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Today's Story by Christopher Cervelloni

I pretended to laugh even though I don’t think it’s funny to hit girls.

Addison’s Eigth Grade Personal Narrative

In my third year of college I briefly had a girlfriend who was a Buddhist and was always talking about doing no harm and finding the middle way.
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We watched “Moby Dick” together one night.  She saw the folly of Ahab’s ego and adored Queequeg,
more about here the noble tattooed savage listening to mysteries, rx unmoved by clever speeches.

I saw it was the passion of captains men followed, story however mad their ambitions might be.  I said, in the end even Queequeg took up his harpoon and followed Ahab to his destiny.

Perhaps Ahab appeared to me much as Buddha did to her… a symbol of something eternal and greater than myself.  We broke up shortly after that.

I knew I was no captain, but I wanted to voyage.  I believed, as all young men do, that I would live to tell the tale.  Ishmael was protected by his innocence.  Why not I?

And so, it is Ahab who comes to fogbound dreams in my middle years – after many voyages and few catches — to continue this conversation begun years ago.

“Chase ye wisps,” he growls.  “Curs on longer leashes, no more, and yet ye stand in dread, bribing them with rotted meat and smiles as false as their own.

“Have Ahab whip them for thee, is that thy purpose, while ye watch, waiting for the leavings?  Scavengers are they, and thyself bait, staked to ground upon which they squabble ‘mongst themselves for flesh, and all, the entertainment of a hidden Master.”

I see his fierce tormented visage, his stovepipe hat and frock coat, his stiff frame rooted like a tree, a second mast grown from the rolling deck, bent and twisted by the gales of fate and his own defiance.

“If I seek only a longer leash myself,” says I, “and some ground to run on.  If I claim that bit of freedom will suffice me, might even be the purpose of that Master, will Ahab call it false?”

“Aye, a taste of freedom’s sweet,” says Ahab.  “Like an island seen on yon horizon after long months at sea, it beckons.  Whispers promises of fresh water and soft breezes, shady trees and solid ground that will not shift beneath thy feet at every step.  But say me, do ye imagine only peace lays there?  Only calm days and restful nights and loyal companions?  Not savages and storms to wreck thy humble dwelling?  And even be it habitable, think ye it too will not soon seem small, once its boundaries are measured?

“Ye have been chained too long, have forgotten freedom is strong drink, an elixir no man gives up willingly once downed, but keeps on with it till he has lost his senses, his sea legs, and mayhap his dinner too.  Think ye will not be the same?  Think ye will not stumble or lose the way, not be frightened by shadows or robbed by brutes who’ll beat the fool’s grin from thy countenance and leave thee
wretched and bleeding, mumbling a broken tune through broken teeth?

“What say ye to that, tamed creature?  Speak up man, or go back to the bone at thy feet!”

What insult burns like the one half true?

“But what of your own crew, captain?” says I.  “What of the able seamen who went to a watery doom with you?  Were they free men, or a pack of broken hounds following a lunatic?  And where would your vengeance be without them?  Standing all alone at New Bedford’s dock, propped up by hate and the skeleton of conquest, staring impotently out to sea.”

He laughs.  Ahab laughs?  Rocks back on his one good leg and casts his mirth into the darkness, lifting his arm as in affection for the dead.

“Aye,” he says after a moment.  “Aye.  Good sailors they were, brave and true to the last.  Ought they have thrown me in the sea, and why did they not?  Because of ship’s owners?  Investors with their contracts, scratched on paper?  I say ye not!  Owners are not builders, though someone made the ship’s design, and others made its ribs and planks and joined mast to keel.  ‘Tis no great trouble to take a vessel from owners, once underway.  ‘Tis the common employment of pirates who lurk in coastal waters and fear the deep.  And what strength has paper in the wilds of the Horn?  Can it be hung up on a yard and drive a ship into their icy embrace?

“I say ye not!  Cowering servitude was not their cause, not fear of the lash, nor feigned respect for solicitors, sitting on their soft rumps in safe harbor.

“They put to sea for shares owed to widows of voyages past, and children needing bread in their bellies.  They sailed to feel the ocean’s swell beneath them, and nature’s breath behind them, and against them too.  Aye, Ahab’s captain and compass of the Pequod. They followed because he pointed them the way in open seas, as he pointed their harpoons at worthy adversity.

“Were they superstitious men?  Surely, no less than I, granting a great spouting fish devilish power and wicked intent.  But if Man will not raise anchor, not make sail to venture against that greater than himself, a thing unknowable and monstrous, that frightens him even in his own safe sleep, then tell me, for what purpose these wooden manufactures?  What good the bindings of whalebone corsets, or oil for lamps flickering in the darkness, or perfumes to cover the stench of
living?

“And ye, tamed creature, scurry like a rat on the wharves, tied not by chains but by thy own appetite for moldy scraps.  Have ye called me forth to battle kings or generals, or dragons of the deep defending their own freedom?  Or merely to drive off bigger vermin with my knocked pacing, and kick thee loose a bigger sack of spoil?”

“What of your cargo, captain?” says I.  “Not just common sailors lost, not just baleen or pretty scents or oil for light in the night, men and whales slaughtered for naught.  What of the shares for widows and orphans?  They too sank in the tempest of your greed and retribution. Your cargo is death.  Destruction.  And how do ye name this voyage? Glorious quest for freedom?  Magnificent justice?

“You too, run for easy meat, Ahab!  Exalt your vain philosophy, and perish with your pride, and leave your servants lost at sea.”

Ahab gives no answer, but turns away and paces on, the crack of his bony sideways step reverberating on the deck.  I’ll leave him to his nightmare, and wake to my own.

—–

Dean Kisling is a high school dropout who learned to type when he was 47.  He has been a soldier, laborer, taxi driver, welder, carpenter, performing musician, acupressurist, fractal artist, mountaineer and trail runner.  He lives in America and writes stories because he wants to and it might even matter.  He is very happily married.

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“Look, cure Paulie, buy viagra St. John’s taking the shortcut home all by himself. Where’s Little Miss Perfect?”

“Hey, cialis Cody’s talking to you. Ain’t your mamma ever taught you no manners?”

“You afraid to look at me, St. John?”

“Maybe we ought a join him. He looks lonely.”

“I’ll bet you hate these rainy days, don’t you, St. John? When Little Miss Perfect gets a ride home with her boyfriend.”

“What’s that? Don’t mumble.”

“He’s n-n-not her boyfriend.”

“Riiiiiiiight. And I’m not going to stomp in this here mud puddle and get your pretty-boy jeans all dirty. . .”

“Ooooooo”

“I’ll bet your glad Miss Perfect ain’t here now, to see you looking like a river rat.”

“You think Miss Perfect would bother with him now, Cody?”

“Not a chance. Only reason she puts up with him at all is she feels sorry for him with that pathetic st-st-stutter.”

“I ain’t never seen anyone as perfect as her. That face. Ooooeeee.”

“It’s all drawn on, even her eyebrows. My brother delivered the paper over there one time while she was swimming in the pool. Swears she looked freaky as hell with her eyebrows all washed off.”

“That’s n-n-not true.”

“Quiet now, Paulie, St. John has something to say. Speak up, John.”

“Y-y-you don’t know her.”

“Stop chewing on your cheek, I can’t hear you.”

“I s-s-said, you don’t kn-know her.”

“And you do? Tell us what do you know about little Miss Perfect?”

“Clamming up already? You’re pathetic. You think we’re that stupid? Like we’re really gonna believe she talks to you just ‘cause you take the same shortcut home.”

“Sh-sh-she’s not who you th-th-think she is.”

“Tell us then, who is Perfect Tina Michaelson?”

“She’s r-r-real.”

“Real?”

“Y-y-y-yeah. She’s not just about the m-m-makeup. She’s not just a p-p-pretty face.”

“You’ve got that right. She’s a whole lot more than a pretty face.”

“It’s not t-t-true, what y-y-your brother says about h-h-her. He never saw her w-w-w-without eyebrows.”

“You callin’ my brother a liar?”

“They’re t-t-tattooed.”

“What?

“Her eyebrows, they’re t-t-tattooed. L-l-laugh all you want, I shouldn’t have s-s-said anything.”

“That’s the freakiest think I ever heard.”

“Even if you’re right, they’re the only tattoos you’ll ever see on that gorgeous body. Having a girl like that, I’ll tell ya, it’s pure bliss. What are you staring at, St. John? Quit eyeballin’ me. You got no chance of ever being with a girl like that. The only taste you’ll ever have of bliss is your mamma’s potato salad.”

“Sh-sh-she talks to me.”

“Ooooo, I’m so jealous. She talks to you.”

“Y-y-yeah, she tells me th-th-things.”

“What are you gettin’ at? What kind of things?”

“Hey Cody, no way. No way he knows anything.”

“Shut up, Paulie. I said what kind of things, St. John? Hey, slow down. What’s your hurry, now? I’m still talking to you. You ain’t gonna run off on us now.”

“L-l-let go of me.”

“What did she tell you?”

“N-n-nothing.”

“Shit, Cody, you don’t think-“

“He’s heading for the old Lancaster barn. Get him, Paulie.”

“Damnit. I told you she was gonna talk.”

“Get off m-m-me.”

“What do you know, St. John?”

“Ugh”

“That oughta loosen your tongue.”

“Ugh”

“Don’t play with me.”

“Hey, Cody. I hear something. A car idling up by the road.  Cripes, lay off him. He don’t know anything or he woulda spilled by now.

“Can’t be too sure.”

“Ugh”

“Hah. Look at that. Now they’re a matched set. St. John, here with my boot tread stamped on his face and Tina Michaelson with her tattooed eyebrows. Hey, when you’re crawlin’ home to mamma try to stay clear of the poison ivy. Don’t want no rash messin up that pretty mark I gave ya.”

“I’ll t-t-t-tell you s-s-s-something.”

“You don’t know when to shut up, you idiot. You’re just asking for it now.”

“I’ll tell you why T-T-Tina walks home w-w-with me. And it ain’t cause I’m p-p-p-pathetic. It’s cause she knows I won’t h-h-hurt her. She knows I won’t  p-p-pull her behind the old cy-cy-cypress and run my hand up her sh-shirt while sh-she’s pushing you off and P-P-Paulie, y-you with your h-hand over her mouth the wh-whole time. Only a couple of s-s-sorry excuses for a man would-“

“Why you little shi-“

“Cripes, Paulie, he’s got a knife. Back off.”

“What the hell you doin with a knife, St. John?”

“A-n-n-nother thing she knows about m-m-m-me: I’ll n-n-never let it happen to her again.”

“Paulie, over by the barn. Shit. Who’s that?”

“It’s Miss Perfect and her boyfriend.”

“Now what are we gonna do?”

“I-I-I told you he’s n-n-not her boyfriend. That’s her big b-b-b-brother, back in town to take care of business.”

“What’s that he’s carryin?”

“L-l-looks like he found an old pitchfork in the old Lancaster b-b-barn. Now th-th-that’ll leave a m-m-mark.”

—–

Ruth Schiffmann shares the trials and triumphs of freelance writing with her husband and their two daughters. More than a hundred of her stories, articles, and poems have appeared in publications both in print and online. To read more of her work, visit www.RuthSchiffmann.com.

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Ralph had a spot. His problem had grown at the tip of his toboggan-rider proboscis, medical that is, on his nose. That red and sometimes pus-filled dot drove Ralph to seek the less than best intentions of his cousin, Jim-Jam, The One and Only, Ariel O’Neily. Jim-Jam, who was known to be savvy in the fixing of busted trombones, perms gone crazy, and math tests with scores well below the Antarctic, was busy wiring an umbrella to a discarded personal computer when Ralph ducked into J.J.’s Make-or-Break-That-Will-be-Fifty-Dollars-an-Hour-to-You-Mister workshop.

Ralph smiled, almost, his pale lips morphing like a camel confused as to whether it was sitting down or rising up; the rims around his mouth half hunched this way and half slumped that way. Ralph had noticed the shelf behind Jim-Jam’s head. On that pine board, the one supported by cement castings, by a broken baseball bat, by odd atlases, by a dented pot and by a dead lizard, Jim-Jam had perched an elephant tusk, a large globe formed from rubber bands, a trumpet’s bell, the better part of a dirt bike, a map of a subterranean railroad and a days-old sandwich. Directly over young Master O’Neily’s noggin, a crane, derived from coat hangers, clothespins (the type with springs), part of a deck of cards, a bit of chewing gum, and a child’s bow and arrow set, supported the weight of a raccoon’s skull and a paper mache dormouse. Beneath the paper dormouse, hung a spider web, the most exacting architecture in J.J.’s entire whimsical domain.

Brushing away the sandy-colored hair which ebbed over the craggy precipice of his nose, Ralph cleared his throat. Once more he glanced at Jim-Jam’s habitat. A gyroscope sat next to a metal file, both of which rested atop a calculus book on J.J.’s workbench. A ninth grade grammar book, already covered in some green sort of slimy, gooey stuff which invited touch, sat next to the numbers books. A folder of French verbs and a small Russian-German-English dictionary sat by J.J.’s feet. A kitten of questionable lineage batted at the aging sandwich and a dragonfly hovered, momentarily, over the language lessons.

Yet, Jim-Jam, The One and Only, Ariel O’Neily noticed neither the fauna nor his homework, so intent was he upon matching the ends of some plastic-coated wires that were hooked first to a large battery and then to a motor. He adjusted the angle of the umbrella propitiously and banged on the small computer.  Ralph cleared his throat again. “Got a problem,” he offered as his means of greeting his cousin.

Jim-Jam looked one silt-filled eye up at Ralph. “Pass the do-dad,” he muttered, motioning in an unseen direction.

Ralph turned and looked behind himself, in the direction indicated. Exhaling rancid mayonnaise poorly disguised by cinnamon breath mints, Ralph shrugged. Behind Ralph towered pieces of a sink, in fact pieces of many sinks, of many dishwashers, of washing machines and of clothes dryers, of ranges, of refrigerators, of carburetors, of percolators and of toasters and of what originally may have lived as a flat iron. “Huh” grunted Ralph. “Jim-Jam, I came here to talk to you about a problem. Scooter said you could help me.”

“Over there,” gestured the seated young one whom had begun to fidget with his monocle, “behind the six gauge socket, past the wrench, wedged by the bird bath. Or maybe it’s over here, beyond the turtle shell, over the tin whistle. Is his hair still blue? I told Scooter I was sorry.”

Raymond Charles High School’s champion bb shooter, aka Ralph, shrugged. He understood sporty guns, bowling, and cross country running. He was the school’s star baton passer and discus thrower. He was also a ballerina, practicing every Tuesday at Miss Kay’s School for Dance and Drama, but only Ralph’s sister, Marina, whom had been sworn to secrecy, and at great risk to her hamster’s life, was supposed to have known about the ballet lessons.

Ralph, who could torpedo not only an iron ball of considerable weight, but whom also could make ballast out of unwanted woodchucks, squirrels, and kindred pests, had no inkling about the difference between a flat head screwdriver and a Phillips. He was not interested in gradations of sandpaper, nor did he care much about the sound a disc drive made when it was “happy.” Ralph cared about his spot. He frowned as he watched Jim-Jam adjust the umbrella again.

As the french-fry foreman at Deli Deluxe, it was impossible for Ralph to have a blemish. Just the other day, Mac and Doris, the Diskin twins, had bothered him about the mark. They had asked Ralph if the spot had been emboldened by the ketchup or by the chutney.

In answer, Ralph had exhaled so deeply that the wee bits of stubble, the dark briars on the otherwise sandy beach of Ralph’s face, had almost popped off into the twins’ sandwiches. Ralph’s eyes had simultaneously erupted like a self-contained experiment of J.J.’s gone bad; lots of smoke, but no conflagration. Ralph had pressed Deli Deluxe’s busboy into service and had slipped outside of the market to look up into the trees and to wonder why he had never accepted Henry P. Smith’s invitation to take up smoking.

The next day, at Raymond Charles, Ralph’s problem worsened. Ralph’s spot had gained the attention not only of the Diskin twins, but of Lynnie Lola, as well. To Lynnie Lola’s consternation, Ralph’s spot had proved more interesting, to the greater part of the student body, than had Lynnie Lola’s manner of dress. Lynnie Lola was RC High School’s fashion queen. All of the girls took notes, literally, on poodle or frog-decorated journalist pads, whenever Missy L. L. wore something new to school. A week to a month following the creation of such meticulous records, depending on each teen correspondent‘s individual ability to wheedle and whine, those fledgling fashion reporters arrived at school wearing the same thing as had Missy L. L. Meanwhile, Lynnie Lola, for her part, had by then moved on to some other high fashion, thus effecting, to Missy Lynnie’s pleasure, the perpetuation of the cycle.

Lynnie had arrived, that morning, to RC High School, decked in a sweater and a simple skirt. On her head, however, she spotted the most wonderful leopard-print headband, which, in turn, was adorned with a few inches of pink ribbon, the type used for wrapping birthday presents for five year-olds. Such a sensation was rare even from Lynnie’s closet.

The girls oowed and aahed and then turned to Ralph. Their school’s honky-tonk king of the plastic pins, sharp shooter of three-holed balls and otherwise self-pronounced shark of the bowling ally had a bright red dot beaming on the tip of his face. Quickly the girls swung out their reporter books and made notes. Missy Lynnie L. tapped her foot, impatient for her customary homage. She coughed. She made monkey faces, all to no avail. Some of the girls were even drawing Ralph in profile, his great sandy-colored brows appearing like two vast swathes of wire wool, projected over the cliff of a nose, on whose edge perched the most remarkable of anomalies.

Then Missy L. L. strode directly up to Ralph and whispered into his ear; “you idiot in a tutu. If you do not get rid of that spot, I will tell everyone what you do at Miss Kay’s.” Although there was neither tulle nor lace in Ralph’s existence; male ballerinas train in the likes of gym shorts and t-shirts, Ralph’s downy cheeks blazed the color of his blemish. There would be a dead hamster that afternoon. Meanwhile, it was necessary to stifle that public speaker extraordinaire, Lynnie Lola. “Free fries if you shut up ‘til tomorrow,” forfeited Ralph.

A small, reptilian smile, accentuated by her braces and reflected by Lynnie’s thick glasses, covered the fashion queen’s face. “Just ‘til tomorrow,” she shrilled.

A few buttons punched on an otherwise silent cell phone sent Mac and Doris the directive to take Lynnie to the Deli Deluxe after school. They owed Ralph for a chocolate and for a strawberry milkshake, respectively. The threat of the world’s tiniest mittens made from hamster fur, during a quick, not so silent, call to Marina, found Ralph directed to J.J.’s workshop. Marina, in conference with Scooter, her boyfriend, had suggested that One and Only, Ariel O’Neily, first cousin to Ralph and Marina, might be able to help reduce Ralph’s cherry-colored glow. Ralph preferred to think that vivisecting a small rodent would ease his pain.

So it was in that place of mop handles and snails, of discarded keyboards and of plastic wrap that Ralph found himself answering Jim-Jam, saying, “I  don’t know about Scooter’s blue, it’s this red that worries me.” Ralph pointed distinctly to his nose.

“Don’t know the difference between a hazel nut and a deadbolt,” reprimanded J.J. He looked up at the wide-pawed athlete, sighed and shook his head. His peers were such babies. Just a year ago, Lynnie Ramsey Jones had been a gawky new kid. A session or do with Doctor Jim-Jam, Expert Social Director, had recast her into popularity and had changed her name forever on the school register. Six or seven months after Jim-Jam had resolved the Jones case, a couple of siblings, Mac and Doris, had stooped under Jim-Jam’s crab shell, bird nest and dried leaves mantel. The two had been sufficiently worried about their parents’ threat to ground them for disrupting familial peace that the two had come to Jim-Jam’s shack with all manners of offerings; chocolate, an unbroken moth cocoon, a ticket to the Raymond Charles intramural basketball playoffs, and a wad of money. Jim-Jam relieved them of the chocolate, the cocoon and the money in exchange for his referral to a local boxing studio and for a tape on table etiquette, which featured the proper use of fish forks.

Satisfied that he had lucratively reset Mac and Doris equilibrium, Jim-Jam further offered to rent to each of them, for a mere twenty dollars a day. Weeks after the twins had pilfered from both of their mother’s purses and from their father’s shopping day wallet, Jim Jam was visited by Scotty. That punk-faced ferret of a boy had wanted romance, scholarship, and a page or two of excuses that would mollify his parents when he was out past curfew. Jim-Jam did not believe in mixing it up on the wrong side of house rules, nor did Mr. Problems-Solved-in-Exchange-for Most-of-Your-Bank-Account know any other way to succeed in school short of studying, but J.J. did know of a freshman, Marina, Ralph’s sister, who had recently turned to Jim-Jam because of self-esteem woes. Following his success with Scooter, short of the blue hair, Jim-Jam had gained a reputation for doctoring relationships and for tutoring in Civics and in Biology.

But pimples! Spots were as natural as freckles and as moles, as nose hair and as ear hair, as fingers and as toes. Jim-Jam sized up Ralph of the clean, except for the dried blood beneath the nails, fingers. Ariel O’Neily wondered if the blood were mammalian, given its hue. The shaggy-haired, heavy-lidded teen before him, renowned for his prowess at the deli grill, and son of his father’s brother, was easily worth twenty or thirty dollars. “For forty-five dollars,” intoned Jim-Jam as he opened the door beneath his table’s surface and pulled out a small, velvet box, “your spot will become difficult to see.”

Ralph, hot dogging burrito buster of their small town frowned and calculated hours and wages. He had passed Algebra One and had a good shot at passing Algebra Two. In Ralph’s mind, the hamster fur mittens had already been lined with cotton and wrapped as a Mother’s Day gift. Marina’s big brother smacked a fifty dollar bill onto Jim-Jam’s table, temporarily unsettling pink and blue puffs of an unknown, but effervescent substance.

Jim-Jam held the bill up to the light, turned it and held it up again. Nodding, Ralph’s redeemer folded the money into an origami sort of bird and placed the bird on the shelf below the ledge bearing the elephant tusk.

For a moment, the gape in Ralph’s face that had been his mouth rivaled, as a natural wonder, the red spot at the end of Ralph’s nose. Quickly, Ralph pressed his lips back together as he took in the magnitude of goats and sheep, cows and horses made of the same type of material as the newly folded bantam hen. There was easily hundred of dollars sitting on that shelf, all disguised as farm animals.

Jim-Jam opened the velvet box. He reached in and removed a tiny, stamp collector-sized, opaque envelope. “Apply this over your nose and Lynnie will leave you alone. Also, don’t skin the hamster. His name is Family Boy and my younger brother’s best buddy in the third grade owns his mother, Zu-Zu.”

Again, the wide hole appeared on Ralph’s face. Jim-Jam shooed his cousin away, out the door and into the yard. The tree under which Jim-Jam’s workshop had been built spit leaves at the sandy-haired track star. Jim-Jam checked his watch, but only after bolting the door. He had two pages of differential equations to complete, a mailbox to repair and a sonnet of three pages to compose all before dinner. Reflexively, Jim-Jam retilted the umbrella. For the briefest of moments, the computer screen glowed. Just as abruptly, it darkened. J.J.’s mother had threatened to personally disassemble the hovel that sat in her backyard if her son did not make a more regular appearance at the dinner table.

Meanwhile, beyond the realm of robin eggs and of owl pellets, of topographical maps and of broken pieces of European crystal, Ralph bellowed. Upon tearing open the small, nontransparent envelope, Ralph had discovered a Band-Aid.

—–

KJ Hannah Greenberg and her hibernaculum of sometimes rabid imaginary hedgehogs roam the verbal hinterlands. Some of the homes for their writing have included: AlienSkin Magazine, AntipodeanSF, Bards and Sages, Big Pulp, Morpheus Tales, Strange, Weird and Wonderful, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, and The New Absurdist. When not disciplining her imaginary friends, Hannah serves as an associate editor for Bewildering Stories. She has also worked for Tangent Online as a literary critic.

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In a Chinese chat room, drugstore a dozen young men are telling one another that it serves Japan right:  perhaps this earthquake will help them see how arrogant they have been, how they have to apologize for their mistakes.

“They build giant buildings everywhere,” says one, “where they have no business being.”

“They should expect the world’s condemnation after they try to seize the Diaoyu islands,” says another.

“They have never apologized for what their soldiers did in Taiwan,” says a third, who always brings up Taiwan.

Another, who hasn’t spoken up yet, says “An 8.9 earthquake in China would kill millions more people.”

Someone else, who claims to be a woman, says “I lost my only son in the Sichuan earthquake.”

For a while, no one types.  Then someone says, “The buildings in Sichuan were not so tall.”

In San Francisco a young man is woken up by his cell phone, which rings again, and again, and again.  He’s trying to sleep off a hangover.  It’s light outside.  He picks it up.  “Hello?” he croaks.

“Are you alright?”

“What?”

“It’s me.  Are you all right?  I’ve heard there’s been a tsunami on the West Coast …”

“What are you talking about?”

“So you’re all right?”

He looks around.  The sun is shining through his window.  Birds are singing.  It’s like summer in the middle of March.  “Fine,” he says.

Eventually he gets her off the phone, and then sees there are emails waiting.  Three of them are from friends in the East Coast, two from family in the Midwest, asking if he needs help.  He gets up, walks out into his kitchen, and puts on a pot of coffee.  “When did it get so easy to panic?” he asks out loud.

In Oklahoma, Theresa watches the videos of Japanese buildings falling over and over again until she has to turn away.  She was in the Murrow Federal Building when Timothy McVeigh pushed the button.  She remembers a roar and a thunderclap, and the floor giving way.  She shakes her head and absently eats cashews.  People don’t get it, how easily the world gives way, how little firm ground there is to stand on.  She goes to the Red Cross’ home page and makes a donation, her little ritual whenever tragedy strikes. Her way of reminding the earth what team she’s on.  It’s easy, it makes her feel better.  Going in to work every day for the first year after the blast, that was hard.

In India, Dhwanni tosses a soccer ball in to the crowd of orphans and watches them cluster around it, then scatter into makeshift teams.  The ball, and the orphanage, and his salary were all paid for by rich Americans after the 2005 tsunami killed all the fishermen in the village, leaving an entire populace of widows and orphans.  Well, the Americans weren’t rich by American standards … Dhwanni studied in the states for a few years, he knows.  These were retirees, shopkeepers and school principals who wanted to spend their last years doing some good.  Orphans make a great project.  He’s cynical about it, but not bitter.  When the World Trade Center fell, it wasn’t as though his parents thought to donate blood or send money to relief organizations.  It wasn’t as though his parents, or anyone important, ever came to this village.  The Americans are like a wave, unstoppable;  like water, they end up everywhere, sometimes throwing people out of their homes, sometimes decimating villages and cities … but sometimes building orphanages and sending soccer balls.

The kids … these kids are traumatized, Dhwanni knows.  They have nightmares and howl every time an adult they like leaves the room.  They never go near the ocean.  But all it takes is a soccer ball to make them smile and laugh and jump.

It’s just the way the world is.

—–

Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues.  He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

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In the summer, sick my cousins and my sister and I stood behind the ice shack, order which hadn’t been used in years.  The country club staff had left up all the old signs “Thin Ice November and April, store ” “Hang Skates Here,” and “Ladies Changing Room” for reasons of nostalgic charm.  Our dads had skated here back in the sixties, but none of us lived in Minnesota anymore.  And our families didn’t belong to country clubs.  At twenty, I’d never played a game of golf, and I was pretty bad at tennis.

I passed the joint to Chip, my fifteen-year-old cousin with orangey-red hair that no one else in our family has.  My little sister Alice and I joke that Chip is an alien, or someone else’s son.  Whenever we see Chip, we can’t wait to escape to the bathroom to whisper.  “God, isn’t Chip weird?  He’s going to be some sort of serial killer, you can see it in his eyes.”  Chip’s eyes are dark brown, almost black, and stand in sharp contrast to our Aryan features—blond hair and blue eyes.  Alice and I look alike: our grandmother’s hooked nose, our father’s hair and eyes.  Chip’s older brother, Jones, looks like us, too.  He and Alice could be twins.  She hates it when I say this, or whisper in the bathroom.  “Are you like, attracted to Jones?  Because you think you’re so hot?”  Jones is not Jones’ real name, but something he came up with at college when everyone was reinventing themselves and trying on self-assigned nicknames.  Jones is really Jonathan, but he makes even his parents call him Jones and gets upset when they trip up.

“Nice,” Chip said after he inhaled and smiled like he’s all experienced but then he coughed.  Alice passed on the joint, and so did Jones, so Chip and I passed it back and forth and got really high while his brother and my sister look at us with crossed arms and raised eyebrows, judging us even though they’re jealous.  Jones is a Resident Assistant at his college and takes it really seriously.  Alice and I laughed when he told us about all the drunk freshman he’d busted.

“There was an opium growing empire on my floor,” Jones told us in his slow, deliberate way.  Jones is smart, like mathematician and engineer smart, but sometimes he has trouble articulating sentences.  Alice and I didn’t quite understand how he had friends, but he seemed really popular when we stalked him on facebook.  Eating pixie sticks and sledding with his friends in i-phone photos, Jones looked happy and relatively normal.  My sister and I reasoned that he was friends with an anti-drug contingent of World of Warcraft playing losers, and that he was their god.  We christened Jones “The Narc” which was hilarious.

Chip and I put Visine in our eyes and blinked back tears.  Now that we were stoned getting through an assigned seating family dinner would be much easier, unless anyone decided to ask us questions.  I hoped I’d be able to get away with smiling and nodding and listening to some older relative’s stories.

“You look like a little hooker,” I told Alice, who looked hot, but promiscuous in a very short white-eyelet sheath, espadrilles, and pink lipstick.  Alice keeps her hair very short and bleached blond—it’s kind of eighties.

“Shut up,” Alice said.  “You’re jealous.”  My sister and I often accuse the other of being jealous.  Usually it’s true.  Jones was wearing khakis and a polo, fine, but Chip’s choice of clothing clashed with his skin and hair, and made him look like even more of a serial killer: Salmon-pink short-sleeved Lacoste polo and bright white slacks.  Worn in tan boat shoes.  Alice and I have never known our only cousins well enough to tease them about things like poor fashion choices, or about anything really, like how neurotic their mother is or how uptight their dad can be.  We’re all within five years of one another, but I am the oldest, which was why Chip and I were smoking pot even though Jones was a narc and Alice disapproved.  I was wearing black, as usual, and pearls. I had weird tan lines on my feet and shoulders, but I thought they added to a WASPy just-back-from-the-lake summertime je ne sais quoi.

Alice and I scanned the seating chart and had been placed across the room from one another—she had our dad at her table, and I had Chip at mine.  “Sweet,” he said grinning at me.  I hoped he wouldn’t think we were best friends now because we’d smoked together.

Chip sat next to me at the table and started balling his dinner roll into little doughy pieces and arranging them on his bread plate.  Our table filled up: Ginny, the recently married debutante from Dallas, Litmas, someone’s obscure Estonian artist husband, Wilson, a pot-bellied professional racecar driver, and Melanie, a divorced poet with adult children.  All blood relatives to me and Chip, except for Litmas who sat on my left and smelled of wine.

“Laura? Or Marcy?” Wilson asked, looking at my place tag.  “Laura,” I said, trying to look pleasant.  “Sorry,” Wilson said, “I thought you might be your mom.  You just look so much like her.”  Wilson (really, half of my relatives) has been saying this to me since I was twelve.  I want to remind them my mom’s twenty-five years older than me, completely silver-haired, and skinny as a bird.

I couldn’t  think of anything to say to Ginny, though I needed to say something:    “I heard you had a glass dance floor at your wedding?  Over a swimming pool? On like, the eighth floor?”

I flagged down a waiter, some high school kid with tinted Clearasil on his zits.  “Can I have a bootleg, please?”  Bootlegs are divine, easily the only truly enjoyable aspect of the country club experience: sweet soda, muddled mint and lime, and gin.  They’re the Midwest’s answer to the mojito and nearly as good.

“Are you 21?” the waiter asked me.

“Yes,” I rolled my eyes.

“I guess it’s OK,” he said and I thought he should go make friends with Jones and start a task force to squash underage drinking. But there was no one to tell.

—–

A Vassar graduate, Adele Melander-Dayton is attending graduate school for journalism at NYU and interning at Salon.com

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In his white shirt, viagra gray summer weight suit, and and polished black Florsheims, no rx he looked like a John Deere accountant on parole from the Plow and Planter Works.

His date wore a black leather skirt and red Tony Lamas.  She’d unbuttoned her western cut denim shirt and tied the tails under her breasts, baring her midriff and lifting her forty-inch bust.  She stroked his blue striped tie.  “C. C.,” she squeaked, “you promised me a drink on my birthday.  You said I got to pick the spot.”

“But I thought you’d pick a nice place,” he whined.

Many small-minded tavern owners would have taken offense at his insensitive remark.  I let it slide.  The moment she’d dragged his sorry-suited butt into my bar, she’d owned me.

I topped off the pitcher of Wisconsin Amber for the boys at the pool table and maneuvered for a better look.

“The places you take me don’t have dance floors,” she said firmly.  Her voice was amazing.  Even from across the room. her high-pitched, child-like, nasal-little-squeak sent shivers through my skin.  She sounded fifteen, but didn’t look it.  In the dim light, I figured her for twenty-one, out celebrating her birthday.  She pointed to a barstool.  He took a seat.  She strolled over behind him.

I wasn’t blind.  I noticed things as she approached the bar and the light got better.  Her short blonde hair failed to hide distinctly dark roots.  She carried some extra pounds around her mid-drift—nothing a hundred daily sit-ups wouldn’t cure.  Only the wrinkles around her eyes told me she was past forty.  Don’t get me wrong.  She was still a looker.  And the lady knew how to move.

“Stop your pouting,” she squeaked at her companion.  “It’s my birthday, for god’s sake.”

I call my tavern Night Court because it’s across from the county court house.  Lawyers and suspects, clerks, jailers, bail bondsmen, hookers, and off-duty deputies all frequent the place.  Every one of them can legitimately say that they missed supper because they went to Night Court.  But the place is nothing special.

Our wine cellar is shallow, but we’ve got a dozen craft beers on tap, including our own micro-brew, “Emma’s Pissed.”  I named it in honor of my mother, and put her picture on the label.  She doesn’t approve, but I wanted to thank her for marrying an older man who believed in trust funds.  I keep ma’s picture framed by the safe, and I call her every Sunday night because that’s Jerrie’s night to close the place.  Jerrie is my business partner.

The birthday girl sat down at the bar.  She patted her date’s arm as if to say, “Good boy,” then leaned over in my direction.  She had noticed I was staring.  “I may be a year older, but I still got it, don’t I, Honey?”

“Name’s Ed, and, yes, ma’am, you still got it.”  I extended my hand and shook hers.  She held my hand for a moment before releasing it.

“Please, don’t call me ma’am.”

I smiled my best “customer is always right” smile and asked, “What would you like me to call you?”

She instantly replied, “Yo’, babe!”  I nodded in approval.  “I’ll raise my hand to order a drink, or some batter dipped mushrooms, or,” she winked, “to ask for a napkin on which to write my phone number, and you’ll say . . ..”

“Yo’, babe!”

“Exactly.”  She nudged the suited sack of shit beside her to see if he got the joke.  He grunted.  She raised her hand.

“Yo’, babe!” I said.  “What can I do for you?”

“This handsome young man, C. C. by name, has promised me, the birthday girl, moi, also known as Madonna,” pointing to herself, “a pitcher of margaritas.”

C. C. started rising from his barstool.  “I believe what I said was that I’d take you out for a drink.”

“A pitcher of margaritas is the drink I want.”

“Yo’, babe.  I’m on it.”  I turned to him.  “Can I get you a micro brew?”

“Sure.  Whatever.”  He stood patiently while Madonna rooted in his pocket for quarters, then sat down and waited for his beer as she sauntered over to the jukebox.

I poured him a frosty mug of Emma’s Pissed, and asked Jerrie to make the margaritas.  I grabbed some quarters from my tip jar and joined Madonna.  Junior Brown’s “Too Many Nights in a Road House,” started playing as I spilled my quarters out in front of her.  “You’ve got great taste in music, Madonna.”

“Thank you, Ed,” she squeaked.  “It compensates for my lousy taste in men.”

I motioned with my head toward the bar.  “You mean C. C.?”

“Hell no.  He’s all right.  I give him a hard time, but he keeps taking me out.  He’s a good kid.”  She finished making her selections.  “I shouldn’t tell you this, but his real name is Cecil Chadwick.”

“I imagine he doesn’t share that with a lot of people.”

“He couldn’t keep that secret from me.”

“Why not?” I asked her.

“I’m his mother, Madonna Chadwick.”  She winked again, and then walked back to the bar.  She looked over her shoulder to see if I was following.  “I think my drink is ready.”

Not only had Jerrie delivered the pitcher and poured Madonna her first drink, she’d managed to engage Business Boy in conversation.

Jerrie is the flamboyant member of our partnership.  She started waitressing in this tavern when she was eighteen.  She has long, curly red hair, a stocky body, good business sense, and a contagious laugh.  She lived with the previous owner for six years before he saw a PBS special on Paul Gauguin and relocated to Tahiti.  Her business sense and my inheritance money made us a good team.  Tonight she was wearing dark panty hose and a black judge’s robe that ended four inches above her knees.  Experience told me she was wearing nothing else.

“ . . . and so, I bought Nano-Vations stock for a song two days after the IPO when it took that dip,” she told C. C..  “Too bad I didn’t sell it last week just before the merger rumors.  It’s still doing all right.  Finally making a profit, although next quarter projections . . ..”

While Jerrie talked stock portfolios, I served a posse of sheriff’s deputies back from their shift.  When I returned, Jerrie and Madonna were discussing nails.  Madonna’s nails were obviously fake, painted with red and orange swirls.

“I have to put on nails I can remove easily, otherwise, I’m afraid I’d let down my bowling team.”  When Madonna saw me walking over, she began self-consciously playing with the turquoise necklace she wore.  Suddenly she raised her hand.

“Yo’, babe!” I responded.

She pointed to the almost empty pitcher.  “Do you have more like that?”

“Mother,” C. C. scolded, “you’ve had enough.”

“Now, son,” she responded, “Jerrie here has been keeping me company, and so I think I’ve been shorted on the birthday drink situation.”

I analyzed the glassware on the bar in front of them.  Sitting in front of Jerrie was her usual tonic water with a twist of lime.  She started omitting the gin from her drink two weeks ago when she found out she was pregnant.

Jerrie poured tall, dark, and diversified another pint of Emma’s Pissed.  C. C.  struck me as a cheap drunk.  If he had a third, I’d be calling a cab.  Madonna, though, had single-handedly dispatched the entire pitcher with little apparent effect except a slight glow in her cheeks.

“I don’t know why he takes me places if he doesn’t want to have a good time?” she told Jerrie.

I knew why he did.  I knew all about trips taken from guilt.  Except instead of taking my mother to bars, I took her to farmers’ markets, outlet malls, and Wal-Mart.  When I felt real guilty, I took her to the Purple Parrot Antique Boutique.

“He used to be a normal kid,” she continued.  By now, Jerrie was comfortably resting her left hand on his arm.  C. C. was blushing.

Jerrie seemed fascinated by Madonna’s every squeaky word.  “I thought C. C. would end up an auto body man or a Marine.  But no, National Honors Society President, State Mock Trial Runner Up, Midwest High School Chess Champion, scholarship to the University of Iowa.  Every time he came home, he was reading another damned Frenchman: Foucault or Camus or Voltaire.”

Madonna drank deeply from her glass.  “One Saturday morning his senior year, he came home for a surprise visit.  He woke me up where I’d blacked out on the kitchen floor.  There he was all dressed up in a Polo shirt and Polo slacks.  I asked him where his pony was.”

He raised his hand as though he were in English class, and it was his turn to speak.  “I was dating Brittany.  She told me that since I was a senior I needed to start dressing more like an adult.”

Madonna slapped his arm down.  “Mind you, Brittany has never set her sorry ass in my kitchen even though her family lives just outside of town.  Levi jeans and Metallica shirts were good enough for his father, I don’t know why Ralph Lauren has to sign everything C. C. wears.”

“Mother thinks accessorizing means body piercing and a tattoo.”

“I’ve birthed a monster,” she squeaked.  She emptied her Margarita glass and reached again for the pitcher.

Jerrie touched Madonna’s hand.  “Sometimes children do things that are out of their mother’s control.”

Madonna leaned over to Jerrie.  “C. C. was a keeper,” she said in a stage whisper.  “He was the one I choose to be my companion.”

Jerrie turned to C. C.  “What does she mean, ‘a keeper’?”

He sighed.  “I have two older brothers and one sister whom I’ve never seen.  She gave them up for adoption at birth.  I give her credit for not aborting them, but I think each was an interruption in her career.  She was in the entertainment business until recently.”

“What’s she doing now?”

“Working at Wal-Mart and feeling sorry for herself.  She was just transferred to Cosmetics after the fiasco in Small Appliances.  She’s hoping that if Wal-Mart comes out with their new line of intimate wear, she can transfer there.”

“Intimate wear?”

“Oh, haven’t you heard?” she gushed.  “They are planning a whole line of sexy clothing called Sam’s Secret.  It will be in direct discount competition with Victoria’s Secret.  I’m hoping to work my way up from the local store to the national design team.”

C. C. drank deeply from his beer until the pint was empty.  He stared at it for a moment as if wondering where all the liquid had gone, and then he said firmly, “Where might I find another beer?”

Jerrie slid her arm under his and eased him off the barstool.  “Come with me, Sweet Pea, I’ll give you a personal tour of the tappers.”

Madonna and I watched Jerrie pilot him around the bar.  “I think that’s the last you’re going to see of your son tonight, until you’re ready to pour him into a cab.”

“What’s she going to do with him?”

“Jerrie will teach him how to tend bar.  She’ll keep him loose enough with beer to allow him to enjoy himself, but not so plastered that he can’t show her a good time if he decides he wants to leave with her instead of you.  Jerrie has an apartment above the bar.”

“Hey, he’s my date . . .,” she squeaked, rising from the bar stool.

“He’s your son,” I said guiding her back onto the stool.  “Plua, you’ll have no trouble picking up any man in this bar, if you want to.”

She modesty lowered her eyes as she softly patted her hair into place.  “You really think so, Ed?”

“Trust me, Madonna, I don’t care how many birthdays you’ve had, you’re a great looking broad.”

“Oh, it’s not just the birthdays that have me concerned.  I’m used to birthdays.”  I reached over and topped off her margarita glass again.  “I’ve got surgery scheduled next month.”

“Nothing serious, I hope.”

“Elective.”  She leaned over and squeaked into my ear.  “I’m having my implants removed.”

“Really?”  I tried not to stare as I envisioned what her breasts would look like without the augmentation.

She read my thoughts and leaned over again.  “My breasts were really quite lovely before I had them done.  It was a career move.  I paid for the operation with C. C.’s college fund, but made the money back within six months because of my increased income.  He was twelve at the time.  He handled all the finances, figured out how to cost the price of the operation and did the work on the tax return to take it as a business expense.  I’m very financially secure, thanks to my son’s investments.”  She reached into her purse and pulled out her billfold.  She carefully removed a well-worn school picture.  “This was his sixth grade photo.  He was a handsome child.”  As I admired the photo, Madonna sipped her drink.

Bob Burris, a burly guy about six-feet-four, nudged his way to the bar, jostling Madonna’s right arm and causing her drink to spill on her bare leg.  She jumped up from the bar, knocking her stool over.  Bob turned to see what he’d done and immediately froze.  “Oh, my God,” he said.  “I’m so sorry.”

Bob’s a regular.  He works for the DOT and spends his summers filling potholes with hot asphalt in the ninety-degree heat.  He’s irritable, not noted for his politeness.  His giant biceps make him cocky, eager to start of fight.  But he seemed awed by Madonna.

“I take it we’ve met,” Madonna said, extending her hand to shake his.

“Sheila Lamour!  It’s been three years since I’ve seen you on stage.  Where’ve you been?”

“Retired.”

“Nah.  Retired?”  He looked her over carefully.  “You still got the stuff.  My name’s Bob.  I’m your biggest fan.”  He looked around in disbelief that everyone else wasn’t as awed as he was.

I looked at C. C. standing hip to hip with Jerrie behind the bar.  Apparently this type of meeting happened all the time to Madonna.  I suddenly understood why he preferred to take his mother to places of refinement.  A patron of Chez Rashid probably wouldn’t interrupt cocktails with his wife to gush that he was “Sheila’s biggest fan.”

“The guys will never believe that I met you.”  He started looking around the top of the bar.

“Maybe if you got her autograph . . .,” C. C. offered flatly, pushing a napkin in Bob’s direction and reaching for his pen.

“Now, C. C., Bob might lose a napkin.  Then what would the guys say when he tried to tell them the story?”  C. C.’s expression told me he’d been down this road, too.  Madonna dug into her purse and pulled out a black Sharpie.  “Let me do it this way.”  She pushed up Bob’s sleeve and much more slowly than I thought was necessary, autographed his biceps, “Sheila Lamour.”

Bob just stood frozen.

“Well . . .,” Madonna asked, “aren’t you going to return the favor?”

“What?”

“If you’re my greatest fan, I’d like your autograph, too.”  She handed him the marker.

A little stunned, Bob finally started to reach over to sign her arm.

“No, silly, not there.”  She opened up her blouse a little wider at the top, stopping just short of exposing everything.  “Here.”

Reverently, Bob signed his name across her chest.  She took back the marker, then kissed him on the cheek.  “Thank you,” she said, and then turned away, dismissing him.  Bob walked away from the bar, forgetting his drink.

C. C. told Jerrie, sotto voce, “She does this every time we go out.  You’d think she hadn’t retired.”

“She’s like a firefly,” Jerrie said.

“What do you mean?”

“Fireflies have these highly stylized mating rituals.  The movements have meaning only within their species.”

“And what do the movements mean?”

“That the female is ready.”

“Oh, my mother is ready.”

Jerrie gave C. C. a playful nudge that seemed to surprise him.  But he didn’t back away.  He looked down at his empty beer glass and then up to Jerrie in her impossibly short judge’s robe and tights.  He moaned just a little, as he realized he needed a few more ounces of courage, but wasn’t sure if he’d still be able to stand without assistance.

He pointed to his glass.  “You think I could get another one of those?”

“Of course,” Jerrie laughed.  “This is a bar.”

When she returned Jerrie handed C. C. the beer and made sure he took a drink before he did anything else.  She motioned to Madonna.

Madonna and I had returned to the juke box and were discussing the merits of disco versus blues.  Pretty much everyone else in the bar except for C. C. and Madonna were regulars.  When they saw that Jerrie and I were indisposed, Night Court became a self-service pub.  People got their own drinks and kept a tab to settle up later.  It had happened before.

“Your mother is ready, but the mating ritual of the firefly isn’t that simple.  In a single yard there might be a half dozen kinds of fireflies, but the movements are only interpretable by the one species the female wants to attract.”

C. C. had finished most of his pint and was raising the glass to have another go.  “Slow down,” Jerrie told him, “and stay with me on this.”  She motioned to Bob, sitting with his buddies, still talking about the autograph he got from Sheila Lamore.  “Bob was obviously attracted, but after your mother did her little dance, he walked away satisfied.  No mating there.”

“Bob isn’t my mother’s type.”

“Exactly.”

“Oh!”  He set down the beer.  “So my mother is flitting around the bar or yard or wherever our metaphorical firefly wants to fly, and moving here and moving there . . ..”  He stopped to demonstrate by moving his upper body, but almost fell off the barstool in the process.

Jerrie steadied him.  “Something like that.”

“And the little flashes she gives, and the moves, all look like the same mating stuff, but she really just waiting for the right guy firefly to give the right signals to and she hasn’t found him yet.”

Jerrie snapped her fingers, which brought C. C. to attention.  “You were right on track until the very end.”

C. C. stopped to retrace his words.  “No, I’m pretty certain about that.  Bob is not her type.”

“Not Bob, silly . . ..”  She motioned my way.

C. C. stopped and observed Madonna and me on the dance floor.  I was a decade her junior, but I would never mistake her for my mother.  She smelled good and moved like a jaguar.  I was her prey, but didn’t mind at all.

Jerrie walked over from the bar interrupted us.  “Madonna, may I ask you a question?”

“It better be good,” she purred, “because I’m in no mood for small talk.”

“When does C. C. need to be at work?”

She looked over to C. C. clinging to the bar for stability, grinning.  C. C. waved.  “Nine o’clock, Darling, but he’ll need about an hour to get home and shower before that.”

“I don’t think he should be driving, so I thought I’d better put him to bed at my place.”

“That’s a great idea, Jerrie.  I’ve been worried about him.  But don’t be surprised if all he wants to do when he sobers up is talk about investments and securities.”

“I hope so,” Jerrie said as she scurried back to C. C.

“Give him French toast for breakfast, and he’ll never want to leave you.”

Jerrie waved.  “Thanks for the tip.”

Madonna and I watched Jerrie ease C. C. off the stool.  She put her arm around his waist.  He put his hand on her butt under the tiny robe.  She squealed when he squeezed, but she did nothing to discourage him.  She opened the door that went upstairs to her apartment, and they negotiated the stairs in tandem while groping each other.

“You think she can handle him?” Madonna asked.

“Oh, yeah.  And I suspect he’ll do all right with her, too.”

Madonna nodded.  “Not many men would have figured that out.  My son appears rigid and uptight and full of stocks and statistics.

“I bet he can be quite randy,” I suggested.  “Just like his mother.”  I looked at the clock.  “Last call,” I shouted out.

“No it ain’t,” someone shouted from the pool tables.

Madonna squeezed my arm.  “No need to rush them out.  I’ve got all the time in the world, and I think you are worth waiting for.”

I had hoped she’d noticed.

“Besides, you seem to be short a waitress, and I’ve had some experience in that department prior to my adult entertainment career.”  She sauntered to the bar with every male eye in the place glued to her body.  She reached back and pulled out a short white apron.  “Could someone help me tie this?”  A half dozen volunteers rose in unison.

Madonna and I closed down the place a little early.  The thumping of the bed upstairs made it awkward for some of the guys who’d had their designs on Jerrie.  “I’ve heard that my son has amazing stamina.”

I made a pot of coffee. Tomorrow was Jerrie’s day to open, so I didn’t want to leave a mess. Madonna and I put the bar in order, then retired to my house, made a fire, and made love until almost sunrise when we finally fell asleep.

Jerrie never said much about what happened with C. C. that night, or what he said she told him she was pregnant.  Within a week they were married.  Jerrie sold Madonna her interest in the bar, so Madonna is my partner, now.  She has the apartment above the bar.  Half the nights I sleep there.  Some night I sleep alone.  We aren’t rushing into anything.

With Sheila Lamore tending bar most nights, business has picked up.  And nobody, not even C. C., Junior, calls her “Grandma.”

“Yo, Babe” is the only title she answers to.

—–

Paul Lewellan has published over forty short stories, including fiction in South Dakota Review, Big Muddy, Word Riot, Porcupine, Timber Creek Review, The Furnace, and American Polymath.  His story, “The Queen of Bass Fishing in American,” received Special Mention in the 2010 Pushcart Prize anthology.  Paul is an Adjunct Instructor of Communication Studies and Business Administration at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.

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He was trying to walk away after their awkward exchange of hey how are yous and one of those hugs where everyone’s arms are in the wrong place and you’re both a little bit too aware of your own and each other’s crotches.

He was trying to walk away after the hug because that is the thing to do, shop isn’t it?  You say hey how are you, search you both answer dishonestly, hospital
you hug ineptly, and then you walk away.

But she grabbed him by the sleeve and sort of thrust him into a booth and sat down next to him so he couldn’t get out and she said what is going on? You never called me again.

And he said oh, well, I was out of town and then I got back and I figured, you know, you’d call me if you wanted to talk and I mean it wasn’t like I was supposed to call you and I didn’t, it was just like one of those things where one person calls or the other person calls and then…

Shut up, she said. What is going on?

Well, uh, I’m at this bar with my friends, and uh, I ran into you, and you pulled me into this booth, and…I don’t know.

I’m in love with you, she said. What is going on?

You’re, uh, you’re in love with me? We don’t actually…I mean, we’ve only…

I’ll tell you what’s going on, since you don’t seem to know, she said. Look at all these people at this bar. Trying to find each other. Even the ones who think they’ve already found each other…they are just little fireflies whose lights don’t work, flying next to each other in the dark. You and me, we found each other. Our lights were lit up, and we could see each other in the dark, and we pirouetted in the air. You remember. And then you didn’t fucking call me again.  Let’s not make it more complicated than it is.

—–

Chloë Gladstone writes catalogue copy for a living, which is not exactly what she had in mind when she was six and decided to be a writer when she grew up, but still it’s pretty fun.

—–

To comment on this story, visit Fiction365′s Facebook page.
It was Saturday. I remember it well, advice the fog after a summer rain, the smell of wet earth and the rot of leaves, damp on the side of the road. She was older than me, still is I guess, and wilder, meaner, sharper. I was quieter and mouse-like, a shadow in her footsteps.

That day, she dressed like a princess, wrapped my mother’s pearls around her arm like Cleopatra’s bracelet. I was naked, with my tawny hair stretched down and over my back, my own body’s cape.

The sun was casting shadows through the windows onto my father’s leopard rug that he had bought at a second hand shop in the Meat Packing District. He had flung it out onto his study floor and flaunted it as if he had shot it on some African safari.

My sister sprawled herself onto it’s spotted back, smoothed flat against the floor and rested her head on the leopard’s, it’s ears cupping her head like mittened hands. I flopped down beside her and ran my ringers through a string of pearls. She sighed and looked away. I moved closer. I could smell the soap of her skin, sweet like honeysuckle and lavender. I touched her hair and it was silk on my fingers. She brushed me aside.

I looked at my naked body and saw bones and skin and soft folds of flesh. I was awkward and ashamed. My sister closed her eyes and I studied the contours of her face, the slight flush of her cheeks, the black of her eyelashes. The sun cast shadows like storm clouds and the air was thick and heavy.

It happened fast and I almost missed it with my eyes halfway closed, imitating my sister. But I left them open, just a little, so I could steal glimpses of her, watch her chest rise and fall like the tide. Outside I heard the thunder of two worlds colliding and I thought I was dreaming. And then I saw it and my eyes opened wide.

I saw it flying through the air like a rag doll, limbs and hair and eyes; eyes so wide I thought they’d pop right out. They stared at me through our living room window, and I noticed they were the same color as mine, steely grey. And then it was gone. I looked at my sister and her eyes were still shut, as if the deafening sound outside had not happened.

I stood and walked to the window. My nakedness was reflected back to me in the shine of the glass, and there, lying next to my reflection on the grass outside, was a girl. She looked like me, with long brown hair and skinny legs. But her limbs were all wrong, all pointing in different directions, as if she were a Barbie and someone had rearranged them to make her walk backwards.

But then I saw the blood, streaming out across her forehead toward her eyes that still looked at me. Those eyes that didn’t blink. And in the background, I saw a bike with yellow streamers hanging off the handlebars and only one wheel. There was a man, crying on his knees on the sidewalk, his car parked on the curb and my neighbors were piling out of there houses, all running, running, running toward the girl who wouldn’t stop staring at me. I saw my father, in his dirty jeans from working in the garden, kneel down to the girl and lift her up as if it were me and he was carrying me to bed. Her head flopped over his arm and she stopped looking at me, as he carried her away to the man who was crying. The three of them got in the man’s car and my father shouted something to our neighbors and then they were gone.

I felt my sister standing next to me. I could feel her eyes on my face.

“What happened?” she asked.

I shrugged. I didn’t know. I looked at our reflections in the window; my naked body next to hers swathed in pearls and I didn’t want to touch her, didn’t want her hair that felt like silk or her ebony eyelashes. I looked like that girl being carried away in my father’s arms, and I wanted to touch her, to close her eyes, to wipe the blood from her hair.

I turned and looked at my sister and I felt wilder, meaner, sharper than her. I bent and picked up my dress lying on the couch, pulled it on over my head, and walked away.
—–

Danielle Battee lives on an island in New Zealand and wishes every day that she could return home to the States.  She writes for travel websites and in her free time writes short stories about characters with whom she relates. 

——-

To comment on this story, visit Fiction365’s Facebook page
Every Sunday, there Fiction365 presents a new chapter of a previously unpublished novel.

City of Human Remains, view by Darren Callahan, viagra sale is a suspenseful mystery set in a dystopian future. 81 children have somehow disappeared in a city where there is no right to privacy, and everything is taped and available for review. Finding them should be easy … but then, losing them should have been impossible.

The current chapter, chapter 14, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Every Sunday, online Fiction365 presents a new chapter of a previously unpublished novel.

City of Human Remains, by Darren Callahan, is a suspenseful mystery set in a dystopian future. 81 children have somehow disappeared in a city where there is no right to privacy, and everything is taped and available for review. Finding them should be easy … but then, losing them should have been impossible.

The current chapter, chapter 15, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Manny 

 

For a long, try frustrating moment, he wishes he had shut up about the dog.  It’s not really his dog, truth be told.  It’s the pet of his roommate, who skipped out with a girl named Penelope two weeks before rent was due and hasn’t been seen since.  Buying a dog had been Penelope’s idea – a brown terrier with loud barks and energetic feet and claws and uninvited licks.  Name: ‘Arson.’  The dividing wall between Manny’s side of the apartment and his roommate’s can’t hold back the needs of a dog.  The dog crosses the demarcation regularly and makes himself a nuisance, looking for food or company that really shouldn’t be Manny’s to provide.  Penelope is probably secretly pleased with the hassle the dog has caused.  She always disliked Manny, which makes him want to fuck her even more.

Okay, says the police captain.  That’s one.  The olive-skinned man raises his index finger.

The gates are open.  Others step forward to state their credentials and volunteer for duty.

As the pairings are made, Manny wonders why he is even allowed into the room.  Everyone is older than Manny’s 23 years.  The flash note from his supervisor told him to go immediately to City Hospital, where he was presented with a badge and a shepherded into the pale orange briefing room with long tables and slim chairs, half in numbers from what was needed.  His superior isn’t anywhere in the room.  Only strangers.  In the quiet mumbles before the meeting started, the men and women talked only of football scores and the intermittent weather, nothing revelatory.  Nothing of their purpose.  Then voices outside and 2 men entered – the captain, and a more serious-looking sort with fraying hair.  They seek shelter from a blustery storm of questions at their backs and have to shuts the doors to silence them.

10 seconds into the speech Manny suddenly realizes this meeting concerns the 81 missing children.  He wonders if the others are surprised as well.  An awkwardly arranged party – each person a guest, no one the host.

And he has done what they wanted.

Volunteered.

Not everyone volunteers, so he wonders if he’s been brave or foolish.

Soon, the spares are all escorted out, leaving only the suckers.

Manny is paired with a woman 10 years older than him named Bastille.  Manny doesn’t ask if it is her first or last name.  She dresses frumpy, in workman’s overalls, with the hood of her sweatshirt pulled tight over her head.  She wears fashionable makeup on her aquiline face and has a decent figure under her bulky clothes.

Leaving the hospital by the loop road, Bastille arranges to pick him up early the next morning.  He gives her his address.

When he walks out of his apartment that Saturday morning, he hasn’t slept a wink.  In his hand, he clutches a scrap of paper with the dead child’s name and address.

She’s there, already waiting in her DL Prix.  Good Morning, kiddo, Bastille says.  In her face, there is a look of intensity that makes Manny feel even more awkward than he does already.

She drives.  In a few speedy minutes, she has navigated up to the top tier of the tri-level street.  The exit is not for a while, so she talks.  60 feet in the air she tells Manny all about herself: sociologist, human factors, worked on the tube lines in the early 90s and made a name counseling distraught passengers.

Did she know why she had been called to the hospital before it had been revealed? Manny asks.

No, but I watch the news.  I know the score.

Bastille takes a tight corner around a high-rise and Manny fastens his second belt.  Ever tell a family bad news?

Once.  Not this kind of bad news.  But something similar.

What?

That an only son had committed suicide.

And how did the family take it?

Bastille looks straight at him.  Not good.

He lets this sink under his skin and he imagines, as best he can, the conversation he is about to have with the family of the murdered girl.  One of the six.  He had hoped for the boy, but the odds were against him all night.  He’s practiced speeches in his head, and that had kept him awake.  That and the rain.  There was another cloudburst around 3 AM.

