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Cash and Hal get into a fistfight

The van was getting that road trip stink: unwashed bodies, viagra approved medical peanut butter sandwiches, viagra 100mg crushed crackers, view spilled soda, Boyd hated to think what was growing underneath the seats. The kids were singing that stupid song for the thousandth time and the trip had barely started. Another day and a half of this and Margie would be back in charge, she knew how to settle them down, get them studying in their rooms while she and Boyd had their own reunion, grownups time, he could make it that long. He pulled up to the pump and hopped down to fill up the tank, popped his head back into the van to call back, “Okay, nobody get out, I’m just getting gas, we’ll stop for dinner in about an hour,” before padding around the back to unhook the nozzle, shove it home.

Boyd saw his reflection in the window, hair sticking up, wrinkled shirt, puffy eyes. He thought about Margie, her skin under his hand, her round bottom, belly tight with pregnancy, another person moving around in there, Boyd on the outside pressing his hand against the creature inside, pressing back, Margie one of those women who got bigger and brighter when pregnant, like the kid’s personality got added to hers for nine months, or something.

“Everybody here?” Boyd fell into the driver’s seat with the automatic question, “count off,” and started the engine while they counted, “One. Stop it, Jared!” “Two,” piping up from under a towel, “Three,” “I’m not touching you I’m not touching you I’m not…” “Four,” “Da-ad, make him stop,” “Five. Shutup, twerp.”

Five. It stopped at five. Boyd killed the engine and threw an arm over the seat to look into the back.

“Okay, who’s missing?”

“Not me,” said a sleepy voice, followed by a chorus of giggles and “not me”s.

“Very funny. Okay, I see Darryl, Ashley, Jared, Brianna, Andrew. Wait, that’s only five. Who’m I forgetting?”

“That’s all of us, Dad,” yawned Darryl.

“Yeah right.” Boyd sighed and grabbed at his hair. Margie would freak. No, she’d be rational about this, if she were here. “Count off again.”

“One.” “Two, I’m two.” “Three.” “Four.”

A Mercedes waiting behind them honked. Boyd poked his head out the window and waved him to another pump, then got out of his seat so he could face the back of the van square, crouching between the two front seats.

“This is not the time to play tricks on Dad. Okay? Okay. I see Darryl, Jared, Brianna, Andrew.” No, this is wrong this is wrong this is wrong. There were five a minute ago. Why can’t he remember the fifth one’s name?

“I swear dumbhead, if you poke me one more time…”

“Don’t call your brother dumb, Andrew.” Boyd rubbed his eyes. None of the doors to the van had opened while they were sitting there, the others had to be here somewhere. “Look under the blankets, maybe someone’s asleep under there.”

“Ow, hey…”

“Leave your sister alone, Jared,” Boyd was losing it. There was Jared, there was Brianna, there was Andrew. That was only three. Oh Jesus, oh Jesus God help me now. What was the name of the missing one? How could he forget his own kid’s name? He wasn’t even sure if it was boy or a girl.

“Look, look, sit still, for just one minute!”

The kids stopped wrestling for a second and looked up at him. Jared and Andrew. His sons. He thought there were more than two, but he wasn’t sure now.

“Goddamnit, you come sit up here next to me okay?”

The Mercedes honked again, and Boyd saw, out the back window, the driver flip him off. “Yeah, fuck you too,” he muttered, still holding on to Jared’s arm, Jared, his son Jared, Boyd looked at him, this kid staring back at him, and kind of laughing, and there was a pop, an actual – pop – and Boyd was holding nothing.

Boyd lurched forward, crouched awkwardly, and felt the van dip with his movement. It was empty, Boyd the only one here. He knew something was missing, something important, he felt sick deep in his stomach like he’d fucked up something big, but he couldn’t, couldn’t bring it into his head.

He turned to look out the front windshield then sat in the driver’s seat, looking out, down the road that ran past the gas station. Where am I going, wondered Boyd.

——

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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There was once in my life a seedy pub, look on a seedy street, cialis sale which did not encourage strangers. The landlord was tired of it all, there waiting for the brewery to bribe him to retire, and content with a customer base of half a dozen old men.

One of these old men was my Father, who was dying, so I went to the pub to try to encourage him to eat. The landlady was not jaded at all, and willing to cook lunches, in the unlikely event of her being asked to.  My Father had collapsed in mind and body after my Mother had died the year before. He would attempt a lamb chop with chips and peas if it was put in front of him.

Apart from my Father, the only other people who ate there were a pair of young secretaries from the law practice across the road. Every week day both of them would demolish an enormous lunch, each talking so furiously together it was hard to see where they found time to shovel their food in. It was a delight to witness such greed for life, under the circumstances. What passing trade there was came in to use the pay-phone. It is hard to conceive of now that cell phones are ubiquitous how suddenly they have overwhelmed us and how recently it was that you had a home phone or nothing, and the people who had nothing thereabouts had to come in and boom their personal affairs across the empty saloon bar. One of the nick names the old regulars had for the pub was “the largest phone booth in London.”

One lunchtime when I went there was a woman at the phone, about thirty, dressed in sweatpants and a green t-shirt, with dyed blonde hair tied back. She sat hunched on a bar stool to defend her privacy but so angry that everyone could hear her. “Where were you,” she said into the receiver, “you said you’d be around in half an hour, so I stayed all night but you never came.” I bought a beer and went to sit beside my Father, on his left side, because he was deaf in his right ear. The radio was on, tuned to a station playing 60s songs, not the stuff we remember like The Beatles or the Kinks, but songs that were actual hits in the 1960s, Perry Como, Petula Clarke, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood.  Deaf or not my Father heard nothing, I could not help but hear the woman.

“Because you said you’d be around in half an hour, that’s why I’m so angry.  I could’ve gone out myself but I wanted to see you and you said,,,” she was interrupted and grimaced as the man on the other end  line spoke to her. Then she interrupted him. “But you said you’d be around in half hour….” The landlady bought my Father a lamb chop with chips and peas. My Father unwrapped the knife and fork from their paper napkin but showed no enthusiasm. The woman on the phone sat up smiled.

“Ok, ok, that’s great,” she said. “I’ll see you soon then, when? In about half an hour? Yes, I’ll be there.”

—–

William Saunders is a British journalist and author of Jimi Hendrix London
(Roaring Forties Press, Berkeley, Ca.)

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No matter how closely I press against the window I can’t see the street below. An enormous skyscraper blocks my view. Nor can I see the sky. All the buildings rise so high, sickness spread so wide, drugstore that I can see only the other windows opposite, advice perhaps ten stories up, and ten stories down.

On the other three sides of my building its the same, the same monolithic view of steel and glass. Sometimes when I feel gloomy I walk around my floor the thirty-sixth floor in a tower of ninety stories — and try to find a corner where I can see the sky, but I haven’t found one yet. No one else seems to share my desire. When my co-workers leave their cubicles, its only to walk to a conference room, to the bathroom, or to the lunchroom. And the conference rooms are rarely used because most of our meetings are now held online. So they spend most of their time, as I do, staring at a computer screen.

Ive met most everyone on my floor at our occasional staff meetings, so I can greet someone when we pass in the halls, though I don’t remember their names. They give brief smiles but never stop to talk. Once in a while there are women in the lunchroom but they’re always talking in pairs and when I smile they look right through me and continue their conversation.

In the bathroom I occasionally hear the men discuss their adventures. They seem intent on recounting the strange places (some of them public) where they’ve had sex. They’re all young my age, in fact but so different. I couldnt do what they brag about doing. Perhaps its my upbringing. I was raised on a ranch in Idaho, and though my parents left the Mormon church when I was a child, they held on to many of the values. They dont drink or smoke or curse, and I don’t either.

My co-workers grew up in expensive suburbs of large Eastern cities, and went to prestigious Ivy League schools. They take for granted their place in this big city. I wound up here by a fluke, the reward of a God-given talent for mathematics. When I was a senior at my local college, I published an encoding algorithm which increased data compression on the Internet by a factor of two. On the strength of my discovery I was hired by a multi-national communications company.

I enjoy my work, really, and the salary is great more than I can ever spend. But when work is finished and I go out into the city streets, I feel like a doggie lost in the red rock canyons. The people walk so fast! Someone always steps on my heels, barks out “Sorry” and veers past me without a sideways glance. I’ve stopped looking anyone in the eye because I keep getting hostile stares in return.

Lately the isolation has been getting to me and I find myself staring out the window a lot. Not that there’s much to see. The offices opposite look just like mine, rows of cubicles lined up in perfect symmetry. Occasionally someone will rise up out of a cubicle, walk away from the window towards one of the central facilities. But the other day well! Someone walked to the window and stared out. I was so surprised I stepped back and kept moving until I reached my cubicle.

I sat still for a few minutes. I wondered if there could be someone like me working in one of these offices, someone who got tired of seeing life through a small glowing screen and longed for more. I had retreated so fast that I hadn’t even noticed if it was a man or woman.

The next day I walked to the window just before noon. I saw someone in the same spot, five floors up and several windows to the left. This time I noticed a skirt and long hair. Definitely a woman. Her hair might be red, though it was hard to tell colors in the February gloom. At this time of year the sun never makes it into the canyon that divides our two skyscrapers.

I pushed my glasses up on my nose and tried to see more details of her face, then thought how rude that was. She had probably come to the window for a moment of private contemplation. I let my eyes drift over the facade of the building, though I was acutely aware of her in the upper left corner of my view. Just as I was about to go back to my cubicle, she raised one arm and passed her hand across the glass in a single wave. Before I could respond, she turned away.

I thought about the woman during the afternoon, while I tried to debug my code. If she liked looking out the window, perhaps she was someone I might find compatible, someone working in the city but not enamored of its values. Late in the afternoon I looked out again, but the windows opposite were empty.

A day later I returned to my window just before noon. The woman stood in the same spot. Today her skirt was a different color; her hair was definitely red. As I stared at her, she described a half-circle with her hand, the same casual wave. Shivering a little, I raised my hand and imitated her gesture. I waited, my heart thumping loudly. Then she raised her arm again and pointed downward, waggling her finger.

She wanted to meet me! For a moment I was too flustered to respond, then I nodded. I realized she might not see that small gesture, so I also pointed downward, but she had already turned away. I knew she was descending to the plaza, a pedestrian mall with a coffee shop and a few stone benches where the smokers gathered. I returned to my cubicle, put my computer to sleep and clipped my cell phone to my belt.

On the elevator I thought about what to say. “Hi!” No, perhaps “Hello” was better; less casual, more respectful. “You like to stare out the window?” Too dumb, too blunt. How about, “I couldn’t help noticing…” That was better, putting myself out there a little. But noticing what? Your red hair? That you’re a woman? That you’re lonely just like me?

The glass door swung open automatically and I stepped out into thin cold light. Across the cement expanse I saw a woman with auburn hair, regal in a long leather coat, walking purposefully in my direction. I started forward, slowly, still pondering what to say. Twenty feet in front of me, she threw her arms around a tall man and buried her face in his shoulder. I stopped short and my mouth fell open. The man had thick, beautifully waved hair. He wore leather trousers and a bulky white roll-neck sweater.

My castles tumbled down. What had seemed possible high in the air, in a cubicle separated from earth and sky, now felt ridiculous. How could I hope to fit in?

I turned back to my building but couldn’t move my legs. I dreaded returning to my computer. A voice behind me said “Hello.” I turned again, to see a woman planted firmly in front of me. She wore cowboy boots and a duffel coat, her curly, carrot-red hair pulled back in a ponytail. A grin spread across her freckled face. “I couldn’t help noticing,” she began.

—–

Michael Wright lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and raises heirloom apples. His stories have appeared in diverse online and print publications, most recently in Writers on the Edge, The Sigurd Journal and Poor Mojo’s Almanack.

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I got my revenge before she died.  I got my revenge for the 54 years she was such a bitch.  I got my revenge when she slept in the hospital bed next to mine, viagra with tubes and needles jutting out of her skin.  I got my revenge and she had to watch me do it, prostate unable to fight back.  In the artificial blackness of the early evenings, patient before she slipped into drugged sleep, I would pinch her.  I waited until her eyelids became heavy and fluttered shut, and then, I reached across the chasm of white linoleum separating our beds and pinched her arm.  I felt her thin skin like the whites of an over easy egg, soft and spongy between my fingers.  Her eyes snapped open, full of startled terror, and she twisted her head and her eyes fixed on me.  I smiled.  She glared at me.  I was patient and vigil.  I waited and when her eyes closed like Venetian blinds, I stretched out my arm and pinched her fat thigh beneath the sheet.  She tried to move, I saw her struggle, but her body no longer responded to her brain.  I did this all night, until the light turned soft knowing she could not sleep after the sun rose, and then I slept until the morning surrendered to afternoon. I got my revenge in the cool of those winter southern California nights.

And then, I killed her.  They told me I didn’t, but they don’t know about the pinching.  I pinched her to death. 

I pinched her all night and when I woke in the afternoon her bed was empty and clean.  The nurses were silent and gave me a look of sorrowful pity.  I stared at them and did not let them see the tiny grin beginning to spread across my face.  I was free. 

They let me go home soon after and wheeled me to the curb outside the hospital in my motorized wheel chair where my son picked me up.  I feigned sadness, but it didn’t matter.  People were afraid to look at me, afraid they would witness my demise.  I had them fooled.

I went home.  Our house was empty.  My house was empty.  My house.  I wheeled myself to the window and watched the golfers swing their clubs, making arches above their heads.  I watched their legs bend and straighten in khaki shorts and their eyes were shielded from the sun by bright visors as they watched their tiny white ball soar across my back lawn.  I watched in silence.  I sighed.  I had waited years to sit in the silence of my house and watch the day turn into hues of cobalt and lavender.   

But something happened in my days of silence.  Maybe God was punishing me for the pinching.  Maybe my wife was getting her revenge as well.  My body attacked itself.  It happened quickly.  Days after I murdered her, my body gave up.  My legs stopped working.  My arms curled into my stomach and my fingers clenched shut.  And then, finally, my voice stopped working.  As if by praying for the silence of her throaty yell, I had also somehow prayed for the silence of mine. 

I lost my voice.  I was trapped inside my body, inside my brain, without a voice.  And in my silence, I found I missed her. 

When the family started to infiltrate my fortress, making funeral arrangements, and taking up my space, I could not feed myself and I wet my pants when my bladder became too full.  My sons bathed me and their wives spoon fed me, while I drooled down the front of my polo shirt.  I was helpless without her. 

In place of words, I wailed, deep, mournful wails.  But my family ignored me, unable to understand what I was trying to convey.  I asked for gin and they gave me water.  I asked for quiet and they sat me in front of the television.  I told them left, and they wheeled me right.  And in my wailing, I also told them about the pinching.  I confessed and they nodded their heads in understanding and fed me a banana.  I wailed about my sadness and about my regret and in a room full of people, I wailed and wailed and tears came streaming down my face, and they all finally knew.  They knew I had killed her.  And they cried too.    

—–

Danielle Battee has become addicted to writing flash fiction.  She is also heavily addicted to coffee and gummy vitamins.

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She gripped the railing tightly, no rx leaned over and was momentarily afraid that she couldn’t fly.  The balcony’s white slats surrounded her, brilliant in the sunshine.  She was given this gift, this moment of fresh air, because she had followed the rules.  Below her and extending as far as she could see was the green sloped lawn where statues and bird baths stood amongst the perfectly manicured sanity of the lawn.  The curtains from inside blew outwards, reaching towards her, diaphanous in the breeze. She thought it odd that they weren’t blowing in, but then realized that the breeze was coming from behind the building, and blowing through the open windows on the opposite side of the room inside.

She wasn’t sure she was equipped to leave the protection of this home and be counted among the newly rehabilitated of the outside world. She wasn’t prepared to say goodbye to the days and hours and minutes planned for her; the lessons, meals, exercises, phone calls and therapy sessions. Within these walls, these pastimes were practiced with a precise beat and tempo.  The craziness you called your friend was not allowed into the hallways.  No longer would it be your constant companion.  The companions now were the eyes of the staff, following you every quiet, drug-induced, rational second you were awake and after, she sensed.  White uniforms dotted the halls and the lawns; they, the slightly more animated lawn ornaments and statues in the halls.  The moving eyes of these statues just meeting yours for a split second before moving on to the next shuffling object. This, she was sure, she would not miss.

She stands just outside the windows of the balcony, contemplating her freedom.  The gate would open with finality; go.  Be well, you are ready.  She stands alone now and releases her grip on the steady railing, smiling to herself, her mind on the gate and beyond. Just behind her a gust of wind blows by her and all the sounds upon it touch her; the quick breaths of the nervous, the sighs of the depressed, the shrieks of the frightened and phobic.

She has trained herself to breathe calmly and evenly. Her own spot on the balcony has been claimed; her own haven of quiet.  Beyond the gate in the distance, her world awaited.  She was going to step into reality with quiet thoughts and composed mind for now, until the next time the screaming gales of wind within her blew the curtains aside.

—–

Terry Cleveland is a closeted writer, coming out slowly, but surely. 

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In the evening when mom and dad are making dinner, see the best place to be is inside the bottom cupboard where the potatoes and onions are stored. Once inside, ailment you will have to sit with your knees pulled up to your chest, generic your head against your knees, so as not to scuff the base of the silverware drawer. A molt of vegetable-dirt will cake your shoes. Besides actually digging a hole in the backyard, it’s the closest thing I know to being buried for short periods of time. Deathly black too, and except for the sound of the pressure cooker you can practice for the real thing, so when it happens you’ll already have had a dry run. Sometimes there’s a rolling sound above you, and a tiny slit of light will appear across your arms. Should this occur, you must purse your eyelids because when you are dead there is no light that shows you what your arms look like. Most certainly there are no voices underground that say “oh excuse me dear, could you just move your head for a minute, I’m trying to get to the oven-mitt.” Occasionally the wood-paneled door to your cupboard may creak forward a crack, and then you put your steadiest fingernail underneath the handle’s screw and inch the door toward you, just as you might pull a blanket to your neck. In all these ways you can practice for when you won’t have eyes. Do this soon and you’ll find how little space your body needs to sharpen all the overlooked things unknotting around you. You may find that listening to knives coming down on cutting boards is not unlike sitting in a comfortable back seat inside of a car driven by soft-spoken people you trust.

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Colleen Maynard is a Kansas City-based, to-be-Illinois based poet and visual artist. Her art-writing has previously been published in such places as the Australian-based Ceramic Art and Perception.  She is currently working on a chapbook containing prose and drawings.

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In the early autumn of 1803, nurse Meriwether Lewis set foot on the muddy shore of an island between the rocky banks of western Virginia and the newly created state of Ohio. As soon as his feet caked with dense riverbed sludge, buy cialis he felt, prickling across his consciousness, the peculiar sensation of being watched. Charged by President Jefferson with recording the national landscape’s varied climate and extensive contours, Lewis felt he must now conform to the behavior of a scientist and employ more practical sensibilities. So he ignored his uncomfortable awareness and focused instead on setting up camp. He clipped botanical samples, pressing them between pages of his travelogue. And just before sunset, he caught a rabbit, built a fire, and set his damp boots to dry on the rocks around it.

The stars above the island’s thick forest were at their greatest intensity when Lewis’ fire finally lay in dying embers. He slept deeply for several hours and slowly woke to a sound he did not recognize. His logical mind, still submerged by exhaustion, thought that the men who were slated to join him on his trip south had unexpectedly arrived on the island. When his consciousness finally rose to the surface and his eyes opened, he thought: I must get the fire going again.

But what he saw as he still lay prone was neither William Clark nor any of the thirty enlisted men he would eventually meet in St. Louis. Around him on every side were Indians, but not in any conventional human form. They were like glass vessels filled with captive pipe smoke. Their substance circulated endlessly and looked a volatile blue gray. These figures stood gazing at him, without speaking. He could see their distinctive features: their cheekbones, their crooked noses, their stoic eyes. They did not seem to indict him, but appeared to search the content of his fluttering insides. Lewis sat this way for several moments, stunned by fear, his heart pumping blood that went straight to his temples. When none of the Indians moved or appeared to threaten him, he rekindled the fire, alternately looking over his shoulder and bending to coax the flame into greater brightness.

The visions, but not the feeling, dissolved in the light. And despite heavy fog that settled on the island and continued several meters down the river in both directions, Lewis fled shortly before dawn, paddling forcefully upriver. He neither wrote about nor spoke of his experience to anyone.

* * * *

It began to drizzle lightly as Ernest T. Weir, legs apart, umbrella poking the earth with grand decision, stood gazing over a precipice abutting the Ohio River. He was in a long woolen coat, fashionably cuffed trousers, and a smart-looking high-waist silk vest. What he’d set his gaze on was the densely forested island that lay within the original acreage purchased for the steel company he brought up from Clarksburg.

“I’ll tell you,” he said to his assistant, who also looked out over the river, “we’re going to start producing our own coke. If we want to compete with these giants, we’ve got to do it. Our cost overruns have just been too high.”

Weir pointed to the island with his long handled umbrella. “Now,” he said, “that’s the place right there. Let’s get it cleared.”

His assistant, an amateur historian, looked at Weir and said, “You know, that island has been marked by incidents of serious misadventure.”

“What misadventure?” asked Weir, turning suddenly.

“About thirty years ago, three barges crashed into each other and dumped thousands of bushels of coal into the river.”

“And what caused that?” asked Weir.

“They say it was the sandbar near the island, but I’ve read that the barge pilot only ran into the sandbar because he saw Indians standing along the island bank.”

“Indians?”

“That’s what I read.”

“What other misadventures?” asked Weir, balancing his umbrella against his shoulder.

The man pursed his lips, thinking. “None other that I know of.”

“One incident! One!” said Weir striking his umbrella against the ground. “Superstition is all, John. Pure superstition.”

Nearly every tree on the island was felled within a week, and during that period, Weir had strange and unsettlingly palpable dreams, in which he was tied to trees by Indians wearing fringed leather breeches and deer skin mantles. Their faces bore fine red tattoos. Once the old man was firmly bound against the bark, the younger Indian males began swinging their axes at the tender, bloated abdomen beneath his nightshirt. Weir woke sweat-soaked and usually on the floor beside his bed, where he was often reaching out into the darkness and pleading loudly for mercy. Once, while bathing, he even found what he thought were reddish bruises left by the ropes he dreamed had bound him.

This continued as the company began excavating for the foundation of the coke plant. Besides the tree roots, flinty anthracite, and viscous bitumen that darkened the island’s soil, the workers began hitting pockets of bones. Femurs, splintered tibia, and a series of human skulls emerged from the soil. Five workers fled their posts as soon as word spread. One even dropped his shovel after it struck and broke a human mandible, scattering yellowish teeth over dirt crawling with earthworms.

“The men aren’t happy,” said Weir’s assistant. “Several of them have seen an Indian Chief just a few feet from where they’re digging. They’re threatening to leave.”

“Let them!” Weir replied, pounding his desk with a fist. “We’ll find other men who want to feed their families.” He was irritated by lack of sleep, which made him more impetuous than usual. Even his lip had taken to curling upward, to show the spaces between his ridged, ivory-colored incisors.

Most of the men engaged to work did stay, while others were brought in after fresh concrete covered whatever bones remained buried. The human remains initially uncovered during excavation were piled near a seam of cloudy quartz, which had ruptured the ground’s surface about 300 meters west of the building site. The appearance of the quartz fascinated one or two of the workers, who reverently carried the bones to lay beside it. Eventually, however, the bones disappeared, and no one seemed to notice. Some were glad for their disappearance and asked no questions, assuming they had been cleared away by other workers or were carried away by animals. Others barely registered their existence in the first place and ignored the respect that some men—mostly immigrants—had paid them. They were soon forgotten. The coke plant began cooking coal, and the bald, treeless island was alternately orange with oven fire or pallid grey from fly ash.

Weir again stood on the rocky precipice near the country club he’d begun constructing and looked at the pale red flame that shot eight feet into the overcast sky. Even at this distance, the acrid stench of burning coal was strong enough to choke a man.

“Smell that,” he inhaled, smiling, stifling a cough. “That’s progress! Progress without your misadventures, John. Eh?” Again he smiled at the man standing next to him, and in an uncharacteristic gesture of familiarity, nudged his assistant in the ribs.

Weir was no longer troubled by dreams of Indian braves. He slept soundly every night and made trips to Detroit and Washington and fought shop unionization for years. But the island remained a source of speculation. Indians were seen to walk across the wide, silo-shaped gas holders. Others lingered on the slick tin-roofs of the coal storage buildings. When workers saw them, the Indians threw what appeared to be spears, yet no spears were ever found on the ground.

Word spread about the island, and the more superstitious workers requested transfer back to the tin mill. Truckers refused to deliver loads there, having seen tanned men in fringed deerskin pants, feathered braids, and tattooed faces at the end of the service bridge connecting the island to the mill. Eventually, the plant and the surrounding area were overrun by rats, which crawled along duct work and pipes, cornered secretaries in the few plant offices, and got into workmen’s lunch pails. They were bold and unafraid of the searing oven heat. They were alleged to have issued directly from the moccasined feet of Indians sighted near the plant’s permanent scaffoldings. Workers began laying jars of cornmeal mixed with plaster of Paris around each building’s steel walls and the rat problem abated. But the Indians continued to appear at regular intervals for decades, particularly at night and in spite of the obliterating pink of the sodium vapor lights.

* * * *

Two decades after Weir’s death, the coke plant still plumed a foul-smelling odor that invaded buildings and reached even the metal desks of journalists at The Weirton Daily Times. But the odor was less pungent now, as a series of the coke ovens stood temporarily dormant.

The week before Christmas 1972, a feathery snow lay on Brown’s Island. Cold froze the mud along the river bank and ice clotted its shallows. Five men from Koppers Construction stood in the plant’s battery basement, inspecting the coke ovens for problems, in anticipation of a January re-start.

