A Short Story by Brian Fountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any help?”

I ignored him. I walked on.

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

A Short Story by Kira Rosemarie

Why would you tell me that?

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

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

It’s just… I tried to continue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t! I said.

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

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

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

Yes, it was rare books, I said.

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

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

Hey.

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

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

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

Yes, It’s fine.

Um, I can –

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story by Scott Denis McCarthy

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘We’re happy,’ said the young man.

‘I’m glad for that.’

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

‘You have great confidence.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man shrugged.

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

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

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

‘I hope those babies never grow up.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

He poured them both a drink.

‘Cheers,’ she said, laughing.

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

‘They are a lovely people,’ she said.

‘Very.’

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

‘Winnie,’ he said, and drank.

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

‘What did I say?’

‘Whatever her name was, she was just –‘

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

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

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

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

‘But yes, they’re good folk.’

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

‘I don’t know. I was drunk.’

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

‘She’s a swell kid.’

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

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

‘I just can’t think is all.’

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

‘You’re doing it again.’

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

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

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

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

He went on reading.

‘Don’t you remember when the pail –‘

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Look, now –‘

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

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

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

‘And I don’t mean to antagonize –‘

‘Never, never, never!’

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

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

‘Christ.’

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

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

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

‘Sure. Didn’t I just say it?’

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

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

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

‘I don’t know.’

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

‘Mm-hmmm.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sure. And maybe you do.’

‘Less ice this time.’

‘All right.’

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

‘You’re too damned particular about things.’

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

A Short Story by Hayden Sidun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you from Russia?”

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

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

“What about the accent?”

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

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

“What brings you to San Francisco?”

“I have a new job. It pays well.”

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

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

“What’d you say?”

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

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

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

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

He raised his eyebrows. “Did I ask?”

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

“What is awkward?”

“It’s just—”

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

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

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

I raised my eyebrows. “Excuse me?”

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

“Now hang on a second, I—”

“Get out!” he yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story by Ellen Sollinger Walker

I

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked at me, dumbfounded.  

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

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

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

IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

V

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

“What’s that?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow,” she said.

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

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

A Short Story By Michelle Hasty

May 16, 1951

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


Present day

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


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff/shift:
Cheryl Drake, day nurse

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

Resident of concern:
Mrs. Evers

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

Recommendations:
-better served on the other side?


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff/shift:
Nan Kelton, night nurse

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

Resident of Concern:
Mrs. Evers

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

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

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


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff/shift:
Cheryl Drake, day

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

Resident of concern:
Mrs. Evers

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

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


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff/shift:
Nan Kelton, night shift

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

Resident of concern: Mrs. Evers

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nursing Staff Observational Notes
Fernlake Care Facility

Staff:
Nan Kelton

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

Resident:
Mrs. Evers

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

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

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

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

Your husband’s?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff:
Cheryl Drake

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

Resident:
Mrs. Evers

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

– Hydrocortisone ointment administered to four residents for mosquito bites

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Who’s there?” she asked.

Silence.

“I said, ‘who’s there?’”

Silence.

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

Silence.

Then tappa tap tap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story by Andy Betz

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

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

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

Just after sunrise, the shooting began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, I did not have the choice. 

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

I am not much for sharing today.

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

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

I kept going to the smaller caverns further ahead. 

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

They cannot defend them though.

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

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

Then second.  Then third.

It was supposed to be a silent night tonight.

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

Maybe not.

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

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

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

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

They never made it.

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

I could miss but once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps, it was time for them to meet me.

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

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

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

It was all for naught. 

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

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

“We are in need of your help.”

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

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

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

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

I didn’t have to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I waited.  I am always waiting.

But not for long.

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

I fired the first shot.

Then the next 29 from my Romanian SKS.

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

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

I quickly retreated to the next stage.

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

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

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

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

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

We all rode in my truck back to my cave.

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story by Joshua Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story by Germán Mora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I knew it!” Antonio shouts.

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

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

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

His words leave Jesus speechless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?” asks Jesus.

“Marisol.”

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“Who hasn’t?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But they could go elsewhere,” Jesus counters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Is that for your girl?” asks Rafa.

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

“And for your wife?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story by Emma Merchant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca’s dad interrupted her thoughts again, saying

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story by Max McCoubrey

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

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

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

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

“Claire,” he said softly.

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

“Leo.”

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

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

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

She cleared her throat.

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

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

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

“Of course.” 

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

She overheard a little girl ask a question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was missing the point of the fun story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Butler. I know”

They stood together aware of a strong vibration. 

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

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

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

Nothing.

He turned it again.  Again nothing.

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

She opened the door and took out her overnight case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story by John Sheirer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am not bitter,” Ben said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben slapped at this face with quick, staccato movements.

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

“Thanks,” Ben said, smoothing his beard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe we should,” Ben said.

“Should what?” Beth asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thingy? What thingy?” Beth replied.

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

“I guess we are talking about this,” Beth said.

Ben raised both hands above his head as if surrendering to a greater force. “I don’t want to either, believe me,” he said. “But we should.”

“There’s no water near here,” Beth said. “So, no beavers to pee in the puddles.”

“Lots of squirrels, though,” Ben said. “With these dry leaves, they’re loud as bears.”

They walked in silence again. Step, step, step. Breath, breath, breath.

“A bear attack might be okay,” Beth said. “Maybe we’ll die quick.”

“Best way to go in a bear attack is quick,” Ben agreed.

“Don’t want to hang on if a grizzly bear chews your face off,” Beth said.

“Grizzlies are brown bears,” Ben said. “We have black bears in New England.”

“Smarty pants,” Beth said. “Brown, black, grizzly—doesn’t matter. They all bite hard.”

“Yeah. Dad was smart about that. You know. Dying quickly,” Ben replied. “Even finished shoveling the driveway so nobody had to finish it for him.”

“Smart and courteous,” Beth said.

“I always admired that about him,” Ben replied.

“You’re starting to look like a bear with that bug-catching beard,” Beth said.

“Kelly likes it,” Ben replied.

“Heart disease is hereditary, you know,” Beth said.

“Have you gone to a cardiologist?” Ben asked.

“Alex made me. Last year,” Beth replied. “The quack said my heart is great. What does he know?”

Ben snorted. “Those two must have been plotting. Kelly nagged me until I went last year too.”

“And?” Beth asked.

“Yeah, I’m good too,” Ben replied. “If you can believe anything a doctor has to say.”

“Not like they went to medical school or anything,” Beth mumbled, kicking a fallen tree branch.