At a traffic light, Bastille punches a feed on her glide’s front panel.  She searches for news and gets a hit.  I want to know what’s breaking, she sniffs.  After a few minutes of chatter, though, Bastille realizes that nothing is, in fact, breaking.  The Media is dead quiet.  Oddly quiet.  I can’t believe they had us wait until morning, she scoffs, with the Media swarming like gnats.  And I can’t believe it worked.

Did you tell anyone?

Not a soul.  You?

My dog.

32 Sun probably had an audio clip up his butt.

Manny smiles.

The glide swerves a corner.

You got the address? she asks.

Manny waves the scrap of paper like a white flag.

Smart, smart, she continues.  Those who put together the volunteer pool… Mostly they were smart.  Again, not sure why the wait until morning.  That is, unless they wanted to give the families 1 more night of false hope.

Maybe they had a lead they wanted to follow.

She shrugs.  Could be.  But still…they’re pretty smart, I guess.  They gave the bad news to us, sent us out into the world, and no one stops to ask questions.  The reporters are looking for the commissioner, the coroner, or that Captain Gutierrez.  Someone in charge.  Not a bunch of low-level counselors.

So it was a strategy all along?

Think about it, Visque… They made everyone who saw anything at the hospital sign statements and then spend the night.  Only us volunteers got out of there alive.  We’re like Spartans relaying messages over a battlefield.

I guess so.  Manny isn’t very good at tactics.  And in that moment, he decides he really doesn’t like this woman.  She pretends to know it all and is a terrible driver.

Look out!

The edge of Bastille’s glide connects with the glide in front of hers.  Both Manny and Bastille rock forward as their DL Prix slams to a stop on the tertiary road.

Manny’s head connects with the dash and he sees stars.

You fucking bitch you fucking bitch. 

The insults rattle in his head.  He wants to open his lips.

She drops back into her bucket seat and tries to disconnect her bumper from where it should not be.  Traffic on the road comes to a complete halt.

The driver of the front glide switches off his engine, opens his door, and comes around.

Manny’s hands begin to shake and Bastille notices this.  You epileptic or something?

No, he shoots back.  I was just in an accident!

It’s just a fender-bender!  Geez!

She says it like she’s had a dozen today already.

Get out!  Get out!  It’s the other driver, tugging on Bastille’s jacket as he reaches through the open driver’s window.

Go easy, mister, she soothes.  I’ve got insurance.

The driver is small, bald, wearing a white jumper.  He’s got splatters of lime green dotting his clothes.  A painter.  His breath smells and he’s furious.  I’m just trying to get to work!  He yells at Bastille and Manny.  You think I want to spend 2 hours waiting on the police!  You know how busy they are?  You know!

She nods, trying to diffuse.  Sorry, sorry.  Mucho sorry.

Manny opens his glide door and steps out onto the road, then looks backwards.  The line of cars is long, the honking loud.  He can feel the bristling wind of motorist anger.

Face-forward, he can now gauge the true extent of the damage.  Bastille’s glide is in worse shape than the painter’s.  The steel point of her vehicle has been buzzed and dented.  Her bumper has come loose and dangles over the front right tire.  The other man’s glide has a crumpled plate and some marks.  It’s a $200 job, if that.  A shot from a laser-painter (which the painter probably owns) and it’s fixed.

Bastille squirms out of the glide.  She shoves the painter.

We have to go! Manny calls over the glide’s roof.

That’s right!  Bastille fingers the painter.  Important city business.

City gonna pay for my car? he argues.

I barely TOUCHED you!

Fuck you did!  My neck!  I’ll be out for weeks.

The man’s grabbing his long, hairy neck and feigning a crick.

Drivers lean out of glides and there are loud voices.  Men’s voices.  Women’s voices.  Shouts and emotional geysers.  No one’s happy.  Everyone’s delayed.  The painter’s making a scene and Bastille throws hand gestures while reaching for her Eye Dial.  A Samaritan squeezes between the 2 warring parties and tries to inject calm.  He’s tossed aside, but tangles back.  On the streets below, the sound of uninterrupted traffic makes it worse; when an artery is clogged, nothing but chaos until the police arrive.

Fucking BITCH! 

Everyone’s angry.

Including Manny.   Maybe the angriest.

In Manny’s hand is the slip of paper.  The name of the child and the address of the family.   Manny hates her.  Hates her.  He doesn’t say it to her face, would never say it directly, but she’s the worse thing to happen to him in weeks.  Fuck Bastille.  Lousy driver, lousy timing.

Why drive like an idiot?  Why today?  Why when we’re being counted on the deliver something so important?  When time is critical?  Why?  Fuck, God, Why!

Manny stuffs the slip with the address into his trouser pocket.  He crosses over the emergency lane for the tertiary road and jumps the rail.  His body flops awkwardly onto the exit conduit that takes him over the street.  The pavement is slick from the night’s rain.  30 meters away from the choke point, he can still hear the shouts.  It’s moved beyond fisticuffs now to a street-wide brawl.   Manny clears the conduit and the confusion is soon drowned in a blur of glide engines on the secondary and primary roads.

At the ground, he wants to find a train, but can’t.

The sky colors purple from newly threatening rain clouds.

TRAIN | TREN

…reads a sign hanging at the tunnel entrance.

Thank, Christ!

Falling below the sidewalk, he clings to the hand supports.  Manny is jostled into the flowing line of commuters, the beginnings of the Saturday morning shopper rush.  But he makes it to the platform – dry and free from bruises.

He waits 15 minutes for a train to appear in the dim and damp underground tunnel.  Impatient, he winds his wristwatch, an old-fashioned, and confirms the time with the elderly Japanese woman standing beside him on the platform.  When the train finally arrives, it’s loud.  He has to cover his ears with his threadbare brown gloves to box out the screech from the brakes as the train laboriously rocks to a full stop, and opens a hundred sets of doors.   Manny wrestles into the nearest train car.  He’s shut inside just as the train rockets from the station.

An advert port plays continuously a loop above his head.  He leans back, reads the latest on coffee products, and hates the heat and closeness among the passengers.  Slowly, the news ticker at the bottom of the port distracts him.  Barely understand what he’s reading until a flash appears…

6 MISSING CHILDREN FOUND…

ALL DEAD….

IDENTIFIED.

Then, to Manny’s utter revulsion, the ticker displays the names of the dead children.

Malinda Vasquez

Samantha St. Martin

Vaughn Schuller

Matty Ximon

Pieta Smith

And then his.

The name in his hand.

Bre Reverte

You sons a’ BITCHES!  Manny swears at the screen and the people surrounding him startle.  You fucking bastards!  Others read the scroll.  Some make sympathetic faces, thinking Manny knows one of the dead children.  In a way, he does.  They weren’t supposed to release the names, he explains in a frustrated voice to those standing closest to him, but the roar of a moving train covers his words.  Goddamnit, he swears into his shirt.  He wishes he could read the name on his slip of paper, but his arms are trapped below his waist by the bodies around him.  His nose fills with the smell of unwashed skin.

He can’t stomach the advert port anymore.

10 minutes and the train stops.

Passengers rise to surface level and quickly fall away outside the local station’s platform, going off in separate directions.

The neighborhood consists of tight rows of houses and dying medians from dog piss.  Manny slows his pace so he can read the numbers on houses.  Rivers of rain flow down the street – trash-filled water with oil floating on top.  It smells rank and used.  Manny scans upward for the nearest weather poll.  He locates one between 2 adjoining bus stops.

He crosses to the even-numbered houses.

11362.

11364.

11366 Hon. Judge Warren Pulchock Way.

Here.

A house, small but tidy.

A shingle drapes from a lamppost next to the walk-up path.  The name is inverted; the sign has gone upside-down in the storm.

THE REVERTES.

Here.

A wrought-iron gate separates Manny from his mission.  He pulls at the latch, but it’s locked.  A chain wraps, snake-like, around the bottom bars.  These sorts of redundancies only come after a home invasion.  Manny wonders if little Bre was home when the crime happened.  Or, he thinks, switching on his optimism, the gate and chain are just precautions, the signs of forward thinking, a family who knows the crime rates, and attends the Rat meetings in the Ward.  Who says hello to their local beat cop by name.  A family that, prior to the disappearance of their 7-year-old baby girl, felt safe.  Or, Manny reverses again, negativism rising, felt that something might happen at any moment.

He tests the gates for strength with a tug.

He rehearses his most recently drafted speech.

Your daughter, she did not suffer.  No, not true at all, Mr. and Mrs. Reverte.  There is hope.  Her sacrifice may lead us all out of this.  Your daughter, well, what can I say?  She is worthy of your grief.  Here…the details on where to go to claim her body.  Remember, please, to bring her birth certificate and all proper identification.  And I’m so, so sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Reverte, that the fucking Media are a bunch of fucking pricks.  Your neighbors knew before you did, didn’t they?  I say that because your broadcaster is off.  But your neighbor – 11364? – is watching a game show.  The sound is blaring.  I heard the contradictory banality of it when I was at your gate, holding my stupid scribble of your name and address, wondering how to get in the gate.  But your neighbor.  I’m sure there was a crawl on his screen.  So he knows your little girl is dead.  I bet these ‘kindhearted’ neighbors pushed their way into your home and told you between game show commercials every terrible fact of your daughter’s death.  I bet the whole goddamn street plans to bring you burritos and casseroles.  When Bre didn’t come home Wednesday, they did the same.  I bet most of it sits uneaten in your refrigeratorAnd they did not bring this food out of kindness, but just because they wanted to selfishly meddle in your pain.

Manny once more shakes the gate.  It rattles but doesn’t budge.

A man he had not seen before is standing alone on the porch.  Get the hell away, he says quietly.

Manny wraps his gloved hands around the bars of the gate.  I’m with the City, he explains.

Manny cannot clearly see the man’s face, buried in the shadows of the porch.  He can only perceive the hair on his head waving in the wind, the man’s enveloping arms crossed over his lean, muscular body.  You may have heard… Manny starts, but stops.  I’ve come to help you.  Manny suspects he’s talking to the wrong person, so asks simply, Are you Mr. Reverte?  When there is no answer, Manny leans into the gate and pries with even greater delicacy, Are you Bre Reverte’s father?

Get the hell away, the man on the porch repeats coldly.
Every Sunday, unhealthy Fiction365 presents a new chapter of a previously unpublished novel.

City of Human Remains, by Darren Callahan, is a suspenseful mystery set in a dystopian future. 81 children have somehow disappeared in a city where there is no right to privacy, and everything is taped and available for review. Finding them should be easy … but then, losing them should have been impossible.

The current chapter, chapter 16, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Sergio

 

Sergio Reverte watches the man leave.  He doesn’t want to talk with anyone.  Especially someone from the City.

Through the front window of his house, find he hears his wife crying.  She invited the Media people camped at their gate into their home.  Without asking her husband.  His wife prefers her grief to be loud and available.  Sergio hates her for it.  He wants them all to go far away and never come back.  The Post It Men have been camped at his gate for more than 4 days now, stuff since the names of the missing were first released.

But his daughter is on a different list now.

She’s no longer missing.

Now she’s gone forever.

So the attention will only be getting worse.

The man from the City – his tall frame and young face, his uncertain sympathies, his awkward approach to the gate – is outgunned.  He does not have the skill to complete this job.  Sergio runs into that type of man all the time on the meat-cutting floor where he works 10 hours a day.  Naïve men, raw men, men straight from high-school or the boat or smuggled across borders thinking there is an easy wage to be had by hacking frozen beef with a machete.  They think it’s easy until they take that first whack.  The blade sticks and they have to pull it out, tugging at the bone and the muscles, smelling the putrid stink of slaughter.  Even fresh meat isn’t truly fresh.  Even icy meat stinks with decay.  It may not be scientifically true, but he knows it from experience.  Death of the flesh means the beginning of rot.

Bre’s dead.

Bre’s dead.

Bre’s dead…

Bre is dead.

The words won’t stop.

Unbelievable.  Her disappearance was a nightmare, but her name on a list of found bodies?  Not possible.

Bre’s dead.

Bre’s dead.

Bre is dead.

Sergio’s only daughter.  He has teenage sons, but they’re not her.  Not even close to being her.  His little girl.  His youngest.  He prayed to be given a daughter.

Bre Maria Reverte.  2090-2097.  That will look ghastly on a gravestone.

Who would kill Bre?  Who would kill Bre?

He isn’t even angry.  Yet.  He knows he will be.  Raving.  Destructive.  Sergio, at his very best, is a powder keg over a lit match.  In this moment, he is surprised at his calm.  Every cell in his body is exploding and he wants so badly to throw the strangers from his living room, with their imagers and lightpads stuck under his wife’s tear-stained face.  But he can’t bring himself to do it.  He is paralyzed with sadness.  He’s been outside his body for 20 minutes, looking down on his pathetic self, and wishing he could re-connect with the reality he had known since Bre’s birth.

I’m 34 and I have a dead daughter.

He could live to be 80.

He will always have a dead daughter.

His future is off the rails and even if it gets righted, he will always remember what has been taken.

Bre is dead.

Who would kill Bre?

She, with brown eyes and brown hair, perfect teeth and hand-me-down clothes.  Tomboy clothes.  Overalls and sneakers.  The only thing making her a girl was the length of her hair, her smell, chromosomes, and her long thin arms, stretched over her dolls.  Hello Custard.  Hello Superpoo.  Hello Poco Tonto.  She’s surrendered realistic names in favor of the absurd, and Sergio likes that about her.  Even disguised as a tomboy, she knows herself.  She’s 7 and in love with her father, respectful of her mother, deaf to her brothers, and tender to everyone else.

She has several friends, all of whom have been by to inquire each and every day.  Is Bre back?  Can she play with us?

No.  Not anymore.

Some these people will be coming soon.  Today.  This morning.  When the news spreads, they’ll come.  Sergio senses playmates blowing in the autumn chill, the uncharacteristic snap of the Doll System on the fritz.

They’re coming.

All her little friends with her same, high-pitched voice and the same cares in the world.  They’ll be almost worse than the adults.  Worse than the cold Media.  These little girls will be Bre’s true contemporaries.  Bre’s true mirror.

How can I avoid seeing this day?

Sergio hops down off the porch and runs to the gate.  He’s out and to the street.  He’s on the way to the train.  He’s running now, as fast as he can, from his small home and the crying through his screen door.  He’s buying a ticket.  He’s pushing through the scan-stile and descending into the subway.

Exit.  Exit.  Exit.

It’s his route to the district, where he works.

Exit.  Exit.

He looks to the faces on the crowded car.  No one knows he’s just lost a daughter.  The passengers are sucked into the train’s advertisements and the news story that continues, destructively ignorant that someone deeply affected by their cruel litany can hear everything.  The drone forces him to cover his ears and turn his face to the flicker from the passing tunnel.

Bre’s dead.

Bre’s dead.

Who would kill Bre?

Bre’s dead.

He avoids the port’s crawl.  But, even through the barricades of his fingers, he catches it at least twice.  He doesn’t recognize the names of the other 5 discovered children.  Those were not Bre’s friends.  They weren’t even from his neighborhood, instead from scattered places throughout City 32, different Wards where Sergio has rarely ventured.  Some are nicer neighborhoods, others are slums.  He counts himself in the middle, buoyed by a small inheritance his wife received when they were married 15 years before America and his meat-worker paycheck.

Exit.

His exit.

Here he is.

Sergio departs the train and finds his way, on autopilot, to street level.

He emerges to different weather.  Drizzle.  Spit in his eye.  A pattern that only presents itself when work is being done on Doll.  With the mist, low-lying autumn fog dusts his to the knees.  Sergio cuts swath through the narrow alleys and ducks under the odorous, rusty bridges of the meatpacking district.

He suddenly startles himself.

How did I get here?

He has no memory of a man at his gate, the train ride, or anything but the piercing knowledge of his daughter’s death, a certainty he can’t rub away as easily as the last 30 minutes of travel.

He smoothes his short, combed hair, feels his high forehead, and traces his clean-shaven face.

He’s come for the bar.  Now he remembers.

El Hovel.

He enters through the wooden door (with its etched silver plate – Ningunos Armas En El Hovel) to the sounds of a blaring pre-war television set.   The bubbling voices of second shift meatpacking workers, who drink and drink more, lower and then disappear when he puts a foot on the wet rubber mat of the entrance.

There are 17 men inside, and they all turn…

…even Don Zuza, who stands behind the long and scratched-to-hell oak bar.  Turn that off, Don coughs to a drunk who is closest to the television’s perch, held above the bar in a black metal frame.  The customer appears bleary-eyed and confused.  Turn that off! Don winces and dips of his head to the door.

Finally understanding, the willow-thin man complies, reaches up, and switches off the knob.  The broadcast about the dead children disappears into a dot.  The room is now silent and uncomfortable.

Sergio pads his pants.  I forgot my wallet.

Come, sit, says Don.  You pay for nothing.   With his hairy animal hands, Don scoops to the vacant stool at the bar.

The bartender is decades older than Sergio – 58 years to his 34.  Hardship and wisdom turn his eyes red.  His thick and tangled beard grays at the tips.  He wears blindingly dark sunglasses.  Proudly tattooed, he doesn’t hide the fade of them, and his shaved head is a contradiction to the thick mat of body hair beneath his open white short-sleeve.

Sergio takes a long stride then stops.  Another stride.  Stops again.

He doesn’t really know why he’s come here.  The rows of liquor behind Don’s head make his stomach sick.  The faces of the men (and only men) with whiskeys or beers cupped in hands fix on Sergio.  Third shift meat-workers from the district.  Butchers.  Sergio is a second shift worker.  El Hovel at this hour is rare for him.  The faces he recognizes are not his friends.  Being around them is as disorienting to Sergio as if he had stayed with the Media squatters next to Bre’s grieving mother, his wife.  Only now does he realize this.

Sergio starts forward again and stands before the barstool.  He rests his hands on the chair, then the bar, then finally takes his seat.  You can turn the television back on, he whispers to Don.  It’s too quiet and I know you hate music.

No, dismisses Don.  Not today.  Today I take silence.

There must be something on the broadcasts other than me.

It doesn’t seem that way.  Don considers.  Maybe a football match?

Find it.  I don’t want them fucking looking at me.

Don walks down the length of the bar, speaks something to that nearby drinker, who rises up once more, turns back on the news then quickly jogs the dial to another channel.  He settles on a European football game in the second period, a game that happened last year.

Slowly, men return to beers and whiskeys.

Let’s drink.  What can I get you?

Sergio’s eyes are down.

Anything.  Just say.  Silence.  Listen… starts Don in a hush, Christ Jesus, to have this… Look.  The fucking news, the fucking news.  I see it.  Shit.  To my customer.  Some fuck to do this to a child of my customer.  You.  God.  What’s going on in this godforsaken city?  Listen, look.  We get drunk together.

Don taps a full whiskey bottle on the shelf, draws the bottle down along with 2 shot-glasses, and fills them.  He slides one into Sergio’s field of vision.   Drink.

Sergio traps a shot with his hands.  He shakes his head.  Then he lifts.  Don lifts with him.  They have killed the first together.

Another.

Bre’s dead, declares Sergio.  His voice is bitter, tangled with a scratch from the alcohol burning his throat.

I know, Don nods with sorrow.

She was just a kid.  She never hurt anybody.  She, she…

I know, I know.

It’s like she’s sleeping and I can’t wake her up.

Another, Don says, and pours.

I don’t want to get sick, says Sergio.  Give me something else.

What’s wrong with sick?

I have to go home to my wife.

You came here.  You stay here.  Don’t take the train.  I pay for a taxi.  Or a limo-glide.

That’s too much money.

Not today.  Don moves his face from sympathy into a tight knot.  That fuck gonna get what he deserves.  I know it in my head.  Soon, too.  He gonna be hunted like a goddamn chicken and get his head chopped.

No, says Sergio.  He needs to suffer.

He do, he do.  Look, he got no idea what’s coming down on him.  The whole fucking city.  He won’t last to the jail.  They’ll have him in the town square an hour after he’s brought in.  Hung or shot or both a thousand times.  That fuck.

Sergio takes the second whisky into his belly quickly.  He knocks over the empty shot glass.  A beer?

One appears.  Don knows Sergio’s brand.  Sergio has five every Friday after shift before going home, holding his piss on the train until it hurts, releasing as soon as he finds the toilet.  It’s Sergio’s only night of vice.  He’s the most sensible customer El Hovel has seen through its doors in a decade.  All the rest Don counts as no good laborers, spending their wage on dying early, not taking it home to the family, but drinking it down fast and with toxic results.  And fighting with each other.  Only a few are foolishly belligerent to Don.  They’re taken outside.  Then on the street, Don’s dirty style and hammer fists thump each one.  He’s taken on a dozen meat packers and beat them all, even the drunk with the machete.              I like you, Sergio.

I like you, Don.

The whiskey has lit their senses, though Don less so.  Both men have stars in their eyes.  Sergio’s are mixed with salty tears and fatigue.

Why this happen to you?  Why you?  Why Sergio Reverte, my best customer?

Sergio guzzles his beer.  I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, he says when he catches air.

What you mean?

I felt it.  Coming.  A long ways off, but coming.  People think it’s the mother that’s gonna miss a baby the most, you know?  People assume the mother’s got the connection.

Because the kid came out of her.

Yeah.  But that doesn’t mean the child isn’t here – in, in my heart.  Sergio has to fan a tear from his cheek.  But I felt it, even before it happened, Don.  I knew it months ago.  I thought: I am happy.  And I thought, Goddamnit, don’t think that, don’t.  You stupid prick.  Not for a minute.  Those thoughts put a curse on me.  I’ve got a house and wife and children and work and the things I love besides.  My family.  My country.  My city.  I thought, months ago, that I am happy.  And then the next time I see Bre across the dinner table, I think…  Oh, God, Don, I doomed her.  With that thought.  I have fucked her over with my happiness and now something bad has happened.

Because you realized you’re happy?

No one – Sergio moves into Don’s space – no one is allowed, Don.  It’s the old fable: you wish for gold, you get it…and then you find the gold is cursed.  Cursed.  And you die for this gold.  And you never get to have it.  Only for a few seconds – long enough for you to become attached to it and wish you had it back.  That fucking gold.

Sergio empties another beer into his stomach.

You know what I’m saying, Don?  Do you?  Bre is dead.  Who would kill Bre?  Who would kill my fucking daughter?
Standing in the middle of a frozen lake late on a winter evening listening to the ice break up. Sounds streak out into the closing darkness, pharm
sounds like God’s bullwhip cracking; like muted lightening strikes. Then silence, generic then more rumbling beneath my feet, sale the echoes and shudders of gradual disintegration. Standing still, feet cold, hands in my pockets, wishing I had something to cover my cheeks and ears. Twilight descends on the ice in a symphony of crackling dissonance.

Something I can’t see yet, something like a great bird, comes toward me. It feels like it’s descending upon me. An iceboat, visible now, moving almost faster than my eyes can follow. A slender, speeding swallow of sail and hull and outriggers, low, springy, with the mast raked back. The thunder I’ve been listening to resolves into the rumble of steel runners over rough ice, going well over fifty miles per hour. Just as I spot it, it shoots past me like a ghost chasing a lost soul. Or being chased by one.

The skipper, tucked deep into the cockpit, is a young man my age. I know him, barely. Marshall. Son of a wealthy family that lives at the end of the peninsula jutting out into the elbow of this large community lake. Rich boy, my mind says automatically. I resent Marshall. I’d say I hate him, but I don’t really. I don’t know him well enough for that. But I resent him because he has great, expensive, beautiful toys I don’t have and never will, though we live on the same lake, share its expanse, play on it daily, sometimes in close proximity. I resent Marshall because he is handsome and everyone admires him and wants to be his friend because he’s rich. Most of all, I resent Marshall because he and I look alike. We’re almost identical, same age and height, same blond hair over sunburned faces. His fawning neighbors who cultivate his favor often mistake me for him, and smile at me and say hello from a distance, thinking I am him. All of which embarrasses me and forces on me the most painful kind of reserve and silence.

Marshall’s iceboat shoots by me, dark red body, mahogany mast flexing in the wind, low to the ice and moving fast toward the wooded dark shore. I hear long booming noises from the ice from that direction, sounds of cold thunder. Then a sudden cracking sound and silence. I can barely see. Marshall’s boat is at a dead stop. It’s tipped forward, nose down in the water. He’s broken through a soft spot in the ice. He should have known about that spot, we all did. I stand watching as the weight of the mast and sail push it down faster, and then the outboard runner on the right side breaks through. His mast tips down and to the side. I can’t see Marshall.

I start running toward him. But to one side too, around the big hole in the ice instead of straight toward it. There is no way to know how far out the ice has cracked, so I just run toward it and to one side until I can see around the sail.

Marshall is still in the cockpit. He looks calm but busy. He hasn’t tried to climb out. He retrieves and coils the rope to his sail, as if he were putting the boat away at the end of the day, but doing it fast. Why isn’t he trying to climb out? Then suddenly the cockpit drops down and I can see water flowing in around him and he lets out a sound like “Ah!” and starts wiggling to get out. But his boat is sinking into the icy water and taking him with it.

I yell to him. I walk toward him, but carefully, watching the ice, testing it with each step. The truth is, I don’t want to get too close. I’m afraid of this ice and of the water that kills. It wouldn’t take much. I wouldn’t be able to get out once my clothes and coat get soaked and heavy. I get close enough to see him finally pull himself out of the cockpit. His head appears above water. He has that coil of rope in his left hand, treading water with his right. He looks straight at me, fear in his eyes now. This is the first time we’ve really looked at each other in all the several years we’ve lived and played near each other.

He switches the coil of rope to his right hand and makes a big push with his legs and left arm to raise himself up as far as possible. He throws the rope toward me.

The rope covers less than half the distance between us. He shouts, “Get it! Get it! Pull me out!” But the rope is not close enough to me to be safe. I will die if I try to reach that rope. The ice looks okay here but it’s dark and it looks wet. I don’t trust it. I cannot. I just can’t. I stand there, shivering. Looking and shivering and shaking my head.

Then I’m walking toward home, shivering, hating that ice, hating the dark, afraid of the sounds, especially the shrieking of the ice as its compression fractures shift and split me in the dark. I’m afraid of each step. I can’t see the lights over my family’s dock, though they must be on by now. A fog seems to have descended from the shore, as it sometimes does at night. Tears keep flowing from my eyes and it’s hard to breathe. I walk as fast as I dare toward shore, toward home.

I take a hot bath and go to bed early that night. I don’t tell my parents what I’ve seen. They tell me about Marshall late the next day. They prohibit me from going out on the ice for the rest of that winter. I look at them sadly and nod my head, wordless.
—–

M. Gregory Robertson is a river hillbilly whose britches are sometimes too tight, shoes too muddy, and hair too often unwashed. He watches floods of people and other detritus floating by and tries to piece together stories of their origins. The result can usually be found at missouririverwriter.blogspot.com.
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“Make me a story, decease ” said the Little Boy.

The Old Woman smiled. She had a talent for stories.

What will you give me?

The Little Boy reached into his pocket and pulled out a stick of gum (mostly still in the wrapper), a bent paper clip, two dimes and his lucky blue jay feather. He was saving the gum for later, even though he didn’t much care for the flavor. And he depended on his lucky feather every single day. He could give the paper clip, a useless bit of metal. But he wanted a good story. That left only the dimes for trading. He figured he could lose one and still keep his wealth. So he gave a coin to the Old Woman.

She shrugged and put the dime in her pocket.

Once upon a time-

“Heard it,” said the Little Boy.

All stories must have a beginning.

The Little Boy sighed. “Okay,” he said. “But I want an exciting story. And scary!” He sat down crossed-legged at her feet. “Not too scary,” he said.

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far away, there was a scary, but not too scary Forest.

“A forest?” asked the Boy. “That’s not very exciting.”

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far away, there was a scary, but not too scary Cave. The entrance to the Cave was small, for this not too scary Cave was home for a ragtag band of Gnomes.

“Gnomes?” asked the Boy. “Gnomes don’t live in caves. Big, hairy trolls live in caves.”

Big, hairy Trolls always come with Treasure. Trolls will cost you.

The Little Boy dug around in his pocket, a finger catching the loop of the bent paper clip. The clip wouldn’t even hold papers together any more, much less pay for trolls and treasure. His fingers slid past the paper clip, over the lucky feather that he positively couldn’t live without, under the gum (mostly still in the wrapper), which he was still saving for later, all the way to the other dime. If he gave the storyteller his money, she’d have twenty cents. A treasure!  That seemed a fair trade. So he handed the coin to the Old Woman. She slipped it in her pocket.

Trolls are rude, loud, and altogether disagreeable on the best of days. But big, hairy Cave Trolls are even more disagreeable. Unlike ordinary Trolls who will steal a Treasure in the blink of an eye, big, hairy Trolls work for their Treasure.

From the time these Trolls awake each morning (which, if I’m being honest, is closer to noonday than morning) till an entirely too early supper, they whack away inside their Cave home, mining for gems.

Despite the undisputed truth that these Trolls only manage a few, paltry hours of work each day, they still mine a mountain of Treasure. For big, hairy Trolls have incredibly over-developed biceps, so that each swing of the axe produces a waterfall of diamonds, rubies and emeralds.

Now, I’m sure you already know how much trolls love Treasure.

The Little Boy nodded.

But do you know what trolls love to eat?

He gulped and shook his head. The Old Woman leaned over and whispered.

Not fried chicken or double cheeseburgers. Not chocolate cake or candy bars or clams. Not tater tots or tofu or turtle soup. And definitely not vegetables.

“Nobody likes vegetables,” said the Little Boy.

Just so. The people who lived in the village next to the Cave did not know what Trolls loved to eat, either. Not that they hadn’t been trying to discover the secret for as long as anyone could remember. You see, many, many years ago, when the village was young, the King of the Trolls struck a deal with the very first Mayor:

If you can name our favorite food, and provide it every day,

You shall have your pick of gems. That will be your pay.

The village could trade for the Trolls’ Treasure, if only the people could name the favorite food!

That is why every day, the Mayor and the village people would gather in the square to choose a food for the Trolls. The Baker brought scrumptious pastries, the butcher brought his best cuts of meat, and the Dairy Man brought his most pungent cheeses. The people carefully considered the delicious fares for the trade, and upon deciding, loaded the chosen food into a wagon. Then the Mayor would ride out and dump the contents of the wagon at the mouth of the Cave. Next, the Mayor would wait, rather far away from the Cave, because as you know, big, hairy Trolls are not fond of personal hygiene.

Eventually, a big, hairy, not to mention smelly, Troll would poke his head out of the Cave.

Porridge! The mayor would yell the name of the delivered delicacy from his vantage point 10 yards downwind. Perhaps he’d shout Prunes! Or Pumpkin! Or Petunias! The Troll would drag the porridge, or prunes or pumpkins or petunias inside the Cave. But no Treasure had ever appeared afterward for the trade.

The End.

“What?” sputtered the Little Boy. “You can’t end there.”

That’s an exciting, not too scary Troll story.

“But you’ve only told the beginning! Nothing’s really happened yet! I mean, where’s the bad guy! What about a fair maiden? ”

A Bad Guy? A Fair Maiden? That story will cost you.

The Little Boy thought about what was left in his pocket: the gum (mostly still in the wrapper), his exceedingly lucky blue jay feather, and the useless bent paper clip. He wanted more story, with a fair maiden and a bad guy. He would give up the gum. After all, it wasn’t a very good flavor.

“Strawberry Kiwi,” he said, holding out the stick of gum (mostly still in the wrapper).

The Old Woman put the gum in her pocket.

Now, where were we?

“No treasure ever appeared,” said The Little Boy. “Not for porridge or pumpkin or petunias, or any of the other foods.”

Ah, yes. The village people had grown weary of sending food to the Trolls. And the Mayor, in checking the village accounting books, had noticed an alarming trend.  If the village did not get any gems that very week, their coffers would be empty. The village would be kaput!

It was an awful dilemma.

“I knew there was more!” shouted the Boy.

Just so. That very day, a fortuitous event occurred.

“Yes!” said the Little Boy, pumping his fist in the air. “What’s fortuitous?”

Fortunate.

“Oh, like lucky,” said the Little Boy, smiling. He was very happy that he’d given up his gum and not his feather. He needed his fortuitous feather.

A visitor arrived at the village. He drove into town on a fine, ebony carriage with isinglass windows. A team of creamy white horses stopped at the Inn and a Fair Maiden, with flaxen hair and rosy cheeks, peered out of the window.

Young Harold the Brave, so called because he’d chased a garden snake out of the Mayor’s house, watched as the Fair Maiden stepped out of the carriage. Her delicate feet were clad in soft, leather boots. Her gown was pink with red roses scattered about the hem, and on her head was a dainty round pillbox hat from which a sheer veil hung.

In short, she looked remarkably close to what Harold had pictured a Princess to be, and he was well and truly smitten.

The Mayor was smitten too, though for a completely different reason.

Up until that day, the Mayor had delivered fine victuals from the major food groups. The village people had chosen fruits and vegetables, sweets and meats, fowl and fish, or eggs and breads for the Trolls. But so far, these traditional fares had not proved to be the Trolls’ favorite food. Seeing the flaxen-haired vision that stepped out of the carriage, the Mayor had an idea.

“Uh, oh,” said the Little Boy.

The mayor wondered if the Trolls’ favorite food might not be listed on the basic food pyramid. In point of fact, the Mayor thought the Trolls might really enjoy a certain flaxen-haired beauty.

The Little Boy gasped and his eyes widened with horror.

The more the Mayor considered this idea, the more he liked it. He was sure that a tasty repast of Fair Maiden, and possibly her coachman, would be exactly what the Trolls so longingly desired. He could already imagine the mound of sparkling rubies, emeralds and diamonds, piled high in the village coffers!

But in all his imaginings, the Mayor could not imagine how he would get the Fair Maiden and her coachman into the wagon. And he certainly had no idea whatsoever as to how he’d convince the pair to hang about the mouth of the Cave, in order to satisfy the Trolls’ hunger.

He decided to call a meeting of the village, to put the problem before his people.

“See here,” said the Mayor. “It seems to me that we have the perfect opportunity in which to gain a Treasure and thereby save our village.”

“Here, here!” the village people cried.

“It seems to me that we have traded every possible foodstuff the village has to offer, except for one.”

The Mayor paused. The crowd moved in closer so as not to miss a single word.

“People!”

The people gasped. That was not the word they had expected.

“Oh, not us, people,” said the Mayor, very quickly indeed. “I mean the young, flaxen-haired Fair Maiden who’s just ridden into town. And possibly her coachman.”

The village people sighed with relief.

“What say you?” The Mayor waited.

One by one, the village people began to raise their arms, forming the letter “Y,” followed by the letter “E.” Unfortunately, they had never learned the letter “S” but the Mayor got the message.

“Now that we’re agreed,” said the Mayor, “does anyone have any bright ideas about how we shall get the Fair Maiden to the Cave, and convince her to hang about, waiting to be eaten?”

One young fellow raised his hand.

“We should conk her over the head with my baseball bat,” said the young fellow, who was actually Bart, a well-known Bad Guy. “Then we can tie her hands and feet and throw her out of the wagon so she lands in front of the Cave. Even if she wakes up, she won’t be able to go anywhere! And we should conk the coachman on the head, too, just in case the big, hairy Trolls prefer male people over female people.”

“Hurray!” shouted the village people.

“Then it’s settled,” said the Mayor. “Thank goodness we have a well-known Bad Guy like Bart around to put things right!”

The End.

“No, no, no!” shouted the Little Boy. “That can’t be how the story ends! It’s just getting good!” The Little Boy stood and stamped his little foot. “The princess has to be saved, the bad guy has to get what’s coming to him!”

So now it’s a saved Princess and a Bad Guy getting his comeuppance? That story’s going to cost you.

The Little Boy squirmed. All he had left was his incredibly lucky blue jay feather and a useless, bent paper clip. His hands began to sweat at the thought of losing his lucky feather. He’d had his feather for at least a whole summer and he’d taken it along with him on a fishing trip and hooked three trout.  But who would save the princess, if not him? And he definitely wanted the Bad Guy to get his comeuppance, whatever that was. The paper clip was nothing, just a bit of junk. But the feather! He wiped his hands and took a deep breath. He would do it; he would give up his lucky feather. He handed it over quickly, so he couldn’t change his mind.

The Old Woman put the feather in her pocket.

The village people surrounded the Inn and began to call for the flaxen-haired Fair Maiden. But as they did not know her proper name, they mostly called, “Hey, you! Young Lady!”

The maiden looked around, wondering if the village people could be calling for her. But as she was new in town and a stranger in the village, she ignored their calls. Finally, Bart the well-known Bad Guy had an idea.

“Uh, oh,” said the Little Boy. “Not another idea.”

“Come out, come out,” called Bart, the Bad Guy. “I’m talking to you, flaxen-haired Fair Maiden who just rode into town!”

The maiden stared out the window.

“Yes, you!” said the Bad Guy. “The Fair Maiden in the pink gown with the red roses on the hem.”

All the village people joined in the cry. “Yes, you! With the soft, leather boots and the pink gown!”

“You, Fair Maiden! With the flaxen hair and the rose-hemmed dress!”

The maiden pointed at herself and all the village people nodded their heads. Bart the Bad Guy held his baseball bat high over his head, ready to conk the Fair Maiden right on the top of her pretty pillbox hat the moment she walked out the door.

The situation appeared grim, indeed. But as fate would have it, Harold the Brave heard the village people shouting and making a ruckus calling to the Fair Maiden whom he well and truly adored. He made his way to the square to see what all the fuss was about.

Now, Harold was not only Brave, but Wise, too. So when he saw Bart, the well-known Bad Guy, standing outside the door of the Inn, holding a baseball bat, he put two and two together quicker than you could say, “Stand away, you blackguard!” Which happened to be exactly what Harold the Brave said.

Running at full speed, Harold dashed up the steps of the Inn, brandishing a rake in one hand and a shovel in the other. Harold the Brave always carried a rake and a shovel, as he liked to be prepared in the event of any snake-chasing.

“Stand away, you blackguard,” yelled Harold the Brave again, reiterating his demand. He charged Bart the Bad Guy, poking the rake and shovel in Bart’s general direction.

“Take that,” said Bart the Bad Guy, swinging the bat back and forth, trying to hit either the shovel or the rake. He was not that picky.

Whack! Thwack! Bam! Crack! It was a full-blown sword fight, if you substitute a baseball bat, shovel and rake for swords. The flaxen-haired Fair Maiden watched the whole fight from a large picture window in the front of the Inn.

With a final, ear-splitting clang, Harold the Brave’s shovel and rake simultaneously connected with Bart the Bad Guy’s bat at such an angle that the bat flew across the village square, knocking the Mayor out cold.

“Come out, Fair Maiden,” said Harold the Brave. “Yes, you with the flaxen hair, pink dress and red rose hem. You are perfectly safe now.”

The coachman opened the door. “May I present Charlotte, the Princess Phone representative in this area?”

The village people oohed and ahhed. They’d been on a list for weeks, waiting for the Princess! Sadly, Bart the Bad Guy would NOT be getting a Princess.  Harold the Brave, who coincidentally was also a serviceman from the phone company, had just that morning disconnected Bart’s telephone.

The End.

“That’s it?” asked the Little Boy. “That’s the end?” The Boy did not understand, but he felt like crying.

It’s a very exciting story. It’s scary, but not too scary. There’s a Fair Maiden who’s saved, and a Bad Guy who gets what’s coming to him. And it’s not easy to get a Princess worked into a story late in the plot, either, but that’s in there, too. Plus the big, hairy Trolls.

“The Trolls,” moaned the Little Boy. “Now I’ll never know what the big, hairy Trolls love to eat.”

What will you give? To get what you want?

The little boy pulled his pockets inside out, even though he knew he had only the worthless bent paper clip. A teensy, tiny tear fell from the Little Boy’s eye and dribbled all the way down his cheek, leaving a dirty streak.

“It’s all I have left,” said the Little Boy, opening his palm to show the clip. A bent paper clip was not good for anything. Now, he would never get what he wanted.

But the Old Woman took the paper clip. She did not put it in her pocket. Instead, she began to twist it at the bent spot.

In all the commotion, no one had prepared anything to bring to the big, hairy Trolls. And since all of the village people had given the last of their funds to the Princess Phone representative, it was, as they say, a moot point. There was nothing left in the entire village to prepare anyway. The village cupboard was bare.

Unless you count the mice. And really, it would be quite impossible to count the mice as the village was completely infested with the varmints. A mouse or two were even now crawling over the Mayor as he lay groaning in the street.

“For crying out loud!” The Mayor bellowed through the village upon waking. “Will no one rid us of these mice?”

Out of the blue, a Pied Piper appeared before the Mayor. The one very important thing to know about Pied Pipers is that they are quite convenient when it comes to ridding towns of rats. And what is a mouse, but a smaller version of a rat?  The other very important thing to know is that stories may have what is called a deus ex machina. Which is exactly what this particular Pied Piper happened to be.

“A deus what?” asked the Little Boy.

“I shall rid the village of your mice! And rats, too. Really, pretty much any rodents you might have,” said the Pied Piper, who showed up most serendipitously to solve the problem. He lifted his pipe to his lips and began to play a soulful tune of longing, at least as far as rodents are concerned. From every corner of the village, the mice heard the notes and skittered over to the Pied Piper. At last, he began to walk, and the vermin, enraptured by his music, followed.

The Piper tootled along, taking the road that lead out of the village and right to the Cave of the big, hairy Trolls. So that when the Pied Piper passed by with the furry creatures in tow, round about suppertime, what should he see but a big, hairy, not to mention smelly Troll waiting for his village delivery.

“My,” said the Pied Piper, “how fortuitous!” He knew that of all the delicacies in the world, big, hairy Trolls love smelly rodents best. Like calls to like, his mother always said.

“Mice!” said the Pied Piper, calling to the Troll. “Mice for sale!”

The big, hairy Troll lumbered into the Cave and reappeared within seconds, carrying a large armful of diamonds, rubies and emeralds. He gave the gems for the mice, right there on the spot.

“Goodness,” said the Fair Maiden whom we now know as the Princess phone representative, “did you see that?”

She was looking out from a window of the Inn, high above the village, so that she saw the Pied Piper, and the rodent trade-off. Harold the Brave, who was checking her room for garden snakes, had not seen a thing. But as she was an honest Fair Maiden, she told Harold the whole story. And as Harold was not only Brave, but also Wise, he went straight to his farm. There he found a few deaf mice, happily making a home in a haystack. Harold the Brave fetched the family and carefully placed them in a box in his barn. He knew that in a few short weeks, there would be four times as many vermin burrowing in the box. And where there are mice and big, hairy Trolls, there is sure to be a trade for Treasure.

The End.

The Old Woman, who had been twisting the paper clip where it was bent, heard a snap. A small bit of the clip broke off. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a pair of glasses. Then she pulled out a stem that had come apart from the glasses. She fit the stem into the glasses, lining up the holes.

“Mice,” said the Little Boy, a faraway look in his eyes. “I thought it would be something …special. But all along, it was just a smelly, little mouse that the big, hairy trolls wanted.”

The Old Woman dropped the piece of paper clip through the holes and found that it fit perfectly. She put her now repaired glasses on and nodded.

Just so, a mouse. But it is often the need of a thing that gives it value.

“That is a good story,” said the Little Boy, smiling.

She could finally see the Little Boy clearly and she smiled back at his freckles and the spot where his left front tooth had not yet come in.

Thank you.

She did have a talent for stories, even if she said so herself.

—–

Cathy C. Hall is a humor writer from Georgia. She writes for adults and children, both fiction and non-fiction. But she has a need to write the occasional fable, complete with the village people. Find out more at her blog: cathychall.blogspot.com.

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My little sister was born 14 minutes later than me, rx giving me an extra 840 seconds of life experience. I was extremely fond of holding this over her as a kid.

We used our matching physical appearance to our advantage; we would fool our teachers the classical way by switching position during classes and exams. That one’s kind of a classic. Family members other than our parents were also always good to fool.  But the most fun were the people who didn’t know there were two of us. I recall endless family holidays when we tried never to be seen together. We almost made our new foreign friends lose their minds when we played competitive games and turned out to be invincible. Hide and seek queens. Treasure hunting champions. We were one person in two bodies.

That was nearly fourty years ago. My little sister died in our early teens, as a result of a rare genetic decease. We have the same genes, I know, but somehow she inherited it. I didn’t. It appeared we weren’t as similar as we thought. My extra 14 minutes of life was really no big deal, but my extra 40 years of live have become a lifetime of excruciating precedence.  College, sex, seeing the world – so many things I never wanted to have all to myself.

The half of me that was left started to live two lives automatically. Instead of two acting like one, I now live the life of both of us. My parents thought it was a rebellious way to grieve at first, and they let me. But it never stopped. Sometimes I book a holiday in my sister’s name, or I show up at work asking for myself. And when I bump into somebody on the street I don’t feel like talking to, I excuse myself and say we’ve never met, you must be thinking of my sister.

There’s very few people left in my life who new her when she was alive, and yet everyone knows her. Through me. She’s the social one, the fun loving kind, less responsible. Maybe because she was the youngest. I on the other hand am the workaholic, the career woman. Our lives fit together like pieces of a puzzle. In this life there’s no room for a relationship, but that’s ok. I am never alone.

—–

Nichon is a Dutch photographer with a design education, or a designer with a photographic eye, whatever suits the situation best.  Sometimes she writes.

—–

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The boy took a different way home. He knew all the hills and valleys around and could afford to change his route. He was certain that he would find his way home before dark. It was still some time until sunset, viagra and he didn´t hurry when he walked up the steep hill where all the people had been sitting. He reached the top and looked over the plain to see where the path could be. There were a lot of small but sharp rocks on the ground and didn´t want to walk straight across the rough plain now that he wasn´t chasing a missing goat or lamb.

It took a while before he saw him. On the top of a small rock at a distance a man was sitting with his back turned at him, price
all alone in the soft evening light. There was something familiar about him, cialis but not until he came closer did he recognize him, the man he had been listening to for nearly two hours this afternoon, together with all the others who had gathered, for reasons of curiosity or hope, under the intense hillside sun.

The man rose to leave, but stood  for a while as if something still kept him. He suddenly seemed so different from the man on the hillside, who had been the center of everyone´s concentration and questions. Now, there was a strange unsheltered openness about him, even from behind and at a distance, so the little boy, without thinking much, set out through the rocks to come closer. Wasn´t  this  what he had been waiting for, for so long?

Sooner than he had expected he reached the rock, hesitated for a few seconds, then went up to the man and said quietly: Can I ask you something? The man turned around , looked for a moment at the boy, then sat down beside him as if all the time in the world belonged to only those two and said: Yes, you can, if you can give me some time to answer you. The boy looked back at him and said, very quietly, his voice not quite steady: Do you ever have nightmares?

The man sat without saying anything for a while, his eyes soaring along the mountains at the horizon. Then he lowered his head and said, without looking at the boy: Yes, I do, at times.

The boy asked, now a little louder: What are your nightmares?

The man looked at the boy and said: Does it really matter?

And the boy knew that he wouldn´t have to tell his own dreams in all the words he had so carefully planned, ever since he first heard of the man who was the one who knew. He wouldn´t have to describe the fears and the bottomless darkness, he wouldn´t  need any  words for the unspeakable. He had met the man who knew.

One question he had to ask, however.

-What do you do when your dreams come? and the man said: I just do what you do, I talk to someone I trust.

- And then the dreams go away? asked the boy, a little too quickly. The man looked out once more over the sunset cliffs and up at the swiftly passing swallows, glanced at the slowly approaching evening cloud in the west and said, more to himself:

- No. No, they don´t.

The sun was a glowing half-dome in the centre of the valley between the sharp-peaked twin mountains near the coast where the boy used to spend his summers with his uncle, the fisherman with the name that meant solid rock, and who was so intense in his manners and yet so sensitive to the words and thoughts of his only nephew. The man rose from the rock, then sat down again and put his hand gently on the boy’s shoulder. No words came through the chilly breeze that played with their clothes, but the boy said to himself: Yes, now I know, too. The dreams would come back, maybe many times, but now he would never again have to meet them alone. He said: I´ll have to go home. The man nodded: I think I´ll stay for a while.

The boy picked up his little sack from the ground and felt inside it. He found a small piece of bread and some fried fish. I thought I ate all this earlier today, he said. I´ll leave it here. Aren´t you hungry?

—–

Ingemar Lindahl is a retired teacher (adult education), looking through notes and sketches from years of hope and despair.

—–

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James looked both ways before he crossed the street, shop then looked up to see Clayton on the steps of town hall. For a moment, with the sun in his eyes, he mistook his old friend for a young man:  it was amazing how youthful Clayton had remained.  While his own hair had turned gray years ago, Clayton still had blond locks.

A moment later, James saw that leaning against his friend’s leg was a golden frame holding a painting of a waterfall.

Even at a hundred paces James could tell that the frame contained a Walter’s.  He twinged.  Between ordinary air pollution and mid-day traffic the masterpiece was being covered in invisible pollutants.  100 years from now, someone would have to spend months removing them to restore the picture to yesterday’s condition.  Whatever Clayton was doing, this was so like him.

Clayton waves.  “Good morning James!”

James waved and started walking up the steps.  When he got next to Clayton he pointed at the painting. “What’s all this now? Holding a town hall auction?”

“Something even better,” said Clayton.  A smile creased his face.  He waved to a camera man and reporter across the street.  They started to walk over.

“What are you up too, Blondie?” asked James, his eyes narrowed.

Clayton stepped back and let the painting fall flat on the ground.  Jame gasped.  Instinctively he reached down to get the masterpiece upright. Clayton grabbed him by the collar and pulled him back.

“Watch yourself,” said Clayton.  With his free hand he pulled a small water balloon out of his coat pocket.  There was a match tied to the end.  He pitched him arm back and threw it on the painting. The rubbed contraption popped, spewing gasoline everywhere.  The painting erupted in flames.

James shrieked.  “Have you lost your shit?”

Clayton snapped his fingers and pointed at James.  “That is precisely what I haven’t lost.  Due to a recent bout of constipation.  Let’s go back to my place and stupify ourselves with brandy.”  Clayton slapped James’ shoulder and made his way down the stairs.

A policeman came out of the town hall and moved towards the pair carrying an extinguisher.  Clayton walked past, but James intercepted.

“It’s alright officer,” said James.  He fumbled in his jacket pocket and pulled out his business card.  “James Fair, esquire.  My client is… is expressing himself, as was upheld in Spence v. Washington.”

“Look, the town council is forcing my hand,” said the cop.  “I know what Mr. Billings has down for this community.”

The fire burnt itself out.  The policeman took out his pad and started writing a citation.  James heard a car pull out behind him.  He looked over his shoulder and saw Clayton pull up in his red convertible.

“Thank you officer.”  James took the paper.

Clayton beeped the horn.  “Come on, we have  drinking to do!”

***

Clayton wouldn’t explain until they reached his library, where the painting had once hung on the wall, and each man held a glass of brandy in their hands.  James took a seat in a plush leather chair while Clayton paced the room.

Clayton slapped his hand against a book case. “So what do you think about today’s performance?”

“I think old age has caught up to you Clay.  What happened out there wasn’t the doings of a sane man.”

“I’m not old.  My mind is still a steel trap.  Just like my loins.”

“A steel trap?”

“Did you not see that flotation devices on that blond I brought back last night?” Clayton held out his hands over his chest as if his own chest had expanded.

“I’m trying to come up with a scenario for you to be more crude, but it could get us both sued,” replied James.

“Oh poppycock,” said Clayton.  “You’ve always played it safe.”

“My safe plays have helped you stay out of trouble,” said James.

“And my risky business has made me wealthy, and you didn’t complain when I brought you along for the ride.”

“It’s also turned you into a pauper more than once.  I can still recall the last time you slept on my couch,” said James.

Clayton sipped his brandy, and his face softened.  “You’ve always been kind to me.  You’ve always been there for me.  You’re a true friend.   And I don’t forget my friends.  Which is why I burned the painting.”

“I don’t see how burning a priceless painting on the steps of town hall nets you anything.”

“Guess,” said Clayton.

James placed his glass on a near by stand.  “I’m not playing your games.”

Clayton furrowed his brow and clenched his jaw.  “I am not playing.  This is not a game.  This is a gambit of the highest order.  A ploy to net me profit.”

James shook his head.  He pointed out the window at the garden.  It was spring time.  The flowers were in full bloom, displaying a dizzying array of colors and textures.

“Can’t you just enjoy the simple things?  Smell the flowers and all that jazz.”

Clayton continued talking as if James had not spoken.  “This all thanks to you.  I could not have made this move if you hadn’t played it safe and saved your pennies.  That, even when times were tough on you, when you were down and out, you still managed to pool enough money to get me a great twentieth birthday gift.  That’s the measure of a true friend”

James coughed.  “I’m surprised you still have that old canvas.”

“Yes, I do.  And a few years later I bought my own.  And a few years after that Walter died upon completing his tenth painting.  You see where I’m going with this?” asked Clayton.

“I haven’t the slightest.”

“Less is more,” said Clayton.  “It’s so simple.”

James hesitated, and then shrugged.  “I don’t understand.”

“By burning one publicly I let the world know that the total number of Walter paintings has decreased.  Thus increasing the value of my remaining one, the one you gave me.”

James took his glass and emptied it. He held out his glass, and Clayton, surprised, refilled it.  James drank half of that, too.

“I have a confession to make,” he said.  “All those years ago when I was about to be bankrupt.  But I still wanted to get you something nice for your birthday.  I knew you liked Walter paintings but I couldn’t afford one, so I got a replica.  I suppose since you see me as so honest you never bothered to get it appraised.”

Clayton hesitated, taking this in.  “Really?”

James nodded.

“So I just burned a million dollar painting?”

James got up and placed a hand on Clayton’s shoulder.  “Sometimes you lose the game.”

Clayton put his hand on James’.  “Well, I’m still rich.  I can stand losing a million dollars.”  Clayton swallowed hard and chewed at his upped lip.

“Actually, it would be a one million one hundred dollar loss.  The town just send me a citation for burning in public without a permit.”  James gave Clayton a pat on the back and started to leave.

“The town council annoys the shit out of me,” said Clayton.

“Good, a cure for your constipation.”

—–

Jon Chan is currently finishing up his degree in Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Connecticut.  In the past he has tried his hand at being a store clerk, a mathematics tutor and an environmental lobbyist.  He demands that you have a nice day.

—–

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I had a wretched childhood and I have become a wretched man.  I survived a violent upbringing in foster homes where I was nothing more than an unpaid slave.  My life on the streets started at fourteen and meant taking to crime.  I learned the power of superiority gained through cold, malady calculated forcefulness.  At seventeen, health
a magistrate offered me the military as a final option.  “Join up and grow up, or be sentenced as an adult,” she said.

During recruit training, I used violence judiciously.  Not wanting to cross instructors, I did just enough to earn their praise during killing games until one of them, a sergeant, realised I was holding back.

“Let’s you and me get it on,” he challenged.  “Let’s see what you can do.” I hesitated, believing victory would bring me a world of problems.  “That’s an order,” he told me with a grin.

“What happens if I win?”

“Nothing bad.  We might send you for some advanced training in martial arts, is all.”

I didn’t have the sergeant’s fancy moves but I kept him at a distance for a while and even got in a few licks.  When he pinned me to the ground, he asked, “That enough?”

“No,” I spat as I got his arm away from my throat and reversed our positions.

When I had him pinned, he laughed.  “That’s enough for me,” he said.  “When you finish basic training, you’re off on that special course.  The guys there ‘ll turn you into a great killer.  Now, let me up”

A great killer.  My ego swelled and my life found focus.

Five of us took the course.  Three returned to their units before completion.  The OIC said I’d achieved the highest respect of all the instructors and he looked forward to me returning one day to join his team. It’d be a cold day.  I spent time on active service before being seconded to a special unit.

The poems and songs about our private thoughts in the deep of night are insipidly short of my truth.  Sinatra sang of regrets, too few to mention. What drivel!  My regrets are bouncing off the walls of my mind tonight.  And I think I can hide beneath this blanket?

Women I loved do not quite number among my regrets, but they have forced themselves in tonight.

I loved fellow orphan, Maggie.  Well, I thought it was love.  Maybe it had to do with the fact she never challenged me.  “Calm down,” she’d say.  “I’m on your side.”  Maybe there was a bit of a mother thing going on, too.

She found a good foster home and learned to appreciate aspects of life I scorned.  She lived close enough for us to continue seeing each other.  I’d half walk, half run the thirteen plus miles to the house where she lived. We’d go into a local park and she’d ask what had happened since we were last together and tell me off for things I’d done.  That would make me grin and she’d say I was a hopeless case and then we would love.  I believed she had feelings for me until the day she told me of her acceptance at a distant
university.

“Sorry, but this is my chance, and from now on we’ll be going in opposite directions,” she said.  “Have fun playing soldier.  I’m going up in the world.”

She was my world.

Jan had a blue teardrop tattooed on her left breast and was the sexiest woman I have known.  I fell for her admiration of my toughness.  She persuaded me to settle old scores for her and pushed me to expand her boundaries.  When I said “Enough”, she pulled the plug on us because she thought I was aloof.  Me!  When I argued the point, she said maybe I was too cool for her.  I should have put her in touch with Maggie.  I was so shallow, I came away from the relationship thinking I’d added ‘cool’ to my persona.

Penelope wore white blouses and longish skirts and kept her breasts hidden. I was impressed by her speech and silky hair and nice perfume.  When I think of her now, I realise I was a challenge to her.  Because I was vague about what I did, she grew to believe she could reform me, have me wear a three-piece suit and earn money in an office.  I convinced her that the army were not about to release me from my contract and she said they must because she could not help believing I cheated on her when I was away.  If she had known what I really did on those trips, the imagined other women would have become a minor issue.  She cried and said she was sorry, but would forever
wonder who I was with whenever I was absent.  I declined to argue my case, because a woman who refused to trust me could become a dangerous liability.

If only I could have told them what I really did for Queen and country. Maggie was the one person with whom I could have shared some of my deeds. The approval of someone I cared about would have made a difference to my life but, as that was not possible, I realised I had to rid myself of all emotional baggage.  Once I formulated that idea, acting on it was easy.  I had been working on it since the day I was born.

When I told clinging Miriam I was moving on, she hit back by angrily prophesying I would die alone.  Control freak, Jennifer surprised herself with an unplanned pregnancy with which, I later learned, she persisted.

Music lover, Caroline tried to introduce me to recreational drugs and Cecelia asked if I would mind if she experimented with others, including women, in order to define her sexuality.

Tabitha was useful because she provided an off-base home and the ccompanying comforts.  She reluctantly took my course in how to give the perfect blowjob but when I suggested she might want to swallow my issue, she went apoplectic and swore of all but missionary sex.  Sometime later, I learned from an acquaintance of an acquaintance that Tabby had been pregnant when I left her and had given birth to twins.  I treated the intelligence with suspicion.

Evelyn believed that ‘giving me her virginity’ irrevocably led to the altar. I told her that, if she felt that way, she should have kept her legs together until her wedding night.  She said she would have done so, had I not convinced her of my undying love.  It therefore followed, she claimed, that I had raped her, ‘just as surely as you held a gun to my head’.  I suggested she see a solicitor about it.

All loved me and all are gone.  In most cases, the reason for me to end the relationship was so trivial that on nights like this, when they come to visit, I am unable to retrieve a soul-saving excuse.

As I go deeper into the darkness, I see a procession of the faces of men I have killed.  I was only twenty-two when my employers sent me to assassinate an African upstart who thought he could murder everyone standing between him and the presidency of his gold-rich country.

In Colombia, I injected a massive overdose of heroin into the arm of a drug dealer who had aspirations of ultimate power.

I caused an overweight German racist to suffer a fatal heart attack.  I garrotted a genocidal general in Rwanda.  An American gunrunner in Trucial Oman swallowed poison as he drank with me.

An Irish thug who killed his own and left evidence to implicate the English government cried like a baby before I doused his lights in the Liffey.  An anonymous right-wing powerbroker spat in my face, but it was the last thing he did.

I recall the invitation to a private box at a London football stadium where the only other occupant was a general who suggested I would be more valuable to certain people if I were a civilian.  My skills were in great demand and the pay would be much better.  He handed me my five passports, knowing I would accept them.  I jumped out of the frying pan into the fire.