A worker in dark canvas overalls and foam-lined rubber boots got on his knees to examine the flues that traveled across the oven floor. He smelled gas, but it was not stifling. More important to him was the conversation in the next chamber, where his co-workers were talking about going upstairs for coffee. He was about to declare his approval when he looked up and saw, gazing down at him, a dark-skinned male with braided hair, hollow cheeks and a hawkish nose. He was stripped to the waist, and around his neck was a pouch made of squirrel hide, the head and clawed feet still attached. It bounced gently against the arch of the man’s rib cage.

The workman cried out and stumbled backward, trying to stand upright so he could run. But he fell against the bricks. The Shawnee Chief stepped closer. The men from the next oven came to the chamber doorway to see what Bowers was yelling about and also saw the chief, whose face carried red marks that looked like tattoos. The chief lifted his double-pronged eel spear, pointed accusingly at the men, and with a downward swing, scraped the flinty prongs against the oven bricks. Sparks flew.

At 9:44 a.m., the first explosion erupted from the battery basement, flinging bricks, steel girders, and slag fragments upward to levels above. Through the break room floor came charred fragments of five Koppers Construction oven inspectors, as the attendant heat caused thin steel walls to begin folding. Men went back in with gas masks to rescue survivors, but found them charred and missing limbs or under debris so heavy no human could move it alone.

While men searched for co-workers, two more explosions followed, killing everyone who went back to help. Fire raced through the debris, using every last bit of oxygen left and asphyxiating everyone still conscious. When a gas line broke, the island was sealed off, and rescue squads sat on the service bridge with their lights flashing.

In the decade that followed, fewer men would agree to work at the plant. It grew to have an ever more menacing aura. From 590 workers, only 275 returned after clean-up. The stories of Indians persisted and developed, with people claiming to see, at the end of the mill’s long service bridge, a tanned figure bearing what looked like Poseidon’s trident.

By 1982, the corporation closed the coke plant entirely, shutting down the 87 ovens and reassigning the remaining employees to mill jobs. The land was offered for sale, despite its heavily contaminated soil, but there were no takers. It now stands in the middle of the Ohio River emptied of trees, grey with pollution, marred by a rusting industrial fortress.  Abandoned forklifts, mounds of coke, and oxidized outbuildings still litter the landscape. It is now a monument to the industrial pride that ignored human ritual and natural order. And as for the native spirits, no one disturbs them, so they do not appear.

—–

Savannah Schroll Guz is author of the short story collections, American Soma (2009) and The Famous & The Anonymous (2004). Her work has appeared in a variety of online and print publications, including Naropa University’s Bombay Gin.

——-

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The day before my dog died, and his stool turned a bright yellow, hospital the color of brand new tennis balls. The poor guy squatted on shaky legs, more closely resembling a blond woolly mammoth than a golden retriever, until the discharge spewed forth like radioactive frozen yogurt.

My wife, Melissa, didn’t want to hear about it. She’d come to blame Roscoe for her vast unfulfillment and had spent the last six years waiting for him to die. Against her protests -”Don’t you dare spend another dime on that dog! Remember our agreement!” – I took him to the vet.

“He’s an old dog,” the vet said. “It could be anything. Kidneys. Maybe he got into some gopher poison.” She ran her fingers through his coat, probed his ribs with a stethoscope. Roscoe groaned. She was an older woman with a long iron-grey braid down her back, and had treated Roscoe for all of his sixteen years.

“I wouldn’t know where to begin with tests. I recommend you wait it out. Give him some cottage cheese and see if it clears up. Otherwise…”

She didn’t have to say more. Every recommendation she’d made for the last five years had ended with the same otherwise. The humane thing to do and all that.

“He’s all I have left of my grandfather,” I would always say.

Which was not true. We had his house, a rambling gingerbread Victorian which he’d bequeathed to me and with which I’d lured Melissa away from the city. Away from the parties and dance clubs—things people are supposed to give up after they get married—and toward the house and kids and dog lifestyle we both claimed to want. A chance to focus on our relationship.

At the time, we’d only been married a few years, but were as close to divorce as two people can get and still be together. In those days, Melissa alternated between brooding silences and nonstop yammering about her needs and how I wasn’t fun anymore. On and on until I actually wished that somebody would shoot me. People say that like a joke—Please! Somebody just shoot me!—but believe me, it’s an actual emotion. I have direct experience.

The village was only a few hours from the city and exuded Small-Town-America charm with streets named after the trees that grew everywhere. Oak, Pine, Maple. The kind of place that still had a big Main Street parade every Fourth of July, bunting everywhere.

We didn’t learn about Roscoe until the lawyer noted that my grandfather had set aside a tidy sum for the continued care of his beloved pet. After that meeting we picked up Roscoe from the kennel where he’d been boarded and drove over to the house.

Melissa and I stood on the porch while Roscoe ran and sniffed around the yard, happy to be back home.

“We can be happy here,” I said and put my arm around Melissa.

She stiffened. “I don’t know.”

“It’s so quiet. No traffic, no car horns or alarms going off.” I nudged her. “Everyone speaks English.”

“Hmm.”

I took a deep and audible breath. “And smell that air. No bus exhaust, no garbage smell.” She hated the stench from the restaurant dumpsters in the alley below our bedroom window.

“I mean, who knew small towns like this even existed any more. How many people do we know in the city dream about moving to a place like this? Where their kids can run around on their own? No gangs, no stray bullets.”

“Sure, honey, but there’s no museums, either. No opera. No theatre.”

Right, like she went to the opera all the time. The the-uh-tuh. Ooh, fetch my top hat and cape. What, she really meant was there were no dance clubs.

“The State College is just outside of town,” I offered. “They must have plays, art exhibits.”

“What about my sister?” She and her sister, another dance club fanatic, were close and saw each other all the time because they worked in the same hospital.

“The city’s only a couple of hours away. And I’ll bet she’ll like coming up here, too, if just to get away from all that craziness.”

She softened, head leaning to rest on my shoulder.

“And besides, when we have kids, we can make weekend trips to the city. It’ll make it special for the whole family.”

She was quiet. Maybe she was wavering. Maybe she was already sold. Just then Roscoe came up the stoop and plopped down next to Melissa. She dipped and scratched his head and he rolled over, begging her to rub his tummy. She obliged, called him her good doggy.

“Okay, let’s do it.”

“Yes?”

She beamed up at me and nodded. “Yes.”

We packed Roscoe into our car and headed for the city. Melissa made to-do lists the whole way back.

Throughout the process of packing up and selling our apartment, Melissa was infused with an almost girlish glee, laughing and smiling and talking for hours to her sister about the wonderful old house in the wonderful small town. Her affection for me returned like a strong tide and we frequently made love among the moving boxes and scattered electronics. She couldn’t wait to quit her nursing job.

Moreover, she took to Roscoe. She’d grab his face in both hands and shake the saggy skin and coo who’s-a-good-doggy in a silly voice that made me fall in love with her again, made me believe again in the possibility of happiness.

Roscoe was a beautiful animal then, only a couple of years old and the kind of golden retriever pictured on bags of dog food. Happy eyes and a glossy coat. Sure, he was subdued for a few weeks, curling up for hours under the kitchen table, but he perked up thanks to Melissa’s constant affection and long walks in the park. After we moved, he and Melissa quickly became a local fixture, the perky, long-legged brunette with the big dog, waving to people we didn’t know but waved to anyway because that was our idea of how people lived in small towns, constantly waving to each other and asking about the weather.

Melissa was happy and I was happy because a man is happy when his woman is happy. I hoped she’d be happy forever.

Then one day I came home from errands and perceived her unhappiness as if she were cooking an unhappiness stew, the smell permeating every hollow space of the vast old house.

She just wanted to go out, she said. To a real place in the city. Her sister had told her about a new club on a warehouse roof with sofas and views and heat lamps. Mojitos. She just wanted to drink a mojito in a sophisticated place, if that wasn’t too much to ask for in this life.

We went, because when Melissa wanted something badly enough, she usually got it. That wasn’t the end of it, though. Over the next couple of years we spent more and more time in the city, which meant long drives back home. Some nights we got a motel room, but that was too expensive to do regularly. I started begging off, suggesting she stay at her sister’s.

She’d say, “No, no, you need to come, you have to come,” but that was just token resistance because not for one second did she really consider not going. She never wanted me along. I was no fun at clubs, I just sat around nursing an over-priced beer and hoping a laser didn’t blind me. To be honest, I let her go alone because I wanted to have some time to myself, to spend an entire night not wanting somebody to shoot me.

The clubbing situation resolved itself because, let’s face it, she was getting a little long in the tooth for that lifestyle. When her little sister got married and had kids, Melissa had no one to go with. Even her divorced girlfriends found the idea of clubbing embarrassing.

Of course, the unhappiness stew kept simmering. After several years in the wonderful small town, she got fixated on moving back to the city.

“Who are we fooling?” she’d argue. “We’re almost forty; we’re never going to have kids.”

She wanted to get back into her career, she’d been a surgical nurse, which is no small thing, and we had retirement to think about.

“What about the house?” I asked. We were eating dinner in the kitchen.

Her answer surprised me. “Let’s rent it out!”

“What?”

“We own it free and clear, right?”

“Yes, but…”

“It doesn’t make any sense to sell it. This real estate market is not exactly hot, so why not convert it to apartments and collect rents?”

I didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t a crazy idea. Half the houses on our street, once an upscale neighborhood for the local elite, had been converted to apartments and the State College provided a steady stream of students needing housing.

She wrote down some quick math. “It’s good money. And think about what it would do for our retirement.”

“What do you mean?”

“All that free rental income! It would add a nice cushion to our savings.”

Before I could say anything, she slid a business card across the table.

“This is the architect who designed a lot of the other conversions in our neighborhood. I met him at the farmer’s market. He’s really sharp.”

“I don’t know, sweetie.”

“What would be the harm in just talking to him?”

The architect suggested a design that converted the house into four apartments. There was a lot of back and forth because I kept finding things I didn’t like. Where the extra bathrooms would go, how the partitioning would affect the space, the feng shui.

The real reason was that I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to move back to the city because I knew we wouldn’t last six months there.  Melissa would leave me for someone more exciting.

Finally I wasn’t able to justify any more design issues. But before Melissa could call up an army of carpenters and electricians, I insisted we wait for Roscoe to die. He was already old by then, almost eleven and doubtless on his last leg. She looked at me and at Roscoe and back at me and took a long slow breath.

As she did so, the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth tightened and revealed themselves. How much we’d both aged! My hair was shot with gray; hers too, beneath the L’Oreal. Her complexion had grown dark with freckles; the country winters had not been kind. She’d kept slender with constant exercise, avoiding the weight I’d put on, but gravity was winning the long war on her figure.

“Okay,” she finally said. She looked at Roscoe and her eyes softened.  That’s one reason I loved her. She came off as difficult but could be really sweet if given the chance.

“That’s fair,” she continued. “But no extreme medical interventions. No hip replacements, no cancer treatments, no surgery, nada. He gets sick, that’s it. Agreed?”

“Agreed!”

We rolled up the plans and slid them back into their paper tube and took Roscoe for a walk downtown. It was a beautiful evening with the colorful sunset you get upstate, orange splashing across the sky. We had dinner at the converted railroad station and strolled back, lazy with wine, her arm hooked in mine.

Roscoe held out for another six years before the day his poop turned bright yellow.

After the vet, I stopped at the Buy-Rite to get cottage cheese for Roscoe. Hefting the cold plastic tubs, I thought about the poor guy and if I really was being inhumane, keeping him alive so long he almost couldn’t walk anymore. Keeping him alive, really, so I could hold onto the life I’d made in my grandfather’s house.

My house. Melissa’s house. We hadn’t always been happy there, but the happy times made up for the bad, and I believed we’d be happy again. And besides, my grandfather had died alone, and nobody wants that.

I put the tubs back in the dairy case and went out to the truck. Roscoe looked up at me, his head weaving with the effort, and I could almost hear him pleading.

Please! Somebody just shoot me!

I called the vet, who said I could come right back, she’d wait for me. Better to just get it over with. I called Melissa and told her my decision.

She was quiet so long I thought the call had failed.

“I’m sorry. I loved him, too. I know this can’t be easy for you.”

“Do you want to come down, meet me at the vet’s?”

“No, you take care of it.”

I waited for her to say more. Like: Yes, of course, I’ll be right down. Or: No, I couldn’t bear it, I just couldn’t.

She didn’t say anything like that. Just for me to take care of it.

When I got home, it was late afternoon and Melissa was in the kitchen, a glass of wine in her hand, the architect’s blueprints spread out on the table, curling at the edges.

I opened the cabinet and poured a couple fingers of whiskey into a glass. The whiskey was old and burned the whole way down, but I poured myself another and threw it back. Not because of what had just happened, but what was coming, the conversation with Melissa.

“I can’t believe he’s gone.”

She nodded. “I know. Me neither.”

“He was a good dog. He kept my grandfather company,” I said. I also wanted to say how Roscoe had kept our marriage together, but didn’t.

We stood there in silence, me leaning against the counter, her by the table, hugging herself, wine glass clutched in her bony fingers.

She spoke first. “I know this isn’t a good time, but…”

“But what?”

She shrugged and nodded toward the blueprints.

“You’ve got to be kidding.” My head wanted to explode.

“I know it’s hard. It’s hard for me too. But we had an agreement.”

“I can’t think about that now. To be honest, I don’t know if I even want to move back to the city anymore. “

Her grip around herself tightened and her shoulders lifted.

“I was thinking, I don’t know…”

“You were thinking what?” Her eyes burned and her lips were pressed tight.

“I like this house. It’s our house. And it’s all I have left of my grandfather. I don’t want to leave. I know we had this agreement, but… I’m sorry. That’s how I feel.”

She just stood there, looking at me. I waited for the explosion. Melissa was burning up with anger and disappointment; I could smell it, like a cast-iron pan overheating on the stove. But she said nothing. After a moment, she let out a deep sigh, took a deep breath and sighed again. If she was crying, she hid it well.

“That’s fine,” she said. “That’s fine.” She turned and rolled up the blueprints. She shoved them back into their tube.

“I’m sorry. Look, we can be happy here, we can…”

“Don’t. Please.”

“Melissa.”

“I need some time.” She sat at the kitchen table, her back to me, and poured more wine into her glass.

I went upstairs and lay on the bed, puzzling over Melissa’s reaction. She just seemed disappointed. This couldn’t be over.

I must’ve dozed off because when I opened my eyes, the room was twilight dark and Melissa was calling from the bottom of the stairs. My dinner was getting cold. As I came down, she was zipping up her coat.

“Your plate’s in the oven. I already ate.”

“Where are you going? Can we talk about this?”

“Maybe later. I need some air.”

Without looking at me, she left. I stood there like a dummy until her gravel footsteps faded away.

The plate in the oven was partially congealed beef stew. I ate as much as I could, washing it down with beer. Time passed slowly and after two hours, she still hadn’t returned. My stomach tightened with sour juices as wild fantasies flickered in my head. She’d gone to her sister’s in the city, or fallen victim to a psycho killer. Part of me wanted her to die, to drive off the road into a tree; it would make things so easy, while all the rest of me was repulsed by the fact that I could even think such a thing. I went into the kitchen and chewed some antacid. It didn’t help much.

Finally she came home and I was relieved. She didn’t look at me, but at least she was home. There was hope.

We went through our bed-time rituals like mutually oblivious ghosts. In bed we both lay as still as possible, lest we accidentally touch. I chewed another antacid and fell asleep, thinking things would look better in the morning. Things always look better in the morning.

In the middle of the night, I jumped awake from a candy-colored nightmare, my stomach a knot of squirming pain. When I got out of bed, I was dizzy, walking on legs ten feet tall. I made it to the toilet and held onto the sink as if it were the only solid thing in the world.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, it’s just my stomach. I’ll be all right. Go back to sleep.”

She appeared in the doorway, rubbing her eyes, her hair all tumbled in a way that reminded me of a camping trip we’d once taken in the Adirondacks. Before we were married. She’d come out of the tent all mussed up in the same sexy way. I snapped a photo and she came after the camera, chasing me around the metal fire ring until I let her catch me.

“Your stomach? Let me get something for you.”

“There’s antacid on my nightstand.”

When I opened my eyes again, Melissa was standing before me, a glass of water in one hand, tablets in the other.

“That’s not antacid.”

“It’s okay. It’s just something to make you feel better.”

At that moment, my bowels gave way. I peered into the bowl to see what the hell was in such a rush to get out. All I could see was bright yellow, the color of brand new tennis balls.

—–

Andrew O. Dugas’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in LITNIMAGE,
Instant City, Flatmancrooked, and The SOMA Literary Review. A regular
reader at local literary events, he’s currently shopping around
SLEEPWALKING IN PARADISE – A San Francisco Novel about Old Money, the
New Economy, and the Second Coming. Follow his Daily Haiku at
haikuandy.wordpress.com.

—–

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“Justin didn’t come over last night.  We made plans to get together earlier, cialis but he didn’t show.  No call, pills nothing.  That’s just not like him.  Well, tadalafil it’s not like the way he used to be.  I suppose I don’t know what he’s like now.”  Miranda took a long drag on her cigarette, sucking in her cheeks.  She paused a moment, then exhaled, staring off into the distance.  She casually flicked half an inch of ash into the air with her French manicured hand.  The black and white flecks scattered through the air like shrapnel.  She stared at the window, rain coursing down in spidery rivers on the glass.  It was dark.  “Have you talked to him since you’ve been back?”

Stephen sat up and reseated himself on the couch.  He leaned back, trying to escape the cloud of smoke slowly rising to the ceiling.  It curled around the basement  like a sea serpent, fusing its form with the cloud already gathered from the half pack Miranda had smoked in the last ten minutes.  A naked light bulb hung crookedly in the center of the ceiling, shining a sickly yellow light through the fog.  Stephen coughed.  “Do you know what Alan is doing?” he asked, his eyes fixed to the door.

Miranda sighed.  “His Nazi mother asked him to carry some shit out of her car or something lame like that.  You know how she is.  Crazy bitch.”  She looks at Stephen’s face.  It is pale.  “Oh, man, I forget how sensitive you are.”  She stubs the cigarette out and adds it to a collection of crumpled white cylinders in a in an overflowing ashtray.  Tossing her hair back, she says, “It has been six months, Stephen.  A lot’s changed.”

“Yeah.  I get that.  But some things stay the same.  My allergies fall under the latter.”

“But I don’t get it.  How did you deal with it when you were dating Alan?  I know he rolls his own, but it’s still tobacco, right?”

“I hated it.  At first, I wouldn’t kiss him if he smoked.  Then I got sick of not being able to kiss him when I felt like it.  It got old fast.”  Stephen stared at the walls of the basement.  He reread the familiar graffiti.  “I don’t remember you smoking so much.”

“Don’t start, healthy boy.  You must love California.  No smoking in bars or anywhere, right?”

“Well, it beats living in tobacco land, USA.”

“Well, my daddy’s money comes from tobacco.  I can’t knock it.”  She laughs, fumbling in her Louis Vuitton bag for her compact.

“Yeah, I guess it helps pay for all that M.A.C. makeup you love so much, huh?”

“Don’t start Mr. Chanel.”

“I used to work for them, remember.  I–”

“Stole it.”  Miranda examines her painted face in her compact.  “Employee’s privilege.  Trust me, I know how that works.”  She shuts her compact, places it back in the handbag.  “I really miss the days when the four of us went out on double dates together.  Justin and me.  You and Alan.  Skinny dipping in pools of rich people.”

Stephen smiles, crosses his legs.  “Yeah, I don’t know how Alan talked us into that shit.”

“Alan’s certifiable.  That’s why I trust him.  You know, Justin and I broke up a week after you left.  We hadn’t talked ’til this week.  Then he does this shit after I call him.  I just wanted to talk.”  Miranda sighs, picks up a glass of water.  “You seeing anyone in California?”

Stephen shifts again on the couch, slouches.  “Just this one guy, but he was bi and liked this chick better.  I didn’t feel like competing.”

Miranda gulps down three swallows of water.  “Justin’s bi.”

“Yeah, I know.”  Stephen looks away from Miranda to the door.

Miranda puts the glass down.  The crumpled butts bounce like jumping beans.  “What do you mean?” she asks, “Do you know or do you know know?”

The door of the basement opens and Alan walks in, finger-combing his dreds.  “Sorry, guys,” he says, “My mom’s fucking crazy.  Let’s smoke a blunt.

—–

STORM is a San Francisco based writer and artist.  He writes the Stormantic blog and performs Heroic Tarot. 

—–

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The trouble is, malady see, we keep losing all our poets to those there woods.  The nymphs and the dryads, they can’t get enough of them.  They tease them and torment them and sing to them, until it makes them mad with want, and well, that’s when they go.  Sort of like sirens, I guess.

They’re not all good poets, necessarily.  Some of them can just stack a couple of metaphors on top of each other without grating on your nerves.  But they take them all, even the not-so-good ones. . . I was going to say they take even the bad ones, but they don’t:  I guess because a bad poet isn’t really a poet.

And this is a problem for us, you see, because we like poetry:  life’s just not so worthwhile without it.  Some of us like the long epic ballads, ships and sailors and final fights, you know.  Others, like our mayor, they’re minimalists.  Keep it short, they say, no excess words.  The flowery stuff is for the gardens.  But the fairies in the woods, they’re not picky as to form:  they take ‘em all, all the works, and all the poets.  There’s almost nothing left.  Martha O’ Donnahue, she lost two sons to the woods, and one of ‘em could play the fiddle too, she had a book of poems buried in her back yard.  Kept it there for years, but they found it all the same.  Once we were famous for our poets.  When they take away our poet children, they take away our civic pride, too.

We can usually tell our poet boys right off the bat.  In my experience, they’re quiet, shy sorts, though sometimes you get a talented hell-raiser that nobody likes.  Now a days, some people say we should be protecting them:  keeping them away from the outdoors, or tying them up to their older brothers so that they don’t wander off.  One lady who lives down by the edge of town, she even says we should send them away as soon as they write their first stanza, keep ‘em safe.  But the majority opinion takes no stock in that.  It’s not that they’re being kidnapped:  they choose to go.  And if they choose to go, how could we stop ‘em?  I’m not so sure I hold with that, I think that maybe the fairies are cheating somehow, but that’s how we do it:  we wait and hope that one of them will want to stay.

Somehow or another, though, they all go for a walk in the woods.  Some of them are warned not to.  They’re told by their parents, or their young friends, what might happen if they do.  It usually happens after their first good poem, whenever they find the poet in themselves.  Some kids write nice little ditties soon after they learn to read, other kids can wander their legs off in those woods, and it’s only after they hit puberty and pour their hearts out onto paper and make good sense with it that the fairies touch them.  The poem’s the thing, see.  The fairies don’t take promises.

Now, we don’t know how they all get the idea of going walking in the woods.  Different folks have different theories.  One lady says there must be something about those woods that attracks the poetic temperment.  Man who teaches in the schoolhouse, though, he says he thinks the faries sing to them, and they follow the song into the woods because they’re curious.  Our blacksmith, his brother was a poet, he says he thinks they send little farie’s out into our village, and that they invite our poets down for a chat.  We’ll probably never know.  One way or another, though, they all go walking down there.

Not that it’s always the first trip that gets them.  It often takes more than one;  it depends on a variety of factors.  If they stay in the main woods, it’s the dryads they’ll be talking too.  If they go down by the river, it’s the nymphs.  Beautiful women, both, but it can make a big difference, so I hear.  Dryads are better singers, but they like to take it easy, while nymphs are cavorting and flirtatious.  They’re shameless, the lot of them.  They’ll tease the poets and laugh at them, show them magical kingdoms under the rivers or in the branches of trees, and offer them anything their hearts desire.  That’s enough to get some of them right off the bat.

Others, though, maybe they have a profession they want to get back to, or feel lonely for home.  Maybe they love their parents, or they’ve got a sweetheart.  Maybe they’re just plain afraid.  Whatever it is, they say no.  But they always change their mind.  From then on, they’ll hear invitations whispered at night, and every time they see the forest, there’ll be a shapely arm, gesturing them back.  Sometimes they go on a second visit, and still come back.  Nobody’s ever come back from a third:  by that time, those poets are just mad with desire, they can’t sleep right, can hardly eat.  It’s worked that way for years – they’ve got those boys’ numbers.

When it’s a girl poet they’re after, well, then they have to go to a lot of trouble.  It’s all women spirits in that woods, so they have to import.  They bring in mischievous young pucks as handsome as willows who whisk them up and dance them through the forest, deliberately catching her clothing on briars and thistles.  And from then on, wherever she turns, she’ll have a handsome suitor from the forest waiting on her whims;  fairy pucks can sing like dreams, they’re charming as the devil, and know a thousand and one soft spots on the skin to touch at each opportunity, to massage each moment, to caress in the darkness.  They have everything but depth, and can be anything except sincere.  I’ve never known what girls see in that type, especially poets.  But it never fails.  All the pucks ask is that they follow them into the woods, and so they do – and they don’t come back.

Now it’s just the rest of us, left alone.  And mothers don’t know what to hope for.  Do they want their children to have thoughtful tongues and observant natures?  How clever can your child be if you want to keep him?  But, of course, there’s another pain too, and an uncertainty that we don’t like to talk about.  But it’s a mirror that we can’t help looking in to every time we loose another poet to the fairies.

What is it they offer them that we can’t?  Why do we mean so much less to the most beautiful minds we have?  A nice hot fire, home cooked meals, family and good company at night:  these are our staples, these are our lives.  We always offer them freely:  it’s all we’ve got.  Yet not a poet in decades has stayed.  What more do they want?

—–

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

City of Human Remains, click by Darren Callahan, nurse 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 32, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Lamarche

 

The truck zooms past the orphanage at top speed.  The driver is late.  The appointment was for 11 that morning, treat and it is already 10:51.  Estimated arrival at City Hall: 11:17.

The driver hopes Mr. Majoury will wait for him.