“Hey,” Ben said, “remember how good Mom was at helping Karen when she got sick about ten years ago?”

“You mean when she had H1N1 and then it turned into pneumonia?” Beth asked.

“Yeah,” Ben replied. “Mom dropped everything and went to her. Stayed with her for three weeks until she could go back to work.”

“I’ve always felt a little guilty that I didn’t help or even visit,” Beth said.

“Me too,” Ben replied. “We thought we were too busy with our own jobs and lives and whatever. Some siblings we are, huh? But Mom was there for her.”

“Mom’s the best,” Beth said.

“Yep, the best,” Ben echoed.

Ahead, Alex and Kelly were taking turns sprinting twenty yards and then waiting while the other sprinted to catch up. Sprint, wait. Sprint, wait. Sprint, wait.

“Those two should have married each other,” Ben said with a chuckle.

“I’m sure they did,” Beth replied. “In an alternate universe.”

“Seriously,” Ben said. “What should we put in our living wills?”

Beth spoke with her eyes fixed on the trail ahead. “Well, don’t pull the plug just because you want all of our big inheritance.”

“Yeah,” Ben said. “There’s probably a few hundred dollars at stake.”

“Mom and Dad weren’t exactly big savers,” Beth said. “And the money from the house is mostly going to the nursing home.”

“What if you have a stroke and can’t talk?” Ben asked.

“Wow,” Beth deadpanned. “Oddly specific. But okay. I can’t talk. Can I still feed myself?”

“Yes,” Ben replied. “Soft foods only.”

Ben pointed to a patch of poison ivy just a few feet off the trail. Beth nodded and maneuvered to keep extra distance from the evil weed that had plagued them both since childhood.

“Can I still walk even if I’m mute and subsist on bananas and apple sauce?” Beth asked.

“Can you now?” Ben laughed, pretending to trip her. “Yeah, but slow and with a walker so you don’t fall and need knee surgery like me.”

“How about going to the bathroom by myself?” Beth asked.

“Number one or number two?” Ben replied.

“All three,” Beth said.

“Yeah,” Ben replied. “You can still handle basic bathroom stuff alone.”

“Then don’t shove a pillow over my face yet,” Beth said.

“Yeah,” Ben said. “Same here.”

Alex and Kelly had stopped sprinting and were stretching to let Beth and Ben catch up.

“What if we can’t read or follow a basic conversation?” Ben asked.

“What if we forget which cabinet we keep the coffee in or say something really fucked up, like, ‘You know, that Trump fella really wasn’t so bad after all’?” Beth asked in a doddering, foolish voice.

“Holy shit, yes! If I ever start rambling about rigged witch hunts or fake news, kill me on the spot, obviously!” Ben replied.

“Because of coffee or Trump?” Beth asked.

“Yes!” Ben replied with a smile.

“Gotcha,” Beth replied.

“You should be having this discussion with little Ben, Jr.,” Beth said, casting Ben a sideways glance and holding back an equally sideways grin.

“That’s not Montague’s name,” Ben said, feigning annoyance.

“I know,” Beth said. “But it’s so fun to think of little Montague as little Ben, Jr. Who is he named after again? Kelly’s paternal great-granduncle twice removed or something like that?”

“Something like that,” Ben said, allowing himself a chuckle. “I honestly can’t remember. But everybody loves the name ‘Monty.’”

“Yeah, that is a seriously cool name for a three-year-old,” Beth conceded. “Years from now you can yell from your hospice bed, ‘Monty, where’s my butterscotch pudding?’”

Ben called out in a sing-song voice to match Beth’s, “And I need my bedpan emptied again, Monty!”

Beth cringed. “Yikes, that escalated quickly.”

“The conversation or the trail?” Ben asked.

“Both,” Beth responded.

From up ahead, Kelly called back, “Are you guys yelling for us?”

“No!” Ben and Beth shouted in unison, exchanging mischievous looks.

As they trudged ahead on an uphill part of the trail, their smiles gradually faded. Sweat renewed on their foreheads, and they were huffing too hard to say anything.

When at last they crested the peak and started back down the slope, their breathing returned to normal.

“It is a comforting thought that Monty will be around when Kelly and I are old,” Ben said softly.

“Yeah,” Beth replied.

“I don’t plan on nagging him to come see us the way Mom does to us sometimes,” Ben said.

“What’s the old saying?” Beth asked. “‘Make a plan and watch God kick you in the nuts?”

“Fair point,” Ben replied, “even if your quote isn’t quite accurate.”

“Parents nag. Kids get nagged at,” Beth said. “It’s in the official job descriptions.”

“What’s up with you and Alex?” Ben asked. “Are you thinking about it?”

“We’re about the same place we’ve been from the start,” Beth said. “We’re happy with our cats and small laundry loads.”

“You’d be great parents,” Ben said.

“Not as good as you and Kelly,” Beth replied.

“Thanks, sis,” Ben said. “And you’re both welcome to nag Monty to come see you guys in the nursing home when the time comes.”

“That kid will have so many grandparents to visit that he won’t have time to hold down a job,” Beth said.

“If all goes well, he’ll be retired by then,” Ben said.

“God, it’s so weird to think about that little guy being retired someday,” Beth replied.

“Yeah,” Ben said. “It was probably weird for Mom and Dad to think of us as grown-ups too.”

“I still think it’s weird that we’re grown-ups,” Beth replied.

“Speak for yourself,” Ben said. “I have no intention of growing up until I have to.”

“Sorry, dude,” Beth replied. “You drive a minivan. That makes you a grown-up.”

“Damn,” Ben said. “That’s a good point. Okay. I give up. I’m a grown-up.”

Ahead, Alex and Kelly were moving again. Beth and Ben noticed that they had almost reached their cars parked in the little gravel lot at the trailhead.

“Praise Jesus, we’re almost back!” Beth said, wiping sweat from her forehead.

“What if we get so bad that we can’t recognize each other or those two up there?” Ben asked, pointing to their spouses.

“That’s a whole different story,” Beth said. “I don’t mind the walker or a little help in the toilet, but not having my mind working or forgetting who I love would really suck.”

“As if your mind works now,” Ben said.

“True,” Beth replied. “Also, I’m rubber and you’re glue, bug guy.”

The brother and sister caught up to their spouses as they waited by their respective cars.

Alex had unlocked their Subaru and was drinking deeply from her water bottle. Beth admired how her long brown hair flowed down her back as she surprised her with a hug.

“I still recognize you!” Beth said with a laugh as she kissed Alex’s face on both cheeks.

“That’s good to hear!” Alex replied. “Let me know right away if that changes, okay?”