As I sink deeper into the night, I curl in my shoulders.  My breath labours.

I had the option of turning down any job I did not like.  Having such a choice meant there were other assassins; people who could end my life should I cross, or not cross, some unknown line.  The knowledge brought me the realisation of how vulnerable I had become since leaving the army.  I was totally alone; nobody would miss me if I ceased to exist.  From then on, I never left a woman away unless I had a new one in place.

In the silent movie my memory plays, faces of people I have killed for someone’s gain make me shudder.

Surely, someone mourned when the bungee cord tied to the ankles of the young woman snapped.  She was a lonely soul who would not accept a silent partner in her successful business and for that, a multi-millionaire with a different agenda wanted her dead.  At her funeral, that bastard was full of regret for ‘a tragically shortened life’ and swore to make it his mission to look after the business that was the woman’s life-work, if her executors would grant him permission.

An Arab terrorist appeared to have flown through the windshield of his crashed car.  The Mossad needed deniability in the death of a Jewish militant who refused to vacate surrendered land.  The man’s wife prepared dinner for me before I blew the couple and their house to smithereens.

I despatched many drug dealers, blackmailers, businessmen and politicians to their respective Gods.  It took me a year to erase eleven unindictable leaders of a worldwide paedophile ring.

My lowest point involved snuffing out the beautiful actress who decided she needed periodic compensation for bedding an aged Prime Minister.  She promised me all kinds of favours if I would let her live.  It is amazing how ardent a woman’s favours can be when she believes her life depends on her performance.  The memory of her forced and frightened smile fills me with toxic shame.

I pull up my blanket, hug my convulsing body and sink further into the night.

My last job was to arrange the death by seemingly natural causes of a cabinet minister whose deteriorating mind had turned him into a murderer. The scandal of an arrest and trial were an unacceptable option for the government.  My arrogance allowed him close enough to plunge a knife into my side.  The resultant medical treatment revealed I have a body riddled with cancer.  The disease is an even more efficient killer than I am.

According to the quack, I needed to clear up my affairs within the next two months. What affairs?  I am a forty-eight year-old man with nothing and no one, and I am pathetically aware that Miriam’s prophecy has proved to be true. Miriam.  How could she have foretold that I would forever be unable to cultivate an honest and lasting relationship?  If I could live my life over, I would swim in all the love I received and rejected.  No, I would immerse myself in it – sink below the emotional surface and never rise above it again.  How often I carelessly destroyed what I now crave.

Only now, when I am dying, have I bothered to remember that I have three offspring, even if they do not have me.  I secretly watched Michael the artist, and kindergarten teachers Anne and Juliet because I could not face them and explain who I am and what I have been.  Perhaps I was reluctant to face myself.

When I started to earn sizable fees for my work, I hired a woman to invest my money for me and she has made me financially comfortable.  I have most of the trappings money can buy but they have not relieved my loneliness.  The woman will ensure my children each receive an equal share of my anonymous estate and my conscience is somewhat soothed by knowing I will ease their lives.

The mood that made me check on my children lasted long enough for me to trace Maggie.  Her marriage to a suburban doctor and frequent fines for speeding made her easy to find.  The husband and wife routine failed years ago and she now lives with her two teenage children in a small country town.

Her boy has my name.  When I discovered her situation, I spent some time romanticising how things might have been.  Perhaps, after she had proven herself academically, she could have accepted me, for she knew of my dark teenage deeds.  Perhaps she could have borne my three children.  Perhaps I could be living with her in the house surrounded by green lawns and a white picket fence.  Perhaps pigs might fly and such warm thoughts, such a soft life, would not have led to an even earlier demise.

Twenty minutes ago, I took a decent dose of the poison I used on the Yankee gunrunner.

Not long now.  Damn, my bones are cold.  I haul the blanket higher and expose my feet.  To hell with it.  To hell with me!  It’s time … time to go to the night’s deepest darkness … time…

—–

Peter Lingard (plingaus@bigpond.com), born a Brit, sold ice cream on railway stations, worked as a bank clerk, delivered milk, labored in a large dairy, served in Her Britannic Majesty’s Corps of Royal Marines and ‘bounced’ leery customers in a London clip-joint.  He lived in the US for a while and owned a freight forwarding business in New York.  He came to Australia because the sun often shines here and Australians are a positive people who speak English.  Peter is a member of the Caulfield Writers Group and Phoenix House Writers.  He has had 40+ short stories and several poems published.  A novel in three parts is finished and he is currently looking for a publisher.
—–

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It’s a warm summer evening, medical the kind that radio loves. Down at Rochambo the tv is on the fritz, vanquishing CNN, ESPN, and a whole slew of letters. Lou, the regular, can be heard saying, “the way things are going these days, I don’t know whether to laugh or shit or go blind,” as bartender Marty futzes with a radio. It crackles to analog life. Old school country, and Brady (semi-regular) applauds. “This is a different station,” says Marty. Then the DJ mentions “Abilene” and Lou slurs, “shit, this is coming all the way from Kansas.” A beautiful anomaly, Brady thinks. Thank you, atmosphere.

Jess strolls in. And here is the regular anomaly. At 22 and wearing shirts that read “Well-Behaved Women Don’t Make History” she doesn’t belong. But she argues politics with the old-timers shaking dice. Mostly likes to pull up a stool next to her old History teacher. “Evening, Brady.” He ceased being Mr. Stimpson mere nanoseconds after graduation.

Jess pontificates something she read online. Lou either echoes or argues, hard to say, as Brady’s attention tightens on the radio. A voice says,? take that summer dress and hang it on these lazy days…. ? Right on. “Where are we going and why the hand-basket, is what I ask,” Lou mutters. “You gotta agree,” Jess beckons.

“I don’t care,” Brady mutters and exits through the rear. They chased off the Abilene radio, and he hoped, by miracle of summer heat, he could sense it humming in the long grass out back.

Seconds later Jess is there. “Something wrong?”

“Something’s right.”

“You taught me to care about those things, back in class.”

“I did?” Shrugs. Waits. “You ever really look at the stars?”

“Sure. They’re beautiful.”

“No. Do you ever. Really.”

“Well, we won’t be able to if we keep pumping all these greenhouse gasses…”

And Brady isn’t listening anymore. The stars free-associate into snowflakes, falling in Cleveland. He is young and writing poetry in a cheap apartment he shares with a woman too much like Jess. He was a poet who killed the inspiration to celebrate the grief. He was socially-conscious, but was he awake?

How’d he end up teaching Jess to mimic that? Didn’t mean to.

“Let it all go,” he croons, hoping that’s enough to change her, to absolve him of wrongs done. The grass is humming. He can hear it now. “Just listen…”

—–

Martin Brick’s fiction has been published in many places, including The Beloit Journal of Fiction, Vestal Review, Pindeldyboz, and Sou’Wester.  He was raised in rural Wisconsin, but currently reside in Columbus, Ohio,

——-

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Tim is sitting alone at a lunchroom table doing his Latin homework, nurse putting ablatives together over great divides of nouns and verbs, when she sits down next to him with a scrunch of chair on the gritty black linoleum.

“Hi, I’m Savannah.”

He looks up, irritated at the interruption. He has Latin next period and he has to be better than everyone else. It’s expected. He’s the king of Virgil.

She is rumply, as if her brown eyes just got out of bed and the rest of her was groggily following, round red cheeks coarse from the pillow, hair a dark brambly arbor. She’s wearing black jeans, a grey T and a wrinkled black sweater and has a small silver ring in her right nostril, nothing flamboyant, just an ID thing. She sits cozily close.

“We’re in Outloud together.”

“Yeah.” Outloud is an annual production of student actors staging student writings chosen by a teachers’ committee. He’s seen the selections, and she’s written a series of short poems in which the narrator is a selection of sexy vegetables – like a banana, an avocado, a red cabbage. He wrote a short story about a mother, father and son who suddenly find at breakfast they’ve haven’t seen each other for 10 years.

“I liked your story.”

“It’s stupid. I just did it on an impulse.”

“That’s pretty good. You write a lot?”

That’s how it starts, the usual dumb stuff.  Except her mouth. It’s small but amazingly supple, sort of rumply like the rest of her. It curls and ripples and quivers with assessment and evaluation, like a graph of her brain. It’s usually the eyes but with her the mouth that’s a window, or maybe more of a door, to the soul. He wants inside.

But he’s got a problem. He’s already got a girl, sort of. He trails along with Savannah to her house after school and when they get to her bedroom he tells her so.

“I’ve never seen you with anyone.” Her lips purse skeptically.

“It’s not really a public thing.”

“Not public? You meet in some secret place?”

“I guess you could say that.”

“You’re not sure? Wait a minute. This is an imaginary person?”

“No. Definitely not.”

“I know. This is someone you met on the Net.  She’s an IM lover.”

“She’s not. This is a stupid guessing game.”

“Not imaginary, not cybersex. Wait a minute. Is this Second Life? No. That counts as Internet. A video game? Cool.”

“Yeah. But that’s not it.”

“You said this is a stupid game. So stop. Tell me.”

“I can’t, really.”

“Are you gay? I’m in the Gay Straight Alliance, didn’t you know? So you can tell me anything. You’re safe, I promise.”

“I’m not gay.”

“So what’s the deal?”

“It’s me.”

“You are tectonically weird. What is me?”

“I’m my own girlfriend.”

“Whoa.” She sat down on the bed, her mouth doing stretches.  “You have to explain.”

He’s wanted to tell someone. Why not her? She has so much texture.

It starts one day after school when he’s 12, reading War and Peace because it’s the biggest book around and no one he knows his age has read it. He’s into the part Princess Natasha is dancing with Prince Andrei and is suddenly possessed – the word is hardly strong enough – by the urge to go to his sister’s room and put on her clothes. His sister is away at college but she’s left a closet and bureau drawers full of stuff. He dresses up, goes to the bathroom and smiles mysteriously into the mirror, his long, brown, wavy hair falling half-hiding his face. His erection sticks out from the panties and skirt. He tiptoes to his room, throws himself back on his bed and masturbates, trying to keep the come off her clothes. He has a moment of blankness. Then he undresses as fast as he can, still careful of staining, goes to the bathroom and washes off. He drops to the bathroom floor, does 10 pushups, then flexes his biceps in the mirror. They are scrawny like the rest of him, but they are male. He goes back to his room, puts on his own clothes, puts away his sister’s clothes exactly where he got them, and resumes reading War and Peace.

He’s been doing some version of this, even after finishing War and Peace, every month or so for the last four years. But he’s not attracted to men, he knows that. He’s attracted to the female version of himself.

Savannah is still and solemn. Then she grins. He sees she can’t repress it. “So you’re Princess Natasha? Or Audrey Hepburn?”

“I’ve never seen the movie.”

“But you’re not gay?”

“No.”

“Bi?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Okay.” Her face settles down, reflective, receptive.

He’s been wandering her room as he tells his story, looking out her window at a rusty swing set, examining a peacock feather in a vase, a Jane Avril poster and a lumpy purple, green and yellow wall hanging. Now he sits on the bed near her.

“Why did you tell me?” she asks.

“You kept asking me.”

“Yeah but. You wouldn’t tell just anyone that asked.”

“I don’t know. You seemed like somebody I could tell.”

“That’s cool. I mean not cool. It’s good.”

“What about you?”

“Me what?”

“What’s your big secret?”

“I’m not playing truth or dare.”

“Just truth. Like why are you in Gay Straight?”

“I’m not gay. I mean I did go out with someone of a couple of weeks.” She laughs and reddens. “Way back freshman year.”

“Who?”

“Not telling. She’s over it too. It wouldn’t be fair.”

“Okay. What else?”

She leans over and kisses him, her hands pressed down beside her on the bed. The touch of her rattles him, like just being missed by a car you didn’t see coming. He kisses her back, first tentatively, then pulling her to him with his hands on her shoulders. After a moment, she leans back and he lets go.

Then she says when she was 11 she and her brother touched each other one Saturday morning when they were watching Power Rangers just for a joke. It was just that one time and now he’s in college, but he was embarrassed about it and still doesn’t talk to her much, which really sucks because that’s like it was her fault or something.

“How far did you go?”

“He had an orgasm. I mean I’m pretty sure.”

“Are you embarrassed?”

“I don’t think so. I bet it happens a lot more than people let on. You know how a lot of stuff happens and then it just fades away like it never did? Like someone you were best friends with in elementary school and don’t even talk to any more?”

“I guess so.”

“Maybe Natasha could fade away?”

“Maybe.” He wishes she hadn’t said that, but he doesn’t know why. He feels like he should kiss her again but doesn’t. Why did he tell her? His mind suddenly freezes.

“I’ve got to go,” he says, jumping up and extending his arms to see if his body is working normally.

“Okay.” When her mouth isn’t moving her face just hangs there.

By the time he gets home he’s terrified she’s already telling everyone what he said. Why did he do it? He doesn’t talk to his parents at dinner and says he’s got a lot of homework. He goes to his room and does two days worth of AP calculus and translates a page of the Aeneid into rhyming couplets, the Greeks ravaging Priam’s palace. That kind of thing comes easy to him.

For the next week he avoids her. He finds empty classrooms to eat lunch in. There’s an Outloud meeting he has to go to, but sits away from her and writes in his notebook the whole time, only looking up when Mrs. Adamczyk the faculty advisor says Sally Mobley is going to adapt and direct his story. Sally doesn’t know much of anything but she’s a plugger, she’ll get it done, and he doesn’t really care anymore, he should drop it, but he just says okay and goes back to his notebook, the angry genius in full creative paroxysm.

But Savannah catches up with him in the hall after the meeting. “Hey,” she says. “What the fuck?”

He stares at her. He tries to stare through her. Mrs. Adamczyk walks by and he almost follows her but opts for paralysis.

“Can’t you talk?”

“I’m really busy.”

“You can’t do this.”

“Do what?”

“Shut me out.”

“I’m not. I’ve got to go.” He turns and walks away. Mrs. Adamczyk is down the dim corridor, about to turn a corner.

“Fucking freak,” Savannah yells after him.

So now it’s war. Okay. What is she, class rank somewhere in the 30s? He’s 7 last year, and ahead of him are a bunch of nerdy girls and a math weirdo. And where did she get that trashy name. He bet her parents named her Savannah after someone in TV soap. And the vegetables in her Outloud piece, they had to be from some writing exercise a teacher gave her. What vegetable are you? Ha.

But he keeps seeing her mouth as she confronts him, shifting, trying to hold still, failing. He goes home and starts to read Bleak House, but can’t concentrate, tries playing Bach preludes on the piano, but they don’t flow from his fingers. He goes out again, and ends up walking towards her house.

From behind a tree across the street, he looks up at her second floor window, watching for an image or a shadow or a shimmer in the glass. He’s there for a half an hour. Then he realizes she’s coming down sidewalk a block away. He feels stupid and exposed hiding behind a tree, so he retreats back down a walkway leading behind a house. A blond woman in jeans and a purple sweatshirt with a picture of the Virgin Mary is taking garbage out to a can in the alley.

“Do you want something?” she says with a wary smile.

“Let me help you with that,” he says, dashing over to her and grabbing the garbage bag. But she resists and the cheap white plastic bag splits, bleeding orange peels and marshmallows.

“Shit,” she says, and he runs out the back gate and down the alley.

He can’t go back there again, but he does, the next day after school, this time going in the alley behind her house, looking up at the window from a different angle, think vaguely of her floating up the stairs, down the hall, into her room, opening a closet, claiming things around her. But he sees a group of kids down the alley, noisy freshmen, and he hurries away, not looking back.

Back home he goes upstairs to his room, turns on his iPod and puts in his earbuds, listen to his favorite Gregorian chants, then to Plushgun, but he wants something deep and eviscerating, something not on his playlists. He flips off the buds and looks out his window. He thinks if he had a gun, he’d shoot something, maybe a robin. It wouldn’t be missed. Suddenly Savannah appears, walking towards his house. Now he really needs a gun

She turns up his front walk and rings the bell. For a second he considers not answering but he can’t not. Besides, she’s probably seen him.

He shuffles down the stairs and opens the door. “You’re stalking me,” she says.

“I am not.”

Her lip corners stab her cheeks. “Oh yes,” she says. “It’s okay. Boys are tectonically strange.”

“What do you want?”

“Can I come in?” He shrugs and backs up. “Where do you hang out?” she asks.

His eyes flick upwards and she heads for the stairs. He follows, thinking the stairs with their worn maroon carpeting will never look the same again. She gets to the top and looks back at him, head tilted down, eyes tilted up. He motions, and she walks towards his room. They pass the open door of his sister’s room and she glances in, then goes into his.

“It’s sort of a cell,” she says.

She sits on his bed and takes off the floppy gray sweater shirt she’s wearing over a black t-shirt. Then she takes off the black t-shirt. As her hands fly up to take it off he sees above her left breast in its black bra the words, “Without imagination there is no reality” tattooed in small, neat black print.

How does he get out of here? Maybe he can persuade his parents to move somewhere else. He sits beside her on the bed. Maybe he can get into college really early. He searches her mouth, then the words on her breast.

“Show me what you did with your brother?” he says.

—–

J. Linn Allen is a former journalism teacher at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and have had stories in publications including Long Story Short, ThievesJargon, Hamilton Stone Review, Taj Mahal Review and Green Silk Journal.

——-

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My world is one of constant possibility.  The parameters of my very existence flex however I so chose.  No, diagnosis I am not delusional and no, sales I am not a drunk; I am simply privileged to be allowed the frequent journey into the endless world of the human psyche.  Some would call narcolepsy a disorder, viagra even a pity, but for me the opposite is true.  If only the world could experience the glorious tip-toe into the realm of the subconscious a half-dozen times a day, then the word disorder would never even be considered.

In technical terms aka the world as you know it, I spend my days in the confines of the Horwick-Mills Center for Sleep Disorders amongst a collection of men and women who suffer from similar afflictions to the very condition on which I thrive.  I suppose I have been here for quite some time, how long exactly I don’t know anymore, but I do know I have been here long enough to realize I’ve been given a gift.   You see, while the rest of you sit through the agony of waking life, just waiting, begging for some adventure, I am busy drifting in and out of miracles.  Where I play there are no laws, no boundaries, no nevers.  Today was my birthday, this is how it went.

The only dreams I struggle to recall are the ones I actually have at night.  When they woke me this morning – they being the kind nurses who tend to us lowly patients and consider us nothing more than plants that need watering—they informed me that today I would be turning 40 and thus I should smile.  Smile Paul, Smile.

From across the room Kevin said Happy Birthday.  Not literally of course.  Kevin hasn’t spoken since he arrived last year but yet he has a way of speaking more genuinely than any human being I have ever met without ever uttering a sound.  When everyone in your world is telling you to cheer up it’s healthy to have someone who will shut up with you forever.

Over the years my episodes have become so frequent, I am no longer allowed to walk the hallways of the clinic.  I’ve been issued a wheelchair for my own safety, and in said chair is where I generally spend my time waiting for the next slip into fantasy.  The first door is always the hardest one to open.  It usually takes a few hours to find myself drifting off and today the wait was longer than I’d hoped.  It was nearly four hours of waiting and wheeling back and forth, avoiding eye contact in all directions, before I felt the familiar rush coming on.  It doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing, when the time arrives there is no denying it.  Your breath disappears and your head ceases to belong to you.  Your thoughts stretch like puddy into long, thin strands and begin to twist and braid into ropes upon which you simply grab hold and swing into the ether.

There are two main types of dreams you see: memories and speculations.  Dreams of memory take you through time and throw your past up all over your brand new shoes.  Now dreams of speculation, these are the ones in which the impossible does not exist.  When you dream as much as I do, you learn to mold the nasty little memories into the beautiful spectrum of infinite possibility.  The average dreamer travels in time and remembers circumstance as it was.  They will take the worst parts of memory and fixate.  Anxiety loves to creep in and spoil all the fun.

Take for example today’s first adventure.  The average dreamer would travel back to the lake house in the summer of ‘82, my 14th birthday, and the year I met my real father for the first time.  That poor average dreamer would remember the disappointment he felt when he first saw his father’s broken face, the stretched skin scarred not by violence but by negligence.  He would recall the absolute absence of emotion when the two first shook hands, both understanding that no future was in store, no memories to be made.  That dreamer would then fixate on the part where the man who fucked my mother in a hotel bathroom and then disappeared into the masses tried to bond with his baby boy by finishing off a bottle of Dewar’s and falling into the fire.  He almost certainly would recall the wails of a stranger in agony as the embers flecked from his singed gray hairs and I bet that dreamer might even stop and focus on just how long it took for that pissed off little boy to dive in the water and pull the ridiculous old fool out of the lake after he jumped in to douse the flames.  And maybe, just maybe that dreamer might realize a few months later when he started falling asleep in class, that meeting his father wasn’t such a good idea.

Not me.  When I travel back to that summer, I remember that same drunken bastard teaching me fly fishing; except this time no booze, just trust.  I watch as he carefully cleans Trout, sweat welling on his forehead as he takes the time to look up at me and smile every so often.  His hands are powerful and lean; they remind me of birch roots digging into earth.  I remember watching him pluck cattails and teaching me how to shuck the husks to get to the hearts, which he sliced thin and cooked over thick red coals with some fiddle head ferns and a pinch of salt.  I’ve been to this place so many times and every time I learn something new.  Today he taught me a trick for scaling trout that cuts the time in half, a lesson I didn’t want to know.

As always I am not ready to wake when I do, and after visiting the lake, I woke up to find myself in the cafeteria, a tray wobbling on my lap with a box of milk unopened and a spoon.  I noticed that someone had taken the time to wheel me out of the food line and place me neatly against the wall next to the garbage can.  When I finally reached the counter Gary the orderly gave me a cupcake and told me to be happy.  Be Happy Paul, Happy.

As I traveled back to my room I stopped as I always do to look in at Helen.  The word was her condition was worsening, and she was losing consciousness constantly now.  They say she will have to be transferred to the local ICU if she does not respond to the medications.  When I stare at her in her bed I wonder if she too isn’t taking their god-forsaken pills.  I sense on her quiet face a hint of a smirk, the same fuck you smirk that I get every time they leave the room and I chuck my meds in the goddamn trash.  Helen knows the truth; she is smart enough to see it.

I wasn’t expecting another trip so soon, but right there outside her door, Helen seemed to pull me under with her.  Suddenly we are together in the guest bedroom of my old house.  Somehow this room feels more appropriate for me now then the master bed; I am a guest in my own life.  Helen is pulling me by the collar, dragging me in to her and whispering into my lips.  This is one of those moments where what is said does not matter nearly as much as how it is said.  I say nothing, but open my lips to listen as she breaths into me.

As we undress we never lose eye contact.  Since I haven’t seen her awake in so long, her eyes seem to change color constantly.  Once we have stripped we move to embrace.  Awkward at first as we struggle to find the right spot, then slowly she reaches to pull me inside her and we fall into harmony.  A perfect call and response rhythm; two bodies sinking into each other.   Me steady and firm, strumming bass in 4:4, her keeping pace, flowing through tight riffs but making certain not to leave me behind.  We can feel the blood pumping fervently from our cores traveling through our nerves, me into her and yet her into me.  The moment is better than it should be, more true.  We hold one long breath and our eyes lock.  When she opens her lips there is no sound but I see the words so clear.

“Stop”

“What?”

“Stop”

“Why?”

“If we come we can never be here again”

And she’s right.  At least not like this.  The next time would be flat or out of sync.  The tempo too fast, the bass line too strong.  When you die in your dreams you do die a little in real life.

When it was over I found myself being wheeled slowly back to my room by Rosa the Venezuelan nurse whose last name is Irish.  She was being kind and keeping her eyes from drifting to my lap.  I suppose when you work with narcoleptics you get used to pushing around men with massive hard-ons in the middle of the day.  She took me back to the lounge area where the TV never turns off despite the fact that it triggers nearly half of all sleep paralysis incidents.  I asked her to bring me my music and maybe some juice.  She simply smiled and told me to relax.  Relax Paul, Relax.

As I waited for Rosa I listened to Hue.  Hue had killed his wife while trying to drive her to work and dragging the steering wheel down with him as he dreamt of beautiful things.  I never spoke to Hue, only listened.  He was one of the many who believed they could control the attacks by never allowing their mind to rest.  Hue badgered on all day to no end simply to avoid falling under and risking another life.

“Hey there Paulie! Happy Birthday my boy, I remember my last birthday goddamn, musta been a few months back now, who knows, in this place ya can’t tell two minutes from two months sometimes am I right?  Did I ever tell you about the birthday I spent in the hospital?”

He had; every year.

“I was in Portland hunting moose with my buddies right…  We had a license and all, it was real legit, but we didn’t get one you see?  So we start headin back home all salty and outa nowhere in the woods there comes this girl.  She’s all covered in mud and she looks like she’s been walkin for hours.  Now I wasn’t tryin to make no move, but she was sexy I tell you what.  It was these eyes she had, like she was born needing to be saved you know?  My buddies tried to keep movin but I couldn’t leave her there.  I went over to ask if she was lost, but before I got a word out I’ll be damned if she didn’t pull out a can of mase and damn near burn my eyes out.”

I gave him the courtesy laugh that I knew he wanted.

“I swear I thought I was blind right there.  I tell you what though, when I look back now I realize that was the most alive I’ve ever felt.  It’s like I was pissed off, fucked up, and turned on all at the same time.  Hell of a birthday man, not like my last one…”

I listened to him like we all do and I understood.  We all self medicate somehow, sometimes a man in pain should just be left alone.  Along the way he cracked his knuckles one by one over and over again.  That sharp hiss of nitrogen gas bubbles bursting between joints almost put me over the edge.   It isn’t quite considered rude to fall asleep while someone is talking to you, not in here, but I did my best to focus hard on the nature show playing on the TV behind Hue just to stay afloat.

As promised Rosa returned with my music (though she forgot the juice) and to my delight she took Hue with her when she left.  This was the part of my day I looked forward to beyond any other.  You see, the real magic happens in the moments in between.  The beautiful phase where consciousness begins to give way and the omnipresence begins to emerge.  This is the stage that the professionals will call hypnagogic hallucinations. I remember these scared me the most before I came here.  I think it was the lack of control that rattled me.  In dreams you have time to stop and process; you can make choices, reason.  In hypnogogia you have no choice but to submit.  You flash so quickly between worlds sometimes your brain can’t quite keep up.  Whenever I found myself in between I thought I was dying, like I was overdosing on my own imagination.  That was before I learned how to ride it.  Hell, it took Buddah 49 days to find enlightenment; it only took me a few weeks.

There is a power about hypnogogia that is truly singular.  This shift brings human senses the closest they can ever be to nirvana.  During these times the yellow rhythms shout at you to pay attention. Your soul is erupting in fiery orgasms and if you’re not careful you’ll miss it all and simply fall back in time or land on some perfect boring beach watching the waves like everyone else.  On the days I’m lucky enough, I can stay in between for long enough to capture the world in all its neon, spitshine brilliance before I drift away again.

William Burrough’s once commissioned a technician to build a device called a Dreamachine that uses Alpha Waves to stimulate the optical nerve and simulate hypnagogia in order to find inspiration for his writing.  Beethoven, Edison, Newton, some of the greatest minds in history credit their works to the influence of this mystical state, and here I am allowed its gifts almost at will.

Today’s fix is the product of the vintage vinyl blues of the great Robert Johnson.  You see narcoleptic episodes can be triggered by sensory stimuli; the trick is simply to find your own and use it as best you can.  Death Metal is the kryptonite of the narcoleptic soul.  Today I set my playlist and let the smooth truth flow.  I wait as the familiar feelings of transcendence creep in and I’m flooded with brilliant blues.  While my mind sinks into the rush I concentrate on holding the images.   I let the sharp breeze of the slide guitar brush by my face.  There’s pain in his voice that begs for forgiveness.  He wants to be free but knows he never can.

In the middle I’m not inside the dream, I am the dream.  I slowly evaporate with the waters around me.  In this state I become something far greater than human or even fantasy.  As the raw sounds flood me I transcend existence, if only for an instant, and become an object of pure energy.  For just as long as I can hold the moment, I become truly divine.

Before long its gone and I am back in ‘82 in the hospital waiting for my father.  This is the part where that poor average dreamer sees the old drunk’s doctor come out and say “We did everything we could…” Instead I greet the doctor with a smile and he tells me he got the hook out of my old man’s eyebrow no problem.  The old jokester pops out holding a lollipop just to yank my chain and we hop in the truck and drive on home.

By then it was late, my birthday had slipped past; another year, another day, another life.  I wheeled my way back to my room but as I drifted passed the room next to mine I noticed Frank.  Frank had shared a wall with me for years and tonight as I passed he was was sitting staring out the window of his room.  Something seemed strange about him.  I rolled in and parked to his left.  He nodded just slightly and continued to stare, slowly eating a very green banana and seeming not to notice.  Frank and I had grown somewhat close in recent years, mostly bonding over our mutual distrust in the medical staff.  I have never been one to start conversation but there is nothing on Earth quite so vile as the sound of another person eating a banana, so I felt I must interject.

“What’s out there man?” I asked

“Just the real world.”

“Then what you staring at?” I asked

“I haven’t had an episode in days.  I think the meds are actually working.”

“Wow.  What are you gonna do?” I asked

“I think it’s time I go home.”  He said, with that same fuck you smirk.

After that we said nothing else.  We sat for a while staring out beyond the slowly dying lawn stretched across the clinic’s front landscape.  Above the strawberry swirls of clouds and sunset I could just see the first peeking stars, some of which I had visited, others which I had seen destroyed in brilliant displays of catastrophic drama.  I looked across the oceans I had traveled and the thousands of faces whose paths I had crossed in the years I have spent in Horwick-Mills. Frank just looked out at his new life, his real life.  Between us was so much distance.  Two truths, two paths parked side by side, separated by silence and a green banana peel.  I turned and left after a while and just as I got out the door, without turning from his window Frank said, “Take it easy”.  Easy Paul, Easy

Then I was back in bed.  Kevin was already asleep and looking uncomfortable as usual.  Everytime I watched him sleep I somehow always expected him to jolt up out of bed and howl for someone to save him.  Not literally of course.  As I lay there I wondered if this birthday was as good as the last, or even as good as any other day.  I wondered why it mattered to me.  If I count all the birthdays I’ve had since I’ve been here I would probably be a thousand today and yet 40 seems like a much larger number.

It was then I felt myself sliding under.  This time felt different though, unfamiliar.  I wasn’t going on a journey, but more a mission.  I find myself crouched over the scope of a rifle, carefully lining my crosshairs on a face in a window; my face, sitting stoically next to Frank, staring across the void between us.  I pan my scope left to see the face of confidence and hellbent hope, then back to the right and again on me.  This is not the gaze of contentment, nor even satisfaction, but rather the mugshot of a shame-ridden antihero who knows he is a farce.  I want badly to put down the gun and drift off to the lake but something in the face through this scope won’t let me go.  It seems to be begging for release, pushing my grip tighter on the trigger.  As the first tear wells up and falls I can’t help but squeeze hard and watch as the single bullet cuts slow and powerful through the thick air, unstoppable and yet beautiful.  It arrives at the window, shattering the panes of glass in spectacular webs of asymmetry and through the labyrinth of cracks I can just make out the wry beginnings of a smile.

I awoke before impact, but this time I wasn’t startled; it felt right.  I was surprised to see Kevin awake again, he rarely wakes during the night, and when he does it is only to vomit or run for a quick piss before he’s back out for good.  He seemed to have been watching me while I dreamt, and when he could see I had regained my composure he looked direct into my eyes.  There was an odd fear in him, one I hadn’t seen since he arrived.  He seemed to be sweating so hard I feared he would melt into the sheets in a puddle of human soup.  I had to ask him if he was ok, but he spoke before I could.

“I don’t want to die in here” he said.

His voice was not like I’d imagined it, deep and reassuring, but rather timid, like that of a shy teen with an untimely erection during show and tell.  I was stunned, dislodged.  I wanted to reassure him, give him something to latch onto to pull him back from the edge but I was crystallized.  Quickly he fell back to sleep, but still I had nothing to offer.  It’s amazing how after years of dancing through fantasy and tackling the surreal, one little statement could bring me unhinged.

On my nightstand there are the familiar paper cups I see every day.  One contains the three little enemies, two in red and one in blue; Modafinil to stimulate the hypothalamus, and Fluoxetine to battle cataplexy and keep me nice and calm.  The other cup half full with clinic tap water.  I stare at these cups for almost an hour until I begin to feel drowsy.  I take one more glance at Kevin, twisted and cringing in his bed, and I swallow down both cups.  Then I lay back as calm as I can and try hard to just breathe.  Breathe Paul, Breathe

—–

Mike DiMarco is a writer out of the University of Maryland whose work has been published in several literary journals.

——-

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Cold morning snaps me awake with a staccato electronic alarm claxoning beside my bed. I jab the device to silence and heave-ho myself off my back with the grace and bearing of an intoxicated sloth. I sit on the edge.  Cold December. Head’s filled with London fog. I rattle away the pea soup vapor with warm thoughts of breakfast. Yellow fried eggs burn away the clouds with the heat of twin suns while a heavenly cavalcade of crisp bacon and raspberry jam laden toast follow close behind. It’s the most important meal of the day. I’ll have a beer. A beer for breakfast.

Phone rings and displays an unknown number. It’s the suits on the other end, cialis demanding their money that’s well past due. Penalty this and interest that. Hurry up. Hurry up and pay us. Or else. No need to answer I know that’s exactly what they’ll say. Let them eat voicemail. Time to get moving. It’s beer for breakfast.

The wind whipped draft shack apartment goose bumps my skin as I solemnly stroll to the kitchen for my morning meal. Phone’s with me in my plaid pajama pant pocket. My feet shuffle along and touch something wet. Ammonia stings my nose and waters my eyes. Cat peed on the carpet again. One more charge to pay when I move out. Clean it later. No time for this. It’s beer for breakfast.

Pans clang down on cooking grates and ignition switches spark, pop and snap sacred breakfast fire to life. Get the ingredients. Eggs from the carton, bacon from the shelf, bread from the box. Wash up before every meal, my mother always said. Hot water’s out. Never can get ahead. Always something going wrong. Call the maintenance man and his tool belt later. I got breakfast to cook. It’s beer for breakfast.

Grease in the bacon pan sizzles its siren song and lets loose aromas that’d bring vegetarians to their knobbed knees. The mechanical shunk of bread going down to be toast counterpoints the cackling crisp. Eggs line up to get cracked. Everything’s a few days past the expiration point. No money to buy new things. Doesn’t matter, my breakfast would make a Puck or Lagasse proud. Need the final ingredient. Sam’s calling from the fridge. Get him out and pop his top. It’s beer for breakfast.

Food’s ready, the triangle’s ringing in my head. Come and get it, come and get it. Creaky hand-me-down card chair and clogged bathtub water colored table holds together for one more meal. My only meal. Bastard phone rings right before the first bite. I don’t even try to answer as my pulse jackhammer pounds in anticipation of awful tidings. Nothing but bad news ever comes from a phone call. But, it’s ok. I take a deep swig of the sacred bottle. Breakfast is always better this way. It’s beer for breakfast.

—–

James Orbesen is a writer and graduate student living in Chicago.

——-

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At 21 Peach looks harder than she should, pilule given her nutritious suburban upbringing and expensive education. She’s tall and graceful as a deer, see with bouncy copper hair and a honey biscuit tan. She makes a face at herself in the mirror, pulling at the dry skin around her mouth. She is getting ready to go to work, organizing her costumes, planning routines.

Peach looks critically over the little Catholic schoolgirl outfit, holding it up to the light for a cleanliness check. The white cotton blouse doesn’t hand-wash well and there’s no time to do a full laundry, it will have to serve for one more night. Schoolgirl is a very popular persona, she can even blush convincingly. The ankle socks are slightly grimy, but passable. The tiny plaid pleated skirt has a rip at the seam, so she gives it a temporary quick fix with glue. Plain white cotton panties turn some guys on big-time.  In actuality, the uniformed girls she went to parochial school with wore Victoria’s Secret glam underwear. Zip up the plastic bag and one costume is ready for the backpack.

Next she considers a rhinestone-embellished thong, rejects it and instead takes the royal blue with pearls. From another drawer she pulls out a handful of pearl rope necklaces, fun to play with. Pearls always make her think of rich old Republican women, maybe she could do the Queen of England tonight. She adds some sparkly blue hair ornaments to the Ziploc, then tucks that costume into the backpack.

Last today is a slinky black minidress with silver mesh dragonfly insets, an outfit custom made for her. Everybody knows that butterflies are the stripper sisterhood symbol – Peach wants to be different, she wants to stand out. She’s adopted the dragonfly as her personal insignia, has a dragonfly tattoo on her shoulder, dragonfly embroidery on her backpack, marcasite dragonfly rings on her fingers and one toe, her bedroom walls hung with psychedelic dragonfly prints bought on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley from the guy who also deals. Into the Ziploc also go a black lace breakaway bra, a couple of glittery wristbands, and there’s another one for the backpack.

She adds a few more plain thongs in case she sweats too much or leaks too much, and two pairs of stiletto heels, mandatory for the strip club’s dress code – the girls have to keep them on all through their eight-hour shifts. They can sit down whenever they want to, but they can’t take off their shoes. The other inviolable rule at Club Galena is that thongs have to fit exactly so – no more than one inch of pudendal flesh may be visible on either side. For this she waxes her legs and her pubic hair daily – though some of the girls have regular Brazilian waxes.  The only hair these men want to see is on her head, even if she is a natural redhead. It’s okay to have a couple of wiry copper crotch hairs escaping, but no more.

Backpack all tucked, closed and zippered, time to stretch out the leg muscles. She turns and grips the back of a chair, arching forward and extending one leg behind her, pointing her French-manicured toes. After a disciplined thirty count, she pulls the leg back in, levers it out to the side, then brings it down. She shifts her weight, then lifts and extends the other leg straight back and up, a classically graceful ballet warmup. She took ballet lessons briefly as a child, hated the formalized structure, hated all of it. She likes to be responsive to the moment, spontaneous. She thinks it would be interesting to experiment with yoga; learning to contort herself into those complicated poses would be a definite asset in working the pole. She could design a routine with some cool yogic moves, maybe adapt some Hindu dances. But first maybe she needs just a little hit of rock candy mountain to help her concentration so she can choreograph it on paper and rehearse a bit before she brings something new into the club.

Leaving the chair and moving towards the shower, she pulls off her yoga pants and sports bra and checks out her new surgically enhanced globular breasts. She loves the way she looks now and she feels confident, competitive. Last night a dweeby guy asked if her breasts were real. “I hate implants,” he said, challenging her. “I don’t want a dance if they’re implants — and I can always tell.” Tall and proud on her six-inch Lucite platform heels, flesh-colored thong and iridescent pasties, she cradled her breasts as if they were her babies. “They’re all mine,” she lied tenderly, looking down at them and then back at him. He took her into the Champagne Room for a private dance.

***

Peach truly loves to dance, this is the best part of the job. She thinks of dune grass swaying in a beach breeze, Scheherazade telling stories in body language, Venus rising from the sea… sometimes a wicked compliant Virgin Mary with arms outstretched in perverted benediction. This night, again in the Champagne Room, at the finale of a lap dance she releases her copper curls from the high pony tail, tosses her head in an arcing spinal thrust, and brushes her long hair against her customer’s face and neck. They are both breathing hard. He tips her two fifties.

She is thinking about offering him a second dance, goes to the door to signal the manager to restart the timer when that bitch Justine slithers in. Justine with the deep dimples right where her back curves into buttocks, Justine of the black leather wristbands, Justine with her spiky purple hair and thirty-percent tattoo body coverage. She flicks Peach a sideways glance, plants her legs on each side of the guy’s lap and hovers. She looks into his face and he nods weakly, so she starts to work him, rubbing her crotch against his zippered fly. Peach watches Justine slide into a crescendo of phony moans and squeals, and the guy looks like he is going to expire any minute, so Peach decides not to start a territory fight. She’s new in at the club and Justine has been around a long time. Peach already wore out her welcome at one other club downtown, copped a diva attitude ‘cause she was giddy with the thrill of being in a completely new city and fitting in right away, even down to Queen of the Night contests at The Endup. So the bouncers – strange, blank-faced guys – got tough with her. Show up every day you sign for, or else you get stuck with a twelve-hour shift for punishment. Or get out. Peach got out.

Back in the main lounge, she looks over the glass-topped tables and decides to sit with Kadi and Lana who are passing around a pipe full of something. Sometimes the other girls invite her to join in private at-home dances for their “clients,” and so far she has declined. She’s not sure how deeply she wants to get into weirdness, strictly does not want to do anything bordering on physical abuse. Peach is all about pleasure and oblivion, has no interest in the psychologically complex and ambiguous patterns of aggression, dominance and retreat that can be found at the next level down. But here at Club Galena between dances she finds her mind drifting, feels a little surfeited with her own naughtiness, a little bored. A little hit of something will put her back in the mood.

Kadi is a gaunt, narrow-eyed blonde, a recent immigrant from one of those Eastern European countries perpetually at war. She carts around her worldly possessions in a large wheeled suitcase because she has no permanent home, can’t seem to get together enough money for a place of her own in San Francisco’s high-rent sweepstakes. She stays with anyone who extends an invitation – another stripper or one of the bouncers or a friendly janitor. On the nights nobody wants her, she rents a cheap hooker’s hotel room on Broadway. Peach started out feeling sorry for Kadi, but that ended when she discovered Kadi wearing dragonfly hair clips that she denied stealing from Peach’s backpack. When Peach started paying attention, she spied Kadi routinely foraging through all the girls’ stuff, taking anything that appealed. So Peach bought a tiny combination lock for her backpack and set the combination to something she could easily remember, her mother’s birthday.

On the opposite end of the stripper personality spectrum is Lana, a pearlescent dark-haired beauty whose middle-class Chinese family out in the avenues thinks she’s working the night shift at a South City computer plant, putting together silica microprocessor chips with tiny tweezers in her gloved hands. Lana and Peach have one thing in common – their bachelor’s degrees in fine arts. Peach’s degree is a sham – she signed up for courses, passed her tuition checks from her mother to the bursar and mutely attended classes, but she never did a lick of homework. She could always find a guy to write her papers or pay a girl to take her exams. So she has the degree that her mother wanted so much, but it’s a hollow symbol. Peach isn’t comfortable with Lana, thinks the Chinese girl looks down on her for being slow and unintellectual. Lana brings big lush art books to the club to read between dances, and they work well as conversation pieces with some of the more shy techie types.

***

“It’s the worst environment, I’m ashamed, horrified, disgusted.” Her mom during the weekly phone call. “You’re being exploited.”

“If anyone’s being exploited, it’s these stupid men who give me money for nothing. NOTHING. I don’t even make skin contact, it’s all pure fantasy. How pathetic can you be? It’s not the strippers who are dumb, it’s the men. I hate them, they’re awful.”

“Why do you want to work in a place that’s so awful? You have a college degree, you can do anything, you’re a smart girl. You have options, you’re not like those poor cows who can’t do anything else in the world but take off their clothes.” Her mother, as usual, is missing the point. As well as the signpost.

“I can be a smart stripper. Not all strippers are dumb, there are smart women out there mentoring me.”

What exactly “mentoring” means in the world of commercial sex is best left unexplained.

Peach works four nights a week and takes home a thousand dollars on a good night. She doesn’t have a checking account so the IRS can’t track her cash flow, though she uses her credit cards lavishly and carelessly. At the end of every workweek, she goes through her backpack and tosses out all the business cards stricken men have given her. Doctors, lawyers, technology chiefs, rich men, shy men, beggar men, thieves. Peach is a romantic, but not about the men who come to watch her dance. She has no illusions that Prince Charming is going to enter Club Galena and choose her to be his princess. She knows these men don’t see her as worthy. She sells an act, but she prides herself on knowing what’s real, so she never keeps a business card. At the end of the week they’re old news and dead letters. Ask her if she likes being looked at and she’ll just shrug and say, “I guess.” She has always been a magnet for male attention.

She was a pretty little girl with precocious sexy ways and a remarkable allure. Summers at the beach, Peach had a crowd of little boys following her around from the time she was eight. Her photographer father snapped film at every chance. “You’re so beautiful, Peach, so graceful, so lovely, so sleek, so sunny, you’re just outstanding.” He worried about the boys who swarmed around her, worried about drugs and alcohol and teenage drivers. And then he died before he remembered to worry about the inadvertent legacy he was leaving his ripe Peach, who thought the way she looked was the only thing about her he had found worth loving.

After her shift is over, walking through the cool pre-dawn fog to her car, in a rare moment of reflection Peach focuses on a song claiming her interior attention, Neil somebody, one of the old guys her father had liked, something about a sad unloved girl with stones inside her head. She had always thought the song was about smoking weed, old stoners, but tonight she hears it differently, hears herself in it, hard-armored inside her own head…and always full of longing.

—–

Janet Shepard is a writer living in Northern California.

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It’s 4 a.m., cialis and Opal just came back to bed after a visit to the bathroom.  She fell asleep about five hours ago, nurse only to be awakened by an annoying twinge.  Now, cialis as she nervously anticipates the first fade of the stars, she’s having trouble getting back to sleep.  This happens to her most nights.  She always sets her alarm, but rarely needs it to wake up.  After about 10 minutes of listening to the ring of her own ears cut through that just-before-dawn silence, she decided to permanently open her eyes wide for the day.  They’ll stay wide too, wide and grey and alert.  Opal remains stiff and vigilant most days, in case she misses anything at the factory.  She wants to make sure she does a great job there.  The other girls don’t care for her much because she gets to work so early in the morning, before everyone else.  Opal suspects they feel threatened by her.  They think she’s sucking up to the bosses, but she really doesn’t intend to, she just wants to do the best job possible.  Even if it means coming in early to get started on inspections, or telling the boss he’s looking a little thinner these days since he’s been on that NutriSystem diet.

Opal works at the Toy Lot – where an array of children’s toys are molded and dyed with bright candy colors by loud, noisy machines.  Opal’s job is to inspect toys for any defects.  All day, from about five in the morning to two in the afternoon, Opal picks up toys, searches over their smooth, plastic surface, and either sends them down the conveyer belt, or chucks them aside in a cardboard box at her feet.  There was something about this routine that calmed her down.  The job was easy and monotonous.  There were no tricks or gimmicks, not a lot of politics in her little world.  Toys are either suitable for sale or not suitable for sale.  Black or white.  Yes or no.  So few things in the world are this simple.

But she got to make the call over which toys went to the stores and which didn’t, and that small bit of power excited her.  Sometimes, she would pretend to be God letting bath tub toys into heaven.  She liked working with toys.  They made her feel like a kid again, and sometimes she would stop to play with them when the bosses weren’t looking.  Rubber ducks were her favorite toy to inspect.  Nothing made her laugh more than rubber ducks that were dressed like things other than rubber ducks.  At one point, a gang of tuxedo-clad rubber ducks came down the pike, and Opal burst into unbridled laughter.  The other workers didn’t bother to notice, the machines were too loud anyway.

Every day at noon, Opal would stop for lunch, even if she was in the middle of inspecting a toy.  She would just abandon her task, because it was her right to do so and the schedule commanded it.  She was entitled to a one hour lunch, beginning at 12:00.  At first, the bosses tried to stop her from doing this, but she complained so much they gave in and allowed it.   She was afraid if she ate any later than that she would be too sluggish to properly carry out her inspections.   Sometimes, the factory machines that housed the molten plastic would go wonky, and production would stop momentarily.  Workers would be asked to put in extra time at the end of their shift.  Opal refused.  She had to get home to feed her African meerkat, Timon – he had a special diet of live African ants.  If the ants stayed in the fridge too long, they’d start to get a little less lively, and Timon wouldn’t eat them.  So she had to get home as soon as possible.

It didn’t matter that Timon was actually a ferret who ate regular ferret food (she figured that at least his name was actually Timon, so it wasn’t a total lie).   But if she got home too late, she would miss her favorite shows, and then would have to eat later than normal.  If Opal ate any later than 6:00 her belly would rumble on and she would surely not get to sleep. So she told a little fib, but the bosses wouldn’t know the difference.  No one would.   Not a single soul had been inside Opal’s apartment in seven years.  Little Timon was her only company.  Opal would come home to hear him rattling inside of his cage, and at night, they would sleep together.  It was nice to hear another heartbeat in the dark.

One morning, Opal was inspecting purple octopus bath toys.  They each had stupid grins plastered across their big, purple heads.  The boss asked her into his office, which never happens.  She dropped one of the octopi onto the conveyer belt, stupid face down.  She was worried she’d done something wrong.  Had the other girls sabotaged her?  Was her boss angry?  Her palms were sweating as she waited for him to get off the phone.  When he did, he looked up to find her leaning towards him, almost out of her chair.  He told her he was bumping her up to a new position, that she would now be operating machinery.  She’d been there for almost five years now, and she deserved a promotion, he said.  It was an extra $5 an hour, nothing to sneeze at in the factory business, and she would fit right in.

Opal stared at him as he spoke, watching his lips move to make sure she understood everything he said.  She was terrified.  Running the machines was different from passing ducks along a belt.  What if something went wrong?  She imagined herself hitting the wrong button, or pulling the wrong lever, and effectively flooding the entire factory with boiling red, blue, and yellow plastic.  Then she thought otherwise, because those three colors would make a rather nasty brownish grey.  Just red plastic, it looks more ghoulish, like blood.

She pleaded with her boss to keep her on the assembly line, but he insisted.  They needed more people working the new machines that had just been installed, and less people on inspection.  More machines running meant more toys being made.  The boss became aggravated as Opal pled with him, but she barely noticed.  She was inside of her own head now, and all that mattered to her was that she was terrified.  Most of her life, Opal was concerned solely with Opal, which is why there weren’t many folks around her.  Timon didn’t mind, he just liked to hide in socks and leave droppings behind.

It wasn’t until her boss raised his voice and threatened to fire her if she didn’t comply, that she stopped begging.

All Opal could think about the night before her first day on the machines was her inevitable failure.  She held Timon close to her that night, fear of the unknown shoving sleep aside for the time being.  She lay there, wishing something would happen, a wild snow storm in the middle of June, or maybe she could fall down the stairs and break her neck.  Anything to keep herself from having to go into the factory the next day.  As she closed her eyes to try to sleep, they burned from being plastered open for so long.  She could hear her heart beating quickly with stress, and she could feel her eyelids twitching.

She stayed awake the entire night, and got to work at four in the morning instead of five.  She needed to study the levers and buttons on the machines before she could properly do her job.  On the way there, a young man ran a stop light and hit the side of Opal’s grey Saturn.   She was pushed to the other side of the car, and felt the impact deep within her back.   Opal stayed silent and still, waiting for someone to save her.  And when they did, she couldn’t remember her own name for a bit.

No one came to visit her in the hospital, but one of the girls at work named Tammy did stop by her apartment to feed Timon.  Tammy used to try to get Opal out of the house, but Opal didn’t have the desire to go out.  “I’m happy just to stay at home,” she would say.

The injuries Opal sustained were serious enough that she was unable to stand for long periods of time, or her back would start to hurt.  Running the machinery required a lot of standing.   So her boss had no choice but to let her sit down and inspect toys.

This made Opal exceedingly happy.  She was in terrible pain and could barely walk some days, but she didn’t mind all that much.  Her coworkers marveled at her strength.   Sometimes, the bosses would let her leave early with full pay.  More time to watch television and more time to play with Timon.  Who would have thought that an accident could actually bring positivity to someone’s life?

Opal slept straight through to her alarm every morning after the accident.  On some days, she would even lie in bed a little longer, eyes half open, Timon breathing shallow on the pillow next to her.  The ringing in her ears seemed quieter now.  She now understood what it was like to feel lucky.

—–

Lisa Solier lives in Pittsburgh, PA.  She loves writing, music, a great film, and walking her beautiful dog.

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It seems, search throughout his life, that numbers played a vital role in his day to day. By counting to 1,357, he could awaken from a catatonic framework to find the entire downstairs completely spotless.  By counting to 254, a clockwise motion of his tongue (matched precisely to the metronomic seconds) could bring his wife to climax without extra rigmarole and only cause minor aches and pains in his aging jaw line.

The 2.5 children was another matter, entirely.  In an effort to appease his superiors, he forced his only daughter to undergo numerous controversial surgeries, gradually working toward the aim of completely splitting the girl in two.

“You’ll be twice the woman you are now!” he told the whimpering lass, secretly possessing no intention of keeping the bottom half.  It was to no avail.  Following the third series of incisions, the girl succumbed to a nasty cold and could not be summoned.

There the man sat, holding the lifeless hand of his offspring, listening to the clock in room 4952 beat incessantly in perfect time.  Sweat teased his brow, and he grew weary at the notion that there were indeed no solutions- not even in the absolute.

—–

Jarod Facknitz’s fiction earned him a scholarship from Who’s Who Among American Students and the prize of Best Short Story in the North American International Auto Show contest of 2000.  He is currently a music reviewer for the Chicago Acoustic Underground.   

—–

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I’ve forgotten all the kids from when I was an academic tutor, ask except Marty, a crazy little redheaded boy of about twelve, who was brighter than most kids but refused to do anything remotely academic. Day after day I would try shoving Algebra and Biology textbooks down his throat, but the boy would not give in. On good days he would remain silent for hours; on bad days he would fling his books away and scream until left alone.

Luckily one day—I don’t know why, maybe I was tired–I let him fool around with some cheap watercolors, while I looked for another job in the newspaper. After an hour, he showed me an incredibly expressive rendition of my face.

I could not believe Marty was capable of such art. When his mother got home, we ran to her Jaguar and showed her the watercolor. She though it was very cute and assured me Marty had never taken art classes before.

From then on, I let the boy paint, play the guitar, or watch movies—whatever he wanted, really—instead of arguing over homework. We got in the habit of taking walks around the neighborhood, during which he would come up with incredible stories; some based on reality, some made up. I couldn’t tell them apart. I didn’t care so long as the tantrums didn’t come back. And I enjoyed his company better this way. He was the most creative little creature I have ever met. His mother knew we had stopped studying, but to her keeping her boy of trouble was enough.

A few months later I landed a job at Bank of America.

I couldn’t bring myself to tell Marty so I told the mother and she told the boy. He didn’t say a word as we walked around the neighborhood. And when we passed the park, he didn’t ask me to race him to the see-saw.

I didn’t confront him because I knew you absolutely do not try to pry Marty. He would have to talk to me, or else we’d have a silent good-bye. It worked. Marty grabbed my hand just outside his house and made me promised I would not be a snitch. We sat down on the porch.

“I have a confession to make, Mr. Davis,” he said, lowering his eyes, “I’m not who you think I am.”

I looked at my watch. His mother would be home soon.

“I’m really much older than you think. I was born in 1914, in Paris, as Pierre-Francoise Lel·t. Back then I was an only child like now and got bored all the time, like now. Well, I had a really good friend in the neighborhood. His name was Julian and he was my good friend because we practically grew up together. In 1926, Julian and I were twelve years old and my French mother allowed me to go over to Julian’s house after school so long as I finished my homework. Well, that day I felt particularly lazy. You know how I get, Mr. Davis.

I hopped on my bicycle and went to Julian’s. His parents weren’t home and he showed me some new records they had gotten from America. It was some loud stuff with trumpets. The maid’s daughter, an Algerian girl a couple years older than us, came into the room and said she had stolen some liquor from her mother. She would share it if we let her listen to records with us. She knew stuff like dancing and how to inhale smoke. We drank the whole bottle and smoked many cigarettes, but then it got dark and we said good bye. We talked about to doing it again next week.

I was riding my bike home when a big truck ran me over from head to toe. It might have been my fault. In any case, I felt no pain, just blackness for a while. Floating up was best of all—birds try to keep up with you and cool clouds splash on your face. You don’t need a sweater up there because it’s always warm and it doesn’t rain because you’re above the clouds. The angels are kind of funny. They don’t really talk. Just do funny dances and songs.

I asked the head angel if I could talk to God, but God wouldn’t see me. I yelled and cried every day until given an appointment. They gave in. God does not have a beard, wings or white ropes, like you might think. He is this corn-fed French-Canadian in a cheap blue suit. The tiny angels opened a big glass door and I walked up to his gilded throne, scared.

“What the hell’s your problem?” God said in a shrilly voice.

The angels looked at me with their small eyes, expecting an apology. I kept quiet.

“I know what you want, Jean-Francois. “I’m going to send you back to earth to get more experience. You must learn to appreciate the goodness of heaven,” God said.

I apologized under my breath, but God didn’t hear me. He took his fat hand from his rosy cheek and pointed down. The clouds twirled below us as the tiny angels flew away like frightened pigeons. I could see the buildings, but not people. Everyone looks the same from up there, Mr. Davis. And, you know what, time is so weird. A few weeks up there turned out to be seventy years on earth. My current mom gave birth to me in 1996, you can ask her.

I grew up not knowing about my former life until a few days ago. Remember the day I got suspended from school? That night God appeared in my dreams and told me not to screw up my second chance or he’d have to bring me back up again. I really, really, want to do things right this time. I would hate going up to our fat God and his tiny angels again. Only you know me, Mr. Davis. Only you can help me.”

His small hands clenched to my arm. He was trying not to cry.

“Don’t worry. I will help you, son,” I said, and gave him a hug, though, really, I had no idea how I could, or even if I should.

The Jaguar pulled in the driveway. Marty reminded me not to say anything to his mother and ran in the house. His mother looked tired. I asked if I could talk to her inside the Jaguar. She said to make it quick because she had to get ready for something. The car smelled liquorish and new and so did she. I told her. She said her son had abandonment issues because of her husband or something and offered me an extra pay check if I would visit Marty once in a while, not as a tutor, but as a friend. I turned it down. She said it was quite okay, that she and her son would be fine without me and asked me to get out of her car. She drove away instead of going in the house. I never saw Marty or his mother again, though I heard he was held back a grade and refuses to see another tutor. My job at Bank of America isn’t half as strange, but at least I get health benefits–a must at my age.

—–

Patricio Maya is a writer and cultural critic from Ecuador. Links to his writing can be found at  patriciomaya.com .

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There’s nothing more unnatural than insulation, see pink fibrous stuffing that spreads indestructibly to catch on grass, trees and swing sets or squats in the cups of tulips and daffodils. Ted runs his hand through his lank, unwashed hair to probe for stray bits.

People huddle in their yards among houses squashed like beer cans ready for recycling. He would rather interview the insulation. What house did you come from? What were you doing when the tornado hit? Where will you go? Insulation wouldn’t notice the bloat and floridity, the spidery eyes, the hard, prickly sweat, the edgy voice that sounded like it came from behind him. Each hangover is the worst ever. On the highway there he’d pulled over to plunge from the car and vomit on a fringe of loosestrife, spattering the tight purple buds.

Molly had confronted him. He’d seen it coming for at least a month. Over greasy fried chicken with too much pepper – what is it with Midwest towns and pepper? – and iceberg lettuce and hothouse tomato salad with bright orange Kraft dressing. Molly consumed a small, measured portion. Ruby, sensing tension, ate nothing. Ted gorged, fighting depletion. Against his better judgment he liked pepper, grease and sweet dressing.

“Go play.”

Ruby swung her long black hair her mom’s way. “Can I play Farmville on Facebook?”

“Okay. Don’t buy anything.”

Ruby said bye to Ted, flattening her lower lip slyly against her upper teeth, and ran out of the room.

“Aliens are stealing our young,” he said.

“Who are we?” Molly lifted her pointed chin abruptly to shift the mood.

Ted squinted. “That’s the big we?”

“We’ve been together for10 months and 6 days. You’ve been coming over here, eating my meals, playing with my daughter, reading her stories and sleeping in my bed and” – stage whisper here – “fucking me and I ask myself where is this going? I think that’s reasonable.”

Ted tipped up his Red Stripe and glugged. “No question.”

“So?”

“This is sudden.”

“How many days more than 10 months and 6 would make it not sudden?”

“I don’t know if there’s a rule exactly.”

“No.”

Ted rewinds the replay further back as he shoulders his backpack and crosses a lawn, careful not to step on a spoon and a pillow, to speak to one of the captives penned by incalculable loss. His roiling stomach fills him with empathy.

