A Short Story by Mark Hall

“Christ!” Daniel McRae’s father cried. The back door slammed shut with such force that it shook the house. “Daniel!” John McRae bellowed, drawing out his son’s name. “Get your ass down here! Now!”

For an instant, all was quiet. Daniel crept from his room at the top of the stairs. On the landing, he froze in the silence. Then, heavy footsteps as his father made his way through the house. “Shit,” Daniel muttered to himself. Quickly, he searched his mind for what could have set his father off this time. His hands shook as he ran them through his mop of dark hair. He gripped the stair rail to steady himself. Then he remembered his bike.

Daniel looked down over the banister in the direction of the kitchen. His face bruised with anger, John stalked his son, one hand gripping a sturdy broom. There were specks of dried blood on its thick handle from the last time he had struck Daniel. Halfway up the stairs, he stopped. “How many times have I told you not to leave that bike in the driveway? How many, goddamn it?”

Daniel was fourteen, slight for his age. There on the landing, he stood several steps above. From this vantage point, his father appeared only slightly less threatening.

“I’ve told you and told you!” John roared. “Put your goddamn things away!”

Daniel took a step back. Cornered, he turned his back to his father and steeled himself. He covered his head with his forearms as John raised the boom with both hands. He struck his son hard, again and again. “Goddamn it!” he shouted with each blow. “Goddamn it! Goddamn it! Goddamn it!”

As the blows struck, Daniel’s mother, Aida-Claire, appeared below. She could have stopped her husband. She knew that Daniel hadn’t just left his bike carelessly in the drive. He’d put it there deliberately, to replace a tube in a flat tire. Daniel had talked to her about it that morning. There wasn’t room enough to work inside the garage. He’d only just finished and left the bike for an instant to run upstairs for his shoes.

But instead of intervening on Daniel’s behalf, Aida-Claire mirrored her husband’s anger. “Your Daddy has told you time and time again not to leave that bike in the driveway,” she echoed. Aida-Claire kept her eyes on John as she spoke. She was performing for him. “Someday, one of us is going to back over it.” She glanced, briefly, at Daniel, her voice trembling, “Then you won’t have a bike.” Daniel registered the fear in his mother’s eyes. He hated her for that. Bile rose in his throat. Aida-Claire was trying to remember her lines. “Maybe,” she added, her voice rising, as in a question, “you shouldn’t have a bike in the first place, if you can’t take care of it.” Like an actor on a stage, she looked to her husband for approval. Whenever his rage exploded, Aida-Claire stood on the sidelines like this, egging him on. Sometimes she’d even pile on additional transgressions from days or even weeks past that Daniel ought to be punished for. If John’s anger was directed at him, Daniel understood, then it wouldn’t be aimed at her. But it wasn’t enough simply to avoid her husband’s wrath herself. Aida-Claire had to become his ally, his accomplice.

His anger exhausted, John threw the broom to the floor below and turned toward the kitchen. For several minutes, Daniel remained still, to be certain it was over. Then, with difficulty, he unfolded. Slowly, he made his way back to his room, leaning against the wall as he went. He was careful not to slam the bedroom door, though he wanted nothing more than to tear it from its hinges. Curled up on his bed, his head throbbing, Daniel caught the sound of his bike as it clattered into the back of his father’s pickup. “Godfucking cunt!” John shouted, as the tailgate failed to catch. Then the truck scratched out of the drive.


The first time Daniel’s father struck him, John and Aida-Claire had been out one evening. Daniel was looking after his little brother, Will, who had had a nightmare. When their parents returned home, Will was in tears, groggy, incoherent, lost between waking and sleep. He cried out from this in-between state. They found Will on the floor, next to his bed. His father concluded that Daniel must have hurt his brother somehow. But that was ridiculous, inconceivable. Daniel would never hurt Will. But John had come for him. He’d pierced Daniel with a low, steely voice: “Go to my room and get the biggest belt you can find.”

By now, Daniel knew well how the next day would go. Ordinarily, on Sunday mornings, the whole family attended church together. But after a Saturday night beating, only Daniel and his father would go, just the two of them. Daniel hated this worse than the beatings, riding silently in the car, alone with his father, sitting next to him through the service, watching him pray, then the mute drive home.

Knowing his father would expect him at the ready, when morning came, Daniel dressed slowly, painfully. He hadn’t left his room since yesterday. Will had brought a sandwich, which Daniel hadn’t touched. His little brother sat on the edge of Daniel’s bed and laid a hand on his hip. He patted Daniel gently for a long time. Will had come to tell Daniel that he’d hidden the broom behind the living room drapes so their father couldn’t hit him anymore. Daniel could not respond. He was sore all over. Even his teeth hurt. He was deep inside himself now. There he would remain. He would not speak, unless prompted. He would not look at his parents tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day after that. He would give nothing. He would be a blank.

As Pastor Lealand droned on, Daniel ruminated. He’d heard the expression, “This hurts me worse than it hurts you.” Daniel didn’t believe it, but he understood that his father suffered whenever he beat him. Daniel read it on his face, the deep trough between his eyes. That’s why they were at church together in the first place, just the two of them. His father felt guilty. That’s probably what he was praying about right now, Daniel thought. He took pleasure imagining his father’s anguish. How could he add to his pain, Daniel wondered.

He could tell. Daniel could tell a teacher at school how his father beat him. On Monday morning, Daniel could raise his shirt and show the angry welts across his back. By then they’d ripen, purple, black. He could show his teacher, Mrs. Winfield. “My father did this,” he would say. Mrs. Winfield would gasp as her eyes filled with tears.

Among his friends and colleagues, John McRae was respected, well-liked. Out in the world, he was charming, jovial, a successful businessman, a deacon in the church. His family was handsome and happy. But at home, Daniel’s father was silent, brooding. Night after night he sat in a worn leather wingback chair, working a crossword puzzle. From time to time, he cleared nothing from his throat. “Uh, uh, uh, uh, uh.” Daniel hated that sound. He cringed at the thought of it. No one would believe what John McRae did at home behind closed doors. If Daniel told, then maybe he would be removed from his home, he fantasized, taken into care. Even if a foster family was horrible, it would be worth it. It would be worth it to shame his father and mother. She’d be the talk of the next Junior League luncheon. His parents would hate that, all the talk. Imagine the looks they’d get at church next week when word got around.


After church, Daniel put on his headphones and set out to mow the grass. The front lawn was wide and deep and took hours to finish. Normally, he chafed at the task, but not today. Today, Daniel didn’t care, because mowing the lawn gave him an excuse to avoid his parents. This afternoon Daniel took more time than usual, moving slowly, wincing at each turn. His shoulders ached. But he pressed forward into the heat, knowing that afterwards he’d be too exhausted to think, his mind washed clean by the scorching sun and the ordered lines drawn with each pass of the mower.

Midway through, the McRae’s neighbor, Dave, pulled up, a small boat hitched to his truck. It was a Boston Whaler, just like the one they’d rented once on the Gulf. Uncle Dave, who wasn’t really an uncle, had taken Daniel and John fishing at Apalachicola Bay, not long before John began beating Daniel.

Inexperienced with saltwater fishing, the three of them had nevertheless enjoyed themselves immensely. Daniel had been impressed with his father. On the pier at Cedar Springs, a tiny fishing village on the Bay, John McRae seemed at home among the people they met there. He chatted up the old salts to learn where the fish were biting, what lures to use. On the water, John was easy, relaxed. He and Uncle Dave drank beer, while Daniel downed Cokes. They ate sardines from a tin and peed off the back of the boat. They joked and made up fish stories about “Hog-o-rilla,” the big one that got away, again and again. Lines were tangled. Hooks were caught in their hats and fingers. They bled prying them loose. A rod snapped. A pricy reel was lost in the water. They laughed through it all. Then, in the heat of the afternoon, the three of them leapt from the boat to swim in the Gulf. Together with Uncle Dave and his dad, Daniel had felt a part of something, the world of men that had seemed so strange and distant to him before.

John beamed with pride when Daniel caught the largest speckled trout of the day. “My boy,” he said with a wide smile. Afterwards, back at the pier, Uncle Dave showed Daniel how to gut and clean a fish. Daniel could tell that his father was surprised to see how deftly his son handled a knife.

At home, John set a wide, black cauldron of grease on a gas burner in the backyard for a fish fry. Neighbors gathered. The McRaes always put on a good party. Daniel watched with admiration as his father sliced potatoes neatly, with the skins on, then fried them up, at once crisp and tender. Then, without a recipe, John made up a batter of hushpuppies, with onions and jalapenos chopped fine. Before he dropped a fillet into the grease, John held up each one and praised its perfection. “My boy,” he said again, as he told the story of how Daniel had wrestled the big one into the boat, then, later, on the pier, how he had cleaned the entire catch all by himself, like a skilled fishmonger. Looking back on that day, Daniel considered it the happiest time he’d ever spent with his father.

“Nice work.” Uncle Dave said, as he surveyed the half-mown lawn. “What do you think?” He smiled back at the boat and made a sweeping motion with his outstretched hand, as though he were presenting a lavish prize on a game show. “It’s just like the one we rented at Apalachicola Bay.”

Before Daniel could speak, from behind him, John stepped out the front door and down from the porch. “Uncle Dave!” he drawled loudly, a wide smile, all hail-fellow-well-met. Daniel tensed as his father laid a hand across his shoulders, his thumb and forefinger resting lightly around his son’s neck.

“What do you say we take this baby out at the end of the month?” asked Dave. “Your Mama says your birthday’s coming up, Dan. Let’s make a day of it. Bring home that Hog-o-rilla this time.”

John squeezed Daniel’s neck slightly. Daniel stiffened. “Yes, sir,” he said to Uncle Dave.


At school on Monday morning, Daniel didn’t tell. Nor the next day either. As one day led to another, he found that he had folded so completely inward that now it was difficult to imagine turning out again. In his mind’s eye, he could see the scene in vivid detail: the raising of his shirt, the turn of his back to his teacher, Mrs. Winfield. Her eyes would widen. Tears would well up. Her doughy fingers would reach toward Daniel to touch the ugly bruises, tentatively, gently. Then Mrs. Winfield would pull him to her. She was a big, expansive woman. Daniel would wince in her fierce, soft embrace. He might cry too, as he gave himself over to her protection. But Daniel could not summons up the words to tell her what was happening at home.


The next time John struck his son, Daniel had been sitting at the kitchen table, shelling peas, while Aida-Claire stirred a pot on the stove. More than two weeks had passed since the last beating. Tensions had lifted, though Daniel, wary, continued to steer clear of his father. But he and his mother were mostly back to their old selves. Daniel enjoyed watching her cook. She was relaxed at the stove, organized, efficient. She could juggle lots of tasks at once with calm. Whenever they were alone together in the kitchen, theirs was a quick, easy, banter. They teased one another often. They laughed. Aida-Claire confided in Daniel, sometimes airing complaints about his father. Daniel enjoyed her confidence, which made him feel grown up.

On this evening, Daniel had said something joking to his mother. John had walked in at the tail end of Daniel’s remark. He hadn’t liked whatever he thought he heard. Then, in a flash, John was on him. That’s the way it was. One moment, calm. The next, pure rage. From zero to ninety in an instant. Anything might set him off. In his unpredictable volatility, John McRae was utterly predictable. He snatched Daniel up by his arm. His grip was fierce. Daniel was up and out of his seat before he knew it. The chair clattered to the floor. The peas overturned. “I won’t have you talk to your Mother in that tone of voice,” John shouted.

“What? What did I say?” Daniel screamed, his voice high, breaking. Already he could not remember his own words. He could not reconstruct the conversation he and his mother had been having. His heart pounded in his ears. He opened his mouth to defend himself. “I, I . . .” But nothing would come. Daniel looked to his mother. She would explain. It was just an innocent joke. She hadn’t been bothered by it at all. But Aida-Claire’s mouth was a straight line. Still holding a wooden spoon in the air, she would not meet Daniel’s pleading gaze.

John dragged Daniel out the kitchen door and into the backyard. He took a wide stance and held his fists up in front of him like a boxer. “Put up your dukes, boy!” he demanded.

His father’s pose, his words, struck Daniel, unexpectedly, as comical. Surprising not only John but also himself, Daniel erupted into bitter laughter. “You wanna hit me? Is that what you want?” Daniel laughed. He looked at his father squarely now. His dark eyes, the mirror of John McRae’s, narrowed. Laughing at his father, Daniel discovered in that moment, diminished him. Suddenly Daniel felt strong, commanding, and so he continued to provoke. “You wanna hit me, big man?” he taunted. “That make you feel powerful? Big man gonna beat up a fourteen-year-old kid?” Daniel’s own fists were balled tightly at his sides. His voice was low and steady now. He pressed, “Beat up a kid. That make your dick hard, big man?”

The next day, Daniel woke with a glistening black eye. He smiled wryly as he examined it in the bathroom mirror. He laughed again, the same bitter laugh he had laughed the night before, seconds before his father decked him.

Later, at school that day, Daniel told anyone who asked that he’d hit a pothole and gone head over handlebars on his bike. He hadn’t told anyone that he no longer had a bike.


With the black eye, something had shifted in Daniel. He was no longer afraid of his father. He could see his weakness clearly now. After he had laughed at him, Daniel had felt something rise up inside of himself and break loose.

Nevertheless, Daniel continued to brood about his father’s increasing violence, an endless loop of white-hot resentment, turning over and over again in his mind. Early on, his father had demanded, at the slightest provocation, “Go to my room and get the biggest belt you can find.” John knew which one he meant. So did Daniel, who learned quickly that the beating would only be worse if he chose the wrong belt. The broom had come later, then anything close at hand, once an extension cord, another time a brass candlestick. Only lately had John pared down to bare knuckles.

Daniel puzzled over the why of his father’s behavior. What had he done wrong, Daniel wondered. Aida-Claire had tried to explain once. She reminded Daniel that John had lost his own father when he was only eight years old. The grandfather Daniel had never known had died of a heart attack in his mid-thirties. “And so, you see,” his mother had said, “your Daddy doesn’t know how to be a father, because he never really had one himself. He doesn’t know what to do with a teenage boy. He’s afraid. Afraid you’ll challenge him. Afraid you’ll outstrip him, outshine him.”

To Daniel, this sounded more like an excuse than an explanation. His mother was merely propping up her husband, taking his side again. If he was a threat to his father, Daniel reasoned, then before long he would come for his brother, Will, too. Will was only eight. His father had not yet hurt Will. But he would. Daniel would kill his father first, before he’d let him do to Will what he’d done to him.


The night before their fishing trip, Daniel was lying in bed, when through his noise-cancelling headphones he heard a shriek from the bathroom that separated his bedroom from Will’s. His brother had been splashing in the tub, sloshing water onto the floor. It had soaked clear through to the downstairs, leaving a dark stain on the silk wallpaper in the dining room below.

His father had surprised Will, still naked in the tub, beating him violently with a hairbrush. “Goddamn it! Goddamn it! Goddamn it!” he roared.


The next morning, Daniel and his father and Uncle Dave were to leave in the dark hours well before dawn, driving south to Apalachicola Bay. They would be on the water by daybreak. Dave’s boat was too small for the open ocean, Aida-Claire had worried. It wasn’t safe. She wouldn’t think of letting Will go along. He was too small, she insisted. After last night, Daniel thought, Will wouldn’t have wanted to spend the day with their father anyway.

In the kitchen, Daniel tiptoed around his father, making sandwiches, packing the cooler, gathering up their gear. Already on edge, he startled at a knock on the kitchen door. Outside in the dark was Dave’s wife, Sara. Still in her nightgown and slippers, damp from the wet grass, she’d come over to say that Dave was too sick to go fishing. He’d eaten a bad oyster last night, she thought. But Daniel and John should go on without him. The boat was all loaded up and hitched. She handed Daniel the keys to Dave’s truck. “He won’t be going anywhere today,” she said, as she turned on the stoop. “Happy birthday, kiddo. You two have fun.”

Daniel smiled weakly. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. His stomach tightened, as he thought of the long, seething day alone with his father. Without Uncle Dave as a buffer, Daniel wished that he himself had eaten the bad oyster.


The drive south was silent, tense. Daniel put on his headphones and tried to sleep. But he was too restless, and so he only pretended to doze, his eyes closed, nothing in his ears but his own thoughts. He’d been wide-awake most of the night, trembling with rage about Will and the hairbrush. After his parents had shut themselves behind their bedroom door, Daniel had crept into his brother’s room, where he spooned him up in his arms, still teary, trembling, gasping from time to time, until Will finally drifted off into a fitful sleep.

As soon as John stepped out onto the pier at Cypress Springs, it was as if he had flipped a switch. He was at home on the water. It was early yet, still dim. A few old salts were tying chicken necks into tattered crab baskets and tossing them off the rickety pier. John talked tide charts and wind speeds with a toothless old man, so brown and weather-beaten he looked like a desiccated leather bag, washed ashore from some distant land.

Daniel stood beside his father, gazing out over the Gulf, John’s hand resting lightly on his neck. “My boy,” John said to the old man with pride, “Turning fifteen today. Near ‘bout grown, he drawled. He’s gone land a hog-o-rilla today!” For catching speckled trout, the small, wizened man recommended a white rubber grub with a weighted red head and a double salmon hook. He rooted through a battered tackle box and handed Daniel a small packet of lures. “Good luck catching that hog,” he said with a wink.


Daniel remained taut until he and his father had successfully launched the boat. This was just the sort of cooperative task that could easily go wrong and set his John off. Not until he settled into the bow of the boat did Daniel take his first deep breath of salt air. His father stood behind the wheel and sped, full throttle, toward the open Gulf. Daniel braced himself as the small craft bounced against the chop. One hard bump, he thought, might catapult Daniel right out of the boat. His mother had been right: The Boston Whaler was too small to be safe on the open water. With the wind in his ears, Daniel was both afraid and exhilarated in equal measure.

The first pink rays of sun peeking up from the east, John brought the Whaler to a stop and they dropped their lines. After some time, Daniel could feel a loosening inside himself. He could see from his father’s smooth, easy casting that he, too, was relaxing. They both enjoyed the quiet. On the water, the silence wasn’t strained, as it had been on the drive down, as it always was at home. Here, the silence was purposeful, attentive. The only sounds were the gentle lapping of the water against the hull, the occasional plop of their lures on the surface, a light breeze in their ears.

There was nothing to talk about until something powerful struck Daniel’s line. He popped up his rod sharply to stick the hook. John leapt up and grabbed a net. Sparked with adrenaline, for several minutes Daniel wrestled, expertly reeling in, then releasing the slack to tire the creature out. His arms began to throb, but Daniel remained cool and steady. His father praised and encouraged. “That’s it. Bring that hog in,” he coaxed. When a streak of white flashed alongside the boat. John leaned over and scooped up a shark, nearly eighteen inches long. “My boy,” he said with pride, as he held it up by the tail. Daniel didn’t want to care, but, in spite of himself, he felt the warm rush of his father’s approval.

This jolt of excitement shook both Daniel and John out of themselves. As morning turned to afternoon, they talked a little, then a little more. They talked about college and Daniel’s interest in veterinary school. His father knew a local veterinarian from his business-networking group, who might be willing to take Daniel on as an intern. Daniel was pleased when John offered to arrange for them to meet next week.