Stupid, for sale stupid, stupid, he curses at himself in the front cab.  The truck, emblazoned with the Lamarche Clockworks logo – a 3-dimensional, functional, and green-painted clock – rips down the street.  The irony of being late while driving such a truck, with its oversized mechanism reminding him of every second, is not lost on Lou Lamarche.

For the first night since his son Matthew’s disappearance, he has slept a dreamless 14 hours.  His wife Lucinda had not woken him (even though he asked her to, begged her to, being certain to remind her of his Very Important Appointment with Mr. Majoury of the mayor’s office.)  But Lucinda disobeyed.  She left him comatose until the very moment.

He is a man who builds clocks and Time is his reputation.  Mayor Cocanaugher commissioned eight custom units to be built in the city’s premier buildings (City Hall, City Courthouse, City Library, Traffic Court, Small Claims Court, City Media Room, the Zigon Museum, the in-construction Doll Museum, and, lastly, on the City Pier.)  The work guarantees Lamarche years of employment and a minimum of $425,000.  It would be tragic to have the contracts canceled due to a single missed appointment.

He arrives at 11:16.  He locates the parking garage, shows his Limited Permissions, and is waved through the square’s still-standing riot barricades.

The underground lot is nearly full, so he drills down and down and down, growing despondent at sub-level 6.  There is a glide space on the lowest level and he rolls into it at 11:28.

He’s been messaging Mr. Majoury since 10:59, but nothing’s gotten through and now, in the dim and damp lower decks of the garage, Lamarche’s slouch is a sign of his resignation.  The mayor’s team has had enough on their hands with the children and the weather.  Now he’s made them worry over a middle-aged clockmaker.

Lamarche tucks in his faded blue shirt, straightens his pearl necktie, snaps his jacket and topcoat, and slicks his salt-and-pepper hair back from his forehead.  No time for grease — he uses spit instead.  He checks his wrist and the 3 circular watches on individually colored bands – white, black, red – and confirms they’re in synch with his tardiness.

Mr. Majoury? he requests from the mousy-haired woman at Security.  I have an appointment.

She presses numbers and smiles as she asks to be connected with for Mr. Majoury.  He’ll be right down, she informs Lamarche.

The clockmaker nods.

Maybe I’m not doomed after all, he hopes.

Lamarche waits in the center of the spacious marble lobby of City Hall and watches the buzzing employees.  He cranes to find the empty hole that will host of the grandest of his designs.  The overhead area has been strung with cables and electrics, but no Lamarche clock yet.  The plans are not yet complete.  The lobby’s current Shep-clock is embedded on the front of the security desk.  The Shep is plain and uninteresting, displaying cold digital time.  Lamarche prefers the mechanism to be revealed, the seconds to tick, and the hands to move in hitches.  He has never liked numbers.  He doesn’t like to think of time as mathematics.  He prefers to imagine it as movement.

He thinks of Matthew.

Lou, says Mr. Majoury, his hand outstretched as he steps off the silver escalator that funnels from the executive offices.  The manager is Lamarche’s age, but displays none of the clockmaker’s symmetry of dress and manner.  He’s rattled, sweaty, un-tucked, and in a hurry.  Lamarche knows him as a digital man, from a confession a few months ago.  Mr. Majoury understands none of the mayor’s romance with Lamarche’s clocks and only wants to conclude the annual budget without any overages.  But he’s pleasant enough, Lamarche supposes, for a bureaucrat.

Lamarche begins with apologies.  I am so sorry I am late.  My wife, she—

Mr. Majoury holds his long arms open, in disbelief.  If you don’t mind my asking, Mr. Lamarche, why the hell are you here at all?

Lamarche blushes to conceal his self-deprecating anger and the hurt.  I know, I know.  The contract.  It’s on hold.  I had the message from my foreman.  I’m so glad you wanted to meet with me to discuss—

No, not the contract.  No, no.  Forget the contract.  The contract isn’t on hold, anyway, it’s approved.  The foreman must have gotten the message wrong.  I’m talking about the news.  Your son Matthew.  He’s on the lists, isn’t he?  Haven’t you watched the broadcasts this morning?  Don’t you know what’s happened?

Lamarche’s throat closes.  He can’t breath.  He bends at the waist and tries to clear it, but it is as if a hangman’s rope has cinched his neck.

Mr. Majoury touches a hand to Lou Lamarche’s shoulder, an awkward and intimate gesture.  Are you all right, Mr. Lamarche?

Lamarche can’t seem to remove his eyes from his shoes.   Please, he pleads quietly, don’t tell me anything bad.  His body is about to crumble into tears, into sickness.

The brown-haired woman at security stands up, as if she may be required any moment to call for an ambulance, or, perhaps, the guards, as she doesn’t know this Lou Lamarche or his intentions.

With great effort, Lamarche straightens.  The news? he repeats, dumbly.

Mr. Majoury removes his hand from Lamarche’s shoulder.  It’s just that…well, I know about your son Matthew being on the lists.  I assumed you and your wife must have been glued to the broadcasts this morning and that’s why you hadn’t shown.

Is he dead?  They’ve found him and he’s dead, isn’t he?  Tears begin to burn his face, his eyes, the corners of his crow’s feet, but they do not yet come.

You’re serious, Lou?  You haven’t watched the news?

We’ve never owned anything to hear or see broadcasts, Lamarche confesses.  We’re isolationists. The neighbors keep us informed.

The story just broke an hour ago.  Didn’t you hear?  They’ve arrested someone.

Arrested?

Naturally I assumed you wouldn’t be here for the appointment.

Arrested someone?  The idea processes in Lamarche’s mind.  People in the marble lobby look at him.  He feels their eyes.  Did they find any, any more parts, like—? he starts to ask, but Mr. Majoury anticipates the question.

They found no one.  Apparently, this person broke into a house and somehow they’ve linked him to the 81.  I don’t really know much more than that.  There’s a Media conference starting upstairs in just few minutes.

I—I… Lamarche stumbles with his words.

Someone’s been arrested.  Someone’s been caught.  Why isn’t there a flood of people here, why isn’t there chaos, where is this suspect, who is he, can I ask him about Matthew, why is everyone so fucking calm, why didn’t my neighbors tell me anything, why didn’t I get a message during the commute, am I the only one in City 32 who knows nothing? 

All these questions hit like close-by explosions, but the only words out of his mouth are: I need to talk to my wife.

There’s no time.  Mr. Majoury takes Lamarche’s arm.  Do you want to go up with me?  I can get you in.  I have a pass.  You can hear the conference live as it goes out.

I have to call my wife.

Later, call her later.  Mr. Majoury hustles with Lamarche towards the gleaming escalators.

The office floor is brightly lit, confusing.  CITY EXECU-CENTER, reads a sign with arrow.  He mistakes it for ‘city executioner.’ Lamarche has been here during the bids and the contracts and the design approvals, but now he’s completely lost.  He stops at every corner turn and waits for Mr. Majoury’s indicating waves.  They pass by office doors quickly: CITY PLANNING, ZONING, POSTMASTER.  Then onto another set of escalators.  2 security desks (passed in no time thanks to Mr. Majoury’s escort badge,) and finally into a door with a flashing beacon: MEDIA EVENT HALL.

Lamarche is surprised at how few people are seated in the hall.  He had expected people like tight-packed pigs, not this spare collection of two-dozen men and women.  Most are seated in the very front row in plush red chairs.  They have their recorders, Post Its, and questions ready.  Each person wears a tag – MEDIA, in bold font.  Beneath the declaration is the name of affiliation and, below that, tiny print which Lamarche cannot hope to decipher from the top of the auditorium.

Mr. Majoury leads Lamarche to a chair in the rear row of the auditorium.  There are seven others in his row; each looks more uncomfortable than the next.  Lamarche assumes these are a privileged few, let in by connections.  No nametags.

Mr. Majoury gestures to the folded seats.  I’ll be back when it’s over.  I have something to attend to.

Don’t you have to stay with me?

Don’t worry.  It will be all right now.

Though he knows the man refers to Lamarche’s place in the room, the clockmaker is strangely comforted by the bureaucrat’s words.  And, for the first time since being late for his appointment, he relaxes his muscles and lets the idea overcome his senses.

Someone has been arrested.  There is hope.  Matthew has hope.

Thank you, Lamarche says with sincerity as Mr. Majoury scoots away.  The man returns a simple nod and thumbs up.

Lamarche sits delicately in one of the seats.

An older black woman is just down the row.  She inspects him up and down distrustfully.  This woman he recognizes.  Her image was in a flash edition loaned to him by his neighbor.  This woman was the instigator of the City Hall riot.  Her granddaughter is one of the 81.

Hello, nods the woman.

Hello, he replies.

Any conversation is interrupted by the start of the conference.

Eleven people take the stage.  Two women, nine men – three blacks, three Hispanics, two unidentifiables, one in a wheelchair, three bald, two in suits, five in uniforms, two policemen, two police captains, one fire captain, one nobody, and one woman with an eye-patch, all wearing some combination of elation and caution.

Lamarche cranes forward.

The lights dim to half.

The most generic of the suited men steps up to the dime-size broadcaster hanging center stage.  He’s older.  Stoop-shouldered.  Serious.  On display like a monkey.

Good morning everyone.  Thank you for joining us.  My name is Leon Burris.  I’m Second Lieutenant, City 32 Detective Division, Ward 8.  I am currently the lead investigator for 16 of the 81 cases of child abduction that occurred on October 23rd.  We believe to have had a significant break in the ongoing search for the children.  A Caucasian Male, age 41, was taken into custody last night shortly before 9 PM by 2 patrolmen, who had become suspicious of the man’s behavior.  The suspect had inhabited a home where three bodies were recovered: a man’s, a woman’s, and an infant’s.  He is currently being held under charges related to these deaths.  Other evidence recovered at the scene indicates a possible connection to the six children found in a drain tunnel this past Friday, October 25th.  At this time, we are not releasing the identity of the man arrested or the victims.  It is important to note that no other children have been recovered, in any condition, at the scene, aside from the three unrelated bodies at the scene.  As far as we know, these three additional deaths appear to have been murders of convenience.  Our current understanding is that the home may have been invaded, the residents killed, and the six children later murdered on the premises.  As this is an ongoing investigation, we will not be taking any questions.  There will be another conference within the next four hours.  Thank you.

The lights rise and the auditorium stage empties to a barrage of shouted questions.    The old woman beside Lamarche shoots out of her chair and shouts louder than all of them.  What is his name!  What is his name!  Where is my granddaughter!  Where is my granddaughter!  TELL US HIS NAME!

Lamarche excuses himself from the row, but no one hears him.  He’s a blur in the chair.

In the corridor, Mr. Majoury intercepts him.  That went faster than I thought.  I nearly missed you.

I have to contact my wife.

You can use my office.

In two minutes, Lamarche is standing in Mr. Majoury’s sparse office.  The director stands outside the glass to give Lamarche privacy.  Lamarche decides, for the first time, that he likes this man.  This bureaucrat.  And not just because he keeps the purchase order open for the eight custom clocks.  But because he gives him his office.  Because he wants to help.  And because he knows Matthew’s name.

Lucinda, it’s me.

Did you hear?

I was in the auditorium.

I don’t know what to think, Lou.  What does it mean?

It means there’s something.  It means Matthew is somewhere.  He didn’t just become invisible.  He is somewhere and this man knows where he is.

Come home.

I will.

Come home now.

I will.  I am.
Every Sunday, viagra Fiction365 presents a new chapter of a previously unpublished novel.

City of Human Remains, look
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 33, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Lucinda

 

She disintegrates into tears on Ynez’s shoulder and soaks her neighbor’s sweater.  She heaves and shakes.

There, check
there.  There, troche Lucy.  There, healing there.

Ynez is good at comforting.  This is the fifth sweater Lucinda Lamarche has wrecked.  All week, Lucinda has eaten Ynez’s casseroles, stolen her flash editions, bothered her with questions, and abused her Eye Dial to stay connected with the police.  Lucinda asks favors while at the same time apologizing for her husband’s antiquated disposition.  Lou hates the modern world, she explains as she receives instructions from Ynez on how to properly register Matthew’s name in the police database.  To anyone who will listen, Lucinda has declared her husband is better suited to the last century, a fact she’s known since the beginning of their 13-year marriage.  Over time, Lucinda has become a willing accomplice in their hermetic isolation.  With the disappearance of their son, however, it has become a frustrating divide between her and vital information about Matthew.

Lou’s coming home, reports Lucinda as she raises her sopping chin.

Good.

Is he dead?  Is my son dead?

Now what makes you think that?  You didn’t think that yesterday, did you, Lucy child?  (Ynez calls Lucinda ‘child,’ even though Lucinda’s 5 years older.)

They found a murderer.  A murderer!

Ynez looks across Lucinda’s apartment to her husband, Pieter, who sits uncomfortably in a tiger-striped chair, his finger hooked into the grip of a half-drunk cup of coffee.  Say something, Ynez telegraphs with her eyes.

Pieter asks his wife, Don’t you have to go to work now?  You don’t want to be late.

Ynez bristles at these words, but then glances to one of the many clocks mounted over Pieter’s head.  The entire wall is clocks, as is every wall in the Lamarche home.

Yes, I should get going.  Ynez holds Lucinda upright and looks her square in the eyes.  Will you be okay?

Lucinda nods.  Lou will be home soon.  Go, go.

Pieter will stay with you.

Pause.

Okay…

Lucinda gives a last stiff hug and spills a few more tears before letting go of Ynez.  You have been so helpful, you know?  You know that, don’t you?

Anything you need, offers Ynez.  She stands, smiles, straightens her nurses’ uniform then kisses her husband’s cheek.  She leaves with a sympathetic face and a smallish wave.  I’ll be home in six hours.  And I’ll keep glued to the news, let you know what they say.  Ynez leaves the small apartment, filled with its clocks and sadness.

There is a long silence; all that can be heard are tick-tocks.

Think how different things would be for us, remarks Pieter, if all this hadn’t happened.

I don’t want to talk about it.

We’d be breaking it to them now.  We’d be on our way to Rio.  To be alone for once.  Be together.  Not care if we’re seen kissing.

Rio was your idea, not mine.

Oh, but the rest of it—

I don’t want to talk about it!

Lucinda buries her face in the sofa cushions.  Part of her wishes Pieter would come and sit beside her.  A greater part wishes he might stay far away.  Even go home.  She’s been glorious, she tells him, your wife.  You know that?  Ynez has been really kind to me, to us.  How can you say she’s cold?  She’s nothing but heart and—

She’s a nurse, he explains as if it’s nothing.  She is like that when there’s trouble.  But when no trouble…when things are perfectly normal…she’s a gray sheet.

What have you been lately but the same?

I’m hurt that you would think that.  This whole business has been nails in my fucking skin.  If only you came to me for comfort.  I could serve you better than Ynez.  But you’re so afraid to be revealed.  You don’t want people to know we’re in love.

There’s no one around now.  You’re just sitting there.

Pieter stands from the chair.  Delicately, he puts down his coffee.  Oh, you want me there, do you?  He takes a step in the direction of the sofa.  She knows what he’s thinking.

Lou will be home soon.

There’s traffic.

Pieter, no.

I want you.  We haven’t touched in days.

Jesus, Pieter…

He’s on his knees, cupping Lucinda’s breasts over her wrinkled blue blouse, trying to get a finger in between the buttons.  His lips are at her neck, his teeth nearly biting her.

I can’t stand it, he pants with hot breath melting her skin, you know this is torture for me.  We were so close to leaving!  So.  Close.  Then to have you taken away!  He kisses her mouth, holds her wrists to the sofa.  It’s like I’ve lost you in a storm.

Pieter, Pieter, she struggles and lifts his right hand from her thigh.  His erection brushes her leg.  Please, Pieter.

A clock sounds noon.

A second clock chimes, faraway in another room.

Soon, they’re all going, all 27 of the clocks in the Lamarche household, their discordant symphony distracting her, burying Lucinda’s protests in an avalanche of announcement.

She knows Pieter is a creature of desire.  He needs this, knows he’s not like this all the time, so aggressive.

And who is Matthew to him?

Her lover doesn’t really know her son.  He’s played basketball with him at the neighborhood court; he knows his face has, heard her stories of motherhood, has watched recordings of the boy’s first steps, but Pieter is not Mathew’s father.  Right now, to him, her son is an obstacle, who has wrecked his mother’s happiness by disappearing on the eve of their elopement.

Fuck him, fuck him, Lucinda’s mind calls, her sadness replaced by anger at the world for stealing this.

Pieter has a finger between her belly and her skirt snaps.  She relaxes and lets him pull forward, opening the gap.  Fierce, unrelenting, he grabs hold of the waistline and pulls down her skirt to reveal her white panties and her pale, soft legs.  He doesn’t take the panties off, instead lets them hang at her ankles.  His fingers find her and she’s crying again, only differently.  He’s kissing her closed eyes, tasting the salt of her tears, probably realizing for the first time how raw her eyes and cheeks have become over the last seven days.  His belt is undone and his zipper next, then he’s free.  He’s in her and she’s thinking about how many times she’s been forced to clean the sofa in the last two months, since that first time after the party, with Lou dead drunk and asleep just two rooms off.  The chiming has stopped and the apartment is quiet again, except for their breathing.

We’ve brought this on ourselves, she says.

Matthew’s return is out of her hands.  She prays that God knows her heart enough to understand things.  Like what she can control and what parts of her (and Pieter) are forever cut away.

Go and watch the broadcast, she says in a whisper and dabs at the wet sofa.  Tell me if there’s any news.

Pieter

 

He’s ashamed, capsule and knows that he’s lost her.  Twenty years from now, they’ll be married and living in another city, another state, another country.  They’ll be mostly happy.  But not completely.  He’s lost her.  She’ll remember the time he fucked her on the sofa.  And she’ll remember the day – the day when her son’s murderer was arrested.

Now that he’s cum, he believes it may have been a fair exchange – a scar in their relationship for the satisfaction.  He had gotten used to multiple orgasms each day.  To be robbed of that for even a week has clouded his senses.

When he returns across the hall to the apartment he shares with his wife, Ynez, Pieter debates if he should dial another woman he knows for more stimulation.  A teasing conversation over the wire.  He stopped contacting other lovers when he found Lucinda, but he has numbers and names hidden in a shoebox.

On the image pipe running across his front wall, the Media repeats details from the news conference.  Some opportunistic beat reporter has uncovered the names of the 3 dead from the home invasion.  A map glows onscreen with an ‘X’ marking ground zero of the violence.  Underneath the map runs the following:

SUSPECT’S NAME AND IMAGE NOT RELEASED.  POLICE COMMISSIONER CALLS MEETING OF FAMILIES FOR 2 PM AT CITY CONVENTION CENTER.  DETAILS TO FOLLOW.

Pieter will write the details down when they are displayed.  He will give them to Lucinda and her husband, when he returns.  They will thank him.  They will go off together to the meeting and not invite Pieter or Ynez.  Later that night, Lucinda will tell her husband that she’s been fucking the neighbor and there will be a terrible fight.  Lou Lamarche will smash three of his favorite clocks and then try to glue the pieces back together with a tube of expired micro-cement found in a drawer of scotch tape, scissors, and twine.  None of the repairs will work and he’ll instead hurl the broken clocks on his neighbor’s doorstep with a note.

I DON’T WANT TO SEE YOU AGAIN EVER.

Ynez will ask her husband what’s happened, and, though Pieter can project these events in his the future, he doesn’t yet know how he’ll answer.

On Mondays, ailment so that her husband will walk the beloved standard poodle, Clara feigns sleep. The husband really is sleeping when the morning light ricochets off the bricks outside their bedroom window, striking the end of the bed somewhere around their ankles. Clara knows he’s asleep because she is always awake when he is unconscious and the converse is mostly true. Moreover, her body clock is set to IST, International Sunrise Time, as she considers herself the Watch Guard of the Morning no matter where she and her spouse happen to be in the world. Many a giddy married year they spent at playing world travelers. Lately, though, they are almost always in the same place, which is their apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, New York City, New York, The United States of America, Planet Earth, Milky Way Galaxy. At least Clara is. In the apartment. He, her husband — who she still calls Mick-man even though everyone else calls him Michael or Mr. Dana — travels. His travel schedule is unpredictable, but its frequency is not. Clara has grown accustomed to his last-minute changes and has accordingly adopted a life of suspended animation — a reactionary life, always attuned to the vagaries of her husband’s exigencies.

On Mondays, once dawn’s niggling fingers have slipped under the blinds and are stroking his face, Mick-man snorts himself awake. This is one of the defined moments of their couple-dom, as regular as the lack of physical affection. Clara wonders if his snort is triggered by light that has snaked up his nostrils and now pokes at his brain. Since this is the image she has every Monday awakening she believes it to be the case. The Mick-man was once a sinusitis sufferer, but his miseries were alleviated when an excavation of his passages was performed courtesy of enlightened preventive health care. Clara could use the films Mick-man had framed for his office to confirm in court that there is little matter filling that region of his inter-cranial space.

His reveille snort signals her to close tight her eyes to assume the deep sleep position. Clara and Michael Dana have played this scene for twenty-five years. Clara maintains that he knows she is awake — (Surely he must know this if he thinks of her at all in the early morning as they lie beside each other purposefully not touching but still radiating heat through barriers of clutched pillows.) Sometimes the heat of him awakens an old yearning somewhere between her legs, but she believes the Mick-man wouldn’t go for that. He’s one cold bastard for all the warmth his body produces, she thinks whenever desire surprises her. She wonders if anyone benefits from that warmth. She blames it on his Italian heritage, even though he speaks no Italian and looks Irish. Mick-man.

Mick-man never feels the cold, that is, the temperature cold, and for that she envies him. She doesn’t envy anything else. Clara would be ashamed, however, for anyone to think she’s ungrateful for her marriage so she has become a vocal enthusiast regarding her husband’s reputation to anyone in doubt. “It’s a mystery to me, but everyone who knows him admires Michael Dana. Everybody.” Indeed, her words are true. Everyone thinks him Swell: compassionate, wryly amusing. BIG HEARTED. In reality, what can she think but, It must be the Michael in him. Sometimes Clara fantasizes that she is married to Michael Dana but it is always the Mick-man who walks in the door.

She squeezes her eyes tight so that they don’t open by mistake and expose her for the fraud she is. She doesn’t need eyes to know that Mick-man is leaning over to retrieve the book and reading glasses that fell to the rug the night before. She can sense his movements by the shift of the mattress, one of the most expensive items she and Mick-man have ever purchased. By the expiry day of its warranty it was thoroughly mashed and sagging and as sensitive as a waterbed to the slightest movement of any one occupant thereby guaranteeing a lousy night’s sleep.

Mick-man retrieves his glasses and book from the floor before arising because his mother taught him to do so. Everything his mother taught him prior to his being sent to prep school he still does and his constancy fills him with pride. Soon, as per his mother’s tutelage, he will gallop into the eastward-facing rooms to lower the shades. Clara is impressed and annoyed that he does this rain or shine, sunny or cloudy. If he doesn’t lower the shades the minute he leaves the bedroom wing he grows agitated and castigates himself in a voice unlike his own for not having lowered the shades. Given that the ritual itself causes Mick-man stress, Clara thinks it would be petty of her to remind him that they’d bought the apartment expressly to enjoy the patterns of morning light etching against their homely objects. The sharp shadows shooting across the long expanses of wood mark a spot of warmth in her personal universe, but she doesn’t mention this to Mick-man. She understands that Mick-man treasures his habits.

She supposes that she is one of them, although the question of his faithfulness to her has long been academic. The man is so physically austere, so contained within his personal vise, that she cannot imagine him capable of reaching beyond it to embrace anyone else. Being no fool, she considered that the reason she saw him this way was that he gives all he has to others while retaining her as his solace, the refilling station where no effort is required but to receive. From what little experience Clara has had, however, she believes that when a person has an affair of either the heart or loins, the joy and abandon of it tends to leak out into all other circumstances; to wit, it becomes obvious that there is ecstasy going around. The one time she dared to pleasure herself with another man — if a person of male gender 20 years her junior could be called that — Mick-man had been on a two-month sabbatical to Dubai. Both her giddiness and her young man had evaporated by the time he returned, leaving her ecstasy theory untested. Clara admits that it could be wrong. Lately she feels wrong about many things.  As for the shades, as soon Mick-man leaves for work she will re-open them for a few minutes…before they can do permanent damage to the historic lithographs.

By now Mick-man has pushed himself up to standing (with both hands for maximum rocking of aforementioned mattress). He stands naked by the bed and noisily sucks in deep draughts of fresh air. Mick-man sleeps naked. Clara likes knowing this even though she wonders what about his body turned her on in the beginning. Wonderment aside, there is comfort in knowing a thing so well. Recognizing which parts have not changed versus those that now droop, are grizzled, or absent. The tattoo remains in its original glory and she finds this curious. The right buttock on which the tattoo was penned forty years ago remains taut and smooth. She doesn’t need a tape measure to know this because the parrot’s crimson feathers are still sharp-edged and the olive branch it holds (unparrot-like) in its claw still clearly bears the name “Corinne.”

Some women, some wives, would be threatened to find the name of another female permanently riding their husband’s buttock. Clara does not. It was one of the reasons she chose Mick-man. The first time she saw the bird she assumed it was a sign of the two things she wanted in a partner: Daring and tenderness. It was not until later in her marriage that she learned that getting the tattoo was the only daring act Mick-man would ever undertake — and this he had done in order to convince the girlfriend before her that he was a daring kinda guy. Clara smiled to remember that Mick-man’s one act of bravado was to trick someone else into thinking he was brave and that she was the one who fell for it. What does this say about me? she often asks herself.

The fact remains that the tattoo speaks decades of truth about the tenderness that lurks somewhere, unexpressed, deep within His Frigidness. Corinne was the beloved family macaw who dropped dead from the cold on the day the family relocated to New Haven from Costa Rica. Mick-man still mourns the bird. Clara reckons she is a poor substitute for the colorful avian although she has been a good stand-in for the rejecting girlfriend.