He and Molly had met at a church choir rehearsal. He’d been working for the Beacon Messenger only a couple of months, glad to get some kind of job after he’d been laid off from the bankrupt Chicago Tribune, grateful to a former Trib colleague who’d become editor there for helping him out. But there wasn’t much for a divorced 40-year-old in the small Indiana city except drinking and church, and he needed an occasional break from the former, especially since his old buddy was losing patience with his coming in late all the time.

“You were staring at my tits,” she had said in the parking lot after rehearsal.

“It’s all I’ve got to go on. When I know you more as a person I’ll stop.”

“I’m Molly Graham. Is that enough of a person?”

“I was actually staring at your straining throat as you sang more than your heaving bosom.”

“But that too.”

“I confess. I’m Ted Fulham.  That’s my person name.”

Molly is narrow and lithe with short black hair nicked with rust, a jutting yet delicate jaw and a wide mouth than promises and often delivers the unexpected. She radiates a brisk confidence that must be reassuring to her students at Franklin County Community College, where she teaches Bridge (formerly Remedial) English. It also seems to reassure 8-year-old Ruby, whom she’s raised since she and her high school boyfriend got divorced two years ago. He sells Chevvies out by the Overland Mall, many to cops, because his dad was deputy police chief before driving his Malibu into a quarry. Ted suspects Leland Graham beat Molly up a few times. The world is full of mean drunks. Ted knows a few, might be one himself, if you ask his ex-wife. But he’d never hit her, though he’d broken a few knickknacks.

The first time Ted and Molly made love, he wasn’t sure what to expect.  She was so wary and challenging. But she responded to him immediately, and the texture of her skin was a constant surprise – slippery but permeable, warm marble you could sink your fingers into. She seemed to yield and resist simultaneously, hurling herself at him and drawing back. Afterwards, her cheeks were wet. He was alarmed and exultant.

“Sorry. It’s my first time since the divorce,” she’d said, staring at the ceiling.

He braces himself for work.

“Is your family okay?” Ted asks the woman standing on her front lawn, which is rubble dusted and studded with pink fluff but otherwise relatively uncluttered with debris. She is Angela Saturday, 48, an assistant at a day care center, he writes in his notebook.

“My husband and my son were both out like always. I was talking to my sister in Indianapolis. I heard this noise like when there’s a horror movie with the sound too loud and I said, ‘Excuse me, Grace, I think it’s a tornado’ and I ran down to the basement. I was so scared.”

Ted looks at her one-story brick ranch. The roof and two walls have been stripped away and deposited in the rear, a strangely compact pile of tile, brick and drywall as if delivered for prefab construction. The living room is an exposed stage on which a gray-haired man sits on a blue sofa and a younger man in a matching chair.

“We’re waiting for the insurance,” Angela says. “They shouldn’t really be in there. It’s probably not safe.”

Ted knows walks over to the house to talk to the father and son. On his way he resumes the previous night.

Ted has finally said to Molly, “This isn’t my life.”

“What is your life? Swimming around in your old muck?”

“Yeah. That’s it exactly.” Bitter but proud, his tonic chord.

“I’m feeling really sorry for you. Meanwhile I’ve got my own life.”

“Go ahead with it.”

There’s the decision box, right in front of her. Molly stares at it, chin on her fist, as if the box were square in the center of the kitchen table. “Okay. Go now.”

“Molly, I’m trying.”

“Go.”

“Right.”

The older man looks over from his armchair, face closed as a rock. “You’re not the insurance. You can’t come in here.”

“Okay.  Can I talk to you out here?”

“I suppose.” Al Saturday, 52, bakery truck driver.

“Why are you sitting there?”

“Where you expect me to be? Till Greg Sowacky gets here with a check I have no place else to go. He’s the insurance.”

“Is it safe?”

“Why not? Everything’s fallen that’s gonna fall. Anyway I’m not leaving. Sheriff already tried.”

“Are you protecting the house?”

Al laughed. “You see anything here worth protecting? Hell with all of it. It’s just a check to me.”

“Don’t tell him that. He’s a reporter.” Angela has come up behind Ted.

“I know who the hell he is. I’m not going to lie. We’re getting out of here soon as Greg Sowacky comes by. Till then I stay put.”

Angela starts weeping and goes back across the yard to the street. Ted finds his little videocam in his backpack. “You mind?”

“Go ahead,” says Al. The son, Eddie, 22, unemployed house painter, stares into the camera.

After leaving Molly’s Ted went to the Filling Station, a bar on the south end of town near the auto parts plant that closed a couple of years before. There were usually guys there around his age who had lost their jobs, which soothed his spirit, as did the barmaid, a woman with black curly hair, chubby cheeks, and blue grey eyes that bugged out amiably. Once he had his beer the rationalizations could begin. He’d already fucked up one life. That’s all you get, right? After a couple of hours he persuaded himself his life could stop right there, incapable of causing further harm.

“You’re full of shit, mister. Why would anyone leave that to come here?”

That from Greg or Gary, who was unsympathetic to Ted’s account of the perfect life he’d wrecked in Chicago, the great job, the gorgeous wife, the big apartment near the lake.

“That’s the black hole, isn’t it? Cursed from birth, same as everyone. You want another one?”

“I’ve had enough. So have you.”

“Exactly.” Ted turned back to the giant blue-gray globes of the barmaid.

The call from the paper had come at 6 and it’s past noon now and Ted is feeling more upright and interviews other victims and the cops. He’s pretty sure of angle with the Saturdays, wiped to randomness like the pink fluff. He calls the editor and tells him he’ll shoot over the story and upload the video in a few hours. Two hours max, his friend tells him. The website’s waiting.

He stops at the Bringer Inn on the highway back from the town where the tornado hit, and has a beer and burger in the almost empty roadhouse. He writes his story and files the pictures in the quiet gloom. The work steadies him and he feels better than he had all day. He’s done a good job. Maybe this will buy him some slack.

He recalls one Sunday a few weeks back he’d taken Molly and Ruby to Parsippany State Park. He’d stopped drinking for a month, not taken a pledge, just slowed down to a stop. Ruby grabbed his hand and took him to look for frogs on the banks of White Lake, a ghostly expanse with a fat, metallic shimmer like mercury.

“It looks unnatural,” said Ted.

“When I was a kid there were stories about people seeing spirits in the mist over the lake,” said Molly.

“Are there really ghosts?” asked Ruby.

“I think it’s some kind of phosphorescence maybe. It’s just an ordinary lake,” said Molly.

“What’s phosphorescence?” asked Ruby.

“A kind of glow that comes from rotting stuff in the marsh at the end of the lake,” said Molly.

“Gross,” said Ruby.

When they picnicked Ruby sat in Ted’s lap and tried to steal his sandwich. “Do you love Mommy?” she asked.

“Ruby, stop,” said Molly. Ted smiled at Ruby and winked.

“Ha,” Ruby said.

He’d started drinking again shortly after that. The sense of unreality had started filling him, like a dryness that made things flat. Like sitting in your house with the walls peeled back and the insulation pasted all around.

He thinks about having another beer before driving back, but he really wants now is a shower and a nap. Maybe he can make choir practice tonight. The words of a gospel hymn worm through his head: “Grateful, grateful, grateful, gratefulness….” He wants to see Molly once more, straining neck, slippery skin, lifted chin and all.

But when he wakes up it’s almost 8, and practice started at 7:30. He could still go. People do come late. He’d feel stupid, but he has a real choice here.

—–

J. Linn Allen is a former journalism teacher at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and have had stories in publications including Long Story Short, ThievesJargon, Hamilton Stone Review, Taj Mahal Review and Green Silk Journal.

——-

To comment on this story, visit Fiction365’s Facebook page
Every Sunday, shop Fiction365 presents a new chapter of a previously unpublished novel.

City of Human Remains, by Darren Callahan, is a suspenseful mystery set in a dystopian future. 81 children have somehow disappeared in a city where there is no right to privacy, and everything is taped and available for review. Finding them should be easy … but then, losing them should have been impossible.

The current chapter, chapter 17, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

|| City 32 Media Release #5678-B18D ||

 

An interview with incumbent Mayor Franco J. Cocanaugher at the start of his second term.

Q: Your name comes up a lot when talking about this city.  In fact, clinic others outside of City 32 sometimes refer to it as ‘Franco’s City.’  How do you feel about that sort of connection?

FC: Next Mayor comes along, I’m sure it’ll be that person’s name that comes up, for better or worse.

Q: Are you worried that some of what you’ve accomplished won’t carry forward to the next administration?  For example, your subway improvement project, the updating of the power grid, installation of the sunrise platforms on city buildings, or your support of the Doll System?

FC: All those things you list are about becoming a world-class city.  Cities such as Tokyo or Paris have already beat us in some ways – their power grids and production facilities were re-done from scratch, whereas a lot of what runs 32 is rooted in twentieth century technology.  Sure, we’ve modified it, kept it running, but the basic infrastructure that powers our lights are actually very old.  And, it’s not going to last forever.  Energy demands are only going to increase.  There have been some alternate forms introduced in the last 30 years, but nothing limitless.  And I’m also really proud of the housing we’ve built and all the innovative solutions from my city planners.  Renters pay out their income on tiny rooms.  If you have more than 2 bedrooms, it’s a luxury.  We can do better.

Q: You’ve gotten almost all of the appropriations needed for these changes.  And that seems to be due to public as well as private support.  How did you orchestrate such a rally?

FC: To be blunt, you have to sell them something extraordinary.  No one contributes $10 billion to a power plant without an image of the future along with it.  When plants open, there is usually a prolonged period of ‘revenue recovery,’ as they say in the boardroom – the plant operates in the red.  To an investor, that’s very bad.  You have to show them the city in 100 years – with residents warm and with lights on, contributing to the tax and paying their bills.  A vision, if you will, of a thriving local economy, and a respected national and international reputation.  You want to be a destination city.  As much as the doubling of our city’s population has hurt us in the last 50 years, believe me, you don’t want the reverse.  People leaving 32 would be 100 times worse than people coming.  But if they’re coming, you want to make it worth it.  You want to solve problems, not create them.

Q: How does the Doll System fit into that ‘vision of the future?’

FC: That’s a part of that vision, certainly.  But for now, it’s considered more of a toy.  Something we’re trying out.  To me, it’s not as important as the power grid, roads, basic services, and police protection…and all the other important hubs of the civic wheel.  But the Doll System is the sexy part, if you don’t mind the metaphor.  To be in a city that can actually turn its daily weather from bad to good (or at the very least tolerable), that’s a place you want to live.  You go 50 kilometers outside the radius of Doll’s invention and what do you have?  A cold farmhouse, same as the last 10 centuries.  Why live in that cold farmhouse when you can live here?

Q: Does City 32 have handicaps to overcome?

FC: Oh, I wouldn’t call them handicaps.  But we have no glorious beaches.  We have no great tourist sites – well, we do, but none as iconic as, say, the Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Opera House.  What we do have, though, is the ability to make people profitable, comfortable, and secure.  And that’s all anyone wants anyway, isn’t it?  A place to safely raise your children and make a good wage to support them.

Q: You’ve always had a soft spot for the children of City 32.  Your programs seem to reflect that.

FC: I guess that’s what I say when I mention a vision of the future.  Certainly someone who gives a fortune for a power plant probably won’t live long enough to reap all the profits.  Compared with all that, the Doll System is relatively cheap to implement.  But it all comes down to future generations.  They will know this city as a better place than it is today.  They will grow up and they will control our destinies.  So let’s give them the best world possible.

Hektor

 

Jose stands near Hektor’s cot.  It is 6:30 in the morning – wake time on Sunday.  Most of the other boys have run from sleeping floor to the breakfast hall, where they mingle with the girls and charge through the orphanage’s daily routine.

Up, Hektor.  Jose gives the boy’s shoulder a soft shake.

Hektor opens his eyes.  He sits up slowly on his cot, moving the rough white cover from his bare legs and feet.  The Batman comic floats to the ground, displaced, and Jose snares the comic by its much-touched cover.  He safely sets it on the bed.

I had a dream, says Hektor.

Really?  What about?

That I knew 1 of the dead girls.

Jose sits beside the boy and drapes an arm over Hektor’s small shoulders.

But you did know one of the girls, he says.  You had seen Matty with Ms. Ximon.

Not her.  Not Matty.  Another girl.

Who?

I can’t remember now.  You woke me up too fast.

I’m sorry.  But look …         Jose gestures to the bare beds around them.  You’re the last.  Didn’t you hear the bell?

No, I was dreaming.

Well, come on, Jose smiles.  You don’t want to miss breakfast.

Hektor swings onto his feet, rubs his eyes.  He’s still groggy.  Jose pats the boy’s back then rises with him, walking with Hektor towards the door to the corridor.  He has a thought: Nary Ximon lived here, too.  Was it her you dreamed about?

Hektor shakes his head.  I don’t remember.

They pass the rows and rows of empty white cots.

Are you upset about Matty?  Or is this about what you saw Friday – that woman getting beaten?

I’m not upset.  It was just a dream.

They bump into Lorenzo at the corridor.

Someone’s here for the kid.

For Hektor?

A man is waiting in Ms. Ximon’s office.

Who is it?

Police.

Police?  What does he want?

Didn’t say.

Jose considers then looks down to Hektor.  It’s probably just some questions about what you saw in the yard.  They’re still looking for that woman.  I suppose you had better talk with him.

Will you come with me?

Sure.

What about breakfast? Lorenzo calls as they move down the corridor.

I’m not hungry, Hektor replies quietly, just to Jose.

I’ll scrounge you something for later, assures the supervisor.

The slow elevator car takes them down past the Boys and Girls sleep floors to the administrative center of the building, the second floor.

Katherine Ximon is not in her office.   Instead, there is a uniformed Asian man in his 40s stretching in a chair behind her desk.  He listens to music through nodes stuck in his wide ears.  His eyes are closed and he hums along.  A few seconds go by before the man registers that there are others in the room.  When he sees Jose and Hektor, he is not startled.  He slowly smiles and removes the nodes, then springs upright.  From his nodes, faraway brass instruments float into the air.  Hello, greets them with an almost aristocratic inflection.

You wanted to talk with this boy?

The man walks forward, tucks the nodes into the pocket of his blue uniform – the formal and tight-buttoned regalia of a precinct captain.  Yes, yes, of course, of course.  He nods with his hand outstretched.  Are you Hektor?

The boy looks to Jose.

When the Asian man shakes the boy’s hand, Hektor feels the cold tips of his white fingers.

To Jose, he asks, Five minutes with the boy?

What would the police want with Hektor?

The man nods, happy, and dusts his uniform.  Just 5.  If you could wait outside.

Can I ask what this is about?

Don’t worry, sir.  This boy’s not in any trouble.

Damn right, he’s not.  He hasn’t left the wire in 6 years.  If he’s in been into trouble, I’d know it.

Jose’s defensiveness is making Hektor even more nervous.  It’s all right, Jose, he says with a tug on Jose’s white sleeve.

Jose eyes Hektor, then the police captain.

Five minutes.  That’s all.  The captain smiles.

Jose meets the captain’s unchanging facade.  Katherine Ximon is out on bereavement.  No funny business.  5 minutes, he reiterates.  He opens the door to leave then stops.  Shout if you need me, Hektor, I’ll hear you.  Jose shuts the door.

Hektor and the policeman stare at each other.  Hektor’s face betrays nothing.  He feels very bare in his issued gray shirt and trousers.  The man is not very tall – not nearly as tall as Lorenzo – but he has craned his neck to the side and, at the angle, looks like a giant.  His wide face and narrow eyes distort Hektor’s lower angle.  He is having trouble reading the man’s intentions.

Hektor, my name is Captain Woo Ren.  I co-lead the local precinct with another captain named Carlos Gutierrez.  And it seems you and I have a mutual friend.  Pause.  His name is Lucrecio.

Hektor’s face changes.  The policeman?

Yes.  He’s told me once that he sometimes talks to you through the fence when he’s patrolling.

The boy doesn’t respond.

Says you like comic books.

Shyly, Hektor kicks his shoes.  Batman.

Ah.  The Batman.  Goes back a century and a half.  The Dark Knight – isn’t that what they call him?  Bruce Wayne is what he calls himself in the daytime?  Good choice.  I’ve always liked Batman.  I side with Commissioner Gordon on that one.  Batman is one of us, isn’t he?  A do-gooder without super powers.  Just courage.  Pause.  The boy does not speak, so the police captain continues.  Lucrecio and I have been friends for a long time, Hektor – longer than you’ve been alive.  And I’m concerned about him.  He’s missing and I’d like to know that he’s all right.  Last week, a hard-to-find policeman would make the papers and we’d have searchers out.  But now, with all those missing children…  Responsible adult like Lucrecio.  Some say he’s capable of taking care of himself.  If he doesn’t find his way back, that’s Lucrecio’s own problem.

Hektor hasn’t moved.

Do you understand?

I haven’t seen him.

He didn’t pass the yard yesterday?

No.

The day before?

Maybe.  They kept us inside most of the day.

Precautions.

They didn’t want us stolen.

Wise.

Hektor opens a bit.  One of the kids from the orphanage was killed.

Who?

Matty Ximon.

Ren nods sympathetically.  Um, yes.  I remember now.  So… the captain leads, you didn’t see my friend recently?  Hektor shakes his head.  And did he say anything in peculiar the last time you saw him?  Hektor doesn’t answer.  Come now, Hektor.  Did he say anything queer?  Anything that might help me find him?

I don’t think what he said will help.

It might.  Why don’t you try me?

Hektor debates.  Okay.  He told me I was big enough now that I could climb the fence, if I tried hard enough.

Why would he say that?

He asked me if I ever wanted to leave the orphanage.

Do you?

No.  Not before.

Not before?  But you do now?

Hektor stops talking.

What, son?  Ren reaches out a hand and touches the boy’s shoulder with his finely manicured fingers.  I won’t tell anyone what we’ve talked about.  I won’t tell Jose.

I just wish I could help.

Help?

Help find them.

Ren moves his hand.  Thinks.  Nods.  The children?  Well.  You are a noble sort.  Batman would be proud.  I can understand why Lucrecio thinks so much of you.  He once called you, Hektor Vieja Alma.  Hektor Old Soul.  And I can see why.  Ren bends to 1 knee and reduces himself to Hektor’s size.  From the inner pocket of his jacket, he pulls out a piece of paper and a pencil.  He writes and speaks.  Would you please tell your friend Jose to contact me if Lucrecio gives you a message?  Or if you see Lucrecio?  That would be very helpful.  Here is my information.  Ren hands Hektor the paper then tucks away his pencil.  Before rising, he asks, Are you sure Lucrecio Adalberto didn’t say anything else?

Hektor pivots his head back and forth slowly.

Not quite satisfied, Ren shrugs with finality, Fair enough.  He pats the boy’s head and leaves.  When Hektor is alone, he can hear Captain Ren’s mumbled voice through the door as he speaks with Jose.
Every Sunday, cialis sale Fiction365 presents a new chapter of a previously unpublished novel.

City of Human Remains, here by Darren Callahan, is a suspenseful mystery set in a dystopian future. 81 children have somehow disappeared in a city where there is no right to privacy, and everything is taped and available for review. Finding them should be easy … but then, losing them should have been impossible.

The current chapter, chapter 18, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Ren

 

Ren shakes Jose’s hand.  Thank you for allowing me to speak with the boy.  I can find my way out.

What was it about?

The boy can tell you.  I have to get back to the precinct.  All-hands meeting at 9 o’clock.  Don’t want to be late.

Ren leaves the orphanage with a goodbye wave to the security guard.  Outside, find he fights against the foot traffic.  Under his shoe, viagra he notices blood spatters on the sidewalk.  Recent.  He halts, only to be nudged forward by other pedestrians.  There’s blood on every street in the city, he rationalizes and moves along.  It is not likely that blood is Lucrecio’s.

He returns to the precinct by 8:30 AM.

There is a note on his desk:

CALL ME—CG.

He discards it without much fuss.  He will catch Carlos at the meeting.

At two minutes to 9, Ren waits in the precinct’s call room with 20 other men of various ranks, most knocking down black coffee and gossiping, unwisely, about the incompetence of City 32’s politicians.

Carlos Gutierrez is not in the room.

Ren notices a man enter: Lieutenant John Brax, shaved head, black Van Dyke with zebra lines of gray embedded.  He wears a white trench coat and a serious expression.  Ren considers crossing to say hello to the lieutenant, but finds he does not have to.  Brax is heading for him.

Good morning, Captain Ren.

Do you have a message for me?

How did you-?

Carlos left me a note asking that I call.  But I didn’t get back to him yet.  You look like a man delivering news.  Where is Carlos, anyway?  Is he here?

No.  He’s… It’s complicated.

(Code for: it’s confidential.)

All right then, Ren sniffs, what did he have to say to me?

New assignment.  He wanted to warn you.

Warn me?

Brax drags Ren towards the room’s corner with a gentle but unforgiving tug of the man’s sleeve.  Brax continues to cryptically explain the situation:  This new assignment will take your time away from efforts to find Lucrecio Adalberto.  Lucrecio was Carlos’s friend, too.  Carlos knows you’ve been checking around the past 24 hours.  He wants you to stop.  You won’t have time to be part of that search.  You’ll be occupied with another.  But don’t worry.  We’ll put other men on the Adalberto case.

Part of another investigation?  But finding Lucrecio is more important.  Isn’t it?

Brax continues to pull Ren out of the briefing room.  At the far end of Ren’s range, he hears the meeting starting.  Wait, John, I can’t miss this meeting.

Don’t worry.  The meeting isn’t for you…it’s about you.

A mere seven minutes later, Ren is seated in Brax’s unmarked police glide and zooming up a ramp to a secondary road.  The glide’s interior smells like berries—the remnants of a cheap spray.  Brax has the heat controls set too high and Ren suffers for it, sweating under his coat.  He tries to ask questions, only to be skillfully deflected by the lesser-ranked Brax.

I don’t know any more than you do, Captain… I can’t tell you… I don’t know why you were picked… I have no information… I’m just the driver… You’ll see where we’re going when we get there… No.  No.  No, I don’t.  Just relax, Captain.  We’re almost there.

They arrive 14 minutes later on a cleared lot between two high-rises.  In the center of the lot, scarred by ruts of dried mud and cluttered with abandoned, rusty construction machines, a single booth manned by three uniformed patrolmen has been built.  Each patrolman wears a bulletproof vest and shielded helmet.  Their blue clothes are covered in brown dust from the lot’s dry debris and the non-stop swirl of wind on the lot (another malfunction of the Doll System.)

Stopped at the booth, Lieutenant Brax declares his name and displays his credentials.  He shields his eyes from the blizzard of dust and trash.  This, Brax gestures, is Captain Woo Ren.

A list is checked.  A patrolman nods.

Brax parks the glide where he is told, at the end of the lot and parallel with 15 other vehicles.  When they return by foot, the booth’s rear door is opened by crank.  Ren notices that this makeshift building actually covers something buried in the ground – a staircase and guardrail, leading under the surface of the lot.

Bomb shelter, Brax explains as the two men descend.  Brax winks as he says this and rubs on his shaved head.  At the first of two landings, he dusts his trousers.  Fucking lot.  They’ve been looking to pave it and fence it for months, but you know how slow that goes in 32.

Ren nods.  He does.  City 32 works department has a reputation for half-finished ideas.

The main floor of the shelter is only two turns down.  Ren suspects it is meant only to withstand a conventional attack, not nuclear or worse.  The captain has set foot in a few of these shelters over his 29 years of service.  Some have resembled underground churches.  Others had floors and floors of telecommunications.  One, a hospital.  One, command and control.  One, a dank, unfinished tomb with no lights and smelling of dead dogs.  Hundreds of dead dogs.

This shelter, Ren cannot yet judge.  He can only spy a long hallway with in a double-door of polished metal waiting at the end.  Ren wishes he had his music to distract him, but his nodes are pushed too far down in his pocket.

Do you want to see them? Brax asks suddenly and with a solemn expression.  He points to a pair of plain white doors on their right.  When Ren doesn’t answer, he asks it once more.  Do you want to see them?

Ren shrugs.  Yes.  Sure.

All morning, he’s felt out of step with the facts – even during his interview with that Hektor boy – and these things bother him greatly.  To not know where Lucrecio Adalberto is, to not know whose blood dots the Kerohdee sidewalk outside City Orphanage, to not know the agenda of the morning meeting, the content of Carlos’s message, their destination, why he was brought to this shelter – where it is dimly lit and narrow, with claustrophobic dropped ceilings and this lieutenant, with his lady or tiger door – it bothers him.  But he can do nothing to alleviate it, except be patient.  And try not to look stupid.

Brax pushes on the one of the doors without even a turn of the handle.  He yanks a dangling string just inside the door, over their heads.  Lights pop and Ren’s first sensation is that the room is very cold, much colder than the corridor.

There they are, says Brax.

Six aluminum boxes stand in the middle of the room.  None are big, but combined the six occupy nearly all the space of the room.

Ren takes a step forward.  Each box is tagged, but he just can’t read them.  He fumbles eyeglasses from his buttoned coat.

CONTAINER-REMAINS-HUMAN.

The children, Brax guides softly.  We brought them here after the autopsy.

Oh, replies Ren in a hush.  And again with gravity: Oh.  The captain runs his fingers along one of the tin boxes.  He imagines what is kept inside.  His mouth turns down and his breathing quickens.  How long will you keep them?

Until we’re done.

They’ll be buried?

When we’re done.

The parents—

They have limited rights in this.  Worse comes to worse, I assume we’ll give them sandbags in the caskets to match the weight.  I’m sure you heard – the bodies were in such bad shape, caskets would be sealed anyway.  Who wants to look at a bunch of pieces.

Ren’s face drains.  Dismembered?

Oh, you didn’t hear?

I haven’t heard much lately.

Well, I can’t blame you, Captain.  You were investigating Lucrecio’s disappearance.  Next stop?

Ren does not hear this last.  He’s fixed his eyes on the small aluminum boxes.  They look pathetic in the room.  Gas-forced heat of a funeral home’s furnace at least provides some comfort, but here there is nothing save the antiseptic coldness of a city-run office.  Even the white walls of the City Morgue (another sort of clinical exactness that, in its own purgatory way) seems more fitting for the dead.  But here.  In what amounts to a cellar, with its peeling, white walls and a floor that needs mopped, bodies crated without markings, or names, or anything except for CONTAINER-REMAINS-HUMAN…there is nothing about this that Ren feels is sacred.

Whatever they want me to do, Ren decides in that moment, I will do it.  But it will be awful.

Shall we go? Brax asks again in a butler’s voice.

Yes, yes, of course, of course.  Ren removes his glasses and puts them back into his uniform.

He is led to a room far down the corridor.  Behind a double-steel door, he finds others waiting.  Before he’s even greeted, he recognizes faces, voices.  Carlos Gutierrez’s.  Three others he’s worked alongside in the ward.  A few bureaucrats.  Others are faces he’s familiar with from City Hall, the courthouse, and lower-level places.   Godspeaks, the coroner, eyes dark and clutching his stomach as if recovering from a blow, meets Ren’s eyes and is the only person to smile.

It’s an odd mirror of the meeting he’d fled less than 30 minutes before.  Men, coffee, rumblings.  Only in this room, very few of his compadrés are in uniform.

Carlos worms his way to Ren’s side and shuffles, impatient.  Thank you for coming, he says sincerely.  I assume you didn’t have a chance to call me.  That’s all right.  You’ll learn it all here.  Carlos nods acknowledgement to Brax.  We’ll be starting in a minute.  He’s running late.

Who? asks Ren, dumb about everyone and everything this morning.
There was almost no light on the road when I went out to meet Myrna. The trees had taken it all with their over-lush shades of green. I wandered down to the water to find my outlandish cousin spread out on the dock like a flattened walrus. Her massive arms and legs seemed to cover the entire wooden expanse and her large puff of hair teethed on the boards as if trying to eat them. I knew I would have to tell her that Thomas was back, check but she looked so peaceful that I waited. When Thomas crawled out of the water and started shaking the dock, thumb I realized that I had waited too long.

The night before had been quiet, causing my sleeplessness to echo against a frenzy of night thoughts. After awhile, I stopped trying to distinguish them and just listened to the din. I was thinking about Thomas, my troubled brother who I hadn’t seen in years. We were very close before he was sent away. No one knew exactly what snapped in him. His personality slowly began to change, and then one day while we were swimming, it was as if the person mother and I knew had drained out of him. It seemed like he had come to link his mysterious anguish with the water, the color of my eyes, my hands on his, comforting him. As we floated in the lake, he looked me deep in the eyes and said, “Mona, you know I’m gonna drown you someday.” I swam furiously for shore and the next day mother sent him to a place where he could “rest.” Thomas and I may have been young, but we knew the word asylum.

The sound of Thomas ripping into the bubble of Myrna’s hair was sickening. I was trying to separate them when he suddenly dove back into the water. We sat holding each other as we watched Thomas paddle the water around the dock ominously. I suspected that he had been looking for an answer to the hot blur of his thoughts since the swimming day and was content to look for answers in the water a little longer.

“Do you think he’s ever gonna leave?” were Myrna’s first words since the hair pulling incident. She had been lying in my lap, letting me stroke her wounded mop as he continued to circle the dock. We were too scared to move.

“Not until we tell him something important,” I responded. 

“I don’t know anything important,” Myrna said. I turned my head, and for the first time in 20 years, made eye contact with my little brother. His face was a man’s now, but I could still see that little freckled boy looking at me with so much love. Childhood nights running through fields and falling in grass rushed through me. I remembered his voice and wanted so badly to hear it again.  

“Myrna still curls her hair with socks, ” I screamed to him across the water. It was the only thing I could think of to connect the lines of all our lives again. As soon as I said it, I knew I had ruined everything with my nervous words. Then Thomas surprised us all by smiling.  Myrna and I smiled back in relief, but he was already climbing back onto the dock, charging at me.

 —–

Caroline Hagood is a poet and professor of literature and creative writing in New York City. She has written on arts and culture for The Guardian, Salon, and the Huffington Post. Her poetry has appeared in Shooting the Rat (Hanging Loose Press), Movin’ (Orchard Books), Angelic Dynamo, RootSpeak, Ginosko, Quail Bell, and Manhattan Chronicles.

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I can’t make a frappe, for sale but I wish I could. Mr. Thompson won’t let me use the machine on account of me breaking the old one. On top of that, thumb he makes me work the late shift at the diner. It’s nothing but truckers and raccoons. Usually, it don’t mind cleaning white countertops when I’m all alone—except when Big Wilkins, with his red beard and plaid shirt, slumps down and almost bends the stool.

“Hey Bobby! Bobby Frappe!”

“It’s Frapples, Mr. Wilkins.”

“You come down here and shut your mouth.”

He slams a couple dimes on the counter. Big Wilkins only stops here about every three weeks. Because of all the diners he’s stopped at from here to Tennessee, he never remembers what we charge.

“You go on and get me a burger and two shots of bourbon.”

We’re not suppose to serve alcohol at this hour—especially to the truckers, but Mr. Thompson tells me if they can drive till six in the morning, then they can handle a little bit of liquor.

“I reckon there’s gonna be some left over change, so you go on make yourself a burger. I worry about you, Bobby Frappe. You skinny and you never get a woman if you look like one.”

Mr. Wilkins laughs to himself and takes a swig from a flask while I throw two patties on the skillet. I know the joke’s coming, so I pour him the two shots and turn around. I try focusing my heart on the skillet—hoping to God watching two burgers sizzle’s going to make Mr. Wilkins not say it. But as the grease spreads along the metal…

“Hey Bobby! Bobby! You go on a make me a frappe too.”

The grease keeps spreading until the meat’s practically swimming in it.

“Hey Bobby,” he grins while bit of liquor trickles down his beard. “Why aren’t you making a frappe for me?”

“You know why, Mr. Wilkins.”

“Shoot boy, I’ve been all over these states and I always forget. How come you can’t make me a frappe, Bobby Frappe?”

I flip the burgers and watch as their other sides soak.

“Little Bobby, why aren’t you making me no frappe, Bobby Frappe?”

“Mr. Wilk—“

“Make a frappe damnit!”

He throws a shot glass at the Coca-Cola clock.

“I can’t make them!”

Mr. Wilkins laughs like he’s some wicked St. Nick and drums the counter with his hands.

“Boy! Bobby Frappe can’t make no frappe. That sure is something.”

He would have laughed until dawn came up, but the diner door creaks open and a black man strolls in. The man sits down on the other side of the bar.

“Bobby,” Big Wilkins whispers, “Is that there a Negro?”

“I think so, Mr. Wilkins.”

“You let them into this diner?”

We didn’t get any blacks around this part, but if we did I’m sure Mr. Thompson would let them eat. He’d probably he put them near the corner though.

“Hey!” Mr. Wilkins shouts like he was a football field away. “What you want here?”

“Just waiting for the boy,” the black man says.

“He ain’t no boy. You the boy.”

“Let him come down here please.”

“He’ll come when he wants to come. Ain’t that right, Bobby Frappe?”

I put the burgers on a plate and approach. The way Big Wilkins shouted at him, I thought the black man might bite me.

“What would you like?”

“He would like to get out ‘cause he scared. Scared of the white man.” Mr. Wilkins laughs and steals the bottle of bourbon from under the counter.

“Would you mind making a frappe for my daughter?” the black man says, “She’s in the car and won’t fall asleep. I told her since she’s been really good on this drive, I would get her a frappe.”

“Better take a step back, Bobby. That boy there’s gonna kill you and take your money.”

“I just want a frappe for my daughter.”

“Where’s your daughter then, Mr. Negro?”

“In the car.”

“Why didn’t you bring her in here?”

“Why do you think?” the black man shouts.

Big Wilkins didn’t like that much. He stands from the bar, relieving the metal stool, and advances toward him with the bottle in hand.

“Bobby, I’m gonna tell you something good. You don’t serve this thing nothing cause he’s a Negro and that’s all you need to know.”

“Bobby,” the black man whispered, almost pleading “It’s for my daughter, we’ve been driving all night and I just want to make her happy.”

“I’m sorry,” I say to him. “I can’t make frappes.”

I was sure he was going to make a fuss, but the black man stands and heads to the door. He turns around, “Maybe there’s another diner,” and simply walks out.

Big Wilkins wobbles out the door too.  I look out the window and see the black man’s Ford back up while Wilkins slams on his hood. Wilkins shouts, but with the diner door closed it’s only drunken grunts. I look at the passenger side and see his daughter in pigtails. She had closed her eyes and cuffed her hands over her ears. As they drive off, Big Wilkins throws whatever he can at the car: empty coke bottles, papers, dirt. Wilkins comes back into the diner but still shouts to the car in the distance

“You stay in the dark where you belong. You never come back here ‘cause me and Bobby be waiting for you. Bobby ain’t never gonna give you a frappe!”

Big Wilkins slams the door and smiles.

“Bobby Frappe, you a man now. You don’t let anybody tell you what to do, especially that there Negro. We’re drinking this here bourbon and eating them burgers.”

I’ve never seen Big Wilkins so happy. He would never mention again the fact I can’t make frappes, but I wish I could. I still wish I could make them.

—–

James Thibeax has been featured in several literary magazines, including: New Hampshire Writers, Freight Train Magazine, Fewer Than 500, The Write Place at the Write Time, Insigatorzine and This Magazine. Thibeax was also published in 6S:  The Green Bike Stories anthology: (http://sixsentences.blogspot.com) and also in ‘Elf Love
short’ story anthology: (www.pinknarc.com)

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I drove us around even though I was a little fucked up. He drove like a bitch and I didn’t feel like grandma-ing around town all night so I borrowed my step dad’s pick up and went over.  His parents were still home so they asked me the usual slate of questions.

“How’s school?”

“It’s good.”

“You’re at ASU, right?

“I was but I took a break.  I’m gonna take some stuff at PVCC in the fall prolly.”

“That’s good, Brad.  How are your parents?”

“I dunno, old as balls.”  I giggled cause I was a little high then I remembered that Shawn’s parents were old as balls too.

“Someday you’ll be old like them and it won’t feel like balls.”  His parents thought they were cool cause they said balls and shit.  I didn’t want to talk to them so we left.

When Shawn went to sit down in the passenger of my step dad’s big ass F-250 there were two prescription bottles in the bucket seat.  He picked them up and looked at them.

“Is your dad sick or something?”

I wiped under my nose while looking into the mirror on the sun visor.  “Yeah, he’s a gay.”

“Really, dude, is everything okay?”

“Shut the fuck up.  Just put those in the glove box.”

“What are they?”

I snapped up the sun visor and looked over at him.  “They’re dick pills for his dick.  He’s not so good at fucking my old ma so he has dick pills.”  I grabbed them from his hands and put them in the glove box.  He didn’t try to fight me back.

“He takes Viagra?  That’s fucking far out.”

I started the truck and pulled out of the driveway.  “You’re a fucking idiot, dude.”

“What kinds of dick pills are they?

He didn’t know about any parties going on so we made the rounds that we used to make.  Melrose Pool was closed and nobody had hopped the fence or anything so we just drove past it.

He leaned over my lap to get a better look.  “Man, Melrose.  Do you remember the time we played spin the bottle in there?  Was that like fifth grade?”  Shawn was back from his freshman year of college in California.  He hadn’t ruined his good memories like I had.

While he was leaning over me I grabbed his right hand and shoved it into my crotch.  “Get the pills out of the glove box, sugar.”  He tried to pull his hand away but I held it for a second longer.

“Man, fuck you, Brad.”

“You’re so gay, dude.”  I let go of his hand but we both knew that if I hadn’t let go it would still have been there.  We always played games like that in high school but there were usually a couple of more people in the car.  When it was just the two of us it felt different.  Like hollower or something.  But Mike was in rehab and Garrett moved to Tucson so we were all that was left of the gang.

Shawn rubbed his thin little girl wrist, the one that I allowed him to have back.  “Do people still go to Filiberto’s?  We should stop by.”

“Can do.”  I sped up to forty cause we were coming up to a speed bump and the truck had a really tight suspension system.  His head hit the roof cause he was dumb as fuck and forgot about the speed bump.

Nobody that we knew was at Filiberto’s so we just went over to Big Lots.  There wasn’t shit to do and I had an empty wallet.  The mall was closed.  So Big Lots it was.  I pulled across four parking spaces and turned off the headlights.  I looked over to Shawn.

“Hey, give me those two bottles.”

He looked over at me and didn’t say anything.  I breathed out through my nose really hard and reached over to open up the glove box.

“You shouldn’t take your dad’s pills.  That’s fucked up.”  I remember one time we were out toilet papering some random house and I told Shawn to throw their lawn gnome into this little fountain at the house.  He wouldn’t do it.  I don’t remember how I felt at the time, but in the truck when I remembered it I wanted to smash his head in.

I opened the top of the first bottle and the pills inside were circles.  I put the lid back on and opened the second one.  They were diamonds and diamonds are forever so I took out a pill and crushed it on the center console with my step dad’s bottle opener on his key chain.  I leaned over and snorted it.

“Isn’t that your dad’s dick medicine?  What is that going to do to you?”  He looked all concerned.

“It’s not dick medicine.”  I laid my head back against the headrest and sat there for a minute.  I didn’t want to move.  I don’t remember how long we sat in the car, maybe five minutes or something.  Shawn pulled out his phone and started texting someone.

“Who you texting, your boyfriend?”

“Nah, just Greg.  I’m asking if anything’s going on tonight.”

“Am I not enough for you?”  I reached over and ran my hand up his leg.  He pushed it away.  I laughed and said, “You’re such a fag, dude.”

“Shut up, man.”  I looked at him and realized that I stopped knowing him sometime during senior year of high school.  Our past was the only connection to our present and I was pretty fucked up so it wasn’t much of a connection.

He closed his flip phone and stared across the parking lot and into the Big Lots.  “Is this what you normally do?”

“You mean hang out with queers in parking lots?”

“No, I mean, like snort Viagra and go to Big Lots.”

“How fucking stupid are you?  It’s not Viagra you fucking dweeb.”

Shawn was a dweeb.  It was why he fit in so well with us.  We needed a dweeb.  He was good at school and someone you could make fun of.  We protected him so we could give him shit.  And now he was this person that I had no interest in knowing.

One time we were driving around and saw a car in the high school parking lot after hours.  It was in the middle of the parking lot in the middle of the night.  We went over to investigate and there was no one inside, but the trunk was open.  So I look over at Shawn and tell him to go pee into the trunk, like nothing major, just to go pee into the trunk.  He says no and turns his whole body to the side of the car and refuses to look at me.  Garrett said that he’s gotta go anyway, so he jumps out of the passenger seat and starts peeing in the trunk.  Eventually somebody comes from over by the dumpster behind the gym and sees Garrett and runs over.  Garrett gets back into the car and we drive away.  The guy closes his trunk and speeds off after us and the whole time Shawn is just hysterical.  He’s crying and saying that he hates us and that he doesn’t know why he does any of this stuff.  I’m driving the whole time and there’s nobody out since it’s so late. It’s pretty hard to lose this guy but even still I just can’t take Shawn being such a bitch so I turn to glare at him while I’m going like 50 down a residential.  And he looks at me and says “Why did you make us do that?”  And I laugh and turn off my head lights and pull into a driveway with an empty space.  I turn off the truck and look back over my shoulder to see the guy speed by a few seconds later.  I turn my head to Shawn and say, “You didn’t do anything.  You’re just a fucking pussy.”  And making someone like him feel so low feels so good.  That was why we kept him around I guess, cause in the truck in the Big Lots parking lot I didn’t see any reason.

He looked over at me all concerned.  “Like, is that stuff cocaine?”

“Do you think cocaine comes in pills?  It’s oxy.  Just stop worrying about it you fucking pussy.  Let’s go get some bargains.”  I jumped down from the big truck but my balance was fucked up so I fell over and scraped my knee up.  Shawn didn’t see cause he was up ahead texting somebody.  I looked down and my knee was bleeding slowly down my leg.  I ran after him cause he didn’t wait for me.

I walked in through the automatic doors and he was standing next to the big blue shopping carts.  As I walked in their security gates beeped.  I made a confused face and looked over at the old hag at the checkout station, she waved me in and I walked over to Shawn.

“How’s your boyfriend?”  I asked him.  Shawn looked down at my knee.  It had bled down my shin and into my shoe.  I wasn’t wearing socks.

“What happened to your leg?”  He still had his phone in his hand.  I wished that he would put it into his pocket.  Having it out there reminded me about the other people I didn’t know.  I wanted him gone but he couldn’t leave yet.  We were in Big Lots for the entirety of his existence.

“Drugs are bad.”  I leaned over and pressed my thin khaki shorts into the cut.  My blood was thick and the pants stuck to it.  “Good as fucking new, man.”

We looked at the gardening tools.  We looked at the discount DVDs.  I went to the feminine hygiene aisle and opened up a package of maxi pads and pressed one into my knee where the blood was.  He looked over at me and he made one of those faces that he always makes.  I stood up once the pad was full and tried to slap it on his back.  He minced away like he always did when I tried to fuck with him.

We were in the toy aisle.  He was holding the opened package of maxi pads and my soiled one.  He had grabbed it after I slapped it against the opened package.  I picked up a big bouncy ball and threw it at him.  I wanted to say think fast, but my mind was moving pretty slow at that junction so I just said, “Fast.”  He batted the ball away with the bloody maxi pad hand.

“Fucking cut it out dude.”  The ball bounced against some Barbies and knocked them over.  Shawn went after it and looked down.  “You got your fucking blood all over this too.”  He tucked the open package of pads under his arm and picked up the ball.  I looked down and my knee was still oozing sledge.  It was the great river of life.

“You’re the one who got blood all over it, you pussy faggot,” I said.

“I’m leaving, man.  I’ll see you at checkout.”  He hurried to the front of the store so I followed him.

There was nobody waiting in line at the cash register.  Just the old hag behind the counter.  The entire store felt empty like the world had ended.  And I maybe wished that it had.  Shawn placed the ball and the pads and the pad on the conveyor belt, careful to keep the blood off of everything.

I looked at the old hag in her Big Lots vest.  “It’s his first period.”  She didn’t look at me.

Shawn punched me on the arm in his faggy little way.  He smiled at the old hag.  “Could you please throw this stuff away? I can pay for it.”  She didn’t say anything.  At least, I didn’t hear her from over by the batteries.  Shawn paid in cash and then walked out of the store.  I blood-jogged behind him with my fully soaked shoe.  I beeped at the security gate on the way out just like on the way in but I didn’t even break stride.  I left it up to the old hag to remember my entrance.

Shawn was in the parking lot but he wasn’t walking towards my truck.  He was walking to the crosswalk in the opposite direction.  I blood-jogged for forty days and forty nights but I caught up to him as he was walking across 32nd.  “Where are you going?”

“I’m walking home, man.  I don’t want you driving me.”

I took off my shoe and swung it at him.  He caught my arm and stopped me somehow but a few drops of blood flew off it and got on his shirt.

“Oh no!  My blood is on your hands.”

I don’t know if I mentioned it before, but during his year at school he grew his hair out. It got all curly and made him look even gayer than before he ever left.

“Fuck you, Brad.”  He turned and started running away and his girly locks bounced up and down and up and down and it was beautiful to see him run away like that.  I was in love.  I hated everything about the world.

Then I realized that I was in the middle of the road when a car honked at me.  I reached down and got some blood off of my leg and smeared it across my face.  I stared into the car and saw nothing.

By the time that I reached Greg’s house my leg had stopped bleeding so much.  I didn’t have my shoe though.  But I snorted another oxy and I didn’t mind anymore.

I had passed Shawn while he was walking along Cactus so I knew he wasn’t there yet.  I gave him a friendly honk honk when I passed by.  He was looking down at his cell phone so he didn’t see me.  I didn’t think that I was a living breathing person anymore.

I parked my step daddy’s big boy pick up in the cul-de-suck across from Gregor’s house and turned the lights off.  Then I killed the ignition and waited.  I felt like I could use some more pep so I opened the other little bottle with me and took three or more Benzedrines.

There was something going on at Greg’s but nothing major so I figured that I couldn’t really sneak in there.  I didn’t have to wait long for little old Shawn though.  He turned the corner onto Greg’s block and in the best moment of my entire life he wasn’t texting anybody.  I started the truck’s ignition while he was still out of ear shot and waited.  He was four houses away.

The door at Greg’s house opened and I saw Greg walk out with some other of those loser type college guys that I used to be.  Shawn was by then two houses away so I put the truck into drive and idled forward for a second or two before I gunned it across the cul-de-sac.  It was a loud truck so he heard it and so did Greg and they were all looking to me, but I still hadn’t turned on the headlights.  When I got out of the cul-de-sac I finally did and my high beams were pointing right at Shawn.

And on his face I didn’t see fear or anger or love.

I saw his smug little face beneath that fucking crown of curly hair.  Looking at me and my truck like something that had to be dealt with, something that needed to be endured.

I slammed on the truck’s brakes and eventually came to a stop in the middle of Greg’s front yard.  There were smaller rocks in the middle edged by bigger river rocks near the border, both of which I had plowed through.  Shawn and Greg came running up to me from opposite directions and I chose to run in Shawn’s direction.

My left foot didn’t even notice it was without shoe as I ran up and tackled Shawn to the ground.  He looked up at me and his emotions went beyond annoyance then.

“What are you fucking doing?” he asked me.

I wrapped my hand around his throat and held his head down.  I reached with my other hand and grabbed a river rock from the space behind his head.  I felt Greg and any of the other asshole faggots over at his house trying to pull me off from behind but they were helpless.  I was immortal.

“Brad, just fucking let go of me.”

For the first time in my life I smiled.  “No.”  I tasted blood on my lips.  “Stop making that face.”  The rock weighed nothing and everything as I brought my arm back.

—–

Sean Quadlin studied writing at Northwestern and the Graham School at the University of Chicago.

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I remember the day I was allowed to go on my first expedition – to scour the evening markets for silks. We entered the market at dusk since the hellish sun of this place did not allow for living in the daytime hours. Our inn lay within a fortified mansion outside of town, buy viagra ‘sanctuary’ I called it – watchtowers aligned with the four corners and we passed in and out of this place tracked by the dark eyes of the unsmiling guards. I only saw their eyes behind the cloth they wound about their faces, and those were large and black, not glowing with any warmth that I can see. I wished the watchtowers were minarets, serenading the air with the call to prayer – I don’t understand what they say, but while it lasts it’s like a reprieve from the constant worry of survival.

Our inn was not close to town and it took us some time before we got there, but it was a pleasant trip in the red air of the desert sunset, the cool breezes nestling into our skin.

We saw the glow of fires and lamps in the distance . We saw the market first, then came the sounds, faint – like a faraway wave or the voices of the dead, calling across a great distance.

The most amazing emissary of the market was the smell, what a wonderful, many-fingered thing it was! Spices and oils, incense and food, sweat and wine and urine. I closed my eyes and wished to be left alone to contemplate, but was nudged along by the crowds. Things appeared and passed by – dark eyes glinting in the torchlight, silver jewelry bright against dark skin, the undulating luster of the garb of the natives.

Two quick right turns got us to a good-size shop set away from the crowds of the main market. We entered and were escorted to a private room. In the way of this place, we sat on the floor. I felt awkward and uncomfortable. Our merchant entered and it was obvious my companion knew him well. They greeted each other and the merchant startled me by speaking to us in our language, fluently. He offered us black tea and sweet pastries – I wanted to ask for water, but stayed quiet.

The silks were brought out by a small boy and laid out on the white sheets spread on the floor. The colors were so varied, the textures so rich I felt as if just looking at them would take care of any thirst or hunger or tiredness I could ever have.

My merchant taped me on the shoulder. I turned to look at him and his eyes clearly said “pay attention!” I shuttered my gaze so I’m wasn’t too distracted by the colors and weave of the stuff laid out. I listened to the back and forth of the merchants, their dialogue peppered with reminisces and bargaining and laughter. My merchant bought five bolts of silk – not a huge purchase, but there would be many, many such meetings to come. They would take place in different bazaars along this route, under open skies and within halls and among crowded stalls. Suddenly I felt lost, missing my home. “If I survive,” I thought, “I will return with money and items and experiences.” I had yet to find out that it would ensure that I will never be completely at home among the walls and faces and dirt of my old town ever again.

—–

Shehnaz Kahn lives in California and writes things that persistently buzz around her head. She loves magical realism. 

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Miriam and I sat over lunch in the café, search and he slid in next to me in the booth. Tall, sleek, blond, his crystalline, blue eyes sparkled. His wide smile displayed his perfect, sparkling teeth.

“Hello. It’s always a pleasure to meet beautiful ladies. I’m Ron,” he said in a manner too glib for my taste.

Again, he flashed his rows of perfect teeth tucked every so slightly behind his expert smile. He was a stranger whose ballsy confidence radiated the belief that his striking presence would earn him easy access.

I stared into his face and said, “Sorry. We don’t know you. I hope you don’t mind if I ask if you would please leave.”

Immediately he turned his attention across the table to Miriam. She’d just returned from a summer of picking oranges on a kibbutz in Israel and was getting her footing back in the U.S., picking up the threads of friendships. The gleam on her face and the way she leaned her body toward him told me that his dazzling smile and unabashed attempt to connect with a woman had struck her like a brick to the head. She and I talked for a moment, and I insisted, no, he’d have to leave.

“Please get up,” I said again. He did so and stood near the edge of the booth.  She and I continued to thrash it out.

“We don’t know him.”

“He’s really cute!”

“He’s slick.”

“I’d like to get to know him.”

“Oh, Christ. You’ve got to be kidding.”

Then, she scribbled our phone number on a napkin, wrote, “Miriam,” and handed it to him.

Miriam and I drove back to our apartment, and I listened to her attempt to explain how strangers sometimes click. I had midterms to study for, and I went to my room. Later that night, she came in to tell me that Ron had called, and she was going out with him. Beginning at about one a.m., I heard intermittent the screaming of orgasms tearing from her room, and it lasted until four or five in the morning. My only conclusion was that he had come back home with her, and I tried to sleep.

In the morning, I left early for campus and was spared the awkwardness of having to bump into either of them. I hated being a student. I hated having to live with another person, even if she was too academically smart but stupid when it came to men.

By the second night, she walked about in a daze. He lollygagged with an open robe in the living room, and I was quietly freaking out. Miriam had been so smitten by his handsome looks that she couldn’t receive the rest of the transmission:  that he was a guy looking for a place to crash.

“I’m thinking he could stay here a while,” she began. He’s between places right now and needs a place. Plus, he’s really fun.”

I said no way. She broke into tears and said she had the right to have a lover in her own home.

“Yeah, but have him LIVE here? What about my half of this place? I don’t want him here. Does he even work? Do you know anything about him?”

“He sells cars. He has a good heart. He’s soo cute, and . . . listen, he has a really big dick,” she pleaded.

“Oh, are you NUTS??” I just could not believe that she’d lost her mind like this. I was furious and left for class. When I returned home that evening, boxes of his clothing and belongings were scattered throughout the living room.

So he had moved in.

One week later I realized that his actual profession was not selling used cars. It was dealing drugs—mostly smack. I’d heard him make a “business transaction,” as he called it, on the phone late at night. Now that he was ensconced in the bosom of a cozy apartment, he became so ripped that his blue eyes after dark became black holes. He slept or stumbled about naked, often standing in front of the fridge with the door open for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. He’d forget what it was he wanted once the fridge door was open. When friends came over for meals, Ron would pull over a chair and join in, but he didn’t have the presence of mind or focus to engage while he was so hammered. He couldn’t finish sentences. He became so increasingly drugged that he’d sloughed off behaviors and rituals that were automatic to normal people. It wasn’t just the toothpaste he’d inadvertently squirt on the floor of the bathroom that I’d slip on. It wasn’t about him forgetting to wash his dishes or to tidy up after himself. It was more basic than mere manners.

One night as we all sat together at the table, Ron was so hammered that he forget to swallow his food.  He took  forkfuls of spaghetti and chewed and chewed, added more, and chewed and chewed, added more, and just continued chewing. Spaghetti sauce was all over his face. His cheeks just puffed up like a gopher preparing for winter. Miriam began to have to say, “Swallow it, Ron. Would you remember to swallow?”

Dazed, he would look around and respond, “What?? Oh.”

About three weeks after Ron crashed into our lives, several friends had stopped by for dinner. Ron sat with us, but he was incapacitated, incapable of conversation. He began to sway in his chair, and suddenly fell forward. His face came to rest in the bowl of split pea soup. Miriam jumped up and lifted his head out. His forehead, nose, and blond forelocks soaked in thick pea puree and carrots. His eyes blinked open, and the blue, red-rimmed eyes tried to focus on us. I threw my napkin down and excused myself from the table. I vowed would not sit at the table with him again.

The danger of having Ron in the apartment became increasingly clear. My boyfriend was agitated and said, “You have to leave. Just come here. Please. He’ll get all of you sent up the river with twenty-five year prison sentences. Get out. Just come stay here.”

The end came not long after, late one day when I returned home from classes. I carried my books up the front steps and then realized that the front door was in shards. It was gone except for the reinforced edges. All inner panels had been rammed out, and the splinters of wood lay inside and outside the apartment. My heart raced and thudded in my chest, and the thought that a SWAT team was inside took form in my mind, yet no one was there. I stepped through the hole where the door had been, and then I heard singing coming from the bathroom down the hallway. I went toward it and there was Ron in the tub. White froth was piled up to his chin. He didn’t see me, and his singing continued:

 You’re the cuuuutest thing I ever did see.

I really looove your peaches, wanna shake your tree. . . .

‘ cause I’m a joker . . . a smoker .  . .

He splashed like a bird in a bath.

“Ron,” I yelled. “The door. The door. Tell me!! What happened to the door!! “ I was white with fear. My heart pounded.

He splashed and sang.

“Ron. The door. Tell me now. Now.” I reached in through the froth of white bubbles and shook him by his naked shoulders. He looked at me, confused.

“Oh. The door. Yeah. Yeah. Well, forgot my key. Yeah, left my key here. But I got in okay!” He laughed.

I stared at him in the tub, the heaps of white suds ebbing and flowing over the tub onto the floor. Water ran in rivulets. He splashed like a big blond bird and laughed with the abandon of a three-year-old child. In my room, I quickly pulled my suitcase out of the closest and threw in as much as I could:  jeans, underwear, shoes, tops, pants, shirts. I grabbed cosmetics, hairbrush, and whatever else I could stuff into the suitcase. I would come back for the rest later. As I made my way down the hall and stepped through the shattered door, I could still hear:

I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker

Get my lovin’ on the run wooooooo whooooooo

——

Abigail Jardine has taught and written for many years. Her stories focus on gender, family dynamics, and American culture. She lives in California.

—–

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Mercy.

It all comes down to mercy.

We depend… we are dependents, patient hanging and hoping that the powers will be merciful.

Some of the powers love us and they’re pretty reliable but some of the powers are just fuckers.

My new clock is so loud it can drown out the beating of my heart at night.

This is a blessing.

It’s that beating heart that got me into this, ask caring about people, wanting them, even when I can’t do anything to make them stay, to make them okay.  So many kinds of love, but they tell you if you’re not finding sexual fulfillment in fifty ways, you’d better look for a new venue.

I’m waiting for the cab so I can wait for the plane so I can wait to get home and hear… nothing.

Everything is so concrete, it’s all herehere and I need some theory to feel safe.  A little distance.  A way to wrap my head around my heart and keep it from taking the full impact.  Cars fly through the air, and the thought-bag inflates to save you.  Only sometimes it can’t save you.  And I don’t even have one.

It’d be easier if I loved him, I suppose.  Then we’d have our Romeo and Juliet separation, and the cruel parents could be hated, and some priest would offer an absolution.  But I don’t.  He’s just my friend.  And I just have to wait, with all the other friends.

It is hot here, the sun’s too bright, and I have nothing left to dream with.

—–

Leslie Ingham is a founding member of the Portuguese Artists Colony.  She is currently at work on a novel.

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I never will know what she thought about the flowers the first time I left them on the hood of her car because I never told her they were from me. I watched from the cafe, check wiping the inside of an espresso cup and hoping she would react like in a movie with a look of curiosity and pleasure, but she was wearing that everyday sundress the color of a new tennis ball and her hair was not even washed very well but just hanging down her shoulders like a horse’s mane, by which I mean it seemed thick and meant to protect her shoulders but you wanted to grab it too, and get on top of her and yell Go! And she picked up the flowers like nothing and threw them into the backseat. She did not pick them up the way you pick a parking ticket off the windshield, with a look of annoyance and contempt, but just the same she picked them up as if it was no surprise to find a bouquet on her hood, but I know it had to be a surprise because I know nobody had ever left flowers on the hood of her car before, at least not that many flowers on hood of her car, at least not that many chrysanthemums.

I drank that day and blamed it on her. But after that I went a week with only an occasional beer, sitting in the bar across the street after I shut down the cafe. She must have parked her car on a different street after she found the flowers on it because I didn’t see her all that week.

She had a certain shape to her thigh that when she wore a certain pair of shorts it had the effect that certain paintings have, a happy jolt a little stronger than you expect, so you fight it a little but it doesn’t do any good because it fights you back. I didn’t need that. But I run the cafe and it makes no business sense to turn away a customer. They were regular beige, those shorts, but the way they lay over that luxuriant curve was the thing. I just shouldn’t have looked but that’s how I got the steam burn. I burned myself with the cappuccino steamer like in a romantic comedy except it’s not funny when I get angry. I break things and it’s not funny and the police become involved, which is why, as I’ve said, I didn’t want to feel the small of her back with my thumb and go through what I’m going through.

But the next week she came into the bar where I was sitting with that guy Kevin who used to tend bar at the Rite Spot before he got his eye shot out by a guy in a fight over some woman who dealt cocaine. This time she was wearing those jeans that gave me a tightness in my shoulders, like I wanted to lean forward and had to stop. She sat down the bar from us. I got up and walked over to the jukebox so I could look at her from behind. I liked looking at her from behind for the intensity of the experience except I did not like it for the hopelessness of it. I played “London Calling” by the Clash. It’s very typical of me, that if I did not know how to express how I felt at the moment I would put on “London Calling” by the Clash. So I went over next to her and I said to the bartender that I wanted a Pellegrino with lime because I had to go fix the espresso machine at the cafe. It sprayed me with hot milk, I told him. He laughed and said that must have been hot, and he glanced at the woman. I said it wasn’t funny and asked if he wanted to see the burn on my hand and he said yes, let me see it. He said he had some ointment. I said never mind, and tipped him, and turned to my left to look at her as she sat at the bar with a brightly colored drink in front of her and her straw-woven purse with a hibiscus flower on it sitting on her knees under the bar, her knees together, her feet together, her lips closed, her eyes on her brightly colored drink, maybe a mimosa, I don’t know the names of all those drinks because I never drank them because it seemed to me only people with more money than me drank those drinks. I could have afforded one now that I owned the cafe but I don’t think I would ask for a drink like that. They probably taste good, I just never found out. I had drunk so much that it was surprising I’d never had one of those brightly colored drinks, or that’s what my counselor in the treatment center said. He seemed surprised that I had done all these various things but had never had one of those brightly colored drinks. It made me angry that he said that, and I had to think about it later, why it made me angry, and I guess you could say I have some issues about money and social class though I wouldn’t have put it that way before I went into treatment.

