered the last time they did that. And Ben said something he didn’t say often say to his sister. “Love you, sis.”

“Love you too, bro,” Beth replied before playfully pushing Ben away. “Now get the hell home and take a shower. You smell.”

“Speak for yourself, stinky,” Ben said, and he hopped in the van beside his husband and struggled with the annoying seat belt. Kelly reached across Ben, grasped the strap, pulled it smoothly across Ben’s chest, and snapped it into place.

“I want you to live a long time. Safety first, honey,” Kelly said.

“Always, sweetie,” Ben replied.

John Sheirer (pronounced “shy-er”) lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with his wonderful wife Betsy and happy dog Libby. He has taught writing and communications for 27 years at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, where he also serves as editor and faculty advisor for Freshwater Literary Journal (submissions welcome). His books include memoir, fiction, poetry, essays, political satire, and photography. His most recent book is Fever Cabin, a fictionalized journal of a man isolating himself during the current pandemic. (All proceeds from this book benefit pandemic-related charities.) Find him at JohnSheirer.com.

A Short Story by Bill Garwin

There once lived a completely unremarkable man. He was not tall, but not short. He was not handsome, but not bad looking. He lived in a San Francisco complex of 207 apartments. He only barely knew his neighbors. If he could be summed up in a single word, it would be “average”. None of us aspires to average. In the beginning, we all anticipate and strive for more, but eventually we settle because, after all, average demands most of us.

He worked as an accountant in a large firm, at a desk hidden in the bowels of the 14th floor. He was competent. Not great and no one would ever call him “boss”, but he showed up every day and completed a reasonable amount of work with a minimal number of errors. He was dependable. Should he so desire, he could keep his job for another thirty years with a token, but sufficient, annual raise.

He was not without introspection. Of late he’d come to believe he was spending his life an hour at a time and receiving little in return. Tomorrow promised less than yesterday and this bothered him greatly, which is why the fortune cookie seemed so important.

Three days a week he ordered Chinese to-go from the restaurant on the corner. Without fail, sweet and sour pork, fried rice and egg rolls.

“Golden Dragon. May I help you?”

“This is Mike.”

“The usual?”

“Yes, please.”

“Thirty minutes.”

“Thank you.”

Dinner always included a single fortune cookie. More than one fortune only begged confusion.

Mike ate dinner as the fortune cookie obediently waited its turn. After twenty minutes, he carefully broke open dessert. As always, he first read the script on the strip of paper, but this time it seemed to offer more.

“Find Hope and You Will Find Happiness.”

Until that moment he hadn’t understood that what he was missing was hope.

Had he reached a level of desperation so low he would follow the instructions on a fortune cookie? The answer was simple. Yes. Tomorrow was Saturday. He silently vowed to start his search.

He awoke the next morning excited, anxious and faced with a quandary. Where to begin? Applying something approaching logic, he reasoned since the fortune cookie was Chinese, he should start in Chinatown.

He passed under the ornate entry arches, took the second right and came upon “Lucky Massage”. Hope and luck are inextricably intertwined. He entered the small shop to a series of chanted greetings he could not understand.

A row of five unoccupied recliners faced a wall of televisions all playing Chinese soap operas. Middle-aged ladies were stationed at each chair. An elderly woman approached Mike with a menu from which he selected the 50-minute foot massage for $40. Apparently, hope could be purchased rather cheaply.

Mike slid into a chair and immediately a masseuse brought out a large, wooden tub of steaming tea. She helped Mike remove his shoes and socks and placed his feet in the tub. He began to relax. After a few minutes, the lady started on his feet. At first it tickled, but then he was pervaded by a sense of well-being. His mind slowed, completely occupied by the comforting sensation. He could drift asleep, but believed if he was to find hope here, he needed to stay awake.

After precisely 50-minutes, she was done. He was instructed to take his time and relax, which he did. He finally rose feeling a pervasive calm. Maybe this was hope. He hadn’t felt this way in maybe forever. But as he took each step, he seemed to lose a little of the euphoria and as he focused on making payment and stepped out the door he realized he had rejoined the world unchanged. Hope was not in Lucky Massage.

Most of the day still remained; he pledged not to give up, but where to next? A homeless lady approached with an outstretched hand. A common sight in San Francisco. He simply shook his head in the negative but had a thought.

While the misfortune of others saddens us, it simultaneously leaves us grateful for what we have. Maybe hope could be garnered by comparison, but where to go for that experience. Certainly, someplace hopeless. His eyes wandered toward the San Francisco Bay only to come upon one of the most hopeless places in the world. Alcatraz.

The boat ride to the island of despair was short and brisk. Mike obediently followed at the back of the tour group led by a park ranger. He learned Alcatraz, originally constructed as a lighthouse, had served as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963. Sitting 1¼ miles off the coast and surrounded by frigid waters patrolled by sharks, the Feds used the island for prisoners too unruly for other penitentiaries. 

Small, damp, cold cells housed the worst of the worst. The place reeked of despair. Mike immediately knew this would not work. He felt no elation, only a blending of academic wonder and sadness for those who had inhabited Alcatraz. The day was winding down and his life was in no way more hopeful.

Back ashore, Mike wandered until he realized he’d missed lunch. Such is the lot of a man in search of meaning. He surveyed the landscape for food and spotted the FC Diner. Maybe the FC stood for Fog City, maybe not. It was fashioned after a railroad car and offered “Home Cooking”, even though that wasn’t possible from someplace not home. He walked in and followed the instructions to grab a menu and seat himself.

The place was packed. He chose a navy blue, faux leather booth which was seriously underpopulated by his party of one. He quickly browsed the menu and decided on a hamburger and fries. He scanned the diner for a server. He saw only one.

She was a waitress in the classical sense, if for no other reason than diners should have waitresses. She was about his age wearing an ice blue, neatly starched uniform with crisp lines and white piping. Her silver name tag bore an inscription he couldn’t make out across the diner.

She was not pretty, but cute. Not tall, but not short. She didn’t walk. She glided. There was no other way to describe her movement. Her smile was luminescent. She glowed leaving everything else in the diner shrouded and ordinary. As she approached each table she brought on joy and grins as if spreading pixie dust.

He watched her. Actually, much more than watching and each time she glanced his way it was as if she was looking into him rather than at him. At that place and time nothing else occupied his thoughts. He was consumed by infinite possibilities of aspiration and expectation.

She approached, her expression pleased, but also quizzical. He ogled.

She didn’t ask “Are you ready to order?”

Rather, “Don’t I know you?” More of a statement than a question.

His eyes shifted from hers down to the name tag. At that moment, he knew he had found happiness.

Bill Garwin has several degrees and a third-dan karate black belt. He believes stories indelibly enrich our lives and relishes in their telling. The opening chapter of his current project, City of Schemes, received first place, Utah League of Writers 2020 Quill Awards.

A Short Story by Millie Walton

I close my eyes and smell the stale wind rushing down the tunnel, brushing against my cheeks, lifting my hair. I press my back into the wall, experiencing the cool of the concrete and the closed heat of the tube simultaneously. There are times, like these, when I feel wholly present, when I know who I am completely.

It’s unusually quiet. Lottie calls it the sweet spot. When you somehow stumble into the lag between the last flow of people and the next, and the moment seems to stretch like the sky.

Flip-flopped feet slapping the ground. I’d say four or five pairs from the way the sound echoes. It’s hard to say how far away because the tunnels wind back and forwards, under and over.

A bitter drip slides down the back of my throat. Licked fingers fumbling under the table, rubbed across gums, sideways glances. Lottie biting down on her lower lip, in that way which sometimes makes me nervous depending on who we’re with and her mood that day. She likes to be that person. The one who flashes an old baggy in front of my face, and says, Look what I found, even though she knew it was there. She licks a finger, dips and rubs it across her gums before passing it under the table.

Go on, her eyes press and so I do. She stands up and claps her palms together. Fuck-it, I’m getting Hendricks. One for you too.

I sit picking my nails and watch her being watched.

The ice cube clinks dully against the crystal tumbler, as she lifts her glass, shooting a look at the guys over her shoulder. I know that she knows. It’s a game. She drinks it for them, slowly wetting her lips.

Should I get a bob cut? Would it make my face look fat? Like a moon, I say, my hands cupping my cheeks.

There’s a rush and the light behind my eyelids changes. The train is coming and there are more feet, new pairs, running from within the concrete. I have this insane thought that they’re coming for me, but of course, they’re not.

I’d like to be that person too. I can be.

I say it again, Moon. Face. Tucking my hair into the collar of my t-shirt, sucking in my cheeks, mirroring the way she drinks in case they are watching me too.

I stand, swaying and smooth the back of my skirt with one hand. It has a habit of getting caught up. Would it be so bad? Yes, and no, yes, and no.

A pair of black Doc Martens line up next to me. The same ones are in one of my virtual baskets somewhere, have been for weeks. I still can’t decide: black or red, leather or vegan. This pair is well-worn, creased around the midsection, with untied, trailing laces, which look as if they might have once belonged to a different pair. In general, docs look better dirty than new. Ella buried hers before she wore them. I’ve heard the best way is to fold them repeatedly with your hands, that you really need to put your full weight into it to get the good, deep indents.

The train stops. The doors jump open, thin light spills like watery milk. The boots step in first and I follow. She sits opposite me, or I sit opposite her. It feels like a dance. I look up and we both smile. I see her teeth for a second and then she closes her lips. Her mouth is long and straight. Her hair’s the brightest shade of red I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of something specific. Sun-burnt skin. A neon light. A place, a bar or a club. Another person’s hair cut out from a magazine and stuck onto this woman’s head. She looks not much older than me. A couple of years, five at most. She sees me looking and I find myself blushing. I blush too easily, a permanent red sheen, like a farmer who’s spent his days briskly walking through the wind. I look away as if something’s caught my attention down the carriage. The doors close on a man who steps back, arms folded. He looks away, already waiting for the next. The train starts to move and I feel nostalgic for no reason.

I try to picture the world above us, the streets that I walked along six, eight, ten minutes ago. The street I imagine is generic. I am not an imaginative person, I’ve come to realise this. It is London from tourist shop posters, red double deckers, glossy curved black cabs, men in top hats holding the doors open to hotels and rain that’s neat, shiny and clean, falling in perfectly formed droplets that are made of air, not water.

The woman is standing directly over me, her hands clasping the bar whilst her body absorbs the sway of a bend. It feels odd to be so close to someone when the carriage is nearly empty but even without the crowds, there’s always a sense of being squeezed on the tube. There’s a gap roughly the length of my forearm from her belly button to my knee. I can see blonde hair in her armpits. Who dyes their hair red? I decide she is an artist, or a dancer. I follow the line up to her face, her chin is tilted as she reads not the tube map, but the ad beside it. I know it from the blue. I’ve seen the same one, huge against a station wall. Green Park or Victoria. Her eyes slide down to mine. I feel myself flush again. It’s worse when I’ve been drinking.

It’s terrible isn’t it, she says.

I wait for a moment to check who she’s speaking too, and then say, Yes. It is. Terrible.

She pushes back and lets go of the bar. She’s not beautiful in the conventional sense. Her features give the impression of being cluttered together, too small for her face, but there’s something sensual about her. I can imagine people finding her attractive. She arches her chest forwards as if releasing a tightness and I realise, as she rolls her shoulders and sits, that I’m doing the same thing. I clasp my hands into my lap.

The tunnel becomes platform and the train stops. Three men climb in, speaking loudly over their shoulders to one another. First one, then the others notice the woman standing in front of me. I follow their eyes and see that the dark circles of her nipples are clearly visible through the fabric of her dress.

She drops into the seat opposite me, slips her feet out of her boots and kicks them high into the air. A slither of black lace appears as the fabric flutters over her knees. The train lurches and I start to feel sick.

Did I flash you? she says.

I didn’t see anything. I rest my forehead in my hands, elbows pressing into my thighs.

Are you alright?

I nod and swivel myself to look through my handbag for my headphones, then remember that I left them at work. I find chewing gum and drag a piece up through the wrapper and into my mouth with my teeth.

The red head’s familiar, one of the guys says. Isn’t she though? From TV? I look back at her. Perhaps that’s it.

You famous? he calls and even though he’s not addressing me I turn towards him.

Nope, the woman says.

The train’s stopped. Through the pane of glass, the concrete looks almost like earth. I feel as if it’s pressing inwards, squeezing. My chest aches. I have to remind myself to breathe.

There’s a sharp whine and a distant voice apologises for the delay, we’re being held at a signal. The woman stretches an arm across the backs of the seats. I can feel sweat drawing up between my breasts. I tap my thumb and index fingers together. How many stations have we passed? I taste bitter again.

Coke or horse tranquilizer, Lottie says shrugging, what difference does it make?

I check my bag for my bottle which isn’t there, I know this already. I stand, and grip the rail with one palm. My eyes won’t focus. Somewhere between Pimlico and Vauxhall. I could get the bus.

Are you alright? a voice says, very far away or very close. A hand touches my arm, drawing me down into a seat and at the same time, the train jolts forwards and starts to move. I’m sitting beside her somehow. Her hand on my arm. I pull it back and rub the place she touched, half unconscious of the movement. She sees me do it.

Have we met somewhere before? No. I don’t think so.

It’s just you seem familiar. Have we worked together maybe?

I think that’s unlikely. She crosses her legs and stares forwards.

Through friends or something then? My mouth feels dry and the words catch in my throat. She shakes her head.

The train stops and moves. I miss the name. Pimlico, she says.

You’re from London?

No. She bends to scratch her ankle, and her arm brushes my leg. I notice there are a few mosquito bites down her calf. I used to live here in a tiny flat share, so small I had to get dressed sitting on my bed. I moved to Margate last year and now I can see the sea from my window.

That sounds nice.

You should come.

To Margate?

Why not?

I laugh. Because I don’t know who you are.

I’m Grace. Now you’re supposed to say your name.

Rosie.

That’s a nice name.

Yours is nice too.

You’re just saying that because I said it.

I’m not. I really think it is nice.

This is my stop.

She jumps up, grabbing her shoes with one hand. The platform rushes against the glass. She turns, and the doors slide closed behind her. I watch her waving at me through the window as we rush past: her hair obscenely bright against the tunnel wall and then, she’s gone.

Millie Walton is a London-based art and fiction writer, and a graduate of the MFA at the University of East Anglia. This story has been adapted from her debut novel in progress.

A Short Story by Christie Marra

“The pain’s almost too much to bear by lunchtime,” the judge says, shaking his head. Back when he was an assistant commonwealth’s attorney, John won cases against him so consistently John sometimes wondered whether he’d lost on purpose.

“I don’t know how you navigate all those suffering families,” John’s wife Eliza remarks, looking at the judge sympathetically and placing her hand on his arm. John hates seeing his wife touch another man, any man. He isn’t jealous; he tells himself. It’s the principle. Why should a woman touch other men when she’s refused to touch her own husband for so long? John averts his eyes from Eliza and the judge and turns to Mayor Larique, seated beside him.

“How’s life on the dark side?” John asks, knowing he’d been a reluctant candidate, coaxed into running by the twenty-somethings who had marched with him throughout the year of protests.  The mayor rolls his eyes.

“This city needs some work,” he says.

John pours him more wine. “Start with fixing that jail, man. Nobody should have to stay in that shit hole an hour, let alone twelve months.”

“It’s on the list, a hell of a long list,” the mayor trails off.

Damn, man, you gave up quick! John thinks, turning away from the young mayor. The restaurant couple sits on his other side. She’s describing plans for her newest restaurant, while he moves his food around on his plate, occasionally glancing and nodding at his wife.