She hears him step into his crackling running pants in the less-dark room. It is a mystery to Clara that his running pants should crackle. They’re not starched; maybe the rubber has given out since they must be thirty years old. Older. The name of his prep school is partially visible on the side: hoat. Of course he can afford new pants. Why does he not buy them? Is it because running pants cost twenty times more than they did during the 1970s? Is it because he likes the scratchy texture against his skin? A remnant of sensation? Maybe he has no time, in which case Clara would happily schedule an outing to buy them for him. But he doesn’t ask.

He leaves the room to attack the shades and it is safe for her to stretch and open her eyes. The dog mimics Clara, stretching and blinking. She is a good poodle and loves Clara most of all. Mick-man resents her this preference. He doesn’t like it when people adore Clara either. How does she know this? It is something she surmises because he never praises her or rushes to introduce her to colleagues.

She goes back into I’m sleeping mode when she hears him shuffle down the hall to fetch the dog until she hears the click of the brass clasp onto her collar. Once again Mick-man is heroically letting her sleep, which is her cue to yawn loudly and say, “That’s so nice of you. I would have done it if you had asked.” And it’s true. She likes walking the dog, especially first thing in the morning. But Clara also likes testing her belief that Mick-man prefers not having to ask versus being relieved of the morning duty. She believes that dutiful behavior reinforces Mick-man’s feelings of accomplishment and that is a good thing.

He leaves and she pulls on the green dressing gown that lives at the foot of the bed. The sunlight is hitting the room at a different angle now that it is practically spring. She can see her reflection in the mirror where previously there was only glare. Clara loves their bedroom. She covered the walls in green vine paper that is uplifting and serene and cheerful all at once without being busy. As she gazes at her image she realizes for the first time that the pattern in her robe is reminiscent of the pattern in the wallpaper. This is an odd coincidence. Odd in that it should be so and odd that she hadn’t noticed it before. They make a pretty assemblage, the wallpaper and her gown, but she herself looks a little strange. Well, her head does. She considers that this might be what she would look like if she were only a head. Disembodied. Or sealed up in the wallpaper, Cask of Amontillado-like.

Clara is still standing in front of the mirror entranced by her disembodied head against the wall paper when Mick-man and the poodle return. She hears the dog’s toenails click on the bare floors. The dog runs from room to room searching because Clara should be in the kitchen by now preparing her breakfast. Mick-man walks into the bedroom and heads directly for his closet to pick out a shirt and pants. Clara says not a word and neither does he. Does he see her standing there? It occurs to her that maybe she is no longer standing there and has gone into another room without noticing. She goes to the kitchen in search of the poodle and herself. The dog is sitting on her haunches with her smarmy dog smile plastered on her chops, waiting for Clara. She looks meaningfully into Clara’s eyes and Clara is reassured by the dog’s lack of concern.

The rest of the morning proceeds in normal fashion: Mick-man stalks into the kitchen. Is there tea? Slurps. Reads the paper. Shoves work gadgets into backpack. I’ll call whether I’ll be home in time for dinner. (He won’t. Call or get there in time.) Chair scrapes in front hall as he places shoe trees in Sunday’s shoes and selects Monday’s pair. Door opens. Shuts. Clara has said not a word — except for her usual colloquy with the poodle: Didda have good walkies? Didda wanta cookie? Here’s breakie. Didda wanta milkie? She wonders if it’s necessary to remind friends that she and Mick-man raised two articulate and breezy children, who are now successful and happy adults, without once lapsing into baby-talk. Clara appreciates that since the poodle’s IQ is close to hers the dog must be making an effort to tolerate her babble pertaining to the daily food exchange. Clara concludes that she must be an old canine soul. Or perhaps she pities Clara.

The rest of the morning proceeds as usual — laundry, kitchen, grocery ordering (online), family check-ins (online), bills paying (online) — and getting dressed for Mid-day walkies. The weather has warmed up so Clara roots through the detritus in the antique bureau, pushing aside all the blobs of customary black. Spring seduces and demands color. She selects loose stretchy pants with a complementary fuzzy zip top both in a swirly design of yellowy green and tan. She chooses lime green Skippies for her feet. Appropriately she skips into the living room and calls the poodle: Walkies! Judith! Walkies. Toenails skitter and Clara spies a flash of black fluffiness darting into the living room then quickly out again. The dog has never played hard to get before and it gives Clara a passing odd sensation. She still hears clicking and knows the dog is searching for her. Clara turns towards the French doors entrance to the living room and catches her image in the gilt-framed mirror over the Mason-Hamlin — the wedding-gift piano from her father. What she sees in it strikes her as odd, too. There is a remarkable similarity between the living room walls and the outfit she has put on. She quickly spins around three hundred sixty degrees and looks into the mirror, as if challenging the glass. It is the same as this morning, only different. She is a head floating in a field of chartreuse and tan. She arms herself with liver treats and calls the dog again. This time Judith aroma-locates Clara. As they depart, Clara avoids the mirrors in the foyer because it has the same walls as the living room and she is uncomfortable about what she not might not see.

The phone doesn’t ring all day, which reduces Clara to chatting with Mick-man’s voice mail every couple of hours to ascertain dinner plans. Monday, the Sacred Day of Solo Dining, she acknowledges out loud. Why does she persist in hoping that things will change some day and an answered phone will propel her into cooking for two instead of defrosting for one? Or is hope the wrong word? Perhaps she is merely looking for a diversion and a mid-day call from Mick-man to confirm dinner plans would supply one. Or is this just another habit? She is in the habit of calling his voice mail. It reassures her that he hasn’t changed the number or left the country. To Clara’s credit there always remains the chance that he will answer the phone by the second ring and they will discuss what’s for dinner. Whadda want for dinnah? Sounds good, hon!

The next few days followed this pattern: Clara arose and donned her robe and marveled at her disappearance. Mick-man flew to Boston. On the third day Clara rose again and this time purposefully chose black for Mid-day walkies. A capricious storm front had blown in, though, making the effect of the floating head much the same against the preternaturally darkened living room walls. Clara noticed that if she moved very quickly from room to room she could sometimes capture a glimpse of herself in toto, but this manipulation of the scheme of things was short-lived, not to mention physically tiring.

When Mick-man returns from his trip, Clara does not mention any of these household perturbations. Since she can’t interpret them for herself she knows that she would be speaking to the air to try to impress him by their uncanny nature. The disappearing act doesn’t seem to cause any harm; she is not in pain and can pick up a book and still read, prepare a meal, play with Judith — although she admits that Judith seems somewhat bewildered when the tennis ball flies out of the wall. The alarming change occurs Friday when Mick-Man returns from work. It is earlier than usual. It is what would be considered dinner time in a normal household.

Clara had been playing Brahms and had just gotten up for a glass of iced tea when she hears him come in. She knows it is he by the tell-tale scrapings of the chair, the grunting removal of shoes, the Shoji panels dragging on their track, the inevitable profound sigh which sounds more piteous than usual. Mick-man’s coat hits the floor where it will lay until the next donning. Hanging up his outer garments was, alas, a habit his mother never taught him. She hears the pad of stockinged feet across the floorboards to the kitchen where she quietly reclines against the wall. (She has a brief notion that she is channeling Greta Garbo in “Queen Christina.”) The kitchen walls are a daffodil yellow and she is camouflaged accordingly. Mick-man looks awful: more tired than she’d ever seen him; gray hair sprouting every-which-way over his ears and temples. He’s lost weight. He doesn’t acknowledge her — which she had come not to expect — but instead does a curious thing. He pulls up one of the quaint Swiss chalet chairs that matches the quaint Swiss chalet table and, leaning on his elbows in a most dejected manner, pulls out his mobile phone and punches a number. Mick-man is a’weary and his words alarm her.

Officer Keegan, please. Yes, I’ll hold. Hello, Officer Keegan. It’s Michael Dana calling. We spoke yesterday…oh, you remember me. Well, I’m sorry, I just assumed that you had so many cases…yes, well, I’m managing to stay calm, thank you, but I still haven’t had any word. There’s no evidence that she’s been here. I just don’t know what to make of this….I’m, yes, well, of course. I’m completely at your disposal. Tell me when to come in. I’ve taken a few days off to figure things out and I’m…um, no, I don’t have anyone here…My brother lives in New Jersey…No, I didn’t want to alarm anyone — especially Clara’s family….I’m sorry. I’ve been so confused, I didn’t think of it that way…Yes, I’ll come in at 10:30. Thank you.

Mick-man takes a beer from the ‘frige and sits down again. He dials another number. Russ? Russ, do you have a minute?…Well, yes, I sound upset because I am upset….It’s Clara. I don’t know how to say this. No, she’s not sick — at least I don’t think she is. I don’t know. Russ, I don’t know. I don’t know anything about Clara. She’s not here. She’s missing. I seem to have misplaced her….MISPLACED…No, I’m serious. I thought she was here. I was in Boston this week and Judith seems perfectly fine so I just figured that Clara was busy doing whatever it is she does. No, I tell you I haven’t seen her in days….No, her things are here. I’ve called the police. I, yes, of course I’m worried. Listen, Russ, that’s why I’m calling….I was wondering if you might be able to come over tomorrow, maybe stay a couple of days….Yes, I’m pretty shaken up. Yes, I know how independent she is, but she would have left me a note if she’d decided to take off for Paris or something like that. You know how she’s always longing to do that. I thought, well, maybe that’s what happened, but her passport is here. Her purse. Everything is here that should be except for Clara. Oh, and Judith is happy as usual — well, Russ, I’m sorry to mention the dog again, but she is an important measure of the normalcy of our household….The NORMALCY… What? No, it didn’t occur to me to call Harry and Ann. I don’t want to worry them….Well, I suppose their mother would have let them know, or taken some money or something like that!…I’m sorry to snap, Russ, I just feel like I’m losing my mind. Everything was just fine, everything was going along as usual… Two peas in a pod, you know? Her doing her thing, I doing mine. She seemed happy — like she always is. Self-sufficient, kind, doing everything just for me…and now, well, I know it sounds odd, but believe me, odd things can happen. ARE happening, and…well, I just … I miss her so much I’m, I’m DISCOMBOBULATED if you want to know the truth. I don’t know what to do….Thanks. Thanks, bro. I’ll be with the police until after lunch …OK. See you tomorrow.

Clara hangs on every adoring word pouring out of the mouth of Mick-man as she hangs on the wall by the kitchen clock. She is touched by the delicate way he considers the possibilities as to where she might be — kidnapped, murdered, run over while walking to the neighbors, stricken by sudden amnesia and wandering the mall lost. Without money. A girlish smile lights up her face as she imagines how Mick-man will laugh when she tells him that she’s been here all along embedded in the wall.

The cuckoo peeps the hour and Clara realizes that she has been listening to Mick-man go over possibilities to various people for hours. She is startled at the passage of time and the fact that she hasn’t yet announced her whereabouts. If she assumes that she has been so utterly charmed by his concern for her that time has flown by unnoticed, that assessment would be correct. Clara has fallen in love with being loved. She decides to hold off speaking to Mick-man. After all, she reasons, it might frighten some people to suddenly have their loved one’s voice speak to them from inside the wall. It might drive some people quite mad and she wouldn’t want that to happen to Mick-man. For all his faults as a companion he doesn’t deserve to have his sanity ripped from him during what should and will be a perfectly reasonable explanation. She wonders what would be the best time to tell him. Nighttime isn’t right because it is too uncertain. A tired person is apt to distort simple facts when the brain and feelings have passed an entire day stirred up and confused. Morning is the time for surprises. Everything appears less threatening in morning’s cheery embrace.

Clara resolves to break the news to Mick-man in the morning — provided he gets a good night’s sleep. She wouldn’t want him to be emotionally jagged from insomnia and worry. She decides to watch over him through the night and tell him in the morning. After she sets out the tea. And walks the dog.

—–

Elisabeth Bell Avery’s background is in  is in medicine, philosophy and comedy. She has two novels being considered for representation.

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I arrive at the airport in Paris with barely an hour to spare before my flight.  I’m usually much more conscientious, diagnosis especially when traveling:  I like to be two or even three hours early when I’m flying.  I like to wander the crowded terminal, check pulling my suitcase along behind me like an obedient child, rolling, rolling, rolling.  I look closely at all the jewelry, the salesladies growing nervous and watching me hawk-like with heavily made up eyes.  I always wonder if the makeup makes it more difficult to see—as a kid I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup and even now it just makes me anxious—but I think it would be rude to ask.  I go to the perfume store and spritz all the tester bottles, pretend to smell judiciously like a potential paying customer would.  Then I shake my head, gravely, as if the store has disappointed me deeply despite its duty-free price tags, and I roll my suitcase away.

Because I have so much time, I usually eat in one of the restaurants:  table for one, a steak and a beer.  I love airports because you can order a beer at ten in the morning and no one looks at you twice.  It’s thrilling; anonymous; never lonely.  I watch kids in their Mickey ears, drooping, over-stimulated; college kids returning from spring break, tan and hungover; couples returning from romantic vacations, so tired of each other they barely speak.  After I pay my bill and tip the waitress, I make a trip to the restroom. This is always an ordeal in airports.  You have to maneuver with your roller bag in the stall, plus a purse and sometimes a coat, and the coat hooks on the back of the stall door are always missing or broken.  I get anxious here but it’s better than the antiseptic claustrophobia of a plane bathroom, so I hold my breath, squat over the bowl and pee, then try not to fall sideways as I grope for toilet paper.  I’m clumsy on solid ground; you can imagine that trying to pee into a bowl while 30,000 feet above the earth and moving at a speed of 550 mph seems to me an impossible feat.

I always feel better when I get to the gate, and I don’t drink anything else, no matter how thirsty I am.  I don’t want to risk it.  I chew gum and then suck on Jollyranchers instead, mint and apple flavors mingling with a strange metallic taste on my tongue.  I have a ritual here too:  headphones go in, making me seem like everyone else with white wires sprouting from ears, tethering us to purses or belts where our iPods are hiding.  I pick from a stack of the trashy magazines I’ve bought at CVS the night before:  Us Weekly, Ok, Entertainment Tonight.  I read about this celebrity’s wedding, that one’s third divorce, this one’s potential baby bump (later proven to be only a few extra pounds, not a pregnancy), that one’s racist, drunken meltdown (complete with mug shots).  When I finish reading one, I don’t save it for my coffee table like some people do; I get right up from my seat and throw it away.  I don’t like carrying things I don’t need any more. I feel weighed down.  So I just get up and throw the read magazine in the trash.  Then I sit down and move on to the next one.  I have a pace:  one magazine per half hour.  If I read any faster I go back and look at the photos again so I don’t mess up my schedule.  Then I won’t have anything to do on the plane.  So I read, usually two whole magazines, until the plane starts boarding, then I put all my stuff away and stand up, even if I’m not boarding until very last.  I like to be ready.

So I am a little nervous when I get to the airport in Paris, clutching my ticket for Air France Flight 393 to JFK, and my plane leaves in an hour.  I got confused on the metro and promptly forgot all the simple French phrases I had studied so hard when my mom invited me to come see her and her new boyfriend.  They had an event this afternoon and couldn’t see me off, but I told them I would be fine, I was an adult, I had studied French for weeks before coming over and knew how to read the metro signs.  

I get through security without a problem, but my heart is pumping furiously anyway; I have to make a quick decision, and I can’t decide if I want a sandwich or a slice of pizza, and I forget how to order anything in French so I just go up to the deli counter with the shortest line and point mutely at what looks like a turkey pita.  I pay for it with some euros I have left over, without any idea how much I’m actually shelling out.  I’m thirsty, so I get a soda too, Pepsi, and go right to my gate.  I’m getting more anxious as I eat my dinner hurriedly, because I’m not going to have time to go to the restroom if I want to stand by the door as the passengers board.  I take four deep breaths because I start feeling calmer after four, and I remind myself that I peed once in the plane bathroom on the way over, and it wasn’t so bad.  I can do this.  So I finish my sandwich and get up to throw away the wrapper; sit down and finish my soda, the bubbles fizzing in the back of my throat as I gulp it down, then get up and throw the bottle in the recycling bin next to the trash can.  I put in my headphones and press play on my iPod, nervously; I pause it every time I think they’re making an announcement at my gate.  Mozart sounds like he’s being played on a skipping record player.

Just as I’m deciding I have time to go to the restroom after all, they announce that they’re boarding for Air France Flight 393.  Everyone gets up, and I get up too, even though I’ve memorized the layout of the plane and I’m sitting so close to the door that I’ll probably be boarded last.  I’m 8F, on the aisle.  The plane is one of those that has two seats and then three seats and then two seats again.  I’m in a two-seat section, but not next to the window.  Looking out the window in a car or train makes me dizzy; looking out the window of a plane gives me vertigo and once as a kid I passed out. 

I wait and wait by the door until they call my row and then I’m first in line.  I roll my suitcase down the walkway.  As a kid I always thought the walkway to the plane could lead anywhere:  maybe we’d come out on the moon, or in Alabama.  (My mom grew up in Alabama, and as a kid it fascinated me that she had her childhood so far away from New York.

I find my seat and wedge my suitcase in the compartment right above it.  My seatmate isn’t here yet, because I was first in line for my section.  The plane air is cold and stale.  I hate the way it smells:  days old, breathed in and out too many times.  I sit down in the scratchy blue seat and buckle my seat belt.  Then I quick take my iPod back out and stick the earbuds in my ears and play my music, close my eyes, so I don’t have to talk.  Strangers make me afraid.  I know they shouldn’t because I’m twenty-three and not eight, but they do anyway and my therapist says it’s okay, and I don’t have to fight it all the time.  I’ve ordered my sandwich and come through security and tried to ask for help on the metro, so it’s okay if I don’t want to talk to strangers during the flight.  Except for the stewardess when I have to ask for an apple juice.  It’s weird, but I have to drink apple juice on planes.  When I was little it used to calm my stomach, so it makes me feel better when I drink it during a flight.

Someone is leaning over me, then squeezing past my knees, and I move them to one side to accommodate him.  I can tell it’s a man because of the cologne.  I guess, with my eyes still closed, that he’s in his sixties and wearing a tweed blazer, and when I peek I’m right.  I close my eyes again and pretend to be sleeping until I hear the stewardess walking toward me closing all the overhead compartments.  I take one earbud out while they’re doing the safety demonstration, because without my music I get too scared imagining all the things that could go wrong.  Then they make everyone turn off all their electronics, and I take lots of deep breaths, more than four, because I get the most nervous during takeoff.

We rumble down the runway and the nose of the plane points into the sky, and my stomach clenches in fear, and I take deep breaths and remind myself of all the flights I’ve taken and all the times that the takeoff has gone just fine, and that there are more car accidents every day than plane accidents, and that the pilot has done this a million times, and by then we’ve leveled off and I can breathe at a normal speed again.  When I was a kid my mom used to hold my hand during takeoff and landing.  I try not to think about that now because it gives me a strange feeling in my stomach, like a dull swooping sensation.  Susan, my therapist, says this is sadness because I miss my mom now that she lives in France with her boyfriend.  Susan is usually right, so I guess I am sad because my mom lives across the ocean.  It is much further than when she lived in Hoboken, because then I could just take the N train from my apartment in Chinatown to 33rd Street and get on the Path train and go under the river. 

After a while the drink cart finally comes through, which is great because I’m thirsty.  I practice in my head:  jus de pomme, jus de pomme.  When the surly French steward glares at me, I mumble in English that I want apple juice.  He sighs heavily, as if taking orders in a language he speaks fluently is a terrible burden.  The man next to me orders in French, and the steward pours some scotch over ice and hands it to him, splashing a tangy drop of alcohol on my tray table.  He plunks my juice down on top of a napkin, sloshing it in a puddle across the tray.  It dribbles into the circular depression meant to keep drinks from sliding if there’s turbulence.  As this thought passes through my head I repeat the last word because I like the sound of it: turbulence, turbulence, turbulence.  In any case, I have nothing to sop up the liquid with, so I drink my juice and stare at the ugly blue fabric of the seat back in front of me.  I check my watch:  we’re fifty-seven minutes into the eight-hour flight.

Susan recommended that I make a schedule of activities for myself so I don’t get too antsy.  It worked well on the way over, and I was especially glad she suggested I not rely on watching the in-flight movie, in case I didn’t like what they were playing.  On the way over it was Black Swan.  I hate scary movies because they scare me, and I hate ballerinas.  They walk like ducks.  For some reason I have a fear of ballerinas akin to what some people feel about clowns:  seemingly innocent, but terrifying to me for some inexplicable reason.  Luckily I had booked myself solid:  two issues of the New Yorker I had saved for the occasion (for a total of 3 hours of reading), an Us Weekly to give my mind a break, a chapter of crossword puzzles, and a Mozart playlist I like to listen to without doing anything else.  That plus dinner and an hour-long nap got me through the night.

It’s nighttime now again and they’re going to serve a meal and then show Little Fockers.  I’m relieved because I don’t have any New Yorkers left.  I have a book my mom gave me, which is funny because you’d think since she’s my mom that she’d remember I don’t really like to read books.  I wish she’d bought me something else, even if it was in French—French Vogue or French Cosmo.  At least I could look at the pictures and imagine what the headlines and articles said.  The book is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and she said she thought I’d like it because the narrator is like me.

I know what she means and I don’t know what she means.  I understand because the boy in the book has Asperger’s syndrome like me.  But he’s a boy and he’s younger than me and he’s not real and he wants to be a detective, so he’s not really like me at all.  Anyway, I’m glad they’re showing a funny movie because I don’t want to read the book now.  I will because my mom gave it to me and I feel like I should.  But I’ll spend so much energy trying to figure out what exactly makes the boy like me that I’m tired just thinking about it.

Dinner comes and it is limp penne pasta in a red sauce with chicken and broccoli and a roll.  I eat every bite of it and wish there were more.  My mom always laughed at me when I was younger because I got so hungry traveling.  I still do.  I eat in the airport, I eat on the plane.  It makes my stomach feel less empty, and then I don’t get nauseous.  Luckily I have a huge bar of French chocolate in my bag.  I take it out and eat half, then wrap the rest carefully and put it back.

Dinner has been cleared and I’m halfway through Us Weekly when it happens.  I’m listening to my iPod, Debussy now, when the man next to me makes a strange gurgling sound, then a sharp exhale, then clutches his throat, then slumps sideways into me.  His weight collapses on me for a moment until I jump up, magazine torn and falling crumpled under the seat, and press the call button frantically, then yell that we need help, a doctor, and I stand in the aisle, still listening to Debussy, as the flight attendants move into action.  Someone radios to the pilot the situation, then gets on the intercom and asks for a doctor.  One appears from behind the first class curtain, and he so resembles the man who is sick (silver hair, ruddy face, tweed jacket) that I shrink back.  Someone asks me if I know him and I shake my head mutely.  The doctor asks if he ate or drank anything strange.  I tell him he had scotch from the cart and the same dinner as me and everyone else (the non-vegetarian option).  This makes my stomach freeze, and I take eight deep breaths through my nose and remind myself that the whole plane would be sick if something was wrong with the food.

They work over the man whose name I do not know for a long time: they open his shirt and use those paddles you always see on TV.  The doctor performs CPR.  They do other things I don’t know the name of.  Passengers are craning their necks, morbidly curious.  I can’t tear my eyes away either:  a bad car accident or a line of emergency vehicles on your street.  Debussy is playing a strangely calming soundtrack to the frenetic activity.  

After twenty-one minutes by my watch, the doctor shakes his head.  Even though only a few people are looking when he does this, a hush falls over the entire cabin.  One of the attendants leaves to inform the pilot, then announces over the intercom that the passenger has died.  There is a horrified murmur, and people closest to my empty seat lean as far away from it as possible, as if death were contagious.

One of the stewardesses takes me by the elbow and guides me to the bay where coffee is brewing.  She opens a door that turns out not to be a cabinet but a refrigerator and hands me a bottle of water.  She explains softly that the flight is full, and they have no space to store the man’s body because all the free areas must be kept clear for emergencies.  I want to laugh—isn’t this an emergency?  What are the odds of another one happening on this flight in the next six hours and seventeen minutes?—but I don’t.  I sip my water.  I want to tell her I can’t do this, I have Asperger’s syndrome and an anxiety disorder, I’d rather stand back here by the coffee for the next six hours and sixteen minutes.  I can’t seem to form any words, in any spoken language.  She smiles sympathetically, but this has stopped being her problem.  She pats my shoulder and says she’ll come back for me when my seat area is cleared up as much as possible.

Time passes, and it’s like I’m outside it.  I start remembering things.  I remember how my mom’s boyfriend makes me feel anxious, like he doesn’t really care about me or my mom.  I remember how he would watch TV when she was telling him about what we did that day: we saw the Mona Lisa, we went to the top of the Eiffel Tower.  He would leave the apartment (he calls it a flat, but my mom doesn’t) without telling her where he was going.  I could see the look in her eye that meant she felt upset and all I could do was give her a hug, and she’d be surprised because I used to not know what being upset meant, even when it happened to me.

The stewardess beckons to me from the aisle next to my seat, and I am feeling upset.  I know this because my throat feels thick and there’s a pressure behind my eyes that usually makes me cry, but I never cry in public so I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know what to do, so I walk slowly toward her as if I were being beckoned onstage with a hundred ballerinas, and I look down in fear that I’m wearing a tutu.  I’m still in my jeans and sweater, so I take four deep breaths.

She ushers me into my seat and says thank you, and says other things; my hearing fades out.  Though she’s speaking English, “thank you” has suddenly become the only phrase I understand.

She leaves me alone next to the dead body of the man whose name I still don’t know and I am acutely aware of everyone staring at me in horror.  To prove to Susan’s voice in my head, which asks me whether everyone was actually staring or it just felt that way, I peer around fearfully.  I make eye contact with six people:  green eyes brown eyes blue eyes, and none of them look away as they normally would when caught staring.  Nothing about this situation is normal.  I sit back in my seat, pressing myself so hard away from the body of the man that I feel the armrest digging into my thigh and my elbow simultaneously.  I breathe in and out, in and out, but this doesn’t help because of the smell.  Antiseptic and something else:  something dark and stale and musty.  I peek around my lowered eyelashes at the man next to me.