She didn’t look over at me, and I couldn’t tell if she knew I was looking at her, so I turned to walk out. As I walked out I wanted to turn around and look at her from behind again but I couldn’t bring myself to do it for fear of looking like a man who leers. It was after 10 o’clock p.m. by that point and I had already closed the cafe. I put the key in the door of the cafe and went in and bent down under the counter and got a screwdriver and took off the top of the espresso machine so I could look inside and see if maybe there was a bad gasket or a worn fitting. I worked on the espresso machine for about an hour, down on the floor behind the counter, and couldn’t find anything wrong with it. It’s tiring working in a bent-over position on the floor behind the counter. I don’t know why I didn’t put it on top of the counter to work on but that’s how I am, I get started doing something one way and I just keep doing that. It doesn’t occur to me to adjust. So I was sitting down there but my back started to hurt so I stood up to stretch and looked out front and she was pressing her face against the glass of the cafe, looking in, standing on the sidewalk. I looked at her and she pointed at her watch the way people do if they want to know if you’re open or closed. And I said, “We’re closed! Closed!” I mouthed the words. Then she just stood there like she was waiting for me to say something else, but I just repeated, “We’re closed!” Then she shrugged and walked back across the street and then of course I realized I’d missed my opportunity to let her in, and I kicked the espresso machine across the floor, and then I got my baseball bat.

It was apparent to me after I finished with the baseball bat that I would have to discuss this with my counselor. I felt a slight sense of relief about the prospect of discussing it, but it still made me angry how I had responded automatically, like a stupid animal. It made me mad. She went across the street into the bar without looking back. I sat on the floor behind the counter and counted sugar packets. There were 467 packets in the box.

The next day I had to go buy a new espresso maker.

I told the guy at the espresso maker wholesaler that I had destroyed my machine. He asked me why I didn’t seek to have it repaired. I told him it was all bent up. He went on about how most machines can be repaired. I didn’t mention about the baseball bat. I did not go into all that with the man from the espresso maker wholesaler. Espresso people talk to each other. It would not be good for me to be seen as a man who had destroyed his own espresso machine with a baseball bat.

I brought the new machine back to the cafe and set it up and told my assistant, Jason, that I was taking the rest of the day off and went across the street to the bar. Kevin was sitting at the bar. I sat down next to him and ordered a Pellegrino and lime. We started talking about women. I don’t remember how it started. It is possible that I mentioned this woman who lived above the cafe and asked if he had seen her around. He asked me if I was going to ask her out. I told him that yes, eventually I would.

“Why not now?” he asked me.

“Don’t push me,” I told him.

He looked at me with his good eye, which was his right eye, and then walked to the back of the bar where the men’s room was. When he came back he asked me how the not-drinking thing was going and I told him that in the area of harm-reduction it was going well, but in the area of total abstinence it was only going so-so. I told him that I wished I could just give it up and completely change.

“But I am just the same guy I was before,” I said. “Except I can no longer stand on my hands.” When I was a gymnast in high school I could stand on my hands and walk all the way across the street on my hands. But that was a long time ago. I no longer have the shoulder strength.

He said that it didn’t sound like I was being straightforward with him about the drinking, that there was a layer of bullshit there, that I should either quit or not quit and either way maybe just stop talking about it. But what was I supposed to do? I replied if I was going to drink I was going to drink. If I was going to spend a full hour picturing in my mind the shape of a certain woman’s ear, and the way her hair curled around her cheekbone, and the way a tiny space the size of a little heart appeared between her thighs where they met the rest of her body, so be it. That would have to be OK.

Kevin and I talked about baseball and women then and I began to feel better; I could tell at first he had been angry when I told him not to push me but we renewed our friendship by talking about baseball and women. We talked about women in general, not about this woman in particular, which was a relief. But as a result of talking with Kevin about women in general I came to see that I really did have to ask this woman out. So I prepared to do that. I went over it carefully in my mind.

My experiences with women had not been uniformly positive. There had often been police involved, not because of anything I did to the women themselves, but because of situations that would arise. This was long ago, in another city, long before I became a cafe owner. Nonetheless, it was necessary for me to sit up in the cafe alone after closing time for several nights, cleaning the espresso maker, washing cups, stacking dishes, wiping the counter and thinking of how I would form the correct words, and how I would handle any difficult situations. It was my intention to ask her to accompany me to some event such as a baseball game or a parade. It seemed to me that I could make it appear that the idea had just then occurred to me out of the blue.

I had to wait for the right moment, yet I had to have the words prepared. So I sat up late in the cafe there on Potrero Hill, looking down the hill at the diamonds — which is what I call the houses; they just look like diamonds –  wiping the counter. I would ask her out with simple words at the right moment. I would ask her out calmly without a hint of impatience or desire. I would ask her out as if I had other options if she was not interested. I would ask her out as if I had not seen her standing at my window asking if the cafe was closed and had insisted that it was closed, instead of offering to let her in and make her a cup of coffee so we could get acquainted in a way that seemed charming and accidental. I would ask her out casually as if I had not sat next to her smelling her perfume that made me forget where I was. I would ask her out as if I had not walked behind her to the jukebox in order to stare at her from behind. I would ask her out as though I had not duplicated the key to her apartment and had not been watching her for months.

I sat in the cafe thinking it through and decided that the words would be approximately like this: “Hey, speaking of baseball, would you like to go the Giants game with me this Friday?” Or, if the subject of the parade came up instead I would say, “Hey, speaking of the parade, would you like to go to the parade with me this Saturday?” Then I would say something like, “It looks like it will be a fun parade,” or “It looks like it will be a good game.”

I got a chance to ask her out sooner than I had expected. I saw her in the bar on the third night and I sat next to her at the bar and ordered a Pellegrino with lime.

“How’s that burn?” the bartender asked.

“The burn from the espresso maker?” I said, looking at my hand.

“Did you ever put some ointment on that?” he asked.

When he said that, she turned toward me and looked at my face and then at my hand, which was red still on the top from the burn.

“Let me see that,” she said, and took my hand in hers. She held it palm down on the bar and traced the outline of the burn with her finger and said it looked like a bad burn, but it would heal.

“Would you like to go to the baseball game with me?” I said.

“What baseball game?” she asked.

“I think it’s going to be a pretty good game,” I said. “The weather should be nice and I can pick you up or we can meet there.”

“What game is that?” she said.

“I have tickets,” I said.

“Tickets are nice,” she said.

“It’s the game this Friday night between the Giants and the Dodgers, at Pacific Bell Park,” I said. “I have some tickets and I thought you might like to go with me. We could eat hot dogs.”

“I used to root for the Dodgers,” she said.

I had anticipated that as a possible response, and I was ready.

“That’s OK,” I said. “You can still go.”

“That’s nice of you to ask me,” she said. “Is that this Friday?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s this Friday.”

“I think I’m free,” she said.

“OK,” I said.

She let go of my hand and I took my hand back and put it on my knee and sipped my Pellegrino.

“So,” she said after a few minutes, “how do we do this?”

“How do we do what?” I said.

“How do we do the game?”

“I can pick you up,” I said.

“I only live right across the street.”

“I know,” I said.

“I know you know,” she said. “You don’t have to pick me up. We could just walk.”

“OK,” I said. “We can meet here then.”

“Why not meet at the cafe?” she said.

“I might be working,” I said.

“Is that a problem?” she said.

“OK,” I said. “We can meet at the cafe.” I wasn’t as fond of the idea of meeting at the cafe because it is where I work. But I agreed to do that.

So I had to meet her at my cafe on Friday, the day of the game, and we would walk to the game together. I stayed up late that night looking at pictures of her that I had taken from the cafe when she was passing by or getting into or out of her car, or when I saw her in the hallway outside my upstairs office, on the same floor as her apartment. I had been in her apartment twice performing routine maintenance tasks on behalf of the owner, with whom I maintained a cordial relationship as a business tenant. That is why I duplicated the key. I had taken note, when in her apartment, of some clothes that hung there, but I refrained from suggesting she wear any of those particular clothes that I remembered, for fear that she would then know that I had entered her apartment during the day when she was not there.

I called my counselor and left a message saying I wanted to schedule a session because I had a potentially destabilizing event approaching but his message said he was out of town until the following Wednesday. This displeased me but I attempted to do what he had suggested, which was when something displeased me to try to see it in a neutral light, or to look for other more positive angles.

So I spent the two days thinking about what would happen when she showed up at the cafe. When she showed up she was wearing some tight jeans. I complimented her on her appearance. We walked down the hill toward the stadium. The lights were already on, well before twilight, and there were boats on the bay.

The man who took my ticket at the turnstile looked like a man I had had a fight with once outside a bar. It was a fight about nothing except two men being drunk. You know how years later you can run into someone you had a fight with once over nothing, a mispronounced name or a hockey score, nothing even worth a shove much less a punch, once when you were drunk outside a small-town hick bar on your way to a job or a funeral, and you just stare at each other because maybe he has a moustache now, and a wife and kids with him or a pretty girl, or he’s taking tickets at a ballgame, and things have changed since you were both in the mud, and the moment makes you sheepish and maybe you fall silent after you see him and the woman you’re with asks, “What’s the matter?” and you say something like “I think I knew that guy from somewhere,” and she says “Why don’t you talk to him?” and you say, “Nah, that’s OK,” and if she drops it then the evening will go OK and you’ll have some eats later but if she won’t drop it, if she tries to be too helpful, then you may become too insistent that she drop it and you may raise your voice and hurt her feelings and then you will have to explain yourself and apologize or she may retaliate and then you have a difficult evening on your hands. So we went through the turnstile and I felt him looking at us but I said, “Let’s get some snacks.” And she looked back at the guy as if she sensed something too but she did not say anything about it. We got garlic fries and a hot dog and a chocolate shake and a root beer and went down to our seats along the first-base line.

It was a warm evening. It was the Dodgers. She looked really good. The air was good. You could smell the sea. The sky was lit up. It looked deep and gigantic the way it will sometimes look when you are outside eating snacks with a pretty woman, and the big lights on their towers seem to light up the back of the sky’s mouth. I was thinking exactly what color or iridescence there might be on the back of the sky’s mouth when she said that she was a little cold and I gave her my jacket and put my arm around her. Then she kind of nuzzled up against me. It was a comfortable feeling and I did not have the sense of being afraid of her or of thinking that I would never get to speak to her. It seemed just fine. This was unusual. I was not accustomed to this. I did not know what to do next. I tried to concentrate on the game. But her little blonde head, like the head of a goddess in a book of mythology, was under my chin and I was breathing her shampoo.

The game was good, too, but I could not become lost in it because I was thinking about how I was holding her, if it was the right way, if there was something I ought to say at this point. But no, whatever, it was OK, we just watched the game, and she talked about her job as a fashion designer and I asked her what it was like and she said being a fashion designer was like being in prison but a very expensive, beautiful prison where everyone dresses well and kisses you, and she asked me where I got the Bay Bridge tattoo and I told her, one, that I had worked on the Bay Bridge as an iron worker and, two, that a guy I knew died on the Bay Bridge, fell off right next to me actually, and I had felt bad about it and had gone out and gotten drunk that night and had words with my crew chief over the frequency of safety procedure training, and then got this tattoo in Oakland as the sun was coming up over Mount Diablo, in a little tattoo parlor run by a cousin of a Taiwanese metal worker who worked on the same job and gave me half off on account of the connection. I told her some other things too, how I came to own the cafe, but not about any of the jail time or my “struggle with alcoholism.”

At the seventh inning stretch she kissed me.

For a long time I have hated Dodgers closing pitcher Éric Gagné. Recently someone in a bar asked me why I hated Éric Gagné and I was surprised because I thought it was obvious why someone would hate him but I guess not. Éric Gagné seems selfish to me. I see a lot of selfishness around me — that kid who won’t give a seat to an old guy on the train, dozing there in his seat, his young smooth skin like some kind of arrogance you can’t put your finger on, and the woman next to me on the streetcar eating cherries and throwing the pits on the floor at my feet! But of course, trying to stay out of trouble, being a cafe owner, I let it slide. But Éric Gagné, the Dodgers closer, I find it hard to let that slide because with those glasses he doesn’t even look like an athlete; he looks like an accountant or a metal worker. It isn’t right how he is simply efficient and effective but not like any guy you ever played ball with as a kid; he’s like a machine, I guess is what it is. And whenever he comes into the game, you know all the fun is over and you might as well go home.

Since I was released from prison, I have given much thought to my intense dislike of Éric Gagné; I have, under the supervision of my counselor, a clinical psychologist, examined some Gagné-inspired episodes of antisocial behavior and attempted to identify other more suitable protests or expressions that might have yielded less jail time. But my feelings toward Gagné have persisted.

Our seats were three rows back but we had moved down to the front row. It was better there. We were closer. I had my glove. She had her glove. I hadn’t expected that, but I liked the fact that she had brought a glove along.

When Éric Gagné came on to pitch in the top of the eighth, with the Giants behind by one run, I felt a disturbing sadness and sense of loss. I had seen this too many times, a series of hopeful hits and skillful outs and well-orchestrated scoring opportunities squandered at the crucial moment, to leave the Giants one run behind when Gagné comes to the plate.

I don’t make measured choices, says my counselor. I pick the impossible and then fail. He thinks I hate myself. I have given that possibility some thought, as I have most all the observations he has made from time to time, sitting down by the bay on quartersawn cedar and redwood timbers treated with creosote, eating a tuna sandwich and drinking Snapple with my shoes off and my feet in the water, watching the tankers, feeling that feeling he keeps talking about, that feeling of desolation that he says leads to these fruitless pursuits of the impossible woman or the impossible television show (did I mention I’d written a sitcom pilot?).

I got the girl once in high school. She was the homecoming queen. But I threw her off a cliff. It was just horseplay but her father sued and that was when I went into the Marines. She lived — it was just water and it wasn’t that far, and I dragged her out. But she said I tried to kill her, and it’s been incidents like that ever since. I just can’t make things turn out right. He says I hate myself and that’s why I give in to the impulses, that’s why I get so angry. But I don’t think it’s just that I hate myself. I think I just hate certain things about the world, and boredom. But again he says that’s all me — that the world with its Kilamanjaro and Proust and the splitting of the atom isn’t drab at all — and I said yeah, and also Angelina Jolie, and I told him about this Russian woman I saw at the airport in these tight pants and this smile over her shoulder that made me think of being on top of her from behind and he said There it is again, there you go with the impossible longings, and I said I could have had her, and he said See what I mean? So I sat on the abandoned pier and tried to like myself — he said it would help if I gave myself some credit for overcoming my many difficulties. Pussy, I thought to myself. He is a fucking pussy.

What he was trying to get at, and I do understand his reasoning, was that if I can come to regard myself kindly, I will act in more measured fashion and people won’t feel I’m putting too much pressure on them. So I thought to myself in the baseball stadium, what if I could just sit back and enjoy the game — and that’s when Éric Gagné, that murderous prick, took the mound.

I delivered a stream of verbal abuse.

She gave me that look.

I admit that when I stand to yell at Éric Gagné the unexpected phrase will sometimes emerge. That does not mean I am insane. But she just gave me that look, and frankly it was irritating.

It was during my delivery of this stream of abuse that Bonds hit the foul pop fly that came our way, drifting on a northwest breeze that had been swirling for over an hour now, and it clearly was coming to me, not her, but yes it did drift to my right, and yes as I followed it down out of the lights I did lean on her a little, and who’s to say I was not protecting her by leaping up and catching it as she held up her glove, protecting her from getting her nose shattered by a falling baseball, how do I know what kind of a catch she is, how do I know she’s not going to be injured by the ball, falling as it is at such speed, in such swirling wind? So yes, I did elbow her out of the way, and yes, she did tumble onto and knock the garlic fries out of the lap of an elderly man who later needed assistance exiting the stadium; but I caught the ball and in the same motion caught her about the waist and kept her from taking flight down the aisle and yes, holding the ball aloft I did kiss her on the lips there on the Jumbotron for all the moms in her home state of Kansas to observe. And yes she did put that cold stare on for the rest of the game, and it was no fun from then on; I sat tossing the ball idly from hand to glove and pretending to be interested in the rest of the game. Bow could I be interested with Gagné on the mound? Am I supposed to hope even against that kind of impossibility? I don’t think so. That’s what I’ve been saying to my counselor.

I became aware only of the cold stare on her face. I studied her face as I would the face of a cafe customer. I studied her face when I felt she wasn’t aware. What I was trying to understand was whether I had truly made a mistake in pursuing her — if this was about to end up in the kind of painful way as my last such encounter with a woman.

After I caught the fly ball I high-fived my neighbor, with whom I had exchanged baseball pleasantries throughout the first few uneventful innings. The ball was like all baseballs — good, hard, sphÉrical and of a satisfying weight, and I sat in my seat and tossed it a few times idly as she stared at me.

I told her we had to leave. Why, she said. Because I cannot watch Éric Gagné any longer. When he comes on, the game is over. But that’s silly, she said. She said, “It’s not over till it’s over.” I told her not to say it was silly and a look came over her face. So then I said come on, we have to go now. And she said the score is 5-4 Dodgers, there are two more innings, we have to stay in case the Giants can squeak one out.

That was a difficult moment for me because I had gotten this far and did not want to blow it with an angry, abusive command. But Éric Gagné had the effect on me as though it was not just a game, as though he were a Northern general burning our Southern town — that’s what he reminded me of: Sherman. So I felt a panic, as though she had to be removed from the field. I wanted to pick her up and carry her out of the stadium, with her little fists beating my back. I gave her a look that was intended to frighten her. But she was staring hard at nothing and so I just said OK, you want to stay? She finally said Naw, Sure, OK, We can go, and we got up and went down the steps without looking right or left because if I caught the eye of any guy mocking me or sneering I was going to have trouble viewing my violent impulses with serene detachment.

I had entered her apartment earlier that day because by this time I had very little control over my actions in matters concerning her. We had talked about that obliquely during the game, actually, it coming up because I said she was as beautiful as Cleopatra and she said why do you say that and I said I can’t help myself.

Yes, you can, she said.

No. Really, I can’t, I said.

You mean you can’t really control what you say or do? she asked.

That’s kind of it, I said. Certain things, I said, I cannot control.

But of course I did not admit to violating her privacy by inspecting her apartment (even though it was, nominally speaking, in the scope of my master tenancy, I knew the difference).

We were a block away, walking back up toward Potrero Hill when a home-town cheer erupted and I saw a white ball like a meteor in the night sky exit the stadium and fall into the bay. It looked like the kind of home run that Barry Bonds hits.

“I guess we left too soon,” I said. We didn’t really talk till we got back to the cafe and she had her keys out. It was one of those long, silent walks where each of you is thinking you wished you could do anything or be anywhere other than this.

But I tried to save the evening. I started to talk and she said, “Don’t even start.”

I said, “I can unlock the cafe and we can have a cappuccino,” and she said, “I don’t think so.”

On our walk back from the game I had tried to again put my arm around her shoulders — which were nice, straight, light, bony but resilient shoulders — but she removed my arm and stepped away from me. I told her I was sorry we had to leave the game so soon. I said I would make it up to her. She said she would see. There was something about me, she said, that attracted her, but something that disturbed her, too — she said she knew I had been looking at her and watching her and she found it flattering but also a little creepy. I said I understood. She said, “I doubt it.”

I told her I wanted to see her again. She said she’d had a bad breakup recently. I said I understand how some things can take a long time to get over. She said, “I doubt it.”

I said, “What the fuck do you mean you doubt it? Do you doubt that I would have let you catch that pop fly if it had been on your side?

“It was on my side,” she said.

“It was not on your side at first,” I said. “That ball was coming straight down out of a perfect night sky and maybe it was a little in the lights but that doesn’t mean I could not have caught it.”

“I had it,” she said. “The wind shifted and you stole that ball!”

And she went upstairs.

It’s true that I did sort of muscle her out of the way. It was a reflex. But the more I stewed on it the more angry I became. After all, a guy goes down the chow line and holds out his plate and the cook puts a spoon in the slop and plops it on your plate and that is what you get. Here, look on my plate. Here are my childhood beatings, my poor memory for consequences, my impulse control issues, my “struggle with alcoholism.”

You doubt it? You doubt that anybody from a little shack on a river could possibly have a clue what’s going on in that pretty little Georgetown head of yours? You doubt that a guy like me could make you shut up and pay attention to the rain? That I would sit up with you when you are sick and cook you soup and hold your hand and tell you about the fireflies down in old sweet Alabama? You doubt that any guy with a knife scar in his belly like mine could still cook seared scallops on a bed of white beans and crisp prosciutto? Are you afraid that in a pinch among your bald dressmaker friends and your little white dogs and your squeaky-voiced financial backers I might say the wrong thing about Averil Sharon and the Palestinians or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, or whether to laugh or cry at the death of the authorial voice and somebody with a Prada handbag will lift her eyebrows and I’ll want to kick her ass in the kitchen but I won’t, I won’t, do you doubt that? I’ve got some issues with impulse control but I’m not a psychopath or a liar or a two-bit hood or worse a fake or a hustler or a scaredy-cat like that twerp with the earring I’ve seen you with at openings. Do you doubt that I can speak your language? Do you doubt that I can handle your family? Why are you looking at me like that? Can’t you tell the difference between a man who’s angry but on your side and a man who can’t be counted on? I can be counted on. That you don’t have to doubt.

These are the things I was thinking but did not say.

She said goodnight and went up to her apartment without kissing me or giving any hint of warmth or affection. I cannot describe her face to you but it was the face of a woman who wishes to hear no more from you. So I sat on the curb by her car where I had left so many bouquets on the hood — lilies, chrysanthemums, whatever looked good at the time. For a while, as my counselor had suggested, I just paid attention to the thoughts that arose in my mind, and the order they came in, and how they led to one another. The first thought was to get my baseball bat and start hitting her car with it. That thought passed — more quickly, I noticed, than similar thoughts at other comparable times. Then I thought of standing in the street and yelling up to her. What would I yell? You bitch! You beautiful cold-hearted bitch! You baby! You bad catch! You ball-stealing bitch! You fucking Dodgers fan! As I thought these things, as I had been trained to do in therapy I maintained a distance from the words that ran through my head, not disowning them as that would be “splitting off,” but not acting on them either, just feeling them. Then I arose and walked around on the sidewalk in front of my cafe. After a few minutes I felt calmer and went upstairs to my office, where I had a couch that I sometimes slept on. I sat at my desk but my head was still buzzing so I lay down. I lay down on the couch and the thoughts came with greater speed and intensity — large, vivid thoughts, angry thoughts. Again, as on the sidewalk, I attempted to monitor them without acting on them. This woman! My life! It had come to this, a 39-year-old ex-Marine with mental problems, inheritor of a hip cafe on Potrero Hill, doing so well for many months ordering the pastries and coffee beans, chatting with customers, wiping up the spills without overreacting as I have been known to do in the past at the sight of spilled coffee or syrup, drinking only on occasion at the bar across the street with the vertiginous blue view of tall buildings and sky, drinking one cocktail and calling it quits, quieting my mind with my nightly tai chi, reading the Good Book and marking passages, practicing with the rifle but only at the range, never in my room, allowing myself a modicum of secret pleasures, but always alert to the importance of discipline, always alert to my past propensity for violence, my trick brain like a trick knee liable to go out on you at any time and send you tumbling.

And then I will admit to you as I lay there I though of her in the next apartment undressing, I thought of the flimsy panties slipping over the hipbone and tailbone and firm resilient mounds and yes, I admit to you, as I lay in the dark bereft and inconsolable, I pleasured myself. And as I cleaned off with my handkerchief then again I was filled with rage and disappointment: What a waste of man! What a waste of energy and love! What a stupid cruel implacable woman she is! And the image of her car parked outside the cafe on whose hood I had piled so many flowers came to me and I grabbed my baseball bat, stuffed my handkerchief in my shirt pocket, took the stairs down to her car and assumed my batter’s stance by her fender. I stared into the dead headlights. But just as I was taking my backswing I paused with the bat long enough to think about where this was leading. This was leading to jail. So instead I hocked up a big loogie and spat it on her car. It fell with a gentle slap on her bare, innocent hood. I stood in silence a while and then went back upstairs.

Again I could not rest. Again more images and memories of violence and abuse filled my mind. I was wasted and distraught. I sat in agonized silence for an hour, reviewing the beatings both taken and given that marked like mileposts the race of my life, and I knew I had to go back to the street and wipe that spit off her car. I had to make it right. So I grabbed my handkerchief and went down the stairs again, somberly like a deacon coming down to address the congregation. I took out my handkerchief and just like wiping down a counter I circled the spit mark. I wiped off all traces of it. Then I folded my handkerchief and put it back in my shirt pocket. As I did so she came down the stairs and out the door of the apartment building and walked over to where I stood.

“You’re always hanging around my car,” she said.

I did not know what to say to her so I nodded and stepped away from her car.

“I was having trouble sleeping,” she said. “I usually sleep like a baby.”

I nodded again.

“One reason I couldn’t sleep,” she said, “I was wondering about the score. I never found out how it ended up.”

“We left a little prematurely,” I said. “It’s not usually like that.”

“You mean with all the other gals?” she said.

“No,” I said, “I mean with all the other games. I don’t usually leave a game early.”

“It’s that Gagné, isn’t it?” she said.

“Yeah, that guy gets to me,” I said. “He’s so all-fucking full of himself. He’s so all-fucking efficient.”

“But he got hit tonight,” she said.

“Yep,” I said. “He got hit tonight.”

“That guy’s streak is over,” she said.

I don’t know why, because there was nothing sad about it that I could see, but she started to cry then, leaning against the hood of her Audi in her pajamas and her robe. I reached out to hold her but she stiff-armed me with her left hand, kind of hard, actually, and with her right hand she snatched my dirty handkerchief out of my shirt pocket.

“Don’t wipe your eyes with that,” I said.

“Don’t fucking tell me what to do,” she said.

—–

Cary Tennis writes the advice column for Salon.com

—–

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My father was hit by lightning when he was young.  Then he got on with his life.  He married his high school sweetheart, check went to college, ailment got a business degree, raised two kids, became a vice-president of a regionally recognized human resources firm, and retired.  I don’t know how common it is for someone to get hit by lightning without being hurt – I’ve never looked it up.  I don’t know if they keep statistics on things like that 

The trouble is, over the past few years, since his wife died, he’s been out there in that damn field, waiting for it to happen again. 

Maybe it’s Alzheimer’s.  Maybe it’s a kind of dementia they don’t have a name for.  Maybe he needs medication.  But he doesn’t have a cell phone, so if anyone wants to talk to my father, they have to drive outside of town, park on a dirt road, crawl through barbed wire, and walk into the middle of a sheep pasture. 

What the hell was he doing there as a kid? 

“It was a dare,” he tells me.  “There were a lot more sheep here, back then.  I was dared to shear one at night.  They said I wouldn’t do it.” 

He did.  He crawled into the field, with a group of his friends – I picture them all wearing varsity jackets even though I’ve never seen one in his old pictures – and got hit by lightning.  Then he got back up and sheared the sheep.  They left the wool on the ground and ran away to stand outside a liquor store, asking customers to buy them beer. 

My father was not a crazy man when I was growing up.  He was the kind of man who saved his money instead of buying a car that his kids could be proud of.  His house was too small for us all then:  now that we’ve moved out, it’s just right. 

He goes home sometimes.  He has to sleep, he has to eat.  But he’s always back there when it counts.  When my sister got hit by a car, her boyfriend had to crawl into the field to tell him.  He visited her at the hospital for two days straight, and then went back.  She’s functional, now, but they’re barely on speaking terms.

It really hit home when Sue left me, and it took my father three days to pick up the message that I was getting divorced because it was raining hard and he didn’t want to leave.  I knew where he was the whole time:  I could have gone and told him in person, but, I didn’t feel like moving.  I still don’t.  I’m functional now, though.  And I want my father back.

But he’s not coming back.  Standing out on that field, even on a sunny day, he doesn’t want to budge.  “What else am I gonna do?” he asks me.  “Waiting for lightning is better than waiting around to die.”

“That doesn’t make any sense, pop.  You’re old.  This time, it’ll kill you.”

“That’s better then what happened last time,” he says.  “When you’re over the hill, you think about things like this – about how it’s the one thing that really happened special to me in my life, and I just got up and went on, and it didn’t change a thing.”

Then he turns his face into the sun, and scans the sky for clouds. 

—–

Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues.  He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com

Read more stories by Benjamin Wachs

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You took the acid too soon. The thought, malady half chiding and half Emergency Room neon flashing, doctor crawled down the walls of Mark’s brain as he looked out the bus window. Better to just pretend nothing was going on. Yeah, health right, a mocking voice echoed from the cranial plains where the first lightning of creation forked from Cerulean Blue voids into ponds of primeval movement. Easy to say if your face wasn’t changing its molecular structure so fast that anyone glancing in your direction would jump up like a character in an animated cartoon, with his hair shooting straight up like a gusher from an oil well and yell, ‘what the hell’s wrong with that guy? Why’s his face flowing like a trout stream? Driver, what kind of bus is this, anyway?’

Finally, Market Street. He stepped into Saturday night like a mariner bracing himself against a gale force wind filled with tiny luminescent green and blue mermaids. You could have waited. You could have taken half. But no, you had to gulp the whole pumpkin seed tablet, you had to be riding on a bus when it began exploding inside your mind.

At last, he entered Fillmore West Auditorium, and allowed the molten tendrils of rock and roll to pull him along until he slipped into the comforting, heavily-stoned ambience of the ballroom. The pungent sweetness of hash and grass billowed through the air, clouded and perfumed the spinning diamond geometries of shape and color that charged the air with electricity. On the walls, the familiar kaleidoscope of cellular movement oozed, mixed with random snapshots from the carnival of human history.

He relaxed, let his individual stoniness flow into the great tribal stoniness. He began to dance, oblivious as Dionysus. Far away, the nagging voices of paranoia and dread were drowning in a tide of illuminated manuscripts. This was not the age of verbalization. Forget plays. Good God, what had he ever been thinking? This was The Play. A thousand Hamlets with happy endings took place in the blink of an eye. Oedipus tried to blind himself again and again, only to have small brightly-colored birds flash from his eyes.

This epiphany came in the middle of the final set from Jefferson Airplane, after Grace Slick and Marty Balin sang their hits. The musicians launched a wall of brightly weeping and exulting guitar music. The stage was crowded with wraithlike young men with waist-length hair bent in expressionless concentration as they labored at the strings of their guitars. It nearly knocked him down. No, no, the metaphor was all wrong. It wasn’t the Bear Flag Revolt wrought by the aggressive sons of America. Not those heirs of the original Conquistadors, their skins warmed by animal pelts and flushed with whiskey, their veins fed by the mythic fires of Prometheus and Caesar. No this was something else. Some achingly beautiful and futile thing, warmed by the last flare of tribalism as a snowy Rockies peak turns blood red in the last sinking flash of the sun.

This was the Ghost Dances. It seemed so obvious now as the dancers melted into a single tribal and salmon flashing river-borne spasm. This wasn’t the dance of conquerors. It wasn’t the bold railroad-seeding stride of the Baron Bunyans of progress. This was the collective wail of the lost, the dream-spattered, those that had been dealt out and crossed off and bullet-riddled and left for dead in the breathing snow like Big Foot’s tribe at Wounded Knee Creek. It wasn’t Buffalo Bill riding grandly into London on a box car filled with tinned meat and stage props and white lies. This was Arapaho George bolting from the circle of red and yellow lights and bounding into the dark high desert hills like a wounded bear.

In the cruelest of paradoxes, the Fillmore closed at two in the morning, the music ceased and the doors jammed open, and a bleary battalion of stoned souls stumbled out onto the ambiguous pavements of Market Street. He managed to function sufficiently to get aboard the Muni and sat looking past his reflection into the ambient dark as the bus made its way up the hill, ambling and lurching in a westerly direction. Distracted, he rode to the end of the line and slipped into the edge of the park, reveling in the motion of tree branches, the August moonlight, the energy pulsing from the distant furnaces of the stars.

He was making his way back down Haight Street, toward the hill at Belvedere when a police car drove past. He felt a tingling prickle of uncertainty and fear as the car slowed to a stop and backed up, angling to the curb. Relax, he chided himself, they’re just sizing you up. You’re not the worst specimen they’ve seen at whatever the hell time it was Sunday morning on Haight Street. Put on the friendly vibe. They’ll check your ID and let you go is all, relax.

“Morning there, got an ID on you?”

“Certainly, officer, anything wrong?” Damn that sounded good, he congratulated himself, good solid middle-class tone of concern.

“Routine. Just wondered what a man was doing walking down this street at three in the morning is all,” he spoke calmly and precisely.

“Oh, yeah, I was at the concert tonight. Jefferson Airplane? Got out late.”

“Fella could get pretty high at a thing like that,” the cop observed ominously, handing Mark’s license to his partner inside the car, who bent over a small microphone and spoke quietly into a radio.

“Sure, I guess so, but I don’t go in for that sort of stuff. I just like the music,” he tried to sound matter-of-fact and casual.

“Let’s cut the bullshit,” the cop snapped imperiously. “You got any warrants on you? Just get into town out of jail somewhere, or what?”

“Warrants? Oh, hell no! I’m just a guy coming back from a rock concert.”

The cop gave him a searching look, then seemed to relax and become more congenial. “Right. OK then. Just stand over against the car there for a search, please. If you’re clean, you’ll be on your way.”

He felt the hard hands patting up his thighs, against his pockets, up along his ribs. Thank God I don’t have any joints on me.

“OK, just stand there for a minute.”

“Yes, sir.”

The cop bent over the open car window and said something to his partner, who glanced at Mark, and nodded with a smirk. That smirk was his ticket, he thought. He’d passed muster as just another stoned asshole on Haight Street. They were about to let him go.

Just then the radio began to crackle, and the cop at the wheel bent over the microphone. After a minute, and an unsmiling remark to his partner, the cop at the wheel opened the door and stepped around behind the car. The other cop approached him with a cold expression. Mark saw that his hands were bringing up the handcuffs he had unfastened from his wide black belt.

“Thought you said you were clean,” the cop said, anger tinting his voice.

“Well I am.”

“Don’t like it when a guy tries to fuck with us,” said the other cop, a slightly built man with dark Italian features.

“Man on the horn says you’re wanted for murder in Sacramento, asshole, that ring a bell?”

“No. It’s a mistake. Never even been to Sacramento,” he heard his voice stammer as the first cop cuffed his wrists.

“Well we’ll just see about this, bend your head,” the second cop commanded, pushing him into the back seat.

They drove a short distance to the Park Station, and took Mark inside. Several cops lounging around the front desk looked up with interest.

“So, this is the asshole wanted on that shooting in Sacramento?”

“Yeah, claims its a mistake, of course.”

“Sure, maybe he’s just been shootin’ so much dope it slipped his mind.”

“What’s left of it.”

Several of the cops laughed at the witticism as they took the cuffs off, made him empty his pockets, and filled out some paperwork.

“Name?”

“Mark McManus. Look, this is a mistake, I must look like someone.”

“Yeah, you like shit is what you look like,” it was the first cop, whose voice was harsh with animosity now. “How the fuck old are you?”

Mark told him.

“How’d you manage to get that fucked up in so short a time?”

“What you do for a living?” asked the cop at the desk.

“I’m uh . . . just graduated . . . writer,” he stammered.

“Graduated, huh? What’s your major if you graduated?”

“Drama,” the words scalded his throat on their way out of his mouth.

“Drama is it?” snorted the first cop.

“He’ll find it pretty dramatic when he gets to San Quentin.”

“Take him back and lock him up,” ordered the cop at the desk.

Once in the cell, Mark sat upright in the Lotus position and closed his eyes. After the shock and confusion of the last hour, a supremely comforting flood of sparkling white light swirled just beneath his eyelids, wiping everything away. He wanted to weep at the sudden infusion of spirit and strength.

They confused him with someone was all. But tomorrow, today, was Sunday. No offices open. Not a good sign. He drifted into a reverie of smoke and sleep, imagining, out of the blue, his old character in the play or novel or whatever the hell it was supposed to be, that he had never gotten around to actually writing. Sleeping Rabbit.

Sleeping Rabbit, the Sioux brave, won his name because despite his affable appearance, he was cunning and thoughtful. He saw the trains puffing and rattling across the prairie, and realized their import more acutely than most. Realized the death these trains bore with them. Realized the huge metal trickster would destroy their myths and legends; bear, coyote, fox, and all the rest were headed for the dust-bin. Best of all, he figured out how to derail the hated iron messengers by taking apart the hard shining road they rolled on.

Sleeping Rabbit and a pair of companions, Tall Bull and Man-Who-Stands-Under-The-Trees, were captured by soldiers after raiding a train.

Sleeping Rabbit killed a red-faced Irish fireman with his hatchet; took coffee, gunpowder, flour, and salt from the boxcars. He and the others tied brightly colored strips of ribbon to the tails of their horses, and rode away across the prairie. They were captured and taken by train to the humid dungeons at Fort Marion in Florida. The very same prison where Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apache were sent after their last futile attempt at survival.

I’ll get back to it, if they could survive, I can survive, Mark thought. The door opened. He realized with a start that dawn was streaming through bars of the high window and that he was still sitting on the cement floor of the holding cell.

“They’re here to take you downtown, to Bryant Street.”

“OK.”

He was supposed to get a phone call, he recalled. Who the hell was there to call? Better just ride it out. See how long it took them to find out that he wasn’t a murderer from Sacramento. Fingerprints, he thought, suddenly brightening, fingerprints would do it.

*  *  *

They drove in silence to the Hall of Justice, a  large grey edifice on Bryant Street, that held the courts and the jail. They paraded him through the corridors to the fingerprinting station. Rode in an elevator to the seventh floor lockup. He entered the wide main cell, which had a dozen beds against the walls of either side. Only then, upon realizing that other prisoners were looking up, curious to see the new prisoner, did he become tense with dread again. Nothing happened though. He simply found an empty bed and slept. He was jarred from sleep by a black prisoner with a wide scar ploughing from his nose halfway across his cheekbone.

“Dinner time, brother, better get you somethin’ to eat. Long time to breakfast.”

“Thanks, man,” he sat up and rubbed his eyes. “I been out of it. It’s dinner time?”

“Shit’s up on the table. What you trippin’ on, anyway?”

While they were eating, Mark told the story of his arrest to five of his cell-mates; three black men, a tattooed Hell’s Angel, with a scraggly red beard, and a thin man with wire-rimmed glasses. “I still don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.”

“Murder suspect from Sacramento,” cackled one of the black guys. “Must’ve thought you looked like that mother fucker Reagan.”

“That’s the shits,” a wiry, intense black guy with thick eyebrows and a nervous, agitated manner laughed, “gettin’ busted when you’re high is the shits.”

“Yeah,” the man who had wakened him, whose name was Gene, observed, “what it boils down to is the pigs can bust you any time, make up any old shit.”

“That’s the truth,” the tattooed biker rumbled, pushing away his tray of half-eaten food. “You get used to that shit. They just pop you, figure there’s a warrant out on you some damn place. Happens every fuckin’ time I come down here.”

“Where you from?” asked Mark.

“North. Angels got a place up in the Trinity Alps.”

“Sounds great.”

“Beats this shit. Cities are fucked,” he scraped the bench away from the table as he rose, “nothing in cities but trouble.”

“That’s the truth,” the bespectacled man spoke up fawningly in a nasally, earnest voice. “I come out here from Chicago. Even worse there. Heard of Mayor Daly?”

“Yeah?”

“He just gives the pigs a standard order. Pick up a hippie, black guy, biker, anyone you don’t like the looks of, and just beat the shit out of him. No questions asked.”

“Same shit here,” the intense black guy nodded his head vigorously, “like the TAC Squad? Those mother fuckers workin’ for Alioto? I seen ‘em just walk down Haight Street bustin’ up every poor fool what couldn’t get out of the way fast enough. They figure a nigger or a hippie ain’t gonna do shit about it, you dig? I mean like what you gonna do, dude? How you gonna prove you didn’t off the dude they talkin’ ‘bout?”

“Yeah,” the biker said over his shoulder as he lumbered back to his bed to stretch out. “You could use yourself a lawyer. Only guy ever gets a break is the one’s got a nasty little mosquito of a lawyer who knows all the tricks.”

“You’ll be all right,” the man from Chicago leaned across the table toward Mark, adopting a conspiratorial manner, “they gotta have something, fingerprints or whatever, to nail you on a murder charge.”

“Took my prints this morning,” Mark informed them, “I thought that’d settle it for sure.”

“They be religious, the pigs,” drawled the third black man, speaking for the first time in a low whisper, “they don’t be doin’ nothin’ on a Sunday.”

Everyone laughed at the observation. “That’s right, brother, ain’t nothin’ to do but wait. They most likely put you in front of the judge tomorrow,” observed Gene.

The next morning began with a blaring wake-up call pouring from the loud speakers. A cop with a protruding belly, and a voice nearly metallic in its harshness boomed at them.

“C’mon you candy asses, time to shower up. You wanna look nice for the judge, don’t ya? There’s gonna be human beings watching you, let’s move it!”

Mark found himself lagging behind the others as they marched down grey corridors dimly lit by the morning sun. The cop approached him menacingly.

“You want I should work you over with a rubber hose, asshole? Looking for a little beauty treatment?”

Good God, he meant it. This guy didn’t know the difference between his own life and a cop in a bad southern chain-gang movie.

“No sir, sorry,” Mark stumbled to catch up with the others, rounding a corner into a scene from some Stalinist Gulag. All the prisoners stripped naked and were herded into a large cell area with shower fixtures jutting from high on the wall and three large floor drains on the sloping floor.

“Clean yourselves up, no pissing on the floor there, you assholes call us the pigs, huh?” the cop yelled, randomly tossing in half a dozen square white soap bars. “Don’t forget to wash behind your ears, boys.”

Later, Mark and a small group of prisoners huddled together in a small holding area adjacent to the court room. “I don’t believe this shit,” he said vacantly.

“Don’t let ‘em fuck with you, brother,” Gene spoke kindly, punching him lightly on the shoulder. “You’ll be home and doin’ your old lady tonight. You didn’t off that dude, did you?”

Mark considered the absurdity of the question, and began to laugh. “You know, I don’t even know who it was I was supposed to have killed.”

“If’ you’da killed the dude you’d know who he was,” Gene grinned expansively, “so there you go.”

“McManus.” The bailiff appeared at the door, and Mark struggled awkwardly to his feet. Inside the court room, he focused his full attention on the empty judge’s bench, which reminded him of a minister’s pulpit. A half dozen lawyers were standing in a group behind the wooden barrier to the right of the vacant jury box.

One of the lawyers approached him, shook his hand quickly, introduced himself as Ray Nottington, public defender, and asked him what his plea was.

Mark stared at the man, stunned. “My plea? It’s a mistake. All they told me was I was supposed to have murdered some guy in Sacramento. I’ve never even been to Sacramento. Can you explain that to them?”

The man regarded him shrewdly for a brief moment. “Well, you sound sincere. Maybe you’re right, these things happen. So you are not David Robert Elmore?”

“Who?”

“OK, no sweat, we’ll go with that, then, not guilty.”

The judge, portly and grey-haired in his robes, entered.

“In the matter of the People versus David Robert Elmore, also known as Mark McManus, murder in the second degree, how do you plead?” the judge directed the  question to him.

“Excuse me, your Honor, a mistake has been made. My client is not David Robert Elmore, but an innocent third party named Mark McManus.”

“Not guilty plea is entered,” the judge stated matter-of-factly. “Now, sir,” he addressed the prosecutor who had stepped forward with a long sheet of paper in his hand, “will you proceed?”

“In view of the claim as to the existence of an alleged third party in this proceeding, your honor, and before adumbrating to the court the violent nature of this crime, apparently a dispute among drug dealers culminating with multiple stab wounds, the people would request a side bar.”

“We’ll get to the bottom of this,” Ray Nottington said soothingly from the corner of his mouth as he walked over to the judge’s bench and conferred for a brief, smoothly intense minute, after which he returned, gliding, it seemed to Mark, across the polished wooden floor.

The prosecutor spoke. “Your honor, the people have a firm description, based on previous incarceration records, of the aforesaid David Robert Elmore.

Though the latter matches in rough appearance the suspect before us, he does have one dramatically prominent characteristic.”

“And that is?” asked the judge, impatiently.

“To be specific, your honor, said David Elmore is in possession of a large black panther tattoo which covers the entire length of his right forearm. If the suspect would oblige the court by rolling up the sleeve of his right arm, a positive identification should be forthcoming.”

“Mr. Nottington, if you could so instruct your client?”

“Yes, your honor. Show them your right forearm, and you’d better damn well not have a panther tattoo on it.”

Straining to keep from screaming, and half expecting to see a black, curling panther tail as he began rolling up his sleeve, Mark stepped forward and stuck out the suspect limb. Everyone in the court room, their curiosity duly aroused by now, stared at Mark’s pantherless right forearm, which he displayed with a sweeping flourish for all to see. After a moment, the voice of the prosecuting attorney broke the silence.

“Your honor, the People are satisfied that the wrong man is being held, and that the suspect in this Court is not, in fact, David Robert Elmore.”

“Your honor, we call for the immediate dismissal of all charges relating to this apparent case of mistaken identity,” said Ray Nottington, barely restraining a smirk as he peered across the aisle at his frequent adversary, who studiously examined a thread that was coming out of a button on his suit jacket.

“The defendant is dismissed, with the apologies of the Court,” said the judge. “There will be a thirty minute recess at this time.”

“If I were you,” advised Ray Nottington, leading him toward the waiting bailiff, “I’d consider filing a false arrest charge against the bastards.”

“I don’t know if I can relate to this any more,” Mark replied woodenly.

“Right, I can understand, on the other hand, that you might want to just forget the whole thing, chalk it up as a bad experience and leave it at that.”

“Thanks for your advice,” Mark shook the lawyer’s hand vigorously.

“Hey, no problem, just doing my job,” Ray Nottington assured him.

At last it was over. The blank-faced bailiff, however, led him back to the elevator and turned him over to the custody of a deputy, who brought him back up to the City Jail, and deposited back inside the main holding cell a second time.

“Wait a minute, the judge said to release me. I’m not David Robert Elmore. I don’t have a panther tattoo on my arm, it’s a mistake.”

The cop looked at him coldly. “You’ll be notified of disposition.”

Now a real sense of panic set in. He was pacing back and forth in a near panic when Gene and the biker and the black man with the deep whispering voice were brought back in.

“No panther tattoo, huh dude?” the biker gave his arm a friendly punch as he walked past him.

“What’re these pigs doing to you, brother? You don’t look so good,” Gene’s voice was soothing and concerned.

Mark explained the situation.

“Don’t let ‘em fuck with your mind,” said the man with the soothing voice. “They’re just fuckin’ with you is all. Can’t keep you now. Judge be the boss around here.”

Finally, after what seemed like hour, the cell door clanked open.

“McManus,” the pot-bellied cop in charge of the showers barked, “looks like you lucked out this time, asshole, you’re out of here.”

*   *  *

A rich yellow late afternoon sunlight embraced Mark as he descended the steps of the Hall of Justice. His mind churned up thoughts. Fat pig probably figures he’ll get another crack at me. I don’t think so. Christ, was I on my way to a concert? Coming back from one?

Standing at the curb, waiting for a light to change, he felt chilled and exhausted. All that stuff about the ghost dance? Real as this sidewalk. He looked back at the lumbering grey bulk of the building behind him. Might as well be Fort Apache. A factory for the processing of what the old pot-bellied cop with the rubber hose called ‘assholes’ into captured pacing beasts. Well, no more casual ‘acid trips,’ no more living life as an observer. No more co-opting other people’s metaphors. Everything, from this next step forward, was illuminated in laughter.

—–

Michael Shorb’s work reflects an abiding interest in environmental issues, history, and the lyrical form, as well as a strong focus on material that reflects the dazzling Hydra of the ‘real world.’ His poems have appeared in over 100 magazines and anthologies, including The Nation, The Sun, Michigan Quarterly Review, Queen’s Quarterly, Poetry Salzburg Review, Commonweal, Rattle, Urthona, and European Judaism.

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Amateurs. Hobbyists. There are so many of them, rx always underfoot. The only rule they follow is that they follow no rules, cialis that they might dart into another lane at any moment, veer, brake, cut in front, cut behind, crash, honk, eat, fuck, or suddenly and for no reason anyone could see stop suddenly in the middle of the road.

I ride above them. A truck is not a car. A trucker is not a tourist. I am aware of them, but it has been a long time since I saw them individually–they are road conditions, like ice or rain or frogs crossing between two ponds.

Some of them think they are racing me–little men so serious, hunched over their wheels, little cars all engine, as if metal and gas had no purpose but to do the job of hurling them around. They race ahead of me as if the road were theirs, but the greedy jerk of their tires betrays them. They are not of the road, they are on it. The river does not race, the river flows. The carp may rush back and forth across the river a hundred times each day, but when it dies the river carries it to the ocean like everything else.

I have crossed this country a thousand times. I have chipped ice from my locks in a blizzard and driven naked in the heat of an empty desert highway. I stop to rest, to eat–bodies are machines, machines are bodies. I fulfill my purpose as a the mountain-top fulfills its function, and when I slide from my peak and tumble into the river and I, too, am swept to the ocean, it will be with no more regret than the stones themselves.

—–

Daniel Heath is a San Francisco playwright.

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A five-year-old is screaming the F-word from the top of the wooden play structure. Hoisting himself up onto the railing so his little legs are hanging, sildenafil toes in the air, drugstore he’s hollering obscenities at the top of his lungs from the topmost perch of his fortress. He’s captured the attention of the other small children at the park—and their parents.

I put the novel I’m reading aside, viagra face down, pages spread eagle, spine tingling. “Time to go home,” I say, loud enough for the potty-mouth to hear.

“No,” he yells, and it’s almost a cry. Then he’s cussing again, my son the sailor. His little angel face contorts around the words. The way he pairs insults and expletives is almost humorous. There’s no rhyme to the sentence structure, no reason. At least, it would be humorous if it didn’t make him an outcast and me a horrible parent.

“One,” I name off the number, holding up my index finger to signal the countdown, the way the kindergarden teacher told me to. I’m supposed to count to three. Give three chances before making him take a time-out which is measured in minutes equivalent to his age.

A five-minute time out is a big deal when you’re five. But my child never stops at one. No, we count all the way to three, and then I’m left enforcing the time-out.

The onslaught of words continues. He’s confident, up in the high-hide, that I won’t be able to reach him. It’s not easy to climb up the ladders, fit through the tiny wooden crevices built for hiding, and finally tackle the zigzagging stairs that take you to the lookout point. It’s made for children, as the sign claims, not their blushing parents trying to escape the judging eyes.

I’m measuring up the challenge, my route, and counting off, “Two,” with my index and middle fingers raised. “Come down now.”

“No,” he shouts again, and what he really means is ‘try and get me up here.’

A three-year-old trots through the sand, fingering his belly button, as he asks his daddy, “Whatsa fuck?”

Daddy sets down his iPhone, a stern expression crossing his brow. “It’s a very bad word. We don’t say it.”

I decide I could do it. I could carefully climb through the obstacles made for people under three-feet. I could make it to the top and grab him round the middle. I could take the slide back down with him in my arms. Or maybe the fire poll?

And it could turn into an elaborate game of chase. Except there’s no prize for this game. Unless you count carrying a child, kicking and screaming, back to the apartment.

So I stay where I am. The other child would’ve learned this word sooner or later. Even with immaculate parents. A daddy and a mommy who shit out sunshine and rainbows.

My kid keeps cursing. It makes me think of a few choice curse words I’d like to say. But the only thing worse than a kid swearing at a park is a parent swearing back. It’s Parenting 101. So I just think the words to myself, paired with the words, ‘This is my life, this is my life.’

I’m thinking of my mother and the teenage version of myself. Adults had names for me then: troubled, strong willed, ADD, ADHD, bipolar, manic depressive… I’m recalling my mother’s quiet words to my sixteen-year-old self, “I hope you have a difficult child so you know what it’s like.”

I’m thinking, my son’s attitude is either genetic—or a curse.

I can’t remember which number I’m on. It must be three by now. So I say “Three” and my adorable, angel faced son screams like the devil’s being exorcised from inside him. “I’m going home,” I say, threatening to leave. I fold my book under my arm and walk to the gate.

He’s howling now, howling from the safety of his fortress. My face is ten-out-of-ten shades of red. The other parents are watching me unabashedly, every second judging. I’m opening the gate when I hear my child scream, “I hate you,” from the bannister.

He’s not taking any chances that I’ll leave without him. He doesn’t want to follow directions, but he’s stomping down the stairs, whooshing down the slide, and running through the sand towards me, the fuck-fuck-bastard-fucking-fuck.

This is my life, this is my life.

—–

Megan Enright edits and publishes Tough Times Magazine, your guide for living the high life at no cost in San Francisco

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Boyle looked at his knuckles, thumb opening and closing his hands.

That little guy on the other side of the counter would go down in a second under these hands, hospital thought Boyle. He could feel it, see it, the weasel’s teeth biting into the skin on his knuckles, then giving way like bowling pins, like marbles, like pearls around a woman’s neck, the bones around his eye giving, going soft. He knew how it felt to deliver a punch to the kidneys, to hear the breath foosh out of a guy, you watch a fight and it only takes a second, you can look away at your beer and it’s all over but when you’re in there it’s hours days years the sounds coming out of his mouth with the teeth and spit, he’s wound all around your feet and you’re standing it’s all yours, everybody knows to be afraid of you, they get out of your way when you walk away, the girls looking at you out of the sides of their eyes, their cheeks pink and you’re all of it, you’re everything in that moment.

It was almost enough just to know it, almost enough today for Boyle as he took the deposit slip from the little guy. Give him the receipt or take a shot, dole out the cash or go, launch across the counter and into the light, no going back.

——

Founder of the Portuguese Artists Colony in San Francisco, Caitlin Myer regularly reads her work at Why There Are Words, Quiet Lightning, and other established reading salons in California.  Her one woman show on Simone de Beauvoir was produced in Seattle.  Read more stories by Caitlin Myer

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Once upon time there was a beautiful princess, cheap and she married a handsome prince, cure who took her far away across the sea to rule with him over the city of Prague.

And Prague in November resembled an enormous wedding cake, as the Princess, who was now a Queen looked out of her castle window.  After a night of snow, the rooves and the spires of the city shone and sparkled as if they were gorgeous curlicues teased out of sugar by a clever pastry chef. Only if she leaned very far out of the window could she find any sign of the dark earth at all.

Down below among the cottages pressed against the wall of the castle the snow had not settled due to the steady tread of the alchemists going back and forth to fetch coal. Day and night they tended their fires in pursuit of the secret of immortality.

As things fell out this November, the Queen was alone in the Castle because the Prince, who was now a King, was away making war on his enemies at the White Mountain.  For company she had her three companions from home, Mary, Mary and Mary, and the four of them gossiped and giggled together in their native tongue as they wandered the enormous rooms, but there was no real life to be had with all the men away. The Queen also had her English players with her and that afternoon they were to perform a masque for the ladies.

Not every man had gone to the war. Down below in the city there was a young soldier who had decided to seek his fortune by other means. He had rented a small room, with a stove to sit by as he thought and thought about how to decide what is real and what is only a dream. The English players are the mechanics of dreams. Together they raise the scaffold in the Castle throne room with easy practice – the platform on which they will become kings and even queens, although they are all men and boys.  Mary Carmichael will not leave them alone. She hangs around the doorway as the crashes of the scaffold work echo up in the rafters of the Throne room, with no thought of her dignity.

She is fascinated by Rufus, the lead boy of the company who takes the main feminine roles. She loves to finger his tinsel dress and stroke his down chin and ask him “How can you play a woman when you’ve never known one?”

Rufus blushes but answers “I play maids.”

“Oh! Oh!” shrieks Mary Carmichael “That’s put me in my place, for I could only play a maid from memory.” Her laughter skirls through the great chamber high above the laughter of the men. Rufus blushes deeper, and Mary pinches his cheek and says “He blushes like a maid.” But the Queen has heard the laughter and has sent Mary Seaton to take Mary Carmichael away from the players.

So the Queen and all three of her ladies walk together in the long gallery before dinner, their breath hanging before them in thin white clouds. They talk of Grace, the snow, Anabaptists and Mary Seaton’s small dog, Duncan, who runs ahead of them and snuffles at the fringes of the tapestries. None of them mentions the war.

Dinner without the men is a jolly affair. Among only themselves and waited on by women, the ladies can forget their manners and be free with their appetites. Mary Carmichael is always greedy, and Mary Heaton enjoys her food when she gets the chance, although she is as thin as a needle. There is no fish, with so many men away, but even in November there are peaches and plums grown magically under the low winter sun in a room with glass walls on the roof of the castle.

When at last dinner is cleared away the light has begun to fade. Much of the throne room is already lost in shadow as the Queen leads the Marys in to see the Masque. The stage is lit with sconces, and up in the gallery the musicians have lit their candles. One could fancy that the pin pricks of candlelight are the stars in the sky. And such fancies are what make the Queen uneasy about Theatre. Surely to make a mockery of Nature is to mock its Creator? And the better the mockery the greater the spiritual danger, for a perfect imitation of form will draw Spirit into it, like the brazen head built by Cornelius Agrippa which spoke and prophesied. And in this poor light the Imagination will spring to the aid of the Intellect to make the stage, and only the stage real, and what are the dangers of the perfect illusion?

Rufus is the perfect illusion now, as he steps onto the empty platform of the stage. Who could doubt that he is what he claims to be, the Lady Moon in the Garden of the Night? He moves with delicacy and modesty. His feet glide beneath him, his arms float before him has he uses his hands to emphasize his unhappy situation, and his horse hair tresses fly around him with each toss of his head.

The Lady Moon has nightingales and owls for company and it is the sweetest scented flowers which exhale their perfumes during the hours of darkness. Yet all is not well with her. She loves the Lord Sun, loves him and fears him, for she is afraid that in his great light she will disappear. She would take that risk but her cruel father Saturn keeps her away from her lover.

The Queen hears Mary Heaton draw her handkerchief from her sleeve ready to weep for Lady Moon. The Queen is moved too. She knows what is to be the daughter and lover of powerful men. She is gripped rather more than she would like.

Here comes Mercury, a lithe and nimble lad, resplendent in yellow robes. His dances and songs are so gay that even Lady Moon forgets her troubles and laughs.  Mercury brings hope as well as laughter, for he knows a way to bring Lady Moon together with her love, but it will require her to change completely. Lady Moon asks herself if she dare trust Mercury, the Guardian of the Dead, the Master of Shadows and decides she has no choice. They depart in different directions.

Here comes Lord Sun in golden armor. All the ladies gasp. His heralds are the roosters, his knights are the eagles. He is all seeing and master of all that he can see. Poor Lady Moon, for surely such a magnificent being must be complete in himself? He who has everything must want nothing. Lady Moon’s cause must be hopeless.

Yet, strangely, Lord Sun is susceptible to flattery. Mercury skips on and sings his praises and his Lordship is very pleased. Sly Mercury then sings a song of longing and love from afar. Lord Sun is moved and asks where Mercury learned it. Mercury says that he heard it from a lady in a secluded garden, a garden where the Lord Sun can never go.

Lord Sun is devastated, he wants more than anything to enter the garden and court the lady. Mercury promises that he can arrange just that but it will involve great sacrifice on Lord Sun’s part. Without hesitation the Lord Sun says he will agree to anything that Mercury asks of him.