Exquis opens next month, and it’s going to be my most successful bistro yet!” she exclaims. Her husband’s shoulders slump.

“She’s moving you to the new restaurant?” John whispers, and he shrugs. “You should stay where you are, or go back to your favorite. You’re one of the best damn chefs in the city.” The chef smiles weakly and continues shrugging.

Am I the only man at this dinner party with balls? John wonders, looking at the new guy, quiet, almost sullen, directly to the right of his wife.  The new guy laughs suddenly at something Eliza says, and Eliza gives him her special look, glancing sideways and curling her lips into a half-smile. John remembers, bitterly, a time when she looked at him that way.

He studies the new guy, trying to figure out what Eliza sees in him. He wears Clark Kent glasses – always a sign of weak character – and his bald head is too large for his thin body. John’s head is perfectly proportionate to the rest of him. At least it used to be, before those late-night munchies inflated his gut.

“Do you enjoy being a public defender?” a soft voice asks. John looks across the table at the young brunette with a sharp nose and wire rims that match his own.

“I do.” He raises his wine in a toast, wondering if this dark cloud of a dinner party might have a silver lining. The brunette follows suit. “To well-chosen careers!” She smiles with closed lips before she drinks. “And what is yours?” he asks, hoping she won’t say nurse or teacher.

“I’m a chemist.”

“Ah, you must be the new member of Eliza’s team!” John says, and she nods. “How do you like working for The Man?”

The brunette shakes her head. “I, um…I don’t see it that way.” She dips her head toward her plate as she cuts a piece of filet mignon. A very fine wisp of hair escapes from behind her ear, brushing her cheek.

“How do you see it?” John asks in a softer tone. It would be a shame to alienate her so quickly. He still has to endure the remainder of dinner and dessert, and she’s the only dinner guest who even slightly interests him.

“I’m exploring new remedies, new solutions to ailments that plague people.”

“And the six-figure salary’s just a convenient bonus?” he chuckles.

She tucks her hair back in place and takes a long drink of wine. “I don’t think about the money.”

“People who have enough of it never do,” John replies, tiring of her.

Next to the chemist sits a man wearing a red bow tie. John hates bow ties. He wouldn’t even wear one for their wedding, insisting on leaving the top button of his starched white shirt open. Back then, Eliza called such things “quirky-cute.”

“McCain’s gonna have a tough time of it,” John says, looking directly at the man in the bow tie.

“How’s that?” the man asks, shoveling risotto into his mouth. Grains of rice stick to his mustache just beneath his nostrils, like frozen snot, and John holds back a smirk.

“We’ve got our first black presidential candidate, and he’s a good family man who’s smart and has a down-home relatability despite being primarily professorial.”

“Plus he’s cute as a button!” Bow-tie’s wife adds.

“McCain has stellar military and public service,” Bow-tie replies, with a cool, sideways glance at his wife. “Plus he was a prisoner of war.”

“But how can we put the future of our country in the hands of a man who chose a gun-toting, xenophobic airhead as a running mate?” asks the guest across from John, setting his suede patched elbows on the table. “The most important quality of a president is his ability to choose wisely.”

“His?” John asks. He’d bet his last paycheck on Suede Elbows being one of those liberals who valued a man’s statements over his substance.

“Well, um, his or hers,” Suede Elbows replies. “Good catch, pal.”

“Why do you think a little known senator will choose wisely?” Bow-tie asks, pointing his forkful of risotto at Suede Elbows.

“He already has,” Suede Elbows asserts. “Can’t find fault with Joe.”

“Hmph!” Bow-tie grunts. “Anyone who has suffered some sort of tragedy becomes a hero to you people.” 

“I’m sorry,” John interrupts, determined to re-route the conversation before it turns into the same empty analysis he’s heard dozens of times, “I know Eliza introduced us, but—”

“Seymour Gillespie.” Suede Elbows drops his fork, and awkwardly extends his hand.  John reaches across the table to shake it, purposefully shoving his arm straight through Eliza’s flower arrangement. A few petals flutter to the table as he pulls his hand back. He remembers Eliza gushing about how this florist’s arrangements lasted “for weeks and weeks, sometimes more than a fortnight!” and has to fight the laughter. He’s so bored with Eliza’s absurd affectations.

“How long you lived around here, Seymour?” John asks. He feels Bow-tie’s wife’s hand on his thigh and removes it decisively.

“A few months. I started teaching at Roanoke College last semester.”

“Ooo, what do you teach?” Bow-Tie’s wife squeals. John wonders whether she’s trying to play footsie with the professor under the table.

A glass hits the floor and shatters at the other end of the table.

Eliza jumps up and shouts, “Sallie!” The waitress supplied by the caterer rushes into the room with a broom and dustpan.

“It’s Cindy,” the waitress corrects Eliza as she cleans up the glass.

“Thank you,” Eliza says, eyeing Cindy icily and placing her hands on the judge’s shoulders.

“Objection!” John mutters, irritated by Eliza’s classism. The young chemist hears him and giggles, and John thinks perhaps he dismissed her too quickly. He winks at her. 

As the broken glass is cleared and Cindy begins to remove the dinner plates, Eliza raises her glass.

“Friends, it is an honor to host you,” she begins. John glances at the chemist and rolls his eyes. The chemist hides her giggle behind a napkin. “Our little city, tucked in the Blue Ridge mountains, home to a small but stellar college that gathers and nurtures young minds until they blossom and fly away to grace other lands with their wisdom…”

John shakes his head. The chemist catches his eye, tilts her head and raises her eyebrows. John grins at her.

“We have it all here – wisdom,” Eliza nods at the judge, “wealth,” she smiles at Bow-tie and his wife, “and ingenuity!” Eliza extends a regal arm toward the restaurant queen. “And we have a generosity of spirit, welcoming those who simply wander here.” Eliza looks pointedly at the chemist, whose blush is evident in the dim candlelight.  “And of course, we are eager to learn new things.” Eliza nods at Suede Elbows, and she moves closer to the new guy, so close that her elbow meets his shoulder. John watches their body parts touch, disgusted with Eliza and with himself. He hasn’t had a physique as obviously well-toned as the new guy’s in decades. He notices the chemist watching him and forgets about his paunch as he raises his glass to her.

“Mathematics,” Suede Elbows says. John and the chemist stare at him. “I teach mathematics.”

“Oh! You must be brilliant!’ Bow-tie’s wife squeals. Suede Elbows launches into an explanation of how math is everywhere.

“Every road is a plane, every room a cube, every decision based on some inherent mathematical formula!” he exclaims. If Bow-tie’s wife is playing footsie with him, it isn’t distracting Suede Elbows at all. His lecture continues as Cindy serves dessert.

Suede Elbows’ lecture is too much for John. He excuses himself and slips out to the warmth of the back porch. Why does Eliza keep the house so damn cold! He pulls a small glass pipe and a bag of buds from behind the potted fern, and carefully packs the pipe. He inhales deeply, savoring the burning sensation that makes him feel whole. Smoke leaves his mouth and dances in the darkness before it disappears. John watches the moon, high and bright, and the world begins to slow.

“There you are!” The chemist bounces through the door and throws her arms around John’s neck. Over her shoulder, John sees Eliza laughing with the judge and the new guy in the kitchen, placing a hand on each man’s arm. The new guy stares at John, challenging him. John starts toward the door, but the weight of the woman embracing him holds him back. “I knew you expected me to follow you out of the dining room, but I had no idea where you’d gone,” she says.

John puts his hands around the chemist’s waist, trying to focus on her smile instead of his wife touching two other men. The air around them hums as he studies the chemist’s face.

“It’s been so long,” she says, tilting her head back to look up at John. He kisses her hard, moving his hands down to her buttocks. “No, wait.” She removes his hands and leads him into the yard, stopping beneath the magnolia tree. “You remember the magnolia tree, don’t you?”

“Of course,” John says, no idea what she means, liking where it’s heading, and guessing any other answer might change their course.

They have sex on a blanket of hard, dry leaves, their pointed tips pricking John’s shoulders, back and rear. But he doesn’t care. He hasn’t touched a woman since Eliza kicked him out of their bedroom three years ago. The chemist is a good partner, open and vocal and willing to follow wherever he leads, and he takes her everywhere he’s dreamed of taking a woman in the past three years – between her breasts, in her pussy, and in her delightfully tight ass. 

“Ooo, that’s new!’ she squeals beneath him, giggling into the magnolia leaves.

“So it’s okay?” John asks, chuckling. “I’ve never done it before.”

“I like it. It excites me!”

The chemist gets sexier by the second. After he climaxes, John stays inside her a while, sliding his stomach up and down in the sweat of her back, relishing  how the physical closeness makes him tingle with pleasure.

He rolls off her and lies on the crisp magnolia leaves, arms crossed behind his head, hoping to hold onto this new, fresh, wild connection.

“Wow!” the chemist declares, laying her head on John’s chest. “That was so much better than the first time!”

“Really?” he laughed. “You’re the only person I’ve ever been with who could have an orgasm that way.”

“What?” The chemist sits up and looks at John, confused.

“I mean, you know, from the back.”

The chemist shakes her head. “I didn’t enjoy it that much.”

“But you said it was better than the first time.”

“I meant better than the first time we, well, you know.” She kisses him. “Can you believe it’s been three years?”

“What?” John asks, feeling a little queasy. How could she know it had been three years since Eliza banished him from their bedroom so she could fuck every new man in town? Did Eliza tell everyone?

“Did you ever get my note?” the chemist asks. “I’d thought you’d make up some excuse to come to the lab as soon as you knew I was there, but this was much better.” She laughs an uncontrolled, almost maniacal laugh.

“What…what note?”  John stands up, his legs wobbling. The chemist holds her hand out to him, and he pulls her up quickly then pulls his hand back to his side.

“The invitation, my dear!” the chemist replies, grabbing his hand.

Invitation? What on earth is she talking about? As she smiles at him, John sees that one of her teeth is missing. Where’s her tooth? He could have sworn she had all her teeth at the dinner table.

He throws the chemist her clothes and hurriedly puts on his own. Before he can start back to the house, she grabs his arm.

“Kiss me like you did the first time on the lawn, under the low yellow moon.” She rises onto her toes and lifts her face toward his. “Kiss me. Baby!” Trapped, John leans down and brushes his lips softly and quickly against the chemist’s. She pulls him closer, forcing his lips open with her tongue. He tries to resist, but her lilac scent makes him forget the missing tooth, and his body responds to her scent and her tongue. She pulls away first. “I’ve saved myself for you, you know,” she drawls, and John starts trembling again. Lilacs be damned!

“It’s late. Don’t you need to be in early tomorrow?” John walks rapidly toward the house.

“Don’t worry! I won’t tell anyone!” the chemist promises, following him. “You know, I took the job to be close to you.” She laughs her maniacal laugh again. The chemist makes less sense every minute. How did she know about him before meeting him tonight? Eliza never acknowledges his existence outside of their house these days. But what if this time she did acknowledge him? What if Eliza had more than acknowledged him? Perhaps she’d actually advertised him as part of the position, subtly communicating a surprise bonus, an exciting, illicit twist to taking the job. Eliza would do that to get rid of him, especially after he’d told her he’d never leave their marriage without squeezing every last penny out of her.

The house is empty. Were they outside that long?

“Looks like we have the place to ourselves,” the chemist says, putting her arms around John’s waist. John removes her hands and backs away. She doesn’t seem sexy anymore, now that he knows she’s missing a tooth and may be an unscrupulous bargainer who chose John over a corner office.

“It’s so late,” he says. “And I’m so tired.”

“I suppose I should head home,” the chemist admits. “But tell me – when can we see each other again?” She grabs his sleeves, and John fights the urge to back away again. If he can just get her to her car—“When?” the chemist asks again.

“Soon,” John says. “I’ll find a way.” Seeming satisfied, she follows John out the front door.

Eliza is in the circular drive staying good night to the judge. She hugs him, and stands with her back to the yard as his car pulls away and heads down the driveway. When she turns around, she’s wiping her eyes. She sees John and the chemist and smiles brightly, dropping her hands to her side. “Did John give you a nice tour of the house, Eleanor?”

“John and I made love in the yard, Eliza,” the chemist says.

“Really?” Eliza asks, and even as focused as he is on trying to escape whatever the chemist has in mind for him, John can tell Eliza is surprised.

“It had to happen, Eliza. We knew from the moment we met at Oxford three years ago that we were meant to be together.”

Oxford? John’s confused. He’s never been to Oxford. He hasn’t even been outside Virginia except for his honeymoon to New Orleans.

“Oxford?” Eliza asks.

“I was working on my Ph.D., and he was a visiting professor at the law school.”

It was just a case of mistaken identity! John’s heartbeat begins to calm down, and he sighs.

Eliza looks at John and shakes her head. She approaches the chemist, takes both her hands, and says, “Eleanor, my husband has never taught at Oxford. He couldn’t even get into Oxford.” Eliza’s dismissive tone stings, and for a moment the sting overshadows his relief.

“That, that’s not true!” the chemist says. “He was an instructor there. We met at a cocktail party. We made love in the Botanic Garden!”

“I’m sorry, Eleanor,” Eliza says.  “My husband isn’t a very nice man.” She puts her arm around the chemist. “Come, let’s have some cognac and get to know each other better.”

The women turn and walk toward the house, the chemist taking one final look at John before following Eliza inside and closing the door.

John watches the door close, and the final traces of his fog dissipate while the brightness of the moon illuminates his solitude.   

Christie Marra is a legal aid attorney who writes, dances and poles in Richmond, Virginia. Despite her diverse interests and activities, she’s frequently vexed by her inability to maintain a clean house and cook without burning something. She blames this unhealthy obsession on the Enjoli commercial that seemed to play constantly when she was growing up. Christie’s short stories have appeared in various publications, including Little DeathThe Write Launch and Pangryus.

A Short Story by E. M. Issam

“It was three winters ago when the artist declared their war against excuses,” Hamil started. “And it was hot. Real hot. The hottest winter in a decade. All the winters are hot now, but this one you could see the air above the road all shimmering in waves that made you thirsty to look at them. The artists were sick of being hungry. They were sick of five years of excuses from their NRAP caseworkers (Nutrition Replication Assistance Program) not giving them enough food stamps, sick to death of not being able to feed themselves.

“The ones without family or money, True Artists they called themselves, lived in that deserted neighborhood behind the Rose Garden. Thirdi, that’s right. The True Artists still live there now. Why do people call it ThirDi? On account of the neighborhood being shaped like a Thirsty Dinosaur chugging the Willamette. No bullshit. You gotta look on a map to get it. So then don’t believe me. Just, look, the point is the neighborhood is called Thirdi, alright? Who cares why? And I bet your mom told you not to go there. ‘The scary people live there,’ she told you. Even though Thirdi is ‘where the real Portlanders lived when Canada ended at the Great Lakes.’ Or so people used to say. She’s right about one thing though, your mom. Thirdi is a slum.

“After the war, but before unification, the Canadian Army used to cage Americans in the Rose Garden. They locked up everyone who wouldn’t pledge allegiance to queen and Canada, including American soldiers. And when anybody died, Nucks used to dig open graves for them back in Thirdi. Yea, Nucks. You don’t know Nucks? It’s what our guys called the Canadian fighters. Like Charlie in Vietnam or Haji in Iraq. Jesus, but then this seems to be the night I find out you’re not so street smart. Okay see, you know how when the east winds start going, the whole west side of Portland smells like sewer? That’s because of all the bodies that Nucks dumped in mass graves. Hundreds of Oregon soldiers are buried under Thirdi. People say it could be up to half of Portland’s World War III vets. Nobody knows, maybe it’s more.