I have never seen a dead body before.

They have leaned the seat back a little—perhaps so he doesn’t fall forward.  His fleshy face is blotched purple and looks like he’s wearing a lumpy mask.  Everything about him is unnaturally still.  Tears well in my eyes and I swallow and swallow against the lump in my throat.  I can’t cry, I can’t cry, I can’t cry.

I tear my eyes away.  I am so afraid that I know if I do something familiar—read Us Weekly or listen to music or do crosswords—I will start hyperventilating.  The familiarity in the face of this impossible situation, far from comforting me, would undo me.  So I pull out the shiny new copy of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, annoyed at how heavy and bulky it is to hold, and open to page one.

I read as if for dear life, willing each word to carry me away from myself and the dead body resting motionless beside me.

Every now and then I peek to make sure he’s still dead, still motionless. I can’t look at his face again so I look at other things—his left pinky finger, adorned with an ornate gold ring.  There’s a small hole in the right knee of his trousers.  Someone has rebuttoned his blue oxford shirt and the top button of his tweed blazer, and the buttons don’t move at all because he’s not asleep, and he never looks asleep.  Always dead.

I check my watch every six minutes for the next 240 minutes.  I seem incapable of allowing more or less time to pass between watch checkings.  Even so, each 6-minute increment is the longest 6-minute increment of my life.

People around me sleep.  The attendants bring pillows and take drink and snack orders in hushed tones.  I watch parts of Little Fockers in silence.  I’m still listening to Debussy, I don’t want to listen to the movie, don’t want to hear punchlines.  The garish colors and dramatic gestures alone are too much, and I turn my face back to my book and focus on the black words on the white page until my eyes tear in concentration.

It is the longest night I have ever spent, longer even than the night I went camping with my Girl Scout troop and lay awake in fear, tears slipping from the corners of my eyes, too afraid of the dark to get up and find a chaperone.  As soon as dawn came I went to the pay phone and called my mom to come get me.  But there’s no phone I can use here, and my mom can’t come get me.  The flight attendants check on me often (approximately every 26 minutes of the long, long night), bringing me water, offering me peanuts, pretzels, a stiff drink.  The thought of the smell of scotch—the fact that scotch is sloshing around the stomach of the dead man next to me—almost makes me gag.  I refuse the water and the food until the surly steward remembers and brings me a cup of apple juice with no ice, and I drink that.

When we finally begin our descent I am too tired and numb to fit any more fear in my bones.  Consequently it is the most fearless landing I have ever experienced.  Once we touch down and arrive at the gate they ask everyone to remain seated, and the pilot himself comes back and escorts me from my seat, rolling my suitcase for me down the narrow aisle.  I keep my eyes on his long, thin fingers curled around the suitcase handle to avoid all the curious, sympathetic, disgusted gazes.  The pilot assures me that the airline will send me a gift because of my inconvenience, and I laugh.  

I call Susan’s office and it’s only 7 AM, so they’re not open, and I leave a voicemail that I need an emergency session at 5PM.  I treat myself to a cab, too afraid of who I might have to sit next to on the subway.  I text my mom to tell her I got here safely.  I hope she’s not too attached to Paris and her boyfriend, because I will never get on a plane again in my life

—–

Brooke Law is a student in Fairfield University’s MFA program, where she is working on a novel.  She also runs the book review blog Books Distilled. She lives in Long Island, NY with her husband.

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Fredo slid the fish onto the pan, try
clash and sizzle, smoke rising to the kitchen ceiling.

“Only way to do catfish, man. Breading’s my own recipe.”

“Didn’t know you cooked,” said Barney, popping the top on another beer, slurping the foam that bubbled up from the lip, then sucking the ends of his moustache.

“Catfish ain’t ‘cooking,’ it’s just eating what you caught, man.” Fredo plopped a plate in front of Barney, steaming fish lying across it like a body in the street.

“How’m I supposed to eat this?”

“With a fork, dumbass.” Fredo had a tea towel over one shoulder, moving around the kitchen, slamming drawers and rattling spoons.

Barney’d never seen him like this. Normally Fredo moved slow and quiet, eyes half-lidded, answering questions in his own sweet time. But ever since this afternoon, since they were taking shots at the target out back of the cabin, Barney able to hit the bullseye at 300 yards with his Dad’s old rifle, God only knew where Fredo’s shots went, but they sure as hell weren’t going into the target.

“You having any?” Barney asked.

Fredo just kept shuffling things around in the kitchen and didn’t answer, Jesus, he was as bad as Barney’s wife, what bit him in the ass, thought Barney, before tucking in, the fish hot as a furnace, but the breading was heaven, grease running off onto the cracked plate. Barney got going, it was amazing, he’d never had fish like this before, just kept shoving it in and shoving it in until he felt something sharp hit the back of his throat.

Barney couldn’t breathe. He looked up at Fredo, but he couldn’t even get out enough air to make a sound, he felt heat building up behind his eyes, and finally Fredo looked around from where he was standing at the sink, Fredo saw him, Fredo would give him the Heimlich or something, Fredo could fix it.

But Fredo had slowed down again, eyes lidding down, smile creeping up his face.

“Watch out for the bones, Sharpshooter,” said Fredo.

——

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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I had always thought of Gina as more Linda’s friend than mine, viagra so after Linda and I separated I didn’t contact her.  It felt good when she called to invite me over for dinner.

“I’ll make a spaghetti dinner, unhealthy like in the old days,” Gina said.

Pasta may be the only thing Gina cooked.  I remember whenever she invited Linda and me to her place, she’d make spaghetti with sausage and peppers, a spinach and anchovy salad and pistachio ice cream for dessert.  This night the meal was exactly the same, except the spinach salad had bacon instead of anchovy.

“I never really liked anchovies,” I admitted.  “Linda loved them.  She’d even put them on grilled cheese sandwiches.”

“I know,” Gina said. “Now you don’t have to eat them if you don’t want to.”

I thought about the two tins of anchovies I had picked up at the supermarket the first time I shopped to stock my new cupboards.  I guess I bought them out of habit.  Even I couldn’t imagine Linda returning because I kept canned fish in my condominium.

We ate our meal, drank a good Merlot I brought because Gina enjoyed a dry red, and listened to nostalgic songs.   James Taylor and Joni Mitchell.

At first, our conversation didn’t quite qualify as small talk, more like tiny talk, but Gina showed no patience for polite chitchat.  She cut through the stalled chatter to say she had spoken to Linda only once since Clyde, Linda’s new friend, moved in.  She told Linda she thought Clyde was a loser.

“Fucking him is fine, I told her.  But don’t let him move in.”

I cringed.  No one ever accused Gina of sensitivity.

I’m sure Linda has convinced herself she loves Clyde.  Sometimes I think the reason she married me was because she felt guilty we had become lovers before becoming friends.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression of Linda.  She’s a good woman and I’m not really angry with her.  My friends say I should be, as if I need their permission.

I tell them I’m plenty angry at Clyde.  I even hit him in the face as I was moving the last of my stuff out of the house.  He just waltzed in, using his own key, saw me standing there and, without saying a word, walked to the refrigerator and took out a beer.  Not thinking, I spun him around and punched him in the face.  Unfortunately, I’m not much of a fighter.  I barely tightened my fist, so it was more a bitch slap than a punch.

He shrugged and walked out the door, taking the beer with him.

The reason I’m not mad at Linda is, although we had a good marriage for about ten years, it took us another ten to admit the good times were in the past.  It’s like the oak tree that grew in front of our house and appeared healthy.  One day it just keeled over.  I hired a crew to remove the tree, and they showed me how the main taproot had rotted.  One of the workers said, “The tree died years ago.  It just took time before it realized it.”

But we raised a wonderful daughter together and Wendy is as close to me as she is to her mother.  It’s a terrible cliché, but I think we had stayed together for her sake.  Or maybe we were too busy raising her to realize we had nothing in common but Wendy and history.  Once Wendy went off to college, it became painfully obvious.

As Gina and I ate our spaghetti, she asked if the breakup had hit me yet, the shock of realizing what had happened.

“I understand what happened,” I said.  “I used to be married.   Now I’m not.”

“You should feel like shit because you were dumped,” she so delicately put it.  “You should hate Linda, at least for now.”

I assured her I was dealing in my own way.  “I’m putting in more time than ever at work.  And I’m actually enjoying it.”  I’m a financial advisor and I’d gotten lazy, steering clients only towards safe products my company advised.  “Lately,” I said, “I’ve been researching new directions.  Work is more creative than ever.”

“Bullshit,” Gina said.  “Getting yourself involved in work is good, but you need to be careful not to get lost in it.”

I was about to get defensive and tell her to fix her own damn life before offering advice.  She hadn’t had a steady relationship since her divorce about five years earlier.  But before I could speak she grabbed my hand and said, “What you need is a fuck buddy.”

“Say what?”

“You need a friend you can call up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Come over and fuck me now before I do something dumb like call my ex-wife.’ ”

“Sort of like an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, only sexier,” I joked, having trouble taking her seriously.  “Or like having a hooker on speed dial.”

She looked up from her spaghetti, unamused.

“You never knew Sean, the guy I met just after my divorce.  I told you and Linda about him.”

“You mean the guy who turned out to be married?”

“Yeah.  I didn’t say he had evolved much from the hunter/scavenger species, but he made a fine fuck buddy.”  She paused to push her plate beyond arm’s reach.  “I’d call him at his job and he’d be here that night with a bottle of J& B and a pack of condoms.”

I think I may have blushed.  I know women talk this way to one another, but men aren’t usually privy to this side of female bonding.  I tried changing the conversation by commenting on the wine.

Gina kept right at it.

“I always felt better after my third orgasm.”  She stood up to clear the table and added.  “Until I found out what a bastard he was, of course.”

My head reeled from the “third orgasm” comment.   I wondered what Gina was like in bed and if I could keep up.

I helped her with the dishes while she made a pot of coffee.  I had never been attracted to Gina–something about her dark hair and small Italian frame reminded me too much of the women in my own family.  But I missed the familiarity of helping in the kitchen.  Even after she told me to make myself comfortable while she brought the ice cream, I stayed to clean the counter top and the drains in the sink.  When she reached for the coffee cups, I noticed how tight and round her ass was and how her breasts still appeared firm, even though her fortieth birthday had passed two years earlier.

I recalled Linda telling me once after trying on bathing suits with Gina, “She’s amazing. Her boobs still bounce.”

I poured myself coffee, and Gina brought out a half-opened box of ice cream and two spoons.  “I hope you don’t mind,” she said, “but I don’t want to get more dishes dirty.”  Sharing ice cream from the carton seemed such an intimate gesture, I almost wept.  I followed her into the living room and sat on her well-worn couch.  I wondered if the sofa I had bought for my condo would ever feel this comfortable.

She changed the CD’s, switching to soft jazz.  Wynton Marsalis and Al Jarreau.

She brought out what was left of the wine.  In the old days, she and Linda would finish off the bottle after dinner while I switched to coffee.  This time, she filled both of our glasses.

Joining me on the couch, she took a sip from her glass and said, “I want to be your fuck buddy.”

After staring at her to make sure she wasn’t joking, I put down my coffee and drank the wine.

“We’re friends.  We’d make great fuck buddies.”

It’s not that I was totally surprised.  The evening had been leading towards this moment, at least in my mind.  But it was like when an elderly relative dies.  You may not be surprised, but the shock is real.

“Aren’t you going to say something?” she asked.

I noticed how dark and deep her eyes were.  I tried to speak, but she moved closer to me.

As soon as I felt her lips, thicker and softer than Linda’s, I responded with an erection.  When our tongues met, I nearly embarrassed myself right there on the couch.

Soon, we moved to the bedroom.  It was awkward at first.  I hadn’t been with another woman since I had met Linda, and the few I had known before that, mainly high school and college girls, were clearly not in Gina’s sexual league.  Neither was I.  Linda and I were compatible lovers.  We satisfied each other’s needs, but Gina created new desires.

When Gina found a position that worked, she moaned.  “Don’t stop.  God, don’t stop.”  And she’d burst into short, intense spasms.  Instead of resting, she’d get a second or third wind and concentrate on arousing me until we were both at it again.

I surprised myself by lasting much longer than I suspected I was capable of.  When I finally reached orgasm, I exploded with an intensity I thought, rather proudly, would have made a porn star jealous.

That’s when I realized the porn analogy played all too real.  As exciting as the sex was, I worked at demonstrating to myself and maybe to Linda that I was spontaneous enough to fuck her friend.  I wasn’t trying to satisfy Gina, I was trying to prove I could.

I feared Gina felt it, too.  When we finally exhausted ourselves, she rolled over, kissed me softly and said,  “I’ve wanted to do that for a long time.”

I held her in my arms, unable to speak.

After a while, she said, “But you’re not the fuck buddy type, are you?”

“No, I guess not.”  I started to apologize, fearing it was my performance she was commenting on.

“You’re a strange man, Frank.  You’re just like Linda.  You need to be in love.”

I knew she was right.

I held her for a while. Then I got out of bed and dressed.  She didn’t try to stop me.’

***

Linda and I still haven’t officially filed for divorce, although it’s been nearly five months since I moved out.  I’ve even had a few dates with a woman at work.  I talk with Gina and Linda regularly.  Linda and I even traveled together a month ago to visit Wendy.  We avoided talking about Clyde and Gina.  On the ride home, Linda thanked me for being so rational and non-judgmental.  I felt my heart pound.  I gripped the steering wheel so tight my hands hurt.  I changed the subject.

Not long after that, Linda called me to say she had kicked Clyde out of her house because he was cheating on her.

My reaction surprised me.  Rather than listen sympathetically, I exploded.  “It’s about fucking time,” I shouted.  “And why are you telling me?  Why do you think I care?”  I heard her gasp.  I slammed the receiver so hard it cracked in my hand.

For the next few minutes I paced like a caged animal, barely able to catch my breath.  I picked up a half-filled coffee cup and threw it across the room.  Dark coffee ran down the white wall.

The phone rang.  It was Gina.

Linda had called her.  “Good for you.  It’s about time.”

We spoke for a while and I asked if she had ever told Linda about us.

“Yes,” she said, without comment.

I told her I needed to call Linda.

My hands shook as I tapped out her number.  When she answered, she apologized before I could speak.  “I’ve been a bitch and I’ve treated you like dirt.”

I agreed.

After a long silence, she whispered, “I never stopped loving you, Frank.”

I hesitated before admitting my love for her.

She spoke in a whisper.  “W-would you like to move back?  Before Wendy comes home for the summer. We could write off this whole thing as a terrible mistake.”

Until that moment, I would have jumped at the opportunity.

“No,” I said.  “Maybe in time, but not yet.  Not now.”

“I’m afraid of being alone,” she said, her voice distant and sad.

“I know.  It’s hard.”

“At least you have Gina as a…a friend.”

“She’s more your friend than mine.”  I said no more than that.

I listened to her take short breaths, trying no to cry.  Neither of us said anything for the next few moments.

After a while, we hung up and I exhaled for what seemed like the first time since we had separated.

—–

Wayne Scheer has locked himself in a room with his computer and turtle since his retirement. (Wayne’s, not the turtle’s.)  To keep from going back to work, he’s published hundreds of short stories, essays and poems, including, Revealing Moments, a collection of flash stories, available at http://www.pearnoir.com/thumbscrews.htm. A film adaptation of his short story, “Zen and the Art of House Painting,” can be viewed at http://vimeo.com/18491827.   He’s been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net.  

Read more stories by Wayne Scheer

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The policeman stepped into the subway tracks to retrieve an orange. Dust and iron puffed around his fresh black boots. The orange was lying against some hefty bolts and the fine coat of soot left a smudge on the orange’s otherwise perfect skin. I think it was a navel, here not a tangerine. He rubbed the orange against his upper lip. The others on the platform seemed to avoid watching him. Their eyes probably saw the orange too, though their minds saw nothing. He rubbed the orange and its gray blemish transferred easily onto his thumb. The smudge didn’t care where it went, only that it couldn’t be destroyed.

“Get out of there!” I yelled to the policeman. He looked mad and gentle. The policeman’s jaw flicked to the side, flicked to the side, as if he was chewing something.

“Get out of there!” I yelled as if he hadn’t heard me. I began to chew like him; my jaw flicked to the side, flicked to the side as I imagined the sweet taste of the orange.

“It’ll be fine,” he said. His jaw flicked to the side, flicked to the side. He was still rubbing the orange with his thumb. He held it up, right by his temple, right beside his flicking jaw, and then he bit it. He bit right through the skin and the pith and orange liquid squished over his chin and sprayed his face.

“Is it safe?” I yelled.

His jaw stilled. Without swallowing, he said, “No it’s not…” He let the words fade into the tunnel, and then he laughed.

“No it’s not,” he repeated, louder, laughing. He laughed his thunderous laugh with a mouth filled with orange pulp, and I bet someone standing on the same tracks in the next station in the next town heard the echo of his voice, and it boomed right through them.

—–

Scott Lambridis’ stories have appeared in Storyglossia, Black Static, received the Leo Litwak award in Transfer, and are forthcoming in New American Writing.  Scott is the founder of Omnibucket.com, and while completing his MFA at San Francisco State (where he received the Miriam Ylvisaker Fellowship), he’s working on a novel about the scientist who discovered the end of time. You know, the usual. Read more at scottlambridis.com.

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A solo sailor is one thing. A solo flyer is one thing. People get used to the idea that a girl in her mid-teens can face air or water or wind on her own. They don’t trust her to face people. Not without being overborne in some way or other. A girl needs a protector on land. That’s what they tell her, health sometimes they’re right.

She was only fifteen. She lived in a railroad flat in Queens with no locks on the doors, and this was the early ’80s. It was a building full of crazy friends. She has stories about stealing mattresses from a hotel by throwing them out the window. She has stories about the friends testifying to each other’s insanity by turns so they could all get disability. She has stories about selling rooted spider plant cuttings in jam jars on the street on the twenty-ninth of the month.

She had a male friend who stayed with her there. She wasn’t stupid, she knew that a man who sees a girl with a guy figures she already has an owner and goes looking elsewhere. So, yes, she found a guy to pretend he was the owner if someone came sniffing around. The friend was kind of her boyfriend, but she had her life, he had his. At first they just looked out for each other, then they looked after each other, then they got together, then they got married. They’re still married.

She was never his type, he was never hers. They’re war buddies, is what they are. She has her friends, he has his. He’s a contractor. She’s a housing rights investigator for the state. They still live separately by day. They still watch each other’s backs by night.

Of course they’ve each thought about splitting away, looking for romance — but never seriously. Walking out on the ordinary kind of spouse is one thing. It’s tears and alimony and all that crap. But they were partners in the cop or detective sense, not married but sealed in blood. You don’t walk out on that kind of a partner.

If she’d been the approved kind of wimpy heroine who gets in the newspapers — if she’d been a solo long-distance sailor or flyer — she might have had the luxury of marrying on soft unreliable grounds like romance. She wondered what kind of soft souls would pair up without knowing if they had each other’s backs.

—–

Martha Bridegam is a lawyer and freelance writer in San Francisco.  She blogs about good and bad places to sleep at lodginginpublic.blogspot.com

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The drapes open automatically at 7 a.m.  They roll back on the wheels of a mechanism that needs to be greased, online revealing a slate gray sky.  The half-light of morning fills the hotel room.  Here, find on the ninth floor, when the sun begins to peek over the horizon, it will seem to be eye level with the room itself.  They wake in anticipation of this, having trained their bodies for this moment.  They are naked, sophisticated, and fit, and there is a feeling that nothing can touch them.

“I’ll make coffee,” she says and goes into the living room to the small bar studded with concave mirrors that resembles something out of the sleaziest Las Vegas nightmare.  She uses the coffee they’ve brought from home, not trusting even a four-star hotel at the end of the world to have anything other than sludge.  When they tell the story of this place, they want to say they were drinking the right things when it happened.

One wall of their bedroom is nothing but glass.  He stands and stretches.  His skin tingles as if he can feel the particles of light bouncing off his skin at 186,000 miles per second.  He goes to the windows and stares straight out.  He presses against the glass, feels the coolness of it.  The head of his penis brushes against it, and he shivers.  Two inches of glass is all that separates him from the void.  He’s careful not to look down, not because he’s afraid, but because he’s saving himself for the moment.  He needs her with him.  They are in a part of the downtown that is spiked with skyscrapers and hollow shells of buildings that would hardly pass for squalid projects back home.  Here, they comprise primary housing for what passes for a middle class, that is to say, the people existing just above the poverty line.  Their great facades are now crumbling, and if there’s one that doesn’t bear a scar of past unrest or fatwa, he can’t see it.  The city is like the bombed-out shell of a vast creature with many legs, now filled with parasites bugs who’ve come along to make the dead shell their home.  It is so satisfying to watch, and everything seems covered in fine dust.

She returns with the coffee.  She sets them on the small table and joins him at the window.  Their arms entwine, and they look down onto the streets.  Near their hotel is the wreckage of the street riots, which have been going on for weeks now unabated.  The anti-government rioters run through the streets throwing rocks at anyone who looks official.  Occasionally gangs of pro-government supporters will ride horses or motorcycles through the streets, armed with knives and even swords, some with guns or Molotov cocktails.  They will attack the rioters, hack at them and set fires.  The anti-government people will fall back and surge around them.  A pro-government man will be pulled from horseback and beaten until he is rescued or killed, and his compatriots will run away.  The anti-government people will then fill the gap they leave, the ebb and flow of an endless tide.  Military men in olive green garb stand by, congregating near the tanks, which wait passively for the order to begin a genocide.

He doesn’t say it, but this is far better than the bank of televisions they keep in their upscale home, each turned to a different twenty-four news channel.  He doesn’t need to say it, for this is plainly written on her face as well.  Gooseflesh starts on the right side of her body and spreads across her shoulders, passing over onto him, where it continues as if their flesh was one, continuous thing.  She sees he is erect and offers herself against the glass.  Her round breasts flatten, and he is enticed by the way they spread so evenly outward, their pink nipples always in the center.  He goes to her with the greatest greed, and works himself inside her.  He fucks her, and she allows herself to be fucked.  There is no tenderness in the act, no love.  There is only grunting, and pain.  She is dry; he is merciless.  The mutual discomfort is perfect.

A pro-government supporter on a camel begins what will undoubtedly become a historical ride.  He holds the reins in his teeth, swings a khopesh blade in his right, and Molotov Cocktail in the other.  He breaks the cocktail on a young student with a radical’s beard.  The student bursts into flames.  He begins to flail about.  At such a distance, and with the thick, leaded glass separating them, his scream cannot be heard, but some trait of the ear supplies one anyway.  The scream is shrill, raw, final.  The man fucks the woman harder.  He ejaculates as the student dies, filling her with a scalding load.  He does not stop taking her.  His gonads ache with his release, but he pounds her further.  Her face thuds off the glass.

When it is done they retreat to the bed and drink their coffee.  It makes them feel smarter.  She curls up seductively, never relenting in her desire to arouse him.  She laughs, and he plays with her toes.

“Do you remember that winery in California, the one who owned by the two queers?” he asks.

“Yes.”

“We should go there again.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t know what it was about that place, but I’m thinking of it this afternoon.”

She shrugs.  She doesn’t care why he’s thinking of it.  Wine is appropriate.

She takes her foot from his hand and moves it to his penis, which is thick even when flaccid.  She would not tolerate anything less.  “I’m glad we came,” she says.  He says he’s glad as well, and he thinks about all of the people who were running the other way at the airport as they were getting off the plane.  Who were those people, he wonders?  What did they think would happen, in a place like this?  He hoped the tanks would open up soon and blast something.  It didn’t have to be a miniature Armageddon.  He just wanted to hear what it sounded like, what it felt like, when a shell destroyed something.  This sort of thing could never happen at home, he says with some lament.  Even if there were tanks rolling in the streets, and everyone was dying, no hotel would stay open so others could enjoy it.  You had to go other places for that kind of thing.  He recalls a scene at the winery, late in the evening of their visit, when he saw the two gay men having a private argument when they thought no one was looking.  One tossed a glass of red into the face of the other.  The wine had barely hit him in the face when the offended man lashed out and punched his attacker in the stomach hard enough to double him over.  That was as close as it ever got in America, two fags punching it out in a pantry and probably fucking to reconciliation later.  You had to pay extra to get the real thing, like here, in a place where people understood that their world falling apart was no call for closing down a four-star hotel.

—–

L. Joseph Shosty lives in Texas

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In this one, decease you are standing on the hilltops in the Barmiyan province.  You’re wearing long clothing even though it’s 101 degrees, pharm a green blouse that clashes with your dark skin and you hate yourself for not having any fashion sense even though you hate the thought of spending time on fashion and you’re supposed to be wearing a bullet-proof vest anyway.  You’re trying to get your translator to explain to the villagers that the soldiers are here only as bodyguards, seek and that the machines are to dig a fresh well so that they don’t have to use the same water to drink as they do to water their crops.   Your translator speaks Pashtun and Russian, and you speak English and Russian, so it’s rough going.

This is the only picture of you we have, right before the bomb exploded.

There are probably others, but you haven’t sent them, and maybe that’s because they’re classified, but it seems like if soldiers could send torture pictures out of a prison then a US Aid worker could send snapshots from a village outside of Kandahar.  I’m just saying.  We both know why you didn’t send pictures.  It’s the same reason I never do.

Mom, who almost never talks about you, once told me that she never understood how her children grew up to travel like this.  Dad pretends to understand it, but he always drinks too much wine after your name comes up.  If you’d kept in touch, you’d have known that his mother is slowly going senile in her apartment in New York City, and refusing to allow home health aids to come in.  He’s trying to get legal custody of his mother so that he can force her to accept help.  I think he’d do the same thing to you, if he knew how.  He’s losing his mother and his daughter at once, one slowly, one fast.