When the sun rose high above, Daniel and his father raised the Bimini top and retreated under the shade. At lunchtime, they devoured their sandwiches. John pointed out that they’d packed beer enough for two, expecting Uncle Dave to be along with them. He offered a can to Daniel. “Just one,” he said, looking over the top of his sunglasses, raising his eyebrows. “You’ll be drinking on the sly soon enough,” he smiled. “Happy birthday, kid.”

“Cheers,” Daniel said, looking at his shoes.

They clinked their cans together. Daniel had tried beer once before, but he didn’t much care for the taste. He drank anyway, to please his father.

Daniel considered the moment. This day met up with other joyful days, though Daniel had to search for them now, when he had been happy in the company of his father, like the first fishing trip with Uncle Dave. But too many other days, terrible days, had stacked up against him and made Daniel wary. Anything could shatter the calm. Daniel might say or do the wrong thing at any moment. And when he did, his father’s rage would flash. His voice, that howl, “Christ!” like a wounded animal, would make Daniel whither. Then the bottom would drop out. Thinking of it now made Daniel nervous. The sweat turned cold on his back. Suddenly, he felt trapped on the tiny boat, alone with his father.

When it became too hot to fish any longer, John tossed over a small anchor and he and Daniel leapt into the water. By now, they’d tried several spots with mixed results. As the day wore on, they’d traveled further and further out into the Gulf. Closer in, near the shore, they could see the bottom clearly, even stand in the open water in some places, the sea grass tickling their legs. But now they were far out, where the water was much deeper, colder. They could barely see land now.

Once in the water, Daniel thought of the small shark he’d caught that morning. Where there were small sharks, there were large ones. He climbed back into the boat and dosed under the Bimini top.  The beer had made him drowsy. When his head nodding snapped him awake, Daniel scanned the surface of the water, searching for his father. He found him in the distance, floating on his back. John had drifted far from the boat. If Daniel closed one eye, he could almost make him disappear.

Daniel’s mind turned again to his brother, Will, and to the hairbrush of the night before. He ground his teeth.

Just then, his father waved, swam a few strokes, then returned to floating on his back. Daniel closed one eye and made him disappear again. He thought about starting the motor and making his way toward his father. John was a strong, confident swimmer, but here the current was stronger. He had drifted too far to make it back to the boat on his own.

Daniel could make his way toward his father, he considered. Or he could turn the boat in the opposite direction, toward the shore. He held this thought for several minutes, like a delicate sharp object cupped in his hands. He unspooled the idea. There were no other boats nearby, none in his field of vision. There was no one to call for help. Their cell phones were back on shore in Dave’s truck. There would be no reception this far out in the open water. How long, Daniel wondered, could his father swim in the open Gulf? How long before he got a cramp, or just tired out? Daniel would need to take his time getting back to shore to call for help. Anything could happen. His father might have been drunk when he went in for a swim. Daniel could pour out several more beers on the way back to shore. Maybe his father had drunk all the beer, intended for Uncle Dave and himself. Or maybe his father had had a heart attack while swimming. Anything could happen. His father had been there, floating on the water, and then he wasn’t, Daniel would report. He had searched and searched, he would say. He hadn’t given up, even when a late afternoon thunderstorm rolled in. Only when night began to fall did Daniel return to shore.

Daniel looked up and considered the darkening sky. He scanned the surface of the water again. It was becoming choppy. Thunder rumbled low in the distance. When he spotted his father again, Daniel closed one eye and made him disappear once more.

Then Daniel pulled in the anchor and lowered the outboard motor. He turned the key in the ignition and the engine sputtered to life, belching a cloud of blue smoke and fumes. The sound of the motor caught in his father’s ear. He popped up and waved vigorously, this time motioning for Daniel to swing around and pick him up. Daniel stood and waved back. He smiled. He turned and squinted toward the shoreline, then back at his father. Daniel put one hand on the wheel, and with the other, he pressed the throttle lever.

Mark Hall is a professor of writing, rhetoric, and digital studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His creative nonfiction has appeared in The Timberline Review, Lunch Ticket, Passengers Journal, the Sand Hills Literary Magazine, Hippocampus, The Forth River, and others.

A Short Story by Bill Garwin

One more time, am I dining in the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory?

I’m sorry, what?

The darkest place on earth.

A little obtuse, but okay. They call this dining in the dark.

Because?

Because it’s very dark.

No shit. But why are we dining in the dark? Our first date and you bring me here. Is this your online dating debut? Are you embarrassed?

Of course not. You’re beautiful. After two weeks of serve and volley, I feel like I know you. I wanted something special, something you’ll remember. They say the other senses are heightened when you’re deprived of one. The food will smell better, taste better, the conversation will be sharper, more focused, absent visual distractions.

Glad I spent so much time getting ready. I should have cut a slit in a little black trash bag. Would have been more in keeping with the ambiance. Can you help me find my water?

Right side at two o’clock.

You’re saying that only because water is always right side at two o’clock. I absolutely assure you, if I spill, it will not be in my direction.

You won’t spill.

Oops!
Is that your chair I heard sliding away?

You didn’t spill, did you?

Nope.

Just having fun?

Yep.

At least they let us order in the foyer. Do you remember what we ordered?

Honestly, no. I couldn’t keep from staring at you. You’re so much prettier than your picture. Why?

Life lesson. Set a low bar and exceed it. Instant success without effort.

You’ve done a lot of this social app dating?

Some. How about you?

Lately, yeah.

Madam and monsieur, my name is Aramis, and I will be serving you tonight.

Aramis, as in the cologne?

No madam. Aramis as in the Three Musketeers. My mother was a Dumas fan. But enough of me. I am prepared to serve your appetizers. Please place your hands in your laps to avoid any culinary catastrophe.

How can he see our hands?

Night vision goggles.

Why can’t I have night vision goggles?

Kind of defeats the purpose.

For the madam, the fried squash blossom stuffed with a savory ricotta filling resting upon a cushion of our house-made marina featuring local heirloom tomatoes,

And for the clearly more adventurous monsieur, the pan-fried pufferfish tails with a delightful sweet and sour apricot accouterment.

Wait, I didn’t order pufferfish tails.

I may have made a menu modification for you when you went to the restroom. You surprised me with this dark dining. Thought I’d spice things up for you.

Aren’t pufferfish poisonous bottom feeders?

Monsieur, our chef is highly skilled and can only remember a single instance of adverse reactions to this most delicious morsel.

Aramis, you’ve tasted them?

No. But more importantly, I’ve served them numerous times.

More importantly, to whom?

That would be who. But I assure you, prepared by a knowledgeable chef, the toxins in these delicate tidbits cause nothing more than a pleasurable tingling or numbness in the lips and mouth and a slight high.

And the chef is knowledgeable?

So he has informed me.

I’d like to change my appetizer.

Aramis, you still there? Where is he?

I think he’s gone. Left in a puff of smoke. Man up. If I hear a loud thump on the table, I’ll call for help. Besides, I’ve got more important problems. I’m certain the squash blossoms are wonderful, but how do I find my mouth.

It’s below your nose and above your chin.

Eat up. I’ll just wait for the thump.

Too late, I already took a bite.

I’d put you on the clock, but I can’t see my watch.
You feel okay?
Did you hear me? Are you all right?                                                                                           That was your fist hitting the table. Say something.

May I offer you a taste?

Very funny. Not a chance.

Can I ask you a question?

Why do people do that? Ask if they can ask a question. You’ve already asked a question. You should say, may I ask you two questions? Sure, you can ask a question. After you answer mine. What do you think of Hawaiian pizza?

Suddenly I wish I could see your face. Are you kidding? No answer, so I’ll assume you’re not kidding. You’re serious.
Okay, a question demanding a multi-layered response. Medically, adding a food group to an otherwise divine entre can only be a healthy choice. Theologically, there are those who say God didn’t intend pineapple on pizza. Structurally, the wet of the fruit may damage the integrity of the crust. Politically, liberals are more likely to accept, while conservatives will look back for guidance to Queen Marguerite of Italy. And of course, libertarians believe it’s the domain of the individual to decide. Philosophically, is it still pizza, although possibly quite delicious, does it become something else? Sociologically, can Americans justify making radical changes to a dish created by Italians or is it an inappropriate appropriation?
How’d I do? And as important, why’d you ask? Maybe this restaurant wasn’t such a good idea. I wish I could see your face. A little help; I’m working hard here. You still there? Why so quiet?

You are different.

Different good. Right?

Yes, intelligent, funny. A good man. You care about this. It’s not just dinner.

Finally, this stupid restaurant is serving a purpose. You can’t see me blushing.

You wanted to ask two questions. You’ve asked one. What’s the other?

Madam and monsieur, we will be removing your appetizers and serving your entrees. You have both selected the salt-encrusted branzino. The chef has chosen a little-known method which allows the crust to seal in moisture. The fish will steam in its own juices, while the crispy skin prevents the salt from penetrating. The crust is a mixture of kosher salt and egg whites reminiscent of the appearance and texture of wet beach sand. Please enjoy.

The madam has a question. This branzino, does it have a face?

Of course, madam.

Can you guide me as to where I might find the face?

Above the shoulders.

Great question, but he’s gone again. Am I right?

I believe you are. I’m going to use my finger to figure this out. I’m not eating fish eyes. Give me a second, then you can ask your question.

Right with you.
Found it!

Ditto. Executing a lobotomy. You ready for my question?

The wind-up has been massive. The question better be commensurate.

How do you feel about short-term relationships?

Short-term relationships? Isn’t that an oxymoron? I’m not even sure what it means.

Let me help. Picture your normal relationship, but with an abrupt ending.

You do remember this is a first date? You’re proposing some relationship with a baked-in exit strategy? Is it because I’m only semi-worthy?

No. No. It’s not you, it’s me.

Finally, we agree.

I have an expiration date.

What are you, a bottle of milk?

I’ve got cancer. A year, maybe eighteen months. I don’t want to be alone, but I don’t want to lie. I don’t want to make impossible promises.

Suddenly dining in the dark makes nothing but sense. You’re hiding in the anonymity of the shadows.

It’s a balancing. I’d love to see your reaction, but I’m not sure I could ask the question in the reality of full light.

You’ve done this before and I’m guessing with zero success. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here. Look, I like you, although it’s more accurate to say I’ve enjoyed our 45 minutes together, but this is insane. What if I just commit to give you an answer sometime in the near future?

I can work with that. I just don’t want to hide anything.

Can you get our waiter’s attention? I need to use the ladies’ room. I’m feeling the stress of your second question in my bladder.
Did you just whistle?

Sorry, trying to be helpful.

Monsieur, you beckoned?

The lady wishes an escort to the restroom.

Madam, please place your hand on my shoulder.

If I can find it.

Monsieur, I am sorry for the delay, but the madam seems to have vacated the premises.

Aramis, she’s not coming back, is she?

No sir, I do not believe so.

Did you offer her the money?

Yes sir. As always.

Her response?

Quite typical. She hit me.

Slapped you?

No. Hit me. Fist to face.

I knew I liked her.

She did leave you this note. Take my flashlight. Please place the note under the table as you read it.

The Dance – Garth Brooks

And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end, the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance

Thank you, Aramis. Did you read the note?

I must admit, I did.

The lady should have paid more attention to the last two lines of the song.

I could have missed the pain
But I’d have had to miss the dance

Will you be dining with us again tomorrow night?

It seems I will.

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

A Short Story by Amanda Schroeder

Echo and I dream up powers that no one will believe. In the midday Summer heat, we lay side by side in her backyard under a linen teepee. She’s so tall her legs poke out the front holes, but I fit perfectly.

We spent the whole day in her backyard, exploring every patch of grass as though the lawn behind her house was the whole world. We catch box elder bugs and stow them in pencil cases while we build them a castle made of dirt and sticks. When we come back to release them into their new kingdom we find them dead, suffocated slowly in the yellow plastic. I hold back tears of frustration, but Echo assures me everything is going according to plan. We dump dead box elders onto the muddy castle and assign them their roles, moving their bodies like they’re Barbie dolls. I think This must be heaven.


Echo’s parents are never at home, which is why we always spend our days at her house. Her dad works at a law firm where they make money when people get injured at construction sites. Her mom works in marketing and is always talking about the copy for her latest mock-up. When my parents would ask me about her parents, I would always pretend to know that they are doing well.

Echo and I always like to make up games. Echo would play dead and I would dance around her like a witch, trying to bring her back to life.

Or we huddle in silence in her living room, listening for any sounds the house makes, making up stories for the ghosts that created them. The tapping of the heater springing to life is the soul of a young dancer who died dramatically on stage, a loose latch under his tap shoes plummeting him 8 feet to his death. Echo and I always argue about which of us he is in love with. The moaning of the pipes was a woman who died hot and heavy in the middle of childbirth. We don’t know what childbirth looks like, but we imagine it orange, like a flame in the dark, and damp. We imagine her wafting through the house trying to find her baby and we sit close, holding our breath so she can’t find us instead. Echo can hold her breath for longer than me, but I always cheat, sneaking in air through my nose.

We sneak into her mother’s closet and dress ourselves up in her clothes, smearing makeup on our faces and pretending to be prostitutes. We don’t know what prostitutes are, but we know the way men talked about them from the movies. We look at each other in the full-body mirror and think THIS was what it means to be a woman.

One day, we painted our faces red with her mother’s lipstick and chased each other around the house, screaming for our lives. We didn’t hear her mother come in over the sounds of yelling and laughter. When she found us with a full tube of Mary Kay’s Red Stiletto smeared onto our faces, she started hiding her makeup.


In fourth grade, Echo’s parents move to a house with big windows overlooking a flower garden Echo isn’t allowed to set foot in. She starts at the catholic school in the neighborhood and I don’t hear from her for weeks.

One day, my parents tell me Echo is coming over. They say it like I have no choice and I look down at my dinner, embarrassed that my loneliness is so apparent my parents need to intervene.

When Echo comes into our house, it feels like welcoming in a stranger. Echo and I sit in my basement and our silences feel like smoke. When the heater makes a creaking sound, I imagine an old man who died in a rocking chair opening the doors to the heating closet peering out at us, but Echo doesn’t seem to notice. She tells me about her new life and her new school and I try my best to picture it, but I’ve never imagined a place I’ve never been before. I ask her to describe the coat rack where they hang their book bags in the morning, but she doesn’t understand the question.

I try to ask a different way – where are you in the first five minutes of school, between where you drop off your backpack and walk into the classroom. Those minutes had always been my favorite, but I dreaded them without Echo to fill the silence. I found myself praying that she was just as lonely as me.

She tells me Tommy always waits to walk in with her. When I ask her about Tommy, she says they kiss after school lets out. She shrugs like it’s nothing and I blush thinking about all the things she has done that I have not.


Five years later, I hear that Echo has died. I haven’t heard from her since the day in the basement in fourth grade, but my parents still get a call from her parents.

When my parents break the news to me, they hold hands and cry. I don’t shed a tear because I don’t feel a thing. Echo has died so many times and has always risen again. I try to let the truth sink in, but all I can remember is playing Romans in her backyard. She was Jesus and I was Pontius Pilot. I washed my hands in the little puddle at the bottom of the drainpipe, then dragged her body to the cross, a tree low enough where she could hang her arms from the branches. She hung there for three full minutes until her skinny arms gave out.

We played this game on Good Friday the year before she moved schools. Echo called it her favorite holiday after we sat in the chapel at school and got chills on our arms when the pastor slammed a book into a wall – the closing of the tomb. The silence was so dramatic and our exhilaration was so high that we sat giggling into each other’s necks.

I can’t imagine the person Echo became at 14. She died of alcohol poisoning, something I have never even tried. We miss the open casket but show for the burial. While her parent’s friends all give speeches about the person Echo would’ve become, I stare into the face of the girl in the memorial photo. She looks like a fox, except she’s cold instead of warm. Older than 14. I don’t recognize a single thing about her except for her white-blonde hair, a color most people lose as a baby.

I try to fill in the blanks of who she became. I imagine her as a doll being thrown around in a castle made of sticks and mud, her exoskeleton keeping her safe from prying fingers trying to get inside. Her pretty blonde hair never gets dirty. I imagine her in cars with leather seats going places I’ll never be at hours I’m already asleep at. I imagine her dying little deaths every day, only to get back up and start again. I imagine her smarter than me, the kind of person who realizes we need to seize the best of life every day, but who slipped too early and couldn’t get back up.

Amanda Schroeder is from Utah but is currently based in San Francisco, California. She has a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Utah and her work has appeared in Cathexis Northwest Press, The Crack the Spine 2019 Anthology, and others. She is the co-founding editor of F3LL Magazine and currently serves as the web editor for Split Lip Magazine.

A Short Story by Heather Whited

Christmas Eve. The unheated attic. Marcy and Otis, passed a joint back and forth and drank ciders as they watched Christmas unfold out the window. The neighborhood was brittle, gray. No snow this year, not even rain, just a sharp wind that ripped at the empty tree branches. Still, decorations were up, and a tree glittered in most windows that they could see.

It wasn’t late, only around 9:00, but the house was quiet. Silent in the tense way a space that should have been filled with happiness, created a chafing, nagging void instead.

Dad was out with Uncle Rod, probably drinking too, probably enough to make tomorrow uncomfortable, and Mom was asleep. The house smelled of cooking though, enough to lull them into thinking for seconds at a time that the holiday was going to go well. It never did though. It hadn’t for years, not since they were children.

Next door, a half-deflated plastic Santa wavered on someone’s roof, battered by the wind. A group of carolers sang for their neighbors. Their scarves whipped around their faces, their sheet music rustled and threatened blow away, but the singers clutched at them, joyous still.

Marcy grinned tiredly down at them, passing the joint back to Otis.

“I wonder if anyone’s told them that the new family there is Jewish?”

“I’d guess not,” said Otis after a too long pause.

He pulled his coat closer around himself and blew smoke out the open window. They sat watching for several minutes and the carolers shuffled off and started up a new song at the next house.

“You’re in a shit mood,” said Marcy. She popped open another can and watched Otis fidget as he smoked. “What’s up? You’ve obviously got something to say.”

He looked away, briefly toward some boxes in the corner, at the joint in his fingers, then down at his shoes.

“I… saw something in the news. But you can’t tell Mom and Dad.”

He pulled out his phone and passed it to his sister. On the screen, a picture of a dark-haired young woman about their age, taken at just the right moment to catch her smiling. Underneath, the circumstances of her death the month before. Marcy’s heart sped up as she skimmed, wishing with each word that she hadn’t read it. Marcy stared at the spot where, “murdered by her partner,” appeared in the text. Her shoulders slumped as the words weighed her down. She absentmindedly set her cider on the windowsill.

“Is that…” she started to ask, not looking up at her brother but still staring down at the woman in the picture who had been their sister for a few years, when they were children.

“Yeah, it’s Mindy.”

“Well, she got a new name with her next family. I guess, really, it’s Candace. Was Candace. Fuck. Where did you find this?”

Otis worried at the dry skin of his lips. He was too thin, Marcy thought, chiding herself for not noticing sooner.

He continued to look out the window as he spoke. “You remember Mike Salas?”