“And so, the artists say all that history and horror gives the Thirdi neighborhood a special kind of magic, nestled back there behind the Rose Garden. In Thirdi, whole walls are known to collapse at bad hours of the night. In Thirdi, everything is dangerous and streaked with howlite veins of soot. In Thirdi, an artist can live rent free.

“Rent free means they don’t have to pay to sleep there. Because artists don’t have any money. Yea, maybe they could get jobs, but they don’t want to get jobs. You’ll understand when it’s your turn to slave for a living. No, nobody likes their job. Then your mom is lying to you because she doesn’t. Hey, why don’t you be like your brother? See how he sits there and doesn’t ask so many questions? That’s why we like him so much. That’s why we let him bring you over.

“Still, it’s difficult to fight a war against excuses, for the artists I mean. Because if you remember, that’s what this whole story is all about. And all True Artists get are excuses. Like why can’t they grow their own crops? Everybody says it’s too hot to grow crops anymore. They say replicated food is perfect, that the bugs in real food will kill you if you eat it, but the artists just want to try. And who can blame them? A good replicator costs as much as a house. And you see what a pound of amino acids costs? Of course, you don’t. But trust me, it’s more than you want to pay. And nobody will fix old replicators anymore either. So, people are forced to buy new ones. And no one can afford that. And you might as well just eat your handfuls of long sugar and fatty acids rather than stuff them into one of those Canadian knockoffs. If you ask me, my dad is right. This continent has gone to the wolves.

“So, but why not let the artists try? Let them grow a few stalks of corn and see if they don’t end up just fine. Excuses, that’s why. Lies. All of the NRAP bullshit. And so the artists call it their war against excuses, but it’s really a war against a government that demands I.D. for food stamps, and a unified North America that won’t let them grow corn, and all the other million little evils that bureaucrats do to put off calamity for one more day. But the artists, they know a secret. If the people only came together as one, if they only resisted the forces which oppress them as one people, then the magic of that alone would be bread enough to eat. Sounds crazy, right?

“No one remembers which artist first came up with the idea to throw a party. But once people heard about it, the idea spread like wildfire. The way it was said to me, the True Artist’s plan was to bring everyone from all over Portland to Thirdi and get them drunk enough to love each other. A communion of that kind of collective spirit would force new crops into existence. That’s what the artists said anyway. Sounded good too. I went.

“On a lucky Tuesday, a truck full of hydrocarbons and long sugars crashed going past the Rose Garden. Its tires popped, just like that. By the time help arrived, three hundred pounds of cargo were missing, and the driver had an extra concussion. No one was ever arrested and with a good replicator, hydrocarbons and long sugar are all you need for some quality booze. The Friday after the accident, the artists threw their party. It was magic. A never-ending supply of drinks for anyone who wanted, totally free. Hmmm, that’s a good question. I don’t know how they managed to replicate alcohol. They must have stolen a replicator too. Well if they had a replicator the whole time, it doesn’t really make sense they’d be angry about the food stamps thing does it? Just shut up, let me finish.

“By Saturday, there wasn’t a person in Portland who hadn’t heard the stories. On and on the party went. Sunday, Monday, into Tuesday too. Starved, hairy men and women. Handsewn clothes in bright colors that hurt your eyes to look at them. Lime skirts, vermillion blouses, pinstripe trousers, orchid jackets. I learned all these colors from the artists. You can too. Big lights and loud music. No shoes to be seen anywhere. The smell, you can’t even imagine. But everyone was happy, everyone was coming together. And then guess who showed up? I bet you know. That’s right. Police battered down the door to this flophouse where we were all dancing like angels. One by one, those jackals in blue killed all the plants of goodwill we’d manifested into life. They took everyone to jail. Everyone they could catch that is. I escaped by pushing a poor boy into a riot shield. He couldn’t have been no older than you, fifteen at most. Not a day goes by I don’t remember the look on his face. I think he peed himself. I was smelling ammonia all the way to Loring Street.

“But, so, after the heat died down, the artist returned. In protest of getting their asses kicked, a sculptor named Misery Van Sant hung a lantern above their party house. Turning to the stumbling bodies around her–those drunkards still had plenty of alcohol left, you see–Misery proclaimed, ‘From now until forever, my sculpture of Lantern on a Hook will mourn the moment the artist dream died.’

“The following sober day, no one, not even Misery Van Sant, could remember her speech nor why she gave it, but the artists found the hanging lantern so useful that she got praised for showing a True Artist’s practicality. Misery lanterns are still hung above Thirdi houses today, lighting the way to the next big party.

“Yes, obviously someone remembered her speech or no one could repeat what Misery said. Listen, Alex was it? It’s real simple, Alex. They say the artists still have a hundred pounds or more of their stock. Drinks are always cheap and easy. But this would not be one of your freshman parties, okay? These are grown up people, doing grown up things. Now, I know your replicator has a parent lock, so you’ve never tried a drop before have you? That’s what I thought. Your brother, he says you’re cool. For my part, I don’t know. You keep bothering me with all these questions. Well now it’s my turn to ask something. And it’s really the only question that’s going to matter tonight. Pay attention. The True Artists, I hear they’re going to hang a Misery lantern tomorrow. So, you wanna come or what?”

E. M. Issam is a breakout writer of the Northwest’s exploding creative writing movement. If there was ever any doubt that the resurgent Northwest style is ready to make its mark, read “True Artists Light a Misery Lantern.”

A Short Story by Elizabeth Powers

Mirabel had known Joseph for all of three hours, and already she knew that she wanted to bash in his head. Or lick his face. She couldn’t really decide which, and the line between destruction and desire was maddening. He had introduced himself as Joseph K, and she had immediately known two things about him: that he thought very little of her intelligence and thought a lot of his own. Still, she was intrigued by his quick wit, the way the word “narcissism” rolled off his tongue when he told her about its Greek origins, all honey and olive oil and red wine.

She saw him standing at the reflection pool, blue-eyed and dark locked, his cheeks sallow, his muscles wasted away. She wasn’t sure why he had started talking to her about the book she was reading, why she had let him sit across from her, black coffee in hand, leaning over the table like a lover, whispering words of acumen and self-interest that sounded like songs. But the way his lips curved around the word “nymph” was why she let him continue the conversation over dinner. She insisted on briám and baklava and he took her to a restaurant on the lower east side, where they sat on overstuffed purple pillows in a dimly lighted room and he tried to make her eat everything with her hands because he said it was more sensual.

His apartment was not exactly what she expected, but it was close. Instead of the upstairs of an old house or an old-fashioned brick structure that was converted from a brothel, he lived in a basic grey building with stain-resistant carpeting lining the halls. But the inside more than made up for the nondescript outside. Bookcases lined the walls, filled with collections of Joyce and Kafka, a copy of Chekov on his coffee table opened to The Lady with the Dog. A stool cluttered with plants stood next to the front window. A painting of a naked woman hung across from the kitchen.

“A drink?” he asked. “I have a cabernet or a bottle of whisky.”

“The wine,” she said. “Straight from the bottle.”

He chuckled and brought back two mismatched goblets filled with dark liquid from the kitchen. Hers was blue and etched with globes of fruit that she tenderly ran her thumb over as they toasted. They sat on his couch and drank the entire bottle, him talking about his work as a graduate student, how mythology and literature went hand and hand, how Persephone was the unsung beauty of the underworld, her moods as dangerous and changing as any other heroine, her skin as ivory soft as the spring, as the feather of a swan, as Mirabel herself. When he touched her for the first time, his palm on her bare knee, lightly feeling out her geography and the effect of the wine, her skin raised, goosebumps peppering the tender flesh underneath her skirt.

“You see?” he said, his hand making circles upward, “they are all the same stories.”

They had sex on his gray sofa, her body contorted, back uncomfortably bent at different angles. A welt, she was sure, to form across the side where she had been pressed into the metal bars, too distracted to stop him while he pounded into her madly, pulling on her hair.

Afterward, sticky and sore, she stretched her long limbs out against the fabric and he stood up with his back to her. She followed him to the bathroom where he smoked a cigarette out the third story window while she cleaned herself up. She washed her face in the mirror and noticed that the bottoms of her eyes were rimmed with thick black mascara lines that looked like pieces of seaweed and that her hair was knotted. She took comfort when she realized that they both looked ridiculous. It wasn’t so much his physical appearance as it was the stance he was currently taking. His cigarette dangled from his hand, propped against the open glass, his other hand resting on his hip. He wore only his dark grey boxer briefs, slung low on his hips. He would have looked like a Calvin Klein ad, all sex and indifference, if he hadn’t been standing inside a white porcelain bathtub. He flicked ashes out the window and smirked at her still naked body

“Seconds?”

Mirabel pretended to doze off after a cup of lukewarm coffee, no cream, and slipped out the door a little after three. She walked four blocks and then sat on the curb in front of a Dairy Mart and called for an Uber. She contemplated Joseph momentarily. Mostly she contemplated the empty bagel box that sat on the side of the road, half crushed and wholly dirty from the recent downpour, which had covered everything from waist level down in a thin grime of loose gravel and dirt clods. She felt a vague kinship to this box, and when the driver dropped her at her building she took a shower and made herself a piece of toast and watched an infomercial for a new kind of vegetable chopper.

She did not expect to see Joseph a week later, while she was perusing tomatoes at the farmers market. Actually, she had all but forgotten about him until he appeared behind her, bag of apples in hand, and told her she should wait a few more weeks if she wanted her tomatoes to be really ripe.   

“Red and juicy,” he said. “These aren’t there yet.”

She asked about his school and he followed her from bunches of kale to heads of cabbage talking about his latest paper on modern perceptions of Aphrodite. He asked if she knew that the goddess of love was actually born from the remnants of the ruler of the universe’s castrated testis, thrown into the sea. She said no and put down the head of garlic she had been considering. He asked her to dinner but she politely declined, claiming she was meeting a group of girlfriends for sushi. She went home and heated up a cup of ramen noodle soup instead.


“Some would call this fate,” Joseph said two weeks later, sideling up very closely next to her in a used book store.

“Some would call it stalking,” Mirabel said.

Joseph chuckled and held a tattered book out in front of him.

“Research.”

“So fate, literally.”

He told her about Athena as they perused shelves of horror stories and misspent poetry. Strategist and virgin. Motherless and cut out of her father’s forehead.

She did not deny him when he asked her to dinner. They ate pancakes and bacon at a 24 hour diner, cup after cup of black coffee keeping them there into the night.

“Why Greek mythology?” she asked.

“Because, they got it right.”

She laughed at him and shook her head. He just smirked, his cup of coffee held up between them.  

Mirabel declined the offer to spend the night at his place, but did agree to see him on purpose the following weekend.


When she got to the coffee shop that they had agreed upon, Joseph was not there yet. The night was rainy and cold, a clear sign that the summer was ebbing away, and her hair was stuck down to her forehead. She found the restroom, slicked her hair back into a high ponytail and fluffed her bangs back into place.

When she returned to the main room, Joseph was waiting, a glass of wine for her in one hand, a latte for him in the other.

“Presumptuous of you.”

“I aim to please.”

They talked about poetry and music and Joseph asked her if she knew that the name Mirabel comes from the Latin word for “of wondrous beauty.”

“Ah, so it’s not Greek then,” she said, smirking.

“Joseph means ‘he will add’ in Hebrew. We can’t all be perfect.”


After their drinks, they walked, his breath puffing in front of him in small white clouds. Her hands were cold, and she shoved them in her pockets.  Joseph stopped outside his building around the corner and asked her if she would like to come up again. The rain had stopped, but the cold was still there, and so she followed him up the steps.

He did not have wine, and the tea he poured her was hot and smelled like lemon. She picked up a book that was sitting on the table, a title she didn’t recognize. She pretended to read the back cover, but mostly her mind kept drifting back to the first night she had been in his apartment, the couch and the wine and the feel of metal against her bare back. But now, he was sitting on a chair on the opposite side of the room, not next to her. And she remembered her initial impulse upon meeting him. Pleasure and pain and destruction.

“It’s not an accident, you know. You and me.”

“No,” she said, setting down the book and looking at him. “Stalking, like I said before.”

He chuckled. His skin looked pale and his eyes looked wide. Mirabel felt like maybe she should be afraid of this man and his mythology, but she couldn’t make herself look away, couldn’t muster up the feeling of anxiety, the rush of adrenaline that she knew she should feel coursing through her. She wanted to ask him if she could lick across his ribcage, all muscle and taut skin. Instead she said, “When did you know?”

Joseph looked at her for a moment, his eyes traveling the length of her body, pausing on the soft curve of her neck, the swell of her breasts, the slit of skin visible between her thin sweater and her waist.

“I thought I knew the moment I saw you,” he said. “But I was sure the moment I touched your skin. So soft. So yielding. So unforgiving.”

She glared at him.

“I have time,” she said. “Before I return.”

“Oh my dear,” Joseph said, “you stopped following the rules ages ago.”

Mirabel shook her head.

“Times have changed, but the seasons stay the same.”

Joseph chuckled, lifting his tea to his perfect lips. Mirabel looked at him again, more closely than she had allowed herself when she first met him; his chiseled jaw, his muscled arms, the feature of his face perfectly symmetrical. It was no wonder she couldn’t stay away from him in the dark. But looks had been his downfall, hadn’t they? Hadn’t beauty destroyed most things in her world, including herself?

“He won’t be happy with you,” she said.

“I’d be more worried about your husband’s wrath if I thought you were going to tell him about our tryst. Besides, it’s only right that the two most beautiful people should end up with each other. It was as inevitable as the orbit of the sun. He should have known it when he sent me to look for you.”

“I’m surprised that he could pull you away from yourself long enough to go. I will admit, you were well named. The word ‘narcissism’ suits you.”

“At least the world has co-opted me. I live inside their minds, leaving their lips in moments of anger, in fiery passion. When does Persephone grace the thoughts of the world? You are all but forgotten. A distant memory. Your beauty buried and rotting.”

He stood, coming closer to her. She could see the look in his eyes, the same other men had given her millennia ago.

“He can make you a queen, but you are not immortal in this world. Here, you are nothing but flesh and bone.”

He pointed to the books that littered his walls.

“Where are you in all of them? A footnote to a greater god. A source of pain to your mother. Nothing more.”

He leaned in then, hovering over her.

“But I can change that,” he whispered. “I can make you infinite.” She felt his tongue dart out, making contact with the soft shell of her ear, and knew that she would give in to him again.

As Mirabel headed home, she raised her eyes to the sky and let the early morning sun sink into her skin. She would walk, she had decided, and enjoy the final moments of the summer. She could smell the scent of autumn in the air, knew the familiar dankness of the soil would soon beckon her home. She looked up once more at the open window where she knew the once beautiful boy was still sleeping, his cheeks sunken, his body all but bones in the light of day, and decided the encounter with Joseph had been a myth all of its own.

Elizabeth Powers has lived and wrote in many different places, but somehow always returns to the area of Cleveland, Ohio. She received her MFA from Eastern Washington University and works in electronic communications to pay the bills. You can normally find her bopping around coffee shops, binge-watching bad television with her significant other, or chasing after her young daughter.

A Short Story by Emily Guy Birken

Mrs. Bantry stood in the doorway of her richly appointed library and fumed. She turned her disapproving glare from the sprawled limbs and lifeless eyes cluttering up her Persian rug to her husband, whose mouth still gaped open.

“Well?!” she demanded.

Mr. Bantry immediately began sputtering. “My…my dear! I have no idea who…”

She cut him off. “Yes, yes. You’ve never seen him before in your life. I don’t care a fig about that!”

Mr. Bantry’s eyebrows shot up to where his hairline used to be. “M…Martha?”