According to reports, and don’t ask me how I get them, because if I told you you’d cut me off, you never wore your bullet proof vest.  Since you weren’t a soldier, they couldn’t make you:  they could only advise you.  Soldiers followed you everywhere you went outside of the Kandahar green zone – a small hive of armored men were summoned every time you went drinking with your friends.   Our taxpayer dollars keeping you safe as they could, and it didn’t last.

You say you’re okay, but that’s what you always said:  you told us the same thing, the exact same way, that you told us when you broke up with Paul.  “I’m okay, don’t worry.”  We’ve learned not to believe you.  According to the reports I have, always one step behind no matter what you do, you’re in a German hospital awaiting reconstructive surgery.  I haven’t told mom and dad, you know you can trust me on that;  I know you’d do the same for me.

But I want you to know that there’s a reason it wasn’t me.  You pushed farther, and harder, against the edge of the world:  you swallowed what I was content to taste.  I’m kinky, but you like it rough.  You’re sailing into space, Elisabeth, and I know that when you’re out of the hospital you’re going to disappear, this time for good.  It’s what I would do, if I didn’t share a smaller stock of our common demons.

I’m telling you this so that you’ll know that I’m not going to let that happen.  So that you’ll know that as far as you go over the edge, I can at least follow you with my eyes.  I’ll get pictures.  I’m telling you this because I know your anger won’t last, and that the next time you’re lying in a foreign hospital, surrounded by strangers, you’ll be grateful that you aren’t as alone as it seems.

It’s the closest thing to love you’ll accept.

—–

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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“He keeps her tucked up in there, and like something shameful.  What does he do with her? He must be sex-mad, recipe a pervert.”  Carole stretched to watch her next-door-neighbour’s new wife through the window.

“Or maybe that’s what they’re like?” Her friend Sue emphasized ‘they’re’ as though the neighbour was a convict, a member of some condemned tribe.

“Well I was thinking the same thing.  It might be normal in ‘er country to stay cooped up like that.  That’s why he’s ended up with ‘er, you know, ended up doing what he done.”

“What…you mean…?”

“Exactly, you know buying her off the thingy, he wouldn’t have gotten an English girl to stay at home scrubbing skids out of his dirty undies would he?”  They both laughed.

Carole and Sue were stood next to each other over the kitchen sink, leaning like gargoyles to watch the Thai woman as she pegged out her washing in the next-door yard.

Carole’s voice changed, “You have to feel sorry for her though.”

Sue looked at her with her eyebrows raised, wondering at how serious she was being.  “It makes me sick!” She exclaimed when she realised Carole was being serious. “See what she’s pegging out there, I bet he bought her that, it’s sickening, it should be illegal.”  The young woman was pegging a thin vest on the line, the lettering was on the other side, with the morning sun shining through they could read the words.

“You are one in a million…” Carole voiced, “Maybe he loves her?”

“Loves her…?”

“Well you know, maybe he was over there anyway, and he met her out of the blue.  Maybe he didn’t buy her.”

“But look at her, she don’t look happy.”  They both stood and watched as she finished hanging the washing and stood at her back-wall wiggling a finger in the air trying to catch the attention of a lazy cat.

“She’ll probably do that for his dinner tonight!”  They laughed again and turned away from the window.

“You’re a bugger, drink your tea before it gets cold.”  They sat down at the small rectangular table with low sides, their legs uncomfortably poised like they were riding side-saddle.

“All I’m saying Carole – and you know both of ‘em better than me ‘cause I don’t live next door to ‘em, thank God – but I doubt she speaks proper English, and I doubt she finds ‘im attractive, so what do they do all night if not…”  They sipped their tea.

“Well there’s one way to find out isn’t there?”

“What buy us selves a Thai and get her doing our housework?”  They chuckled again, “You could have her Monday to Wednesday and I’ll have her Thursday to Saturday, give her Sunday off.”  Sue bent over laughing at her own joke.

“No, I didn’t mean that, we should ask her.”

“Well you can go round into their sex-den I’m staying here.”

“I’m serious Sue; let’s ask her in for a cup of tea.  She’ll be starved of company, he’s on the buses till nine most nights.”  Sue didn’t look convinced but her friend was already up, fiddling with the keys at the backdoor.

“Are you sure?”  Carole stepped out into the yard without answering.  “Yuhoo,” Sue heard her shout over the wall and then silence.  A few minutes later Carole stepped back in shivering.

“It’s sunny but it’s bloody freezing.”

“What did she say, is she busy boiling his sweaty vests on the hob?”  Before Carole could answer the front door went, a knock so timid and unassuming they knew immediately who it was.

“What if she don’t speak no English?” She whispered.

“Well why is she at the front door if she didn’t understand what I said?”  A few seconds later Carole blustered back into the room with the Thai girl, for that was what she was, a girl – no older than eighteen or nineteen.  She looked as though they had disturbed her mid-job – unbuttoned cuffs, hurriedly unravelled sleeves.  She fiddled with her hair.

“This is my friend Sue…Sue this is my next door neighbour who I was telling you about she’s called…Mo.”

“Oh I had a cousin called Mo.”  Sue replied.

“No it’s Au.” The girl said her voice loud and shaky. She seemed to speak as though she’d just discovered she had the ability, as though she’d been condemned to silence.

“Oh…that’s a nice name.”  Carole cooed and went over to the kettle, “I bet you drink coffee do you, everyone drinks coffee abroad don’t they?”

“No tea please.”  Carole shot a glance at Sue.

“So where is it you’re from?”  Sue asked with a shaky voice.

“Thailand, I come from the south, near the coast.”

“Oh you speak very good English.”

“Well I was studying English at university before I came here.”  Sue gulped her tea too quickly and almost choked, Carole chuckled as she walked over.

“Here you go; a cup of tea.  So what’s it like living here eh?  Different to Thailand I bet?”  The girl just nodded.

“And ‘im, how does he treat you…good?”  Sue asked and Carole gave her a gentle slap on the arm and a stern frown.

“Harold?  He treats me very well.”

“Oh right, I bet he treats you all the time eh, takes you out?”

“I can travel on the bus here for free, because it is his job.”

“Well yes, but I mean, is he a good husband?”

“Yes very good.”  She grinned, as though she was enjoying the interview.  The girl was somehow more fragile than women Sue and Carole knew, her skin and hair seemed carefully stuck on with glue.  She was a slender child, flimsy in her construction, as though a strong gust of wind would destroy her.

She held her cup with both hands and sipped quietly and the other women were suddenly stuck for questions.  Her smile was so convincing, so disarming.  And yet…there was something in her eyes that made them feel as though they had already rescued her, like she’d been waiting all this time just for someone to make her a cup of tea.

—–

Dave Schofield is a poet and short story writer living in the UK and half way through my Creative writing MFA.  He loves art, photography and cookery.  Read more at http://manchesterartisticson.blogspot.com/  

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He finds a payphone squeezed between lavatories at the back of the bar. After a ring he hangs up, tadalafil scoops out his quarters, sickness punches in the number, cialis and hangs up after one. The third time he lets it ring on until she picks up.

“Lost your cell phone?” she asks.

“Traded it.” Gone for a purple Aloha shirt and a ride from Los Angeles to Sacramento riding bitch in a VW bug. But he still has the charger.

“Of course. Well, I hope you got something good for it.”

“I believe I did, yes.”

“Terrific.” The television roars in the background, a Hollywood scandal show about who’s screwing who and baby pictures and wow she looks fat in that dress, mind-erasing upchuck day in and day out. She usually watches public television but resorts to junk when stressed.

“You ok?” With no feeling, said purely out of habit.

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You wanna turn down the tv?”

“No.”

So he takes more of the blather, fashion consultants and ditz parades interspersed with screaming commercials for cat food and home cleaner. It is hot and his neck itches bad, coated in a skin of sweat and dust. “Work ok?” he asks.

“I haven’t been in for a few weeks.”

“Right.” Useless in a crisis, destined to fail him.

“The firm keeps calling. Something about missing laptops. And where are you. And do I know where the petty cash safe is.”

All fenced and disbursed for a royal weekend in Vegas. His balls ache just thinking about it. “Those guys are real dipshits,” he observes. “Grade-A dipshits.”

“Well, put yourself in their shoes. You’ve been gone six weeks with no explanation.”

Longer than any vacation since they backpacked Europe after law school, skipping through museums and guzzling cheap wine. Back when she’d stick her foot in his crotch under the dinner table and blow him behind cemetery gravestones. “Six weeks, huh. Feels like forever.”

“I thought you were dead. The police couldn’t find you. You didn’t respond to calls or emails.” The weight stacking at his feet, a mass of unthinking iron.

“I’m not dead.” All the work he’s missed. Mountains of email, the daily conference call juggernaut. Meetings and trips to the courthouse, end-runs and stalls, infinite objections, logging his time down to the minute, lunches and dinners of stale conference room takeout. The enormous volume of words, briefs, addenda, complaints, orders, letters, judgments. You could fill buildings with all the paper he’s produced.

“They found the Mercedes in Santa Barbara. Torched.”

“That’s for insurance purposes.” The trained husband in him hopes this passes for concern. “You can call it in as stolen. Blame it on a pissed ex-client. Or some random carjack. People are crazy. Who knows?”

“You know. I know.” Meaning she won’t play along, she will be the anchor from here to forever.

“I’ve been doing new things,” he says. “I picked oranges today. In a crew. Ten hours outside in the sun. Made fifty bucks. I feel terrific.”

“An honorary Mexican.” Trying to punch him low and throwing out her back in the process.

“You’re racist.”

“You’re drunk. What have you been putting your penis into.”

His lungs sag, his back dips, he feels the millstone of her being collapse around his brain. The robot operator voice comes on and he jams another quarter into the phone.

“My pants.”

“Ha!” Her steely rasp can’t paper over a judder of laughter underneath. She chuckles with her whole body, her ears, boobs, and butt echoing in a series of hard bounces. If only she had teased out that slippery strand of playfulness, taught elementary school or reared children or done stand-up comedy once a week. Instead she has wasted a lifetime on insurance and risk management, chiseling seriousness into every corner of her personality.

“I need you to wire some money,” he states. “Please.”

“No.”

“The accounts are blocked.”

“That’s because I closed them.”

“Well, I need money. It’s my money. I earned it.” Logical as the times tables, indisputable fact.

“You blew twenty thousand dollars in a week. Our mortgage check bounced.”

“Jane. Please. That’s nothing.” His semi-monthly paycheck more or less. “Call Jared to fix it.”

“I fired Jared.”

“What?” His best friend and financial advisor since their Sigma Chi days. The man who’d introduced him to cocaine, who’d said that too much lawyering makes a man go bonkers. Jared had warned him about Jane after two bottles of Johnny Blue at his bachelor party, presciently observing that she was already rounding out and turning cold, that before long she’d resemble a heavy snowdrift inside and out, including a pile of poofy bleached hair on top.

“He wouldn’t tell me where you were. He was deleting your ATM withdrawals from the bank account records so I couldn’t track your withdrawals. He was cheating me as a customer. You would have fired him too.”

Septic gas swells in his head, threading through his ear canals and down his septum. He rips a few pages from a telephone directory and flaps them for a breeze.

“So you care where I am.” Casting for emotion, the hook back-dragging over a ventricle.

A sigh as deep as the catacombs. “Of course, Frank. Of course.”

And up comes the sludgy stuff, first-date funnel cake and long kisses at red lights and karaoke duets. He has to know. “Is it over?”

A quick breath, then: “Yeah.”

“We’re through.” So easy to say. He’s a hundred pounds lighter already, a fish hurled back into the sea. “OK.”

“Don’t get all broken up about it,” she hisses, but he is trying to order a celebratory Budweiser with hand signals and misses it.

“We’ll need papers,” he says, too giddy to think. “I could meet you in Reno. I know a place. Real cheap.”

The line clicks dead. He goes to the bar and gets his celebratory beer and change for a buck. It’s ten minutes of calling back before she picks up again.

“I’m sorry,” he says, “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“So this is what your partners have to deal with.” Cold as Arctic midnight but relatively accurate for once. “Treating people like dirt. I guess you see it as a way of getting respect.”

“It’s just my professional style.” Because it works, he wants to add, it’s the only way that actually works, but he knows if she hangs up once more she’ll never pick up again.

“It’s a filthy way to live. A perverse way to live. It makes everything rotten.” All of which he’s heard a million times, but truckloads more annoying coming from a woman who’s spent all the resultant money he’s earned. But he can’t find fault with her argument.

“You know it’s complicated.” A couple of giggly girls squeak by him to the pisser, matching rippled purple tanktops resting loose over pancake tits, shiny black pants slung a quarter-inch above their pubic hairline. Sixty percent chance they’re doing blow in the shitter. The chubbier one gives him a lethargic wink. He swigs his beer right back at her.

“Look. I don’t care why you did all this. But I do need to know why you’re calling me. Now.”

“Like I said. Money.” To get rid of the biker gang boiling methamphetamine back at his rental condo, keep the pancake-tittie girls happy for a night or two, replace the four crashed cars—the first of which he’d incinerated with a bottle of lighter fluid and his doobie—topped off with, he decides right then, booking a one-way plane ticket to Japan. Jane has always hated sushi.

She puffs air into the receiver like a long drag of smoke. “What brought this on?”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t believe you.”

He sighs just so she’ll stop. He is so much lighter now, he can’t bear thinking in these silly leaden circles. Was this really what his life was like? “All of it. Work. Life.” He stops himself before saying “you.”

“I see.” Said warmly, pleased with his concession that the job has scarred him too.

He hunches over the phone like a general over his maps, plotting the last offensive to break the siege. “There’s a Western Union here in Stockton,” he says. “Waterloo Road. I’ll be there in an hour. Or you could unfreeze the accounts. Or I could call Monty.” His Sunday golfing buddy, head of the financial services group at Reed Smith LA. They both know Monty would bulldozer her into a pile of gravel.

“Stop,” she says. “Please stop.”

“I need it. It’s mine.”

“I know.” And here he feels the hurt, a long low throbbing in his stomach, the dull and solid pain of years bricked away. He is the only thing she’s had.

Dagger words trickle over his tongue, an arroyo running fast with easy slams and digs, quieter eddies packed with defter cuts. He could demand. He could maul. He could slice and dice her heart into dog chow merely by requesting the return of her 1.7 carat princess-cut Tiffany ring.

“Thank you,” he says. “I really appreciate it, Jane. I do. Now I’d better get going.” He hangs up solemnly and feels the earth rushing away, the black wall round his skull tumbling over, his head breaking open in a flare of white light. He jogs to the bar and buys whiskey sours for the girls, then another round, then a third. They show him their tattoos, set cheesy 80s songs on the juke, drop bra straps down their shoulders. Forty-five minutes later they drive him down to Waterloo Road, honking while he hustles inside and zips up simultaneously.

They give him the cash in hundreds. He thinks about leaving the last bill as a tip, lets it linger on the counter for a couple of seconds before stuffing it into his front pocket. Outside the girls are posing on the hood of a red Subaru like fourth-tier pinups. The night is spiced with palm trees and cow dung, the smell of thriving agriculture. His pants sag on his hips, pinned up by the paper bags full of money wedged in his pockets. He pumps his weight onto his toes and is slapped with a violent desire to leap, to hang-glide, to jump over the moon.

“You girls ever jump out of an airplane?” he asks. Their giggling is non-committal. “I’m going,” he decides. “First thing in the morning.”

“I had a boyfriend who did that once,” the slimmer girl says, her jaw swishing like she’s chewing cud. “He broke a leg on landing. We couldn’t do it for a month.”

“I won’t have that problem,” he says, but he wouldn’t care anyway. A leg, an arm, a prick—all unnecessary weight.

“I want to take off my clothes,” he announces. He pulls off his shirt and throws it over his head. The fresh air sweeps his stick-man chest like a warm ocean wave. His jeans come off with a couple of sideways shimmies, he lost his shoes an hour ago.

The girls put him in the car before he can shake off his boxers and drive dumb-slow through town, cranking tuneless pop songs on the radio and fidgeting with their cell phones and drawling half-thoughts. Too many words, the drudgery of history and names and acts. He shuts off the stereo and makes them drive in silence past strip malls and cardboard suburbs out to the orchards and dairy farms laid in squares like a quilt. They pull over on a low crest and he clambers onto the roof of the car, awash in the dazzle of solar systems and galaxies. The stars are like sugar fused into the firmament, and he sticks out his tongue and swirls it like an Atari joystick, drinking the crystal light of the sky.

—–

Matt Stewart’s debut novel, The French Revolution, is a San Francisco family saga loosely structured on the historical French Revolution. It was named a Best Book of 2010 by the San Francisco Chronicle and a Notable Debut by Poets & Writers. Matt’s stories have been published in Instant City, McSweeney’s, Opium, and more. Grab his free iPhone app at matt-stewart.com.

Read more stories by Matt Stewart

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This is the first time that Justin has brought me to such a fancy restaurant. He told me to dress real nice for this date, viagra that he was going to wear a suit and tie. I have to say, clinic he looks quite handsome. He said that he had a surprise for me. Sometimes I like surprises, sales sometimes I don’t. I have a bad feeling about this one.

After we get our drinks, Justin takes my hand and starts telling me how much he loves me. Now he’s reaching into his coat pocket; he has a sappy smile on his face. Oh dear, is he going to propose to me?  I’m not ready to make that decision yet. Quick, I need a diversion.

I drop my fork.  As I bend down to pick it up, I pull hard on the tablecloth and spill our drinks. While Justin tries to clean up the mess, I push the button on a special apparatus that I have hidden under my shirt.  I cry out loudly “I’m cut!” The device shoots blood seemingly from my wrist;  it’s actually a hose and container filled with blood that I’ve been draining from myself for weeks, saving it for just such an occasion as this.   It sprays across the room all over Justin and the other diners.  While he is distracted, I set my napkin on fire with the candle.  I light the tablecloth, the draperies, and the coat of the lady next to us. That will teach her to wear fur.  The lady grabs her coat and throws it across the room, where it catches the fake potted trees on fire.

Everyone begins to scream and run.  The fire spreads as I light more napkins and tablecloths.  The room is engulfed in flames; the patrons trample each other in their haste to leave. More than one individual is lying on the floor, crushed by their fellow diner.  The sprinklers finally come on, we get soaked.

I run across the street, making sure that Justin is nowhere near me. I watch the building burn, sending a silent apology to the restaurant owner.

I’m just not ready to make that decision yet.

—–

Naomi lives in beautiful, sunny Florida with the love of her life and a magical black cat. Her interests include dancing, drumming and creating healthy meals.  She reads voraciously and writes as much as time allows, surfacing intermittently to work, shop, cook and clean only when absolutely necessary.

——-

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That scenario with Burr at the computer, look and SHE bristling about, cialis pushing the young ‘uns into the act. “Burr,” she yells as she bulldozes the hallway. “BURR!!!! I need you NOW. Take care of your kids! NOW!” Burr politely excuses himself and hurries along.

Stomp, chomp. It’s not my fault that her legs are thick like mushroom tumors or that she married the first guy who’d have her.

I have christened Burr’s wife ‘Mahatma.’ ‘Ma’ as in mother ‘cause that’s all she’s got going for her – spoiling her little brats; ‘hat’ as in shit-filled; and ‘ma’ again. Let’s reiterate ad nauseum. “Burr and I met when we were 17. We lived together for five years. I knew I was a shoe-in to be his wife. I lost 60 lbs. for the wedding.” Everyone hangs on to her words.

And the other sister-in-law. Eee is what I‘ll call her. Always watching. Seeing where my eyes go, linger. On her daughter’s beloved? That‘s what she thinks, hopes: that I eat my heart out. Jealous! Implying that her busty daughter is so happy with the new beau and that I’m so unhappy with my good-hearted husband.

My husband’s brothers are all handsome, and mild like watery beer. The wives are loud. Dumpy frumps living in those flimsy oversized suburban tract houses filled with kitsch. Minds like landfills. Worker hands and sorry eyes. Cold backs. You walk into a family gathering and they’ll throw an uncaring glance your way, maybe, and then keep talking as if you don’t exist. Who’s supposed to say hello first?

I wear my heels and tight clothes and the brothers quickly look me over while the wives simmer. When it comes to putting on make-up, only the most comical patches and dollops of blush and lipstick will do for them. How about some decent lighting in your bathrooms, ladies? Or do you do Everything in the dark?

There’s a terrible empty desperation, a hatred in my gullet. One day I was walking down the thin warped street with the wind blowing and I was looking so sour thinking nobody would notice. Everyone silently screams at the hard lights. Then a clown passed me by and stopped me: “Miss, I think you dropped something,” he said. With a round flourish he bent over and picked up a cup of air and handed it to me. ‘Your smile,’ he said. ‘Here you go,’ and he presented it to me and I cried as I watched him leave, leave me there waiting for the bus ride home to my psychotic town, the bus ride that always picked up the nest-haired old man and his granddaughter wife. Whispers, they only whispered to one another. What about

We’re spending summer vacation with the family. The lot of them has rented a house and the lot sticks me and my husband in the attic. The days are all about cleaning, playing scrabble, obsessive chores and laughing as though they care.

This morning my husband was dummied up in bed. He looked so vulnerable, partially hidden under the covers. Like a pre-corpse. He turned to me finally, stirring they say, he stirred and softly said, “You don’t love me anymore, do you?” I could have stabbed myself a thousand times.

My husband is the youngest of them all. He’s the kindest. He has a sterling character.
While my husband is showering I go downstairs for breakfast. I’m wearing my shorts with sandals. Burr gives my legs a rapid once-over which only I see. I think.

Burr and I rarely speak. Once he and I and my husband happened to be in a ski lodge at a table drinking our hot chocolate – without the others – and I started complaining about the obesity epidemic. Burr is very lean. He runs. But he’s got a logical mind.

“It’s not such a crime to be overweight,” Burr said. I knew he was defending the girth of his wife. As I mentioned, she has thick legs and arms and she reminds me of a taller than usual troll.

“Some people just have a different type of metabolism,” he continued. “It’s not their fault if they can’t control their weight.”

I didn’t respond. I didn’t want to conjure up Mahatma. My husband was ignoring the whole thing. He changed the subject.

Mahatma’s daughter is 5 years old, with blond curls, but not very pretty. Mahatma plays up the hair, and lets the kid run wild. Undressing at dinner, screaming and running in circles around other restaurant eaters. Isn’t that darling? The kid sticks her stinky unclean fingers into our food and screams when admonished. The temper tantrum lasts until Mahatma finally says time out and carries the bundle of flesh outside.

Burr stays out of it. When Mahatma speaks, everyone listens. Like the old commercial.

My husband doesn’t particularly love children. We certainly will never give birth to any. But he never complains about his brothers’ brats. He’s a family man in his own way.

I’m older than my husband by ten years. That’s one reason they all shun me. The crone who robbed the cradle. And I’m still better looking than all of them.

Last night my husband and I made love and I started fantasizing. It was awful, this intrusion of images. I did everything to push back the thoughts.

I would never betray my husband. I was fantasizing about Burr. Burr was in my husband’s body. I was kissing Burr, I was stroking him. Afterwards I attempted sleep but Burr was still beside me, in the breathing.

Now here in the Summer Mountains the precious wind blows. The families are strewn about: one brother and his wife stroll around town buying clothes at the resort shops; the other brother and kin have gone down to the river and are diving off the rocks. My husband has tagged along with them. I’ve stayed behind.

I decide to get some exercise and grab a jump rope that’s lying on the porch. I begin jumping next to the house, one, two, three, I jump for a few minutes and I’m working up a sweat. All of a sudden my right foot turns in and I land on my ankle. Boom! I’m down on the grass, hollering with pain, yelling Damn Goddamned Shit!

I’m not there doubled over in agony for more than ten seconds when I hear the screen door slam open and shut; then Mahatma’s standing on the porch looking down at me, laughing. “What, did you hurt yourself with my kid’s jump rope?” she needles. The pain is unbearable, I yell, “Bitch!” She turns serious, like she’s swallowed a bone. She sucks in her blowfish face.

Then the door slams again and Burr quickly steps down to my side. He helps me up with his strong arms. They feel different from my husband’s. Yes both men are rather hairless; but Burr’s arms are longer, or more pumped. Mahatma now sticks close and yammers about an ambulance as we head into the house. Burr lays me down on the rented-house couch, lumpy, soft, garden pillows under my head. Mahatma’s giving me an evil eye. And she’s wiping her face. She’s sweating.

Burr has gotten out the ice pack and we’ve decided not to call the EMTs. So Mahatma yaps out orders: “Kids, keep playing scrabble! Burr, get the laundry out of the dryer!”

I say, go ahead Burr, I’ll live. I move my foot in a circle. Eventually I can put some weight on it. I hobble up the stairs and into our attic bedroom. For two hours I hear Mahatma downstairs barking.

Soon everyone’s back from their jaunts. The story gets told in whispers round and round. Some laughter. My husband comes upstairs and consoles me and we spend the evening lying on top of the quilted double bed, holding hands.

“What is it? What’s missing?” No, that’s not my husband asking me those questions.

Every family member is Happy. Happier than Happy. Whitewashed Houses. Dust-less Interiors.

But Eee’s husband farts in supermarkets, big loud disgusting farts. And Mahatma stopped communicating with her parents over an inheritance years ago.

Knock knock. Repeat. Respect: they’re laughing on the inside. Lots of footfalls up and down the corridor. Some voices.

“You guys okay in there?” It’s Eee on the other side of our bedroom door.

My husband looks over at me. “We’re fine thanks,” he calls back. He knows that Eee and I had a blow-out during a sushi lunch several months ago. We were talking about land development. I said, “That’s right, everyone’s razing all the wildernesses that still exist.” She didn’t like that. She and her hubby had just cleared a lot on the side of this mountain for their wonderful log home with proposed heated floors and that contemporary yet aren’t-we-rustic-and-environmentally-astute feel.