She did. Her brother’s friend from elementary school who’d run around their yard, up and down their stairs, and jumped through their sprinkler in the summer. Ate bologna sandwiches on the front steps with them, back when the siblings were three. He’d only lived a couple of streets over and he and Otis had run back and forth from each other’s house for a few years, inseparable. It was a name she hadn’t heard in over two decades, not since she was barely ten years old. Much like Mindy’s name, relegated to whispers.

“You still talk to Mike Salas?”

“Not really,” said Otis. His hands were shaking. Marcy noticed he’d been biting his nails. One finger was bandaged. “But we kind of keep in touch. Comment on posts and things every now and then mostly, but he’s nice, checked in on me when I was…”

He did not say ‘in the hospital,’ but he didn’t have to.

“His mom saw this last week and he sent it to me.”

Marcy locked the screen, and it thankfully went black before she had to look to look at Mindy’s face again, or read the new name she’d been given when their parents decided they didn’t want Mindy anymore. She passed the phone back to Otis, who stuck it in his pocket.

“How did he find out?”

“Well, I don’t know if you remember, but his family moved away a few months after everything.”

Everything. The most concise way, the most polite way to talk about it, when they needed to, which was rare. The weeks of their sister running away, tearing through the neighborhood in her bare feet, darting across traffic as cars screeched to stop in her path. The broken television when Mindy threw a block at it as hard as she could. Mindy one day going red in the face at lunch and biting their mother. A screech escaping their mother’s throat, a slap that sent Mindy reeling and dislodged her. Dad running down the stairs. A green towel with blood seeping through. Black stitches snaking down from Mom’s thumb. Visits from people they didn’t know, always couples in beige and pastels, all of whom wanted to meet tiny, five-year-old Mindy, who had become their sister three years before. Marcy and Otis were always made to play outside then, no matter the weather. Then one day, after school, they came home and Mindy’s bedroom was empty. The smell of fresh paint and Mom washing her hands over and over to get the specks off. It’ll do wonders, she’d said to herself as she scrubbed and scrubbed. New paint always does.

Marcy looked at Otis and said, “Yeah, I remember they moved.”

Otis nodded. His overlong hair, the ends bleached and parched as the dead grass of the lawn, had fallen into his eyes and Marcy fought the urge to push it back. She also remembered that he hadn’t talked for weeks after Mike and his family left.

“Well, his parents were apparently disgusted with Mom and Dad. They were all part of this Christian parent’s group that had been encouraging Mom and Dad through all the rough spots of getting Mindy settled. You know, the tantrums and things. Mr. and Mrs. Salas hated everything about what had happened. Giving her away after being her parents for three years, how they’d done it, just letting some other family take her and not letting the agency know for months. I guess there was some big fight about it and then Mike’s family decided to move. Mike says his mom searched for Mindy and wanted to make sure she was okay.”

“Shit,” muttered Marcy. Her stomach lurched and she was suddenly freezing. She didn’t want to be up here anymore. She didn’t want to be at home. At her parent’s house, that is. She wanted to be back at the apartment she shared with her friends two hours away. That was home.

“Mrs. Salas found out her new name and she searches for her every now and then to see how she’s doing. Last week she found this. Mike decided I’d want to know.”

“Did you?”

Otis shrugged and wiped at his eyes.
“I really hated all that,” he whispered. “I was so scared. I went to school and came back and she was gone and all the pictures of her were gone and Mom just said she’d found a new family that was better for her, that could take care of her. I used to worry myself sick. Actually sick, puking sick. I used to get so scared I’d just…”

He mimed scratching at his arms.

“There was blood. It got infected once. Mom took me to the doctor then never said anything again.”

“I know,” said Marcy. Her voice barely audible. She hugged herself and looked out the window. Christmas lights twinkled in most of the houses. At her real home, her roommate Kate would be baking, there would be a movie on. She hated it here.

“I know. I wanted to help. I just didn’t know how. I was only ten.”

“It’s okay. It wasn’t your job. It was Mom and Dad’s.”

Marcy picked up the cider she’d abandoned and took a large swig, then another. It dribbled down her chin. Now she was sure she would be sick later, maybe very soon, actually, but she wanted to keep drinking. Sick would not be bad, the blackness of a deep, drunken sleep would not be especially welcome. She had never understood her father so well. She finished the cider and her stinging eyes again wandered to the boxes in the attic.

“I wonder if they kept anything at all?” she asked.

“No,” said Otis. He glared back at the boxes, their lids gaping. “I looked at everything. Everything. They got rid of it all.”

“I figured.”

Mindy opened another cider.

“Was she happy? Do you think she did okay after those new people came for her?”

“No.”

They both jumped at a noise from downstairs. They peered out the window to see the group of carolers on their front porch. A tall blonde woman at the front started singing and the others followed. They did not look up at the attic window where two young people watched, unmoving.

Heather Whited is a writer and teacher from Nashville, Tennessee currently on the west coast in her second home of Portland, Oregon. She lives with an evil dog and a much nicer cat. She’s been lucky to have a number of magazines take a chance on her.

A Short Story by Bill Garwin

A Short Story of the Life of Dan Ivan Sensei

They’ll come. I need them. I left a light on as a beacon or maybe more like a flame. They can’t resist. It’s what they do. Inflict injury on the weak. Humiliate and take a life’s accumulation. They’ll come in numbers preceded by their stench and the spittle from their bikes. They’ll be loud, wearing leather in the night heat; unafraid of a single old man floating in the isolation of this desert shack. It’s taken me a lifetime to get here. A lifetime of violence. A lifetime of honor.

The Great Depression and I were born within hours of each other. I was raised, if that’s what you call it, in Alliance, Ohio. My dad, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, was twice as old as my 16-year-old mom when they married. He left six months after I was born. Mom waitressed to survive, leaving little time for mothering. We lived with my grandmother; the house language was Hungarian. I bathed every Saturday night in a large, galvanized tub. I can’t remember having toys, electricity or phones.

I began riding the rails when I was ten. Hop a moving train from here to there. The hobos were decent, the guards brutal if they caught you. At thirteen, I took the train to California. Slept in boxcars, ate when I could, usually at the kindness of the hobos. Kept a club and never, ever, let anyone see I was afraid. Stoic. I’d steal vegetables from gardens, shoplift groceries. Did some work when I could get it, sweeping floors, washing dishes. Never panhandled. I’d rather steal than beg. When I came back, I think my grandmother was glad to see me.

Sammy, Frankie and I were the worst kids in town. I carried a blackjack until the police took it away. They never did find the brass knuckles. I fought. A lot. So did everybody else. But I was never a bully, except maybe when we were rolling drunks.

I’m fifteen, driving with Sammy, we see a guy who turned us in to the police a week earlier. Maybe for stealing from the market, robbing drunks, fighting. I can’t remember. I tell Sammy to pull over, jump out and beat the crap out of the guy. Next day, Sammy, Frankie and I are picked up by the cops. They take us to court and the judge decides it’s Juvie or the army. I complain I’m only fifteen. Judge, pen in hand, allows as how he has my birth certificate in front of him and I’m eighteen.

Boot camp’s great. Bed, clean sheets, indoor plumbing and all the food I can eat. There’s nothing better than hiking, drilling, camping out with a can of sterno and K rations. Tough guys back from the war taught me discipline and respect. I learned to kill.

I did a tour in Guam, was discharged and went back to Alliance. I started to slip into the same destructive cycle. Not who I wanted to be so I re-upped. They sent me to Japan where I met my wife and the love of my life, karate.

I courted my wife floating on the canals of Tokyo. We couldn’t be seen together on the streets, so our romance was limited to the low-tide stench of the canals or a well-hidden small café. Surprisingly, her family mostly accepted me. Maybe she’d have been better off if they hadn’t.

I’m at Camp Zama in the Criminal Investigation Division, CID. A military cop with a mandate to “Do what has to be done”. It’s a violent job for which I’m perfectly suited. Just another extension of a life of fighting.

I managed to spend some time learning judo. I’m paying for my lessons by selling my GI cigarette allotment on the black market. I will eventually have black belts in karate, judo, aikido and kendo.

I studied judo at the Kodokan, a large gray building which had evaded the American bombing. Wide steps led to an always open double door, behind which as many as a hundred students could be found training. Beginning students would show up early practicing falls to warm up the frozen straw tatami mats for senior students. Training would last 2 or 3 hours.

I’ve spent my life fighting, dominating. It’s who I am. I hear about this karate dojo. I grab an interpreter from the Provost Marshall’s office and tell him what I want. He’s so busy shaking his head in the negative, he doesn’t even notice we’re on our way.

Off the train at Ueno, through the underground where entire families live in stench and poverty. We emerge to the smell of charcoal hibachi fires and lean-to living. Through the destruction to what seems like the uninhabited bones of a bombed-out building. Yes, he’s certain this is the place. I move towards the basement and sounds of men screaming. I follow the smell of sweat into the dojo of Gogen Yamaguchi Sensei, the Cat.

There stands a short, but massive man. Shoulder length black hair, commanding in a deep guttural voice. Gi clad students matched off in pairs down the length of the room. Each strike, each block emphasized with a shout concentrating the energy of the blow. I stopped halfway down the stairs, sat and watched. Yamaguchi Sensei approached. We communicated through gestures. If I wished to train, I was to leave and return with my uniform.

I come back the next day, gi in hand. Training was brutal, especially for a gaijin. A senior student took me to the back and taught basics. But soon, I did much more. Other dojo’s practiced kata and staged sparring. Yamaguchi Sensei introduced free fighting. Manners were observed, control required, but blood flowed. Blocks hurt as much or more than strikes. The injured, the truly injured, could lean against a wall to recover.

My wife and I returned to the States. The Army sent me to learn Japanese at the language school at the Presidio, Monterey. After my discharge, I begin establishing dojos. At one point I’ve got eight of them. I bring instructors from Japan. I start the Japan Karate-do Federation. I’m the American Director of the first World Karate Championships. I’m elected to the Black Belt Magazine Hall of Fame. I write a book, invest in real estate, get involved in movies and Las Vegas productions. I travel and teach. In Japan, they award me eighth dan in karate for a lifetime of achievement. I receive it from a Zen monk who is a descendant of Ieyasu Tokugawa, a 17th-century shogun.

I’m hurting. The VA docs tell me it’s cancer. Not much they can do. Eventually, it’ll eat me up. I’ve got this isolated, little place in Whitewater, California, population 892. A shack painted loud pastels. Maybe 500 or 600 square feet that never saw a building permit. Concrete ramps between small rooms with mud walls. And this is where I sit. A bird on a perch waiting for vultures. For one last fight. The coda of a lifetime of violence, achievement, and honor. A singular life.

In memory of Dan Ivan Sensei

Bill Garwin received a B.A. from UCLA, an M.S. in Journalism from Boston University, and a J.D. from the University of San Diego. He studied martial arts for 20 years, holds a 3rd dan karate black belt, and practiced and taught fencing. He is the author of the soon-to-be published, City of Schemes.

A Short Story by Simon Plant

Every year comes the cold dark winter and every year I dread it. Hektor tells me I’m neurotic; my paralyzing fear a hysterical response to something benign, a natural event—should not be feared by rational-thinking humans. “You’re being ridiculous,” he says now as I nail plywood over the windows in our living room. “And ruining the architraves! We’ll have to repaint—again.

Every year I do the same and every year it drives him mental. But he doesn’t know what it’s like to live with this annual phobia. How it feels to be a man who cowers during a cold snap; crackling of the radiator; pattering of sleet upon windows turning him frail.

Yes dear, I think. We’ll repaint… Painting holds no flame to what I saw in the flurry. Hideous open void. Her eyes like crystals from another realm…

“It’s for the best,” I say, adding—for good measure—another snippet of psychological jargon received from a quack therapist I invented years ago; a professional whose (fabricated) words I now use as diversions to avoid explaining myself properly: “Dr Kershaw said I need to take control of my fear.”

“But Wilt, does control have to be so… destructive?”

“A proactive approach.”

Hektor finishes decorating the Christmas tree while I drill plywood over the windows in the kitchen; I hear him muttering irritably to himself as he props the star on top. Staring in horror at what has become of our home: windows and doors shuttered-over with plywood as if in preparation for a hurricane.

Poor Hektor. He didn’t know when we embarked upon these renovations it would forever be a work in progress; I never warned him of his husband’s manic neurosis. (If neurosis justifies my having once sighted a door to another world.) Christmas should give him cheer, and that should please me. Despite the fact this fixer-upper—which Hektor and I bought with the intention of flipping—is never going to be finished, we are at the very least both loved on Santa’s Eve. Still, his resentment is tangible.

It’s better this way. Better he not know the truth; what I saw twenty years ago…

We sit on the couch together and watch the news. My knee bounces, and Hektor applies a staying hand. I drink my wine quicker than normal, knowing the weather report is next. A chubby woman in a too-short dress speaks of a “bomb cyclone” and I feel my body shrinking into the cushions. Hy hands tremble, wine sloshes precariously.

“Maybe we should watch something else—” Hektor suggests, reaching for the remote.

I stop him with a shrill objection. “No!” My voice cracks. “Better the devil you know, right,” I add with a nervous laugh. A valiant feat of acting, this summoning of humor even as my stomach plummets like a dysfunctional elevator. You think it’s just the snow I hate? If only changing the channel could protect us from Her.

On screen the map is overlain by swooping purple graphics, gradient shades which represent concentrated parts of the coming storm: light lavender the least intense; deep, ruddy burgundy the most. Our house might be somewhere beneath that splotch in the top corner—a warning color not too dissimilar to the wine in my hand. I force myself to breathe.

Hektor, ignoring my agitation, ends the news, starts some carols playing, and climbs to his feet. “Dance with me,” he soothes. Timidly, I do. But cannot keep my body from shaking. I hear it; pitter-patter of ice tapping the glass—just beyond the plywood. It’s begun.

“Who’s she,” says Hektor, stopping mid box-step to study me curiously.

I blink up at him. Didn’t intend to speak out loud.

“The Queen,” I sputter.

He laughs, but gravity in my eyes snuffs his humor like a candle at a birthday party. “Wilt, what are you—”

“Twenty years ago she came…” My ears are ringing. There’s a blizzard on the underside of my eyelids. “Rode in on arctic breeze, slipped through a keyhole, straddling ice like it was her beast.”

“Keyhole?”

“A crack. A soft spot. A doorway.”

Boom! rends the walls of the universe.

Hektor stares in lax comprehension, but my mind is elsewhere…

Poor little boy cowering on his bed as She descends from her void—whatever hellish reality She came from; punched through from a cold dead world where no good deed goes unpunished and where charity is a condemnable offense. Her blue eyes pierce darkness with domineering moon-glow and carry a hunger in them like that of a thousand-year-old famished vampire. Sovereign of misery. Queen of sorrow.

Humoring me—for Hektor knows when I get like this there’s little else to do: “What’d she want?”

“I… I don’t know!

Yes, you do. It’s you she wants. That night She laid sights on you, promised one day to return. Your very own boogeyman. Stalker. Haunting face of a frozen woman whose domain is a corrupted place where everything pure turns sour like rancid milk. Where good cheer and sanity are sucked and sundered like fingers in a blender.

Cold eyes sparkle as she laughs. “Little boy you will come when I tell you. When you’re old enough. No choice.”

The snow’s heavier now. Wind rattles the rafters and sends groans through the house like creaking bones. Hektor regards me warily, a warden appraising a patient in a psych ward. “A bath might calm your nerves?”

Minutely I nod.


In the warm water I lay, head propped back against the iron tub, feet crossed on the other side, wineglass within reach. I’m grateful. Hektor knows how to allay me, how to make me sane again. Even as the tempest howls I am validated by warmth, love, alcohol.

Pleasures that don’t exist in Her cruel cold world—

Stop. No more. Not real. Something you dreamed when you were young. Part of your phobia. “Forget about Her. Nothing but a night-terror—”

A great resounding crash shakes the house to its foundations. Then Hektor; his scream reaches me over the querulous storm.

“Hektor? Hektor!” No reply. An eerie silence (void) down there now…

I’m out of the tub, wrapped in a town and heading for the stairs. Wet feet scamper down wooden treads. When I reach the living room, I stop. Carols are still playing. Fire crackles in the hearth. And the tree stands tall, decorated in the corner like some sweet confection—picture of joy; but I am filled with dread. No sign of Hektor. And a stinging breeze is puckering my skin in gooseflesh, threatens to freeze the droplets of water on my naked body. I turn to face the kitchen—where chunks of plywood cover the tile floor; flurries of snow blanket bench tops and continue to fall upon scattered slivers of glass.

Something has punched a hole in (reality) the wall like the fist of an angry giant.

“No…”

I approach the window—what’s left—ignoring the pain of splintered wood and shattered glass underfoot. Steam rises from my body; warmth whipped from me by an arctic breeze cutting in through a cavity left by some destructive passage. Through it, in the night beyond, I perceive nothing. Just whiteout. Snow. Darkness.

But I hear her. Laughing as she retreats to her malevolent world. Ascending back through the trench she dug—new recruit in hand.

“No! The wrong man! You wanted me! Take me!”

But she’s gone.


Twenty years had been the golf of Her absence, time in which I invariably convinced myself of and tore myself away from the notion that I’d made her up completely. But there’s no arguing with proof. Hektor’s missing now. Days have passed and still no sign of him.

The threshold between worlds is shut, and She alone holds the key to unlock it.

Simon Plant is an Aussie expat short writer and dancer who lives in NYC with his husband and cat. When he’s not performing on a stage somewhere, you’ll find him writing something or neurotically watering houseplants (it’s not an addiction…). He grew up in Sydney, Australia before finding his place in the world as a professional ballet dancer. His stories have appeared in anthologies by the following: Red Cape Publishing, Raven and Drake, Not a Pipe, Breaking Rules Europe, Hiraeth, and Black Hare Press. You can learn more about Simon and his writing endeavors at his website: www.simonjplant.com

A Short Story by Kayla Davis

I climb down the side of the mountain. Although my flimsy flip flops are no match for the crumbling rocks, my mother helps me down, supporting me as I slowly slide. I tumble into her, spraying her jet-black bathing suit with bits of grime from the mountain. She laughs, then points towards the ocean and tells my grandparents where to set up their umbrellas. I throw off my shoes and toss them to the side, knowing that my dad will pick them up.

I run toward the water. The sand is warm under my feet, stinging my toes with its sharp heat. I ignore the rocks and bits of shells jutting into my heels while I dash across the shore. I cross the line that separates the land from the sea, and the sand isn’t hot anymore. It’s gooey, almost gelatinous. I spot sand crabs digging into the divide, and I grab my grandmother’s pail, digging where I see bubbles. I spend the next half-hour making a habitat within my bucket. The sand crabs will be safe within this little world, able to paddle around without fear of a seagull or whatever else invades their soft crustacean shells.

I make drip sandcastles, using the wet sand to my advantage as I build towers spiraling high into the crisp air. My grandmother sits next to me, laughing, then gasping as my favorite tower falls. I finally release the sand crabs and watch them burrow into the beach/ocean mixture. I eat lunch, crunching on the sand that has infiltrated my peanut butter-banana sandwich and my strawberries, prepared by my grandmother, who cut the tops off just for me. I run my tongue along my teeth, trying to pry the grit off, but the little bits and pieces of beach won’t budge. I ask my grandfather about his book and why he won’t come into the water. He grunts and returns to reading. I look over at my dad, who winks and makes a joke that I’m too young to understand. My grandpa chuckles, and I hug him, then run towards the water.