Mrs. Bantry sighed. “Arthur, my book club will be here in three-quarters of an hour. I need everything to be perfect. Lionel will be here.”

Mr. Bantry knew that his wife’s rivalry with the local parson had gone to ridiculous lengths before. After Lionel Sedges’s strawberry rhubarb pie had been complimented by the other members of the book club, Martha had hired a pastry chef to create a masterful concoction for the following meeting, and then locked the poor woman in the basement for a full 24 hours after the book club guests all departed to ensure no one detected her deception in claiming the recipe as her own.

After Lionel won an award for his rose garden, Martha had dug out their own garden, added a hedge maze, over a dozen topiary animals, seven different varieties of flowering trees, and even built a decorative hermitage—although the unemployed actor she’d hired to be their hermit quit after two days to audition for a foot-cream commercial.

The library’s addition to their home was only the most recent in Mrs. Bantry’s campaign to one-up the diffident young clergyman. Apparently, Lionel had converted his study into a traditional country house library, having inherited a number of gorgeous old volumes from his father and wanting a suitable place to display them. The young man had spent his evenings and spare hours designing and building the shelves, paneling the walls, and staining all the wood to a bright, perfect walnut. He had debuted his beautiful new room at the book club meeting the month before, after two years of work on it.

Mrs. Bantry had come home seething and kept Mr. Bantry up half the night with her angry mutterings. It wasn’t until nearly 3 in the morning, when Mr. Bantry heard her suddenly exclaim, “Oh, yes!” in the tone he had learned to dread, that he was truly afraid. She slipped off to sleep soon after, and he watched her form in the other twin bed, wondering what she would do next.

The following morning, Mrs. Bantry shook him roughly awake to ask him where the rest of the newspapers were.

“M…my dear?” he’d asked her, blinking at the dressing-gown clad figure of his wife, her head held stiffly in her righteous rage.

“The newspapers, Arthur! The newspapers!” she huffed. “I can only find this week’s. I need something I read a fortnight ago. Perhaps as much as a month. Where are they?”

Mr. Bantry reached for his glasses on the night table. “Have you checked the kitchen, my dear? I often place them there.”

Mrs. Bantry’s smile was possibly the most terrifying thing about her—at least, to Mr. Bantry. She displayed it now, showing all her large white teeth, and leaned over to kiss her husband. “Thank you, Arthur!”

When he had finally dressed and sat down at the breakfast table, Mrs. Bantry was already on the phone. “I don’t care what it costs!” she shouted. “I need you here tomorrow morning.” And she slammed the phone down.

Mr. Bantry knew better than to ask about her plans, or inquire to whom she was speaking. He would find out soon enough.

He was not at all surprised the next morning when a lorry arrived with the name “Latham’s Libraries” emblazoned across the side. Mrs. Bantry jumped to meet the driver, who turned out to be Mr. Latham himself. A short, stocky man, his eyes shone with a glint of humour as he shook Mrs. Bantry’s hand.

“Rush job, eh?” Latham asked, pushing his dingy blue cap up off his head to scratch at his scalp. Though it was barely 8 o’clock in the morning, Latham was already glistening with a thin layer of sweat that darkened the brim of his cap. “Lucky fer you Miz Bantry, I specialize in quick work.”

“Yes, yes,” she said, with an airy wave. “I’ve read your advertisement. It’s why I hired you. Now get to work.”

And get to work he did. Within a week, he had built the addition onto their home, installed shelving, imported books, artwork, furniture, rugs, and aged brandy, and even a purring Siamese cat. The three weeks between the completion of the library and the day of Mrs. Bantry’s book club were the most excited Mr. Bantry had ever seen his wife. He caught her practicing her “this old library?” look and self-deprecating chuckle several times a day.

But now, there was a dead body in the center of her library, and the cat was sniffing at the corpse’s shoes—all on the very day of her triumphant reveal of the new room, and she was very cross about it, indeed.

Mr. Bantry swallowed hard before squaring his shoulders. “Martha,” he said, “We need to call the police.” His voice only wavered slightly.

Mrs. Bantry turned and walked decisively toward the phone table, and Mr. Bantry began to congratulate himself. He should put his foot down more often.

“I’m glad you agree with me, my dear,” he said. “I am sorry about your book club,” he added magnanimously, “I know you are desolated.”

Mrs. Bantry simply snorted, not even bothering to refute his suggestion. She looked up a number in the book beside the phone, and quickly dialed. “Mr. Latham!” she said peremptorily once connected, “we have a body!”

“My dear!” Mr. Bantry cried. “Why are you bringing Mr. Latham into this?”

Mrs. Bantry turned a cold glare on her husband, shooing him away with a wide gesture of her arm. Mr. Bantry was close enough, however, to hear Mr. Latham’s rough voice through the receiver: “Oh, I was afraid of that!”

“Well, really, Mr. Latham,” Mrs. Bantry responded. “You could have warned me!”

The tinny voice of the contractor replied, “I spell out the all the potential problems in the contract, Miz Bantry. Right there in subsection A, I explain that dead bodies often turn up unexpectedly in traditional English libraries. Not my fault if you don’t read all the fine print.”

Mr. Bantry’s legs felt like blancmange, and he sank to the floor. He was horrified to realize he had landed on the dead man’s outstretched hand and shuddered, jerking away so that he was no longer touching it. The cat ceased its investigation of the body’s feet and came to settle itself on Mr. Bantry’s lap.

Mrs. Bantry hadn’t noticed her husband’s pallor or change in altitude. She continued berating Mr. Latham. “And what am I supposed to do with this thing now? I have guests coming in…” she paused and glanced as the clock on the mantel “40 minutes.”

“Get rid of it,” advised Mr. Latham. “And quickly, too, before a detective shows up. No little foreign men or daffy old spinsters hanging about, are there? Once one of them arrives… well, let’s just say you’ll miss the peaceful time of just having a corpse to deal with.”

Mrs. Bantry turned to glance out the curtained windows. There was no way she could see anything through the tiny slit of window that showed, but she still pressed her lips together in a thin line, as if she spied amateur detectives coming up the street four abreast. “And where do you suggest I dispose of this body?” she asked Mr. Latham.

Mr. Bantry could not hear the man’s reply, but whatever it was did not satisfy his wife. She slammed the phone back in its cradle and turned to him.

“Come on then,” she said to Mr. Bantry. “You’ll have to get the shoulders.” She suited deed to word by moving to the corpse’s feet and neatly hoisting them up.

Mr. Bantry’s mouth opened and closed for several moments with no sound coming out. When he finally managed to stammer out his wife’s name, she let out an impatient breath.

“Arthur,” she said with the kind of exaggerated calmness that wives usually reserve for tense conversations with their husbands during dinner parties. “There are only 35 minutes remaining until my club arrives, and I still have not assembled all the food or mixed the punch. Please grab this dead gentleman’s shoulders and help me carry him into the hedge maze. We’ll figure out what to do with him after the party.”

And so a dazed Mr. Bantry stood and reached for the corpse’s shoulders. “Lift with your knees, darling,” Mrs. Bantry reminded him. “No sense putting out your back.”

What followed was an unpleasant several moments. Though the dead man was not particularly large, bodies are unwieldy things, and the Bantrys struggled to get him around corners and through doors. When they had finally laid him at the first turn of the hedge maze, Mr. Bantry pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead, staring down at the prone body.

“Shouldn’t we say a few words or something?” he asked, fearing that his voice was on the verge of whining. He cleared his throat. “I mean…”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Arthur!” Mrs. Bantry exclaimed, turning her back on him and exiting the maze. He stood dumbly for a long moment. From across the garden, he heard his wife call “Are you coming?!”

Mr. Bantry was sitting at the kitchen table with his hands braced around a much-needed cup of tea an hour later, listening to the gentle murmur of discussion from the library, when he saw a stooped old woman with fluffy white hair and bright blue eyes and a little man with an enormous handlebar mustache and a meticulously tied cravat enter their garden and walk toward the maze.

Mr. Bantry squeezed his eyes shut and sipped his tea.

Emily Guy Birken is the author of four books on personal finance, including The Five Years Before You Retire, with a fifth under contract, and her byline has appeared in Forbes. She has been writing professionally since 2010. She lives in Milwaukee with her engineer husband, two sons who are determined to make her a Pokemon expert, a retired greyhound, and a cat that doubles as a throw pillow. You can follow Emily on Twitter @emilyguybirken

A Short Story by Sara P. Cullen

It went off at 3:05 in the morning, but he’d been awake hours before, just waiting for the shrill sounding alarm that would have most people groaning and curling back into their nook of blankets.

Not him. He’d been waiting impatiently. Barely creased, he pulled back the covers and pulled on his boots, still dressed from the day before.

They slid off the curve of his finger as he tried to yank them on, catching his hand. Cursing, he waved off the wound, sucking on it briefly, and grabbed his jacket that he’d folded over the back of his chair. He toyed with the idea of bringing his phone but decided he wouldn’t need it.

Laying it carefully on his bedside counter, he took a look around his room. It looked perfect, untouched but for the few things that lay around making the space his.

Tapping the side of the wall, he clicked the door closed quietly. Sound easily traveled.

Stepping out into the hall, he almost expected someone to be waiting there, ready to stop him, demand that he go back to bed and quit waking up the whole house. But there was no one there and, listening to the silence, he realized no one was coming.

His mum was sleeping gently, but his dad had woken up to the sound of the door. He heard him toss and turn before grumbling something intelligible under his breath, something that resembled, “Stupid, fuckin prick.”Realizing that standing on ceremony was pretty pointless, he strode down the hall purposefully and banged the door frame loud enough that the whole house rattled. He could imagine his mum waking up in a gasp of, “What was that?” And his dad, gently ushering her back into bed, eyeing his bedroom door with that scowl resting on his tight, overdrawn lips.

Disappearing down the backfield, he listened for commotion, but there was nothing. He drew his jacket tighter on his shoulders and sucked in a sharp breath of the biting cold. The dawn started to make its way through the darkness, making the path just visible. He’d been walking this track for months, and he could feel it calling to him. He could hear the waves crashing against the edge of the mountain in one crackle of bristling thunder.

It calmed him. Not the water, peacefully waving in and out in one melodic motion, but the angry hurtle that sounded louder than him, angrier than him, was heaven.

Just as he came to a huddle of trees lining up the golden passageway, a fox ran by with no intention of stopping but, catching a glimpse of him, came to an abrupt halt.

The fox seemed to size him up. His heartbeat raced, and he thought for a second that the fox was going to jump at him. Foxes weren’t known to do that, but there was something in the translucent glare of the eyes and the snarl of the lips that made him think the fox was angry at him.

There was no reason to be frightened. He made his hands into fists and stepped forward.

The fox blinked sadly at him, almost disappointed, and raced away.

What the fuck.

Blinking in concession, he shook off the daze and stumbled onwards, raking a hand through his hair. It was just a fox. Just a fox. He laughed to himself.

Rounding the last arch of the bend where the trees leaned away back to the forest, leading an open break of light to the runway before him, he thought, Im finally here.

Speeding up with a smile on his lips, he jogged on, catching sight of the precipice looking forward onto the sea. What he saw surprised him.

There was a girl there, her feet dangerously close to the edge. Her dusty blonde hair whipped around her pale face by the cutting wind as she stared forward.

She was messing up his plans. For a second, he thought about going home, trying it again another day. But he’d made his decision. This is the plan. This is the time. This is the day.

Tiptoeing forward, careful not to spook her, he moved within a breath of distance behind her and carefully placed a hand on her shoulder. Ready to pull her back if needed.

She felt odd, almost gelatinous.

A sharp breath escaped her, and she waved forward a circus performer riding a unicycle.

“I got you,” he said, steading her and moving her an inch away from the edge again.

She turned and slapped him. Hard, in the chest. She seemed dainty, but he could feel the burn into his lungs, and for a moment, it was hard to catch his breath.

“What are you doing here?” she spat, moving back to the edge. “I came to do this, and I won’t have anyone stop me.”

He was too stunned to speak as her gaze narrowed in on the jutting rocks, and for a moment, he thought she was going to soar right off the top.

Leaning forward, he grabbed her and yanked her back once again.

She slapped him harder this time. He doubled over, his stomach lurching.

“Just wait,” he said. “I’m not trying to stop you. I came here to do the same thing, alright?”

He laughed, but it came out oddly, and her face scrunched up in confusion. “Then why do you keep pulling me back?”

Scratching the edge of his jaw, he searched.

 “Cause I planned to do this now, and you’re fucking it up.” He sighed, “If I see you do it first, I mightn’t have the balls to jump.”

She eyed him warily as if he was trying to trick her. “I don’t care if you wanna die or not. Not really my problem.”

He held up his hands in surrender.

Studying him, she nodded and wordlessly held out her hand. It was cracked and uncared for.

He stepped away from her and looked from her outstretched hand to her imploring eyes.

“Take it,” she snapped, waving it at him.

“Why?”

“We can do it together.”

He supposed they could, but something about taking her hand scared him. It seemed wrong, and from the way she felt before, he could only imagine what it would feel like in his. He felt like he didn’t have a choice.

Nodding, he took her hand and fought back a dry heave.

It was coarse and grating, and he could almost feel it shaving pieces of his skin. Her palm dipped oddly. It was empty and not touching his.

“Your hand feels strange,” he said.

“So does yours.”

When he looked up, she was smiling playfully with a catch of light in her eyes. Closing his own eyes, he took a breath and stepped next to her.

The wind was strong at the edge. It almost sent him hurtling out. He gripped her hand tightly and planted his feet on the ground.

“Why are you scared?” she asked.

“I’m not…” he trembled out, “I’m-“

“Scared.” She finished raising a cocky brow at him.

There was something in her, humming like electricity, and it was the only thing that kept him holding on; it soothed his anxious heart.

“Why are you doing this?” he asked her.

Turning, she looked into him, and without a hint of doubt, she said, “Because I’m all alone.”

She spoke simply, and he couldn’t doubt for a second that it was true.

“I’m here,” he said, squeezing her sore hand tighter.

“And you’re about to leave, are you not?”

Testily looking over, he analyzed the drop. It would be long, he would go down fast, and he’d remember everything until his body finally was smashed apart by rocks and god knows what else.

He thought it would be nice, his family wouldn’t find him, and he’d be taken into the sea like a million more lives before him. He’d be just another young troubled man who’d disappeared, but he hadn’t expected a girl surer of herself than him and so ready to jump.

“Mhmm,” He managed.

“Alright, then. You ready?”

He nodded wordlessly, and without a second to think, she outstretched one leg, hovering there for a moment. Her weight, heavier and stronger than it looked, pulled at his shoulder. He seized up in a blind panic.

In fright, he pulled back with enough force for two people and sent them crashing to the ground in an entanglement of limbs.

The bang left him dazed for a second, and he didn’t realize she was hitting him, over and over again until he had to hold back her arms and push her spindly body away.

Spit curled up at her mouth as her skin shifted and tried to find its place inside her. The more he pushed, what was wrong with her?

“Why’d you pull us back? Why’d you pull us back!”

Slackening his hold, she grabbed at his throat in a fit. His eyes were rolling in her head as she found the right grip on his neck, and visibly shaking, she gritted out, “Why’d you do it?”

Beating her away and shoving his knee into her folding stomach, he pushed her off and got to his feet.

“Cause…”

“Cause what, eh?” She advanced towards him, hitting him again.

He hissed out a strangled breath. He didn’t have time to speak. His body was burning from the inside out and, with every push, he realized that she was stealthily guiding him closer and closer to the edge.

He could taste the crashing waves ready to eat him up, and he was afraid.