Ben gave Kelly a bear hug. Combined, the two big men probably weighed as much as a medium-sized black bear.

“Let’s go home,” Kelly said. “You guys were so slow that the sitter’s probably wondering if we’re ever coming back. And the Patriots game starts in an hour.”

“Can’t miss that!” Ben said through gritted teeth as Kelly slipped into the driver’s seat of their Honda minivan.

“Your husband loves him some football,” Beth said to Ben as they met halfway between their cars.

Ben laughed. “I’m sure he’ll insist on watching the Patriots in my hospital room before they make any decisions about life support and heroic measures.”

“For you or him?” Beth asked.

“Either,” Ben replied. “Depends on whether the Patriots are winning or losing.”

“Do you suppose straight couples have conversations like this?” Beth asked.

“Some of them, sure, I guess. Straights can be as normal as we are,” Ben said. “But Mom and Dad never did.”

“True,” Beth said. “But they didn’t seem to talk about anything important. Maybe that’s a generational thing.”

“Or maybe we just didn’t hear them talking about it,” Ben said. “Who knows?”

“We could ask Mom,” Beth said.

“You go first,” Ben replied.

“We should probably have this conversation with Monty for real,” Beth said.

“Oh, lord,” Ben sighed. “I guess. But not for a few years, okay? Toddlers don’t need to hear this kind of talk.”

“Yeah, we’ll dump this on him when he’s a teenager who hates talking to us as much as we hated talking to Mom and Dad back then,” Beth said with a laugh. “He’ll love that!”

Their laughter ended quickly, and they shared a meaningful look.

“For now,” Ben said softly, “let’s look for the forms and maybe talk to a lawyer, make this stuff official.”

“Okay,” Beth said. “If you insist. And let’s all go see Mom one evening this week. All of us. I’ll call Karen. You and me. Kelly and Alex. Monty, too. She’ll be as excited as Mom to have us all together.”

“Will they allow that many of us in Mom’s room at one time?” Ben asked.

“Maybe. We might break a few rules, but so what?” Beth said. “It won’t be the first time.”

“Or the last,” Ben replied. He pulled his sister into a hug. Neither remembered the last time they did that. And Ben said something he didn’t say often say to his sister. “Love you, sis.”

“Love you too, bro,” Beth replied before playfully pushing Ben away. “Now get the hell home and take a shower. You smell.”

“Speak for yourself, stinky,” Ben said, and he hopped in the van beside his husband and struggled with the annoying seat belt. Kelly reached across Ben, grasped the strap, pulled it smoothly across Ben’s chest, and snapped it into place.

“I want you to live a long time. Safety first, honey,” Kelly said.

“Always, sweetie,” Ben replied.

John Sheirer (pronounced “shy-er”) lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with his wonderful wife Betsy and happy dog Libby. He has taught writing and communications for 27 years at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, where he also serves as editor and faculty advisor for Freshwater Literary Journal (submissions welcome). His books include memoir, fiction, poetry, essays, political satire, and photography. His most recent book is Fever Cabin, a fictionalized journal of a man isolating himself during the current pandemic. (All proceeds from this book benefit pandemic-related charities.) Find him at JohnSheirer.com.

A Short Story by Bill Garwin

There once lived a completely unremarkable man. He was not tall, but not short. He was not handsome, but not bad looking. He lived in a San Francisco complex of 207 apartments. He only barely knew his neighbors. If he could be summed up in a single word, it would be “average”. None of us aspires to average. In the beginning, we all anticipate and strive for more, but eventually we settle because, after all, average demands most of us.

He worked as an accountant in a large firm, at a desk hidden in the bowels of the 14th floor. He was competent. Not great and no one would ever call him “boss”, but he showed up every day and completed a reasonable amount of work with a minimal number of errors. He was dependable. Should he so desire, he could keep his job for another thirty years with a token, but sufficient, annual raise.

He was not without introspection. Of late he’d come to believe he was spending his life an hour at a time and receiving little in return. Tomorrow promised less than yesterday and this bothered him greatly, which is why the fortune cookie seemed so important.

Three days a week he ordered Chinese to-go from the restaurant on the corner. Without fail, sweet and sour pork, fried rice and egg rolls.

“Golden Dragon. May I help you?”

“This is Mike.”

“The usual?”

“Yes, please.”

“Thirty minutes.”

“Thank you.”

Dinner always included a single fortune cookie. More than one fortune only begged confusion.

Mike ate dinner as the fortune cookie obediently waited its turn. After twenty minutes, he carefully broke open dessert. As always, he first read the script on the strip of paper, but this time it seemed to offer more.

“Find Hope and You Will Find Happiness.”

Until that moment he hadn’t understood that what he was missing was hope.

Had he reached a level of desperation so low he would follow the instructions on a fortune cookie? The answer was simple. Yes. Tomorrow was Saturday. He silently vowed to start his search.

He awoke the next morning excited, anxious and faced with a quandary. Where to begin? Applying something approaching logic, he reasoned since the fortune cookie was Chinese, he should start in Chinatown.

He passed under the ornate entry arches, took the second right and came upon “Lucky Massage”. Hope and luck are inextricably intertwined. He entered the small shop to a series of chanted greetings he could not understand.

A row of five unoccupied recliners faced a wall of televisions all playing Chinese soap operas. Middle-aged ladies were stationed at each chair. An elderly woman approached Mike with a menu from which he selected the 50-minute foot massage for $40. Apparently, hope could be purchased rather cheaply.

Mike slid into a chair and immediately a masseuse brought out a large, wooden tub of steaming tea. She helped Mike remove his shoes and socks and placed his feet in the tub. He began to relax. After a few minutes, the lady started on his feet. At first it tickled, but then he was pervaded by a sense of well-being. His mind slowed, completely occupied by the comforting sensation. He could drift asleep, but believed if he was to find hope here, he needed to stay awake.

After precisely 50-minutes, she was done. He was instructed to take his time and relax, which he did. He finally rose feeling a pervasive calm. Maybe this was hope. He hadn’t felt this way in maybe forever. But as he took each step, he seemed to lose a little of the euphoria and as he focused on making payment and stepped out the door he realized he had rejoined the world unchanged. Hope was not in Lucky Massage.

Most of the day still remained; he pledged not to give up, but where to next? A homeless lady approached with an outstretched hand. A common sight in San Francisco. He simply shook his head in the negative but had a thought.

While the misfortune of others saddens us, it simultaneously leaves us grateful for what we have. Maybe hope could be garnered by comparison, but where to go for that experience. Certainly, someplace hopeless. His eyes wandered toward the San Francisco Bay only to come upon one of the most hopeless places in the world. Alcatraz.