This time, my mother jogs after me as we both cackle along the shore. Just as the water reaches chest level, she snatches me up in a hug, then dunks my dry head into the water, explaining that it’s the best way for me to get used to the temperature. She says that she’ll teach me how to body surf. She teaches me to ride the waves, throwing her head back to laugh when seawater gets in my mouth, and I spit out the salt. Finally, I am ready. I pull my goggles tight and begin.


We both swim out, avoiding other divers and the seaweed floating in the water. She drifts in and out of my vision. After going out just a little too far for my liking, we meet up at what seems like miles from any sign of civilization. I bob up and down, barely keeping my head afloat as the waves begin to engulf the bottom half of my face. The only thing my toes touch are particles of dust in the otherwise crystalline water. I do my best to face the shore, scanning the beach for any sign of my dad, any glimmer of sun on my grandpa’s glasses, any glimpse of the multicolored umbrellas. My mom looks out to the seemingly empty skyline, surveying the thinning clouds and, with a wink, she asks if I’m ready. With a sour gulp, I tell her, yes. I’m ready.

Suddenly, a wave approaches behind us. I swim as fast as I can, trying to catch the break. I search but don’t see my mom anymore and, figuring that I’ll find her on the shore, I dive under the wave, praying that the current pushes me forward, towards the shore, towards the drip castles, towards the sandy strawberries, towards my family.

Wait.

I forgot to take a breath.

I didn’t breathe.

Wait–

It’s too late. The undertow pushes me down. I flip onto my back, looking up at the surface of the water, giving thanks that I can tell which way to go, but suddenly, a dark figure floats over me. At first, I think it’s a shark. I begin to panic, but then I realize that it’s my mother. I try to scream, but the sound doesn’t travel well underwater. My attempt at a squeak only squeezes what’s left of my air out from my aching lungs.

My mother’s pass over me seems to take forever. I feel trapped, under the waves, under the current, frozen in the icy water. I’m sinking. My eyes are slowly closing, trying to protect themselves from the salt. It’s as if a tentacle is wrapped around my leg, pulling me deeper, dragging me down. Somehow, I can still see, but my perspective has shifted. It’s like watching a horror movie. I can see myself sinking and crying — I’ve been on the verge of sobbing for weeks, and it’s finally here. More sinking. Where am I going? What am I doing? It’s too cold. Deafening silence. An inferno of tranquility.

A muffled whisper echoes through the water, pleading with me to swim. I look to see where the whisper is coming from. Nothing. Is it my voice? I can barely hear it. But I notice a small coin at the bottom of the sea that catches my eye. It’s flickering, reflecting safety. I lift my head and see the light shining through the depths. I start kicking.

I’m doing the best I can. But it doesn’t feel like I’m moving at all. I kick faster, and I can feel myself warming up ever so slightly. It’s not much, but it’s giving me just enough to continue. Slowly but steadily, I kick my way closer and closer to the surface. The whisper is now a yell.

There’s so much running through my head. Am I going to make it? This isn’t fair. This isn’t right. For a moment, everything goes dark. And then — I break the surface.

I take a deep breath, looking around my surroundings.

Finally, it is over.

I pull myself back to the shore, back to earth from my foamy prison. I spit salt onto the sand. There is seaweed wrapped around my right foot. I no longer have my goggles. I gasp for air.

My dad hurries over to me with a water bottle. He unscrews the cap, then hands it to me, watching as I take a few sips. Are you okay? I’m fine, I say. I’m fine. I made it out. He looks me over, then takes my hand. With a tight squeeze and a soft blessing tingling across his lips, he walks me back over to our setup. My mom is waiting for me, unscathed under the umbrella, blissfully unaware of the terror I had gone through. Ready to go again? It’s time to go again. She smiles, hoping I enjoyed it. It was her favorite pastime as a child, after all, and she was passing it down to me. Might as well make an effort.

I force a weary grin, and nod.

And I run towards the water.

Kayla Davis is a high school junior from Menlo Park, California, although she often says that she’s based “40 minutes south of San Francisco” to simplify things. When she’s not stressing about college applications, she can be found spending time with her friends and playing saxophone.

A Short Story by Kip Knott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story by Eric Knowlson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, we have,” Setti replied.

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

“Can’t you just do a dub?”

Le shook her head no.

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

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

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

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

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s just forget about Le.”

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

.

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

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

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

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

 “We could steal records or clothes.”

“We just did that.”

“Maybe textbooks or a laptop but…”

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

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

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

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

.

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

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

“I love it,” Easton replied.

“It looks like shit to everyone else.”

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

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

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

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

They walked in separate directions, staring at the ground.

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

 He jogged over.

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

“So, the detergent and the ladder?”

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

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That just proves how strong you are.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The greeter nodded.

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

“Another flawless escape!”

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

.

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

Easton’s legs bounced up and down.

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

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

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

“Next,” she squawked.

“Of course,” Easton laughed quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

“She really doesn’t like us.”  

“Nope.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm, I never thought about that before…”

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

.

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

“Hey, can we meet?”

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

“Cuanto tiempo?”

“Twenty minute. Hasta pronto.”

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

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

Easton called again 

“How long did they say?” asked Setti.

“A couple minutes.”

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

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

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

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

“How long has it been?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It looked like Jolly Poncho.”

“Yay,” Setti exclaimed while clapping her hands.  

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

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

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

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

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

“He gave us two Gs.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. I suppose this is his cartel.”

“I’ve always wondered…”

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

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

“I know, I love them.”

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

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easton nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their tears seemed to purify the monsters inside.

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

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

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

“We can be in love again.”

 “We don’t have to use.”

“Life can be fun again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“beautifully…”

 Eric Knowlson
Eric Knowlson

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

A Short Story by Joe Phipps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you put something different in the meatloaf?”

“I did.”

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

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

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

“Onions,” I said.

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

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

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

“Things like divorce?” I asked.

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

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

“Good. I feel like opening it tonight.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story by Maria Diaz

If my brother found out that I was sleeping with one of the Beltrez boys, he would kill me. We had to be really secretive about it — sneaking out when the entire campo was at church, pretending we were arranging community meals so that we could be in the same house. I regularly invited Teofilo over when he was headed to New York, dizque pa’ mandarle algo a mi hermano. I knew they never saw each other, but the effort kept the bochinchosos from opening their big mouths. Teofilo had a wife and kids in New York and a wife and kids right here, in Sabana Iglesia. I wasn’t his wife. I didn’t want to marry him, anyway.

In a few months, I would also be in New York, rich like my brother. The entire campo chased him every time he came back with his wife, whose beautiful blue eyes could only temporarily distract my neighbors from my brother’s good fortune. He bought a house in Queens, big enough for all of us, he said.

Teofilo lived in Manhattan.

“That’s where the real Dominicans live, mami,” he said to me, “how will the kids know what it means to be Dominican?”

Teofilo liked to pretend that we could one day live together, as if he did not already have several beds to keep warm and mouths to feed, as if I was not the biggest secret he kept. I knew there was no world in which we could coexist. He was actively a Trujillista, a believer in the dead dictator’s policies who had upended the life of so many Dominicans.

My family fought to save us from that reality; my brother was a very vocal opponent and protestor against the dictator’s hateful rhetoric. He moved to New York in fear that he might one day be arrested for his public dissent. I stayed in Sabana Iglesia as proof that we were not traitors. I had a visa. I could have left.

Teofilo entered my house and took one look at me before commenting, “Tu si ‘ta gorda,” as he rushed towards my bedroom. He didn’t kiss me; he didn’t hug me. He didn’t bother to ask how I was. He noticed the weight I had gained, and he made it a point to comment on how fat I was getting.

He had been gone for four months, and in that time, I had learned that I was pregnant. Teofilo was the only man I had been with in two years, so it was definitely his baby, but I knew that telling him meant risking losing him. Money and land were sacred in Sabana Iglesia, and babies guaranteed access to both.

“I’m pregnant,” I blurted out, as he undressed himself in my bedroom. He looked at me with a puzzled expression.

“It can’t be mine. I’ve been gone for months,” he said.

Teofilo thought I wanted his money. That’s what all DominicanYork men think the side chick they keep hidden away in el campo want. But I didn’t need any of his money. Our family had our own.

I wanted to hear three words I had never heard from him in the six years we had been doing this: I love you.

Teofilo kept coming back for a healthy release throughout the pregnancy and wrote me letters while he was in New York. He signed every letter, con amor, but he never once told me he loved me. In the last letter before Robert’s birth, he told me that his New York wife was due in October and that his Sabana Iglesia wife had just given birth to a baby boy months before.

Teofilo’s visits became sporadic after Robert’s birth. He sent me a total of $5000 to keep quiet about the paternity of the baby, but there was no denying who his father was. Robert had his father’s white face, his very round brown eyes and his coarse, curly hair.  He did not take after my side of the family.

I gave that money to my brother, to help him pay the mortgage on the Corona house that would soon be mine as well — a home I hoped would one day house my grandchildren and their grandchildren, a little piece of New York that could be ours. How would my children know they were Dominican? How could they deny what ran so prominently through their blood?

I left Sabana Iglesia in 1965, months after having Teofilo’s second child, who I left with his big brother, in el campo with my younger sister. I trusted that my boys were safe in Sabana Iglesia and I knew that this sacrifice — this temporary separation — was for our collective benefit.

Corona, Queens was unapologetically racist — we were among the first Dominicans to settle in the neighborhood, and when asked if we were Cuban, we often answered, “Yes,” though we knew the answer was wrong.

We thought people were asking if we knew Spanish, trying to find an easier way to communicate with us, but they were using Cuban as a substitute for communist, and every “yes” was an admission of guilt. We had not yet figured out how to navigate this new world where politics intersected with racial identity. Our light complexion, it turns out, told a particular story about our heritage that was neither true nor relatable in the Corona context. To our neighbors, we would be Cuban until at least the 1980s, when a mass migration of Dominicans made our story easier to understand.

I spent the first few years in Corona watching what was happening in the neighborhood through the curtains in the windows and calling las vecinas pa’ bochinchar, to tell them whose husbands I saw entering single women’s homes, spying on my brother, who developed a gambling addiction since arriving in the states, and cooking dinner for all of the Sabana Iglesia transplants who had settled in the neighborhood. I went to church not because I was a devout Catholic, but because that was the best place to get the latest chisme, pa’ saber que pasaba.

The prayer group of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans that came to my house on Saturday nights actually came over to play Bingo — we didn’t pray at all, except to pray that we took the most money home that night. I often cheated, making sure that the house always won.

I thought about Teofilo often, wondering what he was up to in his big Manhattan four bedroom apartment, curious about the daughter who was about the same age as our son. He was my past now, with whom I shared nothing but memories of sins of adultery and two beautiful boys who lived in the Dominican Republic, waiting to be reunited with their mom and stepfather.

Robert could come at any time, but we were waiting. I wasn’t sure what we were waiting for, exactly. He would have a house with a big backyard, a garden, and his own bedroom. Nelson had to wait because he was younger, and he was struggling to learn to read and write. I felt like it was my fault. I abandoned my children and the younger one, the one I had spent less time with, could hardly write his own name.

Right after we came back from visiting my kids in December 1971, I came back to my Corona home to a brand new television in my bedroom; my brother and my husband had banded together to get me one because they knew I liked my bochinche. I watched Univision every night at 6:00 and 11:00, sure to write down any time they mentioned a Dominican last name I recognized from el campo: Diaz, Rodriguez, Collado, Nuñez, Beltrez, Valerio, Fernandez, Hernandez, Vargas, Franco.

The news stories usually repeated themselves between 6:00 pm and 11:00 pm, so I did not expect the variation on January 2, 1972. I did not get a warning. Nobody called me to tell me.

The newscaster said that a man entered his four bedroom apartment in Manhattan, where he lived with his wife and his daughter, when he was approached by his angry wife, who met him at the door with a butcher’s knife.

Someone called her from Sabana Iglesia, to tell her that they saw a boy, about ten years old, who was identical to her husband, which meant he had to have been cheating on her. They had been married thirteen years at that point. She stabbed him seventeen times in the back. The life-threatening injuries took his life.

“Teofilo Beltrez, de Sabana Iglesia, Santiago de los Caballeros, murió en su apartamento en Manhattan.” Teofilo died in his Manhattan apartment, after his wife found out he had cheated on her.

After someone in Sabana Iglesia went to my house, took a picture of Robert, and sent it to her.

I called the boys that night to tell them.

I couldn’t mourn his death publicly. I was not his widow. I was married to a man who loved me, and I was expecting a baby.

I dressed in black for a week, stayed in my house, and did not bother staring out the window.

Robert would be flying to New York for his father’s funeral and I knew that in short time, I would be bochinche, not just for the Sabana Iglesia transplants, but for all Dominicans who live near — and for the Cubans and Puerto Ricans who make it a habit to spend Saturday night at my house.

When my son came, I held him over his father’s casket and said, “This is your father. He died in a car accident.”

Other mourners stared at Robert, whose face was identical to his father’s. They heard my lie, shook their head, and they did not have to say what I knew they were thinking.

His wife killed him.

But I caused his death.

Maria Diaz is an educational consultant living originally from Queens, New York, where she currently lives, though she has left parts of her heart in Cambridge and Palo Alto. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College, The City College of New York, and Harvard Graduate School of Education.

A Short Story by E. P. Tuazon
or Mamamalengke Ako

Los Angeles, California, May 31, 2020.

In the Island Pacific market, overcome by hunger, Jess cannot take it anymore. She draws an Asian pear from the fruit section. It is a little bruised but otherwise edible without washing. She takes a glance at the lola picking up and putting down Filipino sweat sausages in the meat section and the woman in the hijab preoccupied with trying to find the crease to open her plastic produce bag in front of the eggplant. Once she confirms they are not looking, she pulls down her mask and makes quick work of it. The juices of the pear run all over her face and make dark lines on her black mask. Its refreshing, sweet taste is short-lived and she plants its seed-peppered core at the foot of the display before wiping her face with her shirt and limps her way to the seafood section unnoticed. 

Pulling up her mask, she exhales and takes in the fruity fragrance of the pear mixed with the Dewar’s still sitting in her throat from last night. She is trying to get over the fact that she was hit by a truck in Hollywood just a couple of hours ago. She had joined the protest there, but once the looting happened, she started to trot off shakily with the rest of those like herself who lingered long after the more organized groups of protestors had left.

She headed in the direction of the metro station when she witnessed five masked men drag out an ATM machine from a nail salon and load it into a truck. Deciding it was none of her business, Jess proceeded to walk to the opposite sidewalk to avoid the growing mass of looters flooding broken windows and doors. However, once her feet made it to the asphalt, the truck screeched into drive and clipped her foot. She spun onto the ground and met the sharp smell of tear gas and weed.  The drone of cheers, sirens, helicopters and her own blood pulsing above her eyes accompanied the cold ache in her cheek and foot. One passerby coming out of a raided anime store stood beside her in awe.

“Bro, I saw the whole thing! I wish I got it on camera.” The man had on science goggles and a Messi jersey wrapped around his head and face. Despite all these things covering him up, she knew he was Filipino too. Under one arm was a giant Totoro. Under the other was a body pillow with an anime girl on it. Jess couldn’t help but laugh. Why did she think to come alone?

“Bro, you hit your head or something?”

“No, it’s just my foot.” She wiggled her toe, but she couldn’t tell if she was actually doing it or imagining it. She couldn’t be fine, she thought. You don’t come out of things like this being able to wiggle your toe without something else happening.

“Those guys are lucky. They got that whole thing. Fuck the police!”

Jess thought of the nail salon. Scattered among the glass were the signs that read “Reopen June 1st” followed by something hand-written in red and Thai.

“Yeah, fuck twelve.” Jess said, reading the graffiti that was everywhere now.

“What?”

“Fuck twelve.” She said and pointed at the boarded-up windows across the street, eyeing the restaurant signs and the billboards. They were all covered in the words.

“Bro, fuck the police.” The man said and proceeded on his way, walking off to the smoke in the distance, the glow of destruction reflected off his goggles as if he was participating in an experiment.

“It means the same thing!” Jess explained although the man was gone by then, his exit expediated by the sound of sirens in the distance, the lack of things to take left in the vicinity.

And, somehow, Jess was able to get up and walk. Somehow, she made it to her stop and the metro came and her foot could push the pedals down in her car and she was able to go home to her one-bedroom apartment in Canyon Country, far from it all. Somehow, she was able to pour herself a drink and another drink and swipe through all the news on her phone trying to find news about what just happened until she passed out. Somehow, there was nothing about her. Somehow, she hadn’t let the pain bother her until now, in the market, her insides empty, her foot throbbing. And, somehow, it all came with a question; while she lay on the ground, trying to explain what meaning things had, she did not know what meaning there was for herself. Why did she go to the protest in the first place?

She is trying to skip over the fact that she was hit by a truck a couple of hours ago, but her body cannot help but remember. Her shoulder hurts, her face hurts, her legs hurt, her foot hurts. She finds the aisle for beauty supplies and, below the malunggay supplements and kalamansi oil, she plucks a small bottle of Aspirin from its place. She presses the bottle open, pours a couple into her palm, then launches them into her mouth. To wash them down, she throws in a few gummy vitamins straight out the bottle. She chews on them and lets her mouth flood with saliva and their sweet-sour taste while she counts the number of pixels that make up the blown-up, low-quality picture of fruits on the label. She swallows them and cruises up the aisle thinking about what kind of thinking terribly made labels came from. If you had to do a label but couldn’t afford to give it a good finish, why even try to do something with color in the first place? Why not keep it simple, like black and white? Surely people would trust to buy what you’re selling that way. But that was the problem, wasn’t it, she thought, tasting the vitamins come up and mix with the Aspirin, the Asian pear, and the Dewar’s. The label could never live up to what was expected inside, what the inside could offer.

She feels like she nearly reaches an epiphany but, at the end of her aisle, there is a young Filipina her age crying into her phone in the seafood section, disturbing Jess from her reflection. She sees her move from the iced squid to the blue crab. She watches, wondering if it is a problem with allergies, the Corona virus, or if she is genuinely weeping. One has to be skeptical these days. She had marveled at the possibility of the thought going away, and with the protests and reopenings, she nearly convinced herself that it had. However, here it was, the awareness, the mistrust.

Jess throws the open bottles of aspirin and gummy vitamins into her cart and rolls it towards the woman until it is between them.

“Excuse me? Are you ok?”

“Ew, don’t fucking talk to me.” The woman says, not even looking at her. She puts her back to Jess and continues to look down at her phone, over the red snapper.

Jess immediately regrets being concerned but does not have enough strength to fight her pride. “Sorry, I just noticed you crying from the beauty section.”

“Six feet! Privacy!” The woman says, still not turning around.

The butcher several displays away notices the woman raise her voice but doesn’t look alarmed behind his mask. He looks back down at his work and forgets Jess and the woman are there again.

Jess shakes the handle of her cart. “The cart’s six feet and we’re wearing masks.”