Whimpering as his heel caught the edge of crumbling rock, he grabbed her hand desperately with his own, “Please stop.”

“Why?”

Holding the strange form in his hands, he watched her calculating look and let out a relieving sigh, bowing his head at this strange, wonderful creature.

“Why?” she shouted.

“Cause I don’t wanna die!” he shouted back.

She dropped onto her knees and looked up at him.

“Fuck,” he said, running a frayed hand through his hair. “I get it, alright. I never really wanted to die. I’m just feeling sorry for myself. And you- you’re so sure, well you seem sure, but what if you aren’t and when you leap off the edge, you realize it’s too late to turn back? What’ll you do then?”

Smiling to herself, she got up and tilted her chin proudly up at him.

Moving in close, so her mouth was right beside his ear, she whispered, “I was never gonna jump.”

“…What…but…” he stumbled out.

“And I knew you wouldn’t either.” She winked, walking back towards the way he started, “Now you know.”

Her voice sang out from the trees, and he jogged after her. She’d only been a few steps in front of him, and the field was clear. There was nowhere to hide, but as he ran around the corner, she was gone.

Spinning around, he tried to spot any sign of her. There was nothing but the chirping of birds risen and determined to wake all sleeping things.

“How’d you know?” he asked the air.

What the hell…”

After a few moments of disbelief, he kicked at the ground, alright, and headed back home.

Hands in his pockets and jacket zipped up to his neck, he raced back the way he came, and as he came to the field of his house, he saw a fox, paused and staring at him.

It tilted his head up at him and squared off its shoulders.

There was something familiar about its mouth, and for a moment, he thought he saw the curl of a smile. He found himself smiling back as the fox skipped through the long grass and disappeared into the woods.

Laughing still, he went back into the house, quiet as he could. Letting himself into his room, he fell onto his bed and went back to sleep in a matter of minutes. He hadn’t been to sleep so quickly in a long time.

Sara P Cullen co-runs an equestrian centre with her mother in the countryside of Ireland, spending most of her active lifestyle with her horses and many pets. Leaving not much time to pursue other hobbies. 

However, her love of books and movies plays a huge part in her life, running off to the cinema any chance she can get and staying up late at night to finish another string of books. 

Her sporty nature comes from her mother, but her father’s side comes from a family of show-people, funfair folk, and musicians who encouraged her to pursue a more creative past time. Sara had been writing stories since she was very young and has now taken creative writing courses to further her craft. 

Although she would describe herself as an avid animal lover and perceived less people friendly, her stories have a vivid and descriptive narrative of other people’s personalities and their relatable internal struggles. Showing a great interest in the people around her, usually from a witty first-person narrative.  

A Short Story by Philip Goldberg

Another night, and once again the Runner hugged the building walls, still damp from the rain that had stopped falling not long ago. The scrawled messages and spray-painted symbols glistened on the wet concrete. Water drops dripped from the barbed wire wrapped around every mailbox. She passed it all with fluid steps. Her gray eyes were alert for any Sentry who might be lurking in the darkness. The gun she gripped was prepared for any armed patrol that crossed her path, and there had been a few.

Her mother had taught her well. She’d had the wherewithal to take them underground after the Leader was elected President by a hair-thin margin, had understood the man’s words were more than rhetoric. When he started turning his insane notions into action, rounding up what he’d called “undesirables” and incarcerating them behind barbed wire in disused warehouses and abandoned buildings, she joined the Resistance and brought her young daughter with her.

How the Runner longed for her mother back in her life. But there was no time for tears. She couldn’t let this hope slow her down, stop her from finding her mother. So she continued.

Daybreak approached, and the Runner sought a place to hide. She came upon a boarded-up building. Experience had taught her how to find an entry. Around the back, she found a window where some boards had been pried off. Boards were scavenged as fast as they went up. Probably used for firewood, she thought.

Once inside, she pulled the small flashlight from her pack and shined its beam ahead. A narrow hallway appeared before her. Doorways, most open, ran along the right and left. She knew better than to go through the first ones. Stories had reached her of those captured or killed hiding in the first apartments by hunting Sentries. She approached the fourth door on the left. It was shut. Pressing her ear against it, she listened, holding her breath. Silence. The door opened with only a small squeak. She kept it ajar, having learned this made it easier to hear anyone approaching. The flashlight’s thin beam illuminated a bit of the apartment. Some furniture remained, scattered about. She clicked off the light, sat on the floor, and placed the gun near her hand and her pack against her leg. Only then did she lean against the wall.

Her mother’s face, a smile curling her lips, appeared in the darkened room. A ghost? A memory? A comfort? They had last been together over a year ago, right after she’d turned fifteen.

Floorboards creaked, and the image of her mother disappeared. She grew alert. The gun back in her hand, her finger tightened around the trigger, the barrel aimed at the doorway. Someone appeared in the narrow opening and peered into the apartment. Whoever it was must’ve seen her, for the person receded into the hall. A Sentry wouldn’t flee. Perhaps a snitch? The Runner jumped to her feet in pursuit. Once in the hall, she said: “Stop—or I’ll shoot.”

The slight body stopped. Two hands shot up, frozen in the air.

With gun cocked, the Runner stepped close. “Turn… slowly.”

Now facing her was a teen girl, not much older than her. The girl’s dark hair was cropped short, and her amber eyes appeared tired. “Sentry?” The girl asked—her voice edgy.

“If I were, you’d be lying on the floor, bleeding.” She motioned for the girl to lower her hands and watched them drop to her sides. She relaxed her grip on the gun and let her own hand down.

“You… Resistance?”

The Runner nodded. “You?”

“Me? I should be long gone with the rest.”

The runner gazed at this white girl and arched her eyebrows. But before she could ask the question on her mind, the girl answered it.

“I’m Queer… Lesbian, whatever you want to call me. A disgrace in the eyes of God, you recall, a threat to girls everywhere, and all that bullshit.”

“I remember his rants.”

The cropped-haired girl shuffled her feet and stared at the floor. “Word on the street was they were rounding us up with the idea of imprisoning us in large Conversion centers. After two of my friends… disappeared, I dropped out of sight.”

The Runner remembered going to her friend, Rosa’s house, seeing the door wide open, the place ransacked, and the girl gone with all the other Mexicans.  She had stood frozen there with a look of wild despair.

“You all right?”

She was unaware that she now wore that same look. “I’m okay.” She watched the girl run a hand over her sweatshirt and noticed it read, University of Pennsylvania. Her mother had been a professor at NYU. Julia had been her mother’s name then, and it seemed so long ago. “Come on.” The floorboards creaked under her footfalls, and she returned to the apartment, the girl’s steps echoing behind her, as the first streaks of morning light came through parts of the window where some boards had been pried away. “Stay out of view of those openings.” She sat on the floor by her pack in the room’s shadows and motioned for the girl to join her.

The girl took a similar darkened spot across from her. “Scarlet’s my name.”

“Destiny’s mine.” The name felt unfamiliar passing through her lips. Once underground, she had shed it. Now hearing it made her feel like it had belonged to someone else. “How long have you been on the run?”

“Two years give or take a few weeks.”

“You’ve eluded the Sentries that long. How?”  

“Same as you probably. Good people are out there. They hid me, fed me, clothed me…” She eyed her hands and rubbed them together. “But there are less and less of them. Fewer hiding places.”

“I know. Sentries have infiltrated our ranks. Imprisoned and killed many members. Eliminated a lot of our hiders…” She studied the run-down room. “Tonight I’m moving on.”

“Where to?”

“Free Boston.” Part of the Federation of Free City States, she knew, also including Philadelphia, Houston, Seattle, Oakland, and South Chicago, formed just before the Seven Month War had ended in the stalemate that had led to the fragile peace existing now, which each side expected the other to break.

“Free Boston,” the cropped-haired girl said it as if the City State was a planet in a distant galaxy. “That’s one dangerous trip.”

“Sneaking through these streets is dangerous. Seeking a hider’s home’s dangerous. Searching for food and drink’s dangerous.”

“I didn’t mean to—”

“—It’s okay. I have to go there, that’s all.”

“Boston,” she said the name with great interest. “My aunt and cousins live there. Haven’t spoken to them since…”

“You should come with me then. Better than remaining here—no matter how dangerous it’ll be getting there. No one will be hunting you there like some animal. You can stop running.”

“I’m tired of running.”

“So am I.”

Scarlet’s eyes possessed the look that came with deep reflection. After a few moments, she focused on the Runner and said: “I’ll go with you.”

“Good. Get some sleep. You’ll need it.”

That day, the Runner’s troubling dreams returned. In this one, she kept to the alleys, and dark spaces of the patrolled streets bringing important news to those incarcerated in the Sectors. Her mother’s voice echoed in her head, repeating: “Imagine you’re walking on cats’ paws.” Soft step after soft step, she continued until coming to the barbed-wire fence. She cut a hole at its bottom and crawled through.

In the shadows beyond the reach of the spotlights stood Miguel, head of the Mexican sector. His face was bloodied. “Believing what you tell me…” He let loose a defiant laugh, loud and chilling. Blood ran from the wounds on his face, his hands. “This is what believing you has brought me.” 

A shot rang out from the darkness. Miguel fell.  

Before he hit the ground, the Runner woke. A scream choked in her throat. Her breaths, fast. She wrapped both hands around her chest, tightened her grip. Her mother’s determined face appeared, hovered in the air before her eyes. Only then did she loosen her grip and noticed the few bars of sunlight shining through where the wood slats had been removed from the window.


When darkness came, the Runner pulled from her pack a bag of black powder. She applied it to her face and hands. She eyed the girl. “It comes off with a little water.”

Scarlet took some and smeared it across the same places as the Runner had. And then they headed out.

The Runner had heard of a break in the fence off Conner Street in Northeastern Bronx. Maybe the Leader and his minions had gotten cocky or sloppy not guarding this area because there was the hole at the base of the fence wide enough for both of them to crawl through and not a Sentry in sight. Once on the Westchester side, she led the way, holding her gun steady and ready. In the other hand was a compass. She stared at it and headed northeast, the old interstate on the right, now only traveled by the Sentries, the Keepers of Power, and those with political connections. Scarlet kept pace with her on empty small streets and roads. When the woods appeared, they went into them. The Runner pulled out her flashlight and held it. She aimed the beam ahead and made out the winding path laden with fallen leaves, as well as the tree branches growing naked. The breeze blew, and memories rustled through her: leaves changing colors, snow falling, blossoms blooming, summer rainbows. None brought joy, only pain of what she desperately missed, what she so badly wanted to reclaim. But her mother’s defiant voice consumed her: “Keep moving, keep fighting.” These words, the last her mother had said to her, became the motivation for each step she took.

The inky blue lightened. They quickened their steps until coming to an old cabin the Runner had heard about through the rumor chain.

Inside everything felt damp to the touch. Both teens checked the kitchen cabinets and found a few cans of beans. In one drawer, Scarlet located a can opener. Each grabbed a can and ate the beans cold. Somewhat sated and thoroughly exhausted, each found a place on the wood-planked floor and lay there. The Runner kept the gun by her side, as always. Despite being so tired, the Runner fought sleep but knew it was a battle she’d lose and did. She was roused out of sleep by strange noises and grabbed the gun, pointing it—for it had become a reflex—around the room, at the window, at the door. But it was only Scarlet, spitting out garbled words, twitching all over. She crawled to the cropped-haired girl and shook her awake.

Scarlet stared with bewilderment, appearing unaware of where she was. Gradually, she figured it out and sat up. The Runner noticed the tears glistening on her cheeks, setting off a strange feeling in her, at how long it had been since she’d cried. Even after losing her mother, no tears had come. She struggled to recall when tears had last fallen from her eyes. And then it came to her: still known as Destiny, she discovered a friend had posted a nasty lie about her on Facebook. Betrayed and hurt, she cried. Remembering this, she expelled a tortured breath.

“My parents, sister, and brother visit me in my sleep,” Scarlet said, her voice tiny. “They call out my name. But they never hear me when I answer.”

“Ever gone home again? See if they’re still there.”

“I went back to where we lived…”

“And?”

Scarlet rubbed her cropped hair. “Gone.”

”Hopefully they fled, too.”

“You should know better.”  

Silence, awkward and angry, clutched the room until the Runner asked with hesitancy: “Miss them?”

“Some. You?”

“I miss my mother.”

“Where is she?”

“Don’t know. Haven’t seen her in over a year. That’s why I’m heading to Free Boston, to see if anyone there knows anything.”

“Do you think someone will?”

The sound of a distant car passing made both look in its direction before Destiny faced her and said: “Can’t say. But I must go and ask.” She glanced at the window. “Sun will set soon. Try to get a little more rest.”

“You too.” Scarlet lay down.

But the Runner remained seated, her mind sorting out their conversation. A thought came to her: What would she do if no one knew where her mother was? She gazed out the window watching the sky darken. No answer came, but a stinging remembrance did.


She had come home that night over a year ago, tired from disseminating information to the new crop of Runners. When she’d opened the door to the apartment where she and her mother were hiding, the sight made her heart pump harder. The place had been ransacked, looking like Rosa’s house had. She ran into the room where their closet living area was. Its door had been ripped off the hinges, the small space within a mess—her mother—like Rosa and her family—gone.

This harrowing memory haunted her, as she trekked beside Scarlet, their path aided by the full moon. With each step, she felt the weight of those bitter recollections pulling her back into them. But she fought those dark thoughts, fought hard.

Scarlet looked at her, sensed something gnawing at her and wanted to ask her what it was but didn’t say a word, concluding that it was best to leave someone alone at moments like these. That’s how she’d want to be treated. So she continued walking. Crunching dry leaves crushed under their footsteps produced  the only sound between them.


The tweeted ranting of the Leader followed the Runner on every street, down every alley. It was as if the typed words were his Sentries, prowling, pursuing her like prey. In one lightless corner, they found her, trapped her, wrapped their letters, hashtags, exclamation points around her throat and began choking the life from her.

Coughing, she bolted up from the floor of another deserted cabin in the woods. She grabbed the gun and dropped it, a shot rang out, the bullet lodging in the wood wall before her. She became aware of the cropped-haired girl sitting and staring at her with fearful eyes.  

“Nightmare?” Scarlet asked, again rubbing what was left of her cut hair.

“Just another one.”

“Me… I’ve lost count.” She giggled in a nervous attempt to lighten the atmosphere.

“Sometimes I wake from them wishing I could go back to the way it was.” The faces of lost friends singing Happy Birthday, playgrounds filled with shrieks of laughter, going to the movies or ice-skating rinks hurtled through her mind. “But it always hits me that I can’t.”

Heavy sorrow weighed down the room.

“Is your father gone, too?”

His blank face replaced the memories of things she once prized. “Never knew him. Left my mom before I could remember. Little I know she told me… that I have his eyes, his chin, his smile… that he was one of her graduate students…”

“Do you miss him?”

“Miss not knowing him. At least wish I’d met him once.”

“I don’t know what’s worse.” Scarlet fidgeted with her fingers. “Knowing them and missing them… or not knowing them at all.”

“Wish I’d known him.”

“Funny, I wish I hadn’t known mine. He never took to what I was. Probably would’ve turned me in if I hadn’t fled.”

“You believe that?”

“I do.”

“Harsh.”

“So was he.”


Night’s thick black curtain descended, and the two teens left the cabin. The rain had fallen that afternoon. It had stopped, but the ground was still wet, and each step was sucked into the muddy earth, followed by an ongoing struggle to free the sunken boot. The wind had kicked up, blowing colder than the night before. Despite wearing coats, both girls steeled themselves against the frigid air. The gun felt heavy in the Runner’s hand, its grip like ice. Still, they trudged on.