The boat ride to the island of despair was short and brisk. Mike obediently followed at the back of the tour group led by a park ranger. He learned Alcatraz, originally constructed as a lighthouse, had served as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963. Sitting 1¼ miles off the coast and surrounded by frigid waters patrolled by sharks, the Feds used the island for prisoners too unruly for other penitentiaries. 

Small, damp, cold cells housed the worst of the worst. The place reeked of despair. Mike immediately knew this would not work. He felt no elation, only a blending of academic wonder and sadness for those who had inhabited Alcatraz. The day was winding down and his life was in no way more hopeful.

Back ashore, Mike wandered until he realized he’d missed lunch. Such is the lot of a man in search of meaning. He surveyed the landscape for food and spotted the FC Diner. Maybe the FC stood for Fog City, maybe not. It was fashioned after a railroad car and offered “Home Cooking”, even though that wasn’t possible from someplace not home. He walked in and followed the instructions to grab a menu and seat himself.

The place was packed. He chose a navy blue, faux leather booth which was seriously underpopulated by his party of one. He quickly browsed the menu and decided on a hamburger and fries. He scanned the diner for a server. He saw only one.

She was a waitress in the classical sense, if for no other reason than diners should have waitresses. She was about his age wearing an ice blue, neatly starched uniform with crisp lines and white piping. Her silver name tag bore an inscription he couldn’t make out across the diner.

She was not pretty, but cute. Not tall, but not short. She didn’t walk. She glided. There was no other way to describe her movement. Her smile was luminescent. She glowed leaving everything else in the diner shrouded and ordinary. As she approached each table she brought on joy and grins as if spreading pixie dust.

He watched her. Actually, much more than watching and each time she glanced his way it was as if she was looking into him rather than at him. At that place and time nothing else occupied his thoughts. He was consumed by infinite possibilities of aspiration and expectation.

She approached, her expression pleased, but also quizzical. He ogled.

She didn’t ask “Are you ready to order?”

Rather, “Don’t I know you?” More of a statement than a question.

His eyes shifted from hers down to the name tag. At that moment, he knew he had found happiness.

Bill Garwin has several degrees and a third-dan karate black belt. He believes stories indelibly enrich our lives and relishes in their telling. The opening chapter of his current project, City of Schemes, received first place, Utah League of Writers 2020 Quill Awards.

A Short Story by Millie Walton

I close my eyes and smell the stale wind rushing down the tunnel, brushing against my cheeks, lifting my hair. I press my back into the wall, experiencing the cool of the concrete and the closed heat of the tube simultaneously. There are times, like these, when I feel wholly present, when I know who I am completely.

It’s unusually quiet. Lottie calls it the sweet spot. When you somehow stumble into the lag between the last flow of people and the next, and the moment seems to stretch like the sky.

Flip-flopped feet slapping the ground. I’d say four or five pairs from the way the sound echoes. It’s hard to say how far away because the tunnels wind back and forwards, under and over.

A bitter drip slides down the back of my throat. Licked fingers fumbling under the table, rubbed across gums, sideways glances. Lottie biting down on her lower lip, in that way which sometimes makes me nervous depending on who we’re with and her mood that day. She likes to be that person. The one who flashes an old baggy in front of my face, and says, Look what I found, even though she knew it was there. She licks a finger, dips and rubs it across her gums before passing it under the table.

Go on, her eyes press and so I do. She stands up and claps her palms together. Fuck-it, I’m getting Hendricks. One for you too.

I sit picking my nails and watch her being watched.

The ice cube clinks dully against the crystal tumbler, as she lifts her glass, shooting a look at the guys over her shoulder. I know that she knows. It’s a game. She drinks it for them, slowly wetting her lips.

Should I get a bob cut? Would it make my face look fat? Like a moon, I say, my hands cupping my cheeks.

There’s a rush and the light behind my eyelids changes. The train is coming and there are more feet, new pairs, running from within the concrete. I have this insane thought that they’re coming for me, but of course, they’re not.

I’d like to be that person too. I can be.

I say it again, Moon. Face. Tucking my hair into the collar of my t-shirt, sucking in my cheeks, mirroring the way she drinks in case they are watching me too.

I stand, swaying and smooth the back of my skirt with one hand. It has a habit of getting caught up. Would it be so bad? Yes, and no, yes, and no.

A pair of black Doc Martens line up next to me. The same ones are in one of my virtual baskets somewhere, have been for weeks. I still can’t decide: black or red, leather or vegan. This pair is well-worn, creased around the midsection, with untied, trailing laces, which look as if they might have once belonged to a different pair. In general, docs look better dirty than new. Ella buried hers before she wore them. I’ve heard the best way is to fold them repeatedly with your hands, that you really need to put your full weight into it to get the good, deep indents.

The train stops. The doors jump open, thin light spills like watery milk. The boots step in first and I follow. She sits opposite me, or I sit opposite her. It feels like a dance. I look up and we both smile. I see her teeth for a second and then she closes her lips. Her mouth is long and straight. Her hair’s the brightest shade of red I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of something specific. Sun-burnt skin. A neon light. A place, a bar or a club. Another person’s hair cut out from a magazine and stuck onto this woman’s head. She looks not much older than me. A couple of years, five at most. She sees me looking and I find myself blushing. I blush too easily, a permanent red sheen, like a farmer who’s spent his days briskly walking through the wind. I look away as if something’s caught my attention down the carriage. The doors close on a man who steps back, arms folded. He looks away, already waiting for the next. The train starts to move and I feel nostalgic for no reason.

I try to picture the world above us, the streets that I walked along six, eight, ten minutes ago. The street I imagine is generic. I am not an imaginative person, I’ve come to realise this. It is London from tourist shop posters, red double deckers, glossy curved black cabs, men in top hats holding the doors open to hotels and rain that’s neat, shiny and clean, falling in perfectly formed droplets that are made of air, not water.

The woman is standing directly over me, her hands clasping the bar whilst her body absorbs the sway of a bend. It feels odd to be so close to someone when the carriage is nearly empty but even without the crowds, there’s always a sense of being squeezed on the tube. There’s a gap roughly the length of my forearm from her belly button to my knee. I can see blonde hair in her armpits. Who dyes their hair red? I decide she is an artist, or a dancer. I follow the line up to her face, her chin is tilted as she reads not the tube map, but the ad beside it. I know it from the blue. I’ve seen the same one, huge against a station wall. Green Park or Victoria. Her eyes slide down to mine. I feel myself flush again. It’s worse when I’ve been drinking.

