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.

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.