“What? Are you a doctor or something? You going to point a temperature gun at my head and shoot? Get away from me. I saw you limping from a mile away. You’re making me feel uncomfortable.”

The word “limp” hits a nerve with Jess, but she is still too weak to retaliate and continues her crusade. “I’m sorry. I got hit by a truck yesterday.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I was at the protest last night. Some truck dinged my foot.”

This makes the woman turn and Jess cannot help but feel a pang of shame for having to stoop so low as to have to mention it.

“Oh my God. Those racist assholes!”

Jess doesn’t correct her. She looks down at the woman’s phone and there is a feed of posts from the protest last night. She recognizes some of the people and moments from yesterday. She sees the protestors, the police, the store owners, and rioters. She sees the chanting, the praying, the marching, the beauty, the bricks, the broken glass, the looting, the police brutality, and the fires. They collage on her tiny screen in sharp tiny boxes.   

“Did you go to the hospital?” The woman says, dabbing at her eyes with the cuff of her sweater. Jess could tell she is not wearing makeup. She is not either. It is too early and too late.

“No, I’m all right. It’s just sore is all.” Jess says, still looking at the woman’s phone.

The woman notices Jess looking, and she swipes the screen with her finger, the squares rolling down it like a slot machine. “Wasn’t it terrible what happened last night?”

“Actually, it was great.” Jess says, her pride going strong, her legs and knees remembering the march, the kneeling, the trek all over Hollywood and its uneven streets.

“But what about the police? What were those jerks thinking?” The woman says, her cheeks tender but the tears gone.

“Yeah, they were shooting smoke bombs and rubber bullets at everyone.”

“Oh my God, did you get shot?”

“No, just hit by a truck.”

“Oh my God!” The woman exclaims, as if she forgot she heard it the first time.

Jess winces as the guilt wells. “So, was that what you were crying about?”

“Yeah, that and I read that they’re putting a curfew on us tonight.”

“A curfew? Like we’re a bunch of children? Jesus Christ. I can’t believe they’re doing this.”

“Only a tyrant makes curfews.”

“Well, it did get pretty bad out there.” Jess remembers the awning to the anime store tattered and shredded, the Hello Kitty painted on it covered in soot. The torsos and legs of broken action figures strewn together with the glass on the sidewalk.

“I know. The police brutality was terrible. What happened to George Floyd was terrible. Everything needs to change. We need to be better. I can’t believe we did this.”

“I know,” Jess says, and, after thinking about the woman’s words for a second, continues, “What do you mean we did this?”

“Oh my God, yeah. It’s all of our faults. We allow this to happen every day. With our president, our American culture, and institutions of racism that keep minorities out of power. But what really gets me miffed, and I don’t get miffed about just anything, but what really gets me miffed is us. Asians. Filipinos.”

Jess feels the regret already resurface at the word “miffed”, the question she had applied to last night beginning to apply to the now. “You think we’re the problem?”

“Yeah! The model-minority. The silent panderer. We’re in league with the problem: the Whites of America.”

“What?”

“Think about it? Think of your parents. Weren’t they racist? Didn’t they say racist things like you shouldn’t hang out with those Mexicans? Stay away from that Black boy? Don’t lend that Bumbay that five dollars? My parents said things like that all the time. Don’t tell me yours didn’t.”

“Bumbay?”

“It’s what Filipinos call people from India.”

Jess thinks of her sweet old parents. They are living in Porter Ranch in a predominantly Filipino community. She had heard her fair share of off-hand ignorant things from them but never saw them as the problem. Should she?   

“We’re just as guilty as the Whites. We’re friends with them. We do everything they say. We date and marry their kind. We’re the lookouts while the White man murders all the other minorities who don’t step in line. We need to change. We need to fight back. We need to undo the conditioning and return to our roots and reconnect with our diaspora.”

And there it is, Jess thinks. She couldn’t figure it out until now, the feeling that had led her to the protest, that had led her to the girl. She feels it swell with the pain in her body. “I’m sorry, I have to go.”

“You have to continue fighting! Thank you for what you’re doing!” The woman says and Jess makes the mistake of looking back and catching the tears well in her eyes again. Jess cannot take it; it is humiliating to her to hear her talk about things like “diaspora” and mean it. It is embarrassing to Jess that this woman believes—actually, whole-heartedly, believes—in what she is feeling more than Jess believes in the same feelings in herself. It distresses Jess that this woman, this Filipina like herself, feels confident enough to scream it out loud in front of the dead fish and bound crab.

“I’m trying. I’m just someone trying to fight everything.” Jess says, remembering the lights of the truck turn on, the shadow she made on the street. She stretches out, wide on the pavement, but, she herself is so small in the light.

The woman’s face is covered in tears and a pure sheen of sincerity, but it does not understand her, Jess thinks. It only knows the answer to Jess’s question as much as Jess does. “Oh my God,” the girl says through the aisle Jess escapes, “don’t try too hard—you might get yourself killed.”

Outside, with her bag of opened aspirin and gummy vitamins, she is feeling the night beginning to wear off and the need to do something, anything, to satisfy herself again, to tell her she is doing the right thing. The thought of the woman, the man with the Totoro, and the pounding in her head like the chants and explosions from last night. She faces forward, looking beyond the parking lot, thinking about them, and—boom—Jess is hit by a car accelerating past the front of the store.  Jess spins to the ground and an all-to-familiar feeling buzzes at her foot again. She lies dazed at the front wheel, driver-side.

The woman who hit her leans out and yells, maskless. She is the same woman, the Filipina from the store. “Are you fucking crazy, lady?”

People gather. “Is anything broken?” someone asks.

She struggles to stand. She thinks she sees the feet of the man in front of the anime store running off into the chaos.

“Don’t move.” Someone else says.

“Let’s call the police.” Another says.

“Oh, Fuck. Thanks a lot, bitch.” The woman who hit her says, getting out of her car.

“Do you want the number of my lawyer? Just let her know it’s me and she’ll do it pro bono.” A woman younger than Jess scribbles a number on her receipt and gives it to her. At first, she thinks it will say something like “fuck 12” but there are just numbers and totals and items purchased. A bag of rice for $12.99. Two pounds of ox tail for $8.37.

“Fuck you, lady. I just tapped her.”

Pakikiramay! Show ng ilang empathy!” an old man says coming out from the Island Pacific. He has more bags in his hands than he looks like he can carry but he does not run. Not like last night.

“Let me help you with those, lolo.” Someone who is not Filipino says. The old man lets him.

“What were you doing? How would you expect me to see you? Who do you think you are?”

“I was leaving.”

“Why didn’t you wait and look like people are supposed to?”

“You ran me over.” Jess says.

“I’m a mother. You ruined my day!” She says.

The woman gets on her phone while more people come to Jess’s aid. Some are wearing masks. Some aren’t. Someone brings her some coconut juice with pulp. Another one, a Lakers cushion. “Benny. I had an accident. I was getting out of the market and someone got in front of my car. She’s giving me a hard time. I hate people like that. People who think it’s other people’s fault for things that happen to them.” She stops talking to her phone to ask Jess, “Do I have to wait until the police come? I have things to do, you know?”

A worker from the Island Pacific comes with a package of lumpia and puts it on her foot at the point of impact. Jess winces. It’s cold. The worker uses a roll of duct tape patterned with the words Balikbayan on them to bind the eggrolls to her foot. “I’m training to be a medic,” he says with an acne smile, “in the Reserves.”

“What do I owe you?” Jess asks the man.

“You don’t owe us anything. Just promise not to let these go to waste.”

Jess forces herself to stand; the crowd applauds as she crawls to her feet. “Thank you. Thank you very much.” She says and takes a bow. 

E. P. Tuazon is a Filipinx-American writer from Los Angeles. He has published his works in several publications, most recently Five South, Peatsmoke Journal, Third Point Press, 3Element Review, Allegory Ridge, Adelaide Magazine,  and  a Forthcoming piece in The Rumpus. He has two books, The Superlative Horse and The Last of The Lupins: Nine Stories and The Comforters. He is currently a member of Advintage Press and The Blank Page Writing Club. In his spare time, he likes to wander the seafood section of Filipinx markets to gossip with the crabs.

A Short Story by Shae Krispinsky

At Rhythm & Brews Lounge, the pours would always be watered down, the bartenders surly, the jukebox programed to loop the same two dozen modern country songs, the dance floor empty. It was a place for people to come and be lonely together, and little had ever changed there in the all the years Natch had been going.

Except tonight when he’d pulled in, the parking lot had been full, unusual for the Monday-through-Thursday stretch that was the doldrums of life. Inside, some digital recording of a wannabe cowboy wasn’t warbling about a honky tonk badonkadonk; there was a long-haired pretty boy up on the small stage, wearing ratty clothes that looked pulled from a dumpster and playing a $4000 guitar. A gaggle of women swayed before him, transfixed, sucking on their Smirnoff Ices.

And then there she was, the most obvious change of all, seated in the far corner booth with a bowl of peanuts in front of her. By the way she held herself, back straight, not touching the red vinyl cushion, alert but not alarmed, Natch knew the loneliness he saw in her was a familiar feeling. The Busch Beer stained-glass lamp hanging above her table gave off a cool glow that highlighted her cheekbones and her sandy hair that hung in a long tangle over her shoulder. Natch wasn’t the only one who noticed. He was, however, the one who approached, offering to buy her a drink. He would have done the same even if she hadn’t been so beautiful; he felt it his duty to be welcoming. The beauty didn’t hurt.

“Thank you,” she said, “but I don’t.”

“Nothing?” Natch asked. “Coffee? It’s not bad here. I mean, it doesn’t melt the spoon.”

“Any chance they have green tea?”

“Sweet tea, maybe.”

She settled for a club soda with lime, which Natch retrieved along with a beer for himself. “Name’s Tod, but everyone calls me Natch.”

She squeezed her lime into her soda, then dropped the spent wedge on a napkin. “As in naturally?”

“As in Natchez, Mississippi. Where I was born.”

Her name was Hanlon and she had, she shared, been born right there in Marville, a fact he found hard to believe. With the green tea and the posture, he had taken her for a city girl. Turned out he was partially correct—she had gone to grad school at NYU. After that, she had spent a few years wandering around before settling for a while in Savannah. As she spoke, Natch noticed the way the sundress she wore dipped slightly in the front, revealing she had nothing on underneath. Natch forced himself to stare at his beer, his head cocked, as though straining to hear over the live music.

“What brings you back?” he asked.

“My mother died.” Hanlon said this as though she were commenting on Natch’s shirt. “Twice, really. First when she left me and my father, and then again last year.” She shrugged. “I got a house here out of it.”

At this turn of the conversation, Natch reached for his Mich Ultra, took a deep, distancing quaff, and considered getting up for a whiskey neat. She leaned in across the table, her hair catching in the front of her dress, and said she didn’t mean to make him uncomfortable. Natch forgot about his thirst.

She turned her attention to the stage, where the pretty boy was switching out harmonicas in the holder around his neck. The women on the dance floor continued swaying, even as the pretty boy adjusted his capo and told some story about growing up in Memphis. Pretty Memphis Boy began intricately fingerpicking and Natch had to admit, he could play.

Music was the fastest way to earn Natch’s respect. He spent so much time on the road that music was what kept him awake and focused. He liked to say he owed his life to the songs. Pretty Memphis Boy started in on a harrowing cover of “Pancho and Lefty” that brought a palpable change upon the bar. No one wanted to face that kind of emotion at Rhythm & Brews. They came to forget their troubles; the wood-paneled walls, thankfully, did not reflect their darkest selves and never would. Conversation on the periphery drowned out his singing, but Pretty Memphis Boy took it in stride. A few women at his feet took this time to refresh their drinks, but the majority stayed: he was pretty whether he sang sad or not. But then he doubled down, playing “Waiting Around to Die,” and the floor cleared. Natch admired his conviction and whistled when the song ended, the only one to acknowledge Pretty Memphis Boy’s detour from his set of bluesy originals.

“That was remarkable,” Natch said, turning back to Hanlon.

She stopped playing with the lime wedge. “I prefer not to dwell on sadness,” she said and slid from the booth. “Time to call it a night.”

Natch stood. “Let me walk you out.”

In the parking lot, the transition from sad songs to a symphony of cicadas felt almost violent, the rending of two distinct realities. Natch shifted uncomfortably.

“You noticed that, too,” Hanlon said. “You sense things others don’t.” She put her hand on his arm, down near the wrist. “I could tell you saw me when you walked in tonight. No one else did.”

“Every guy in there was looking at you,” Natch said, his attention fixed on her hand, the heat pooling there. “Some of the women, too.”

“But they didn’t see me.”

Though she was tall, she had to stretch up to kiss Natch on the cheek. He could feel himself blushing as he watched her cross the gravel lot.

Returning inside, Natch found Pretty Memphis Boy posted up at the bar, staring at his phone, his set over. Women milled around, trying to get his attention.

Natch, cutting through the crowd, joined him. “That’s the first time Townes Van Zandt has been played in Rhythm & Brews. It was a welcome change.”

“Hey, thanks, man,” Pretty Memphis Boy said. He turned, offering his hand. “Seamus.”

Natch shook and introduced himself.

“So, Natch, how do you know about Townes?” Seamus asked, pulling a pack of Marlboro Reds out of his pocket.

“My mama.”

“Yeah, me too,” Seamus said, lipping his cigarette. Three beers and one stop at the package store later, Natch and Seamus were down at the creek, skipping stones and passing a paper-bagged bottle back and forth. Night smells rose off the water and the silence around them seemed to hold up the moon. As the liquor settled in, they climbed the embankment leading to the train tracks abandoned when Marville began fading from the map. A quarter mile up was a bridge leading toward Missouri and there the two men sat, staining their hands with rust and kicking their feet, sharing stories until they caught dawn eavesdropping. Before going their separate ways, they made plans to grab a beer later in the week, the bond between them set.


The nearest grocery store was down in Union City, across the Tennessee line. Natch, amid his bi-weekly run, rounded an end display and found Hanlon studying a package of bulgur wheat. She smiled when she saw him and put the cereal back on the shelf. “I hate grocery shopping,” she said. “Let’s go explore the city instead.”

There was something about Hanlon beyond her beauty that made Natch want to go wherever she led. He left his buggy in the aisle next to hers and followed her out into the bright warmth of a Tennessee spring morning. Natch heard the day singing with possibility.

Downtown, they walked the length of the storefronts then talked over Mexican food. Her knowledge of music was slim; of art, vast. She told him she had moved to Savannah to study under Lenka Vargas, a world-renowned performance artist. Natch found the name vaguely familiar but couldn’t place it until Hanlon mentioned Vargas’s most famous work, stripping bare and hiking across Siberia alone. He had heard about that on the television.

“Is that what you do?” he asked, wondering if she, like her mentor, worked naked, and then chided himself for such a crass thought.

Hanlon shook her head. “I do endurance work, like Lenka, but her focus was on the physical limits of the body. Mine is more psychological. I test myself when faced with the quotidian.”

“Meaning what, exactly?”

“Boredom is what I work with,” she said. “It’s the one thing that challenges me.”

“Well, I hope you’re not currently being challenged,” he said.

“No,” she said, lowering her eyes. “I’m not working now.”

“If I recall,” he said, nudging the conversation back to Hanlon’s mentor, “Fox News called her a witch. They said it was the only way she could have survived that trek.”

Hanlon sucked in her breath. “Please don’t tell me you watch that.”

Natch sprinkled hot sauce on his rice. “Not on my own,” he explained, “but stop in any ten diners from here to Tucumcari and eight of them’ll have it on behind the counter.”

Breaking a tortilla chip into pieces, she said, “You spend a lot of time in diners?”

“A trucker’s life,” he said.

“It sounds lonely. Like being an artist.”

Natch couldn’t fathom how someone like Hanlon could ever come to be lonely. It was a cruel world in which that could be the case. He tended to believe the cosmic baseline was lawful neutral and it was his aim to keep things on the right side of good. If it was meant for him to ease her loneliness—well, he was willing to shoulder that burden.

Back at the grocery store parking lot they stood at Hanlon’s car, not ready to say goodbye. He wanted to hear more about her life, so vastly different from his of making time, getting the next load, seeing dozens of states and experiencing none of them. Hers was spent chasing some spark, an inner calling, the vagaries of the muse. He found her interesting and got the feeling she felt the same about him. How that was possible, he didn’t question.

Natch’s phone vibrated in his pocket. He checked out of habit, expecting work. Instead, a text from Seamus. He had forgotten he promised to help change the drive belt on Seamus’s motorcycle. Natch knew the only way for one’s word to mean anything was to stand by it. “I should get back,” he apologized.

“You could ask for my number while you have that out,” Hanlon said, nodding toward his phone. Natch punched in the digits as she spoke them. “Don’t be afraid to use it.” She looped her arms around his neck and pulled him in close enough to smell her lilac perfume.


Seamus was parked in Natch’s driveway, lying supine on the seat of his motorcycle, his feet kicked up over the handlebars.

“Thought you needed my help with that thing,” Natch said, climbing out of his truck.

Seamus sat up, straddling the bike, a pristine Triumph Bonneville. “It was easy,” he said. “Figured maybe you’d want to take her out.”

“It’s been years since I’ve been on one,” Natch said.

Dismounting, Seamus said, “It’s like riding a bicycle. And easier than driving your rig.” He passed Natch his helmet, his leather jacket.

“Wanna ride bitch?” Natch asked, grinning, zipping up the jacket.

“You know damn well I don’t,” Seamus said, holding up his bottle of whiskey. “My date and I are going to sit on your porch and enjoy this weather till you return.”

Natch took it slow through Marville’s serpentine hills but then gunned it back to Union City. He pulled off at the gas station next to the Mexican restaurant and bought a lottery ticket, feeling lucky. He scratched it, matching three, winning five dollars, not worth cashing out. He’d keep the ticket, a token of the day. He zipped it in Seamus’s jacket pocket and headed back.

Seamus had moved from the porch to the bed of Natch’s truck, where he leaned against the rear window, listening to music on his phone. “This small-town living,” he said, after Natch parked the motorcycle and joined him. “There’s not a single fucking thing to do. It’s wonderful.” He was at the point in the bottle where he turned giddy, loquacious. “Any new conquests?”

Cordial and confident, Natch felt secure knowing he could date if he chose, though he rarely did. It was unfair to pursue something when he could have to hit the road for days at a time, and when he explained this, Seamus went into a bit about sowing seeds, carpe noctem. Natch asked why Seamus wasn’t doing as he preached. Seamus held up his left hand, showing off a simple silver band on the ring finger. “Those days are over, my friend.”

Natch strained to articulate the morning. A part of him didn’t want to present the date—was it a date?—for Seamus’s judgment. To someone like Seamus, who had gigged across America, leaving countless beautiful, heartbroken women in his wake, enchiladas and discussing art wasn’t all that exciting, even if Natch felt his pulse quickening thinking about it. He asked instead about Seamus’s wife.

“With her, sometimes I feel like the luckiest sonovabitch on the planet,” Seamus said, lighting a cigarette, taking a drag, then passing it to Natch. “Then sometimes it feels like I could be on fire and she would just sit there, letting me burn, like she doesn’t even see. And I know this makes me sound like an insufferable prick, but being ignored by women? Not something I’m used to. Maybe that’s why she does it, to keep me in my place—I like that.” He laced his fingers behind his head and stared up beyond the trees lining Natch’s yard. “I never thought it’d be for me, but there’s something about marriage, man, something about making something real, something lasting, out of love, that’s pretty fucking special.