It’s terrible isn’t it, she says.

I wait for a moment to check who she’s speaking too, and then say, Yes. It is. Terrible.

She pushes back and lets go of the bar. She’s not beautiful in the conventional sense. Her features give the impression of being cluttered together, too small for her face, but there’s something sensual about her. I can imagine people finding her attractive. She arches her chest forwards as if releasing a tightness and I realise, as she rolls her shoulders and sits, that I’m doing the same thing. I clasp my hands into my lap.

The tunnel becomes platform and the train stops. Three men climb in, speaking loudly over their shoulders to one another. First one, then the others notice the woman standing in front of me. I follow their eyes and see that the dark circles of her nipples are clearly visible through the fabric of her dress.

She drops into the seat opposite me, slips her feet out of her boots and kicks them high into the air. A slither of black lace appears as the fabric flutters over her knees. The train lurches and I start to feel sick.

Did I flash you? she says.

I didn’t see anything. I rest my forehead in my hands, elbows pressing into my thighs.

Are you alright?

I nod and swivel myself to look through my handbag for my headphones, then remember that I left them at work. I find chewing gum and drag a piece up through the wrapper and into my mouth with my teeth.

The red head’s familiar, one of the guys says. Isn’t she though? From TV? I look back at her. Perhaps that’s it.

You famous? he calls and even though he’s not addressing me I turn towards him.

Nope, the woman says.

The train’s stopped. Through the pane of glass, the concrete looks almost like earth. I feel as if it’s pressing inwards, squeezing. My chest aches. I have to remind myself to breathe.

There’s a sharp whine and a distant voice apologises for the delay, we’re being held at a signal. The woman stretches an arm across the backs of the seats. I can feel sweat drawing up between my breasts. I tap my thumb and index fingers together. How many stations have we passed? I taste bitter again.

Coke or horse tranquilizer, Lottie says shrugging, what difference does it make?

I check my bag for my bottle which isn’t there, I know this already. I stand, and grip the rail with one palm. My eyes won’t focus. Somewhere between Pimlico and Vauxhall. I could get the bus.

Are you alright? a voice says, very far away or very close. A hand touches my arm, drawing me down into a seat and at the same time, the train jolts forwards and starts to move. I’m sitting beside her somehow. Her hand on my arm. I pull it back and rub the place she touched, half unconscious of the movement. She sees me do it.

Have we met somewhere before? No. I don’t think so.

It’s just you seem familiar. Have we worked together maybe?

I think that’s unlikely. She crosses her legs and stares forwards.

Through friends or something then? My mouth feels dry and the words catch in my throat. She shakes her head.

The train stops and moves. I miss the name. Pimlico, she says.

You’re from London?

No. She bends to scratch her ankle, and her arm brushes my leg. I notice there are a few mosquito bites down her calf. I used to live here in a tiny flat share, so small I had to get dressed sitting on my bed. I moved to Margate last year and now I can see the sea from my window.

That sounds nice.

You should come.

To Margate?

Why not?

I laugh. Because I don’t know who you are.

I’m Grace. Now you’re supposed to say your name.

Rosie.

That’s a nice name.

Yours is nice too.

You’re just saying that because I said it.

I’m not. I really think it is nice.

This is my stop.

She jumps up, grabbing her shoes with one hand. The platform rushes against the glass. She turns, and the doors slide closed behind her. I watch her waving at me through the window as we rush past: her hair obscenely bright against the tunnel wall and then, she’s gone.

Millie Walton is a London-based art and fiction writer, and a graduate of the MFA at the University of East Anglia. This story has been adapted from her debut novel in progress.

A Short Story by Christie Marra

“The pain’s almost too much to bear by lunchtime,” the judge says, shaking his head. Back when he was an assistant commonwealth’s attorney, John won cases against him so consistently John sometimes wondered whether he’d lost on purpose.

“I don’t know how you navigate all those suffering families,” John’s wife Eliza remarks, looking at the judge sympathetically and placing her hand on his arm. John hates seeing his wife touch another man, any man. He isn’t jealous; he tells himself. It’s the principle. Why should a woman touch other men when she’s refused to touch her own husband for so long? John averts his eyes from Eliza and the judge and turns to Mayor Larique, seated beside him.

“How’s life on the dark side?” John asks, knowing he’d been a reluctant candidate, coaxed into running by the twenty-somethings who had marched with him throughout the year of protests.  The mayor rolls his eyes.

“This city needs some work,” he says.

John pours him more wine. “Start with fixing that jail, man. Nobody should have to stay in that shit hole an hour, let alone twelve months.”

“It’s on the list, a hell of a long list,” the mayor trails off.

Damn, man, you gave up quick! John thinks, turning away from the young mayor. The restaurant couple sits on his other side. She’s describing plans for her newest restaurant, while he moves his food around on his plate, occasionally glancing and nodding at his wife.

Exquis opens next month, and it’s going to be my most successful bistro yet!” she exclaims. Her husband’s shoulders slump.

“She’s moving you to the new restaurant?” John whispers, and he shrugs. “You should stay where you are, or go back to your favorite. You’re one of the best damn chefs in the city.” The chef smiles weakly and continues shrugging.

Am I the only man at this dinner party with balls? John wonders, looking at the new guy, quiet, almost sullen, directly to the right of his wife.  The new guy laughs suddenly at something Eliza says, and Eliza gives him her special look, glancing sideways and curling her lips into a half-smile. John remembers, bitterly, a time when she looked at him that way.

He studies the new guy, trying to figure out what Eliza sees in him. He wears Clark Kent glasses – always a sign of weak character – and his bald head is too large for his thin body. John’s head is perfectly proportionate to the rest of him. At least it used to be, before those late-night munchies inflated his gut.

“Do you enjoy being a public defender?” a soft voice asks. John looks across the table at the young brunette with a sharp nose and wire rims that match his own.

“I do.” He raises his wine in a toast, wondering if this dark cloud of a dinner party might have a silver lining. The brunette follows suit. “To well-chosen careers!” She smiles with closed lips before she drinks. “And what is yours?” he asks, hoping she won’t say nurse or teacher.

“I’m a chemist.”

“Ah, you must be the new member of Eliza’s team!” John says, and she nods. “How do you like working for The Man?”

The brunette shakes her head. “I, um…I don’t see it that way.” She dips her head toward her plate as she cuts a piece of filet mignon. A very fine wisp of hair escapes from behind her ear, brushing her cheek.