A male voice cut through the cold woods. “Halt!”

She grabbed Scarlet’s hand and pulled her along, hoping to put some distance between them and their pursuer. Thudding footsteps, snaps of breaking branches came fast from behind. “Don’t look back,” she told the girl.

A shot rang out, a warning. “Stop now!”

Destiny wrapped her finger around the trigger. “Run!” She stopped, spun around and fired in the direction of her pursuer. Only then she saw there were two, not one, coming her way. Returned shots whizzed past her. She crouched, set herself and aimed at one, and fired. One Sentry dropped to the ground, but the other kept charging. She fired five shots. The last two hit and she watched the second Sentry fall. An uneasy quiet fell. She rose, surprised to see Scarlet standing a few feet away. Approaching the girl, she saw fear on her face, noticed her trembling.

“How do you kill?” The cropped haired girl’s voice, brittle.

The question wasn’t new. She’d asked it of herself. “I shoot to survive. Kill to keep going.”

The two teens came to a small town. Its streets were deserted. Still, the Runner remained vigilant, maintained her firm grip on the gun, and made sure they stayed close to the small facades that bordered the quiet, desolate main street. They passed stores long empty, their front windows grimy. When they came to an alley between two buildings, she led Scarlet down it. They wandered behind the buildings until she noticed a door ajar and stopped, looked at the cropped-haired girl, and whispered: “Stay here.”

Scarlet watched her step to the slightly open door and carefully push it open, squeaking as it did.

Pulling out her flashlight with one hand, aiming her gun in the other, she stepped inside. Floorboards groaned under her feet. The torch caught something in its beam: a mannequin of a woman, wearing a torn dress. She went to it, touched the fabric with a finger, and her eyes grew distant.

Destiny, all of nine, had come out of the department store’s fitting room, wearing the brightly colored spring dress.

Julia had stood before her, studying it. “Turn around.”

She spun around until facing her mother again. A smile graced the woman’s lips.

“You look pretty.”

She felt her cheeks grow warm. “Do I?”

The smile intensified. “You do.”

Then she ran her hand over the dress, felt the softness of it, and broke into an embarrassed smile.

The Runner released the piece of dress with heaviness in her heart. She took in the rest of the dusty room before returning to Scarlet, leaning against the building’s back brick wall. “We’ll stay here for the day.”

Inside, they opened a door that revealed stairs going down to the basement. The Runner took note and then looked at the cropped-haired girl. “I’m hungry. You?”

“Famished.”

“Stay here. I’ll find us food and drink. If anything spooks you, go down there and be still. Got it?”

“Don’t worry. I know what to do.”

And she realized this girl probably did.  

She prowled the main street, consumed by thoughts of how everything got this way. How someone so wrong convinced so many that he was their last hope, how they lapped up his lies like puppy dogs, and how they defended him when he was not defensible.

The rumbling of her stomach drowned out these thoughts. Before her stood a storefront and inside were shelves stacked with cans and packages of food. Her mouth watered. She wondered whether stores in a small town like this would be alarmed. Gazing up and down the street at the many empty storefronts, she suspected nothing around here would.  Still, hunger and thirst were worth the risk.

She found another alley, followed it to the back and came to the rear door of the grocery. Nearby, there was a rusted rod on the ground. She grabbed it and jimmied the door open. The silence that followed proved her suspicion right.

They ripped open the packages and cans, which the Runner had made sure had pull-tops, and feasted on cold Spaghetti-Os, fruit cocktails, and cookies. Each washed it down with warm water from bottles. Rare smiles graced their faces, and occasional giggles escaped their lips. Each ate like it was her last supper and when finished, prided herself on a full belly. Sweet sleepiness came over them, and soon both were snoring.

The Runner felt her body being shaken, and her eyes shot open. Her gun raised and aimed at someone hovering over her. That’s when she heard: “Wake up, wake up.” Her eyes focused and saw it was Scarlet. She lowered the gun. “We slept too late. It’s already dark.”

“Crap.” She jumped up and gathered her few belongings, making sure to stuff the remaining food cans and packages in her backpack.

They fled, leaving the mannequin to guard the storeroom, and soon came upon a narrow river and followed its curving path. Cloud cover obscured the moon from shining down on them. Their mouths expelled chilled breaths, white fogs that scattered in the breeze.

Only then did the Runner realize how lucky they had been. Her theft had gone undetected.  

Scarlet walked beside her and asked: “Ever been in love?”

The cropped-haired girl’s question bit her hard, and she replied in a somber tone: “No.”

“I have. Lara was her name.”

“She disappeared?”

Scarlet’s silence was answer enough.

The rush of the nearby river’s water seized the air. The Runner cast her curious look on the cropped-haired girl. “Have you ever…”

“Many times.”

The Runner’s steps picked up their pace. She moved ahead.

But Scarlet caught up and noticed the glum look on the Runner’s face. An awkward silence gripped them until Scarlet broke it. “You haven’t—

“—I’ve missed out on a lot of things.”

Scarlet gazed ahead without a word.

“Look, I shouldn’t be laying this on you. Things are what they are. That’s all.”

Scarlet peered at her. She placed a halting hand on her. “They don’t have to be. I mean, you and me, we could—”

The Runner stepped out of the crop-haired girl’s grasp. “Sorry, I’m not like you. Right now, I wish I was.”

“But—“

“—I’d be faking it, and I don’t want to do that. Not to you, not to me.”

“It’s okay. I get it. I really do.” Her voice, understanding.

“Believe me, I do wish—”

Scarlet placed a finger on the Runner’s lips, silencing her, and then she smiled.


Nightfall.

After eating and drinking from all of the remaining cans and packages, they snuck out of another cabin and headed into the rain. Their steps sloshed. The air thick with dampness clung to their faces, hands, even went through their boots and socks to their feet. The unpleasant sensations it produced made the Runner recall a night like this.

She had gone out to run information that night. The sky had opened up; the rain had fallen hard, chilling her body and bones, icing any exposed skin. Everything ached. By the next morning, she felt so sick, so feverish. Hallucinations plagued her. In one, the Leader, now a giant, chased her down dark, deserted streets wanting to catch her and devour her. In another, fireballs shot from his flaming hair and exploded around her.

But her mother had nursed her back from the illness, from its hell. When she recovered, her mother helped her regain the lost weight, the missing strength.

The time came when she wanted to return to running information, but her mother forbade her. She would give no explanation as to why the Runner couldn’t go.

So when the opportunity presented itself, she defied her mother and went out into the night. And what she found were empty internment camps. Places where she’d gone before and met with Miguel, Abbad, Rasheed, and others. The Leader had lived up to his word. The shock hit her, and she ran like she never had before. She finally stopped and glared at the glittering lights across the river where the Keepers of Power lived. A new determination overcame her, to fight harder against the Leader and his followers who lived behind those lighted windows.

This had been her sole plan until they’d seized her mother.


Glimmering lights were visible. Flashlight beams. Seeing them, the Runner grabbed Scarlet’s hand and led her deeper into the woods. She stopped at a safe distance from the road, pulling the cropped-haired girl onto the wet ground with her. She shivered. Scarlet shuddered. She focused on the moving beams of light coming closer. Dark figures walking along the road became visible. They were of four different heights and shapes. She wrapped her finger around the trigger, rose to her knees, ready to fire.

“Don’t just see, hear,” her mother had told her in training.

She listened hard, until picking up faint voices. That’s when she heard it: the voice of a woman. There were no female Sentries. Under the Leader, a woman’s role was in the home, caring for her husband, having babies for growing the White race. She stood and motioned Scarlet to do the same. Looking at the cropped-haired girl next to her, she said: “They’re Resistance.”

“How do you know?”

She told her how.

“We’ve made it.”

“Not so fast. We’re not there yet.”

“But?“

“Let’s talk to them first.”

They headed to the road, where the Resistance fighters spun on their boot heels, their rifles aimed and ready. The Runner and Scarlet raised their hands. The four before them kept their firearms steady, their eyes locked on them.

“I’m Resistance,” she said. “Destiny Hartman. My mother’s Julia Hartman.”

The sole female in the patrol, not much older than her, stepped forward. A look of recognition filled her eyes. “I’ve heard of her. Wasn’t she—”

“—Over a year ago. Been searching for her since. Hoping someone in Free Boston can help me.”

She lowered her rifle and focused her eyes on Scarlet. “And you?”  

“I’m seeking sanctuary there. Been on the run since the Great Conversion.”

“Lost some friends then…” She motioned with her head for the other three to lower their rifles. Looking at the two teens before her, she told them to lower their hands. “Come with us.”

Everyone marched up the road until they came to a truck, its side panel advertising a favorite beer. In the cab sat an older man at the steering wheel.

“Get in the back,” the patrol leader said.

Both climbed up and entered the empty space. A member of the patrol slid the back door down, and the space became lightless. The Runner turned on her flashlight. Both Scarlet and she sat on burlap sacks scattered about the floor. The cropped-haired girl was smiling.

The truck’s engine rumbled, vibrating along the metal walls of the container, as the big rig drove the road creating a soothing sound and rhythmic motion.

“Told you we made it,” Scarlet said, her voice relieved and happy.

The Runner didn’t reply.

The back doors of the truck slid open, flooding the container with sunlight. The Runner awoke, blinking furiously at her sleep being interrupted. She shaded her eyes with a hand, as the sunlight bothered her. She noticed Scarlet, awake and sitting with her back against the wall. Each rose and stepped to the open end. The hand of a Resistance fighter helped them down.

The Runner’s eyes acclimated to the sunlight, which she hadn’t been out in for some time, and then gazed with wonder at the towering steel and glass buildings shimmering in the bright light of day. Free Boston encircled her in all its tarnished glory. She looked at Scarlet, who fell into her arms, and she stood awkwardly embracing the cropped-haired girl. Like crying, it had been quite a while since she had hugged or had been hugged by someone. The last person to do so was her mother. Slowly, the hug felt less of a distant memory and more real, and she gave into it, accepting the comfort provided by it— and only then did a slight smile appear. For the moment, she was Destiny again. But she knew the moment wouldn’t last.

Later, the Runner was brought to the office of General Wright, the head of Free Boston’s Resistance Army. The windowed wall behind the General afforded her a breathtaking view of the skyscrapers of Free Boston in the now diminishing daylight.

She greeted the General. An imposing woman: tall, broad-shouldered, heart-faced with blue eyes that could mesmerize someone looking at them for too long.

The General placed her large hand over the Runner’s smaller one, obscuring it. “I must say you getting here from New York is… quite impressive.”

She fought off rising embarrassment by staring at her muddied boots. “My mother was a good teacher.” 

“I know.”

Her eyes shot up. “You know her?”

“I met her in the early days… before everything changed.” The General’s eyes held more buried memories of Julia.

“Is she… alive?”

“From the intelligence, we’ve gathered… she is.”

The Runner gasped. “Where?”

“She’s being held in a former Federal Penitentiary in Northern Virginia.”

“I’ve got to go there. Find her—”

“—Impossible. The place is a fortress. Heavily guarded. Even if you made it there—and you seem capable of doing so, you’d never get inside. We’ve tried.“

Her expression turned downcast.

He has done a good job of thinning our ranks… It’d be suicide sending anyone there.”  

She averted the woman’s stare and looked again at the skyscrapers cast in a pumpkin hue.

That night back in her room in a former hotel, the Runner sat on her bed and peered at the rain-splotched window. Beyond it, the skyline of Free Boston was barely illuminated and hard to see through the raindrops on the glass panes.  She thought about visiting Scarlet in the room next door and tell her everything she’d learned from General Wright. But she didn’t want to trouble the girl anymore with her burdens. So she stayed in her room and moved to the edge of the bed, staring out the window into the darkness. The face of her mother appeared there, a phantom floating before her, flashing fierce eyes. She became fixated on the eyes, growing certain of one absolute truth.

Her mother had trained her well.

Philip Goldberg’s short stories have appeared in both literary and small press publications including trampset, Junto, Thrice Fiction, Straylight, foliate oak, Borrowed Solace, The Chaffin Journal, and Twisted Vine Literary Art Journal. Two more of his stories have been accepted by The Halcyone/Black Mountain Press and by the Evening Street Review. Microfictions have appeared in Blink Ink and Starwheel. Three of his stories have been published in Best of collections and one was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is currently workshopping his novel.

A Short Story by Melinda Keathley

Back in the day…

The members of Holy Evangelical Trinity Church of Titan, Tennessee, first noticed the shift in Jamison Jefferies during the time of Welcome that Sunday morning. Typically, congregants used this time to exchange pleasantries with those brothers and sisters in Christ sitting nearest to them and to get a better look at any visitors. But, Jamison Jefferies, a twenty-year member, and brother of the late and revered Deacon Jasper Jefferies, firmly shook the hand of every man, woman, and child he encountered, looked them square in the eyes, and said, “This is my least favorite part of the whole damn thing.”

He met their open-mouthed stares with a wide sincere grin and a slap on the back before moving on to the next person. Sister Sevena Leevee would later tell authorities she had smelled liquor on his breath.

Members watched Jamison suspiciously as they went back to their seats for the time of Giving. After an infamously liberal guest pastor spoke on the virtues of inclusion, the Deacons unanimously voted to move Giving to the beginning of service, so tithes were collected before any unintended change of hearts or minds.

As Mrs. Betty Carmichael, one of the oldest founding members, walked on stage to the piano for the instrumental interlude, Jamison ripped the notes section from the bulletin and began scrawling a message. When the plate got to Jamison, he dropped the note inside and made what Brother Rip Bowman, who was waiting on the other end of the pew to collect the plate, would later describe to police as “aggressive eye contact.”  Before Mrs. Carmichael made it to the last verse of “Lord Thou Lov’st a Cheerful Giver,” Brother Bowman abandoned his post to show the note to the other elders working collection.

The note read: “Tip: Close that gaping financial wound Holy Grounds!

Holy Grounds was the recently opened congregational coffee and book shop located off the main lobby. Its stated purpose in the business plan was “to provide a place of fellowship and a new source of revenue.” Although skeptical, the elders approved the investment after Reverend Ricky persuasively argued, “Millennials love their Starbucks, and people need a convenient place to shop for their Christian gifts and reading material.”

Nevertheless, despite intensive barista training by the franchise owner, the Christ themed cappuccinos and mochas failed to bring in those elusive younger members, and people continued to find online shopping a more convenient alternative to brick and mortar retail. It also didn’t help that the Holy Ground’s prices were at least 15% more than Amazon. Despite weekly specials advertised in the bulletin, sales were weak. In the six months since the grand opening, Reverend Ricky Wandsbow had preached three sermons on patience and perseverance framed around brand loyalty.

As tithe collection came to a close, Brother Bowman took the note to Reverend Ricky. Shocked by its contents, Reverend Ricky turned around in the pew to look at Jamison, who met the Reverend’s glare with a two-finger mock salute. Unaccustomed to such blatant and public disrespect from a member of his flock, Reverend Ricky got flustered and nearly missed his queue to lead the opening prayer. His wife, Walinda, had to elbow his ribs to get his attention. On his way to the pulpit, Reverend Ricky whispered to Brother Bowman to put their volunteer Chief of Security, 80-year old Korean War POW, and Purple Heart recipient, Captain Leon Simmons, on high alert.