None of that sounded like love to Natch, but he kept his opinion to himself. He thought of the way Hanlon had sat across from him, both earlier that day and on that night at Rhythm & Brews, with her attention focused, her interest apparent. He felt sad for his friend and decided he would call Hanlon to ask her on a proper date as soon as Seamus left.


Hanlon accepted Natch’s invitation to dinner and a movie a few evenings later. A storm had loomed in the distance most of the day, and as Natch pulled in front of Hanlon’s house, the sky let loose a spate of rain. She motioned for him to wait and disappeared back inside, reemerging with a leather jacket thrown over her long floral sundress. At dinner, she talked about her art, which still made no sense to Natch. She said she had been working on a performance for a while but feared she wasn’t strong enough to complete it as planned. Natch asked what the performance entailed, and she mentioned domesticity and countering the matriarchal paradigm of her youth. When Natch asked what that meant by that, she said, “Not turning into my mother.”

“I thought your work was about boredom,” he said.

“It’s one and the same,” she said, exasperation in her voice. During the movie Hanlon kept her arms crossed and her legs tucked up beneath her and Natch thought he had made her mad but afterward she suggested he take her back to his place. He asked if she was sure, and she told him never to question a woman about such things.

In his kitchen, he offered her a water, apologizing that it was all he had beside beer. “I don’t do this much,” he said. “Have company.”

“Why is that?” she asked.

“It’s hard to connect when you’re always leaving again.” Natch uncapped a beer but held it without drinking.

“Yet here I am,” she said, with a small smile. “Don’t worry, I won’t get too attached.”

Natch set his bottle down on the table and pulled Hanlon into a fervent kiss. She shrugged off her jacket and worked first the buttons of his shirt, then his belt buckle. They made their way to Natch’s bedroom and afterward, Hanlon dozed with her head on his chest. As he lay listening to her breathe, he considered if this was why he had remained single for so long, to leave himself open for the right person, who arrived in Marville like a miracle. Hanlon was willful and independent and occupied with her art; he didn’t see her getting teary and begging him to stay when she knew he had to go. It was a match like a hand in a glove.

Lightning flashed outside the window, followed by a thunderclap so loud it rattled the glass and woke Hanlon. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—” she said, sitting up and smoothing her hair. She glanced at the clock on Natch’s side table. Its face was blank. “Did the power go out? What time is it?”

Natch leaned over the side of the bed and retrieved his phone from his jeans. He held it up for her to see. “Not too late.”

She burrowed back under Natch’s blanket. “I hate being in the dark during a storm,” she said. “It makes me feel so powerless.”

“I’ve got some candles in the pantry,” he said, “but I’m not sure about matches. I’ll look.” He slipped on his jeans and headed to the kitchen, using his phone as a flashlight.

“Check my jacket. There might be a lighter in the pocket,” she called after him.

Natch found the candles, then picked Hanlon’s jacket up off the floor. He had never seen her smoke and wondered why she would have a lighter, but there it was. Something else, thick paper like a business card, was in the pocket. Curiosity getting the better of him, Natch fished it out and struck the cheap Bic to inspect. His heart sank. The lottery ticket, matching three, winning five dollars, that he had forgotten to take before giving Seamus back his jacket.

He stood there staring at ticket, piecing together what it meant, until the metal lip of the lighter grew too hot and bit at his thumb. He cursed under his breath as it clattered to the floor.

“Everything okay?” Hanlon asked, coming up behind him, wrapped in the bed sheet. “What were you looking at?”

“Just an old scratch off,” he said.

“Win anything?”

He crumpled the ticket into a ball and lobbed it into the sink. “No.”

The few citronella candle tins, once lit, cast angry shadows across the cabinets. Glancing around, Hanlon said, “It’s nice like this.”

If he feigned ignorance, he could keep the night going on his preferred trajectory. Carpe noctem, right? Seamus’s own dictum. Lead her back to his room for a reprise kept going till dawn. Her skin against his, the scent of her hair permeating his pillow. Instead he slipped the lighter back into the pocket, zipped it shut, and handed the jacket to Hanlon. “This is Seamus’s,” he said. When Hanlon didn’t respond, he added, “He’s married.”

“Yes,” she said slowly. “To me.” Her face hardened. “I thought you knew.”

 Anger hit Natch so swiftly he had to steady himself by grabbing hold of the table. “How would I have? What are you doing here?”

“And here I was impressed by your nerve,” she said.

The microwave beeped and the overhead lights flashed back on. Hanlon blinked up at Natch. “I never wanted to get married and do that whole thing. Neither did my mother,” she explained. “That’s why she left. She couldn’t stand it, the honoring and obeying. I wanted to prove that I was stronger than her, that I could do what she couldn’t, that I could make a commitment and stay. And it would be the ultimate performance, something more brutal and numbing than crossing Siberia because even in Siberia, the scenery changes. Sleeping next to the same person night after night—no one talks about how difficult that is. No one talks about how boring it is, being a wife, or how lonely. Or how strong you have to be. How do you prepare for that? How can you? I thought I could.” She clasped Seamus’s jacket to her chest and dropped her head. “I’m just as weak as she was.”

Natch held Hanlon’s gaze as he said, “She left, and so should you.” It was a hit below the belt, and it felt good to land it.


To avoid the conversation he was not yet ready to have, Natch waited until Seamus would be gone before heading to Rhythm & Brews. After ordering his whiskey neat, he fed a twenty into the jukebox and searched the digital database until he found the song he wanted, setting it to play ten times in a row. A voice like well-oiled leather began to sing about a woman leading him down through misery and leaving him as low as low could be. Natch didn’t want the music to save him tonight. He wanted it to sear the pain so deeply into his chest that the next time he saw a beautiful, beguiling woman across the bar, he would remember that hurt, and he would wince, and he would walk away.

Shae Krispinsky lives in Tampa, FL, where she fronts the indie rock band, Navin Ave. Her short fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Vending Machine Press, Connotation Press, The Citron Review, Thought Catalog, and more. She is currently at work on two novels and finishing up her band’s first album.

A Short Story by Brian Fountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any help?”

I ignored him. I walked on.

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

A Short Story by Susan Hatters Friedman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our merchant begged for forgiveness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So she left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she did not fall in love with her psychiatrist.

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

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

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

A Short Story by Kira Rosemarie

Why would you tell me that?

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

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

It’s just… I tried to continue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t! I said.

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

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

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

Yes, it was rare books, I said.

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

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

Hey.

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

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

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

Yes, It’s fine.

Um, I can –

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story by Scott Denis McCarthy

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘We’re happy,’ said the young man.

‘I’m glad for that.’

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

‘You have great confidence.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man shrugged.

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

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

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

‘I hope those babies never grow up.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

He poured them both a drink.

‘Cheers,’ she said, laughing.

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

‘They are a lovely people,’ she said.

‘Very.’

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

‘Winnie,’ he said, and drank.

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

‘What did I say?’

‘Whatever her name was, she was just –‘

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

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

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

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

‘But yes, they’re good folk.’

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

‘I don’t know. I was drunk.’

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

‘She’s a swell kid.’

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

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

‘I just can’t think is all.’

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

‘You’re doing it again.’

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

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

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

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

He went on reading.

‘Don’t you remember when the pail –‘

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Look, now –‘

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

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

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

‘And I don’t mean to antagonize –‘

‘Never, never, never!’

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

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

‘Christ.’

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

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

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

‘Sure. Didn’t I just say it?’

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

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

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

‘I don’t know.’

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

‘Mm-hmmm.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sure. And maybe you do.’

‘Less ice this time.’

‘All right.’

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

‘You’re too damned particular about things.’

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

A Short Story by Hayden Sidun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you from Russia?”

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

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

“What about the accent?”

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

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

“What brings you to San Francisco?”

“I have a new job. It pays well.”

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

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

“What’d you say?”

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

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

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

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

He raised his eyebrows. “Did I ask?”

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

“What is awkward?”

“It’s just—”

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

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

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

I raised my eyebrows. “Excuse me?”

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

“Now hang on a second, I—”

“Get out!” he yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story by Ellen Sollinger Walker

I

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked at me, dumbfounded.  

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

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

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

IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

V

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

“What’s that?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow,” she said.

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

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

A Short Story By Michelle Hasty

May 16, 1951

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


Present day

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


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff/shift:
Cheryl Drake, day nurse

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

Resident of concern:
Mrs. Evers

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

Recommendations:
-better served on the other side?


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff/shift:
Nan Kelton, night nurse

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

Resident of Concern:
Mrs. Evers

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

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

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


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff/shift:
Cheryl Drake, day

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

Resident of concern:
Mrs. Evers

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

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


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff/shift:
Nan Kelton, night shift

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

Resident of concern: Mrs. Evers

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nursing Staff Observational Notes
Fernlake Care Facility

Staff:
Nan Kelton

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

Resident:
Mrs. Evers

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

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

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

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

Your husband’s?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff:
Cheryl Drake

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

Resident:
Mrs. Evers

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

– Hydrocortisone ointment administered to four residents for mosquito bites

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Who’s there?” she asked.

Silence.

“I said, ‘who’s there?’”

Silence.

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

Silence.

Then tappa tap tap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story by Andy Betz

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

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

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

Just after sunrise, the shooting began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, I did not have the choice. 

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

I am not much for sharing today.

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

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

I kept going to the smaller caverns further ahead. 

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

They cannot defend them though.

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

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

Then second.  Then third.

It was supposed to be a silent night tonight.

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

Maybe not.

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

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

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

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

They never made it.

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

I could miss but once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps, it was time for them to meet me.

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

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

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

It was all for naught. 

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

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

“We are in need of your help.”

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

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

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

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

I didn’t have to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I waited.  I am always waiting.

But not for long.

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

I fired the first shot.

Then the next 29 from my Romanian SKS.

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

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

I quickly retreated to the next stage.

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

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

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

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

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

We all rode in my truck back to my cave.

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story by Joshua Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story by Germán Mora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I knew it!” Antonio shouts.

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

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

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

His words leave Jesus speechless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?” asks Jesus.

“Marisol.”

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“Who hasn’t?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But they could go elsewhere,” Jesus counters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Is that for your girl?” asks Rafa.

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

“And for your wife?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story by Emma Merchant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca’s dad interrupted her thoughts again, saying

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story by Max McCoubrey

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

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

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

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

“Claire,” he said softly.

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

“Leo.”

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

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

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

She cleared her throat.

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

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

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

“Of course.” 

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

She overheard a little girl ask a question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was missing the point of the fun story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Butler. I know”

They stood together aware of a strong vibration. 

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

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

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

Nothing.

He turned it again.  Again nothing.

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

She opened the door and took out her overnight case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story by John Sheirer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am not bitter,” Ben said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben slapped at this face with quick, staccato movements.

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

“Thanks,” Ben said, smoothing his beard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe we should,” Ben said.

“Should what?” Beth asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thingy? What thingy?” Beth replied.

“You know,” Ben said. “Instructions for what you want done if you end up brain dead or something. A living will.”

“I guess we are talking about this,” Beth said.

Ben raised both hands above his head as if surrendering to a greater force. “I don’t want to either, believe me,” he said. “But we should.”

“There’s no water near here,” Beth said. “So, no beavers to pee in the puddles.”

“Lots of squirrels, though,” Ben said. “With these dry leaves, they’re loud as bears.”

They walked in silence again. Step, step, step. Breath, breath, breath.

“A bear attack might be okay,” Beth said. “Maybe we’ll die quick.”

“Best way to go in a bear attack is quick,” Ben agreed.

“Don’t want to hang on if a grizzly bear chews your face off,” Beth said.

“Grizzlies are brown bears,” Ben said. “We have black bears in New England.”

“Smarty pants,” Beth said. “Brown, black, grizzly—doesn’t matter. They all bite hard.”

“Yeah. Dad was smart about that. You know. Dying quickly,” Ben replied. “Even finished shoveling the driveway so nobody had to finish it for him.”

“Smart and courteous,” Beth said.

“I always admired that about him,” Ben replied.

“You’re starting to look like a bear with that bug-catching beard,” Beth said.

“Kelly likes it,” Ben replied.

“Heart disease is hereditary, you know,” Beth said.

“Have you gone to a cardiologist?” Ben asked.

“Alex made me. Last year,” Beth replied. “The quack said my heart is great. What does he know?”

Ben snorted. “Those two must have been plotting. Kelly nagged me until I went last year too.”

“And?” Beth asked.

“Yeah, I’m good too,” Ben replied. “If you can believe anything a doctor has to say.”

“Not like they went to medical school or anything,” Beth mumbled, kicking a fallen tree branch.

“Hey,” Ben said, “remember how good Mom was at helping Karen when she got sick about ten years ago?”

“You mean when she had H1N1 and then it turned into pneumonia?” Beth asked.

“Yeah,” Ben replied. “Mom dropped everything and went to her. Stayed with her for three weeks until she could go back to work.”

“I’ve always felt a little guilty that I didn’t help or even visit,” Beth said.

“Me too,” Ben replied. “We thought we were too busy with our own jobs and lives and whatever. Some siblings we are, huh? But Mom was there for her.”

“Mom’s the best,” Beth said.

“Yep, the best,” Ben echoed.

Ahead, Alex and Kelly were taking turns sprinting twenty yards and then waiting while the other sprinted to catch up. Sprint, wait. Sprint, wait. Sprint, wait.

“Those two should have married each other,” Ben said with a chuckle.

“I’m sure they did,” Beth replied. “In an alternate universe.”

“Seriously,” Ben said. “What should we put in our living wills?”

Beth spoke with her eyes fixed on the trail ahead. “Well, don’t pull the plug just because you want all of our big inheritance.”

“Yeah,” Ben said. “There’s probably a few hundred dollars at stake.”

“Mom and Dad weren’t exactly big savers,” Beth said. “And the money from the house is mostly going to the nursing home.”

“What if you have a stroke and can’t talk?” Ben asked.

“Wow,” Beth deadpanned. “Oddly specific. But okay. I can’t talk. Can I still feed myself?”

“Yes,” Ben replied. “Soft foods only.”

Ben pointed to a patch of poison ivy just a few feet off the trail. Beth nodded and maneuvered to keep extra distance from the evil weed that had plagued them both since childhood.

“Can I still walk even if I’m mute and subsist on bananas and apple sauce?” Beth asked.

“Can you now?” Ben laughed, pretending to trip her. “Yeah, but slow and with a walker so you don’t fall and need knee surgery like me.”

“How about going to the bathroom by myself?” Beth asked.

“Number one or number two?” Ben replied.

“All three,” Beth said.

“Yeah,” Ben replied. “You can still handle basic bathroom stuff alone.”

“Then don’t shove a pillow over my face yet,” Beth said.

“Yeah,” Ben said. “Same here.”

Alex and Kelly had stopped sprinting and were stretching to let Beth and Ben catch up.

“What if we can’t read or follow a basic conversation?” Ben asked.

“What if we forget which cabinet we keep the coffee in or say something really fucked up, like, ‘You know, that Trump fella really wasn’t so bad after all’?” Beth asked in a doddering, foolish voice.

“Holy shit, yes! If I ever start rambling about rigged witch hunts or fake news, kill me on the spot, obviously!” Ben replied.

“Because of coffee or Trump?” Beth asked.

“Yes!” Ben replied with a smile.

“Gotcha,” Beth replied.

“You should be having this discussion with little Ben, Jr.,” Beth said, casting Ben a sideways glance and holding back an equally sideways grin.

“That’s not Montague’s name,” Ben said, feigning annoyance.

“I know,” Beth said. “But it’s so fun to think of little Montague as little Ben, Jr. Who is he named after again? Kelly’s paternal great-granduncle twice removed or something like that?”

“Something like that,” Ben said, allowing himself a chuckle. “I honestly can’t remember. But everybody loves the name ‘Monty.’”

“Yeah, that is a seriously cool name for a three-year-old,” Beth conceded. “Years from now you can yell from your hospice bed, ‘Monty, where’s my butterscotch pudding?’”

Ben called out in a sing-song voice to match Beth’s, “And I need my bedpan emptied again, Monty!”

Beth cringed. “Yikes, that escalated quickly.”

“The conversation or the trail?” Ben asked.

“Both,” Beth responded.

From up ahead, Kelly called back, “Are you guys yelling for us?”

“No!” Ben and Beth shouted in unison, exchanging mischievous looks.

As they trudged ahead on an uphill part of the trail, their smiles gradually faded. Sweat renewed on their foreheads, and they were huffing too hard to say anything.

When at last they crested the peak and started back down the slope, their breathing returned to normal.

“It is a comforting thought that Monty will be around when Kelly and I are old,” Ben said softly.

“Yeah,” Beth replied.

“I don’t plan on nagging him to come see us the way Mom does to us sometimes,” Ben said.

“What’s the old saying?” Beth asked. “‘Make a plan and watch God kick you in the nuts?”

“Fair point,” Ben replied, “even if your quote isn’t quite accurate.”

“Parents nag. Kids get nagged at,” Beth said. “It’s in the official job descriptions.”

“What’s up with you and Alex?” Ben asked. “Are you thinking about it?”

“We’re about the same place we’ve been from the start,” Beth said. “We’re happy with our cats and small laundry loads.”

“You’d be great parents,” Ben said.

“Not as good as you and Kelly,” Beth replied.

“Thanks, sis,” Ben said. “And you’re both welcome to nag Monty to come see you guys in the nursing home when the time comes.”

“That kid will have so many grandparents to visit that he won’t have time to hold down a job,” Beth said.

“If all goes well, he’ll be retired by then,” Ben said.

“God, it’s so weird to think about that little guy being retired someday,” Beth replied.

“Yeah,” Ben said. “It was probably weird for Mom and Dad to think of us as grown-ups too.”

“I still think it’s weird that we’re grown-ups,” Beth replied.

“Speak for yourself,” Ben said. “I have no intention of growing up until I have to.”

“Sorry, dude,” Beth replied. “You drive a minivan. That makes you a grown-up.”

“Damn,” Ben said. “That’s a good point. Okay. I give up. I’m a grown-up.”

Ahead, Alex and Kelly were moving again. Beth and Ben noticed that they had almost reached their cars parked in the little gravel lot at the trailhead.

“Praise Jesus, we’re almost back!” Beth said, wiping sweat from her forehead.

“What if we get so bad that we can’t recognize each other or those two up there?” Ben asked, pointing to their spouses.

“That’s a whole different story,” Beth said. “I don’t mind the walker or a little help in the toilet, but not having my mind working or forgetting who I love would really suck.”

“As if your mind works now,” Ben said.

“True,” Beth replied. “Also, I’m rubber and you’re glue, bug guy.”

The brother and sister caught up to their spouses as they waited by their respective cars.

Alex had unlocked their Subaru and was drinking deeply from her water bottle. Beth admired how her long brown hair flowed down her back as she surprised her with a hug.

“I still recognize you!” Beth said with a laugh as she kissed Alex’s face on both cheeks.

“That’s good to hear!” Alex replied. “Let me know right away if that changes, okay?”