“How do you see it?” John asks in a softer tone. It would be a shame to alienate her so quickly. He still has to endure the remainder of dinner and dessert, and she’s the only dinner guest who even slightly interests him.

“I’m exploring new remedies, new solutions to ailments that plague people.”

“And the six-figure salary’s just a convenient bonus?” he chuckles.

She tucks her hair back in place and takes a long drink of wine. “I don’t think about the money.”

“People who have enough of it never do,” John replies, tiring of her.

Next to the chemist sits a man wearing a red bow tie. John hates bow ties. He wouldn’t even wear one for their wedding, insisting on leaving the top button of his starched white shirt open. Back then, Eliza called such things “quirky-cute.”

“McCain’s gonna have a tough time of it,” John says, looking directly at the man in the bow tie.

“How’s that?” the man asks, shoveling risotto into his mouth. Grains of rice stick to his mustache just beneath his nostrils, like frozen snot, and John holds back a smirk.

“We’ve got our first black presidential candidate, and he’s a good family man who’s smart and has a down-home relatability despite being primarily professorial.”

“Plus he’s cute as a button!” Bow-tie’s wife adds.

“McCain has stellar military and public service,” Bow-tie replies, with a cool, sideways glance at his wife. “Plus he was a prisoner of war.”

“But how can we put the future of our country in the hands of a man who chose a gun-toting, xenophobic airhead as a running mate?” asks the guest across from John, setting his suede patched elbows on the table. “The most important quality of a president is his ability to choose wisely.”

“His?” John asks. He’d bet his last paycheck on Suede Elbows being one of those liberals who valued a man’s statements over his substance.

“Well, um, his or hers,” Suede Elbows replies. “Good catch, pal.”

“Why do you think a little known senator will choose wisely?” Bow-tie asks, pointing his forkful of risotto at Suede Elbows.

“He already has,” Suede Elbows asserts. “Can’t find fault with Joe.”

“Hmph!” Bow-tie grunts. “Anyone who has suffered some sort of tragedy becomes a hero to you people.” 

“I’m sorry,” John interrupts, determined to re-route the conversation before it turns into the same empty analysis he’s heard dozens of times, “I know Eliza introduced us, but—”

“Seymour Gillespie.” Suede Elbows drops his fork, and awkwardly extends his hand.  John reaches across the table to shake it, purposefully shoving his arm straight through Eliza’s flower arrangement. A few petals flutter to the table as he pulls his hand back. He remembers Eliza gushing about how this florist’s arrangements lasted “for weeks and weeks, sometimes more than a fortnight!” and has to fight the laughter. He’s so bored with Eliza’s absurd affectations.

“How long you lived around here, Seymour?” John asks. He feels Bow-tie’s wife’s hand on his thigh and removes it decisively.

“A few months. I started teaching at Roanoke College last semester.”

“Ooo, what do you teach?” Bow-Tie’s wife squeals. John wonders whether she’s trying to play footsie with the professor under the table.

A glass hits the floor and shatters at the other end of the table.

Eliza jumps up and shouts, “Sallie!” The waitress supplied by the caterer rushes into the room with a broom and dustpan.

“It’s Cindy,” the waitress corrects Eliza as she cleans up the glass.

“Thank you,” Eliza says, eyeing Cindy icily and placing her hands on the judge’s shoulders.

“Objection!” John mutters, irritated by Eliza’s classism. The young chemist hears him and giggles, and John thinks perhaps he dismissed her too quickly. He winks at her. 

As the broken glass is cleared and Cindy begins to remove the dinner plates, Eliza raises her glass.

“Friends, it is an honor to host you,” she begins. John glances at the chemist and rolls his eyes. The chemist hides her giggle behind a napkin. “Our little city, tucked in the Blue Ridge mountains, home to a small but stellar college that gathers and nurtures young minds until they blossom and fly away to grace other lands with their wisdom…”

John shakes his head. The chemist catches his eye, tilts her head and raises her eyebrows. John grins at her.

“We have it all here – wisdom,” Eliza nods at the judge, “wealth,” she smiles at Bow-tie and his wife, “and ingenuity!” Eliza extends a regal arm toward the restaurant queen. “And we have a generosity of spirit, welcoming those who simply wander here.” Eliza looks pointedly at the chemist, whose blush is evident in the dim candlelight.  “And of course, we are eager to learn new things.” Eliza nods at Suede Elbows, and she moves closer to the new guy, so close that her elbow meets his shoulder. John watches their body parts touch, disgusted with Eliza and with himself. He hasn’t had a physique as obviously well-toned as the new guy’s in decades. He notices the chemist watching him and forgets about his paunch as he raises his glass to her.

“Mathematics,” Suede Elbows says. John and the chemist stare at him. “I teach mathematics.”

“Oh! You must be brilliant!’ Bow-tie’s wife squeals. Suede Elbows launches into an explanation of how math is everywhere.

“Every road is a plane, every room a cube, every decision based on some inherent mathematical formula!” he exclaims. If Bow-tie’s wife is playing footsie with him, it isn’t distracting Suede Elbows at all. His lecture continues as Cindy serves dessert.

Suede Elbows’ lecture is too much for John. He excuses himself and slips out to the warmth of the back porch. Why does Eliza keep the house so damn cold! He pulls a small glass pipe and a bag of buds from behind the potted fern, and carefully packs the pipe. He inhales deeply, savoring the burning sensation that makes him feel whole. Smoke leaves his mouth and dances in the darkness before it disappears. John watches the moon, high and bright, and the world begins to slow.

“There you are!” The chemist bounces through the door and throws her arms around John’s neck. Over her shoulder, John sees Eliza laughing with the judge and the new guy in the kitchen, placing a hand on each man’s arm. The new guy stares at John, challenging him. John starts toward the door, but the weight of the woman embracing him holds him back. “I knew you expected me to follow you out of the dining room, but I had no idea where you’d gone,” she says.

John puts his hands around the chemist’s waist, trying to focus on her smile instead of his wife touching two other men. The air around them hums as he studies the chemist’s face.

“It’s been so long,” she says, tilting her head back to look up at John. He kisses her hard, moving his hands down to her buttocks. “No, wait.” She removes his hands and leads him into the yard, stopping beneath the magnolia tree. “You remember the magnolia tree, don’t you?”

“Of course,” John says, no idea what she means, liking where it’s heading, and guessing any other answer might change their course.

They have sex on a blanket of hard, dry leaves, their pointed tips pricking John’s shoulders, back and rear. But he doesn’t care. He hasn’t touched a woman since Eliza kicked him out of their bedroom three years ago. The chemist is a good partner, open and vocal and willing to follow wherever he leads, and he takes her everywhere he’s dreamed of taking a woman in the past three years – between her breasts, in her pussy, and in her delightfully tight ass. 