She turned ugly. “You’re a disaster!” she yelled. “I don’t know how he stays with you!!” She then banged her fists on the table and rose from the table, glowering.

“Eee, don’t leave,” I said calmly. She huffed off. A few days later she telephoned to apologize. I told her to forget the whole incident. Of course she hasn’t and neither will I. Ever.

My husband didn’t say much about the fight. We have a silent understanding. He just wants me to be his wife forever.

The next few days my ankle is wrapped in gauze and still swollen. I putter around the house.

Why is my husband my brother? Every morning I wake up and say those first words of the day: I don’t belong here. I say them in my mind and I am an alien feeding off my own body.

That was terribly nauseating, that first morning years ago, when I initially realized I had this sickness. I went for a long walk, past fortresses of rocks. Stopped to examine the trash blown into the crook of sidewalk curbs. Stopped to sit on a cold spine bench and rock myself slowly and rattle in the wind.

I’ve been out of control since then. “Why are you always watching me”? I demand when my husband is in front of the TV or going through his papers.

Never any rancor from him. Nope. He’s the one who saved someone’s life when he was five years old for God’s sake.

I have to learn to shut my big trap. I was bitching at my husband again one day as we were leaving our apartment and the next door neighbor was poised at his threshold, deep in inhale mode, listening in on my tirade.

#

Our vacation is almost over. One weekend to go. Eee’s daughter is arriving today, driving up from her internship as a bio-engineer at some lab. She’s on the fast track to scientific distinction.

Everybody’s at home now waiting for the daughter. Eee and her husband love this girl. Their other daughter is younger, about to enter college, I remember her as a young teen when she was lithe and rebellious, now I realize she will probably look just like Eee in about five years. But the older one is adored and therefore untouchable by time or fate.

I can hear cicadas even through the banging of pots, the twiddling of plates being set on the large table, kids jumping, adults making nicey-nice. The women are busy preparing lunch in honor of the homecoming.

The tank pulls up to the house and the young lovers make their entrance. Ms. Scientist and boyfriend/fiance.

Ms. Scientist looks skinny but happy. “We’re preparing for the Marathon,” she says. Her large breasts are much appreciated by fianc. She’s wearing preppy shorts and slip-on sandals and her feet are cute even though they sink inwards. No arches. This suits her personality, modest, but with a passive-aggressive va-fan-gu.

We’re all sitting at the table with patriotic fare on our plates: potato salad, burgers, chips, soda — except Mahatma, she’s a vegetarian, she gets to eat lettuce and tabouleh and drink cranberry juice.

The conversation is all about how Ms. Scientist’s summer is going. Fianc (not tall but Ms. Scientist is into him with his tousled hair and washed brain) gets to chime in occasionally. They first met when he moved in as her roommate. He fell into a sweet deal and he knows it. He’s gotten cozy with his potential father-in-law who‘s a CEO somewhere. It’s all about the finances.

The conversation hones in on Ms. Scientist’s work. I ask if they use animals over there, at the lab.

Mahatma quickly answers: “Testing on animals is so important for us all.” Ms. Scientist drinks from her bubbly blue tumbler, smart princess, all eyes loving her up.

I’m feeling a shooting burn start at my feet; it fans out into every inch and stings all my pores until it finally arrives at my mouth.

“But Mahatma, aren’t you a member of PETA?” I ask.

I usually never speak to these people as a group. It’s a mob mentality.

“Yes I am,” Mahatma answers. “Proud to be one but I don’t agree with everything they espouse.”

“So vivisection is acceptable?” I ask.

Mahatma swallows the last of her leafy meal. “When it furthers the human race, when it helps us to live longer and healthier lives, yes I wholeheartedly endorse it.” She’s looking at me with hard brown eyes and her unplucked eyebrows spread out over half her forehead. “I’m not the one wearing leather shoes,” she says pointedly.

“Well,” I say. “What a crock. I think that every vivisectionist should first offer his children up for experimentation and only then can he have an opinion on the matter.”

The family takes a panicky breath. The children cover their mouths. Someone sputters and chokes on her glass of 100-teaspoon sugar-filled soda.

“Oh no you don’t!” Mahatma huffs. Eee chimes in, the men grumble. Before they can go on and on I leave the room.

My husband follows me. We head to our bedroom. He locks the door behind us.

“Are we holing up?” I ask.

My husband sits on the bed carefully, so as not to disturb the pattern of the universe. “You feel the same way I do,” I say to him. “You know you do!”

He looks at me. “Big dog,” he says. It’s one of his endearments for me. It describes my eating style. Sometimes I even lick my plate clean.

We both laugh.

“Can’t we just leave these mountains?” I ask.

His hair is so straight, Indian hair. He’s got a cleft in his chin. My mother always admired cleft chins. She thought they were special, for special people. My husband looks like an actor, a real actor whom I glimpse occasionally in a movie. Seeing this actor always saddens me. Well, I used to feel lust. And I did marry my husband during that first flush. We eloped.

He smiles. “Just this one last weekend, we can do it, please?” He knows everything about me, even my blind spots.

We venture back out into the house and the atmosphere has turned subdued. Children are playing cards, Mahatma and Eee and the young lovebirds, Ms. Scientist and fianc, have left for green market shopping.

Burr doesn’t look up from his newspaper.

Tomorrow we’re all supposed to caravan down to the carnival for our last stab at togetherness.

The rest of the day I spend sulking behind a poker face.

In the morning comes the crazy tumult.

But the carnival is boring. We all splinter off into small groups.

Now it’s just my husband and me walking past food counters, cotton candy makers. We find a row of game stalls and my husband has his try at target hitting. He used to play baseball, they called him Babe in college but he went on to found his own business at a tender age. He comes from entrepreneurial stock.

He wins me a prize, a giant stuffed giraffe. I used to cherish my toy giraffe when I was a child, it was my favorite, along with the donkey.

But my husband doesn’t know about that, or about how my mother drove by herself into the city during her last weeks alive, and bought me a giraffe. My mother was so shy about showing affection and she offered me the gift, wrapped in expensive paper, with such tenderness, like an angel’s kiss. I snorted when I saw it and told her to take it back.

I wish I could explain myself to her. Just recently I dreamt I was sitting at her feet telling her how much I loved her. Aw shucks, she seemed to convey, smiling in her self-deprecating manner.

My husband has to use one of the porta-potties. I wait in the midst of the sea of trodden grass, passed over by teenagers in love. I’m alone in a shaft of sunlight.

Suddenly I behold Ms. Scientist, or rather a woman who resembles her mighty closely. The woman is holding a child by the hand. She is older than the adored one, more sophisticated, and so very happy. I realize I’m seeing Ms. Scientist in ten years.

Mrs. Scientist, settled with a family of her own, getting everything she ever desired.

Not my future.

Then they all appear at once. The family converges on me from different directions. Burr carrying his banana-curls daughter in his arms. She’s screaming about going to see the ‘Real Cows.’ Mahatma at their side takes over. “This way”! She orders. All the siblings with their spouses and kids charge Burr and Mahatma and I am caught up in the mass of bodies. The family herds me along to another kind of prison, the animal pens.

My husband pushes through the batch and grabs my hand. He holds it so very tightly. ‘Shhhhh.’ He’s keeping me safe, he’s keeping me quiet.

And they all press me down ever so permanently into the bottomless pit of the tribe.

—–

Amy LaBonte is an artist and writer, researcher and facilitator, live and work in South Florida.

——-

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Eb C

C chord
Eb C Eb C
insect in the kitchen

     Squash it
     You squash it
     Give me that magazine
     Here’s a paper
     Not today’s?
     No not today’s    
          Gone. A wingless one lunges towards his sink, cialis thwacks the hob, the windowsill. A caveman clubbing the sides of his cave. From a distant wall, a back view of him. Hair black, arm made into a club by a newspaper. So what. We are long gone when the news­paper strikes. Our halteres give us balance and direction as we alight on a white wall, a straight edge. As we sail through the oil towards our next source of sugar.
       chord of D to Dm to C
       insect in the living room
       Eb C
     To the dark spot beside the breadboard. Is this the same sugar? We have no memories. We recognise nothing. Elsie excepted, I may recognise Elsie. Her vibrations lead to faint reverberations. Otherwise all manure is one manure. Make it moist.
          Get it
     It’s hopeless with a paper Bob
     Same sugar? We have no same. We have no before, no after, no old debris, old dung, each fleck is arrived at new. Each edge is unique, each white surface. Each said thing. Everything is new when we come to it, bar Elsie.
     Eb C
     baba baba
     A raised newspaper is a surface leaning through the oil towards us. Collision avoided through our physionomy and perform­ance of saccades. While the wingless lunge and lumber, or stand with a club watching the windowpane, we express ourselves in gyro­scopics. The neat sequences of Elsie’s jumps and turns are beautiful.
     I followed Elsie in spirals through the oil. We mated. I think it was Elsie. Sex alone brings faint recollections, reverberations. Maybe it was perfect, whatever that means. Whatever was means. We have no was or will.
     How was it for you? the wingless ask, as if they were not present, as if they were not part of their own selves.
     Leave it to me
     Now Bob, when did you ever swat a fly?
     There’s the Mexican method
     Uh?
     I need a rubber band
     Oil thinning. Delirium. Sugar not on top of the cupboard. There is a dark spot beside the breadboard. Try it. Need sugar.   
     I’ll be in the garden
     I thought you were going to see to that fly
     There are thunderclouds, I have to see the blue at the bottom of the thunder­clouds
     That’s a new one
     I have to go outside and think, maybe it’ll go out through the door
     One wingless lumbering by. Performing ponderous half saccade towards the light. Receding. Elsie out of radius. It rains.
          Bob Bob Bob I’ve got it now, there’s Bob Bob Bob and her who is not Bob. Try the bedroom.
     That goddamn fly, here I am holding my head and in comes that goddamn fly
     Tessa, did you call?
     I’m upstairs—migrane
     What’s the problem?
     One minute in the garden and you’re an expert at migranes, a doctor
     A dark spot by the breadboard. Needs wetting. Daubing. Suck it up. Send it out. Suck it up. Elsie. Chasing Elsie in thousands of wingbeats. Small is fast. We don’t count. We copulate.
     We copulate by the breadboard.
     If you have a migrane there’s usually a reason
     Would you get me an aspirin?
     Wet. Suck. Elsie is looking at me with her wide eyes as we suck. Elsie has blackcurrant something down a leg. She’s standing in it. She pulls herself out, buzzes off.
     We have no links. What links, links to what? We have no memories. No reasons. No stories. I can hear a seagull cackling in the garden.         
     I can’t believe it, one week you know I’m pregnant and the next week you give notice at your job
     They’re so unfriendly
     Who?
     In the office—they don’t talk to me, you’d have to be there to know Tessa
     So what are we supposed to do, live on dog food?
     Elsie has sugar on the leg. I have sugar on the leg. Look at that, Elsie’s smiling. Is she smiling. How does it feel. Good to eat but it cloys. Elsie is going up and down her leg. We copulate.
     Look, I’ve found a rubber band
     Oh well we’re home and dry then
     I just need to cut it, then it’s too fast for them, pull it back like a catapult, thwack and they’re mush
     Formerly known as Prince
     What?
     I’ll get the aspirin
     And lots of water
     By the breadboard. Every snack worth several thousand wingbeats. Eat, live dangerously.
     I got it, in the bathroom
     As long as you don’t show me, look, that must be another
     Here take the glass, I stirred it, now if you don’t mind I’m going to practise the keyboard
     We need to talk
     I won’t be long
     What is this, Bob, what are you saying?
Eb C
C chord
     Black note white note on the synthesiser.
     Baba baba, that is our sound. Our pedicels collect sounds. We have very few things in the plural: sounds, wingbeats, ourselves.
     Wingless rotating his hands at the wrists. I copy with my wings. His wrists. My wing hinges.
     Baba baba G F E C, our pedicels collect these things.
     Elsie not in radius.
     Baba baba, it’s a real foot tapper.
     Our pedicels collect these things.
     Beside the smell of the breadboard is nothing. We patrol the oil ready to smell sugar. Stop on a straight edge. Where is Elsie?
     Tessa, I just looked at a fly through a magnifying glass
     You could try looking at yourself through one
     It was horrible
     Was it dead?
     No, but it seemed in a trance—then I stepped back and thwanged the rubber band
     Thank God, I need the quiet
     You wanted to talk
     Later
Eb C
seagull in the garden
     Bob look there, on the curtain—I thought you’d got it—it’s gone out now
     I’ll catch up with it, I dare say it’s in the kitchen

 —–

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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“At least, decease I’m done bringing stuff!” Linda thought. It was past two, site and she ready for lunch, case having been in the school building since 7:45 on nothing more than a lousy cup of gas station coffee.

Her 10th grade science classroom was finally ready for the first student day at North Lansdale High, and it looked even better than she had envisioned it. She had just taken half a dozen pictures of her amazing bulletin boards to post on Facebook later that evening.

Digging through her purse on her way down the hall, she was startled to find that she had no cash. Then she remembered that she had stuffed the change from a twenty into her side pocket at the gas station. She paused to count the wadded bills, being all too well aware that she had spent nearly a thousand dollars on a professional wardrobe—most of it charged to her credit card.  She couldn’t wait to start wearing it.

I need to make a hairdressing appointment, …and install that software on my laptop. She loved making lists and preparing for her first semester as a teacher required the longest, most detailed list she had ever made.  By now she was borderline euphoric to know that the end was in sight.

The moment she passed the Principal’s Office, Dr. Keller stepped out into the hall. “Ms. Moreno,” he said. “I need to speak with you.” 

She felt the twinge that all new employees feel when being summoned by a boss, though she knew that she was on top of things and it was all going well.

“Yes?” she said, passing through the door that he held open for her.

“I’ve reviewed your Semester One Syllabus…”

“And?”

“For the most part, it looks good; but there are a few issues that we need to discuss.”

“Of course.”

“I know that you’re a first year teacher, so let me assure you that this is normal. Every first year teacher…and in fact, some of the seasoned ones…well…let’s just say that it’s rare for any new syllabus to be approved right off the bat with flying colors.”

“Yes. I understand.”

“Everything, in general looks pretty good. It’s obvious that you’ve studied and adhered to the District Curriculum Standards. You appear to have everything covered. It’s just that there are some…particulars… that go with North Lansdale High.”

“Beyond the District Standards?”

“I mean in order to conform to, and better serve, our community.”

“Good,” she said.  “To be perfectly candid, Dr. Keller, I thought that the District Standards looked a little bit lacking. I’m glad you raised the bar.”

Dr. Keller smiled. “That’s a good way to look at it!” he said. “One of the most important things an educator learns is that it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ endeavor. What works over in West Edgemont, for example, may not work here at North Lansdale. Again, it’s just a matter of minor semantic adjustments.”

“A more advanced vocabulary?”

“Oh, No. We certainly don’t want to complicate things.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“I’m just talking about changing a few specific words. There are some words we don’t use here in our Science Program.”

“What sort of words?”

Dr. Keller pointed to an empathically-circled word on her syllabus. “Now then,” he began. “The first word–and it’s the big one: ‘Evolution.’ We don’t ever use the word ‘Evolution’ at North Lansdale High.”

This makes no sense, she thought. “I’m sorry, Dr. Keller,” she said carefully, “but perhaps there’s some sort of misunderstanding. According to the District, one of the core objectives of the First Semester Curriculum is to teach the origins of life.”

“Yes. Absolutely!” Dr. Keller agreed. “And based on this syllabus, you’ll successfully meet that objective. You just need to replace the term, ‘Evolution’ with the term ‘Change Over Time.’

“But I can’t replace that term,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Of course you can!” Dr. Keller assured her calmly. “If you wrote this in Word, just do a ‘Find and Replace.’ It should only take a minute.”

“I’m sorry, Dr. Keller,” she said, deliberately. “The point I’m making is that ‘Change Over Time’ isn’t a scientific term.”

“It’s still essentially synonymous with evolution. More important, it’s a term that is far more sensitive and respectful to some of the members of our local community.”

“But this is a public school!”

“Yes. Exactly. That means that our school belongs to the local community. We are respectfully and democratically acknowledging that each citizen has a stake in it. North Lansdale happens to be a rather close-knit, traditional community.”

“By ‘traditional,’ do you mean Fundamentalist Christian?’”

“I would never bring religion into this. I’m just pointing out that our local residents are generally conservative.”

“With all due respect, Dr. Keller, the only people who would object to the term ‘Evolution’ are…”

“Let’s not get hung up on that little detail. If you have questions at the end, we can come back to them. Right now we need to move on to the other revisions.”

“Are there more revisions like that last one?”

“Very, very few, just a couple of terms and concepts. Like I said, all very minor.”
Linda began to speak, thought the better of it and nodded.

Dr. Keller continued. “For the sake of consistency, throughout the North Lansdale High School Biology program, we only use the term ‘Adaptation’ in a very specific context.”
Linda’s forehead wrinkled. “What do you mean?”

“Our Science teachers use the term ‘Adaptation’ to refer to a current change in a particular organism, for example the hummingbirds changing their migration pattern after Katrina because the trees are now gone. It’s against our policy to introduce the concept of ‘Adaptation’ as it might pertain to ‘Natural Selection.’

“But then how will I be able to teach Natural Selection?”

Dr. Keller smiled, “That’s where you get a break,” he said as if he were giving her the perfect birthday present. “You won’t teach it! We know that there’s nothing more difficult than trying to correctly teach a complicated concept when there isn’t sufficient time to fully explain it. The department bought this excellent movie for you to show instead.”
He handed her a DVD case with a photo of the Milky Way on the cover above the title, The Scientific Theory of Intelligent Design.

“Dr. Keller!”

“It’s a high quality production. It has wonderful computer graphics and incredible special effects. One of those well-known TV actors–I can’t think of his name—the guy who used to be on Growing Pains –narrates it. Last year the students really enjoyed it.”

“The District Standards didn’t mention anything about Intelligent Design.”

“Yes. As you observed earlier, we’re going above and beyond District Standards. We need to tailor our program to our community and we need to gear this Biology class toward every student’s success. Time is limited, and so you can’t afford to digress into a lot of extraneous detail.”

Extraneous detail. Such as…?”

“Such as… I don’t want you giving any hard numbers. Ever. For example, we don’t teach that something is, say, ‘100 million years old,’ we simplify it and teach that it’s ‘very old.’ General concepts are plenty at this level.”

Linda dug her nails into the palms of her hands, struggling. “Dr. Keller…. I …. I thought this general issue was settled with the Scopes Trial …something like eighty years ago!”

“Ms. Moreno, this isn’t college. You will be teaching a sophomore level Biology class in a public high school. Your students are fifteen years old, and you have them for forty-five minutes a day. We both know that at this rudimentary level, and with this limited amount of time, you won’t be able to squeeze everything in. Following my instructions will make your syllabus work here at North Lansdale.”

Linda persisted in an agony of politeness. “I’m very sorry, Dr. Keller, but I have to disagree. I think that my existing syllabus is very workable.”

“Yes, I’m sure you do. I understand,” Dr. Keller said in a patronizing tone. “I haven’t forgotten what it was like years ago when I was a first year teacher myself. First year teachers all walk in with ambitious plans and the idyllic notion that all of the students come to school wanting to learn. But once the semester starts, you’ll find that if things go well, you’ll still barely have time to cover the basics. There’s no time to teach something that will cause problems.”

“Proven scientific facts shouldn’t cause problems.”

“No. In a perfect world, they shouldn’t. But realistically speaking, if some of your students were to go home and tell their parents that we are proponents of Evolution, those parents might get on the phone with like-minded parents and then, before we knew it, the whole thing would snowball…”

“Dr. Keller, I really doubt that the snowball effect would happen. For one thing, it would have to be such a very small minority of parents who would strongly object…”

“It doesn’t matter how few or how many parents. It’s who those parents are that worries me.”

“I would agree with what you were saying if this were a private, parochial school with benefactors, and that’s exactly why I didn’t apply at any of those schools. North Lansdale is a public school.”

“Yes, and the members of the School Board have the power to veto–or approve–funding for a lot of our programs. In this community, if you were to insist on stating the exact ages of rocks, you could be personally responsible for invoking a funding reprisal that would undermine the quality of our entire school!”

Linda was silent for a moment. Finally, she said evenly, “Dr. Keller, classes start in less than two weeks. Why wasn’t this brought up when I came to interview?”

“If you had questions during the interview process, Ms. Moreno, it was your responsibility to ask them.”

“But I never imagined…”

“I would be very sorry to see you go…particularly in this economy.”

“I didn’t say anything about quitting. I’m just trying to understand why it is that a few weeks ago, you hired me to teach Science and now—today–you’re telling me that I’m not allowed to teach it.”

“I’m doing nothing of the sort. I’m requiring you to adjust your curriculum to the needs of our school. To put this into perspective, about thirty-five percent of North Lansdale seniors apply to college, and of that thirty-five percent, most enroll in a two-year certificate program at North Valley Community College. In other words, you’re not teaching future scientists!”

“But if we compromise the truth …”

“Listen, I interviewed seventeen qualified applicants for your position. I hired you because I thought you would be a good, young, female role model–particularly for our minority students. I would hate to think that this isn’t going to work out.”

“Dr. Keller…I didn’t apply to be a token Latina. I applied to be a Biology teacher. And I believe that I can be an excellent Biology teacher. But now, I feel like you’re… well…Are you threatening fire me?”

Dr. Keller, saw tears well up in her eyes. He would have to be careful. Few things looked worse than having a young teacher leave his office crying.  “Ms. Moreno,” he said gently.

“As oppressive as this may feel, North Lansdale isn’t the only public school making minor adjustments to the Biology curriculum these days.”

Linda nodded. “Yes. Of course, I’ve heard stories. I just didn’t think that this kind of scenario was…”

Dr. Keller interrupted. “I promise,” he said. “It’s not as big as it looks to you, but there are times in our lives when we all have to put aside own little notions for the sake of the big picture. Besides, I honestly think in many ways, it’s a very positive thing that so many schools are meeting the expectations of their local communities.”

“May I go now?”

“Yes. But remember, I need your revised syllabus in my inbox no later than day after tomorrow.”

She nodded.

Once outside his office, she hurried out of the building and across the hot parking lot thinking of her beautifully decorated classroom, her painstakingly prepared lesson plans, her thousand dollar’s worth of new clothes, her health insurance, her student loans, her fiancé, her parents …

No longer hungry for lunch, she drove past the coffee shop without a destination. Less than an hour earlier, she had known exactly who she was, what she wanted, and what she had to do. Being a newly-minted science teacher felt right, and everything had been under control. Now, it was as if someone had rolled the dice and sent her back to square one. …Only a few days left, and so much to figure out

—–

Caroline Zarlengo Sposto lives in Memphis, Tennessee. She returned to creative writing very recently after spending many years working in electronic media. She has since won several fiction and poetry writing contests and one of her poems is in the current issue of Bloodroot Literary Magazine. She has a B.A. in English and an M.S. in Electronic Media.

—–

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They were sitting in the Subaru on the side of the road and it was snowing. If you looked at the parents you could see that both of them had teeth that were crooked, treat and all of their children did as well.

What will we do?

I’ll go in and straighten them myself with a pair of pliers, said the husband. I’ll straighten them.

Oh, Mel,” she said.

“Well, we have to get his teeth straightened.”

He is lazy. He can do the work.

LAZY IS NOT A REAL THING. LAZY IS FALSE.

LAZY IS A FALSE CATEGORY. IT IS LIKE: BAD. INSUFFICIENT.

Parked in the Subaru: Two parents, both with crooked teeth, both with many degrees.

You know, I liked you better before our conversations centered around dentistry.

I likewise. I find the whole dentistry angle unfulfilling. Bland.

Yes.

Can’t we get rid of these kids? Can’t we get some new ones?

Maybe we could pretend. Pretend that we have all new kids.

Let’s rename them. Let’s. Tonight we’ll announce it.

So that night the kids all got new names. Henry became George, Linda became Michelle, David Became Leone and Frankie became Theo.

The children picked up on it not so quickly. It took some getting used to.

—–

Cary Tennis is the advice columnist for Salon.com

Read more stories by Cary Tennis

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Every Sunday, see 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 34, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

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

City of Human Remains, and by Darren Callahan, try 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 35, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Okana

 

She reads the words as slowly and as clearly as possible.

The bodies of four more unidentified men pulled from the river today.  More on that story in our evening broadcast.

The prompter is moving too fast.  She will have to smack the technician.  He is known for doing this when the news is important.

Okana Osaka reporting.  Have a good day.

She concludes as lightly as possible, stuff though she knows to inject levity into this segment would be a mistake.

The LIVE sign goes out.  She breathes.

Twenty-six, Asian, black-haired, black-eyed, trim, curvy, intelligent, with friends – men and women – and family, a large 1 spread throughout Cities 32, 14, 21, and 11.  An uncle overseas is the last outsider, and he refuses to leave Japan, for reasons Okana does not understand.  She’s been at the channel less than four months, on-broadcast less than seven weeks, and the best way to advance is to do something bold.

I want to go to that meeting of the families, she tells Arthur Cuffy, dark-skinned with kinky hair, cut tight, pinstripe suit with mono-collar.  I want to go and I want to take Jerome.

They won’t let you anywhere near that meetin’.  He dismisses on his way to his office.  Meetin’s for the families of the missin’.  She follows him.  He speaks in broken waves, simultaneously reading a lightpad.  Just like the other meetin’s in the past.  Mayor’s office been very clear about us keeping away.

I’ll be discreet.  I’ll stay outside the venue.

You know the fines.  No Media within 10 blocks.  Better ta get them at their homes or jobs.  The families won’t come to Cocanaugher’s little parties if we’re botherin’ them.

But they’re going to name the suspect at the meeting!  She fervently protests as they round a corner into Cuffy’s narrow and over-stocked office.  They’ll say who he is, and, and, and then interview the families for connections.