Reverend Ricky, above all else, enjoyed leading the congregation in prayer. He took pride in what he described to Walinda as his inspiring and poetic orations, but the morning’s excitements caught him off guard, and he forgot at least half of what he had written the night before. What he had hoped would be a rousing call to action to lay aside all impure thoughts and accept the glorious and redeeming word of the Gospel ended up being a wandering and sometimes stuttering request to “keep an open mind,” which Walinda worried might be misinterpreted as a slight leaning toward progressivism. To her relief, there were three “Amens” and one “Hallelujah” called out mid-prayer. Reverend Ricky, relieved to have not heard a peep from Jamison during the prayer, silently thanked Jesus and closed his Bible. On his way back to the pew, he stopped mid-step, as if by the hand of God, when he heard Jamison mock applaud and say, “Amen and praise God, you kept it under five minutes this time, Ricky.”

The entire church turned in their seats to stare at Jamison, who crossed his arms and sat back in his pew. Then in unison, like spectators at a tennis match, every head turned back to Reverend Ricky to see his reaction. Reverend Ricky, now completely unnerved, forced a smile and decided, if asked about it later, he would label his frustration and lack of action as a measured and Christ-like response to a brother in need. He signaled to Brother Bowman, who radioed Captain Simmons and ordered, “All eyes on The Eagle.”

The Eagle was the security code word for the Reverend. The security team had originally decided on The Dove, but Reverend Ricky had felt that too feminine and requested they use that for his wife’s code word and find a bird more masculine for him, regardless of its Biblical significance.

Captain Simmons took his post at the back of the church, making sure he had Jamison in a direct line of sight. The other elders sat at the four corners of the fellowship hall on heightened alert. Sensing the growing tension, some of the members used the inclement weather text chain to discuss Jamison’s unusual behavior. In less than five minutes, the news made its way to every single member. Even the teen missions group distributing English version NIV Bibles to village children in San Jose, Guatemala, got word via text. Everyone waited anxiously, wondering what in the world had gotten into Jamison Jefferies and what he would do next. They all found out when Holy Evangelical’s contemporary Christian rock band Crown of  Thorns played their first song.

As Crown of Thorns ended their fourth consecutive chorus of “Jesus is My BFF,” and the Minister of Music, Desmond Devean, began his guitar solo, Jamison stood up, marched down the center aisle to the sound equipment, and began to furiously yank cords out of the amplifiers. As the music faded and the crowd began whispering and texting, Jamison pointed to Desmond Devean with the disconnected end of his guitar cable cord and yelled, “If I wanted a concert, I’d go see a real band! Nobody wants to hear this shit so early in the morning!”

His words were first met by violent feedback from the speakers and then by the members’ dismayed silence. When Reverend Ricky attempted to stop Jamison from completely dismantling the sound equipment, his faithful wife Walinda followed behind him. Unintentionally, as Jamison slung his arm back to get Reverend Ricky’s hand off his shoulder, he hit Sister Walinda square in the face, busting her nose and knocking out the dental bonding from an old cheerleading accident. The shock from the blow sent Walinda spinning out toward the first pew — blood spewing from her nose and gums like a lawn sprinkler. Three generations of the McAttrey family, who had faithfully sat on the front pew since the churched doors opened 30 years ago, were covered torso to tophat in blood splatter.

Three of the elders ran at full speed to the front of the fellowship hall and tackled Jamison, taking Reverend Ricky down with them. Michael McAttrey, now angry and covered in blood, jumped in to help. Captain Simmons made his way to the front of the church, unclipped his firearm, and took a crouching stance near the communion table, waiting for a clear shot of Jamison’s shoulder or leg — his intention never to kill, just to wound. To everyone’s surprise, Jamison turned out to be quite the scrapper for his age. Some of the witnesses later attributed Jamison’s wiliness to his wiry build. Others speculated he may have been “hopped up on drugs.”

The three elders, Michael McAttrey and Reverend Ricky could not subdue Jamison Jefferies no matter how they tried. The entire congregation stood up to get a better view of the wiggling and grunting pig pile before them. Every now and then, Captain Simmons caught a glimpse of Jamison’s curly grey hair or kaki Dickies, but he never got a clear shot. Frustrated, Captain Simmons fired three warning shots over his head, hitting a brass chandelier, which came crashing down on top of the communion table. Tiny cups of grape juice and unleavened crackers flew like shrapnel. Jamison, Reverend Ricky, Michael McAttrey, and the elders stopped mid melee–their arms and legs twisted and suspended in midair. Every member stood frozen in disbelief. No one texted or made a sound. The drama, for a moment, seemed over.

“Freeze! Put your hands up!”

Two Trinity police officers, whose typical Sunday morning of coffee and computer solitaire had been interrupted by Sister Sevena’s frantic 911 call and dispatch’s consequent relay of a report of a 10-96, rushed the sanctuary with their guns pointed at the only other person brandishing a firearm.

Captain Simmons did not hear the officer’s orders. Captain Simmons, who had been hard of hearing since his time in the military, had removed his prescribed hearing aid and replaced it with the church’s security walkie-talkie earpiece, as he did every Sunday he was on duty. Captain Simmons kept his eyes on the ball of squirming and wrestling bodies until he noticed the ball had stopped squirming and wrestling and had shifted its attention to the back of the church. In his confusion, Captain Simmons turned towards the police officers with the barrel of his semi-automatic pistol leading the way.

“Put the gun down!” both officers yelled. 

The entire congregation took cover on the floor between the pews. Captain Simmons, finally appreciative of his situation’s precariousness, took his finger off the trigger and slowly raised his left hand in the air. Bending down as low as his decades-old double-knee replacement would allow him to go, he laid his pistol on the ground. As the gun left Captain Simmons’s hand, the officers rushed him, handcuffed him face down on the church floor, and informed him he was under arrest for assault with a deadly weapon and false imprisonment of hostages.

Reverend Ricky canceled the rest of service. Paramedics arrived to treat Walinda’s face and the McAttreys for shock. Brother Bowman left to accompany Captain Simmons to the police station. For two hours, officers took the statements of each member in attendance, except Jamison Jefferies.

Jamison Jefferies was the only person not questioned by the police at the church. In the confusion of the standoff, Jamison had rolled behind the podium, crawled to the baptismal dressing room, walked out the backdoor of the church to the parking lot, got into his car, and drove home. He later told police the first thing he did after leaving the church was to compose his formal letter of member withdrawal from Holy Evangelical Trinity Church of Titan Tennessee. Jamison fully cooperated with authorities and agreed to come down to the station for formal questioning. Although Trinity Police and the County Prosecutor considered Jamison’s actions extremely blasphemous, they could find no actual laws broken. No formal charges were ever brought against Jamison.

After police verified Captain Simmons’s license to carry a concealed weapon and the registration for his pistol, and witnesses made statements attesting to Captain Simmons’s heroism and official role as volunteer Chief Security Officer, they dropped the charges and released him. Brother Bowman drove Captain Simmons home to his gated senior living community. He was later given a spaghetti banquet in his honor and awarded a medal of bravery by the homeowners association.

After Jamison agreed to pay for the busted amplifier and three porcelain veneers for Walinda, Reverend Ricky dropped the Wandsbows’s civil suit.  The following Sunday, a swollen and bruised Walinda Wandsbow proudly and piously stood before a packed house with a gleaming white smile and gave her testimony of forgiveness and Christian strength in the face of adversity. As a show of support and solidarity, the church took up a love offering for the Wandsbows, inspiring Reverend Ricky to publically declare, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

Jamison Jefferies never returned to Holy Evangelical, but his memory remained. Reverend Ricky preached at least one sermon a quarter that seemed directly inspired by the incident. All the Sunday school teachers coordinated lessons on the dangers of secularism and the war on Christianity. Members occasionally reported seeing Jamison at the grocery store, local food bank dropping off a donation, or at the park where he now took daily meditation walks. He seemed to be in good spirits and always spoke kindly to his former Holy Evangelical members. The church never conclusively determined what triggered Jamison’s behavior that morning, but members speculated. He was one of the few open drinkers at Trinity, so drugs alcohol was blamed by many. It was also rumored for weeks and finally confirmed by a member who had a friend who had a friend in the neighboring town that Jamison had joined the Unitarian Church. Upon hearing the news, Sister Sevena Levee remarked during a potluck, “That figures. Bless his heart.”

Melinda Keathley is a native Mid-Southerner, born in Arkansas and later drawn to the bright lights on the bluff of Memphis, TN. She earned a BA in History and an MA in English Literature from the University of Memphis, and now makes her living in a human resources department of a Fortune 100 company. In October, she won the Memphis Magazine Very Short Story Contest, and her poetry can be found on Instagram @MKMKPoetry.

Fiction by Michael Washburn


A couple of months into our campaign to make Julian Assange the next prime minister, something entirely unexpected happened.

“Hey Pete, what trouble are we in now?” said my colleague Devin, gazing through a window near the front of our makeshift headquarters.

“Come again, Devin?”

“Take a look outside, mate.”

I got up from my desk, walked to what I’d once called a living room, and peered outside. After so many weeks of treacherous weather, we were in the midst of a gorgeous platinum afternoon. Across the street was parked a gleaming bright red car, an Acura NSX, or something like that, and a young man wearing shades, a light gray sports jacket, matching trousers, and a white dress shirt with pink stripes, was coming across the street toward the front steps. Dumfounded, I stepped outside to greet him before his finger hit the buzzer.

“Can I help you, sir?”

He stood there in the full light of the early afternoon, a placid expression on his shaven and scented features, examining me with curiosity tinged with something a bit less benevolent.

“Mr. Peter Logue?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Good day. Blake Purcell’s the name. By order of the man you work for, you are officially now co-manager of the truth campaign. As of now there are two people, with equal authority and responsibility, answering directly to the candidate!”

I stared in disbelief. The air outside was too soft, the sun too mild and flattering, for the information just disclosed to me. But it shouldn’t have been such a shock. A grant we’d sought from the Monmouth Foundation had come through, and the campaign had gotten funds for the purpose of bringing a “professional manager” aboard. Yet, here was the first I heard of the new arrangement. Our candidate lived in an embassy and was perpetually in legal trouble. Communication was spotty at best.

“Would you follow me, sir?”

“Your place is my place now,” Blake Purcell said.

I went inside, with this stranger following me, and ordered my staff to take a coffee break. Warily eying Blake and myself, they picked themselves up and set off for the student hangout around the corner. We sat down at the table facing each other.

Blake chuckled.

“You fancy yourself the manager of a national campaign, Peter. I could be anybody. You let me walk right in here on nothing other than the pretext I’ve given you.”

“Well, the candidate did say something about a pending change to the management of the campaign. For all his concern for transparency, his communications can be rather oblique at times.”

“Is that so?”

“Indeed. I guess you don’t consider knowing a thing about the candidate to be a prerequisite for running his campaign.”

“Well, that’s a bit of a jump. I daresay I know more about him than you do. It’s been an awful long time since you were students together.”

“Damn it, man, I was with him in his most formative years. Why are we talking about this? I want to know what entitles you to walk in here and be rude to the people who’ve been with this campaign from the start. More to the point, why does it need fixing?”

Blake cut me off.

“Oh, I’ve seen the figures, mate. Get real. Right now, there’s $13,452 in the treasury. If you look at your outlays for rent, travel, mass mailings, and your employees—a subject which we’ll get to in a minute—that’s not going to get you through the spring with enough left to buy one ad on the radio or one online ad or one TV spot. Not one.”

“But Blake—”

He brooked no interruption.

“You know nothing about raising funds. I don’t know what your vision of ‘health’ is, but it’s not a useful or relevant one, and this campaign will not compete with the establishment parties if things don’t change radically by the turn of the month.”

“Listen to me, man—”

But he charged ahead.

“Now, on a related subject, I don’t know where you found this flotsam you’ve got working for you. I might be charitable about a temporary marriage of convenience. But I don’t think you have any intention of replacing any of these people, and they’re not helping the campaign’s image at all. They’re dragging it down!”

I tried to respond in an even voice as I felt the darkest kind of rage surge within me.

“How can you say that? Devin Rhodes is an IT genius. He’s forgotten more about software than you’ve ever known in your life.”

Judging from Blake’s face, nothing I said could faze or subvert his placid attitude even a bit.

“I’m not talking about Devin, although I’m sure you could easily find someone who looks more professional. I mean those other two: the ADF-reject and the screw-up, Mark what’s-his-name. You know there are rumors out there, Peter. Do a bit of online searching if you don’t believe me. Oh yes, there are rumors about an episode where you and Mark were at Bondi Beach, both roaring drunk, and he hit on, like, thirty women, jumped up on a table, fell off, had a breakdown, and started crying hysterically.”

“No,” I said, unable to keep the rage out of my voice.

“I suppose you knew that, and you just didn’t consider it relevant to the campaign.”

“I didn’t know it, and what you’ve said is ninety percent bullshit. I was just waiting for the part about Mark dancing naked on the table. Why not toss that in if you’re going to invent stuff?”

“I don’t invent stuff. I’m the co-manager of a national campaign about truth and transparency.”

Never in my life had the present tense been as brutal, as hard to accept.

“All right, then. I’m never going to fire Mark, or Stuart, or Devin unless one of them turns out to be a North Korean agent. Things will go much more smoothly if we proceed on that understanding, Blake.”

“Well, we’ll see, Peter. The candidate likes you very much, and I can’t do a bloody thing about that. But I can re-cast this campaign and make it a winning proposition, with or without your help.”

“But if we have equal decision-making power—”

“Peter. Pay attention, man. Having an equal say on things doesn’t mean we both vote on everything. This is politics. I’m going to do what I’m going to do. In the end, when we rock the polls, you’ll come to see me as a godsend. For now, let’s just try to be friends.”

Blake Purcell got up and walked out of the kitchen and through the living room and left. I watched through a window as he descended the steps, crossed the street, and slid back behind the wheel of his car, and drove off into the wide brilliant day, leaving me pondering, once again, the myth of Sisyphus.


A couple of days after Blake’s visit, I was in the midst of my early morning review of email when I opened a message from a stranger, one Bill Decker, saying that he and fellow principals of his fund were interested in meeting me in person.

The message didn’t say much, but it inspired just a bit of hope. While Decker was vague about the meeting’s purpose, he said he and his colleagues discussed the allocation of funds for the coming fiscal year. The email signature below his name contained the words New South Wales Equity Partners, a name I found promising. Here was the kicker: Decker had reached out to me after an interview with an applicant had fallen through, and I needed to get myself over to the tower in the CBD housing New South Wales Equity Partners right away.

Though I would have liked to perform due diligence on Decker and this outfit, I couldn’t bear to see a possible donor slip away. So, I quickly agreed and fired off a message to a grandmother in Canberra with whom I’d scheduled a call for 10:00 a.m., humbly asking to postpone our chat. So much for running a grassroots campaign, I thought, as I sent a message to Devin, who wouldn’t be arriving here for another half an hour at least, asking for info on New South Wales Equity Partners.

A short while later, I ascended from the depths of Wynyard Station in the CBD, walked a few blocks east and north, and entered the lobby of a gigantic tower. One of three uniformed guards at the desk spanning the center of the lobby, a fiftyish man with thin blond hair and a hard, weathered face, asked where I was going and demanded ID. I handed him my driver’s license, and stood there tensely watching him scan it and produce an adhesive strip with my name and headshot from a tiny machine. When I mentioned Bill Decker’s name, the guard said that Decker was with ACP on twenty-two.

I’d never heard of ACP but didn’t want the guard to detect my bewilderment. Behind and to the left of the desk, I waited amid the big reflective bronze-tinted elevator doors, in the company of a grinning dark-haired man in a taffeta suit and shiny brown shoes with wire-thin laces, clutching a deep brown briefcase. Neither of us spoke. When the doors to my right swished open, he followed me into the lift and rode it up to twelve before stepping off. Just as he left the elevator, I thought I noted a change in the look on his creamy contended face, as when a person petting a cat notices a gash behind one of the creature’s ears. I rode up past nine more floors until the ping! announced my arrival at twenty-two.