Lord Sun departs and Mercury reveals to his select audience that his game is deeper than either Lord Sun and Lady Moon can guess. Their marriage will be the accomplishment of the Great Work. He summons his two servants Castor and Pollux to send word to Lord Sun and Lady Moon to meet him in the Garden of the Hesperides, the garden in the West, where Day and Night meet.

Castor and Pollux are not the most competent of servants but after a few misadventures together which set the Queen and her ladies laughing, they go their separate ways to perform their errands.

Mercury appears again and announces he is in the Garden of the Hesperides the orchard whose golden fruit bring wisdom and immortality to any who dare to eat of them. Lord Sun and Lady Moon appear form opposite sides of the stage. After they have sung in celebration, Mercury instructs them to strip to their shifts. Then the atmosphere darkens. Lady Moon announces that her cruel Father Saturn is about to arrive and stop the wedding.

In fact it is another person altogether who stops the ceremony. A young knight runs into the throne room and falls on his knees before the Queen. The mud and the blood on his clothes speak of his valour and yet he weeps like a child. Through his tears he tells the Queen that the King has been defeated at the White Mountain and she and her ladies must flee Prague that very night.

Lights are called for everywhere and all the servants are stirred up to pack whatever can be carried off. Mary Heaton begins to weep and the Queen tells her if she has tears to shed she should not waste them on herself but cry for the women of Prague who have nowhere to flee to and must await the mercy of the enemy army.

Down below in the city the young soldier wakes up beside his stove, and in the moments between sleep and waking he realizes he is dreaming his life and in those same moments he realizes that if he is dreaming himself, there must be a self to do the dreaming. And in the years that were to follow, the young man wrote his thoughts about this in a book, and many wise men have come to believe that the young soldier was right.

And beside the Castle the Alchemists went back forth to fetch coal as they always did. Day and night they tend fires in search of the secret of immortality: living, in effect, as if they had already found it.

——

William Saunders is a British journalist and author of Jimi Hendrix London (Roaring Forties Press, Berkeley, Ca.)
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I have become worried with my young son Archibald.  Despite the attempts of my wife Audrey and me, look Archibald has failed to start speaking.  He is almost three years old and according to the experts he should be already talking.  Yet when I speak to my son, for sale I get no vocal response from him, sildenafil just a movement of his large head.  He clearly understands my language, at least enough to nod or shake his head, but not enough to respond back with the very things I had given to him, words.  Although Audrey believes our son may be a late bloomer, I think he may have a medical condition.  Something in his brain may not be connected, or his tongue isn’t formed right, or perhaps he lacks the desire to speak.  I am not inclined to the last hypothesis.  I do not feel such a thing as willpower is needed to talk; it is something natural which arises from exposure to words. Tomorrow I will be taking Archibald to an examination by the somewhat famous linguist and speech therapist, Dr. Frangella.  Hopefully the good doctor will set the problem right; talking to my little Archibald has become like speaking to wall.

When he was first coming out of his incessant crying as an infant, the silence was welcome.  My wife and I felt at ease for the first time in months, for we could finally talk with each other and get a good night’s sleep without the interruption of his wailing.  Audrey and I have another son, Arthur.  He is currently six years old, and speaks to us all the time, practically nonstop.  Perhaps I could ask Dr. Frangella to cure Arthur of his talkativeness and Archibald of his quietness.   I wonder if my son is talking to Archibald behind my back, conversing with him in the simple style child are wont to do, filling Archibald with all sorts of notions of improper grammar.  If I do not take the correct measures soon, my boy will develop habits which will not leave him easily.

I have given Archibald much instruction in how to speak, providing him with plenty to talk about.  His mother and I have been the only people to speak to him regularly, although Arthur may have some contact with him, I doubt this compares to the time Archibald had spent with us.  I have kept Archibald apart from other children, to teach him not only proper speech, but away from the distractions of idleness.  The children I have met in the parks seem to me to be wrapped in a cocoon of false security, their development stifled by parents who use language to keep them blind to the reality of the world.  The world is full of nasty things and better to make Archibald aware of them than to hide them with fairy tales and such.  Every day I give him lessons, orally, of course.  The child cannot speak, so he can have no way to comprehend anything I could give him with writing on it.  Speech first, writing second has been my motto.

The lessons I give young Archibald vary on their subject matter, but I make them as simple as possible, as my child is still quite young.  I sit him at a little red table and chair, and he places his little pale hands on the top so I may make sure he isn’t fooling around with something below it, distracting him from the important lessons I am giving, the most important in fact.  After toilet training I suppose the next vital thing for a person to know is a command of language, for without communication skills, of what value is the individual? Each person only exists as long as they can communicate themselves.  I have always remarked at funerals, much to my wife’s chagrin, that death is not really the end of life, it is the end of communication.

That is what I suppose causes most of our fear of death, the idea of  experiencing something which is not communicable to anyone else, to know a secret, the ultimate secret perhaps, but to have no one to share it with.  One who does not communicate, the recluse and the hermit, is as good as dead anyways.  I hope my son will not end up one isolated by a language barrier.  I want him to be as knowledgeable as possible, with both the use of language and the higher ideas it wishes to convey.

So every day, I give him lessons.  I state a fact and ask him if he understands.  He always nods his head and so I proceed onto the next fact.  I try to tell him the basics of a variety of subjects, science, mathematics, religion, history, geography, and so on.  If he could speak back to me, I would begin teaching him Spanish, but since the condition of his understanding is limited, due to his inability to
explain himself, teaching Archibald another language would be a fruitless endeavor.

In a typical exchange I will announce the subject for the moment.  I will say, “Today we will talk about geography.”

And Archibald nods.

“A piece of land surrounded by water is an island.  Do you understand me son?”

And Archibald nods.

“A peninsula is like an island, but it is connected to another piece of land on one side.  Do you understand my son?”

And Archibald nods.

“A river runs from a source into another river, a lake, or the ocean. Do you understand my son?”

And Archibald nods, and so on.  I will give pithy explanations on the nature of the world to him, and he nods, always claiming to understand.  I see no look of bewilderment on his face; I assume he “gets it.”

I can see no cognitive problem in Archibald, so I would think the issue may involve the formation of the organs in his mouth and throat.

Hopefully Dr. Frangella will be able to cure the boy.  He has to. Otherwise my son will be doomed to a half-life.  He will experience the world for sure, but will not have the ability to alter it.  He will not be able to express his feelings to others without recourse to irrational displays of hand gestures and contortions of his face. Others will think him wild and he will have no place in civil society. I do not want my son to be forced into being a hermit, if he wants to choose such a lifestyle then so be it, but he should not adopt it because he cannot connect with anyone around him.

And so we are preparing now to go visit the Doctor.  I have followed his work closely, and hopefully he will be able to help.  He is a brilliant man; I have seen him walking around his office clad in an immaculate white robe with a halo of thoughts floating around his head.  I have restrained myself from getting violent with my son, or yelling at him for a response.  I figure when he feels the need to speak he will, but I also feel that he must have felt such a need all this time and something is holding him back.  I hope the Doctor will be able to “unplug” my child.

Of course my son Arthur is acting his age, distracting me from my preparations to see Dr. Frangella.  I have to organize the notes of my  observations on the condition of Archibald so the Doctor can make a more accurate diagnosis.  Arthur is running up and down the stairs of our home, stomping with his feet like a little elephant.  I ask him for quiet, and he tells me he understands, but a second later, I hear the same tumbling sounds running up and down the stairs.  I appreciate the fact that Arthur can tell me he claims to understand my directions, but he seems to not really understand them the way that Archibald does.  If I ask Archibald to do something he nods and does it, showing more understanding than any response I suppose.

***

As I am packing my papers for Dr. Frangella’s examination, I hear a thud at the base of the stairs, followed by crying.  I run to see that my son Arthur has tripped and fallen, scraping his knee somehow in the process.  Tears are streaming down his cheeks as he sees the red spot on his exposed knee grow, I run to get ice to reduce his swelling and give him that placebo which I remember school nurses applied to me for every childhood ailment.  I come back to the scene of the fall and I see Archibald standing there, his eyes trying to make sense of the situation in front of him.  As I lean down to apply the ice to Arthur’s injury, he tugs on the back of my coat, asking for an explanation.  Occupied by the crisis at hand, I ignore him, not to be mean, but rather because I have to focus on soothing my eldest sons’ pain.  Archibald, wanting to know the state of things walks between me and Arthur; I gently nudge him to the side, whereby he makes his question:

“Why is Arthur crying?”

—–

Ben Nardolilli’s lives in Montclair, New Jersey. His work has appeared in the Houston Literary Review, Perigee Magazine, Red Fez, One Ghana One Voice, Caper Literary Journal, Quail Bell Magazine, Elimae, Poems Niederngasse, Gold Dust, Scythe, Anemone Sidecar, The Delmarva Review, Contemporary American Voices, the Eudaimonia Poetry Review, Gloom Cupboard, Shakespeare’s Monkey Revue, Black Words on White Paper, and Beltway Poetry Quarterly. He maintains a blog amirrorsponge.blogspot.com and is looking to publish his first novel.

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Somewhere past Memphis I saw the trademark yellow-and-black sign. Waffle House has the best road food and my stomach growled in anticipation. I eased the motorcycle into the right lane and looped around the interstate exit ramp.

I rode slowly through the parking lot until I found a pull-through space so that I was facing out. I hate having to back out of a spot, viagra bull-dogging the big Beemer by the handlebars. My foot could slip on an oil slick and the whole thing come down on top of me. It had never happened but I thought about such things, buy cialis getting cautious in my old age.

The place was full but a guy at a low table at the end of the counter was leaving. I slid in and pushed away the remains of his meal, bits of waffles sodden in syrup that looked like motor oil. It was a good spot, eye level with the curving buttocks beneath the tight skirt of a waitress who pirouetted between the juice machine and the counter. Nice legs, too. She probably put in ten miles a day back there.

I caught her eye as she bent to clear the detritus of the previous customer. “I’ll have a cuppa coffee when you get a minute.” Spying the nametag atop the mound of her breast, I added, “Molly – that’s a pretty name.”

She straightened and gave me a look that said I’d gotten right up to a line that I better not cross. So I just smiled instead of continuing with the follow-up, ‘What’d you name the other one?’ “No hurry,” I said. I shrugged off my leather jacket, then sat back and finger-combed my hair, trying to cover the bald spot.

In the proper sequence of things, a steaming porcelain mug resembling a plumbing fixture plunked down before me. “What’cha eatin’?” Molly asked.

“I’ll have the scrambled eggs with cheese.” I pointed to the picture on the menu. “Grits, ojay, raisin toast.”

“No meat?” She sounded surprised, like I’d violated a local eating ordinance. I noticed a small band-aid covering a bulge on the corner of her eyebrow and stainless steel studs in her ear lobes, with a row of little punctures that continued up the cartilage of each ear like the borings of small insects. I wondered where else she had piercings.

“Meat?” she repeated.

“Ahh, let’s live dangerously. Sausage patties.” I smiled up at her.

She yelled something in code to the fry-cook and whirled, like a ballerina on a music box, to fill a glass with frothing orange juice. I sipped my coffee, enjoying the performance, until I discovered a dark brown ring around the inside of my cup.

I waved to catch her attention. “Don’t like to complain, but this cup’s not clean.”

She muttered something and whisked it away. Taking another cup from the rack, she inspected the inside before filling it. Setting the cup on my table, Molly nodded toward the window. “That your bike?”

I’d parked where I could keep an eye on it. “Yeah.”

“What kind is it? Never seen nothin’ like that before.”

“BMW.”

“Is that a Jap bike? Looks weird, like a big grasshopper.”

The GS1100R had twin road lights with grills that looked like an insect’s compound eyes, and the pointed, high-riding front fender resembled a proboscis. I laughed. “No, it’s German. Dual-purpose, on-off road.”

“German,” she repeated. “Guys I know are into Nazi stuff, but they ride Harleys.”

“BMW’s Nazi days are long gone.” I doubted she knew what I was talking
about.

“Order up!” the cook yelled, and she spun away.

Moments later, an array of plates clattered onto the table. My mouth watered at the spicy smell of sausage. “Enjoy,” Molly said.

I had almost finished my cholesterol feast when a blatting roar jittered the silverware and set off seismic waves in my coffee, drowning out all other sounds. I looked up to see a chopper – front forks raked at a ridiculous angle and ape-hanger handlebars – cruise by the front window.

Molly, who was totaling up my check, muttered something that sounded like “oh shit,” and hurriedly placed the bill on my table. She had a few words with the other waitress, then disappeared through the swinging doors at the rear of the diner.

A few minutes later, a large man, sporting a shaved head and biker-gang regalia, strode in and straddled a stool at the counter. I could make out the tattoo on his beefy upper arm: a double-headed eagle and SS lightening bolts against a Confederate flag background. The waitress brought him a cup of coffee and they conversed in a familiar manner. I took a ten-spot from my wallet and left it with my bill next to the cash register, retrieved my jacket, and sauntered out the door.

As I was unlocking my helmet, I heard a female voice say, “Hey, mister,could you give me a ride?” It was Molly, standing at the corner of the building out of view from the windows. She had changed her waitress uniform for low-cut jeans so tight they looked like denim paint. The band-aid over her eyebrow was gone, revealing a silver circlet, and a larger ring winked from her belly button. She wore a short denim jacket with a blue-and-white paisley bandana, and a fringed leather purse hung from her shoulder. “Just a few miles up that road there?” She nodded at
the road leading away from the interstate.

“I don’t have a spare helmet,” I said.

“That’s okay. I never wear one.”

I hesitated, like a kid at camp holding a rope swing and looking out over the cliff edge to the chilly lake below.

“Please?” She tilted her head down and looked up at me with big eyes. “I’d be really grateful.”

“Sure thing,” I said, before she could sweeten the offer.

“Pull up there a little.” She pointed to the end of the parking lot.

I put on my full-face helmet, slid my glasses into place, pulled on my gloves, snapped down the passenger foot pegs, pushed the bike off the center stand, mounted, and pressed the starter button. The big twin burbled nicely, nothing like the cacophony that came from the straight pipes on the chopper. That machine sat glowering near where Molly stood waiting. It had a black gas tank with silver SS lightening bolts highlighted in red; just about everything else was chrome-plated.

Molly hopped on behind me and I wheeled out of the lot and down the frontage road. She pressed into me, rubbing the tops of my legs with her fingers. I imagined I could feel her breasts through the padding of my jacket.

We turned right at the intersection and headed into the countryside, the road curving and undulating in a manner much more entertaining than the interstate slab. The blacktop deteriorated as we went on, with cracks, washboard ridges, and sprays of gravel, the kind of road the GS was made for. I could tell Molly was an experienced rider, leaning with me through the curves. The air was warm and I pushed up my visor to feel the breeze on my face. I reached back to squeeze her thigh, regretting that I was wearing gloves. She responded with a hug around my chest.

This pleasantness lasted maybe ten minutes when, over the wind noise in my helmet and the rumble of my engine, I heard the machine-gun explosions of a huge unmuffled V-twin. In my mirrors I saw a headlight and flash of chrome, and glancing to my left, the big dude on the chopper pulled alongside. His skull gleamed like the chrome on his bike and his black wrap-around sunglasses were standard issue for bad guys.

He was shouting unhearable words and waving something in his left hand. My stomach somersaulted when I saw the pistol, its huge silver barrel the size of an exhaust pipe. Molly was pounding her fists on my thighs and I sensed rather than heard her yelling, “Go! Go! Go!”

Instinctively, I twisted the throttle and we shot ahead. We gained a couple hundred yards and then it seemed that the gap began to narrow. I’d lose sight of him around a bend or over a rise, but the next time I’d catch a glimpse in my mirrors he’d appear to be a little closer. It was incredible that a chopper could travel at that speed. I was riding way beyond my comfort zone, but still cautious about the possibility of oncoming traffic or gravel on the apex of a corner. He had the advantage of knowing the road, riding solo, and, most of all, being stark raving crazy.

After a long, sweeping curve that put us out of our pursuer’s view, I saw a field filled with tall weeds. Without thinking, I braked suddenly, angled across a shallow ditch, and headed into the unknown. The ground was very bumpy; I stood on the foot pegs, motocross style, and Molly bounced on the seat behind me like a paddleball. I hoped the big guy wouldn’t see that we’d turned off, or even if he did, he would not try taking a chopper into such terrain. But no, judging by the sound of that infernal motor, he passed by, then turned around after us.

The ground rose slightly, then dropped into a kind of crease. At the bottom, the weeds parted and a dry creek bed suddenly yawned in front of me. There was nothing to do but hang on and gun the engine. How Molly managed to stay on, I don’t know. She could have a career as a rodeo bronc rider.

We ascended a slope beyond the gully, went up a slight embankment, and reached a grassy trail that once might have been a farm road. I halted and listened. The only sound was the mutter of my engine and a panting noise inside my helmet; I was hyperventilating. I switched off the ignition and felt Molly dismount. I followed, removed my gloves, and tried to take off my helmet, jamming my glasses into my forehead.

When I finally got untangled, I went over to stand by her. She’d taken off her bandana and her honey-blonde hair hung in damp curls. I put my arm around her shoulder and looked over the field we had just traversed. A faint track through the weeds marked our route, but no chrome glinted down in the bottoms, no movement except for a ripple of wind across the goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace. No sound except the buzzing of insects.

“He probably hit that ditch,” I said. “Might be hurt.”

“I hope he broke his goddamn neck, the sonofabitch.” Molly spat out the words. “I told him to stay away from me.”

“Yeah, well, we still should call an ambulance or something. My cell phone’s in my tank bag.”

She grabbed my arm as I turned toward the bike. “Them things don’t work out here.”

“Well, there’s a pay phone back at the Waffle House,” I said. “Do you think this trail leads back to the main road?” I did not want to ride through that labyrinth a second time.

“I think it does. But hey…” She grabbed my hips and rubbed her belly against mine. “That ride got me awfully riled up. I could use some calming down.” She looked up with half-closed eyes and parted lips. “I got a tattoo you might like to see.”

A jolt went through me. I could see myself in flagrante delicto with Molly, and that big, bald dude suddenly appearing over the embankment waving that silver cannon in his hand. Or him down in the ditch, lying crumpled beneath a heap of chrome.

I put my palms on her shoulders and gently pushed. “Molly, you are no doubt the sexiest woman I’ve ever met. But we really have to call someone to help that guy.”

She stepped back, her face contorted with anger. “Whatta you want to help some bastard you don’t even know? He just tried to kill you. You wanna know what he done to me?” Her eyes filled with tears and her clenched fists trembled. “Dyin’s too good for that bastard.”

I reached out and pulled her toward me. She hesitated, then we embraced and I lay my cheek against her forehead. The tang of cinnamon and pepper tickled my nose, and I felt the stirrings of desire. “I’m sorry for whatever he did,” I said gently. “But we can’t let him die. You have to do people better than what they did to you.”

She looked at me, defiance in her eyes, but did not draw away. “What’re you? Some kind of preacher?”

I smiled. “No, far from it. I just think we should treat people like you want to be treated, not like they treated you. Otherwise, we’re no better than them.”

We were interrupted by the thunder of an engine starting, then rumbling away into the distance. Like a hound dog at the back door, he must have been parked alongside the road waiting for us.

Molly raised her eyebrows suggestively. “Looks like you don’t have to make that phone call after all.”

“Guess not.” I looked past her at the Beemer, patiently waiting. My ‘escape machine’ I called it, my accomplice in getting away from the hassles of everyday life. Today we’d escaped God-knows-what at the hands of a macho maniac. Yesterday I’d fled an argument with my wife, slamming the door and roaring off. ‘Treat people like you want to be treated’ echoed in my head.

I looked Molly straight in the eyes. “I have to get home.”

Road food is one thing, but I needed some home-cooking.

—–

Roger Poppen took up creative writing after retiring as a professor of behavior analysis. He finds making up people more fun than dealing with real ones. He has published one novel, Mister Lucky, and several shorte rpieces in online literary magazines. You may read more of his work at http://mypage.siu.edu/drrock/

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To comment on this story, visit Fiction365′s Facebook page.
Every Sunday, look Fiction365 presents a new chapter of a previously unpublished novel.

City of Human Remains, mind by Darren Callahan, cheap is a suspenseful mystery set in a dystopian future. 81 children have somehow disappeared in a city where there is no right to privacy, and everything is taped and available for review. Finding them should be easy … but then, losing them should have been impossible.

The current chapter, chapter 19, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

In her heart, troche she is jumping out of a plane without a parachute.  She puts the fork down on the napkin, cheap careful not to stain the table cloth.  In her heart, ailment she is swimming through shark infested waters.   She stands up from the table, careful not to cause a scene.  This is the only time she has ever worn this evening gown, and no matter how beautiful she is she will never wear it again.  In her heart, she is sprinting across the Serengeti when the sun is high.

Still seated, he asks her a question, but she turns and won’t answer.  She walks out carefully, unsteady on heels this high.  If he got up to follow, she couldn’t run.  In her heart, she is one step ahead of a fiery explosion.  She will never talk to this man again.

The next day, she will change her number;  when her friends ask about him, she will shrug and say nothing really happened between them.  In her heart, she didn’t make it out alive.

—–

Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues.  He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

Read more fiction by Benjamin Wachs

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Cocanaugher

The mayor is with 11 other people: the vice-mayor, rx the city treasurer, cialis his assistant Grace, and players from 32’s inner circle, along with, naturally, 4 serious-looking bodyguards wearing regulation gray flack suits and carrying bulky side-arms.

Franco Cocanaugher knows he is from another time – a flashback to a century-and-a-half earlier when campaigning politicians did not have to look perfect on broadcasters.  Nothing about this man matches the current trends.  He is not a poster politician.  He resembles a real, working-class man – from a past reality, but a reality nonetheless.  He dresses in heavy clothes – brass buttons on a hound’s-tooth suit with starched brown shirt, fat necktie (the knot hanging loose), and western boots.  Bushy sideburns and big build, curly but thinning dark hair.  On his upper lip sits a wide black moustache that stretches down over his top lip – an affectation that has appeared to some in the media as a perpetual frown, and on most days he’s able to counteract with a broad smile and a wink.

But not today.  Today he means business.

Today, he does not shake hands.  Instead, he respectfully touches the shoulders of those people nearest to him, as if he’s concerned for their diagnosis, and he’ll do anything he can to beat this thing.

Cocanaugher makes his way to the front – the only spot in the room with additional light, as the war-room is small and bare and dim.  He leans into a barren table.  For a moment, he feels very old – older than his 57 years.  He connects with his audience, meeting a pair of eyes at a time.  He hopes that they can detect his lack of sleep, and the gravity of the situation.  Now standing against the white wall, Mayor Franco Cocanaugher, with his big body in his big coat, swells his chest to speak.

His first words are off-key and a surprise, even to him.

I trust you.

I trust you.

Every one of you.

Even if I haven’t met you.

I know your work.

Your impeccable records.

I know every one of your names.

This isn’t some random room full of cops and detectives.  You were handpicked.

I am calling the 29 of you my “Savior Squad.”

There are 6 coffins down that hall…filled with dead children.  City 32’s children.  We’ll give the remains over to the parents soon enough, but for now they’ll serve as a reminder to each of you.

Of the urgency.

Of what we’re up against.

Arrangements are being made for respectful burials.  So don’t worry.  We will treat these children honorably.

I’ve chosen this little-used shelter as our base because it’s an ugly place.  This is ugly work.  And I don’t want anyone getting comfortable.  I want each of you out on the beat, not here drinking goddamn coffee and discussing armchair theories.  I want you getting your hands dirty.

I didn’t win this job for nothing.  I won because I know how people think and behave.  I know you are good men and women and will do a thorough job.  And I know that in 32 today, this very day, there is a psychopath who has somehow stolen 81 children out from under our noses.

We’re still working under the assumption that this is the work of one person, though it is perhaps an entity, or a conspiracy of like-minded nut-jobs.  If we can catch just one– maybe the actual one, or maybe someone who is willing turn traitor on the others, we’ll be heroes.  Chip the ice a little bit and the whole sheet cracks.  It’s possible that it’s a group – the main clue being that all the children who were taken were healthy.  No asthma.  No allergies.  No diabetes.  No special needs.  And that means that these children were targets for some time.  Those who took them sought certain age and health characteristics.  These children have been chosen for a reason, which we do not know.  But someone had access to records.   It’s one of the leads we’re pursing.

And don’t forget.

This isn’t just a murder case.

75 are still out there waiting for us.

I know…just know in my heart…that they are alive.  I know it in my gut.

These 75.

Who we will save.

All of us.  Together.

The Savior Squad.

You wonder: what’s the plan.

Cocanaugher’s surrounding staff breaks from their positions.  A councilman drops a black leather brief onto the table in front of the mayor.  Grace, the mayor’s young female assistant, un-spools the string and splays the over-wide object on the table.

This, the mayor says, pointing, is a list of every child offender on 32’s books.  Some live in halfway houses, some on the streets.  We’ve spent the last several days narrowing the possibilities to 104 very bad eggs.  Men, and a few women, too.

The staff begins to pull images from the briefing folder and affix them in sloppy rows to the blank wall behind the mayor.  Those in the room watch in silence as faces go up –average looking faces, doughy faces, beards, moustaches, clean shaven, fat, thin, all mixes of complexion, of skin, of race; fatherly types, business types, beggars, criminal stares, innocent smiles, bald men, full-headed men, young men to very old.  As each face goes up, they are seared with judgment from the 29 of the Savior Squad.  Evil.  Sad.  Rotten.  Without so much as a conversation, these bare-lit images tell the whole story.  Child molester.  Uncaught killer.  Villain.

Cocanaugher knows that this audience is not accustomed to 2-dimentional images.  They’re used to computer screens and imagers and broadcasters.  But he’s chosen this: tape and scissors to bring the reality of these faces closer to those who will find them.

Your mission is to locate each of these persons and investigate them.  Thoroughly.  Make inquiries.  Get invited into their houses.  Look for signs.  None of these 104 is known to have killed a child.  We’ve had to exclude those names.  Those killers are all behind bars and therefore have solid alibis.  These 104… (Cocanaugher gestures lazily over his shoulder, and then lowers his head before he continues.) …have secrets we have yet to uncover.  We’ve only scratched the surface with their convictions.  But these faces must be considered capable of anything.

Cocanaugher nods to another staffer, a man in his late 30s with a military haircut and draping orange coat.

Mr. Riggs will give you your individual assignments.

The mayor meets as many eyes as possible, holds them, hold each and every one of them for a long as he feels it takes to telepathically transmit his mission, his emotions, and the urgency of duty.  Nothing tells the truth more than a look.  He remembers that sage advice from his first campaign manager.

Thank you.  Each and every one of you.  Good luck.

He’s away from the wall and being pulled by Grace into a private conversation.  She whispers him something in his ear.  The room begins to break into fractured chatter and Franco has trouble hearing.  But a word stands out in Grace’s respectful yet burning message.

Riot?  He repeats, thinking his ears mistaken.

Yes, says the woman, repeating.  A riot.  At City Hall.

Take me there.

Mr. Mayor, that isn’t a good idea.

Take me there now.
Every Sunday, viagra Fiction365 presents a new chapter of a previously unpublished novel.

City of Human Remains, sales by Darren Callahan, is a suspenseful mystery set in a dystopian future. 81 children have somehow disappeared in a city where there is no right to privacy, and everything is taped and available for review. Finding them should be easy … but then, losing them should have been impossible.

The current chapter, chapter 20, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Grace

10 minutes to reach the beltway.  There are 5 in the car: Mayor Cocanaugher, seek  two remaining gray-suited security men (one named Pasquali, viagra  one named Davidson), the black-capped driver, and Grace.

She’s 25 last April.  Her hair is blonde and tied to the right, behind the ear, as is the fashion.  Her skin is smooth, but her forehead has severe scars from acne in her youth.  She has not covered the damage with her bangs, but instead lets the marks show.  Her lips are painted red and she sports earrings shaped like tiny stars.  Her skirt is white and her shirt deep blue.  On paper, she draws looks; in the world, she’s invisible.  Business acts as armor, and she’s all business.  Eyes move past her without more than a trickle of appreciation.  Everyone.  Her whole life.  She’s too much of a force, and Cocanaugher knows it.

The Mayor glances out the window to the sky growing dark with swirling, sudden clouds.  He groans loudly and tries to concentrate on more immediate concerns.  How many rioters?

50, she says.

Police on the scene?

Heavy Team.

They better not shoot anyone.

The armored glide-limo curves left and takes a bump.  Grace and the mayor grab the support straps.  Davidson and Pasquali don’t even move.

Grace, you know about crowds; people aren’t themselves in a crowd.  That’s why people give speeches.  Reading a text is an isolated affair.  It allows time for someone to think – to listen to the Rationale Mind.  But in a crowd, there’s a herd mentality.  Once people start throwing trashcans through windows and thinking the mayor’s screwed up, it’s hard to change their minds.

You shouldn’t be going, Mr. Mayor, she injects.  It’s dangerous.

I’m starting to get blamed for this thing.  I can feel it.  And we’re in the middle of complex negotiations, too.  The timing can’t be worse.  Bring the alderman together tomorrow.  I want to have a meeting of the minds.  Take the pulse.  At least the election’s two years off…that’s good.  Grace leans to the driver.  She gives the address of the mayor’s home.

Driver, ignore that.  Grace, I told you—

Oh, you are so frustrating!

He jokes with a pat on her knee, There are only 50 of them.  He lets his moustache turn with his mouth.

Ahead.  The riot.

The start of it is now visible through the driver’s windscreen.

A police glide blocks the street and a private Q-glide is on fire at the curb.  A Molotov cocktail has scorched a part of City Hall.  Firemen aim hoses, only to have them cut by rioters’ axes.  The sky fills with ash and debris.  In the mayor’s glide, they can smell it, the destruction, even through the pressurized seal of the limo.  Overturned mailboxes and smashed windowpanes clutter city hall’s steps where a line of riot-suited policemen, the Heavy Team, stand ready, black-booted with helmet, visors down.

The mayor presses his face against the glide-limo’s bulletproof window.  A bottle smashes the side-panel and liquid and glass explode all over his view.

They’re behind us! reports Davidson, hand to gun.

Turn right! Pasquali commands the driver.

The glide-limo accelerates.

Objects – bricks, trash – pelt the vehicle.  1 rioter gives the hood a whack with a broom handle that breaks on contact.

Goddamnit I’m trying to help!  Cocanaugher’s protests from inside are lost to the screaming and yelling of the combatants.

Pasquali is on his radio, reciting codes and numbers to the emergency dispatcher.  The limo-glide comes to a dead stop, surrounded.  The driver honks and honks, but no one moves from the hood, ready to die under airless tire tracks rather than let the important-looking vehicle pass.  Rioters are attempting to peer inside the tinted glass.

As quick as they appeared, though, the faces begin to turn and break up, moving backwards.

Grace grips the door as the glide-limo breaks from the crowd, aided by a sudden swarm of police Q-glides spraying pellets.

In a flash, their vehicle is eight blocks from the epicenter.

To my house, the mayor instructs the driver.

Grace, with audible relief:  Thank God.

All watch as the Q-glides peel away, back to their purpose, now that the mayor’s vehicle has broken loose from the clashes.

1 block further.

Then 1 more.

Stop here, Cocanaugher orders.

Davidson and Pasquali drill looks.

No, no, NO— starts Grace, but is cut off by the lurch as the driver obeys, throwing the brake and halting the limousine in the middle of a blockaded intersection.

Cocanaugher unlocks the door beside Grace and throws it open.

No, sir, please, you can’t get out.  She grabs the sleeve of his hound’s-tooth coat.

Don’t worry.  I’m not.  You are.

What!  She glances to her nicely pressed clothes.

You’re right, Grace.  Things are too hairy back there for an important face like mine.  But no one knows who you are.  So I want you to go back.  Give me a report in 1 hour.  I want to know the real business.  Speak with some of those rioters.  I want details.  I want stories.  This is a great opportunity to learn a thing or 2.  And, if you find someone who fits our needs, bring that mother or father back with you to my house.  Hitch a ride with any police glide that will have you.  Understood?

Understood?  What needs are we trying to fit?

You know, someone who can bear witness to what we’re a force for good, not for incompetence.  We need an advocate.  Didn’t you study sociology, Grace, when you got that civics degree you’re so proud of?  If we find an ally in that crowd who knows we’re helping not hurting, then this bullshit will stop.  They’ll know which side we’re on.

You want a poster-child for the families?  Is that it?

Exactly.  But let’s call this mom or dad instead a, a, a…liaison.  Poster-child sounds too manipulative.

Grace shakes her head in disbelief.

Go, he urges with a push.  Find us our liaison.

She burrows into his eyes with hers.  He’s serious, she thinks.

And don’t get yourself hurt.

Mr. Mayor! she continues in protest.  There must be someone better suited—

No.  There isn’t.  Get out, Grace.  You’re the best I’ve got.  You’re the only person who tells me the truth in this damn city.  That’s why I hired you.  Go.

She’s never disobeyed an order from him before.  But she wants to now.  Her stomach flutters.  She can detect the odds in Davidson and Pasquali.  This is dangerous work, the security men tattoo on their faces, You, young lady, are not prepared.  But the mayor isn’t letting her off the hook.

Grace gestures to the gray suits.  One of them should come, too.

But of course.  Cocanaugher voice is so casual that this sounds like the plan from the beginning, which it may well have been.  He’s been 3 steps ahead of her before.  As bright as she is, he is a whip, and he has the power to make her get out of the limo.  Plus, as she considers his idea, an advocate, a liaison, is not a bad idea, though easier achieved than by walking directly into a riot.

I’ll stay with her, Davidson volunteers and follows Grace out of the glide.  As soon as the two are on the street, the limo speeds off in the direction of the mayor’s house without as much as a wave goodbye.

On the corner of abandoned primary streets, they look slightly mismatched.  She’s short with blonde hair and skirt, while the guard wears black uniform and stands several heads taller.

Grace shouts in frustration to Davidson, throwing up her arms.  Go and report, ha!  In the middle of a fucking RIOT!  Oh, good idea, Mr. Mayor!

A tiny drop of rain strikes her eye, then another on her cheek.  She smells the sweet touch of a coming storm.

She walks back towards the riot.  The sidewalks are mostly clear.  The police have damned the river upstream.  Standard protocol.  Contain it and make it a ghost town.  She read it in a book, a manual on the mayor’s desk 2 years ago when she started as his assistant, just out of university.  ‘How to Stop a Riot.’  There had been 4 that year alone thanks to the new Union Law, but no more until this latest one, though the steps for quelling one apparently remain intact.

Grace has short legs, but great energy.  Her aerobic schedule has never changed, not since she was a teenager, and her lungs are well conditioned for her pace back to City Hall.  Davidson, on the other hand, grows winded and falls behind.  She waits for him, tapping her heel and twirling a finger.

Got your gun? she asks when he catches up.

Davidson taps his holster with assurance.

Don’t use it.  No matter what you see.  You hear?

Yes, Ma’am.  He looks emasculated.

You’re new, aren’t you?

Yes.

That will help.  The older security men always want to spice things up.  To you, just dressing like a toy soldier gives you the tingles.  What are you, 25?

22.

Right.  Hear me?  No spice.

No spice, ma’am.

Closer, they the empowered crush of rioters is louder than ever, the chaos at full tilt.  Outside the protection of the armored glide-limo, the noise is much worse than before.  The wall of sound fills her body with a charge of fear.  Evolution is telling her to run the opposite direction.  In the small knot of the city square, there is no rebellion here – no liberating army or sense of righteousness.  This riot is wrapped in despair, misery, and frustration.  The rawness is palpable, as if an entire barbarian horde is simultaneously screaming and weeping.

This is more than 50 people! she shouts, though Davidson can’t hear her over the dissonance.  She guesses 200.  300.  More.  They’re scattered in every corner.  All sizes, all shapes.

When Grace and Davidson finally enter the square, a nearby Q-glide explodes into flames.  They drop to their knees and rise back up again.

The rioters are trying to make their way up the steps and into City Hall itself.  Yellow wooden barricades hastily piled by the Heavy Teams protect the stone building.  Rubber bullets fire from a line of police guns at the forward bodies of the crowd.  The impact wrests the rioters back just a few meters.  The police line advances with their insignia’d shields taking the brunt of rioters makeshift missiles.

The burning fuel from the wrecked glides singes Grace’s nostrils.  Her stomach twists with a mix of human and mechanical fibers.

Smoke rises high into the air and, if it were any other circumstance, she might consider it beautiful.  But it is difficult for her to watch destruction of the city square where she has so often eaten quiet lunches.  And it’s even harder for her to watch the rubber bullets hit their targets.  Each makes the victim wince and cry out in agony.  The police have an endless supply in their Shoulder Repeaters and, for the first time, the sheer ferocity of the barrages begins to have an impact.  The Heavy Teams cut a line through the square, widen it into a half moon, and drive the rebellious citizens of 32 onto a cross street.

The citizens are expelled from the square.  Armored trucks drive into position and block the people from getting back inside the perimeter.  Graces watches as rioters are nearly mowed down by truck tires.  She shouts, No!  Stop!  Get away!  The words do not go far, as she finds that she has inadvertently covered her mouth in horror, her hand coated with spit.

Tear gas cans fall into the throng and she ducks away from the toxic cloud rising up between her and the surrounding men and women.

Two men tackle Davidson and he falls away quickly.   Grace reaches out for his hand, but loses site of him in a billowing mob, a deluge into the shrinking space created by the tightening fist of police.  She tries to relocate Davidson among the backwards-moving bodies, but it’s no use.  He has been carried away.  Her focus shifts to self-preservation.  Her best protection is to stay close to the courthouse building – City Hall’s much-maligned neighbor.  She moves under 1 of the Romanesque columns that supports the exterior.

Here she waits, safe in a pocket.

It’s another 15 minutes before she notices the crowd thinning.  There are now more police than rioters on the square.  The ranks have broken, fled down streets and alleys.  Despite the damage, City Hall has not been breeched.  Cocanaugher’s blue office carpet will remain clean today.

Grace notices an older woman propped at the corner of the courthouse.  The woman is in her 60s, black-skinned, round in the middle, weeping.  She appears too wobbly to walk.  She’s been jostled many times and doesn’t know which way is up.  Her small pink bonnet has come loose in her hair and dips into her eyes.  She awkwardly attempts to find her balance.  As the woman totters, Grace thrusts forward to help the woman back to her feet.  You’ll be okay, soothes Grace.  Aware that this woman weighs much more than she does and is more fragile, Grace’s muscles strain but do not let go.  Men zip past and nearly topple the 2 women, but Grace protects her with a tight circle of arms.

Thank you, says the woman.

Come on, coaxes Grace, walk with me.

Grace shepherds the woman south along the edge of the square, careful to avoid the draining remnants of the riot.  In Grace’s ear, she still can hear the crackling fire of burning glides, the shouts of policemen, the pops of the rubber bullet guns.

The woman continues to totter and struggle.

I’ve hurt my ankle, she admits.   I have to stop.

Grace almost halts at the steps.  But it’s too dangerous; six men jump right over them during escape, careless of the people crossing.  No, don’t, she urges, we’re almost there.

Where?

Grace doesn’t know where – there is no place out of the sun, out of the noise, out of danger.  She thinks about returning to the pocket by the courthouse.  Looking back, it’s no good.  The columns are now filled with a diamond of people red-eyed from tear gas.

It’s going to rain, Grace tells to the woman as the wind picks up.  Both of them look to the sky, fat with clouds.  She puts extra strength under the woman and braces her for another sprint, this time past the courthouse and down the stone steps.  At each footstep, the woman groans.  She’s not faking.

Please, Grace prays, please.

Shelter appears like a mirage.  A nook beside a gated drugstore.  Grace helps the woman into the space and gently lowers her to the stoop.

Thank you, the woman huffs through panting breaths.  She squeezes Grace’s arm.

You’re welcome.  How did you get caught in this craziness?

Caught in it?  The woman has a wry expression on her face.  I started it!

Grace crouches at the woman’s sightline.  What’s your name?

Esmerelda Bow.  She wipes the sweat from her forehead.   Jesmine Bow is my granddaughter.

Grace’s mind flashes to the lists.  B.  Bow, Jesmine.  Age 5, Grace recalls aloud, her mind a machine, from Ward 9, girl, African-descent…

…and still missing, completes Grandmother Bow.  Her eyes glint with a twinkle of respect.  Her granddaughter is known.

Yes, Grace nods sympathetically.  I understand.  Grace holds the old woman tight as rioters rocket past.  I work for the mayor’s office, she confesses.  My name is Grace Levine.

Grace, the woman repeats.

Would you…I mean…would you, Grandmother Bow, like to meet with the mayor?  I can arrange that.

Cocanaugher?

Yes, I can take you to him.  Do you want me to?

The woman lifts over Grace’s shoulder.

Jesmine’s mother wouldn’t come down to City Hall, she explains.  She wanted to wait at the house.  Thought there’d be trouble.  The old woman laughs, then stops short.  Can she come, too?

Of course.  Certainly.  You can both come.  We’ll pick her up.  Grace brushes the woman’s silver hair and replaces the drooping pink bonnet.  Mayor Cocanaugher’s really a good man.

MOVE THE FUCK OUT!

Both women jump at the harsh command.  2 men of the Heavy Team, with their tight black armor and face shields down, pointed their rubber bullet Repeaters directly at Grace and the old woman.

It’s okay, Grace explains, I’m with the mayor’s—

MOVE YOUR FUCKING ASSES! shouts the sergeant on the right, taller and more menacing than his lower-ranked counterpart.  Don’t make me tell you again!

Her ankle’s hurt, she’s—

I don’t fucking care!  Get out of here before we pelt you!

Listen, Sergeant, she’s got a bad ankle.  My name is—

We’re clearing the square, and this is part of the square.  You’ve got to move your fucking ass another 3 blocks or else!

I’m not going anywhere!  Grace holds her ground.  She injects as much grit into her voice as she can muster.  I’m with the mayor’s off—

At point blank, the sergeant pulls the trigger.

A single rubber bullet flies from the barrel.

It connects.

She screams, falls down twitching, scratches at her face as if an arrow has struck her.  The bullet has hit her right eye.  No blood, but the vessels burst and flood the interior.  She flails on the ground.  She feels the hands of the grandmother, a brittle burn through her clothes that warms her skin and settles her.  She brings her body under control.  When Grace is able to open one eye again, just 80 seconds after the bullet struck, Grandma Bow has her hand warmly against her cheek and is trying to keep her still.  Grace’s eye feels as if a wasp has stung her.

She screams with murder at the riot policemen.

YOU SON OF A BITCH!

The sergeant matches her fury: Get moving before I pelt you both!  He’s not dropped his Repeater, and doesn’t show any intention that he will.

Grace lifts herself up.  She contains her urge to race at the cruel sergeant and pummel him.  She finds that her strength is half, and she’s dizzy.  But she raises herself anyway.

This time, roles reversed, it’s Grandma Bow who is helping her orient to the ground and move forward.  Come, dear girl, come on.  3 blocks.

The old woman is just as angry as Grace – it’s evident on every seam of her face – but she’s pragmatic.  All Grace wants to do is scream.  And she does, for 3 whole blocks, detailing all the bureaucratic recourse she will take against the offending party, the reports she will file, the earful she will give Cocanaugher, the phone calls that will be made, the consequences that will be administered, the end of sergeant’s career, a fall into drink and eventual suicide, all because of a rubber bullet in a staffer’s eyeball.

YOU SON OF A BITCH!

The words travel far backwards at their intended target.
Every Sunday, no rx Fiction365 presents a new chapter of a previously unpublished novel.

City of Human Remains, by Darren Callahan, is a suspenseful mystery set in a dystopian future. 81 children have somehow disappeared in a city where there is no right to privacy, and everything is taped and available for review. Finding them should be easy … but then, losing them should have been impossible.

The current chapter, chapter 21, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Doomsday

Sergeant Drubney can hear them – the attacks.  They are dissipating, sovaldi but he can definitely hear them.  YOU MOTHERFUCKER I AM GOING TO FUCKING HAVE YOUR JOB YOU ARE NEVER GOING TO WORK AGAIN 32 ISN’T GOING TO STAND FOR YOU FUCKER I KNOW THE MAYOR I KNOW THE MAYOR I KNOW THE MAYOR I KNOW THE MAYOR I KNOW THE MAYOR!

Hate carries.

She’s got some lungs on her, don’t she? jokes Drubney to the Heavy next to him.

His partner doesn’t laugh.  You better hope she don’t go blind, he cautions sheepishly through his shield.  He raises his Repeater in the air and walks away.

I was aiming for her forehead! Drubney explains to the man’s back as he leaves.  And, hey, one more dent added to that ugly bunch on her forehead won’t matter anyway!

Within seconds, Drubney is alone on the steps.  The closest person – civilian or governmental – is 25 meters off.  Noise continues all around, but, for a few seconds in Drubney’s head there is deafening silence.

The rain can’t be held back any longer.  Water pours from above.  Hard.  Great pitchers of water release over Drubney’s head, relentless.  He looks up to it and removes his shield, letting the water strike his clean-shaven and angular face.

In the next hour, things run their course.  The riot diminishes to only clean-up teams and Media crews.  A thick perimeter of police glides and industrial trucks encircle City Hall, transforming it from Public Square to fascist blockade.

By two that afternoon, Drubney is off the clock and the rain has abated, though the clouds blowing above the square and have not gotten any lighter.  The air smells cold and autumnal and reminds Drubney of his youngest years outside City 32, riding shotgun with his father, dead now from cancer, as the man completed his decade-old postal route.

Drubney has been wearing his riot gear for 5 hours straight, a record for him.  The day is still freshly baked bread and, if it weren’t for the threatening Doll clouds, Drubney might be in high spirits.  He did his job.  He protected the city’s property.  He drove out the advancing, unwashed specter of anarchy.

But instead of feeling vindication, he feels shame.

The woman.  Her face.  Her spite.  Her hand over her wounded eye, cursing him.  The memory is hard to shake.  She is committed to his extinction.  He has made a choice and understands that, with freewill, there is danger.  Did he make a choice?  He tries to remember the pull of the trigger.  He wanted to do it.  Badly.  And so he did.  But he doesn’t know why and can’t even remember the split-second thoughts behind the rookie mistake.

Three times in his 11 years of service he has been in front of the Board.  Each time, they let him pass.  The drunkard – that was a foregone conclusion.  That man was bleeding inside already; it wasn’t Drubney’s kicks that broke him open.  The teenage runaway, that was trickier.  Luckily, she was not connected to money and easily swept under rug.  The bar-fight, well that was just payback and he shouldn’t have been to the Board for that anyway.

But this time…will he be so lucky?

St. Patrick’s Church is just a few blocks south of City Hall.  Changed into his civilian clothes, Drubney passes the lines of defense and onto City 32’s busy streets.  There are jams on the roads and heavy pedestrian cliques.  Hood up, he covers his thinning brown hair, his ears, and tries to hide his wide, pale face from those passing at either shoulder.

Slipping between bodies, he crosses in front of competing taxis and up the steps of St. Patrick’s.

The cathedral is bright, sun-lit, full of people, and smells of snuffed candles and incense.  There is no service in progress, but the place is as crowded as it must have been that morning for Sunday Mass.  Drubney notices several faces covered in fire ash, their clothes sotted.  Refugees from the riot come to pray for mercy – come to re-connect with their goodness and exorcise their animal anger.  But the damaged ones in the church are the minority.  Most are on their knees, in silence, minding their own Godly business.  Probably praying for the return of the missing and the saving of the city, their lives, or their health.

As planned, Sergeant Earl Drubney finds an open confession box and steps inside.

Bless me, Father.  It’s been 11 days since my last confession.

What is troubling you, my son?  The priest’s voice is a bassoon through the lattice.

Drubney bends onto the prie-dieu kneeler and crosses himself.  He glances to the hanging crucifix in the box, then looks away to his lap.  He hates this.  Every second of it.  He laces his fingers in prayer and watches as the hairy skin of his knuckles goes red from the pressure.

I did something bad today, he confesses.  I hurt someone.

Physically or emotionally?

Probably both.

How badly?  Did this person need medical attention?

I don’t really know.  She ran away.  I may have hurt her eye.

Tell me more.

She’s probably going to rat me out.  Probably.  I think I’m going to lose my job.  I can’t lose my job, Father, I can’t.  I… Helen would never stand for it.  She’s my girl.  Helen.  I, I don’t treat her too good either.

It’s a terrible thing to hurt a woman, my son.

I know it, I know it.  I don’t beat her, though.  I’m just…kind of a pain in the ass.  I don’t think her sister Maria would stand for hitting Helen.  Drubney listens to the priest’s breathing, expecting something that does not come.  He continues.  What’s worse, Father, to hurt a woman or to hurt a child?

Have you hurt a child?

No.  Pause.  But the whole city’s gone nuts, hasn’t it, Father?  I feel like I’ve fallen into a deep pool of shit and I can’t swim out.  I’m drowning, Father… Maybe… Maybe everybody’s drowning.  32’s gonna bust over these 81 kids.  Did you catch that riot?  How could you not, aye, Father?  Probably been tending to refugees all morning, I bet.  The priest does not respond.  Drubney continues.  Don’t they know, Father?  Why are they all so crazy?  Kids disappear all the time.  All the time.  Lots of them.  Maybe not all at once in a few hours.  But kids, they go missing all the time.  Isn’t a shift goes by that we don’t hear five calls on the radio with new kids gone missing.  Hundred thousand kids in this city, probably lots more, and no one can keep track of all of them.  Pause.  And then there’s nature, too, Father.  Old ones grow up, new ones born.  Hell, City Hospital sees a hundred new fucking babies a day, why do these 81 kids matt-?

He stops himself.  He gets like this sometimes.  He forgets his place and has trouble controlling his words.  It has always worked against him.  His mouth.  His hands.  His every step is wrong and, today, Drubney bruises with the full impact of his mistakes.

Every day murders.  Fourteen posted on the board just this week.

The priest says nothing.

My name is Drubney, he says to the void.  You know what people call me?  Doomsday.  I’m like an atomic bomb, Father.  You should see me.  I don’t do a thing right.

We all make mistakes, says the priest.  We’re human, and that’s what humans do.  Tell me more about why you’re here.

Drubney thinks.  He’s getting a cramp in his left knee.  He wants to piss, right there in the box.  I’m just so scared, Father, he suddenly blurts and begins to cry.  The thing is…I didn’t want to hurt nobody.  This girl with the eye is going to come and bite me in the ass.  She is, Father.  I know it.  She wasn’t lying.  She does know the mayor, I can tell it in her eyes.  Or, her eye.  Ha.  Drubney coughs.  If I get fired my job I might start drinking again.  Then I’d lose Helen, and my place.  I can’t— Why do I do so many fucking stupid things, Father?  Why does God create someone who doesn’t know when he’s headin’ the wrong direction?  I just want to keep my job.  I don’t want to go in front of the Board again.  I hate it every time.  I shit my pants.  I hate it.  They scare me.  Pause.  I’m scared.

Pause.

The priest sighs.  I can’t help you with your job, or what you’ve done to that woman’s eye.  What I can tell you, though, is that God is with you.  He is with the missing children and their families and this city, even in our darkest days.  Do you understand?  You have to put your faith in God that you are here for a reason.  And a good reason at that.  You came here to this church because you believe in the will of God.  Don’t you?  That will is going to guide you to great things.  God has seen your actions and knows your heart.  He will make you whole if you ask for his presence, and forgiveness…Does this help, my son?

No more breathing through the box.

The priest puts his fingers into the lattice.

Hello?  Are you there?  Hello?
This afternoon I saw the funeral procession of Elizabeth I. My gratitude goes to Camden for organizing it so splendidly: so many dignitaries, ampoule so many pages per­forming such services. Such pageantry despite so much black. Clearly she was loved. Along Whitehall came people representing the Laundrie, Confectionarie, the Waferie, the Comptinghouse and Kitchin and all other kinds of work. Then, as was reported, ‘poore women to the number of 266′. Yet it was a sight of anything but rags or drudgery. I mention but a few of the sumptuous banners: a grey dog on turquoise; a standard proud of its lion; one with three stalks of corn. Ireland’s banner had a colossal harp yearning to be plucked but not on this day. Certainly there was much color with the black, on a day when all the shadows brushing at feet and cloaks seemed rose-colored, some would say England’s colour, a red only the most expert artist could explain. Next, sounding their thin trumpets, four trumpeters walked at a pace as close to a stop as their steps allowed. Behind them were secretaries of the Latin and French tongues (never was a monarch so learned), earls and countesses.

It was half an hour before there appeared the chariot, also referred to as the canopy, drawn by four horses draped in black velvet, stepping regimentally, their leading forelocks in the air. Above her majesty there flew stiffly with their thick materi­al twelve flags in blue, gold, red and grey. Six knights bore the lead-cased coffin, clad in a timeless pink and blue floral design. On this was spread white ermine on purple velvet, on which lay an effigy of the Queen. Attired in gold and adorned by a red and gold crown, this Elizabeth was open-eyed, staring upwards. Looking perhaps toward her father Henry Tudor and mother Anne Boleyn, watching for the ends of her mother’s hair, hair in life so long she could sit on it; now, after seventy more years … her mother Anne, no longer the mirror of fashion but playing cards and dice in the clouds somewhere. Her mother Anne, Elizabeth may have been puzzling over (for she never ceased thinking), her mother Anne loved shrimps, but since there was no mention of shrimps in the Biblical texts it would be most unlikely there would be shrimps in heaven.

Behind the chariot the air of formality cracked, as three footmen, not properly in step, distraught, scarcely knowing how to conduct themselves amid the gentlemen with their down-pointing halberds and tightly-held fans – just three footmen – weeping, one wringing hands, one with a hand to his heart. There came maids of honor and maids of the privy chamber. Walter Raleigh, his protection much diminished by the death of her majesty, but unafraid, heading the guard. Finally there came more pages still, pages and pages to follow the pages before them, said to have been drawn in pen and ink by William Camden, who had shaded all in these magnificent strokes of red before presenting the coffin laid in the Abbey with its green and white tiled floor, the scene prickly with flags and with coats of arms all round.

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John Saul has had three collections of short fiction published by Salt Publishing (Cambridge, UK). The first, Call It Tender, was well received in The Times.  He lives in Suffolk in England.  His website is www.johnsaul.co.uk.

Read more stories by John Saul

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Number One: Do Not Carry a Concealed Weapon    

I could hear their voices in the outer room. His was a deep basso and hers tinkly and girly, patient all up and down the register. “She’s trying hard to engage him, sale trying to make him feel at ease. How nice of her, search
” I thought. And he was trying hard, too. Both of them were nervous and trying hard and I was alone in the bedroom, thinking I just might go out the bedroom window and escape.

Don’t get me wrong. I keep my bargains.

I got down my black wool coat, vintage 1940, pulled up my socks, put on my shoes, grabbed my knit green muffler with the appliquéd pink flowers and wrapped it around my neck, jammed on my grey fleece cap and walked out into the room where they stood. The room in which they stood housed the piano and was between the entry and the kitchen. They stopped speaking when I joined them. “Look at you,” he said, “look at you.” They both were grinning ear to ear.

“Can you tell I’m a tourist?” I asked. “No, no, not at all,” she said, thinking she was reassuring me.

I didn’t care in the least if I looked like a tourist and I couldn’t, even if I tried, look at myself. Even if there had been a mirror, and there wasn’t, I couldn’t look at myself. It’s impossible to look at yourself, all of yourself, all at once. You’d have to solve Zeno’s paradox: to look at yourself you have to find a way to stand outside yourself. I wasn’t about to stand outside myself right there and then.

He was shorter than I remembered. That’s about it. Shorter and much, much more handsome. Blond handsome. Blue-eyed handsome. Neatly trimmed and attractive chin hair handsome. That surprised me. Most chin hair, neatly trimmed or not, is not attractive. He smelled like incense.

“You smell like incense,” I said, leaning in close. Did I imagine he pulled away? “Oh, good,” he said. She laughed and walked into the kitchen, leaving us alone.

Silence. I love awkward silences, don’t you? I never rush to fill them, largely because they are uncomfortable and I think you get the true measure of a person by what he or she does when uncomfortable. He did nothing.

After awhile I said, “Let’s go eat. I’m starving.”

After our meal he said, “You are so beautiful.”

I said, because I’m snotty if nothing else, “It’s taken you a whole bottle of wine to say that.”

We walked to his motel room and entered the door. But wait. First we talked to the dog and let her? him? it? sniff our hands. After the dog steadily ignored our friendly overtures and barely acknowledged our good will, then we walked to his motel room and entered the door.

The room was very large and oddly partitioned. We discussed the layout of the room. He kissed me. I liked it. I kissed him back. We invented a game on the spot. No, I invented the game. I’d take off an article of clothing, then he’d take off an article of clothing. I took off my hat, muffler, coat. He took off his cap, overcoat, gloves. When he took off his sport coat I saw that he had a gun strapped to his chest, under his right arm. A big, heavy gun.

“Is that loaded?” I asked.

He looked at me with amusement. “Of course it is, silly. What would you have me do, throw it at someone out to get us?”

“Yes,” I said, “yes, that’s exactly what I would have you do.” In my limited experience with guns I’ve surmised that their only reason for existence is to kill or seriously maim or maybe just slightly wound. Or maybe just scare. In other words, guns are made to kill, maim, graze, or just scare. “Who,” I wondered, “does he think he’ll have to kill, maim, graze, or just scare today?”

He unholstered his gun and laid it on the bedside table. It lay there like a flat stone–heavy, obdurate, gun colored, lethally still. A gun. I couldn’t believe it. I was in a motel room with a man who drank a bottle of wine then told me I was beautiful, tried to coddle an unfriendly dog, kissed really good, smelled like incense, played my undressing game, and wore a concealed gun under his right arm. This was going to be some kind of day. It was in the cards.

Number Two: Do Not Piss Off Your Wife Before Leaving Home

A generally agreed upon truism is that cheating spouses shouldn’t. But they do and nothing good ever comes of it.    

The question is: why do they do it? I have no answer. I just take advantage of the situation. Women of a certain age get so few opportunities.

The cheater, on the other hand, has more options. He, or she, can cheat multiple times with the same person, or once with the same person, or multiple times with multiple people, or once with multiple people, or, should it come to that, return to the domestic domicile with no one the wiser. At least that’s the theory. But for that theory to work the cheater must take care not to piss off his wife (or if the cheater is a woman, piss off her husband) or in any way alert the spouse that something is going on, like tell your spouse you’re going to Albuquerque to meet a friend you haven’t seen for over 40 years because 40 years ago her (or his) naked body became indelibly etched in your imagination.

Actually he didn’t say any of that out loud. He merely said he was going to Albuquerque to meet an old friend after 40 years and would spend the night in a motel and his spouse said, “Good.”

What cheaters don’t realize is that their spouses rarely think going to Albuquerque to meet an old friend after 40 years and spending the night in a motel is a good idea. No matter how neutral his voice tone or how deliberately empty his mind, the spouse of the cheater will feel her skin prickle or her hair stand on end or her saliva dry up and she will know beyond a doubt that something is up, something is ominous, and somebody is up to no good. And she will reasonably want to know what and who that is.

Number Three: Do Not Rent a Room in the Same Motel You & Your Wife Use When You Come to Visit Your Daughter Who You Come to Visit Frequently.

Motel rooms are strange places. They have to be welcoming enough so that you forget about the dander mites left in the bed by former occupants yet not so welcoming that you steal the art off the walls.  

I think motel rooms are universal poems and, if read correctly, are catalysts for the human drama. In them a single everyman meets up with his loneliness and fatigue. Under the florescent lighting in the bathroom a lone everywoman encounters her sagging skin and her grief.

I know that the whole trajectory of a love affair from beginning to end can be told in a one-act play set in a motel room.

In one version of the play a man and woman spend the afternoon in sybaritic bliss. She is wet and receptive. He is rampant and enduring. Their explicit mouths find one another’s most wanton appendages. They suckle blatantly, they lave, they turn back one another’s creases. She eases the hood of his velvety foreskin over the head of his penis and tenderly laps seminal fluid; he parts the dewy pink petals of her labia and, with his tongue, rolls her clit into a tight bud. He penetrates her; she rises to meet his thrusts. They come in gasps and groans and sink together in post-coital glory again and again till the sun goes down.