“Ooo, that’s new!’ she squeals beneath him, giggling into the magnolia leaves.

“So it’s okay?” John asks, chuckling. “I’ve never done it before.”

“I like it. It excites me!”

The chemist gets sexier by the second. After he climaxes, John stays inside her a while, sliding his stomach up and down in the sweat of her back, relishing  how the physical closeness makes him tingle with pleasure.

He rolls off her and lies on the crisp magnolia leaves, arms crossed behind his head, hoping to hold onto this new, fresh, wild connection.

“Wow!” the chemist declares, laying her head on John’s chest. “That was so much better than the first time!”

“Really?” he laughed. “You’re the only person I’ve ever been with who could have an orgasm that way.”

“What?” The chemist sits up and looks at John, confused.

“I mean, you know, from the back.”

The chemist shakes her head. “I didn’t enjoy it that much.”

“But you said it was better than the first time.”

“I meant better than the first time we, well, you know.” She kisses him. “Can you believe it’s been three years?”

“What?” John asks, feeling a little queasy. How could she know it had been three years since Eliza banished him from their bedroom so she could fuck every new man in town? Did Eliza tell everyone?

“Did you ever get my note?” the chemist asks. “I’d thought you’d make up some excuse to come to the lab as soon as you knew I was there, but this was much better.” She laughs an uncontrolled, almost maniacal laugh.

“What…what note?”  John stands up, his legs wobbling. The chemist holds her hand out to him, and he pulls her up quickly then pulls his hand back to his side.

“The invitation, my dear!” the chemist replies, grabbing his hand.

Invitation? What on earth is she talking about? As she smiles at him, John sees that one of her teeth is missing. Where’s her tooth? He could have sworn she had all her teeth at the dinner table.

He throws the chemist her clothes and hurriedly puts on his own. Before he can start back to the house, she grabs his arm.

“Kiss me like you did the first time on the lawn, under the low yellow moon.” She rises onto her toes and lifts her face toward his. “Kiss me. Baby!” Trapped, John leans down and brushes his lips softly and quickly against the chemist’s. She pulls him closer, forcing his lips open with her tongue. He tries to resist, but her lilac scent makes him forget the missing tooth, and his body responds to her scent and her tongue. She pulls away first. “I’ve saved myself for you, you know,” she drawls, and John starts trembling again. Lilacs be damned!

“It’s late. Don’t you need to be in early tomorrow?” John walks rapidly toward the house.

“Don’t worry! I won’t tell anyone!” the chemist promises, following him. “You know, I took the job to be close to you.” She laughs her maniacal laugh again. The chemist makes less sense every minute. How did she know about him before meeting him tonight? Eliza never acknowledges his existence outside of their house these days. But what if this time she did acknowledge him? What if Eliza had more than acknowledged him? Perhaps she’d actually advertised him as part of the position, subtly communicating a surprise bonus, an exciting, illicit twist to taking the job. Eliza would do that to get rid of him, especially after he’d told her he’d never leave their marriage without squeezing every last penny out of her.

The house is empty. Were they outside that long?

“Looks like we have the place to ourselves,” the chemist says, putting her arms around John’s waist. John removes her hands and backs away. She doesn’t seem sexy anymore, now that he knows she’s missing a tooth and may be an unscrupulous bargainer who chose John over a corner office.

“It’s so late,” he says. “And I’m so tired.”

“I suppose I should head home,” the chemist admits. “But tell me – when can we see each other again?” She grabs his sleeves, and John fights the urge to back away again. If he can just get her to her car—“When?” the chemist asks again.

“Soon,” John says. “I’ll find a way.” Seeming satisfied, she follows John out the front door.

Eliza is in the circular drive staying good night to the judge. She hugs him, and stands with her back to the yard as his car pulls away and heads down the driveway. When she turns around, she’s wiping her eyes. She sees John and the chemist and smiles brightly, dropping her hands to her side. “Did John give you a nice tour of the house, Eleanor?”

“John and I made love in the yard, Eliza,” the chemist says.

“Really?” Eliza asks, and even as focused as he is on trying to escape whatever the chemist has in mind for him, John can tell Eliza is surprised.

“It had to happen, Eliza. We knew from the moment we met at Oxford three years ago that we were meant to be together.”

Oxford? John’s confused. He’s never been to Oxford. He hasn’t even been outside Virginia except for his honeymoon to New Orleans.

“Oxford?” Eliza asks.

“I was working on my Ph.D., and he was a visiting professor at the law school.”

It was just a case of mistaken identity! John’s heartbeat begins to calm down, and he sighs.

Eliza looks at John and shakes her head. She approaches the chemist, takes both her hands, and says, “Eleanor, my husband has never taught at Oxford. He couldn’t even get into Oxford.” Eliza’s dismissive tone stings, and for a moment the sting overshadows his relief.

“That, that’s not true!” the chemist says. “He was an instructor there. We met at a cocktail party. We made love in the Botanic Garden!”

“I’m sorry, Eleanor,” Eliza says.  “My husband isn’t a very nice man.” She puts her arm around the chemist. “Come, let’s have some cognac and get to know each other better.”

The women turn and walk toward the house, the chemist taking one final look at John before following Eliza inside and closing the door.

John watches the door close, and the final traces of his fog dissipate while the brightness of the moon illuminates his solitude.   

Christie Marra is a legal aid attorney who writes, dances and poles in Richmond, Virginia. Despite her diverse interests and activities, she’s frequently vexed by her inability to maintain a clean house and cook without burning something. She blames this unhealthy obsession on the Enjoli commercial that seemed to play constantly when she was growing up. Christie’s short stories have appeared in various publications, including Little DeathThe Write Launch and Pangryus.

A Short Story by E. M. Issam

“It was three winters ago when the artist declared their war against excuses,” Hamil started. “And it was hot. Real hot. The hottest winter in a decade. All the winters are hot now, but this one you could see the air above the road all shimmering in waves that made you thirsty to look at them. The artists were sick of being hungry. They were sick of five years of excuses from their NRAP caseworkers (Nutrition Replication Assistance Program) not giving them enough food stamps, sick to death of not being able to feed themselves.