When I stepped into the hall, a sign indicated that ACP was behind the third door down the hall and to my right. If I was keeping things straight, it occupied part of the southern half of the floor. I tentatively made my way down the hall, opened one of the large glass double doors, walked fifteen feet toward the rear of the building, and spoke to a woman with flowing amber hair who wore a white, faintly tinted dress with gray like clouds on a damp March afternoon.

She told me Mr. Decker would be right out and asked me to take a seat on a row of chairs with plush deep blue cushions running perpendicular to the front desk and commanding a magnificent view of the gleaming blue and gray towers of the CBD through the long window behind the desk. Instead of doing so, I asked to use the men’s room. She pointed toward the north side of the building. I walked up past empty conference rooms, turned left, and walked into a brightly lit room with pristine beige tiles and three empty stalls.

Seconds later, I had my new cell phone in my hands and was hurriedly typing a message to Devin, demanding to know what he’d found out. To my relief, I got a reply almost instantaneously. God bless that guy, I thought.

“Pete—afraid I can’t tell you jack about NSWEP—there’s just not much info out there, even on their website.”

“Zero?”

“Practically. The ‘About Us’ section of the home page is so vague this could be a tobacco company or a tampon manufacturer or a Scientology outfit.”

“Well, how about ACP?”

“Huh?”

“It’s, I don’t know, a unit or a subsidiary of NSWEP or something. I need all the info on them, and I need it an hour ago.”

I thrust the cell phone into a pocket and tried once again to compose myself before the mirror. Then I returned to the waiting area. The tops of the buildings beyond the long pane of glass looked so sedate in their gleaming majesty they almost helped me breathe evenly again. Two gentlemen in their forties emerged from the hall on the south side of the waiting area, opposite the hall I’d returned from.

They reeked of Paco Rabanne and Gucci Pour Homme. One of them had dirty blond hair and the face of a jovial, if aging former frat boy, and wore a gray suit. This was Bill Decker. The other, a guy with knots of ash-colored hair, in a somber blue suit, was Alan Pierce. After exchanging pleasantries, I followed the two men down the hall, and we entered a room with an oval table with a smooth oak surface matching the panels of the walls. On the desk was an old-school phone in a black plastic tray. We sat down.

“Thank you for coming in at such short notice,” Bill said.

“Oh, you’re welcome.”

“I must say, the truth campaign has been in the news quite a bit, but we’re not alone in wondering about some of the basics. First off, Alan and I would like to ask you a few questions about your managerial structure and your finances.”

I blinked. “Come again?”

“This is a routine vetting procedure. We get to know you. You get to know us. You know you can’t go on being a cipher if you expect to draw support that will make any kind of difference in your prospects in the election,” Bill replied.

“I, ah—how should I say this?—I could use just a tiny bit more background on ACP before we proceed.”

“Alan?”

His colleague gave me a condescending look.

“As the organizer of a national campaign, I take it you do know something about the private equity space?” Alan asked.

I swallowed. “Well, of course, I could tell you about private equity generally, about macro trends, about where the deal flow in M&A and project finance is these days, but I’m sure you’d agree that private equity shops are highly secretive about what they do and this one’s no exception. Not even the most informed analyst could give you more than a general profile of any outfit worthy of the name. And it’s only fair to acknowledge that I didn’t have time to catch up with what little information may be public.”

Bill and Alan exchanged looks. Alan continued.

“Our founder lives by his credo, Mr. Logue. He passionately supports causes that have merit and swats things and people he doesn’t believe in like so many pestering little gnats. I would never get on his bad side or get in his way. Now, once again, we’re sorry to call you over here at such short notice, but there may not be another opportunity for this vetting to take place.”

At the moment, it was easy to envision scenarios where any information I volunteered might well become ammunition for the other side. But just imagine if we did get their support.

“This sounds like something we could accomplish via email,” I said in a neutral voice.

“Well, we did want to meet with you in person, and since you’re here, we might as well proceed. The window is closing fast,” said Alan.

“May I use the restroom?” I asked with a bright, innocent face.

I hurried out. I avoided making eye contact with the receptionist as I moved through the lobby. Back in the men’s room, I moved into one of the stalls and called Devin, my body hunched over as if I’d come in to puke. I thought myself lucky there wasn’t anyone else in that pristine glistening space. There was hardly time for composing texts to each other now so I called him.

“There isn’t much to find about ACP, Pete.”

“Thanks a ton.”

“But there’s something else you might find interesting.”

“Shoot.”

“I asked Stuart for an updated list of all the sources of threats we’ve gotten. I cross-checked the email from NSWEP against the list, and one of the threats, from about three weeks ago, has the same suffix in the email address. The sender gives his name as ‘Ogre.”’

“You’re kidding!”

“Wish I were.”

“So, it came from the company whose property I’m on right now?”

 “No, it came from someone on the eighteenth floor of the building.”

“But ACP isn’t on eighteen!”

“Do you know that, Pete?”

“What exactly does it say, Devin?” I asked, terrified that my voice was shrill enough for the receptionist outside and possibly others to hear me.

“You really want to know?”

“I don’t have fucking time for back and forth. TELL ME!

“It’s pretty horrible.”

The men’s room’s door swished open, and in my surprise and alarm, I dropped my brand new phone into the toilet. I snatched it out, frantically wiped it with the edge of my shirt, flushed the toilet using my left foot, moved out of the stall. The middle-aged homme d’affaires who’d come in had a large, bold forehead, receding black hair, and wore a coal-black suit. Fortunately, he displayed more concern with his appearance than me as I moved out of the stall with the hem of my shirt hanging out, frantically wiping a phone. I tried to smile, tucked my shirt back in, pocketed the phone, exited the restroom, and headed back down the hall. When at last I reappeared in the room, Bill and Alan looked bored and restless.

“Forgive me. I’ve had a bit of trouble with my digestion lately,” I said as I slid back into my seat.

Alan began again.

“That’s quite all right. So, now, Peter—may I address you as Peter? We need to establish a few things here. We’d like to know about the sources of funding in Australia and which of the candidate’s friends in the U.K. have been sending money here.”

“You really couldn’t have found out any of that?” I asked with polite surprise.

“Some of the information is public, and some isn’t.”

“Why do you care where we’ve been getting money? This is about financing arrangements going forward.”

“These are all components of the profile we’re putting together, as a matter of course,” Bill said, in a tone suggesting my conduct was getting unseemly.

I checked myself, drawing a deep breath. After all, this wasn’t like meeting with some unstable veteran in a park, hearing about how one fire-laps bores to ensure the widest possible spray of blood and brain tissue.

“Of course, gentlemen. I didn’t mean to be testy.”

“Who is your biggest donor to date?” Alan asked.

“The Monmouth Foundation.”

“You must be extremely grateful to them,” Bill said.

“They’ve made a huge difference in the structure of the campaign, that’s for sure,” I said, thinking myself clever.

“How many accountants do you employ?” Alan continued.

“I’ve consolidated that role with certain others. If I must go by an official headcount, it’s zero. But please don’t let that mislead you.”

“Do you have Cayman and Swiss accounts?”

Taking this question for a joke, I let it pass.

“Some people in the campaign are in a state of disbelief. I mean, the Monmouth Foundation came through with what is easily our biggest contribution to date,” I said quite truthfully.

“What sort of fundraising strategy do you pursue?” Alan asked.

“Generally speaking, we target foundations with endowments that support investigative journalism, and midmarket donors and lenders who may be a little less susceptible to corporate influences, which helps us avoid obvious conflicts of interest. And students, professors, lawyers, intellectuals, artists, writers, the intelligentsia broadly speaking. They tend not to have deep pockets, but some of them are awfully eager to pitch in.”

“Where are your offshore accounts?”

“Offshore accounts, needless to say, are all about secrecy. Concerns keep coming up about what is or isn’t in registries of funds parked offshore. Quite apart from the philosophical issues, we would have quite practical, reputational concerns about the use of them,” I said, looking Alan in the eye.

“If your financial profile continues to evolve, would you consider using them?” Bill asked.

“We’d consider it.”

“What healthcare provider are your employees signed up with?”

“There’s no single one. It’s all decentralized.”

“Do you take a helicopter to work?” Alan said.

“May I use the restroom again?”

They said nothing but gave assenting looks.

Back in the stall where I’d dropped the phone before, I frantically tried to raise Devin. Though I dreaded throwing away an opportunity, I was fairly certain those two men in suits were mocking me while extracting information they’d use for malicious ends. I was able to pull up the number of the Glebe office. I hit ‘send.’ Nothing. I’d screwed the phone up good. But the mishap hadn’t disabled texting.

“So, your sis finally squeezed one out, Pete? Great news. We’ll see at what Fahrenheit toddlers melt.”

And after that, another message.

“The world of accomplished men and women, real people, does need a respectable-sized hole to evacuate into, so thanks for opening your mouth wide.”

And yet another:

“Enjoying your childlike antics, Petey. Do keep the firing squad entertained.”

I saw what Devin had done. He’d typed in the messages that had come from that anonymous emailer on the eighteenth floor and sent them off to me. I scrolled down further and found another message.

“Have found ref. to NSWEP re. private army in Sierra Leone, arms deal in Sudan, and a political assassination in Cambodia. The last is unverified, though. Wouldn’t trust rumors.”

Well, what we did have was quite enough, I figured. Good for Devin for pulling these references from the murkiest depths of the internet with so little notice. I put the phone away again. I contemplated darting out of this office right now, jumping onto an elevator, dashing out of the building, never looking back, or giving ACP or NSWEP or equally wretched acronyms another thought. But I couldn’t quell my curiosity. Before leaving the restroom again, I texted back to Devin: “22nd floor of Chromium building downtown. Bill Decker and Alan Pierce. Pompous buffoons. About 46 and 48, respectively.”

The two gentlemen looked oddly unperturbed in the conference room as I took my seat across from them and reestablished eye contact once again. Still, I expected cross words. 

 “Thank you for your patience with us,” Bill Decker said to my amazement.

It was briefly quite hard to breathe. I composed myself for a few excruciating moments before I managed to open my mouth. “I beg your pardon?”

“I want to thank you for bearing with us through this process. The profile we’ve been putting together requires a fair amount of minutiae, but it’s part of the vetting process for something that’s kind of an urban legend. People whisper about it, but they don’t believe it ever actually happens,” Bill said.

“I don’t understand.”

“It can be overwhelming, I know. You’re thinking, why are these strangers asking so many invasive questions? Don’t tell me you haven’t thought that.”

“It’s virtually impossible for me to lie, so I won’t tell you that.”

“Good. Do you have any more questions at this point, Alan?”

Bill’s prim middle-aged colleague shook his head.

“Well, I think we’re about ready to go ahead, then.”

“Before we go any further, there’s something pretty major on my mind, guys. I’m talking about a series of strange messages we got from an employee of yours, Ogre, who, I believe, is working or used to work on the eighteenth floor of this building.”

“We don’t hire ogres,” Alan assured me.

“More importantly, we aren’t on the eighteenth floor,” Bill said.

“We have a threatening email message with the same suffix as the one you sent me.”

“Ah, well, that’s not surprising.”

I could only stare, dumbfounded.

“We formed a joint venture last year for acquiring this highly selective bit of real estate, Peter. The other party, for your information, was called Leichhardt Venture Partners. Our management was separate from theirs, but we were co-signers on the lease, as New South Wales Equity Partners. For a while, we were employing the same people to manage our operating systems. We had the same IT infrastructure as Leichhardt,” Bill said.

“And, of course, it was the same email domain names for ACP and LVP people.”

“A bit of a no-brainer, don’t you think?” said Alan, and his burst of informal speech nearly floored me.

“Just what have you been sitting there thinking about us all this time?” Bill asked.

To this, I had a ready reply.

“I’ve had no idea what to think, and for all your blue-blooded haughtiness, I can’t say you’ve been very forthcoming or professional or considerate thus far.”

Bill and Alan exchanged looks once again.

“Please come with us, Peter,” Bill said, as the two of them rose.

We exited the conference room and pursued the hall toward the southern end of the building. In this bland setting, the sight of plain doors numbered 2204, 2205, 2206 triggered a cold, contracted feeling in my abdomen. At the last door, before yet another hall running along the tower’s south edge, we stopped. Bill carefully and ceremoniously turned the handle, and we proceeded into a big room with a sterile floor with white panels.

There stood elegantly slanting bookshelves that Walter Gropius might have designed, filled with volumes on architecture and film theory. At one end of the room hung a Duchamp painting and, at the opposite end, a Balthus. Between the framed scenes, a wizened man with thin strips of white hair, wearing a black suit and a pair of glasses with black frames, leaned forward over a pile of papers. In his right hand, he held a red pen. I inferred that he’d been circling and underling items in the text on those papers. At this moment, I was looking, with knowledge, at Warren Turlington III. Even as the three of us stood there facing him, he carried on with what he was doing for a good twenty seconds before looking up.

“Mr. Turlington, this is Peter Logue,” said Bill, ever the smooth presenter.

The wizened man picked himself up, advanced around the desk, and extended a gnarled hand, with I shook with trepidation.

“Good day, sir,” he said in a scratchy, labored voice.

“Good day.”

“You may address me as Warren if you wish.”

“Mr. Logue here had us mixed up with Leichhardt Venture Partners,” Alan said in an acid voice.

Warren Turlington III laughed softly. When he spoke, he put me in mind of an aging judge whose speech retains every vestige of long-practiced formalities even as both body and mind are acting like they want to quit. But then that was silly. The man was barely in his seventies.

 “I don’t believe we can claim credit for offing a mayor in Cambodia, Mr. Logue. Leichhardt Venture Partners is of a decidedly different cast from us. I hope you understand our dealing with them as no more than a temporary arrangement undertaken, I must admit, without much due diligence.”

“Yes, sir. I understand entirely.”

“But, you know, Leichhardt takes its name from an adventurer, from one who set out to ascend to levels of experience denied to first-generation Australians or even to generations since his time. In that respect, we are not totally different. We aim to foster works of art that are daring, innovative, works that grow out of tolerance or even love for risk on the part of the artist.”

I nodded, considering his words carefully. He continued.

“As you may be aware, the art scene in contemporary Sydney is suffocating. It chafes and squirms within the stranglehold of a benighted critic by the name of Edward Rance, who has an incomparable bullhorn with which to excoriate any art that displeases him. Well, we are determined to foster innovation. We also, as it happens, believe passionately in your campaign, Mr. Logue. But our charter forbids us to spend directly on political campaigns.”

As I stood there, still nervous and frightened, in this strange office on the twenty-second floor of a gleaming steel tower in the CBD, the universe, at last, began to make just a bit more sense to me.

He went on: “However, it does not, by any interpretation, forbid us, the principals of Australian Cultural Progress, to spend as lavishly as we please on galleries of merit. Some galleries around the city and one in particular, with which you may be familiar, have devoted themselves to selling art to benefit the truth campaign.”

Warren Turlington III referred to a Balmain gallery owned by a dear friend and supporter, Bob Farnsworth. He stepped forward and shook hands with me, formally and ostentatiously, with a surprisingly strong grip. The other principals in the room at once followed suit and said it was an incomparable honor to have me on the premises today.

Thirty minutes later, I walked out into the brisk morning, thinking, Take that, Blake Purcell, you pompous ass.

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer. His books include The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We’re Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). His short story “Confessions of a Spook” won Causeway Lit’s 2018 fiction contest, and his story “My Role in the Rise of Julian Assange” won the Adelaide Books fiction award for 2019.