In an alternative version she is wet and receptive but he has difficulty maintaining an erection. He is embarrassed. She understands. They are naked and lay together, close and warm, flesh to flesh, and she urges him to tell her about his life and his wife. The afternoon, she feels, is a boat in a deep pool. His cadences are the undercurrents; his words are the oars propelling them around and around. From her vantage point, listening in the afternoon boat while he rows, she comes to understand that he is smitten with his wife, that he is a man in love with his wife.

In yet another version they are strangers whose lack of anything better to do brings them together. They are kind and caring. They are naked together but not exposed to one another. In bed neither gives yet each receives. The afternoon arcs into evening. They rise from the bed and dress to go out to dinner. She is elegant; he is suave. He is behind her and watches her fasten her pearls in front of the mirror. She does it expertly and requires no assistance from him. She catches his eyes on her in the mirror and smiles in the mirror as if she is smiling at him. He says he finds her beauty warm. He says she is not comfortable to be with but he is comforted by her.

Number Four: Do Not Have an Anxiety Attack Just Before Bed Because You Believe Your Wife is on Her Way to the Motel

The dog slept most of the afternoon outside but was gone when we stepped out. All that was left to remind us of its former presence was a thick nylon rug awkwardly folded and draped over the curb, an indefinable chew toy, and a small bowl with about a quarter inch of water. I tried to fold the rug exactly in half. I like things to be exact. But the crease had become permanent and the rug wouldn’t fold the way I wanted it to.

The dog’s absence seemed ominous to me. Why that should be I cannot say. I didn’t much care for that dog. It wasn’t friendly. But it’s absence left me with a sense of foreboding.

We stepped from the magic motel room into a darkening day. Friday at 5p.m. in a university town on the main drag of the university meant that the pub was filled to the brim, the noise on the street was deafening, and restaurants were teeming with wall to wall post-pubescent bodies in groups or on dates, unaware and uninterested in anybody but themselves and their nearest companions. I wasn’t much interested in them, either. All the young people looked alike, indistinguishable between fresh and boring.

We ate in a restaurant attached to the motel. It served sushi and pizza, maybe even sushi pizza. He knew all about the owner, even down to her yearly financial gains. She owned the motel and the restaurant. “She’s made good investments,” he said.

After dinner I reached across the table for his hands. He allowed me to touch them but I thought he drew his body back.

There were signs. I chose to ignore them.

We agreed to spend the night together and so we walked to where I was staying to collect my toothbrush and other items I would need. We walked along a street that rapidly grew darker the further we got from the main drag. In the receding light I reached for his hand but he said he needed his hands free in case he had to get out his gun. At that moment, at the moment he said that, a black figure emerged suddenly and began walking quickly up the other side of the street. My heart leapt and I stopped breathing.

But the figure moved on.

He said, “See why I carry a gun?”

I wondered if he thought the figure had meant to do us harm but somehow figured out a gun was in the mix among all the potential configurations that were possible between the three of us. Did he think bad guys could smell guns?

He told me about an elderly couple he knew who got beaten severely in a motel room burglary. The elderly man was beaten to death. We were still walking down the dark street. I found the story a little suspicious.

“How did the burglar get in?” I asked.

“The elderly woman opened the door to him,” he said.

After he told me that the elderly woman opened the door to the burglar I wasn’t as sympathetic for the couple although I certainly didn’t think assault and death were justified. I just thought maybe the woman should have been smarter and had she been smarter the whole catastrophe could’ve been avoided. Maybe I was thinking about myself, then, only I didn’t realize it. Maybe I was just beginning to realize I hadn’t been very smart; maybe I was beginning to realize I’d let something violent into the room, figuratively speaking.

But I wasn’t ready yet. Instead I wondered how a gun would have changed that scenario and realized I was thinking that a gun would have made the whole thing worse even though it’s hard to imagine anything worse than being elderly and being assaulted and killed by a burglar let into the room by the female occupant.

We got to my friends’ home and I collected by nighttime belongings. My friends were polite and kind and welcoming. He was polite and kind and graceful.

We left the home of my friends and walked back up to the main drag and down the street toward the motel. I was loaded down, carrying all my stuff because he needed to be able to reach his gun in case anything bad happened.

It’s like we’re in a western movie, I thought, but I started to sing some old standard that popped into my head.

“You like old pop songs, don’t you?” he said.

“I like jazz versions of standards,” I corrected him.

I didn’t much like him anymore, I realized. I was irritated by what he had said. I thought he was insinuating something about my taste in music, my ability to sing, the integrity of my person.

Instead of being enchanted by him and loving everything about him I realized my nerves were on edge. He was remote. I couldn’t reach him. That’s what made me dislike him. Somehow after we stepped from the magic motel room and entered the street a glass shell had grown up around him and he was inside, like a snowman in a globe, and all I could do was tip the ball and make it snow.

Number Five: Do Not Be Right About Number Four  

The minute we entered the room the dog attacked.

It was huge and growing huger every moment. Its yellow face filled the space; its blood red maw was open, foul smelling saliva frothed and drooled over its jaws. It would withdraw then lunge forward again; each time it lunged it grew more lurid and threatening. Its red eyes blazed. Its fetid teeth were sharp and pointed. It snarled and growled, snapped and bit.

I was calm. I told it that it had two choices. It could get in the car and drive me back to my friends’ home or we could begin to get ready for bed.

It chose the former.

I repacked my belongings and headed for the door. It wanted to know what book I was reading, would I be embarrassed to go back to my friends’ home, was I upset?

I didn’t answer the question about the book because I figured it could read the title for itself, I reminded it that I was with friends and so I couldn’t be embarrassed being back among them, then I said I was upset but I’d get over it.

It said it hoped I could get over it. It was scared, terrified, petrified. Anybody could see that.

At the end of the driveway it put on the blinkers of its car to signal a right hand turn. The car in front of it hadn’t put on blinkers to signal the turn. It expressed annoyance. I pointed out, reasonably, I thought, that since the car in front of it could only turn right it didn’t need to signal the turn.

Number Six: Do Not Carry a Concealed Weapon

I, too, carry a concealed weapon.

I have a sharp tongue, a steel-plated mind, and an Italian’s worth of vengeance in every pore holstered on my body. But those are not the weapons I conceal. Anybody who looks can see those weapons.

What I conceal is my ability to find hilarity in almost every situation: hilarity and beauty.

“Beauty?” you ask, perhaps believing that I’ve already drawn and fired the hilarity.

Yes, there was beauty in this if you’ll allow that there is beauty in a man realizing the tremendous need he has for his marriage. If you’ll allow that there is beauty in the dignity of a woman quitting the company of a man who cannot be loyal to her.

If you can find it in your heart to join with them, if you can suspend your sense of superiority, if you can relate to the desire to recapture the scent of a time when there was no fear, when the horizon was close enough to see over to the promise of love, then I think you’ll have to admit there was beauty. Why not try for beauty, I ask you? It’s the trying that’s beautiful. Why not allow that what happened had as its intention to be beautiful? So what if it failed? So what if there was pain? So what if it turned ugly?

In the end it was real. Reality is beautiful.

Number Seven: Do Not Piss off Your Lover

“Shall we ever attempt a liaison again?” he wonders.

“I think not, fair friend,” she replies. “I have the same tolerance for being the Other Woman that you have for being flaccid.”

Being the Other Woman wounds her ego. She figures she’s usually a far better choice than the wife and any lover who can’t see his way clear to that should have his head examined.

She says, “Since I truly don’t think you need your head examined and since it is clearer to me today than it was before Albuquerque that you are smitten and bound to your wife, I would be dooming myself to a world of hurt feelings and miffed pride were I to take up the Other Woman role. But I did so enjoy your body. Never forget that. You have a body built to give pleasure and the skill to provide it. Those are good things to know about one’s self, one’s elf.” She says this last shyly, slyly, with a hint of a wink and a smile.

—–

Mary Magagna lives in California but is from Wyoming. 

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Caroline just stopped talking.

Too many sentences interrupted or stepped on.  It was obvious no one wanted to hear what she had to say.  When the conversation would turn to her, cialis she’d start to tell them about her day, and or something she saw on television, or her brother’s latest girlfriend; the same kind of small talk they were making.  They’d look at her with curious eyes, like she was making some kind of sound that they couldn’t fully process with their human hearing, and as she got farther into the sentence, they’d look at back at each other and start talking about something else entirely.  Caroline’s sentence would trail off. Her train of thought lost was lost.  They’d turn to her during their conversation and say “don’t you agree, Caroline?” She would start to answer, and they would keep on talking. They knew she was there, but they didn’t seem to care.

Once in a while, one of them would ask her a question about herself.  “How was your vacation to Maui, Caroline?”

Her face would light up, both at the memory of her vacation and at the thrill of being directly acknowledged.  “It was wonderful! I had mimosas on the beach every morning, and there was this luau – ”

Sue cut her off.  “I went to Maui once.  With George – you remember him?  It was a disaster.  Terrible weather, horrible food. The beach was so crowded.  And I got food poisoning!”

Marlena laughed.  “I remember George!  Wasn’t he the one with the third nipple?”

Sue rolled her eyes.  “Yes.  It was horrifying. He called it ‘Mitchell’ – said it was his disappearing twin.”

“I’ve never been to Maui, but I have been to Cancun, and had a similar experience.  They tell you not to drink the water in Mexico, but you forget that ice cubes are included in that category.”  Marlena made a face to illustrate her point.

Sue laughed. “Sounds like fun!”

“It wasn’t.  Speaking of old flames, have you heard from Noah lately?”

“Last I knew he was living in D.C. with Chuck and Joe.  They started some kind of food truck business there.” Sue shrugged and sipped her martini.

“Didn’t you use to date Chuck, Caroline?” Marlena asked, and Caroline jumped at the mention of her name. Before she could respond, Sue was off on the next tangent.

After several more rounds of similar conversation, Caroline came to the decision that she need not answer them anymore.  They didn’t want to hear what she had to say, anyway. They prattled away, occasionally tossing her a bone but with no real interest.  She felt like a dead satellite, tethered in their gravity, but with no real use to them.

As she watched their verbal tennis match drag on over three more drinks, Caroline began to tune them out.  She looked around the bar.  Other people were conversing with varying degrees of fervor. Pods of people filled the seating areas, clusters formed at the bar.  It was a popular place for hanging out and catching up, as the low lighting, cheap drinks and quiet, moody music lent itself to a chatty bar as opposed to a pick-up bar. That was why she, Sue and Marlena always came here – so they could chat.  When they met at work a year ago, the three of them hit it off in an instant.  They worked together and went to the same gym, and then hung out with each other after hours. People called them the three stooges. But lately, Caroline felt like Curly Joe.

It hadn’t always been like this.  Caroline had been an equal part of the trio at the beginning.  Somehow, over the last several months, she found that the balance had tipped. They started forgetting she was there, even when she was.  They spoke over her whenever she had something to say.  She had tried raising her voice and finishing her sentence over theirs, but they would just look her in the eye and keep on talking.  It pissed her off.  When that didn’t work, she would wait to get a word in, and then say “Can I finish what I was saying?”  They would twitter and laugh and say “Oh, we’re sorry hon, we got off on a tangent.  Please finish.”  And it would start all over again.  So asserting herself wasn’t working.

So now she was on to not even speaking.  She shut down entirely, didn’t respond when they would ask her a question.  She figured the ice queen approach would get some kind of results, at least an “Are you upset about something?” But no, nothing.  They acted like she had responded even when she hadn’t.  They talked so much, and so fast, that they didn’t even notice her absence.  So Caroline sat, trapped and mute, in their presence, her ire festering.

Finally, she had enough.  As they were segueing their conversation from their neighbors’ dogs to their neighbors’ sex lives, Caroline stood up.

“I’m going home.”

Sue and Marlena stopped, looking up from their cushioned seats to her sour face.

“Already?” Marlena said.  “It’s early!  And we’re supposed to go to Cake after this for desert!”

Caroline slung her bag over her shoulder. “I don’t want dessert.  I’ll see you at work tomorrow.”

Sue looked baffled.  “But … we can’t go without you.”

Caroline fumed.  “Why?  What purpose do I serve?”

“What do you mean ‘what purpose do I serve?’ Have you lost your mind?”  Marlena laughed.

“At what point this evening – or in the last several months, for that matter – have either of you heard a word I said?”

Sue and Marlena looked at each other, brows furrowed, and then back to Caroline. “Stop being dramatic, Caroline,” Sue said.  “Sit back down and have another Cosmo.”

Marlena smiled.  “Yeah, and tell us about what Brandy said to you at work today.  You mentioned that she was bitchy.”

Caroline deflated.  She had wanted to tell someone that story, if only to get it off her chest.  The waitress happened by, and Caroline looked from Sue to Marlena, who both were smiling up at her.  She sighed, and sat back down.  “Another Cosmo, please.”  The waitress scribbled down her order and hurried away.

“Brandy was about to delete the entire database when I came by her desk, and I caught it just in time,” Caroline began. “If I hadn’t walked into her cubicle at that moment -”

“Brandy is such a waste of space.  Do you know one time she stole my lunch from the fridge?” Sue said.

Marlena perked up.  “I caught her making out with Ricardo in the supply closet once.”

Caroline sighed, and picked up the Cosmo that the waitress had just set down in front of her.  Status quo, she thought.

“Excuse me,” came a voice to her left, breaking her out of her reverie.

Caroline looked up to see a stranger hovering nearby.  He smiled.  “Is this seat taken?”  He gestured to where Marlena was sitting.  Caroline gave him a totally befuddled look, as if to indicate that yes, it obviously was, but she wasn’t a part of the conversation and didn’t that suck? He must have realized he was walking into some drama, because he gave her a look like she was crazy and backed away.

“Thanks a lot, guys,” she mumbled into her Cosmo.  Sue and Marlena didn’t seem to notice.  They prattled on, while she moped in mute silence, and the guy asked someone at the next table over who the pretty loner with the sour face was, and why was she sitting all by herself.

—–

Marcy Mahoney writes the spooky and the fantastical and sometimes the hilarious.  She lives in Los Angeles, CA.  Follow her on Twitter at @PlaytymAtHazmat.

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The three of them met in a board games group Josie found advertised online. She and Carl, unhealthy married just a year now, were new to the city and needed a social life, but they had few activities in common around which to build one. Finally they settled on the games group, which was lively enough at first. But little by little, members fell away until they met only with Ned, to play Parcheesi on Friday nights.

Josie had also joined a book club and Carl played on a bocce ball league by now, but their Friday nights together with Ned were special. Each Thursday, Josie went to the gourmet shop and bought wine, nuts, cheese, and expensive crackers. She made a spinach and artichoke dip that Ned especially liked.

Josie thought there were signs. The way Ned’s eyes locked into hers. Looks that lingered half a beat longer than necessary. How he noticed the moment her glass was empty and jumped up from the table to refill it. He looked approvingly at the flush the wine brought to Josie’s cheeks. When her husband’s tone of voice edged into irritation – It’s your turn, already, Josie! – Ned’s soft expression soothed her.

This Friday Josie trained her eyes on the Parcheesi board as if that would make her mind follow suit. Last night when Carl had reached for her in the middle of the night, she’d dreamt those were Ned’s hands that slid the length of her body, had addressed Carl as Ned. She’d come awake when Carl’s hands, on her hips, froze. “What did you say?” he demanded. Josie had then pretended to be fully asleep.

She could not look at Ned; surely he would see something of this in her face. “Your move, Josie,” he prompted, his tone echoing Carl’s usual annoyance.

Josie looked up, shocked. Her elbow brushed the dice to the floor. Her face burned as she bent down to retrieve them.

There under the table, she saw. Ned’s bare foot on top of Carl’s, caressing, caressing.

——

Peg Alford Pursell’s fiction received The State Fiction Award (S.C.) and was a short-list finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award. Her story “Fragmentation” is the title story of the Burrow Press Anthology (February 2011) Fragmentation and Other Stories, and two of her stories have been selected to be performed at Stories on Stage in Sacramento in May 2011. She founded and curates Why There Are Words, a monthly literary reading series in Sausalito, teaches fiction writing at the College of Marin and in private workshops, and is fiction editor at Prick of the Spindle. More info at www.pegalfordpursell.com.

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When I was six, rx I wanted to be like Mama and smoke cigarettes. I ended up setting the living room curtains on fire trying to work her cigarette lighter. The flames jumped to my hair and I had third and fourth degree burns over my face and body.

For the first couple of days in the hospital, it hurt so much I thought I would die. After that, it hurt so bad I wanted to die, especially when it began blistering. It felt like millions of fire ants stinging me at the same time. Then came the worst part — the scars.

One eye was partly closed and one side of my upper lip bulged so a smile looked like a sneer. Also, I had a brownish-red scar from my chest to my stomach. The first time I saw myself in the mirror after the bandages came off, I screamed.  Just one loud, horror-movie scream.

I remember this one nurse saying, “It doesn’t matter how you look on the outside, sweetie It’s what’s inside that counts.”

Had I known the word at the time, I would have said, “Bullshit!”  Instead, I cried.

My mother said, “When you get older, we’ll go to a doctor in Phoenix and get your face fixed. But God’s gonna love you just the same.”

I knew she was lying about the doctor and probably about God. I pretended to be asleep when Dr. Flynn told her how much plastic surgery would cost without health insurance. “Pray with her,” he said.  “She’ll get used to it.”

I remember praying to God, begging Him to just straighten my lip or open my eye. When I saw my reflection, I knew my prayers were as empty as the words of people telling me how pretty I looked.

As time passed, I grew tired of being alone and angry. I began playing with the girls I knew before the fire. I think playing with the freak was their way of being “good Christians.” But sometimes it wasn’t so bad, and we fooled with our dolls or giggled about boys. I tried to convince myself I was just like them.

I remember the time Rita Robinson told me I had pretty hair. Dark and wavy, my hair hung down to the middle of my back. It was the one thing that made me feel normal.

“Can I brush it?”

“Sure,” I said

She brushed it back a few times and then pushed it to the side, trying to cover my bad eye I grabbed the brush from her and hit her in the face with it.

She cried. “I only wanted to help you look normal, scarface.”

I knew they called me scarface behind my back, but no one had ever said it to my face before. She ran out of the room and I ran after her shouting, “How’d you like it if I called you fatbutt?”

The funny part was Rita was so skinny, I doubt she even had an ass.

Eventually, small breasts emerged from my scarred flesh and I’d stand in front of the mirror, naked, wondering if boys would like them. I admired how pink my nipples looked against the dark red-brown scars Once, I overheard mama say to a friend of hers, “You give a man some tit and he’s your friend for life.”  Those words stayed with me more than anything the preacher or my teachers ever said.

But I should have known better than to listen to my mother when it came to men. None of her male friends stuck around much, including my father. He did a disappearing act the day he found out I was growing in mama’s belly.

Imagine how fast he would have run had he known how I’d turn out?

There was this one boy, Eric Williams. He was fat and wore braces on his teeth. Sometimes, he’d walk me home after school, and tell me how the kids made fun of him

“I know all about that,” I said.

He was shy and didn’t have many friends. To me, that made him perfect.

One day after school, I suggested we go to the abandoned car behind the old Potter Building on the edge of town. The car was notorious among the teenagers of our town. It was called the “cherry picker.” Even those of us who only guessed at what that meant, laughed knowingly whenever someone talked about it.

Eric took my hand, and I thought this must be what normal felt like.

When we crawled into the back seat, and sprawled out on the dirty, ripped upholstery, he put his arm out and I put my head on his shoulder. We talked some and then we kissed Although his braces rubbed the inside of my lips raw, I liked how moist and warm his lips felt. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to move around or do something with my tongue. My teeth tapped his braces, and I kept thinking: this can’t be right.  But it still felt good, like I was growing up and everything was going to be all right.

Then I felt his hand touch the top of my shirt and slide over my breast. That was my cue.

I was wearing a padded bra. This embarrassed me more than showing him my little breasts and the pretty nipples I was so proud of. I made him turn his head while I took off my shirt and unsnapped my bra

“You can turn around now,” I said, certain that he was going to see me as beautiful and want to marry me on the spot. Instead, I saw the same look in his eyes I’d seen most of my life. He tightened his lips and turned away like he was going to throw up

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought it was just your face.”

I got back into my clothes and ran home so fast I didn’t have time to cry. At least until I got home.

Mama looked at me, my shirt misbuttoned and my lips all swollen and bloody, and screamed, “Who did this to you?”  She thought I’d been raped.

When I told her what had happened, she held me and we both cried.

She had already explained to me how she didn’t have health insurance at the time, and how they won’t cover me now because it’s a pre-existing condition

“It’s not fair, Mama.”

“No, it’s not, honey. No, it’s not.”

***

When I was almost eighteen, I met Sarah Flamingo, the woman the men at the Donut Shack called “the crazy painter lady from Santa Cruz.”  I started working at the Shack, part time, when I was still in school. After I graduated, I took on more hours. The owner used to go with my mother. He felt sorry for me, so he let me work there during the day until closing

The first time I saw Sarah, it was like meeting a movie star. Not because she was beautiful, but she looked like a woman from someplace else. That made her a celebrity to me.

She was a large woman, tall and big-boned. She wore a loose-fitting floral dress that hung down to her ankles. Her dark hair was short and I could see a smudge of brown paint on her forehead.

“I’ll have two glazed donuts and a coffee to go,” she said, staring at me. I’m used to folks staring, but she seemed like she was really trying to see me, not just my scars. Something about the look in her eyes didn’t make me feel like a freak.

She had a strange voice. Considering how big she was, she spoke in almost a whisper. I had to lean towards her just to hear her order.

She paid for the food and touched my hand when I gave her the change. Most people avoid touching me, afraid they might catch my ugliness. When I give them their change, they lower their hand a few inches and I have to drop the change into it. She raised hers, letting me place the money in her palm.

She came back every day about the same time. After a while, she sat at the counter eating her two donuts and drinking coffee while we talked. She said she had taught art at the college in Santa Cruz and now she was staying in town to paint.

“Nothing here worth painting,” I said.

“On the contrary.” She still whispered, so I had to listen carefully. “The prairie flowers are beautiful, and I love withered cactus. The tall ones look like pathetic crucifixes to me. I painted one with a contorted face on it. The picture sold for two thousand dollars at a gallery in Tucson.”

“Oo-wee.”  I didn’t know what more to say. I wanted to ask what a person would do with a picture like that, but I didn’t want to insult her.

“Crazy, huh?”  She winked and sipped her coffee.

We even talked about my scars. I told her about the fire and how my mother didn’t have the money for surgery. Instead of the usual “tsk, tsk” sound people make, she just nodded and took in the information, like I was telling her about a movie or a recipe for apple pie

And I told her about the boys who, now that my breasts had grown, didn’t seem to mind the scars like Eric did.

“At least when I take off my shirt, they don’t throw up,” I said.

She laughed and covered my hand with hers.

One day, out of nowhere, she said, “I’d like to paint you.”

Although I imagined her brushes stroking my body, I knew what she meant.

“Why?”

“Because you’re a beautiful prairie flower.”

“More a dried up cactus.”

She laughed and shook her head. “It’s your sense of humor I want to capture. Your ability to survive, despite….” She hesitated. “I’ll pay the standard model’s fee.”

That did it, especially when she told me how much. It was a lot more than I was making selling donuts.

The first time, she posed me next to a rusted-out Coca Cola sign. Mostly, she liked to paint me in the desert, but not the pretty part with the mountains in the background when the sun sets. She’d paint me in the middle of the day with nothing but dried-out dirt and sagebrush around me. Another time, she painted me holding withered flowers.

“Slump your shoulders,” she said. “And don’t purse your lips Let me see them as they are.”

We spent almost every day out in the desert, talking while she painted. She told me a little about herself. She was thirty-eight years old and never married. Her parents died when she was young and she lived with different foster families until she inherited a life insurance policy when she turned eighteen. She went to art school, sold paintings and won awards. Then she got a job teaching at the university in Santa Cruz. When I asked   why she left, she changed the subject.

But mostly, she let me talk about myself. I told her I didn’t have much to say because I hadn’t had much of a life, but she seemed fascinated by every detail, especially about how I felt being a freak.

Sometimes, we’d go back to her “studio,” which was really two adjoining rooms at the Prairie Motel. There, she’d pose me completely naked. I wasn’t sure at first, but she paid me more and made me feel so comfortable I figured there was nothing wrong with it. I remember one time she had me lying on the bed with my knees bent and my legs spread. She put her sketchpad between my legs and drew from that angle for what seemed like hours.

She painted a whole series of pictures of me in that pose, but she added cactus and desert cadavers as if we were outside and I was just one of the sights you see out there. “Prairie Flower” is what she called the series and it won some kind of award. I was her muse, she said, and whenever she sold a painting, she gave me a bonus.

But I always thought the pictures were ugly. At first, I was afraid to hurt her feelings and tell her what I thought, but one day I said I wished she would paint me without scars since I thought my body looked pretty.

“Your body is beautiful,” she said. “But it’s the blemishes that make it unique.”

“I don’t want to be unique,” I screamed at her. “I want to look like you or my mother.”  I was so angry, I ran into the bathroom. I brushed my hair and cried.

Sarah knocked on the door, gently “May we talk?”

I opened the door and threw the brush at her, hitting her on the hip. “You’re just like the others,” I said. “To you I’m just a freak.”

Instead of being mad, she held me and let me cry. I hadn’t cried like that for a long, long time.

That night, we became lovers.

She kissed me and caressed my hair. Then she cupped my breasts and licked the outline of my scar down my stomach. I tried to pull away, but she felt so warm and gentle.

Afterwards, she just held me in her arms, expecting nothing from me in return. I felt loved.

She told me about a woman in Santa Cruz that she had lived with for over twelve years before moving here. She left when the woman underwent a sex change operation.

“I loved her so much, I even helped pay for the operation because she wanted to look like a man more than anything. But before the operation even started, when she was undergoing hormone therapy and growing facial hair, I was no longer attracted to her. I loved her as a woman, not as a man.”

“But if you really loved her,” I said, “wouldn’t you love her no matter what?”

“You’d think so, dear.”  For the first time, I heard Sarah cry. “I just wanted to take care of her,” she whispered.  “I wanted to help her accept who she was.”

“No,” I said, surprising myself and rising on my elbow. “You loved her as a woman because as a woman she was a freak. She was really a man.”

“And how do you know so much about this?”  Her voice grew above its usual softness. “Your main concern before we met was whether or not a boy liked your breasts.”

“Don’t you see?  It’s still my concern. You think because I’m a freak I have a deep, beautiful soul. I don’t. Down deep, all I want is to be normal.”

I left Sarah that night when I realized that the bullshit I had heard all my life — “It’s what’s inside that counts” — was right after all. Sometimes you just need a good plastic surgeon to see it.

Sarah helped me find a doctor in Phoenix. She even offered to pay for the surgery, but I told her I had saved most of the money she had already given me. My mother, also, had been saving her money.

I live in Phoenix now. I’ve already had my lip corrected so I don’t snarl nearly so much. The next operation on my eye is scheduled for a few days. I have a job working in a supermarket and I plan on going to a junior college in the fall.

I saw Sarah not too long ago. She was in Phoenix, lecturing on “inner beauty,” and I went to hear her. She looked shocked to see me, especially when I smiled.

—–

Wayne Scheer has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Web.  His work has appeared in a variety of print and online venues.  Revealing Moments, a collection of twenty-four stories, can be downloaded at http://www.pearnoir.com/thumbscrews.htm. A film adaptation of his story, “Zen and the Art of House Painting,” is available at http://vimeo.com/18491827.

Read more stories by Wayne Scheer

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Take one pound of strong flour, doctor fine and soft as the sand on some far off beach, decease the sort of place you speak of, for sale but which is unknown to me.  Add a pinch of salt, the flavor you bring into my life.  Then mix in a packet of yeast, those coarse, dowdy little grains which rise in the dough like my desire.

Pour four fluid ounces of green olive oil, as innocent as is – I swear – my soul.  I long to take you back to Italy, to my mother and my boyhood home.  I picture us walking through olive groves, as the evening sun lights up translucent leaves and shines through the strands of your flaxen hair.  The juices trickle down your slender finger, nestle in the crevices of your knuckle. I press the soft fruit in the palms of my hands, firm, soft and supple as a virgin’s breasts.

Now blend in milk and water.  In my dreams, I see a cow graze upon rough sage in an adjoining field.  Stopping to pluck just a few leaves, I milk her, six tablespoonsful of loving kindness, the sort you bestowed upon me when you first saw me, young, bewildered and alone in a strange country.  Then I stir in water from an adjacent brook, clear and cool, babbling over white limestone pebbles.

We knead each other, writhing and twisting, heaving and pulling, until at last we rest in a warm place, covered for decency’s sake.

The chopped tomatoes which I spread over the dough are my embarrassment.  I never got round to adding the sage.  I should never have said what I said, did what I did, presumed upon what was in reality your good nature and ordinary friendliness.  You were shocked and thrust me away.  You gagged me with a thick layer of grated cheese, stringy and cloying, then for twenty minutes you roasted me with your white-hot anger.

I don’t cook anymore.  I don’t see the point, when there is just one sitting at the table, gazing across the red-checked cloth and two dainty carnations in a vase, at the empty chair opposite.

But I still eat pizza all the time, from cardboard packets, red and yellow, moist, hot and greasy.  I fill my face to plug the void, to stoke my stomach and distract my yearning heart.

—–

Charlie Britten’s work has been published in ‘Radgepacket’, ‘Myslexia’ magazine and ‘The Story Behind the Story’ and online at ‘FictionAtWork’ and ‘Linnet’s Wings’.  She writes because she loves doing it.  In real life she lives in eastern England with her husband and cat and lectures in IT at a college of further education.

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My neighbor, and Knatchbull, moved a giant into his garden one day. He’d long been something of a silly arse, but this was a step beyond. No one in the street had ever done anything like this. I’d never heard of anything like this being done.

If there was a glint in his eye when he ‘told’ me, I didn’t detect it.

‘Hallo, George,’ he called, leaning over the fence. I was sitting out with the paper, as it was a warm evening. ‘Might be a little disturbance in the next week or so, nothing too turbulent.’

I waved it away, in good neighbourly fashion. No bother at all, I told him. I barely even looked up.

It was a Saturday they brought him, so I was privy to it. I heard the footfalls – indeed, felt them – and glanced out of the window, expecting to see a delivery van going over the speed bumps at too great a pace.

There was a massive head, on a par with the streetlights, moving along the rooftops towards me. They can say my mouth fell open; so would theirs. Seeing it, all I could think at first was how badly his hair was cut: it was thick and dark, and looked hacked at. Though I could see that cutting the hair of a giant would constitute a challenge, a job for the shears.

I was about to call for my wife Margery when it struck me that this probably wasn’t a passing parade. Forget ESP and such like: I knew precisely where this was going to end, and therefore Margery would have plenty of time to see him.

Four men were leading him, plus Knatchbull overseeing what needed to be oversaw. The giant had chains around his neck and wrists, though this struck me as being for form’s sake, the done thing, a nod to King Kong and whatnot. Certainly he gave no indication of being enraged – he even had a slight smile on his face, peaceable, like an idiot’s – and if he should erupt, as I realise peaceable idiots can, I judged that the chains in questions wouldn’t be a particle of use. The men looked sweaty and fractious, needled. I could well imagine Knatchbull’s whinnying, pettifogging instructions.

I went out when they turned into our street, noting the press of faces against windows all around me. Knatchbull saw me, gave a distracted smile. ‘George, hallo,’ he said.

I nodded. ‘Hello there.’ I smiled at the men, and three out of the four returned it, however grudgingly. The fourth just stared at me like I was the insane one.

‘Who’s this?’ I asked.

‘Well, George,’ Knatchbull said. ‘This is my man.’

‘I don’t think he’ll fit indoors,’ I said, laughing as at a weak joke. Isn’t it strange, the things you find yourself doing out of politeness?

‘He’s for the garden,’ Knatchbull told me, with a quiet sort of pride.

‘Front or back?’

‘Oh, front, front,’ he said. ‘A thousand times, front.’

‘I’ll let you get on,’ I said.

I returned indoors. It occurred to me that, for all my talk of politeness, I hadn’t said hello to the giant, had talked about him as if, of all things, he wasn’t there.

Margery, alerted to it fully by now, was upstairs. I joined her, and we silently watched the installation from our bedroom window. Knatchbull was very good: he called up to his man, and he almost daintily stepped into the garden. The lawn had been replaced with paving stones some months before, I thought it was. He was told he could sit down, which he did with some aching sort of relief, his back to the wall – to it, not against it, as it would tilt like a rotten tooth in no time. He faced the house.

When he was settled they took the chains off him, Knatchbull gave the workmen a few extra pounds, and that was that. Margery and I looked at each other. I saw she was feeling more than I, which had the usual effect of cutting my feeling by a good two thirds.

It wasn’t to be a short-lived thing, but once we ascertained that Knatchbull’s man (we never did find out his name, or even if he had one) didn’t block the sun from our place, and that he neither spoke nor snored, we quickly got used to him.

Some in the street didn’t like it, naturally, and the ‘For Sale’ signs started appearing a few doors down. One complained directly to Knatchbull, and he closed his door on them. No one, as far as I know, brutalised the giant – no one splashed him with paint or called him ugly names. There was always going to be a fear over how he would react, but I secretly thought he would be fine whatever you did to him, unless it was something unusual that no one would ever think of, unusual and small like those men who murder their wives because they burn the toast one morning.

People would come and stare, but you could forgive such rudeness, and they soon got used to him too. Children were uniformly respectful around him, and this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise: giants held a special place in their imaginative world, after all. Even teenagers, with whom we had problems from time to time, let him be.

He was fed once a day, with a bucket of what turned out to be porridge when I asked. There were two buckets on Christmas Day and the 3rd of October, which I took to be his birthday. Any waste products, should you be wondering, were dealt with under the cover of darkness, though the methods of retrieval and disposal remain cloudy. And his age was impossible to guess.

The weather’s variables meant nothing to him, just as well. He allowed snow to remain on his shoulders when it fell, and didn’t take a tan when one was available. Electric storms were enjoyable to him, it seemed. His clothes were hard-wearing, and I noticed that his hair didn’t appear to grow, and nor did his nails. Fortunately for the area’s infrastructure, he needed no exercise, not even a stretching of the legs.

He didn’t sleep, as I found out one unearthly night when I couldn’t either and turned to the window. His shape was discernible in between the streetlight glow. He was staring down at his hands, but his eyes were open and he didn’t register me.

‘Does he not peer in at you?’ I asked Knatchbull one morning at the station. We occasionally got the same train in, though he had retired by this time.

He shrugged. ‘He understands little of what he sees,’ he said.

This was unreassuring, and I let the matter drop.

Knatchbull lived alone, his wife having swept off in a high dudgeon a couple of years previous. He sat on the doorstep sometimes, and though we didn’t like to look, we supposed he talked to his man, perhaps mentioned things in the local paper or showed him picture books from the library. That was in the first year, eighteen months, at least. Then it all lessened a little.

I said hello to him morning and evening through the week, and believe he came to know me. His face wore that slight, dazed smile permanently, so it was little use as a gauge of thought, but simple time and repetition had to count for something. Once, after a couple of years, I asked Margery if she couldn’t mix up a bucket of porridge herself, but she gave me her look which stated this was an unreasonable idea and I was a fool.

The morning and evening treks came to an end that year, as in the deep red summer of it, I retired. I had mixed feelings about the whole project, but Margery was all for it and urged me to throw a bash. After some humming and hahhing, I acquiesced, with one amendment to her plan: not the back garden but the front.

Ken and Lindsey came, of course, up from Bristol. Margery had, I’m sure, kept them updated on events next door, so they were able to avoid anything more than cursory glances, in the sober stage at least. The same stands for the bulk of my ex-colleagues, though not all of them came, perhaps out of worry as to how they’d respond. He himself showed no great interest in the proceedings, though his big head did turn in our direction from time to time and his smile was taken to mean more than it probably did. Supposedly he was wishing me well in my next phase. I nodded, but didn’t buy it.

Knatchbull himself was invited round, and came, which he didn’t always. He drank with full verve – which he always did.

It was a wistful, teary type of occasion for me once it was underway, and there were moments when I came close to being quite unmanned. My chest was a capsule of fear at times, soft gold cheer at others. The sun never seemed to go down. I bent the elbow myself, more than I had since my 20s, I’ve no doubt. Why not?

Eventually I wanted the giant involved somehow. I felt terribly sorry for him all at once.

‘Does he take booze?’ I asked Knatchbull.

‘Oh no, George, no.’

‘Yes, but have you tried him with any?’

‘No, no …’ He shrugged, looked a little helpless, actually.

‘Has anyone ever advised against it?’

‘They don’t really need to, George.’

‘Balls,’ I said, straightening my back. ‘This is a milestone party for me. Let him par, partake of it.’

He gave way on the point.

That conversation is the last clear memory I have – the rest is a series of still life pictures. I’m told I tried to climb up him, up his arm, taking fistfuls of his sleeve with a can of lager tucked under my chin. It looks like I wanted to sit on his shoulder, share the lager with him, take in the view from his sector so to speak. They tell me he wasn’t in any sense alarmed by my determined clambering, didn’t mind at all, but I failed to reach the summit. That would explain my blue hip the next morning.

It had been the habit of my father’s to stand at the front door with the last cigarette of the day. Now, I had never taken up tobacco, but in the summer of the fourth year, if Margery took herself off to bed early I would sip a glass of whisky on the doorstep. Breathing-in the garden. Not too tipsy, though sometimes, sometimes.

Then I would lean over the wall, have a few words with Knatchbull’s man. A thankless task, you might think, but perhaps we both got something out of it.

‘Isn’t there anyone else like you?’ I muttered one night. I muttered because I didn’t want Knatchbull to hear, up in his bed, and also because big ears logically suggested better hearing. ‘It must get awfully lonely.’

He looked at me the way a good dog would, trying hard to understand and resignedly mournful that it was impossible. That didn’t seem important enough to stop, however.

‘Perhaps we could find someone for you. Search the world, send out a message. You were made, others must’ve been made also. We could,’ and here I stepped out further than was wise, ‘we could perhaps set her up here in our garden. You could hold hands over the wall.’

Then I went indoors, feeling as though I should cry.

***

Five years in all he was there, five years in which some of Knatchbull’s silly arse behaviour left, to be replaced by harsher attitudes. He started to look frail, and could be heard muttering under his breath, peevish and bitter-sounding.

His man, of course, never deviated from his smile. He never aged, but ageing for them would be imperceptible, I suppose.

One evening, again in the late summer, Knatchbull knocked at my door. His face was stricken when I opened it, something I had never seen in him before. I almost took a step back.

‘It’s no good,’ he said, without preamble or anything in the way of greeting. ‘No good. I’m going to get rid of him. Will you take him on, George?’

I had wondered if this would ever come up, but that’s not to say I was prepared for it. ‘Well, really, I don’t see how I could,’ I stammered, sounding pitiful to my own ears. ‘Margery loves the garden and …’

‘Could you talk it over with her?’ he asked, a good deal more impatiently than was polite.

I swallowed and nodded, told him I’d get back to him.

Margery was watching the TV. I did consider mentioning it, but I could see how the conversation would go, step by step, and how badly I would come out of it. So I sat down and watched TV with her, or stared at it.

‘I’m sorry,’ I told him the next day. ‘No, it wouldn’t work.’

He nodded, lifting his chin, glancing off to the side, away from his garden. ‘Yep, yep,’ he said. ‘That’s okay, I understand. Well, goodnight, George.’

‘Goodnight,’ I said.

They took his man away the next Saturday, the same workmen with the same chains for all I know. Knatchbull kept out of the way this time. He stood briefly in his doorway, fists clenched, blinking and mumbling. His man’s smile may have flickered when the chains went on, but perhaps that’s what I wanted to see, or dreaded to see, I don’t know.

Knatchbull slammed his door shut as soon as they had him on his feet and didn’t say a goodbye that I heard. I didn’t say a goodbye either; it doesn’t do to have one’s voice wobble in front of workmen.

An extra whisky was awarded me that night. And Knatchbull, I’m sure I hardly need to mention, didn’t see out the end of the year.

—–

Barrie Darke writes from the UK, where the short story market is a pitiful thing.  He has recently been published in the UK by Byker Books, New Writing North and Sentinel Literary Quarterly; and in the USA by Menda City Review, Nossa Morte, Demon Minds, Infinite Windows, Underground Voices, Big Pulp, Pseudopod, Inwood Indiana, Bastards and Whores, Onomatopoeia, Orion Headless, Xenith, Otoliths and All Due Respect.

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It was gradual. The boy’s emasculation and the turn to tears. His sisters beat him with their own spines while the witch stared and prayed. She thought she would achieve transcendence through another’s pain but all she got were boiled thorns. The spines were still hard despite the high temperatures. If anything, ambulance the heat made them harder. So Hansel wandered into her pot and then into her table and finally into her bed. They ate raw sugar cane together while counting babies’ toes. Each pulled toenail was another lost neuron and the witch was reminded of the lighthouse she had dangled from by her feet as a child while her terrible mother scratched her soles and made her laugh in fear. Then, cialis when the witch got married the first time, healing her husband held her over a fire and waited until the backs of her feet blistered. She felt for the apple-poisoned stepmother dancing in her iron shoes. But there was another universe bubbling beyond the forest gates and the witch had every intention of dragging the boy there.
—–
Alana I. Capria has an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She resides in Northern New Jersey with her fiancé and rabbits. Her writing and links to other publications can be found at http://alanaicapria.com

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The operating room is freezing. I lie shivering from cold and shaking from adrenalin. The nurses move quickly around me. I want one of them to stop and reassure me that everything will be all right but they are too busy. The urinary catheter is exerting a painful pressure in my groin. Fear is a heavy lead blanket smothering my stomach, mind chest and throat. A nurse finally touches my arm in reassurance and smiles but she is carrying a huge, thick silvery tube. I stare. I’m supposed to swallow this?

“You have an arrhythmia called Atrial Fibrillation. Most people with A-fib have a genetic pre-disposition for it. We consider it a benign arrhythmia. It causes no damage to your heart. There is a somewhat increased risk of stroke through blood clots forming inside the heart when the atria are not pumping properly but that can be controlled with blood thinners.” I stare at the beautifully detailed charts of the heart chambers on the office wall. There is no escape. This is my reality. I’m having an attack right now. My heart is thumping extremely rapidly in my chest and it feels wrong, wrong, not a normal beat but a thready, dreadful feeling that makes it hard to focus on anything else. I feel out of breath. I try to concentrate on what the cardiologist is saying. Cardiologist! I am 39 and I have a heart problem. What did I do to deserve this?

“When I push the tube down your throat I want you to swallow,” the nurse says. I nod numbly. I open my mouth and she pushes the tube in gently. “Now. Swallow.” She shoves faster and harder. I swallow but I choke up and eject it. “Try again,” she says patiently. She pushes the tube in. I choke up again. Inside my head I scream. To be anywhere but here! The third time I try so hard I choke completely and go into dry heaves. She pulls the tube out and waits.

“Jeff, we have to get this thermometer tube down your throat so we can monitor the temp. We don’t want to burn your esophagus. If we can’t get this in we won’t proceed.”

I gather some faint speck of determination and nod. I open my mouth again. She pushes it in and I swallow. Success. There is a thick tube all the way down my throat and in my esophagus. It puts an unpleasant pressure and pain in my chest. And I can’t speak.

“Most but not all A-fib cases can be controlled with anti-arrhythmia drugs. Unfortunately you haven’t responded to the drugs. Given the amount of discomfort you are experiencing and the effect it is having on your ability to function in daily life you are a good candidate for the ablation procedure.”Her voice is precise and passionless, lacking any warmth or sympathy. She is a dedicated professional. Sentiment is a distraction. But I am desperate for empathy, for reassurance; a sign that she wants to help me, that she will promise to take care of me and make sure I come through. 

“During the ablation we will use five separate catheters.” she points to a chart of the human body on her office wall. My arrhythmia is making my whole body shudder. I can barely concentrate. “Two will enter through each side of the groin and one through the neck. They will carry cameras, temperature sensors and the ultrasound emitters.”

She points to the cross-section chart of the heart and my fear level jumps up by a factor of five as I imagine what one of those upper chambers is doing right now, failing to contract properly.  How do they know it is not life threatening? How? What if I drop dead right now?

“We will push the catheters into your heart through the arteries. We enter the right upper chamber then burn a hole through the inner wall separating the left side from the right. We then push through to the left atria to the four vein entrances. Around those entrances are the areas where the electrical circuits have multiplied, causing the misfires in your heart that are responsible for the fibrillation. We will burn them off, cutting the circuits and stopping the arrhythmia.”

I am a blind corpse. They have placed a blanket on my face. There are strange sensations in my chest but the anesthetic has left me confused. I know what is happening but I can’t think clearly about it. But I can sense the pain. Every so often it gets worse as they burn; a sharp, terrifying pain in my heart. Out of the fog of the partial anesthetic I groan. From somewhere out of sight a voice murmurs that they will give me more anesthetic. Later, there is another sharp, sudden pain, and I groan again. Again the voice says something about more anesthetic. I register the words through a fog but I don’t really understand them. Only the pain is easy to comprehend. Every so often I hear a voice by my ear say gently: “Breathe,” and an awareness seeps in that I have stopped breathing. I take a breath. An indeterminate while later the same voice whispers again, “Breathe,” and I start breathing again.

I don’t know how long I have been here, under the blanket on my face. The passage of time only becomes a crystalline sharpness when the waves of pain intensify and the intermittent gentle voice urges me to breathe. It is an endless, swirling, terrifying experience that seems to have been going on all my life.

“There are risks involved. There is a one to two percent chance that a clot will form when the catheters move back and forth inside your heart. The clot could cause a blockage and you will suffer a massive heart attack. They are often fatal. To try and save you we will have to open you up and carry out open heart surgery.” She is relentless. I hate her. “There is a one percent chance that we will burn through the heart wall and breach the esophagus behind it. Within a few days infection will set in the heart as food particles get sucked into the chambers while blood seeps into the esophagus and fills it up. This type of complication is fatal. There are no remedies. Death follows within 10 to 20 days. To reduce the risk we insert a thermometer into your esophagus through your mouth that will warn us if the temperature rises too high, meaning we are getting too close to the esophagus wall. In addition, you will have to be awake through the procedure, so that we can tell by your reactions if anything is wrong.” I stare at the chart as she points dispassionately at the various danger points. I want to hit her. I want to scream at her. My arrhythmia is worse than it has ever been, exacerbated by stress and fear. My heart is hammering so threadily and fast in my chest that my whole torso is vibrating. I can no longer concentrate on anything but the torture in my chest.

“Jeff. Can you hear me?”  There is a voice somewhere outside of myself. I realize that I have already heard it several times calling my name in intervals and that I am awake. I try to think of a way to answer but the fog fills my mind and I can’t think of what do next. I am a blank slate.

“Why don’t you try to open your eyes?”

What an idea. It never occurred to me. Open your eyes. I didn’t even realize I had eyes. I think about it for a while and then I realize that I do have eyes and I can open them, and they do. There is a face hovering above me and I can sense something on my arm. I try to move my head but I have no strength.  But then I sense her hand moving up and down my arm in a comforting movement. She must be a nurse; and I remember that I am in a hospital.

“It’s over,” she says. “You’re out of surgery. You’re going to be okay.” And she pats my arm again. I become aware of tubes and monitoring instruments hovering all over me. Then I think about what she said. Is it over? The arrhythmia is gone. I realize with a start that my heart is beating normally. Is it over? No, no it isn’t. There are the potential complications and risks to watch for. If the burn went through my esophagus I won’t know for several days, by which time I will already be dying. But it won’t happen. I have to believe that. I am going to be okay.  I am going to have my life back. I want it!

I want it!!!

—–

Alon Josefsberg  is a real estate agent with a degree in history, and interests in astronomy, general science, space exploration, politics.

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I sit down at the table across from Cecily with my sandwich, sales fruit salad, site
and unsweetened iced tea. My tray makes a hard clanking sound and she looks up at me with neutral recognition before continuing her reading. She’s not eating. I should say not eating again because she goes through these periods where she just won’t. Not in an obvious way, though. More in a I’m-going-to-slowly-try-to-make-myself-disappear kind of way. Sooner or later, though, she always gets caught. One of the others slips a note to NancyLane or maybe it’s the dark green circles that start under her eyes when her body starts feeding itself by eating itself. It’s something she can’t control; even when her mind has decided to politely bow out of the play, her body seems to have a mind of its own.

I have never told on her, though. And I never would. But I know that if she ever dissolved into nothing there would soon be somebody else to replace her. Maybe another girl like the last one, but not necessarily another girl. Maybe a boy. It could be a boy, but whoever it would be they would be just like her. That’s just the way it works—certain types for certain parts.

I know, that sounds like something Cecily would say. Well, what if I told you that I used to pretty much be Cecily. I was where she is, I felt what she feels. I knew then what she knows now.

Cecily is always reading something. Today it’s Sylvia Plath. Fitting. She holds the book upright when she reads and all I can see is her eyes roving back and forth across the page. I can’t see her mouth moving but when I stop chewing I can hear breathy, quick little words from behind the book. Her fingers are long and slender and splayed across the front and back covers of the book, tap-tap-tapping away as she reads. She wears rings, lots of them. One on every finger maybe. She moves a hand quickly, like a bird flitting from a branch and relighting again. She turns the page and a small puff of air reaches me. Her hand settles again, tapping, in a new position. I can see most of the title, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams.

I sigh on the inside, and I think on the outside, too, but Cecily doesn’t seem to notice. It’s been one of those days. Bleecker wasn’t at group and nobody seems to know where he is. He isn’t exactly easy to miss, either. Ever since he’s shown up he’s caused problems, for everyone. He’s a button pusher. He’s a perpetual squeaky wheel. After he lashes out one too many times at group NancyLane has no choice but to call Dr. Bendrix in and he’s the one who calls Bleecker on his actions. He says to him, in a very un-doctorly way, “You know, you’re the only squeaky wheel in this group. You know what happens to the squeaky wheel?”

It’s probably supposed to be one of those rhetorical questions, but not to Bleecker. He says, “Yeah, it gets the grease, doc. It gets the grease.” But Bendrix just shakes his head no—back and forth, back and forth—but keeps his eyes fixed on Bleecker the whole time. The unspoken message is: I am the Alpha dog here. I am the tail that wags the whole kennel.

Now Bleecker is gone. Poof. Just like that. His entire suite swept and sterilized and de-Bleeckered. As if he was never here at all.

The morning’s group discussion was centered around Changes. Changes with a capital C. I wanted to say something like, “Are we talking sleeping-on-your-back-instead-of-your-stomach type changes or are we talking Bleecker-gets-released-while-the-rest-of-us-are-still-wearing-shower-shoes type changes?” I didn’t though. I didn’t say anything, and when NancyLane came to me and asked me about Changes, I just said “Pass.”

She cocked her head at me, like a dog listening to far-away barking, or maybe more the way Michael Myers does in H20 when he’s staring through a window, face-to-face with Jamie Lee Curtis after twenty years apart. That’s how NancyLane looks at me and I lean back, feeling the plastic patio chair legs beginning to buckle under me. They creak and I wobble side to side, then plant all four on the floor.

NancyLane taps her pencil against her lips and I stare over her eyes at the silvery blonde bob of hair. Perfect, a commercial for Aqua-net, fifty years ago anyway. “What?” I blurt out. “I said ‘Pass’ so pass.”

She looks at me the way you look at old men on benches at the mall or people in wheelchairs in the hospital lobby, then she moves on to Ted—the Freakshow, the C-word, the Psycho. He’s always willing to talk.

Cecily flips another page of Plath and the whiff of air hits me again. This time it moves my hair, though. I look down the table at her and she’s not down the table at all. She’s two seat away from me now, sitting exactly how she was before, reading with her eyes flying across the page. Her lips are moving like an incantation and I can hear her now, but something is wrong as—whiff—she flips another page:

“Day of Success. Page 89. ‘Your inner woman, of course!’ Nancy exclaimed impatiently. ‘You need to take a good, long look at yourself in the mirror. The way I should have, before it was too late,’ she added grimly. ‘Men won’t admit it, but they do want a woman to look right, really fatale. The right hat, the right color…Now’s your chance, Ellen. Don’t miss it!’”

I put the rest of my sandwich down, reaching for the sealed fruit cup cocktail instead. I devour it, but it’s more about anger than hunger. It certainly isn’t about taste. The syrup squishes out the corners of my mouth and runs down my chin and in two spoonfuls it’s all gone. All around my mouth it’s slick and sweet and I’m barely resisting the urge to snap my plastic spoon in half and eat that, too. Instead, I stare at it like a puzzle.

“Henry.”

The whisper is in my ear, so close I swear I can feel the flick of a tongue across my lobe. I turn and Cecily is there. Not just there, she’s in the seat right next to me, pulled right up alongside mine, her face inches from my cheek. The book is—I don’t know where the book is.

She puts takes two fingers and sticks them into my mouth, still holding my eye contact. Now sniffing my face as she swabs my cheek with her fingers. She pulls something out and holds it delicately between her fingers, a maraschino cherry from my fruit cup.

She holds it up at eye level, between us, shiny and sweet and dripping. Her voice goes from a whisper to that of a librarian scolding a child for an overdue book. “Henry, you took my cherry.” With that she bursts it cruelly between her pointer and thumb. I hear static in my head, the volume coming up, louder, louder, then a scream long and drawn out like a train whistle, but female, very female.

I cover my ears, blink hard and when I open my eyes Cecily is back down at the end of the table reading. Her fingers tap-tap-tapping, eyes roving line to line. In front of me is my tray, my half-eaten sandwich, my spoon and my empty fruit cup.

Except for the cherry, mutilated, gash-down in the syrup.

—–

Luke Boyd worked as a dishwasher throughout college and also in a sawmill. Now he teaches high school in the city. There are more kids than desks and more desks than computers.

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“Hurry up, click child, medical they’ll be starting soon, rx and if we’re late, we will miss it.”  The old woman pulled at the hand of the little girl, almost dragging her along the marble hallway of the museum.  “It’s not everyone who can see such as we’re about to.”

The girl ran again for a bit, but she was tired from the long trip down the river and the carriage ride into the heart of the city.  It was late, and she felt very sleepy.  And the museum was a little scary, with the old tapestries on the walls, and the suits of armor, and only a few lamps here and there giving off a faint smoky light.

And then they were in the great chamber, the centerpiece of the museum.  Along the upper balcony, actually, but the room was so large, it scarcely seemed that they were above the floor at all.  There were a few score others around the balcony, glittering nobles, politicians dressed in suits, a great opera singer and her escort who hung back a little as if uncertain of his place.

The old woman, as common as could be, pushed past a plump burgher’s wife without so much as an excuse me, and came right to the iron railing, with her granddaughter clinging to her, and then to the bars.  They both turned their eyes below.

It was a huge chamber, with a dozen candelabras giving light onto the highly polished gray marble of the floor.  There was only one exhibit visible, a bower in the center of the chamber, padded in satin that seemed a bit worse for wear, the color something like pink, though a trifle faded.  And on the bed was a young woman, no more than twenty-five, pale and blond and still, her chest scarcely moving with her breath.  She was dressed in pink satin as well, but of better quality, and with golden ornaments.

“The gold is false,” the old woman said, and was hushed by the burgher’s wife.  She glared at the plump woman and then turned back to her granddaughter.  “Wouldn’t do to have the real jewels stolen, now would it, dearie?  But the princess is lovely, all the same.”

And the little girl nodded, for it was true, the princess was lovely.  Her face was fine-boned, the nose slim and not too long, the lips pale but full, with a proud little chin.  Her delicate hands were crossed over her slim waist, and her feet, visible in slippers that matched her dress, were small.

A whisper went up though the crowd, as four men entered the great chamber from a door on the ground floor.  They crossed the great expanse that was normally filled with the curious from all about the country, and then they stopped at the foot of the bower.

“Look at them, sweetling.  That’s the mayor of the city, and the governor of the province, who holds it for the duke, and the third one is the Bishop, him in the white.  They’re all very important men.”

The burgher’s wife harrumphed the whole speech, and the old woman turned to her and asked, “Whatever is the problem, goodwife?”

The wife paused, and then answered slowly.  “How on earth did such a creature as you and this little urchin gain admittance to this occasion?”

“We had a ticket of my grandmother’s grandmother, who saw it when last it happened.  There’s not many as can keep the tickets, but they’re good for every time, so they say.  And so we’re here, and there’s naught you can do about it, old bag, so just get you back to your husband, and if we’ve missed anything from your spite, you’ll feel the hard end of my hand.”  And the old woman, who was often a washer, held up a fist, and chuckled as the burgher’s wife hurried away to her husband.  “You remember that, sweet, to keep the ticket as I’ve got, so another girl can come see this next time.”
The little girl nodded, but didn’t say anything, only turned back and looked on.  The mayor, governor and Bishop were moving about the little bed, looking at the woman who rested on it, and then finally they all came back to the fourth man.

“Who’s that?” the girl asked.

“Why, he must be the Prince, to do the kissing, since none of the others are.  Now they’ve looked her over, it must be just about time for him to do his bit.”

The youth in question was rather plain, with a lumpish sort of face that was surmounted by hair already thinning.  He was at least tall, and fair of limb, but he seemed nervous and uncertain in the suit he wore, with its ribbons and medals from all the honors he had gotten simply by being a Prince.  After a few hushed comments from the Bishop and the governor, he took a step forward, then another, and then a third, to stand just beside the princess on her bower.

“Just get on with it,” the governor hissed, loud enough to be heard in the gallery, and with only a moment’s hesitation the young man leaned over and kissed the woman full on the lips, then sprang back as if he had been burned.

The woman stirred, ever so slightly, then blinked her eyes open, and rubbed them with her delicate little hands and then sat up.  She looked about a moment, inhaled deeply, and screamed.  The Prince stepped back a few paces, while the governor and the Bishop moved in to the princess, and the mayor stepped aside to head off the Prince, who looked about to run.  The princess kept screaming, but now she screamed words, almost comprehensible but not quite, and kept screaming.  In the galleries, some of the spectators were applauding, and some were leaving, the best and most important parts having already passed.

“She can’t even speak properly,” the little girl said.

“My dearest, she’s been this way for hundreds of years, ever since the curse first took effect.  She’s speaking the way she was taught, long ago.  The Bishop, I wager, can make it out, see, there, he’s speaking to her, and she’s calming down.”

“What will happen now, Grandmother?”

“What always happens, my dear.  She’ll marry the Prince, whether they want to or not, and she’ll likely have a child, and then, sooner or later in a year or two, she’ll prick her finger on a pin, or a tack, or something, and she’ll be back here again for a hundred years.”

“So she’s the real princess?”

“Yes, sweets, she is.”

“I thought it was just a fairy tale,” the girl protested.

The old woman looked down on the skittish Prince being pushed forward, on the woman still babbling to the Bishop who looked rather uncertain, at the great empty chamber that was normally the haunt of the curious throng, and she whispered, “Not for her.”

—–

Jason Vanhee is a writer living in Seattle.  He is the author of the young adult novel Engines of the Broken World, and he blogs about writing and other similar nonsense at thousandstoriesandonestory.blogspot.com

—–

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Dora loved to work in the garden. The feel of the rich, sick warm earth sifting through her fingers always took her into a world of peacefulness. In the garden, buy viagra she even forgot the sweat soaking her auburn hair and cascading down her face.  This afternoon, case the banter of chickadees in her favorite linden tree was punctuated by a rattling sound like dried leaves in autumn.

Looking to her right, she saw nuthatches taking off and landing. Their wings made the rustling sound that had caught her attention.

The linden lay in the untouched woods just beyond the land she had been cultivating. Leaving her tools behind, she walked to the tree and gently explored its rough bark.. She could feel the exuberant sap just below it, surging to the top of the tree.

Curious, she discovered a miniature shoot with tiny leaves just beyond her fingertips. She began nibbling on them, tasting their vague lime flavor.  She felt like one of the mule deer she often saw coming out of the woods at sunset.

She took off her shoes and followed one of the paths the deer had made among the trees.  It led to a meadow with a stream sparkling over a natural rock bed.  Overcome by thirst, she lay on her stomach and siphoned the water with her mouth, drinking without stopping to catch her breath. Satisfied, she rolled on her back, willing herself to absorb the delicate scent of the wildflowers covering the bank of the stream.