“The ones without family or money, True Artists they called themselves, lived in that deserted neighborhood behind the Rose Garden. Thirdi, that’s right. The True Artists still live there now. Why do people call it ThirDi? On account of the neighborhood being shaped like a Thirsty Dinosaur chugging the Willamette. No bullshit. You gotta look on a map to get it. So then don’t believe me. Just, look, the point is the neighborhood is called Thirdi, alright? Who cares why? And I bet your mom told you not to go there. ‘The scary people live there,’ she told you. Even though Thirdi is ‘where the real Portlanders lived when Canada ended at the Great Lakes.’ Or so people used to say. She’s right about one thing though, your mom. Thirdi is a slum.

“After the war, but before unification, the Canadian Army used to cage Americans in the Rose Garden. They locked up everyone who wouldn’t pledge allegiance to queen and Canada, including American soldiers. And when anybody died, Nucks used to dig open graves for them back in Thirdi. Yea, Nucks. You don’t know Nucks? It’s what our guys called the Canadian fighters. Like Charlie in Vietnam or Haji in Iraq. Jesus, but then this seems to be the night I find out you’re not so street smart. Okay see, you know how when the east winds start going, the whole west side of Portland smells like sewer? That’s because of all the bodies that Nucks dumped in mass graves. Hundreds of Oregon soldiers are buried under Thirdi. People say it could be up to half of Portland’s World War III vets. Nobody knows, maybe it’s more.

“And so, the artists say all that history and horror gives the Thirdi neighborhood a special kind of magic, nestled back there behind the Rose Garden. In Thirdi, whole walls are known to collapse at bad hours of the night. In Thirdi, everything is dangerous and streaked with howlite veins of soot. In Thirdi, an artist can live rent free.

“Rent free means they don’t have to pay to sleep there. Because artists don’t have any money. Yea, maybe they could get jobs, but they don’t want to get jobs. You’ll understand when it’s your turn to slave for a living. No, nobody likes their job. Then your mom is lying to you because she doesn’t. Hey, why don’t you be like your brother? See how he sits there and doesn’t ask so many questions? That’s why we like him so much. That’s why we let him bring you over.

“Still, it’s difficult to fight a war against excuses, for the artists I mean. Because if you remember, that’s what this whole story is all about. And all True Artists get are excuses. Like why can’t they grow their own crops? Everybody says it’s too hot to grow crops anymore. They say replicated food is perfect, that the bugs in real food will kill you if you eat it, but the artists just want to try. And who can blame them? A good replicator costs as much as a house. And you see what a pound of amino acids costs? Of course, you don’t. But trust me, it’s more than you want to pay. And nobody will fix old replicators anymore either. So, people are forced to buy new ones. And no one can afford that. And you might as well just eat your handfuls of long sugar and fatty acids rather than stuff them into one of those Canadian knockoffs. If you ask me, my dad is right. This continent has gone to the wolves.

“So, but why not let the artists try? Let them grow a few stalks of corn and see if they don’t end up just fine. Excuses, that’s why. Lies. All of the NRAP bullshit. And so the artists call it their war against excuses, but it’s really a war against a government that demands I.D. for food stamps, and a unified North America that won’t let them grow corn, and all the other million little evils that bureaucrats do to put off calamity for one more day. But the artists, they know a secret. If the people only came together as one, if they only resisted the forces which oppress them as one people, then the magic of that alone would be bread enough to eat. Sounds crazy, right?

“No one remembers which artist first came up with the idea to throw a party. But once people heard about it, the idea spread like wildfire. The way it was said to me, the True Artist’s plan was to bring everyone from all over Portland to Thirdi and get them drunk enough to love each other. A communion of that kind of collective spirit would force new crops into existence. That’s what the artists said anyway. Sounded good too. I went.

“On a lucky Tuesday, a truck full of hydrocarbons and long sugars crashed going past the Rose Garden. Its tires popped, just like that. By the time help arrived, three hundred pounds of cargo were missing, and the driver had an extra concussion. No one was ever arrested and with a good replicator, hydrocarbons and long sugar are all you need for some quality booze. The Friday after the accident, the artists threw their party. It was magic. A never-ending supply of drinks for anyone who wanted, totally free. Hmmm, that’s a good question. I don’t know how they managed to replicate alcohol. They must have stolen a replicator too. Well if they had a replicator the whole time, it doesn’t really make sense they’d be angry about the food stamps thing does it? Just shut up, let me finish.

“By Saturday, there wasn’t a person in Portland who hadn’t heard the stories. On and on the party went. Sunday, Monday, into Tuesday too. Starved, hairy men and women. Handsewn clothes in bright colors that hurt your eyes to look at them. Lime skirts, vermillion blouses, pinstripe trousers, orchid jackets. I learned all these colors from the artists. You can too. Big lights and loud music. No shoes to be seen anywhere. The smell, you can’t even imagine. But everyone was happy, everyone was coming together. And then guess who showed up? I bet you know. That’s right. Police battered down the door to this flophouse where we were all dancing like angels. One by one, those jackals in blue killed all the plants of goodwill we’d manifested into life. They took everyone to jail. Everyone they could catch that is. I escaped by pushing a poor boy into a riot shield. He couldn’t have been no older than you, fifteen at most. Not a day goes by I don’t remember the look on his face. I think he peed himself. I was smelling ammonia all the way to Loring Street.

“But, so, after the heat died down, the artist returned. In protest of getting their asses kicked, a sculptor named Misery Van Sant hung a lantern above their party house. Turning to the stumbling bodies around her–those drunkards still had plenty of alcohol left, you see–Misery proclaimed, ‘From now until forever, my sculpture of Lantern on a Hook will mourn the moment the artist dream died.’

“The following sober day, no one, not even Misery Van Sant, could remember her speech nor why she gave it, but the artists found the hanging lantern so useful that she got praised for showing a True Artist’s practicality. Misery lanterns are still hung above Thirdi houses today, lighting the way to the next big party.

“Yes, obviously someone remembered her speech or no one could repeat what Misery said. Listen, Alex was it? It’s real simple, Alex. They say the artists still have a hundred pounds or more of their stock. Drinks are always cheap and easy. But this would not be one of your freshman parties, okay? These are grown up people, doing grown up things. Now, I know your replicator has a parent lock, so you’ve never tried a drop before have you? That’s what I thought. Your brother, he says you’re cool. For my part, I don’t know. You keep bothering me with all these questions. Well now it’s my turn to ask something. And it’s really the only question that’s going to matter tonight. Pay attention. The True Artists, I hear they’re going to hang a Misery lantern tomorrow. So, you wanna come or what?”

E. M. Issam is a breakout writer of the Northwest’s exploding creative writing movement. If there was ever any doubt that the resurgent Northwest style is ready to make its mark, read “True Artists Light a Misery Lantern.”