Ben gave Kelly a bear hug. Combined, the two big men probably weighed as much as a medium-sized black bear.

“Let’s go home,” Kelly said. “You guys were so slow that the sitter’s probably wondering if we’re ever coming back. And the Patriots game starts in an hour.”

“Can’t miss that!” Ben said through gritted teeth as Kelly slipped into the driver’s seat of their Honda minivan.

“Your husband loves him some football,” Beth said to Ben as they met halfway between their cars.

Ben laughed. “I’m sure he’ll insist on watching the Patriots in my hospital room before they make any decisions about life support and heroic measures.”

“For you or him?” Beth asked.

“Either,” Ben replied. “Depends on whether the Patriots are winning or losing.”

“Do you suppose straight couples have conversations like this?” Beth asked.

“Some of them, sure, I guess. Straights can be as normal as we are,” Ben said. “But Mom and Dad never did.”

“True,” Beth said. “But they didn’t seem to talk about anything important. Maybe that’s a generational thing.”

“Or maybe we just didn’t hear them talking about it,” Ben said. “Who knows?”

“We could ask Mom,” Beth said.

“You go first,” Ben replied.

“We should probably have this conversation with Monty for real,” Beth said.

“Oh, lord,” Ben sighed. “I guess. But not for a few years, okay? Toddlers don’t need to hear this kind of talk.”

“Yeah, we’ll dump this on him when he’s a teenager who hates talking to us as much as we hated talking to Mom and Dad back then,” Beth said with a laugh. “He’ll love that!”

Their laughter ended quickly, and they shared a meaningful look.

“For now,” Ben said softly, “let’s look for the forms and maybe talk to a lawyer, make this stuff official.”

“Okay,” Beth said. “If you insist. And let’s all go see Mom one evening this week. All of us. I’ll call Karen. You and me. Kelly and Alex. Monty, too. She’ll be as excited as Mom to have us all together.”

“Will they allow that many of us in Mom’s room at one time?” Ben asked.

“Maybe. We might break a few rules, but so what?” Beth said. “It won’t be the first time.”

“Or the last,” Ben replied. He pulled his sister into a hug. Neither remembered the last time they did that. And Ben said something he didn’t say often say to his sister. “Love you, sis.”

“Love you too, bro,” Beth replied before playfully pushing Ben away. “Now get the hell home and take a shower. You smell.”

“Speak for yourself, stinky,” Ben said, and he hopped in the van beside his husband and struggled with the annoying seat belt. Kelly reached across Ben, grasped the strap, pulled it smoothly across Ben’s chest, and snapped it into place.

“I want you to live a long time. Safety first, honey,” Kelly said.

“Always, sweetie,” Ben replied.

John Sheirer (pronounced “shy-er”) lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with his wonderful wife Betsy and happy dog Libby. He has taught writing and communications for 27 years at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, where he also serves as editor and faculty advisor for Freshwater Literary Journal (submissions welcome). His books include memoir, fiction, poetry, essays, political satire, and photography. His most recent book is Fever Cabin, a fictionalized journal of a man isolating himself during the current pandemic. (All proceeds from this book benefit pandemic-related charities.) Find him at JohnSheirer.com.

A Short Story by Bill Garwin

There once lived a completely unremarkable man. He was not tall, but not short. He was not handsome, but not bad looking. He lived in a San Francisco complex of 207 apartments. He only barely knew his neighbors. If he could be summed up in a single word, it would be “average”. None of us aspires to average. In the beginning, we all anticipate and strive for more, but eventually we settle because, after all, average demands most of us.

He worked as an accountant in a large firm, at a desk hidden in the bowels of the 14th floor. He was competent. Not great and no one would ever call him “boss”, but he showed up every day and completed a reasonable amount of work with a minimal number of errors. He was dependable. Should he so desire, he could keep his job for another thirty years with a token, but sufficient, annual raise.

He was not without introspection. Of late he’d come to believe he was spending his life an hour at a time and receiving little in return. Tomorrow promised less than yesterday and this bothered him greatly, which is why the fortune cookie seemed so important.

Three days a week he ordered Chinese to-go from the restaurant on the corner. Without fail, sweet and sour pork, fried rice and egg rolls.

“Golden Dragon. May I help you?”

“This is Mike.”

“The usual?”

“Yes, please.”

“Thirty minutes.”

“Thank you.”

Dinner always included a single fortune cookie. More than one fortune only begged confusion.

Mike ate dinner as the fortune cookie obediently waited its turn. After twenty minutes, he carefully broke open dessert. As always, he first read the script on the strip of paper, but this time it seemed to offer more.

“Find Hope and You Will Find Happiness.”

Until that moment he hadn’t understood that what he was missing was hope.

Had he reached a level of desperation so low he would follow the instructions on a fortune cookie? The answer was simple. Yes. Tomorrow was Saturday. He silently vowed to start his search.

He awoke the next morning excited, anxious and faced with a quandary. Where to begin? Applying something approaching logic, he reasoned since the fortune cookie was Chinese, he should start in Chinatown.

He passed under the ornate entry arches, took the second right and came upon “Lucky Massage”. Hope and luck are inextricably intertwined. He entered the small shop to a series of chanted greetings he could not understand.

A row of five unoccupied recliners faced a wall of televisions all playing Chinese soap operas. Middle-aged ladies were stationed at each chair. An elderly woman approached Mike with a menu from which he selected the 50-minute foot massage for $40. Apparently, hope could be purchased rather cheaply.

Mike slid into a chair and immediately a masseuse brought out a large, wooden tub of steaming tea. She helped Mike remove his shoes and socks and placed his feet in the tub. He began to relax. After a few minutes, the lady started on his feet. At first it tickled, but then he was pervaded by a sense of well-being. His mind slowed, completely occupied by the comforting sensation. He could drift asleep, but believed if he was to find hope here, he needed to stay awake.

After precisely 50-minutes, she was done. He was instructed to take his time and relax, which he did. He finally rose feeling a pervasive calm. Maybe this was hope. He hadn’t felt this way in maybe forever. But as he took each step, he seemed to lose a little of the euphoria and as he focused on making payment and stepped out the door he realized he had rejoined the world unchanged. Hope was not in Lucky Massage.

Most of the day still remained; he pledged not to give up, but where to next? A homeless lady approached with an outstretched hand. A common sight in San Francisco. He simply shook his head in the negative but had a thought.

While the misfortune of others saddens us, it simultaneously leaves us grateful for what we have. Maybe hope could be garnered by comparison, but where to go for that experience. Certainly, someplace hopeless. His eyes wandered toward the San Francisco Bay only to come upon one of the most hopeless places in the world. Alcatraz.

The boat ride to the island of despair was short and brisk. Mike obediently followed at the back of the tour group led by a park ranger. He learned Alcatraz, originally constructed as a lighthouse, had served as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963. Sitting 1¼ miles off the coast and surrounded by frigid waters patrolled by sharks, the Feds used the island for prisoners too unruly for other penitentiaries. 

Small, damp, cold cells housed the worst of the worst. The place reeked of despair. Mike immediately knew this would not work. He felt no elation, only a blending of academic wonder and sadness for those who had inhabited Alcatraz. The day was winding down and his life was in no way more hopeful.

Back ashore, Mike wandered until he realized he’d missed lunch. Such is the lot of a man in search of meaning. He surveyed the landscape for food and spotted the FC Diner. Maybe the FC stood for Fog City, maybe not. It was fashioned after a railroad car and offered “Home Cooking”, even though that wasn’t possible from someplace not home. He walked in and followed the instructions to grab a menu and seat himself.

The place was packed. He chose a navy blue, faux leather booth which was seriously underpopulated by his party of one. He quickly browsed the menu and decided on a hamburger and fries. He scanned the diner for a server. He saw only one.

She was a waitress in the classical sense, if for no other reason than diners should have waitresses. She was about his age wearing an ice blue, neatly starched uniform with crisp lines and white piping. Her silver name tag bore an inscription he couldn’t make out across the diner.

She was not pretty, but cute. Not tall, but not short. She didn’t walk. She glided. There was no other way to describe her movement. Her smile was luminescent. She glowed leaving everything else in the diner shrouded and ordinary. As she approached each table she brought on joy and grins as if spreading pixie dust.

He watched her. Actually, much more than watching and each time she glanced his way it was as if she was looking into him rather than at him. At that place and time nothing else occupied his thoughts. He was consumed by infinite possibilities of aspiration and expectation.

She approached, her expression pleased, but also quizzical. He ogled.

She didn’t ask “Are you ready to order?”

Rather, “Don’t I know you?” More of a statement than a question.

His eyes shifted from hers down to the name tag. At that moment, he knew he had found happiness.

Bill Garwin has several degrees and a third-dan karate black belt. He believes stories indelibly enrich our lives and relishes in their telling. The opening chapter of his current project, City of Schemes, received first place, Utah League of Writers 2020 Quill Awards.

A Short Story by Millie Walton

I close my eyes and smell the stale wind rushing down the tunnel, brushing against my cheeks, lifting my hair. I press my back into the wall, experiencing the cool of the concrete and the closed heat of the tube simultaneously. There are times, like these, when I feel wholly present, when I know who I am completely.

It’s unusually quiet. Lottie calls it the sweet spot. When you somehow stumble into the lag between the last flow of people and the next, and the moment seems to stretch like the sky.

Flip-flopped feet slapping the ground. I’d say four or five pairs from the way the sound echoes. It’s hard to say how far away because the tunnels wind back and forwards, under and over.

A bitter drip slides down the back of my throat. Licked fingers fumbling under the table, rubbed across gums, sideways glances. Lottie biting down on her lower lip, in that way which sometimes makes me nervous depending on who we’re with and her mood that day. She likes to be that person. The one who flashes an old baggy in front of my face, and says, Look what I found, even though she knew it was there. She licks a finger, dips and rubs it across her gums before passing it under the table.

Go on, her eyes press and so I do. She stands up and claps her palms together. Fuck-it, I’m getting Hendricks. One for you too.

I sit picking my nails and watch her being watched.

The ice cube clinks dully against the crystal tumbler, as she lifts her glass, shooting a look at the guys over her shoulder. I know that she knows. It’s a game. She drinks it for them, slowly wetting her lips.

Should I get a bob cut? Would it make my face look fat? Like a moon, I say, my hands cupping my cheeks.

There’s a rush and the light behind my eyelids changes. The train is coming and there are more feet, new pairs, running from within the concrete. I have this insane thought that they’re coming for me, but of course, they’re not.

I’d like to be that person too. I can be.

I say it again, Moon. Face. Tucking my hair into the collar of my t-shirt, sucking in my cheeks, mirroring the way she drinks in case they are watching me too.

I stand, swaying and smooth the back of my skirt with one hand. It has a habit of getting caught up. Would it be so bad? Yes, and no, yes, and no.

A pair of black Doc Martens line up next to me. The same ones are in one of my virtual baskets somewhere, have been for weeks. I still can’t decide: black or red, leather or vegan. This pair is well-worn, creased around the midsection, with untied, trailing laces, which look as if they might have once belonged to a different pair. In general, docs look better dirty than new. Ella buried hers before she wore them. I’ve heard the best way is to fold them repeatedly with your hands, that you really need to put your full weight into it to get the good, deep indents.

The train stops. The doors jump open, thin light spills like watery milk. The boots step in first and I follow. She sits opposite me, or I sit opposite her. It feels like a dance. I look up and we both smile. I see her teeth for a second and then she closes her lips. Her mouth is long and straight. Her hair’s the brightest shade of red I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of something specific. Sun-burnt skin. A neon light. A place, a bar or a club. Another person’s hair cut out from a magazine and stuck onto this woman’s head. She looks not much older than me. A couple of years, five at most. She sees me looking and I find myself blushing. I blush too easily, a permanent red sheen, like a farmer who’s spent his days briskly walking through the wind. I look away as if something’s caught my attention down the carriage. The doors close on a man who steps back, arms folded. He looks away, already waiting for the next. The train starts to move and I feel nostalgic for no reason.

I try to picture the world above us, the streets that I walked along six, eight, ten minutes ago. The street I imagine is generic. I am not an imaginative person, I’ve come to realise this. It is London from tourist shop posters, red double deckers, glossy curved black cabs, men in top hats holding the doors open to hotels and rain that’s neat, shiny and clean, falling in perfectly formed droplets that are made of air, not water.

The woman is standing directly over me, her hands clasping the bar whilst her body absorbs the sway of a bend. It feels odd to be so close to someone when the carriage is nearly empty but even without the crowds, there’s always a sense of being squeezed on the tube. There’s a gap roughly the length of my forearm from her belly button to my knee. I can see blonde hair in her armpits. Who dyes their hair red? I decide she is an artist, or a dancer. I follow the line up to her face, her chin is tilted as she reads not the tube map, but the ad beside it. I know it from the blue. I’ve seen the same one, huge against a station wall. Green Park or Victoria. Her eyes slide down to mine. I feel myself flush again. It’s worse when I’ve been drinking.

It’s terrible isn’t it, she says.

I wait for a moment to check who she’s speaking too, and then say, Yes. It is. Terrible.

She pushes back and lets go of the bar. She’s not beautiful in the conventional sense. Her features give the impression of being cluttered together, too small for her face, but there’s something sensual about her. I can imagine people finding her attractive. She arches her chest forwards as if releasing a tightness and I realise, as she rolls her shoulders and sits, that I’m doing the same thing. I clasp my hands into my lap.

The tunnel becomes platform and the train stops. Three men climb in, speaking loudly over their shoulders to one another. First one, then the others notice the woman standing in front of me. I follow their eyes and see that the dark circles of her nipples are clearly visible through the fabric of her dress.

She drops into the seat opposite me, slips her feet out of her boots and kicks them high into the air. A slither of black lace appears as the fabric flutters over her knees. The train lurches and I start to feel sick.

Did I flash you? she says.

I didn’t see anything. I rest my forehead in my hands, elbows pressing into my thighs.

Are you alright?

I nod and swivel myself to look through my handbag for my headphones, then remember that I left them at work. I find chewing gum and drag a piece up through the wrapper and into my mouth with my teeth.

The red head’s familiar, one of the guys says. Isn’t she though? From TV? I look back at her. Perhaps that’s it.

You famous? he calls and even though he’s not addressing me I turn towards him.

Nope, the woman says.

The train’s stopped. Through the pane of glass, the concrete looks almost like earth. I feel as if it’s pressing inwards, squeezing. My chest aches. I have to remind myself to breathe.

There’s a sharp whine and a distant voice apologises for the delay, we’re being held at a signal. The woman stretches an arm across the backs of the seats. I can feel sweat drawing up between my breasts. I tap my thumb and index fingers together. How many stations have we passed? I taste bitter again.

Coke or horse tranquilizer, Lottie says shrugging, what difference does it make?

I check my bag for my bottle which isn’t there, I know this already. I stand, and grip the rail with one palm. My eyes won’t focus. Somewhere between Pimlico and Vauxhall. I could get the bus.

Are you alright? a voice says, very far away or very close. A hand touches my arm, drawing me down into a seat and at the same time, the train jolts forwards and starts to move. I’m sitting beside her somehow. Her hand on my arm. I pull it back and rub the place she touched, half unconscious of the movement. She sees me do it.

Have we met somewhere before? No. I don’t think so.

It’s just you seem familiar. Have we worked together maybe?

I think that’s unlikely. She crosses her legs and stares forwards.

Through friends or something then? My mouth feels dry and the words catch in my throat. She shakes her head.

The train stops and moves. I miss the name. Pimlico, she says.

You’re from London?

No. She bends to scratch her ankle, and her arm brushes my leg. I notice there are a few mosquito bites down her calf. I used to live here in a tiny flat share, so small I had to get dressed sitting on my bed. I moved to Margate last year and now I can see the sea from my window.

That sounds nice.

You should come.

To Margate?

Why not?

I laugh. Because I don’t know who you are.

I’m Grace. Now you’re supposed to say your name.

Rosie.

That’s a nice name.

Yours is nice too.

You’re just saying that because I said it.

I’m not. I really think it is nice.

This is my stop.

She jumps up, grabbing her shoes with one hand. The platform rushes against the glass. She turns, and the doors slide closed behind her. I watch her waving at me through the window as we rush past: her hair obscenely bright against the tunnel wall and then, she’s gone.

Millie Walton is a London-based art and fiction writer, and a graduate of the MFA at the University of East Anglia. This story has been adapted from her debut novel in progress.

A Short Story by Christie Marra

“The pain’s almost too much to bear by lunchtime,” the judge says, shaking his head. Back when he was an assistant commonwealth’s attorney, John won cases against him so consistently John sometimes wondered whether he’d lost on purpose.

“I don’t know how you navigate all those suffering families,” John’s wife Eliza remarks, looking at the judge sympathetically and placing her hand on his arm. John hates seeing his wife touch another man, any man. He isn’t jealous; he tells himself. It’s the principle. Why should a woman touch other men when she’s refused to touch her own husband for so long? John averts his eyes from Eliza and the judge and turns to Mayor Larique, seated beside him.

“How’s life on the dark side?” John asks, knowing he’d been a reluctant candidate, coaxed into running by the twenty-somethings who had marched with him throughout the year of protests.  The mayor rolls his eyes.

“This city needs some work,” he says.

John pours him more wine. “Start with fixing that jail, man. Nobody should have to stay in that shit hole an hour, let alone twelve months.”

“It’s on the list, a hell of a long list,” the mayor trails off.

Damn, man, you gave up quick! John thinks, turning away from the young mayor. The restaurant couple sits on his other side. She’s describing plans for her newest restaurant, while he moves his food around on his plate, occasionally glancing and nodding at his wife.

Exquis opens next month, and it’s going to be my most successful bistro yet!” she exclaims. Her husband’s shoulders slump.

“She’s moving you to the new restaurant?” John whispers, and he shrugs. “You should stay where you are, or go back to your favorite. You’re one of the best damn chefs in the city.” The chef smiles weakly and continues shrugging.

Am I the only man at this dinner party with balls? John wonders, looking at the new guy, quiet, almost sullen, directly to the right of his wife.  The new guy laughs suddenly at something Eliza says, and Eliza gives him her special look, glancing sideways and curling her lips into a half-smile. John remembers, bitterly, a time when she looked at him that way.

He studies the new guy, trying to figure out what Eliza sees in him. He wears Clark Kent glasses – always a sign of weak character – and his bald head is too large for his thin body. John’s head is perfectly proportionate to the rest of him. At least it used to be, before those late-night munchies inflated his gut.

“Do you enjoy being a public defender?” a soft voice asks. John looks across the table at the young brunette with a sharp nose and wire rims that match his own.

“I do.” He raises his wine in a toast, wondering if this dark cloud of a dinner party might have a silver lining. The brunette follows suit. “To well-chosen careers!” She smiles with closed lips before she drinks. “And what is yours?” he asks, hoping she won’t say nurse or teacher.

“I’m a chemist.”

“Ah, you must be the new member of Eliza’s team!” John says, and she nods. “How do you like working for The Man?”

The brunette shakes her head. “I, um…I don’t see it that way.” She dips her head toward her plate as she cuts a piece of filet mignon. A very fine wisp of hair escapes from behind her ear, brushing her cheek.