Butterflies began landing on her motionless body, their wings gently kissing her face.  She joined their intricate mating dance without moving until their colors blurred into the background and the cadence of the stream called her to join it at its source.     At the spring the sun promised twilight and perhaps a glimpse of the deer’s nightly amble. Caught by a movement to her left, she saw a deer peering hesitantly from between two yearling trunks. The doe held her head high, evaluating Dora.  Perhaps deciding Dora was no threat, the doe began to drink. Soon five more joined her. Not wanting to disturb them, Dora waited until the deer finished drinking and walked out of sight before she turned back toward the garden. She savored the last minutes of her walk, trying to store the wholeness it brought to her. When she reached the outskirts of the woods, she heard the insistent ‘Dah dah dah dah …..Dah dah dah dah’ that announced a call from her office.  With a sigh, she picked up her cell phone and answered, “Hello, this is Dora.”

—–

P. F. Palm, is a former teacher, librarian, and systems analyst.  Her flash fiction (“The Black Jay”) has been accepted for publication in the Summer 2011 issue of Calliope magazine (http://www.calliopewriters.org).

—–

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When I was seventeen, pharmacy I hitchhiked down to Reba Place Fellowship (Evanston, ampoule Illinois) to hang out with my friend and brother-in-spirit, physician Dean, for the summer. Our relationship was in transition from a his-teasing-me-by-calling-me-“Mule Horn”-and-my-father-a-“most reverend man”-and-my-punching-him-and-making-him-go-ooooeeeeeee-ooooeeeeee-and-tease-me-even-harder-so-I’d-get-even-madder stage to an us-dropping-windowpane-acid-and-driving-around-mostly-to-Orchard-Park-Mall-where-we’d-sit-around-in-Sears’-furniture-showroom-or-watch-blue-haired-old-ladies-eat-lunch-in-the-cafeteria stage. We were growing up. Dean was the oldest of six. Next down, Colleen, who had always been way more mature than either of us, was “dating” this thirty-something-year-old black man with a restored T-Bird coup and who drove a stretch limo for some super-rich white guy who owned a piece of the Empire State Building. The youngest three, Peter, Jill and Hans, were just “babies.” So Dean passed his legacy for and ability to piss me off down to his younger brother, Tim. Tim could take a sturdier beating too.

My parents’ friends, the Belsers, let me board in their small apartment that summer. Although Julius Belser, a Fellowship elder, could do funny impressions of a Cow named Elmer, we were never close. And his oldest, Nevin, happily for him, wasn’t cool enough to hang with Dean and me. So for most of the summer, I just slept at the Belsers’, if that.

Because Dean’s little brother Tim and I weren’t really friends or peers, there was nothing for us to return to after he had finished getting on my case and I had finished beating him up. So the animosity between us just kind of built. Toward the end of the summer, the Belsers went away for a couple weeks, and left me in charge. I feigned a truce with Tim by inviting him over for wine and a “home-cooked” meal. Tim, touched by my overture and the opportunity of underage drinking, accepted. I prepared a buttery rice dish with all sorts of delicious seafood and, in his case, 4 hits of Ex-Lax powdered up in it. It never occurred to me that such a massive overdose of laxative could harm or possibly even kill through dehydration a fifteen-year-old with normally functioning bowels. Tim survived, but for the next week suffered terribly from spontaneous and often copious anal leakage accompanied by severe cramping and squitters. If he happened to be in the vicinity of Belsers’ apartment during or subsequent to such an attack, or even if he had to go a little out of his way, he would stop by the Belsers’ apartment and use their facilities (or furniture) and their washcloths, and when these ran out, their towels, and then their dishtowels, to clean himself up. He also did minor structural damage such as to the door to my room, and cosmetic/aesthetic damage such as to the walls and carpets and whatnot. He also ground up Ex-Lax and mixed it into or sprinkled it onto any and all foodstuffs in the refrigerator or cupboards that would support such tampering and adulteration. I abandoned the premises to live out of Dean’s car and his parents’ garage shortly after, and so none of his heavy-handed retaliations affected me personally, although I did later learn from my parents that the Belsers had expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of my house sitting.

The thing that got me thinking and reminiscing about all of this was Israel’s attacking Lebanon, and therefore indirectly Syria and Iran too I suppose. I guess I kind of see the Arabs as Dean-cum-Tim and me as Israel, and the whole theater of the Middle East and maybe even the world as Belsers’ tiny apartment. Or maybe Tim’s Israel and I’m the Arabs. I’m pretty sure Steven Harper would describe Tim’s retaliatory response as “measured” even given the large amount of innocent collateral suffering such as to the Belsers and also to some of the patrons of Mast House Basement Hootenanny Night where Tim put leftover Ex-Lax in soft drink bottles on the off chance I would imbibe. I guess I just saw Tim as sort of Arab-like in the way he was always begging me to kick the crap out of him (metaphorically speaking here) by seeing how far he could push me. I mean, like I was twice his size. I mean, like if you tend to lose wars in under a week, if you don’t have an air force as in warplanes and pilots and nuclear devices or anything, if you have no concept of strategy or modern warfare or even a military per se, you should probably not piss off someone who has. So Steven Harper would have probably called my physical beatings and subsequent poisoning of Tim in response to his egregious verbal teasing a “measured response” as well. And so it occurs to me that Steven Harper would probably destroy the planet via measured and counter-measured responses beginning with something as simple as someone just flipping someone off.

So a few years ago my wife and I flew down to California. Colleen was chief steward on a huge China-bound cargo ship loading in Long Beach, and Dean and Tim were successful real estate agents in Carlsbad and San Diego respectively. We stayed with Dean. Colleen had us down for an extensive tour of her “boat” from the three lowest engineering decks up to her galley w/ apartment-sized freezers up to the panoramic bridge. I had not seen Tim in over thirty years, since that summer of acid and Ex-Lax, and he insisted that we all come over for a Barbeque. He had just put in a pool. His new granite countertops had cost more than my Hyundai Elantra. Like his parents, he was a musician, and so he had a recording studio in his basement. Tim was living large. It was quite the gala and it really was good to see him again. He had spared no expense on the “organic” steaks. There were various entrees such as baked beans and potato salad, and of course drinks and desserts.

“Man, I’m impressed,” I said. “This all looks great. I’m starved.”

“Dig in,” said Tim.

So we did. We dug in. And we drank and we laughed and we reminisced and we caught up. We remembered the good old days. And nothing bad happened.

“You know,” I said at the end of the night, “this would have been the perfect time.”

“Yeah,” he said, “it had occurred to me.” Then he laughed.

So maybe there’s hope for us.

—–

Christopher Miller’s fiction has appeared in COSMOS, The Barcelona Review, Hopewell Publishing’s “Best New Writing 2010? anthology, Redstone Science Fiction and other print and web based magazines and anthologies. He works as a systems analyst. He writes for fun.

Read more stories by Christopher Miller

—–

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The storm hit like a hammer.  I thought the car roof was going to cave in.  I thought the road beneath our wheels was going to rejoin the sea.

Maddie is a backseat driver, ask which is fine when there’s nothing to worry about, but could get us killed when I really have to concentrate.  “Go faster!” she said.  “Pull over!  Turn the windshield wipers off!  Stay in the right lane!  Slow down!”  She said everything that popped into her head all at once, because it was less terrifying than paying attention.

But I had to pay attention.  We couldn’t see 10 feet in front of us, but damn fools were still driving the speed limit so we didn’t dare stop.  The side of the road had turned into a mud river and if we fell in it would be days before anyone could get the car out.  If I screamed, something terrible would happen.

Lightning flashed, and thunder, all at once:  the storm was right on top of us.  A car passed us on our left, then skidded across our lane and off the road.  There’s a goddamn curve in the road:  mud splattered against Maddie’s window, then got pounded off by the rain.  The car was making all kinds of sounds, the engine was getting wet, for a moment I thought I heard our windshield cracking.

“Jim!” she shrieked, and she grabbed my arm.  I pushed her away.  I had to push her away.  I didn’t mean to hit her, it’s a car, there’s no room, my elbow … I didn’t mean to hit her, but I didn’t have time to see if she was okay.  Just past the highway, lightning struck a tree, set it on fire, knocked it to the ground, and a moment later the rain put it out:  thunder boxed my ears in, I could hardly hear her crying.

“You never take care of me!” she screamed, and I didn’t have time to think of anything to say.

Three minutes later the storm passed.  Three minutes:  I could tell by the clock in our car.  According the odometer, we’d gone maybe half a mile.  There were a few other cars still on the road, and a lot of them trapped in the mud sea on either side.  I saw three cars overturned, completely overturned, their passenger cabins scrunched in under the weight of their own bodies, their drivers struggling to open the doors or crawl through the broken windows, the mud seeping in.

We were still driving.  I took us up to 10.  To 20.  To 30.  I pointed to the side of the road.  I kept us from that.  I kept us from that, but the words wouldn’t come out of my mouth.  Maddie had a bloody nose.  She wouldn’t look at the side of the road, and she wouldn’t look at me either.

“You don’t take care of me,” she said.  “You broke my nose.”

“We’re safe,” I said, my hands shaking.  “We’re safe.

“You broke my nose.”

“It’s not broken.”

“You hit me.”

I could barely hear her, the thunder was still in my head.  “I’m sorry.”  I don’t know if she could hear me.

Three cars completely overturned off the side of the road, a dozen more stuck, and we drove out of it.  We drove out of it, we could walk away.  But we weren’t okay.  Ever since then, I was the guy who, when she grabbed my arm, pushed her away and left her bloody.

I kept the car, she got the house.  She’s married now to a cop, and I still have the thunder ringing in my head.  Kiss me.

—–

Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues.  He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

Read more stories by Benjamin Wachs.

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Every Sunday, medical Fiction365 presents a new chapter of a previously unpublished novel.

City of Human Remains, by Darren Callahan, is a suspenseful mystery set in a dystopian future. 81 children have somehow disappeared in a city where there is no right to privacy, and everything is taped and available for review. Finding them should be easy … but then, losing them should have been impossible.

The current chapter, chapter 22, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Tesque

Father Tesque juts his head out of the Confessional.  There is a man – a man he knows – holding the coffin-shaped brass knob of the adjoining box and preparing to enter.  This man is a member of the parish, no rx and his voice is high-pitched and educated.  This is not the man he had been speaking with moments before, tadalafil the stranger asking for the Sacrament of Penance.  That man has escaped undetected.  Father Tesque scans the church for signs.  There are none.

The parishioner looks embarrassed to be seen entering the Confessional.  Oh.  Hello.  Were you leaving?

Father Tesque scoops a hand at the man and smiles, here signaling that it is all right to enter.  He awkwardly returns to the privacy of the Confessional.

All afternoon, Tesque listens to men and women pour their sins through the partition.  The transgressions are, for the most part, not severe.  The mysteriously vanished man who wounded a woman appears to be the worst of the lot.  The others, though worthy of penance, have committed only common mistakes, bound by their humanity, the details a blur.  He does notice a high quotient of confessions related to children, though, and the wrongs done to them since the 81 went missing, including corporal punishment, resentment, and harsh language.  A great purge is underway, which will hopefully refine these parents in a positive way, taking the evil that is the 81’s disappearances and transmuting into God’s lessons.

So he listens.

And he nods.

Blesses.

Assigns penance.

And, as always, Father Tesque leaves the task drained and hungry and feeling every bit of his 51 years.

Later that afternoon, he goes to O’Malley’s, a quiet neighborhood pub five blocks north of St. Patrick’s.  At O’Malley’s, he is known and he is admired.  O’Malley often sits front row of his homily.

Tesque occupies his favorite corner booth and sips chilled wine.  He prepares notes for next Sunday’s service, to get a jump on things.  Today’s morning riot has given him much to talk about, even though the consequences to attendance were severe.  It’s difficult to read from the Bible when there are glides blowing up outside your church, he laughs.  Who wants to make their way through that?  He didn’t anticipate the church to be more full after service than during, but it was so.  This Sunday will be historic indeed.

He considers what could be said about the state of things.  There are many Bible scriptures he could connect to the current circumstances of City 32, but all seem false and patronizing to him in the face of very real grief.  And a very real danger.  Only through the good training of the police was the damage contained to the square.  St. Patrick’s may not be spared this blight if the unrest returns.

Father Tesque scratches through handwritten lines.

He’s not found the right tone.

The message is there, but it is hollow.  It is no different from what has been in the editorials.  After an hour, he dredges up the lessons of his seminary.  What makes a great homily is a great story.  And he doesn’t have a great story.  Not yet.  Only the fragments of feelings.

Tesque scans O’Malley’s for strangers.  He doesn’t want a chummy tale told by a drunken mate.  He wants the unknown scrap, the unknown voice.  The striking significance of what is new.  That’s the only thing that inspires him lately is a fresh perspective, not the narrow histories of his friends, who will either concoct inflammatory details, or trim out the good bits because Father Tesque is their spiritual leader.  Neither is what he seeks.

No.

That will not do.

He combs his wavy gray hair with his fingers and is sure to dust any crumbs from his white, fuzzy beard before speaking.  Excuse me, he calls out to a tall man in a clean suit seated two tables from his booth.  He is busy manicuring his nails while hovering over the latest flash edition, and its account of the riot.

The man looks up.

Excuse me… My name is Father Tesque.  I was wondering if I could have a moment of your time.

The man’s expression does not change.  But nor does he look away.

Please.  What’s your name?

Ted, the man proclaims from across the pub as he rests his Emory board on the table.  Ted Appleton.

Would you spare a moment for me, Ted?  I’m writing something and, and, well, I’ll buy you a drink for 10 minutes of your time.

Coffee.  The man nods to his cup.

Let’s make it an Irish Coffee, then.

No, I just want coffee.

Oh.  Of course.

Tesque signals the bartender (not Mr. O’Malley today, it seems) and calls out his order.  Good coffee for my friend Ted, if you please!

Ted stands from his wooden chair and crosses to the booth of Father Tesque.  He stands for an awkward moment as Tesque clears his papers.

Please, the priest welcomes at last.  Sit.

Ted slides into the opposite slip of the booth and shuffles the curve of the leather until he is directly across from Tesque.

Tesque is immediately struck by the man’s posture.  He practically has rigor mortis.  And his suit is perfectly cut and perfectly worn.  Even his fingernails, unfinished, seem over-polished, over-bright.  Ted puts his palms flat on the table and, in his face, there is a look: don’t touch me.  Tesque regrets his choice of interviewee.

Tell me, Ted, he asks as the bartender delivers Ted’s coffee, why do you live in this city?

My family.

Oh, you came here for family?

No.  I came here alone.  But I have a family now.

Well…why did you come here before you had a family.

The same reason anyone comes to the city.  For work.

Have you ever thought of leaving 32?

Ted hesitates.  Only recently.

Ah, nods the priest, winking and putting a finger to his eyebrow then drawing the finger back, it’s the violence, the children.  If you’re a family man, it does make the countryside sound appealing, doesn’t it?

Is there any countryside anymore? jokes Ted.

Father Tesque appreciates the observation.

What I’d like to do, Ted, if it’s all right, is talk about your experience in the city.  How many years you’ve been a resident, where you work, about your circumstance, what led you even to be in this pub right now.  I’m crafting a sermon.  Everything will be confidential.  But, if my seminary school taught me well those 33 years ago – has it been 33?  Yes.  Oh goodness!  They taught me that it is the real stories that matter most.  Not some espousing of rhetoric, like the politicians.  The only way to reach the people in the congregation, Ted, you see…is to tell them something real.  Am I being too foggy?

No, I understand.

Tesque nods.  Good.  And, and rest assured, Ted, that anything you tell me will be held in the strictest confidence.  I’m not asking you to testify in front of my congregation.  This is simply to help me get my bearings.

So what I tell you is secret?

Absolutely, my son.  I only want to relate what you’ve encountered in City 32 and compare it to what I know of the scriptures, and then see if I can find meaning in it.

Will that be hard?

Shouldn’t.  Might.  Let’s give it a go.

Ted picks at his fingernails, looks down.  He scratches off some of the manicure.

That’s all right, isn’t it, Ted?  Tesque is sensing the man’s wall being built brick by brick on the table.

And what I say will be held in strictest confidence?  Ted is pushing for assurances.

Tesque draws two fingers across his lips, zipping them.  Then, in an ill-matched gesture, throws away an invisible key.

Slowly at first, then quickly, Ted nods.

Father Tesque rubs hands and picks up his pencil.  He is ready, a horse at the gate.  Fantastic!  Tell me, Ted, what’s the worst thing that you’ve ever experienced since moving to 32?  The number one.  No equivocation.

Father Tesque looks into Ted Appleton’s eyes, maybe for the first time, realizing that the man is not born of a mercurial nature, but this has been acquired at some time in his past.  His expensive clothes, his manners, his posture, may be, he’s suddenly decided, a kind of armor.  It is as if he is wearing a mask.

A few days ago, says Ted without emotion, I did something I always thought would be interesting.  I killed a policeman and then cut him apart with an ax.
Every Sunday, cialis Fiction365 presents a new chapter of a previously unpublished novel.

City of Human Remains, viagra sale by Darren Callahan, is a suspenseful mystery set in a dystopian future. 81 children have somehow disappeared in a city where there is no right to privacy, and everything is taped and available for review. Finding them should be easy … but then, losing them should have been impossible.

The current chapter, chapter 23, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

|| Doll Industries – For Release: Douglaz Doll Biography ||

Douglaz Doll is a man out of time.  He is no ordinary 21st century businessman.  Considered by many to be one of the most brilliant minds in American society, viagra sale considered by others to be a reckless egomaniac, information pills
Mr. Doll acknowledges neither of these opinions.  Instead, he focuses on his own unique path of invention, innovation, and the health of his burgeoning company.

Born on September 23rd, 2047, the son of Cindy Manson Mecurio, a global climate specialist, and Robert Quinn Doll, a businessman, Mr. Doll has not always been as successful as he is today.  His mother and father met in 2044 and married 6 weeks thereafter.  The city of Mr. Doll’s birth was __________, now known as City 27, but he has resided in City 32 since the age of 5.  His mother was transferred to the local television station to work as a staff meteorologist.  Though she never appeared on camera, Cindy Doll was reported to have been very charismatic.

His father’s ambitions were in real estate.  His natural business instincts (passed to his son) soon bore fruit, as Mr. Doll’s father was able to embark on his own Building and Loan firm in January of 2050, helped in part by a city grant for ‘Young Professionals of Ideas.’

Unfortunately, any long-term success was cut short.  Both parents were killed in a late-night single car crash in the spring of 2054.  The cause of the accident is not known.

An architect from Argentina named Tomas Zigon (who would later become famous in his own right) had become close with Mr. Doll’s parents and a bond was formed with young Douglaz.  Mr. Zigon applied for custody of the boy and this was granted, thus saving Mr. Doll from residence in City Orphanage, as he had no surviving grandparents or other close relatives.

In 2068, at the age of 17, Mr. Doll attended Commonwealth School of Economics, but later dropped out due to lack of interest in the field.  In 2069, he briefly considered a career as a lawyer with an eventual eye toward politics, as Mr. Zigon had many friends who were politicians, including the presiding mayor of City 32, John Cumberland, and successor for the popular Jesus Rey (who died while serving his fourth term of office.) Deciding he enjoyed invention more than politics, Mr. Doll instead went into mechanical engineering at the newly formed Innovators School, a special project of Mayor Cumberland.

Mr. Doll was certainly the brightest of the school’s first generation, and by mid-2076 he had graduated, settled into his own offices on Canal Street, and started an invention business, christened Doll Industries.

With a staff of just 16, Mr. Doll slowly secured a set of patents and was able to expand the business to new offices by winter of 2080.  Soon, Doll Industries’ number of employees topped 100 men and women.  Doll’s first products were well received in the market, but not notable beyond their ability to create revenue.

‘I’m successful, I think, because I don’t pay any attention to trends,” Douglaz Doll was quoted as saying in ‘32 Magazine’ in March of ‘81.  ‘In fact, my employees sometimes make a joke of me for being a backwards thinker.  I know modern technology, sure.  But zeros and ones don’t excite me the way gears and levers do.’

Mr. Doll’s skills bridged three key areas: mechanics, technology, and business.  This created a perfect synergy for his ideas.  Whether the latest technological marvel from inner or outer space, or a broken telephone from the last century, Mr. Doll has a depth of understanding that far surpasses the normal American corporate executive.  Even the way in which he dresses and the way he cuts his hair seem from another time, another place.

Mr. Doll’s greatest achievement to date is the Doll Weather System, currently undergoing Pilot Test in City 32.  The first several years of the pilot are considered an unqualified success.  This has created high expectations as Mr. Doll considers taking Doll Industries public for the first time in its history.  I don’t know,’ laments this captain of industry, ‘I’m used to controlling everything.  We have a very entrepreneurial business culture.  I think I could work with a board of directors, but that doesn’t mean I like everyone knowing my business.  I identify with, say, the infamous Howard Hughes, as a recluse, more than the late Bill Gates, as a global personality and philanthropist. ‘

The sponsoring government of City 32 doesn’t agree with Doll’s characterization.  In fact, Mayor Franco Cocanaugher was recently quoted: ‘We look forward to a long partnership with Doll Industries, and particularly its president and founder.  In fact, we’re a lot alike, Douglaz and I – we both have the same tastes.  But there’s one major difference: he’s a genius, whereas I am not.  Our city is lucky to have him.  It’s like Alexander Graham Bell living next door to you.  Everything he’s made has helped this city, particularly the weather system.  We’re grateful. ‘

Now that there is control of the weather, or as Mr. Doll prefers we say, ‘stabilization of the weather,‘ Doll Industries has expanded to a 60-story building in the financial district.   The bottom four floors are the central business offices of Doll Industries; the upper floors are the luxurious living quarters of Mr. Doll and key staff members.  There is also a weather technical resource center near the city docks.  With over 500 field employees and nearly 220 office employees, every element of the system is closely monitored.

As for his personal life, Douglaz Doll has never married and has no children.  ‘I’m a creature of late nights and isolation, and completely focused on the success of the company and my inventions, ‘ he explains, ‘what about that would sound appealing to a woman? ‘

For more information on Douglaz Doll, Doll Industries, or its products, please contact the Media Education Office, Second Floor, The Doll Building, City 32.
I went to high school with a kid who was invisible.

Not like, levitra H.G. Wells invisible. Just unnoticeable. Easy to glance over and miss. The way you hear about kids in abusive homes learning the trick of not being noticed as a survival trait. Not to say that this kid had a bad home, or anything. I mean, maybe he did. I dunno, I never talked to him.

But this story isn’t about him. Someone else will have to tell his story, ‘cause I don’t know it. I only brought him up because the girl was sort of like that. The Ghost Girl.

I didn’t actually believe in ghosts, never having gone in for that supernatural fantasy stuff. Jilly does, though, and she’s the one who started calling her that. “Been haunting the Ghost Girl?” she’d ask when we met at Mr. Spot’s for coffee on a Wednesday night, her eyes twinkling in that special way she only gets when she’s giving me shit.

I wasn’t haunting her…except that I sort of was. So what if I went a little out of my way to cut through that vacant lot on my way to work every night? It wasn’t like I hung around waiting for her.

Except that one time.

The first time I saw her was on a Monday, a gray, cold evening that had been threatening rain to the point where I almost wanted it, like an old man wishing Death would just get it over with. My last class had run a little late and it was my first night at my new job tending bar at the Lock &  Keel. Not knowing the area, I tried to take a short cut and got promptly lost. It’s one of those places where old streets crash up against modern urban planning and you end up with crooked intersections and one-ways that lead nowhere.

I was somewhat frantically trying to get my bearings when I saw her, leaning against a brick wall by a wooden door that looked like it hadn’t been opened in decades.

I almost didn’t see her at first, the way she almost blended in with the gray brick wall, streaked with black as if someone had tried to paint it by dripping buckets of outdoor glossy down from the roof.

She had that kind of timeless look about her that I’ve never been able to resist, wrapped in a long gray coat with ash-blonde hair mostly tucked under a black beret. She was trying to light a cigarette with a match, which the cool evening wind wasn’t making easy. I imagined smoothly walking up to her, offering her a light like Bogart in some old film noir, but while I was dreaming she successfully lit the thing and took a long, smooth drag.

I cursed myself silently as I hurried past, and made it to work in just enough time. While pulling pints that night I wondered if she’d come in, but I wasn’t that lucky.

That’s when I started taking the not-so-shortcut on a regular basis – not every day, but enough. Eventually I did catch her at just the right time to offer her a light, but other than her soft, low “thanks” and my terribly witty and smooth “no problem,” we didn’t say anything. What could I say? “So, come here often? To this…alley?”

The next time we spoke, I gave her a light again. If she suspected I’d been gripping my lighter as I walked, waiting for this opportunity, she didn’t show it. She looked as if she was waiting for something, and anything that wasn’t it barely registered. Like me.

For some reason, my thoughts jumped into my throat and before I knew it I was saying, “Are you waiting for something?”

She nodded slowly, looking somewhere just to the left of my eyes.

“Yeah.”

When she didn’t offer anything else in the silence that followed, I mumbled something to the effect of “see ya,” and walked quickly away.

The next time I saw her there was the last. I was coming up the street and thought for sure I could see her by the door as usual, gray and black and ash in the dwindling light of dusk, but when I looked back a minute later she was gone. I squinted, remembering how she sometimes blended in, almost invisible. But it was no good.

She was gone.

I didn’t see her again for a long time. It was the next quarter, and I was at the library doing some research, looking up local historical documents. I was looking at old photos and newspapers on microfiche, and there she was.

Oh, you think you know the story now? That the girl was staring up at me from some yellowed photograph, maybe an obituary mentioning a tragic fire in whatever used to be on that vacant lot? Sorry, my life’s not that exciting.

She was just standing in line, waiting to check out a book, her hand on the arm of a tall, muscular guy I recognized as a mechanic who worked at a garage in the area. My ghost girl was just a girl, waiting for her boyfriend to get off work. Sometimes life is like that – you notice something odd and think you’ve stumbled onto a bit of magic, but on closer inspection it’s just someone else’s boring life.

That newspaper idea is good, though. Maybe I’ll try it next time I tell this story.

—–

Sarah Shay is a writer, journalist, and musician living in Seattle. When not writing about music and magic, she makes magical music with street folk trio The Mongrel Jews.

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The box was outside the charity shop when I came to unlock this morning. I took a quick glance inside, look spotted what appeared to be an urn and closed the flap quickly. I thought the shock of Cedric’s death was making me hallucinate.

I made a cup of tea before looking in the box again. Inside there really was an urn and it wasn’t empty. There was a plaque on the side. I read Cedric’s name and dates before dropping the urn. The lid stayed on. It was me, find not the ashes which fell to the ground.

“Emily, what on earth’s wrong?” Millie asked as soon as she arrived.

I showed her the vase.

“That’s the name of your friend’s husband isn’t it? But, that can’t be right. I thought the cremation wasn’t until tomorrow.”

“So did I.”

“What are you doing with an urn anyway?” she asked.

“It was left outside the shop.”

“Well that’s not right.”

Nothing about this was right. I phoned Margaret.

“Oh hello, Emily. Got my little gift did you?”

“Why did you send it, Margaret?”

“Why not? I wasn’t keen on him cluttering up my lounge when he was alive and paying the bills. I certainly don’t want him doing it now.”

“How can you say such a thing?” I asked.

“What’s up? Don’t like people talking ill of the dead? Well I don’t like people lying and cheating.”

“You know?”

“Oh yes, I know. I suppose it’s partly my own fault, I shouldn’t have donated things so generously. I didn’t know you’d take my husband along with the other bric-a-brac.”

“It was Cedric who donated everything, not you.”

“Is that what he told you dear? I’m sorry, but adulterous men are rather prone to lying.”

“But the urn …?”

“I just thought you’d like to have him to yourself for a change. He’s no use to me now. All I need is the insurance money.”

“But it’s not really him, the funeral isn’t until tomorrow.”

“Thought it best to have it as soon as possible, to save any embarrassment.”

“What embarrassment?”

The only reply was Margaret’s laugh.

Why would she want to rush the funeral, unless she had something to hide? I recalled the evening Cedric died and realised the awful truth;  after he’d staggered home from my house, Margaret had killed him.

She’d cremated him so there was no evidence.

“It was you. You killed him, you’re evil.”“Positively poisonous, Emily dear, but don’t worry I’ll be moving away soon, you’ll never have to see me again.” She laughed again before hanging up.

Poison, she must have poisoned him I reasoned. He was always telling me about the pills and potions she made him take. He’d said they did more harm than good, but I hadn’t taken any notice.

I couldn’t let her get away with it, so I told the police everything.  I’m not sure they believed me to start with. They got interested when I explained about the urn. After that, they wrote down every word and I signed a statement. As I was leaving, I remembered his donor card.

“He asked for his organs to be used, will you be able to test those for poison?”

“Yes madam, we’ll do that don’t you worry.”

They took my details and promised they would be in touch. I went straight round to confront Margaret. She didn’t seem surprised.

“Come and sit down, would you like tea?”

“No, I’m not falling for that, you’ll poison me too. It was poison, wasn’t it?”

“In a way. Now either come in and sit down, or go away. I refuse to argue with you on my doorstep.”

I remembered what she’d said about leaving soon and decided to keep her talking so she couldn’t get away before the police arrived.

“Sure you won’t have some tea? I’m going to.”

I refused and waited in her lounge, thinking about Cedric and all the things he’d missed and would never now have a chance to experience.

We’d planned to take a trip together; he hadn’t travelled much because of Margaret’s fear of flying.

There was a photograph of them on the mantelpiece. As I looked at his awful comb over I remembered how I’d teased him about it when our relationship first began. I was horrified to learn that he’d done it because of Margaret. She’d belittled him for his bald patch and insisted he cover it. I think it was after I’d assured him that his thinning and greying hair was a sign of maturity, not weakness, that he really began to care about me.

Margaret carried her drink in with a plate of biscuits. She offered me those, but obviously I didn’t touch them. When she left them too, I realized I’d been right.

“So what have you come to say? You had an affair with my husband, don’t you think you’ve caused me enough trouble?”

I did feel guilty about deceiving her and decided I’d done enough of that.

“Margaret, I’ve been to the police.”

“How interesting.”

“I told them everything.”

“Everything, Emily?”

“How can you be so calm? Yes, I’ve told them everything.”

“Did you tell them that you had Cedric’s ashes?”

“I showed them, they’ve kept them as evidence.”

“Good.”

“I still don’t understand why you sent them,” I said.

“It was silly, but I thought it would make you happy to have them for a while, so you could grieve properly.”

“Why would you want me to be happy? You didn’t let Cedric have anything he wanted. You did your best to humiliate him. Why would you care about me?”

“Oh, you are mixed up. I don’t care about you, I just felt that I owed you something.”

“After what I did to you?”

“More because of what I’ve done to you.”

“Because you made the man I loved miserable and then killed him?”

“How did I make him miserable?”

“You were too controlling.”

“Oh, Emily I’ve told you before that cheating men lie. I didn’t control him, I’d long ago realised I had no say in what he did. He just used me as an excuse when his lady friends got too demanding or he didn’t want to take them somewhere. He did that with all his other girls. I expect he got so used to his lies it was hard to stop telling them.”

“There were no other girls. He was faithful to you, until he fell in love with me. He didn’t want to cheat, but he couldn’t help it.”

“Really, you do amuse me. How else did I mistreat him?”

“You didn’t let him spend any of his money.”

“Cedric was too mean to spend money on anyone. He spent it on cruises. We spent a fortune on holidays because he couldn’t get up the nerve to get on a plane. He’d spend it on himself too, those ridiculously tight trousers and the leather jackets so that he could kid himself he was still trendy. And that ridiculous comb over, really dear, I don’t know how you could stand that.”

I was too surprised to reply to this. She’d forced Cedric to dress as though suffering a midlife crisis and here she was, blaming him!

“He had his own bank account and I never saw the statements. I’m afraid he just didn’t want to give you gifts or pay for meals out.”

“It wasn’t that. He loved my cooking. He could only eat the plainest foods because of all your allergies and dislikes, but gradually I was getting him to try new things.”

“My allergies?”

“Yes, you’d made such a fuss about them he was almost paranoid. He carried your spare epipen everywhere because he was so worried you’d have an attack. He even described the symptoms to me and explained how to use it.”

“Really, how thoughtful of him. I suppose he told you I won’t eat spicy food too?”

“That’s right. He showed me the cook book he’d bought, hoping you’d learn to be a bit more adventurous. You insisted he got rid of it, so I bought it. I saw he’d marked a page and so I cooked the recipe for him.” I had to stop to blow my nose at this point. “It was his last meal before he died.”

“Did you tell the police about your last evening together?”

“Yes, I told them everything. How he seemed nervous when he arrived, he kept patting his pockets and seemed reluctant to eat anything. I realize now that you must have poisoned him before he came out and he was feeling ill. After just a few mouthfuls of the chicken sate, he’d complained that his lips were burning. Poor man, he was so used to the bland food you gave him that even a mildly spiced dish seemed hot to him.”

“What happened then?”

“He started to look ill; he was anxious and not really making sense. He asked what was in the sauce. When I said not to worry, it was mainly chicken and peanuts with hardly any spice he became distressed and began mumbling about you. He left and he died that night. I should have realized as soon as he was dead that you’d killed him. I let him come home to die, it’s all my fault.”

“Well yes it is, but you shouldn’t blame yourself, you weren’t to know.”

“Why did he have to die?”

“I realized you were in love with him. I thought if you insisted he leave me, he might do it. Cedric was always such a weak man. I didn’t want him, but I did want his money. I was worried he’d divorce me and I’d lose the house.”

“You killed him for the house?”

“Don’t be silly. I didn’t kill him.”

“Liar.”

“Well yes, I have told lies, although not as many as Cedric. I’ll be honest with you now. After I left his urn outside your shop, I called the police and said it had been stolen. I told them that I thought you’d killed him. I suggested they test the organs that were removed for donation.”

“They’ll prove you killed him.”

“Not me Emily. Are you sure you won’t have one of these biscuits? They are rather good.”

I looked more closely and could see that they contained peanuts. I remembered Cedric telling me that just a small amount would kill within hours and knew she was trying to commit suicide. I watched as she took a bite. I wanted to stop her, but she’d killed before, perhaps if not herself it would be me next. She took another bite.

“You know, Emily, if I had a peanut allergy then by now my mouth would begin to burn. Gradually my lips and throat would swell. I’d need antihistamine just like the epipen Cedric couldn’t find before his last meal to reduce the swelling; otherwise, it would just get worse until I couldn’t breath.” She took another bite. “My lips aren’t burning. Cedric’s were, weren’t they?”

“But that means …”

“That’s right. I didn’t kill him; you did.”

—–

Patsy Collins lives on the south coast of England, opposite the Isle of Wight. Her stories appear in magazines in the UK, Ireland and Australia. To learn more about her and her writing, please visit patsy-collins.blopgspot.com

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They’re after me. I haven’t much time to write but I’d like to get my story down before I’m caught, shop strapped to a table, and forced to surrender my precious fat.

Ever since passage of the Liposuction Act of 2012, it’s no longer safe to be a fat man in America. If you’re even 20 lbs overweight you must pay the fat tax. This is not a tax you pay with money, rather it’s forcible liposuction. Our fat is sucked from our bodies then turned into a bio fuel and sold back to us at the pump. Our government has marketed this unjust law to the people as a virtuous act. As if trampling on the rights of fat people was the right thing to do. Talk about spin. I have to admit, it is a win win situation for the state, it solves two of their big problems—obesity and our dependence on fossil fuels.

No one ever asked us fatties how we feel about it. Well I’ll tell you how I feel about it: it’s a violation of my civil rights not to mention a damn inconvenience. If you’re fat in America these days, you can be marched against your will to a suction station and your weight reduced by ten percent. For a guy my size, that’s thirty pounds. Sure, maybe i look better to you skinnies, but who gives a damn what you think? For months after, nothing fits right. Lets face it, it’s a pain in the butt, literally.

Well they’re not getting any more of my fat. Not this time, not if I can help it. They caught me twice before. They got their pound of flesh and i don’t intend for them to get anymore. The suction reduced my waist size by several inches and a lot of skinny people remarked that i was ”looking good”. Their idea of looking good looks like anorexia to me. What they don’t seem to realize is that i like the way i look. It takes me months to put the weight back on and feel myself again.

You want to look undernourished, that’s your choice. Me, I like the well upholstered look, big. round, meaty. Another thing no one talks about is that liposuction hurts, and that sound, it sounds like fifty teenagers sucking up the last of their milk shakes from the bottoms of their glasses.

I’ve heard all the arguments about lipo-fuels being the patriotic thing to do; about it being for the common good, in the nation’s best interest and, as they’re only too happy to point out, in my best interest too. Well, the national interest be damned. What about a man’s right to look the way he wants to look? It’s my blubber and I intend to keep it. I’m not a national resource. I’m a thinking, feeling human being for God’s sake not some stinking oil well.

After the fat riots in 2013, things simmered down some. The National Fat People’s Alliance (NAFPA) succeeded in winning a few protections. The much heralded Fat Person’s Bill of Rights guarantees that fat folks cannot be subjected to more than two lipos a year and that no more than ten percent of body weight can be extracted. Even with these restrictions, 25% of the nation’s fuel comes from its fat citizens. I’m secretly proud of that fact despite my public statements to the contrary.

Our lipo-fuels program has become a model for other countries. I recently read that Brazilians have changed their national diet from rice and beans to Doritos and cookies. It’s estimated that America has the largest fat reserves on the planet and it’s a renewable resource. Most of the world envies us. Those skinny Arabs are eating their hearts out. They simply don’t have the long cultural tradition of unhealthy eating and sedentary living that we do, not to mention the poor snack infra-structure in much of the undeveloped world.

My girlfriend Shirley and I are on our way to seek asylum in Mexico. We’ll miss the easy availability of high fat, high salt snacks and thousand calorie bacon burgers, but we value our freedom more. There are plenty of fat Mexicans who are free to live their lives as they see fit and not forced to surrender their precious blubber to some misguided notion of public health and fuel economy.

It’s a long drive. We’re taking back roads to avoid roadblock weigh-ins. They’re another humiliation we fatties are forced to endure. They make us get out of our cars and get on a scale. If your weight doesn’t match their chart, you get a summons to report to a lipo center. If you don’t show up, they come and get you. It’s worse than a speeding ticket—it not only slows you down, it ruins your appetite for the entire day.

The trouble with taking back roads, though, is the limited eating choices they offer. But we are managing. We picnic often and eat at small restaurants only. The bigger places, especially the all-you-can-eat places are always watched by the fat-baggers, that’s what we call the lipo-cops. You can always tell a fat-bagger, they’re invariably thin with a wolfish look, like food was a personal affront rather than the pleasure it is.

My name, by the way, is Oliver Hardy, the same as the silent film star. Unfortunately, that’s where the resemblance ends as I weigh 308 pounds and stand fife feet five inches tall. Shirley is built the same. We’re both fat but it’s not our fault. I have a gland condition and Shirley was abused as a child. I love Shirley. I love her roundness, her acres of flesh and her unending plumpness. And I’m sure that she loves me. She calls me her ‘rolly polly’ and I call her ‘quivers’. All we want is to be left alone, preferably with a double cheeseburger and a large fries. It used to be that a man could be as fat as he wanted but those days, it seems, are gone for good. A man’s fat is his castle and no government should be able to take it from him. Revolutions have been fought for less reason.

Shirley has been driving while I write. She has one hand on the wheel and the other deep in a bag of potato chips. She points a greasy hand at the road ahead and sprays the windshield with soggy crumbs. Her arms are the size of Virginia Hams, I can see flecks of salt on her lips. It makes me hungry just to look at her.

Shirley sees a Dairy Queen up ahead and wants to make a pit stop and maybe get a bite to eat. I think that’s a good idea and she pulls into the parking lot. I decide to wait in the car and write. The car along side of us is filled with skinny teenagers. I hear them hoot and jeer as Shirley makes her way toward the counter. “Hey, fatty, how about a fill up,” one of them yells. Rude and nasty skinnies. Don’t they realize that their hurtful remarks only add to Shirley’s insecurity? If they mock us in mexico, at least we won’t be able to understand them.

Shirley returns with a double cheeseburger, fries, and a chocolate shake for each of us. It feels good to eat. It’s stressful being on the lam. I pull in to a filling station and get out to fill the tank with bio-fuel. I chew my burger and sip my shake while the gas pump ticks off the gallons. I wonder if I’ll like Mexico. I wonder if Shirley is going to finish her fries. I wonder what will happen at the border. It may cost me thirty pounds of lovely fat to be free. I snitch a couple of fries from Shirley’s pack. She slaps my hand away and pulls out into traffic.

—–

Harris Tobias lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of The Greer Agency, A Felony of Birds and dozens of short stories. His fiction has appeared in Ray Gun Revival, Dunesteef Audio Magazine, Literal Translations, FriedFiction, Down In The Dirt, Eclectic Flash, E Fiction and several other obscure publications. His poetry has appeared in Vox Poetica, The poem Factory and The Poetry Super Highway. You can find links to his novels at: http://harristobias-fiction.blogspot.com/

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He took off his shoes and put on his slippers and padded across the deep carpet to the fireplace. There was an armchair there where he could sit and look out at the wintery waves and think about how the blue of winter was different from the blue of summer — thinner, find more pale, sovaldi like cold eyes upon him, viagra sale like the eyes that paralyze, except he was inside in the cabin where no one could pierce him with a questioning gaze or question his reasoning or put on that subtle mask of disapproval that haunted his childhood.

He put his cup of coffee on the stone coaster that always made a satisfying, solid sound, and the picture on the coaster, of a house in New England where his grandmother had been born, comforted him. The fire had been burning for six hours so there were deep coals and he could feel the warmth on his pant legs as he sat in the chair watching the seabirds out the window wheeling in the wind. The waves were throwing off white spume that was tossed into nothingness by the wind. Beyond the breakers a fishing boat was heading into port, gulls swooping about it, its bow dipping and rising in the swells. The chess set was as he’d left it the night before.

The problem that vexed him was still upon him but he felt now, after the day of gift-buying in the city and visiting relatives, after the bracing winds ripping down canyoned streets of Manhattan, after brittle shopkeepers wheedling him into one more purchase, after the gleaming fakery of second cousins’ smiles and the battle-worn jewelry of officious, overpowering aunts, the necklaces meant to stun and disarm, the polished silver place settings and the polished palaver of their constant ranking, after the  greed of the cab drivers meter and the extra tipping of Christmas, his shallow-cheer reflex already worn down, his shoes too tight, his knuckles reddened with cold, after all that, he could sit for a while and review the problem of statecraft before him.

Thinking made him safe. He knew this was an illusion. He knew that weapons still ruled the world but thinking made him feel safe. The music of the chessboard still played in his head, each piece like a plucked string that continued to sing.  Outside the wind howled. On the other side of the planet his counterparts were plotting what they would say in the morning about the armies marching toward them. His wife would call and ask if he needed anything before she drove up with the kids, and he would say no, things were fine, he was getting things done up at the cabin. He would finish the coffee and read a chapter of a novel and then walk out into the snow before bed, walk out and feel the sting of it, the icy surprise of winter, just to remind himself, just to clarify his position, just to make the fire feel brighter when he walked back inside.

—–

Cary Tennis is the advice columnist for Salon.com

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The tsunami of five-year-olds, sovaldi sale flooding Room 12 of Winnie the Pooh Kindergarten, case can’t hide my Joseph. He’s dressed in his favorite red-striped t-shirt–his candy cane shirt. When he sees me, his face lights up and he jumps to his feet yelling, “Mommy!”  Usually his dad picks him up. But today isn’t going to be Daddy’s day.

He runs over to hug my legs. Then he proudly leads me, his mom-on-a-leash, to every wrinkled book and mangled toy he thinks I’ll find important. The chaos of this place is so different from the monotony of my world that I find it comforting. Joseph thrives in this environment as I wilt in mine.

It’s only when his attention wanders from me and he squats down to stack his mess of wooden blocks that I grab his arm and explain we need to go. A middle-aged woman stands waiting for us near the exit, holding Joseph’s faded denim school bag–probably filled with glue-glittered projects to update the art already hanging on the refrigerator.

Before we leave, a skinny boy with unruly red hair rushes up to Joseph and stuffs something into his hands. He tells me with authority, “He forgot this.”

Joseph thanks him and shows me a cheap tin button with a fold-over tab and a scratched picture of a Hot Wheels car. “I let Evan borrow it this morning.”

He reaches into his school bag and pulls out a purple car with an oval body and a futuristic, bubble windshield. It’s the car from the button. I remember when my husband gave him that car; the button had been packaged with it. “Tomorrow we’re trading cars,” he says.

I have no reply. I’m not ready to think of tomorrow.

I lead us out the door and into the arid New Mexico heat. It’s not even the kind that makes you sweat so you can cool off; it’s the kind that makes you feel there’s no air left in the world. And the fumes from the coal-fired turbine generators, housed near the kindergarten, leave me with a metallic taste I can’t get rid of. If you combine the heat, the smell, and the unrelenting invasion of sand permeating the environment, you’ll get the idea of how joyous it is to live on an Army base the size of Rhode Island.

I cram Joseph into his car seat and drive our Ford back to our military-issue neighborhood, its drab, utilitarian, tomato-colored 1950′s ranch houses all lined up anonymously. This is my husband’s world. An officer’s world.

It didn’t have to be this way; he should have worked in my family’s business to pay for graduate school. But no, he wanted the military life where clarity is black and white–order or be ordered. He took me far from my family, my friends, and my clarity. I plan on testing his convictions to see if he’ll change for me as I tried for him.

And if not for me, then perhaps for Joseph.

Michael, my youngest brother, is sitting on the tailgate of a U-Haul parked in our driveway. He’s tall, lanky and so freshly minted to adulthood that he’s still sensitive about being viewed as a kid. He thinks he’s the wildest of my brothers so he’s easy to manipulate, something my father is really good at anyway. I don’t know how Dad got him to drive the 800 miles to fetch me, but it took me only one call asking for Dad’s help before Michael told me he was coming.

As soon as I pull open the Ford’s door, Joseph jumps from the car. “Uncle Mike!” He stops short of running into my brother’s arms. “Why are you here?”

Michael looks at me; uncertain.

I kneel down to Joseph’s level. “We’re going to stay with Grandma and Grandpa.”

His eyes grow wide. My mother always showers him with gifts. He can barely stand still. “How long ’til Dad gets home so we can go?”

I take a deep breath. “He’s not going with us. I am… we are going to Chicago. He’s staying here.”

He teeters from foot to foot. His voice is strained. “He’ll be scared. I was… when you went away.”

He won’t look me in the eyes. It was a voluntary psychiatric stay, not a holiday–a temporary escape to help me accept the lonely olive drab that surrounds me. I quote my doctor, only this time it isn’t a lie. “I’ll take care of you. You’ll be okay.”

He looks at me like he’s trying to understand what I’m saying. Failing at that, his shoulders slump and he looks down at his shoes. I’ve seen this before. The prelude to a tantrum.

Only this time there’s no whining or stomping. Instead he softly says, “How will he know I love him?”

The question is a stab to my heart. I fall to my knees and hug him. I’m no longer hiding my tears. He tries to wiggle out of my arms, but I hold him tight. I’m sure if his father wants to find us he’ll know where to look. “I’m doing what’s best for both of us. You’ll see.”

“But… I want to say bye”

“Go inside now, and wait until we’re ready to go.”

“But–”

“No buts.” I release him and open the front door. “Go inside. Mind me.”

I stand outside, waiting for the taxi I called to take us to the airport. Michael waits, alone, in the U-Haul he’ll be driving to Chicago for me. He doesn’t want to speak to me right now, but he won’t leave me alone either.

Finally it’s time to go. I walk into the house. Joseph sits in the corner holding his small car, looking at the faded brown suitcase resting by the front door. “Are my toys in there?”

“Some. The rest are boxed and in the van. It’s time. We’re going now.”

He jumps to his feet and runs to the master bedroom. I follow, expecting to have to drag him out. Instead I watch him place the tin car button on his father’s dresser; he puts the matching car in his pocket. “Now we can go.”

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David Siegel Bernstein lives within the shadow of Philadelphia with my wife, Michelle and consults as a forensic statistician. He has been published in numerous print, podcast, and online magazines. A board member for the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, he leads the Words-in-Progress writers group, and  contributes a monthly article to the Abandoned Towers Magazine Blog titled: Science for Fiction. For more information check out DavidSiegelBernstein.blogspot.com.

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To a Giants game went I, ed a rare event.  I was a pinch-sitter for my girlfriend Laura’s nephew.  He declined because this was his last weekend in California before his transition to Santa Fe, cialis New Mexico to play junior league hockey.  Yeah, I know, that’s a bit strange.  How do you skate on sand?  Anyway besides, he thinks baseball is boring; they don’t even have a brawl except every once in a while.

For me the drama was in sitting in the midst of a Dodger fan group.  The four lads behind me were gentlemen, but this MORON to my immediate left turned things into a hostage situation with his rants.   Especially when this LOUDMOUTH COW two rows back started answering him.

Moron was young, he didn’t look out of his teens, though he had an ID apparently since he kept getting beers.  Loudmouth Cow three rows behind was mid-40’s, a skinny, stretch-faced blonde who looked like she could sure use a smoke. She’d had a drink or four.  We were all way up high, right under the concave of the sun roof.  Les Enfants du Paradis.

Moron wore baggy jeans, a white undershirt, a crewcut, a kind of fat blurry expression, tattoos and more tattoos.  He first made his presence known by yelling unimaginative cusswords toward the field, mofo and pussy mostly.   Now and then he spoke Spanish with his wife, who was about his age but dressed much more conservatively and acting much more civilized.  She held a baby in her arms.  Laura was convinced he abused her since he wore a wife beater shirt and was generally a loud drunk asshole.   For a couple of innings, she ditched him, taking the baby, thank God.  Laura feared for her when they got home and she might have had to pay for her disloyalty.

Loudmouth Cow wore an orange t-shirt and tight black jeans.  She had no mate to embarrass – maybe somebody had ditched her – but she did not comfort the other Giants’ fans when she matched Moron’s invective with her own.

Moron:  Swing at the mofo ball, you pussy Frisco mofo!

LMC:  Go back to your fucking street gang, you LA Dodger dumbshit, and take your butt ugly fashion statement with you!

Moron:  Hey, bite my cock you airsucking old ho!  You been with these Frisco faggots too long, you need some Dodger dick, bitch!

LMC:  You need to grow up and get a job, gangbanger!   And stop spending all your welfare money on getting shitfaced!

Moron:  You need a new face, you ugly buttlip!

LMC:  You need to get your butt whipped, Pepe!

Moron:  You need to get your butt fucked, Hillary!  You ain’t gettin’ laid, that’s your problem!

LMC: You ain’t got no class, that’s your problem!

And this guy was sitting right next to me as we wait for the rumble to start.  He gulped his beer, then looked blearily at me and said, “She’s got some attitude, ‘m’I right?”

I didn’t know what else to say.  “She’s a fan.  Like you’re a fan.”

“You’re a fan, huh bro?” He didn’t say which team, but he didn’t seem displeased.

“I want to see my town win, sure.”

“You from here?”

“Yes.”

“Hey, ‘s’cool, bro, I wasn’t dissing you.”  Did he mean the Frisco faggots remark?    “Have a beer, dude!” He’d brought an extra.

I accepted and shrugged embarrassedly when he asked me various questions about Giants pitching and batting.  I kept saying, “I don’t really follow it that closely.  What do you think?”

Then he asked in gentle seriousness, “You’re not mentally retarded, are you?”

“No, just dumb.”

He accepted that, and proceeded to tell me all he thought I needed to know about my team, and his team, and various other teams, interrupting himself from time to time to yell something at the field, but yelling no more at the floozie behind us.   Laura whispered that fate had made me a peacekeeper.  As for the Giants lady, a couple of the nice Dodger fans were talking to her.

When you find yourself next to a drunk idiot, what are you going to do?  Usually guys like that are looking for a fuck, a friend, or a fight.  Well, you a), Hope his lady drags him away. b), Hope he falls asleep during a dull stretch; c) Hope he stands up overexcited, slips on all the beer he’s spilled, and conks out on the concrete; d) Wish you didn’t have to deal with him just because you happen to be sitting there, but better you than your girlfriend; e) Wonder if something important just happened because everyone is on their feet and LMC is yelling Peedro! Peedro! and the Giants fans are jumping up and down and the Dodger fans are silent, except for Moron, who is hitting his head and moaning, Fock, fock, oh fock!

Pedro Feliz had just hit a grand slam; it was the seventh inning, and the Dodgers never came back.   I read the next day that it was possibly the most dramatic game of the season.

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A native San Franciscan, Peter McKenna was a junior college English instructor for 25 years, and did a few other things before that.  He is working on a novel about the Civil War raid in Saint Albans, Vermont.

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In this essay I’m going to tell you about Bill Gunnison and how I fell out of love with him. Before I can tell you about why I don’t like him, treatment I have to tell you about who Bill Gunnison is and how I fell in love with him. (Note to Mrs. Truss – I remember this next part from the beginning of the year) I will start with character introduction and then go to rising action and then finally a climax and conclusion. I hope you enjoy my essay.

Bill Gunnison is a ninth grader (Note to Mrs. Truss – you may know him because he was here last year and you may have had him in class. Do you remember him?). He is exactly five-feet and eleven inches tall. Which is exactly six inches taller than me. He is white and has short blonde hair. He has brown eyes. He has a deep voice that I could listen to all day. He has a nose that juts out and his eyes are pinched in. Other girls say he’s ugly but I didn’t see the ugly until after I fell out of love with him. At the time I thought he was cute. And he’s really strong. He’s a pitcher on the freshman baseball team. I saw him play a few times. My mom lets me stay late after school with Sally, pills she’s my best friend, to watch games. My friend Amanda used to come along too. Amanda lives down the street from me, but Sally’s mom wouldn’t give her a ride home because she’s black. Amanda doesn’t come with us anymore because she has to ride the bus home. At the first game I went to, Bill pitched five innings and struck out six batters. They still lost the game. Oh well.

I met Bill Gunnison on October 31, 1968 at the Halloween Sock Hop at the youth center at my church. He’s not that good of a dancer like some of the black boys, but it was fun anyway. He was at the water fountain when I was there too. I was taking a drink of water and turned around and, bump, ran right into him. He laughed because I fell over. I wouldn’t have fallen if I wasn’t wearing just socks. The floor was slippery. He helped me up. He asked if I needed another drink of water and let me take another sip from the fountain before he took his drink. He was super-nice to me.

He came up to me at the last slow dance and asked if he could dance with me. He asked me in front of all my friends and he said he felt bad for knocking me over earlier, so I said yes. He held me closer than the other boys did. I knew it was because he liked me, but Sally said that it was just because that’s the way all high schoolers slow-danced. Even if that’s the case, I knew he liked me back. And that made me like him even more. It’s easy to like someone that likes you back. Last year I had a crush on Daniel Dunn, he was mean to me and I got over him like that (*snap*). I don’t like Daniel anymore.

From the Sock Hop until I fell out of love with him, Bill said hello to me in the hallways every time we passed, which wasn’t often since most high school classes are on the second floor. He would wave to me during the warm-up part of the baseball games I went to. There were rumors that he was going to ask me to the End of the Year Formal, but that stopped after I told Sally to tell him that I didn’t like him any more. But could you imagine? An eighth grader at a high school formal? I would be the youngest girl there! Everyone there would know that I must be super-popular in order for a freshman to take me to the dance with him. But I fell out of love with Bill before that happened, so I guess I’ll just have to wait until I’m in high school to go to a formal.

I fell out of love with him on Saturday, April 5, 1969. I remember the date exactly because I was really hurt that I fell out of love with him. My friends had a hard time understanding why I was so upset with the whole thing since I was the one to break up with him. But I think that no matter who breaks up with who, even if they both claim it was mutual, it still hurts. My friend Sally said when she broke up with Sean Faulkner she didn’t feel bad about it at all. She even bragged a little that Sean cried about being broken up with. But when I fell out of love with Bill and had Sally tell him, I felt really bad.

On the Saturday I fell out of love with him, Bill was working at Nelson’s Restaurant. My parents do not like going there because my dad says their hamburgers are no good. My mother does not like their salads either, so my family does not go there much even though my brother and I love their food. The only times we go there is if we go out just for desert. They have the best banana splits in town and they have lots of other good ice cream flavors too. Bill works there, and even better, he works at the soda fountain. Sally and I rode our bikes there because it was one of the first spring days warm enough to ride bikes. We were sitting at the counter and Bill was talking to us. Sally wanted to share a banana split, but I didn’t want one, so she was trying to think of something else that we would both like and it was taking us awhile. Bill said that whatever we wanted would be free. I know that if it was just Sally, she would have to pay.

That was the day of some parade. There were a whole bunch of blacks walking in the street. I think it had something to do with Martin Luther King or something because for whatever reason there were pictures of him being held up by marchers. They were all walking really slow and looking really sad. Nelson’s big window faces right out into the street, but our backs were turned because when you’re sitting at the counter you face the inside. Bill looked over our shoulders and he made a mean face. He muttered something that I don’t remember, but I do remember that it sounded mean. Sally nodded and agreed. I did too only because I did not want them to think I did not know what they were talking about.

I remember there being a lot of blacks outside. It seemed like they kept on walking past the store and kept coming, almost like they were just walking around the block there were so many. Bill said some words I do not know, but judging from context clues (Note to Mrs. Truss: remember teaching us context clues? I still remember what they are) I could tell that he did not like the blacks. I know a lot of other people don’t like blacks. My dad complains any time they do something and he does not like it when I go to play with Amanda. I hear other people say stuff too, so it was not that big of a deal when Bill left the store to throw tomatoes at them. Or at least I did not think it would be such a big deal.

Bill went into the back room and came back with some old tomatoes in a bag. He stood by the front door and shouted some more. He said things like “Go home, (bad word)” and “I’m glad that (bad word) died” (Note to Mrs. Truss: I’m sorry to use bad words, but you said we were to tell the true story as we remember it and I remember that he used bad words. Please do not take off points for my using bad words). Bill’s a good thrower since he plays baseball. He hit a couple of blacks. But the weird thing was that they didn’t do anything. I saw him hit a guy right in the shoulder, and the guy was wearing a nice Sunday suit, and the guy just brushed off the tomato and kept walking. I wasn’t paying too much attention to the outside because Sally and I had our free ice cream. And to me, that free ice cream was a sign that Bill liked me. I was thinking about going to the dance with him and what I would wear to the dance. I imagined how all the high schoolers would think I was super-popular because I was going with Bill Gunnison. That all changed with the last tomato.

I finished my ice cream and went outside to stand by Bill, thinking he was done throwing the tomatoes. Right as I got to him, I saw him take the last tomato and throw it at the parade. He threw it really hard and it hit a young black girl right in the side of the head. She fell over. Her father or maybe it was her uncle I don’t know, bent down to help her up. Bill started laughing. He looked at me and asked if I saw the way that girl fell over and wasn’t it funny? I pretended to laugh even though I don’t think it’s funny to hit girls. I wanted to yell at him for hurting a girl. I could not believe someone so nice to me could be so mean to other girls. Why was he nice to me and Sally but not to other girls? And what would he do to me if he stopped liking me? Would he throw tomatoes at me if we had a fight?

The girl stood right back up next to her father or uncle. She wiped tears and tomato from her eyes, brushed off her dress and kept walking with her shoulders up. It was weird to see how proud she was, like she was happy that she was hit by the tomato. Last year, when I was in seventh grade, I spilled my milk on my lap during lunch. It fell right into my lap and it looked like I peed my pants. I was so embarrassed that I ran out of the cafeteria crying and did not come out from the bathroom for an hour, when my pants and tears had dried.

I went back inside and told Sally that I did not love Bill anymore. When she asked me why not, I told her it was because he laughed after he hit a girl with a tomato. Even if he was nice to me and gave me free ice cream and would have taken me to a formal dance, I do not think hitting girls with tomatoes is funny. The end.

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Christopher Cervelloni graduated from Butler University in ’06 with a bachelors in creative writing. In the past year he has published; “Leaving Home” in Foliate Oak, “The First Stone” in CC&D, and “Laughing at Jane Ellen’s Pillows” and “Derek Kelsie Receives Bad News” in Cynic Magazine. He teaches writing in Ft. Collins, CO. 

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