“How do you see it?” John asks in a softer tone. It would be a shame to alienate her so quickly. He still has to endure the remainder of dinner and dessert, and she’s the only dinner guest who even slightly interests him.

“I’m exploring new remedies, new solutions to ailments that plague people.”

“And the six-figure salary’s just a convenient bonus?” he chuckles.

She tucks her hair back in place and takes a long drink of wine. “I don’t think about the money.”

“People who have enough of it never do,” John replies, tiring of her.

Next to the chemist sits a man wearing a red bow tie. John hates bow ties. He wouldn’t even wear one for their wedding, insisting on leaving the top button of his starched white shirt open. Back then, Eliza called such things “quirky-cute.”

“McCain’s gonna have a tough time of it,” John says, looking directly at the man in the bow tie.

“How’s that?” the man asks, shoveling risotto into his mouth. Grains of rice stick to his mustache just beneath his nostrils, like frozen snot, and John holds back a smirk.

“We’ve got our first black presidential candidate, and he’s a good family man who’s smart and has a down-home relatability despite being primarily professorial.”

“Plus he’s cute as a button!” Bow-tie’s wife adds.

“McCain has stellar military and public service,” Bow-tie replies, with a cool, sideways glance at his wife. “Plus he was a prisoner of war.”

“But how can we put the future of our country in the hands of a man who chose a gun-toting, xenophobic airhead as a running mate?” asks the guest across from John, setting his suede patched elbows on the table. “The most important quality of a president is his ability to choose wisely.”

“His?” John asks. He’d bet his last paycheck on Suede Elbows being one of those liberals who valued a man’s statements over his substance.

“Well, um, his or hers,” Suede Elbows replies. “Good catch, pal.”

“Why do you think a little known senator will choose wisely?” Bow-tie asks, pointing his forkful of risotto at Suede Elbows.

“He already has,” Suede Elbows asserts. “Can’t find fault with Joe.”

“Hmph!” Bow-tie grunts. “Anyone who has suffered some sort of tragedy becomes a hero to you people.” 

“I’m sorry,” John interrupts, determined to re-route the conversation before it turns into the same empty analysis he’s heard dozens of times, “I know Eliza introduced us, but—”

“Seymour Gillespie.” Suede Elbows drops his fork, and awkwardly extends his hand.  John reaches across the table to shake it, purposefully shoving his arm straight through Eliza’s flower arrangement. A few petals flutter to the table as he pulls his hand back. He remembers Eliza gushing about how this florist’s arrangements lasted “for weeks and weeks, sometimes more than a fortnight!” and has to fight the laughter. He’s so bored with Eliza’s absurd affectations.

“How long you lived around here, Seymour?” John asks. He feels Bow-tie’s wife’s hand on his thigh and removes it decisively.

“A few months. I started teaching at Roanoke College last semester.”

“Ooo, what do you teach?” Bow-Tie’s wife squeals. John wonders whether she’s trying to play footsie with the professor under the table.

A glass hits the floor and shatters at the other end of the table.

Eliza jumps up and shouts, “Sallie!” The waitress supplied by the caterer rushes into the room with a broom and dustpan.

“It’s Cindy,” the waitress corrects Eliza as she cleans up the glass.

“Thank you,” Eliza says, eyeing Cindy icily and placing her hands on the judge’s shoulders.

“Objection!” John mutters, irritated by Eliza’s classism. The young chemist hears him and giggles, and John thinks perhaps he dismissed her too quickly. He winks at her. 

As the broken glass is cleared and Cindy begins to remove the dinner plates, Eliza raises her glass.

“Friends, it is an honor to host you,” she begins. John glances at the chemist and rolls his eyes. The chemist hides her giggle behind a napkin. “Our little city, tucked in the Blue Ridge mountains, home to a small but stellar college that gathers and nurtures young minds until they blossom and fly away to grace other lands with their wisdom…”

John shakes his head. The chemist catches his eye, tilts her head and raises her eyebrows. John grins at her.

“We have it all here – wisdom,” Eliza nods at the judge, “wealth,” she smiles at Bow-tie and his wife, “and ingenuity!” Eliza extends a regal arm toward the restaurant queen. “And we have a generosity of spirit, welcoming those who simply wander here.” Eliza looks pointedly at the chemist, whose blush is evident in the dim candlelight.  “And of course, we are eager to learn new things.” Eliza nods at Suede Elbows, and she moves closer to the new guy, so close that her elbow meets his shoulder. John watches their body parts touch, disgusted with Eliza and with himself. He hasn’t had a physique as obviously well-toned as the new guy’s in decades. He notices the chemist watching him and forgets about his paunch as he raises his glass to her.

“Mathematics,” Suede Elbows says. John and the chemist stare at him. “I teach mathematics.”

“Oh! You must be brilliant!’ Bow-tie’s wife squeals. Suede Elbows launches into an explanation of how math is everywhere.

“Every road is a plane, every room a cube, every decision based on some inherent mathematical formula!” he exclaims. If Bow-tie’s wife is playing footsie with him, it isn’t distracting Suede Elbows at all. His lecture continues as Cindy serves dessert.

Suede Elbows’ lecture is too much for John. He excuses himself and slips out to the warmth of the back porch. Why does Eliza keep the house so damn cold! He pulls a small glass pipe and a bag of buds from behind the potted fern, and carefully packs the pipe. He inhales deeply, savoring the burning sensation that makes him feel whole. Smoke leaves his mouth and dances in the darkness before it disappears. John watches the moon, high and bright, and the world begins to slow.

“There you are!” The chemist bounces through the door and throws her arms around John’s neck. Over her shoulder, John sees Eliza laughing with the judge and the new guy in the kitchen, placing a hand on each man’s arm. The new guy stares at John, challenging him. John starts toward the door, but the weight of the woman embracing him holds him back. “I knew you expected me to follow you out of the dining room, but I had no idea where you’d gone,” she says.

John puts his hands around the chemist’s waist, trying to focus on her smile instead of his wife touching two other men. The air around them hums as he studies the chemist’s face.

“It’s been so long,” she says, tilting her head back to look up at John. He kisses her hard, moving his hands down to her buttocks. “No, wait.” She removes his hands and leads him into the yard, stopping beneath the magnolia tree. “You remember the magnolia tree, don’t you?”

“Of course,” John says, no idea what she means, liking where it’s heading, and guessing any other answer might change their course.

They have sex on a blanket of hard, dry leaves, their pointed tips pricking John’s shoulders, back and rear. But he doesn’t care. He hasn’t touched a woman since Eliza kicked him out of their bedroom three years ago. The chemist is a good partner, open and vocal and willing to follow wherever he leads, and he takes her everywhere he’s dreamed of taking a woman in the past three years – between her breasts, in her pussy, and in her delightfully tight ass. 

“Ooo, that’s new!’ she squeals beneath him, giggling into the magnolia leaves.

“So it’s okay?” John asks, chuckling. “I’ve never done it before.”

“I like it. It excites me!”

The chemist gets sexier by the second. After he climaxes, John stays inside her a while, sliding his stomach up and down in the sweat of her back, relishing  how the physical closeness makes him tingle with pleasure.

He rolls off her and lies on the crisp magnolia leaves, arms crossed behind his head, hoping to hold onto this new, fresh, wild connection.

“Wow!” the chemist declares, laying her head on John’s chest. “That was so much better than the first time!”

“Really?” he laughed. “You’re the only person I’ve ever been with who could have an orgasm that way.”

“What?” The chemist sits up and looks at John, confused.

“I mean, you know, from the back.”

The chemist shakes her head. “I didn’t enjoy it that much.”

“But you said it was better than the first time.”

“I meant better than the first time we, well, you know.” She kisses him. “Can you believe it’s been three years?”

“What?” John asks, feeling a little queasy. How could she know it had been three years since Eliza banished him from their bedroom so she could fuck every new man in town? Did Eliza tell everyone?

“Did you ever get my note?” the chemist asks. “I’d thought you’d make up some excuse to come to the lab as soon as you knew I was there, but this was much better.” She laughs an uncontrolled, almost maniacal laugh.

“What…what note?”  John stands up, his legs wobbling. The chemist holds her hand out to him, and he pulls her up quickly then pulls his hand back to his side.

“The invitation, my dear!” the chemist replies, grabbing his hand.

Invitation? What on earth is she talking about? As she smiles at him, John sees that one of her teeth is missing. Where’s her tooth? He could have sworn she had all her teeth at the dinner table.

He throws the chemist her clothes and hurriedly puts on his own. Before he can start back to the house, she grabs his arm.

“Kiss me like you did the first time on the lawn, under the low yellow moon.” She rises onto her toes and lifts her face toward his. “Kiss me. Baby!” Trapped, John leans down and brushes his lips softly and quickly against the chemist’s. She pulls him closer, forcing his lips open with her tongue. He tries to resist, but her lilac scent makes him forget the missing tooth, and his body responds to her scent and her tongue. She pulls away first. “I’ve saved myself for you, you know,” she drawls, and John starts trembling again. Lilacs be damned!

“It’s late. Don’t you need to be in early tomorrow?” John walks rapidly toward the house.

“Don’t worry! I won’t tell anyone!” the chemist promises, following him. “You know, I took the job to be close to you.” She laughs her maniacal laugh again. The chemist makes less sense every minute. How did she know about him before meeting him tonight? Eliza never acknowledges his existence outside of their house these days. But what if this time she did acknowledge him? What if Eliza had more than acknowledged him? Perhaps she’d actually advertised him as part of the position, subtly communicating a surprise bonus, an exciting, illicit twist to taking the job. Eliza would do that to get rid of him, especially after he’d told her he’d never leave their marriage without squeezing every last penny out of her.

The house is empty. Were they outside that long?

“Looks like we have the place to ourselves,” the chemist says, putting her arms around John’s waist. John removes her hands and backs away. She doesn’t seem sexy anymore, now that he knows she’s missing a tooth and may be an unscrupulous bargainer who chose John over a corner office.

“It’s so late,” he says. “And I’m so tired.”

“I suppose I should head home,” the chemist admits. “But tell me – when can we see each other again?” She grabs his sleeves, and John fights the urge to back away again. If he can just get her to her car—“When?” the chemist asks again.

“Soon,” John says. “I’ll find a way.” Seeming satisfied, she follows John out the front door.

Eliza is in the circular drive staying good night to the judge. She hugs him, and stands with her back to the yard as his car pulls away and heads down the driveway. When she turns around, she’s wiping her eyes. She sees John and the chemist and smiles brightly, dropping her hands to her side. “Did John give you a nice tour of the house, Eleanor?”

“John and I made love in the yard, Eliza,” the chemist says.

“Really?” Eliza asks, and even as focused as he is on trying to escape whatever the chemist has in mind for him, John can tell Eliza is surprised.

“It had to happen, Eliza. We knew from the moment we met at Oxford three years ago that we were meant to be together.”

Oxford? John’s confused. He’s never been to Oxford. He hasn’t even been outside Virginia except for his honeymoon to New Orleans.

“Oxford?” Eliza asks.

“I was working on my Ph.D., and he was a visiting professor at the law school.”

It was just a case of mistaken identity! John’s heartbeat begins to calm down, and he sighs.

Eliza looks at John and shakes her head. She approaches the chemist, takes both her hands, and says, “Eleanor, my husband has never taught at Oxford. He couldn’t even get into Oxford.” Eliza’s dismissive tone stings, and for a moment the sting overshadows his relief.

“That, that’s not true!” the chemist says. “He was an instructor there. We met at a cocktail party. We made love in the Botanic Garden!”

“I’m sorry, Eleanor,” Eliza says.  “My husband isn’t a very nice man.” She puts her arm around the chemist. “Come, let’s have some cognac and get to know each other better.”

The women turn and walk toward the house, the chemist taking one final look at John before following Eliza inside and closing the door.

John watches the door close, and the final traces of his fog dissipate while the brightness of the moon illuminates his solitude.   

Christie Marra is a legal aid attorney who writes, dances and poles in Richmond, Virginia. Despite her diverse interests and activities, she’s frequently vexed by her inability to maintain a clean house and cook without burning something. She blames this unhealthy obsession on the Enjoli commercial that seemed to play constantly when she was growing up. Christie’s short stories have appeared in various publications, including Little DeathThe Write Launch and Pangryus.

A Short Story by E. M. Issam

“It was three winters ago when the artist declared their war against excuses,” Hamil started. “And it was hot. Real hot. The hottest winter in a decade. All the winters are hot now, but this one you could see the air above the road all shimmering in waves that made you thirsty to look at them. The artists were sick of being hungry. They were sick of five years of excuses from their NRAP caseworkers (Nutrition Replication Assistance Program) not giving them enough food stamps, sick to death of not being able to feed themselves.

“The ones without family or money, True Artists they called themselves, lived in that deserted neighborhood behind the Rose Garden. Thirdi, that’s right. The True Artists still live there now. Why do people call it ThirDi? On account of the neighborhood being shaped like a Thirsty Dinosaur chugging the Willamette. No bullshit. You gotta look on a map to get it. So then don’t believe me. Just, look, the point is the neighborhood is called Thirdi, alright? Who cares why? And I bet your mom told you not to go there. ‘The scary people live there,’ she told you. Even though Thirdi is ‘where the real Portlanders lived when Canada ended at the Great Lakes.’ Or so people used to say. She’s right about one thing though, your mom. Thirdi is a slum.

“After the war, but before unification, the Canadian Army used to cage Americans in the Rose Garden. They locked up everyone who wouldn’t pledge allegiance to queen and Canada, including American soldiers. And when anybody died, Nucks used to dig open graves for them back in Thirdi. Yea, Nucks. You don’t know Nucks? It’s what our guys called the Canadian fighters. Like Charlie in Vietnam or Haji in Iraq. Jesus, but then this seems to be the night I find out you’re not so street smart. Okay see, you know how when the east winds start going, the whole west side of Portland smells like sewer? That’s because of all the bodies that Nucks dumped in mass graves. Hundreds of Oregon soldiers are buried under Thirdi. People say it could be up to half of Portland’s World War III vets. Nobody knows, maybe it’s more.

“And so, the artists say all that history and horror gives the Thirdi neighborhood a special kind of magic, nestled back there behind the Rose Garden. In Thirdi, whole walls are known to collapse at bad hours of the night. In Thirdi, everything is dangerous and streaked with howlite veins of soot. In Thirdi, an artist can live rent free.

“Rent free means they don’t have to pay to sleep there. Because artists don’t have any money. Yea, maybe they could get jobs, but they don’t want to get jobs. You’ll understand when it’s your turn to slave for a living. No, nobody likes their job. Then your mom is lying to you because she doesn’t. Hey, why don’t you be like your brother? See how he sits there and doesn’t ask so many questions? That’s why we like him so much. That’s why we let him bring you over.

“Still, it’s difficult to fight a war against excuses, for the artists I mean. Because if you remember, that’s what this whole story is all about. And all True Artists get are excuses. Like why can’t they grow their own crops? Everybody says it’s too hot to grow crops anymore. They say replicated food is perfect, that the bugs in real food will kill you if you eat it, but the artists just want to try. And who can blame them? A good replicator costs as much as a house. And you see what a pound of amino acids costs? Of course, you don’t. But trust me, it’s more than you want to pay. And nobody will fix old replicators anymore either. So, people are forced to buy new ones. And no one can afford that. And you might as well just eat your handfuls of long sugar and fatty acids rather than stuff them into one of those Canadian knockoffs. If you ask me, my dad is right. This continent has gone to the wolves.

“So, but why not let the artists try? Let them grow a few stalks of corn and see if they don’t end up just fine. Excuses, that’s why. Lies. All of the NRAP bullshit. And so the artists call it their war against excuses, but it’s really a war against a government that demands I.D. for food stamps, and a unified North America that won’t let them grow corn, and all the other million little evils that bureaucrats do to put off calamity for one more day. But the artists, they know a secret. If the people only came together as one, if they only resisted the forces which oppress them as one people, then the magic of that alone would be bread enough to eat. Sounds crazy, right?

“No one remembers which artist first came up with the idea to throw a party. But once people heard about it, the idea spread like wildfire. The way it was said to me, the True Artist’s plan was to bring everyone from all over Portland to Thirdi and get them drunk enough to love each other. A communion of that kind of collective spirit would force new crops into existence. That’s what the artists said anyway. Sounded good too. I went.

“On a lucky Tuesday, a truck full of hydrocarbons and long sugars crashed going past the Rose Garden. Its tires popped, just like that. By the time help arrived, three hundred pounds of cargo were missing, and the driver had an extra concussion. No one was ever arrested and with a good replicator, hydrocarbons and long sugar are all you need for some quality booze. The Friday after the accident, the artists threw their party. It was magic. A never-ending supply of drinks for anyone who wanted, totally free. Hmmm, that’s a good question. I don’t know how they managed to replicate alcohol. They must have stolen a replicator too. Well if they had a replicator the whole time, it doesn’t really make sense they’d be angry about the food stamps thing does it? Just shut up, let me finish.

“By Saturday, there wasn’t a person in Portland who hadn’t heard the stories. On and on the party went. Sunday, Monday, into Tuesday too. Starved, hairy men and women. Handsewn clothes in bright colors that hurt your eyes to look at them. Lime skirts, vermillion blouses, pinstripe trousers, orchid jackets. I learned all these colors from the artists. You can too. Big lights and loud music. No shoes to be seen anywhere. The smell, you can’t even imagine. But everyone was happy, everyone was coming together. And then guess who showed up? I bet you know. That’s right. Police battered down the door to this flophouse where we were all dancing like angels. One by one, those jackals in blue killed all the plants of goodwill we’d manifested into life. They took everyone to jail. Everyone they could catch that is. I escaped by pushing a poor boy into a riot shield. He couldn’t have been no older than you, fifteen at most. Not a day goes by I don’t remember the look on his face. I think he peed himself. I was smelling ammonia all the way to Loring Street.

“But, so, after the heat died down, the artist returned. In protest of getting their asses kicked, a sculptor named Misery Van Sant hung a lantern above their party house. Turning to the stumbling bodies around her–those drunkards still had plenty of alcohol left, you see–Misery proclaimed, ‘From now until forever, my sculpture of Lantern on a Hook will mourn the moment the artist dream died.’

“The following sober day, no one, not even Misery Van Sant, could remember her speech nor why she gave it, but the artists found the hanging lantern so useful that she got praised for showing a True Artist’s practicality. Misery lanterns are still hung above Thirdi houses today, lighting the way to the next big party.

“Yes, obviously someone remembered her speech or no one could repeat what Misery said. Listen, Alex was it? It’s real simple, Alex. They say the artists still have a hundred pounds or more of their stock. Drinks are always cheap and easy. But this would not be one of your freshman parties, okay? These are grown up people, doing grown up things. Now, I know your replicator has a parent lock, so you’ve never tried a drop before have you? That’s what I thought. Your brother, he says you’re cool. For my part, I don’t know. You keep bothering me with all these questions. Well now it’s my turn to ask something. And it’s really the only question that’s going to matter tonight. Pay attention. The True Artists, I hear they’re going to hang a Misery lantern tomorrow. So, you wanna come or what?”

E. M. Issam is a breakout writer of the Northwest’s exploding creative writing movement. If there was ever any doubt that the resurgent Northwest style is ready to make its mark, read “True Artists Light a Misery Lantern.”