He throws away the flash deck, folds his arms.  You’re right.  That’s what they’re gonna do.  The meeting is prob’ly to announce it to everyone, same time.  And ev’ry flash in town will make a grab.  And no one will get it until they wan’ us ta get it.  Make the families sign, for sure.  If they spill the name before the city wants it out there, might hurt the investigations.

I want to try.

Don’t care.  You want Media Ethics on us?  Media Ethics! He pumps his hands with the words as if they are neon blinkers.  Cuffy has clashed with Media Ethics before, approved the fine payments, weighed the fines against the budget, knows what fees come with what offenses, and he is the final word on any indiscretions.  A fine today would blow his fourth quarter’s budget and there may be a bigger story than the killer’s name just around the corner.  Something worth blowing a budget on.  Like the recovery of the children.

He’s just about to relate all these reinforcing details when Okana throws up her hands suddenly and says, Okay, fine, all right, Cuffy, never mind!

Don’t do that, Okana!  I know you.  You’ll go anyway.

Not this time, she smiles over her shoulder.  God forbid we get a FINE!

He’s doing the math in his head – the calculations can be seen on his face, on the curl of his lip and in the squint of his eye.  What are the fines if he she’s renegade?  Any less?  He is recalling the small print on the rate sheets.  She’s already around the corner.

Okana tracks down Jerome, who eats a dry sandwich from a plastic lunch tin in the break room of the broadcast station.  Jerome is like a newborn baby – doughy and smooth.  New to the station, he’s good with an imager and he always says yes.

Plans, Jerome? she asks with saccharine smile.

Mouth full of sandwich, he shakes his head and his dirty blonde hair falls over his eyes.

She brushes his bang back.  Then come with me.  I’m on an adventure.

The two arrive in her rented Q-glide.

Bribing the neighboring garage’s attendant, they park at the ends of City Convention Center Plaza, at the very top tier of the public garage.

Why are we parking so far away? Jerome asks.

The crosswalk, she says and points.  They tumble out the car, her with her purse, makeup kit, and lightpad, Jerome with his precious imager.  The police have the convention ramps blocked, she continues.  But if we’re on this side, we can cross on the pedway to the roof of the other garage.  From there, we walk down.

You know all that?

Sure.  Don’t you?

It’s obvious from his face that he doesn’t.  Jerome screws a lens onto his imager and tosses his bag of spare chips and zoom lights around his back.  She notices his jacket.  You should take that off, she tells him.

Jerome follows her finger-point.  The jacket has the station logo on it.

But it’s cold! he whines as he takes the pulse of the air with his free left hand.  Stupid Doll System.  This weather’s pissing me off.  You know I was on the crew that went out the generator station and they wouldn’t talk to us.  Complete dust-off.  That ain’t right.  It’s the taxpayers that put the damn poles up.

It’s the end of October, she replies and smoothes her wrinkled suit.  It’s supposed to be this temperature.

Not in 32.

Maybe.  Sometimes.  I don’t know.  Ask the weatherman.  He knows the schedules of the Doll System.  I just read the prompter.

Re-focusing, she dabs makeup to her face and sprays her hair.  Jerome winces from the raspberry smell of the bottle.   She’s ready.  Okana Osaka’s hair is parted perfectly and stays that way, even in the breeze.

Are you going to take that fucking jacket off or not?

Why should I?  They’ll know we’re Media from a kilometer off.  I’m carrying an imager, for Christ sake.  And I’m cold.

At least turn it inside out.

Jerome releases a moan.  Begrudgingly, he un-slings his pack.  He takes off his wooly jacket and punches into the sleeves, reversing the fabric.  When the jacket and pack are back on, the logo is still there, but harder to decipher.  Your pin, he says when he’s done, flicking Okana’s lapel.

The station logo pin she wore during the lunch broadcast is still hanging off her lapel.  Okana unsnaps it and tosses it into her open makeup kit.  She catches sight of her wrist – the time.  Shit, she curses.  We better get into position.

They quick step the bridge to the convention center’s garage.  Already some of the families are walking on sub-garage floors, observable through the pylons of the upper deck.  Jerome looks down at the tops of heads, the small crowd of arrivals heading for the elevator stacks.

Okana pushes on the glass brace, expecting the barrier to open to the descending ramps.  But it doesn’t budge.  It’s reinforced with wires.

How are we going to catch anyone if we can’t get down there?

Lift me up.  Okana leans herself against a pylon.  She intends to slide down, fire-pole style, to the level below.

You’re nuts, says Jerome.  It’s 20 meters.

But look. The poles have grooves.  Okana points to the tracings a meter apart on each pylon.

Yeah, but they stop before the bottom.

Then we jump from there.

You didn’t tell me there was going to be any exercise.  I’m flabby for a reason.

Lift me up.

Okana hops into Jerome hands and he lifts her onto the thick concrete embankment.  She puts out her hand.  He takes it, allowing Okana to tug him up the wall, poorly balanced, until he stands beside Okana on the ridge.  She’s first to descend, rougher than expected, but intact, from the uppermost boardwalk.

Jerome is behind her, slightly more agile but sabotaged by nerves.  I don’t like heights, he reveals when his feet hit the ground.

I told you this would be an adventure.

What’s the fine for trespassing?

More than we get paid in a year.

Cuffy approve this?

He did not.

I guess I should stop asking questions.

Yeah, you might want to stop.

Jerome takes a test image in the dim garage.  He captures an askew shot of several families as they funnel into the elevators.  It’s a good test – gray concrete coloring and a zoom to the families holding hands.  He is visibly relieved he won’t have to set any lights.  They’ll never let us in the building, he rolls.

We’re not going in the building.  We’re staying right here.  Okana takes a position at the mid-point of the floor, well behind the current flock, well ahead of those parked upstream.

Put that down.  She points at the imager.  Jerome drops it to his waistline.  We’ll wait here until someone approaches us.

Approaches us?  What makes you think they want to talk to us?

Parents always want to talk about their children.

The next wave of families passes by Okana and Jerome as if the 2 are ghosts.

Okana watches the sad procession, hoping to catch someone’s eye.  She sees faces only in profile.  Pain surrounds them like soft halos.  A husband, a wife, a sister, a grandfather, another child.  Each in some way touches another person – by holding hands, by draping an arm over a shoulder, by rubbing a child’s hair.  Each person is connected.

Okana feels awkward next to Jerome, as neither of them have children or any real emotional link to the horrific events of the last 10 days.  It is simply a story.  She knows that.  A story.  But these families, these relations of flesh, excavate something deep inside her and, for the first time that day, she realizes she is intruding.

The second wave passes them, filing into the garage floor elevators.  Doors shut and they’re gone.

A lull, but Okana can hear more glides being parked further up the floor.  Soon another group migrates down the ramp.

Okana remains a ghost.

She takes a step forward, hoping to be noticed, and a single teenage boy looks her direction, but he says nothing, tells no one.  The expression on his face does not change.  In the boy’s eyes, Okana detects wells of anger and grief, but also distant pains of hope, as if the boy is going to the doctor for new diagnosis, a second opinion, to reverse something dreadful he’s been told.  He is gone.  Down the elevators with his family, then the other families of that pyramid.

Jerome, impatient: Maybe you should say something…

He’s witnessed none of the things Okana has in the faces of the families.  She knows this because he has been checking the settings on his imager the whole time, a true technician, tapping his watch.

It’s 2 o’clock, he presses.  The meeting’s starting.  If we get an infraction fine but no story, we’ll be in big trouble.  You know that, right?

They’ll be stragglers, she snaps back assuredly.

The meeting was announced very suddenly, her head rationalizes.  And there’s traffic.

A glide’s tires squeal in the distance.

See?  There will be more.

But they’ll be in a hurry.

Silently, she must acknowledge this fact.  Anyone arriving will want to get inside and hear the latest.  No one will trust the 2 of them with their time.

Well, she starts, if we blow it before the meeting, maybe we can catch some luck after.

Forever passes since Okana has heard the far-off glide, and she begins to wonder if anyone else will really be coming.  If there was news about a missing child of hers, or a missing sister, or brother, father or mother, she would buck all traffic to get here on time.  2 hours is enough to get to the Convention Center from anywhere in 32.  The mayor and his commissioner must have known that when he chose this time and place.

A woman jogs down the incline.  She’s black-skinned, young, rail-thin, walking quickly.  Her low-heeled shoes clop clop clop and she almost looses one at the plateau.

Okana steps from between the parked glides.  Last chance, she thinks, last chance.  She leaps forward, a hand out.   Excuse me – do you know one of the missing children?  The words fly from her mouth suddenly and severely, and there will be no stopping the fines now.  This woman will run and tell the police, and there’s no way for Jerome and her to get out of the garage.  They can’t reverse their steps and climb up the pylons.  Without covering crowds, they are trapped.

Her words have stopped the young black woman in her tracks.  Her almond eyes flit to Okana and then to Jerome, who fiddles, momentarily embarrassed, and pretends to be distracted by a lens.

You’re from the broadcasts, says the woman.  I recognize your face.

Yes.

I’m not supposed to talk to you.

I know.

My momma would sock you if you came around my house.  She thinks something bad will happen if we talk to Media.

Okana nods, conciliatory.  There are those that think that.  They don’t like us because the mayor’s men don’t like us.  Because we tell people’s stories.

The woman holds for a second then starts walking again towards the elevators.  She hides her face from Okana.

Wait.  Okana’s voice is now a fragile echo, the word barely uttered.

The young woman stops.

Can I ask, says Okana, what is the child’s name?

Okana now sees how very young this woman is, probably not over 20.  Younger than even Jerome.  But in her face, there’s no denying this young woman is a close relation to a missing child.  Are you the child’s mother?

I am.

Because at first, I thought you might be a sister.

No.  I’m Aluna’s mother.  She’s my little girl.
“Well, sildenafil there’s no time like the present you know?” Lorna Trabish leaned on her desk for emphasis and opened the brochure. A full figured woman in her early sixties, buy cialis Lorna looked the part of the eager to please travel agent. “We have tours to fit every budget and every activity level. She eyed the heavyset couple sitting across from her and gave them a dazzling capped tooth smile.

“You could visit the pyramids. We’re having a big promotion right now—two for the price of one. A tremendous savings. It’s filling up fast. You get to be a part of a slave gang and actually help build the pyramids. Just think of the stories you can tell your friends. It’s very exciting. We have a wonderful guide who will be your overseer. You get to live with a slave family and…”

“I don’t think that’s for us,” interjected Myrna Crump who had been leafing through the brochure during Lorna’s breathless pitch. “Lester doesn’t like the sun.”

“Perhaps something a bit more luxurious,” suggested Lester Crump who was trying to picture Myrna pulling a twenty ton block of sandstone across the desert in her high heels.

“I have just the thing,” chirped the irrepressible agent. “Have you been to Rome? I’m talking about ancient Rome. It’s part of our two week Classics Tour package. A week in Ancient Greece and a week in Rome. You get to hear some of the ancient world’s great orators—Seneca, Plato, Marcus Arelius. A day at the coliseum and a big Roman feast on the last night.”

“Mmm, I don’t know,” said Myrna. “Togas make me look fat.”

“And I heard about that Roman feast from our neighbor,” said Lester in his most confidential tone. “He said it turned into an orgy.” He gave Lorna a lascivious wink.

“Well,” said an embarrassed Lorna, “I hope that wasn’t one of our tours.”

“I think it was Tick Tock Travel.”

“Well, that’s a relief. They’re a low budget outfit and, like so much in life, you get what you pay for.” Lorna was relieved and recovered her poise. “I can assure you our feast is with a better class of people.”

The Crumps exchanged looks and silently congratulated themselves for choosing Temporal Tours even though it cost a good deal more.

“Are you interested in something of a religious nature?” asked Lorna hopefully. “We have a few openings left for the crucifixion.”

“We’re Jewish,” said Myrna.

“Oh. Well then how about joining the Israelites on their wandering in the desert?”

“What’s with you and deserts?” asked Lester. “We told you I can’t take the sun. I burn very easily then I peel.”

“It almost ruined our last vacation,” added Myrna. “We were watching the Aztec coronation in Palenque. We were standing in the crowd and Lester forgot his hat and all that sun. It was just too much. We had to leave and missed the whole human sacrifice and the party afterwards.”

“Maybe something a little more northerly, then,” said Lorna mentally scrambling for a cooler scenario. “I have just the thing,” she pointed to a page in the brochure. “The Camelot package. It’s perfect. Fourth century England, nice and cool. Lovely costumes. Atrocious table manners but that’s all over the ancient world. Let’s see, there are jousting tournaments, and combat for the men and wandering minstrels and a dance around the maypole for the women. Now doesn’t that sound exciting?”

The Crumps looked at each other and 32 years of knowing flashed between them in a glance. “Sounds good,” said Myrna, “tell us more.”

“Well, you arrive at the end of April for the wedding and participate in the festivities. You’ll be in period costumes, of course. We have an excellent guide who will explain the quaint customs. There’ll be lots of celebrating, music and dancing in the streets. It’s very exciting. You’ll be staying in a five star Inn that we’ve completely renovated to the highest local standards which will give you a first hand taste of life at that time— generally filthy, superstitious and brutal. I know you’ll love it.”

“Will we get to see King Arthur?” asked Lester who considered himself pretty knowledgeable on that time in history having once read an excerpt from the Song of Roland in seventh grade.

“We can’t guarantee you’ll get closer than 500 feet, but you’ll definitely get to see the royal couple at the wedding.”

“What about crowds?” asked Myrna, “I get claustrophobic in crowds.”

“Well, it is a popular destination. I dare say that half the people there will be time tourists like yourselves. There’s nothing we can do about it, it’s the peak season and the past is public property.”

“I wouldn’t mind something a little less public. I’ve heard about private tours,” said Myrna. “Surely Temporal Travel offers private packages.”

“Oh we do. Of course we do,” Lorna was happy to pitch private tours. They cost a fortune and the commissions were, how would you put it, huge. “They’re our specialty.”

Lorna reached into her desk and pulled out another brochure. It was bound in leather and was made to impress. “I have to warn you that our private tours set the standard in the time travel industry. No one does it better. Here, let me show you.”

After another grueling hour of suggesting and rejecting, the Crumps were ready to sign. With Lorna’s help, they had settled on a private tour to 18th century France. They would have a room at Versailles an audience with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Their personal guide would be a well regarded professor of the period who would make the whole experience even more real than it already was. The only problem was the timing. By their nature, private tours were not shared with the time traveling public; only certain dates in the past were available and most of them were already booked.

“We have an opening in July 1793. My book says it’s cutting things a little close with the political ferment and all, but it’s the only date still open. Besides, a little local politics might not be a bad thing. The French revolution was such an exciting time after all and I’m sure Professor Nichols will keep you safe. We’ve never lost a customer yet, you know.” Here Lorna gave a little giggle, “and we don’t intend to start now. If worse comes to worse your guide will have the latest in emergency extraction technology.”

Lorna flashed her white capped smile and segued away from the unpleasant subject of personal danger launching into a detailed recital of the beautiful clothing worn at court, the delights of French cuisine and the splendors of Versailles. By the time she was through, the Crumps were hooked and ready to leave right then and there.

“Of course you can leave at your convenience. Professor Nichols is available, let me see, pretty much for the rest of the month. So should I call him and book?”

Myrna and Lester exchanged looks. Lorna held her breath. “Okay, sure, let’s book it,” said Myrna.

“You only live once,” added Lester.

“Great,” Lorna exhaled and beamed.

***

The Crumps and Professor Nichols materialized in a Paris Park. Myrna was dressed in the latest fashion. Her mousy brown hair piled under an enormous silver wig, her dowdy figure concealed beneath a magnificent silk dress embroidered with pearls— she looked like a countess from a remote province visiting the city for the first time. The men also wore wigs and with their powdered faces looked like caricatures of themselves.

“Well, here we are,” said their guide. “I suggest we stroll around a bit while I point out some of the sights.”

“I’d like to see the Eiffel Tower,” said Myrna.

“I’m afraid that’s two hundred years in the future,” said the amused Nichols.

“The Louvre?”

“I can try to get us in but it doesn’t open to the public for a couple of years.”

“Well, what else is there?” Lester wanted to know.

Nichols was looking around. They were the only fashionable people in sight and the local peasants were eyeing them with scorn. One fat peasant was hurrying toward them yelling “Allez!”

“I have a better idea,” said their guide, “ perhaps we can take a cab around the city and I’ll point out some interesting sights.”

Professor Nichols hurried his charges to the nearest exit, flagged down a cab and instructed the driver to drive around the city. The driver balked until Nichols gave him some additional coins. They all piled into the cab and, with a snap of the reigns, their tour of the city began. Behind them an overweight peasant halted panting in the road having failed to stop them.

“What were you arguing about?” asked Lester.

“With the driver? He said there were demonstrations all over the city. He demanded extra money to take us. It’s an old trick to take advantage of gullible out of towners. Don’t give it a second thought.” The Crumps relaxed and Professor Nichols pointed out the historic buildings and the famous streets of the city. The Crumps were interested at first but their appetite for architecture soon faded and they began to grow restless. Sensing he was losing his audience, Professor Nichols suggested they stop at a sidewalk cafe and have a bite to eat. He dismissed the cab and found them a table on a busy boulevard.

Lunch was disturbed by a mob of several hundred peasants carrying banners proclaiming Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. The boisterous mob surrounded the hapless Crumps. When Nichols attempted to explain that they were just visiting and had no political preferences, the peasants shouted them down and held them until members of the Paris Militia came and dragged the three away. They were accused of being anti-revolutionary. When it was revealed that the Crumps were foreigners, their fate was sealed. The militia escorted them to the hotel d’ville where a paranoid member of the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety charged them with crimes against the revolution, being monarchist sympathizers and spies for the English. It all happened so fast the Crumps thought it was just another exciting part of the tour. The crestfallen and worried look on Professor Nichols’ face quickly dispelled that notion.

“What’s wrong Professor,” asked Myrna, “you don’t look well.”

Nichols, lamenting the confiscation of his emergency retrieval device by the militia was quite beside himself. The prison guards ignored his demands for the device’s return considering it further proof of his monarchist sympathies. All he could say to the bewildered Crumps was, ”Be brave my friends.” Then he put his head in his hands and wept.

An hour later, the militia dragged all three to the guillotine where they were quickly and painlessly dispatched. It was a lot more local color than they bargained for.
     
***

When the Crumps and Professor Nichols failed to return, Lorna Trabish and the folks at Temporal Travel were forced to investigate. Theodore Wienstock, the agency’s portly owner, went back in time to look for them. He suspected that his clients may have been caught up in France’s revolutionary fervor. And so, dressed as a French peasant, he materialized in the same Paris park at roughly the same time as the Crumps. After a quick look around, he spotted them across the lawn. They were the only beautifully dressed people in sight. They were too far away to call so he hurried in their direction. He saw them turn toward the exit so he picked up his pace.

He ended up running and shouting in French for them to stop. “Allez, Allez,” he called but he watched them board a fancy cab and disappear down the street. He tried to run after them but was soon out of breath and forced to stop. When he tried to flag down a passing cab, the driver refused to stop. The next time Mr. Wienstock saw them, their heads were on display in the public square with a sign declaring them enemies of the revolution. There was nothing he could do but return to his own time and begin filling out the paperwork.

—–

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/

Read more stories by Harris Tobias

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A man walks into a bar. It sounds like a joke, cialis I know. A man walks into a bar with a white plastic bucket. No one recognized him. Andrea the Chilean waitress leaned in and said to me, discount “That man, he looks like a real scum bucket,” and I laughed and wished she would say it again, but when he placed the bucket on one of the shaky tables, Sofia, the wife of the bar owner, O’Malley, yelled, “Holy fuck, a little baby alligator!” She flipped her wet rag over her shoulder and leaned in. We crowded around, as many of us that could, trying to get all our heads near the opening of the white plastic bucket. There it was, just as prehistoric as we’d hoped. Green as a lizard should be. The color of its swamp. And bulbous jelly eyes lifted above the water, not so ridiculous as a slug’s stalks. Noble, for hunting. O’Malley, one of our circle around the bucket, turned his shoulders out, I could tell, to create just enough space that another, slim body, might enter, and it is difficult to say if his wife noticed that the invitation wasn’t for her, but for Andrea who hadn’t followed us yet to the bucket, Andrea who took one glance into the bucket before shrieking and throwing her hands up and flipping the bottom of her dress this way and that across to the other side of the room, cowering in the frame made by the countertop separating the bathrooms, her eyes shining black between her little fingers. There were six or seven of us crammed around that bucket, and a little blonde boy was the one who bumped up against O’Malley, and took the spot intended for Andrea, though he was too short to even see inside.

But we looked, and that baby alligator, it did what we wanted it to, at least at first, in that it was itself, an alligator, in miniature form. It could bite, of course, and it would hurt, and we’ve all heard about those jaws snapping shut and never opening until death, death, death, and not even then, but still, it was just a baby, barely eight inches long. But it was not a baby as we are babies, lumps of clay, sloughed from some unfinished mold, all essentially the same (tabula rasa), and “oh its eyes are like” and “oh she has your mother’s feet” and “oh it has the hands of a drummer” are fine and dandy games, but really they are lumps of flesh and the joy is in that differentiation, that “what will it become that is unlike what anything else has become,” but not this baby alligator, because it was already exactly what it was, and it had only to double, triple, quadruple, 10x, 100x, grow, grow, a question only of scale, how big would it grow, how much enormity could become of this, this same this, and if instead we shrank ourselves down by an order of magnitude, as a doll or a baby but without that mush of formlessness, it would look like a full-grown giant of the swamp, a mouth only, and some supportive infrastructure, its body curved against the scratched white surface of the bucket in two inches of yellow water.

“Feed it!” said the blonde boy, without ceremony, the thing we all wanted to say, and O’Malley said, “Manners, boy!” but then O’Malley’s eye twitched, which was as good as a nod from him. Our breathing became heavy. Feed it, we begged, because this baby alligator isn’t moving. It’s just sitting there. We don’t have all day.

It wasn’t that our sense of wonder was spent already, it was just that we had nothing more to talk about because the wonder of watching something that doesn’t move is introspective, branched and convoluted as evolution itself, filled with all the metaphoric self-revelations we have whenever contemplating the immobile, the patterns on floor tiles, the petals of a flower, the ocean (for the ocean though it moves also does not move), the elements reorganized in our minds into new patterns resembling the…

“Feed the damn thing,” said O’Malley, making us all jump and the bucket slosh, though the alligator still didn’t move. “It’s gotta be hungry!” he said, and on the other side of the bar, watching, Andrea blushed, I swear she did, and O’Malley’s wife nodded, nodded at the alligator, but did not acknowledge her husband. The man who brought the baby alligator in his white plastic bucket (no one had yet asked him his name), that magician, salesman, psychologist, naturalist that he is, he pulled an inflated plastic bag with a pair of weightless goldfish, each with a strip of black running vertically at the edge of its tail, up to the tip, where one of them was torn, so immediately if you noticed this bite mark, you’d feel instant pity for that fish, and anger toward the other.

“Put ‘em both in so we can see which it goes for!” yelled the boy, hopping on one foot, shaking the table, shaking the alligator who still did not move. We all knew it was up to O’Malley to choose. And which fish would he choose to die? If he suggested the predatory goldfish, he was showing Andrea that he was sworn to justice, an eye for an eye, a fin for a life, and was prone to sentimentality for those pitiable ones who bore the brunt of their own weaker natures, and yet she might also think that O’Malley was such a pitiable soul as to desire the stronger be put to death, breaking with the natural course of nature, upsetting what the wild would have likely enacted on its own, all because of some inferiority complex that Andrea would never find attractive. And yet if he chose the goldfish already accustomed to being prey he was throwing the lamb to slaughter and showing his sadism to Andrea; she might see that only, and not the adherence to the natural order that he was inclined to observe, though it was also possible that his sadism would excite her, even as she cowered, even as she watched between her fingers. At the same time, if O’Malley chose the injured one he was sacrificing a better chase, and why would someone on the brink of a spectacle sacrifice maximum entertainment and duration?

Before O’Malley could choose, the man emptied the bag into the bucket.

Down in the hole, the alligator’s body curved against the inside of the scratched bucket, the fish swam about, past each other, past the alligator’s open eyes, past the tips of its protruding teeth, but the alligator never opened its mouth as I imagined it, slowly, ratcheting open micrometers at a time, barely noticeable, until you’re surrounded by teeth, inside that mouth, waiting for that snap, how fast how strong will that snap will really be, but then O’Malley’s wife’s voice reminds me that the two fish are just swimming in circles on the opposite side of the bucket but the alligator hasn’t moved a goddamn muscle.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” she huffs, throwing her hands up. And O’Malley sighs, half a growl.

“Yeah, always poor Pete,” he grumbles, and his wife leaves the circular porthole of the bucket for the smaller ones at the bottom of the glasses she dunks into the hot sink, shaking, drying, holding out before her, closing one eye and looking through each shape of glass, each a unique porthole from which to see the rest of the bar, the crooked looks of her husband, the movements of Andrea and the rest of the help they’d hired to give them more time for themselves, Andrea’s hand-covered eyes watching Sofia’s husband watch the alligator, and I saw O’Malley and his wife for the first time with absolute clarity.

You see, Sofia thought that by expressing her exasperation, O’Malley would agree and they’d be able to storm off together, leaving Andrea in the corner by herself, but O’Malley only became frustrated with his wife’s frustration, so typical, so impatient, and scolded her by looking across the bar to that young waitress who wants to be a dancer over there. I wondered if O’Malley would have the moment that I’d had once, sitting on a similar cracked stool in a similar dim bar, if a slow sinking can even be called a moment; the realization that love for another can reach a dangerous paradox. Sofia’s “Oh, for Pete’s sake,” and O’Malley’s sigh was just like my wife Angie’s “Jesus Christ,” and my “Jesus Christ what?” Her expression of frustration, followed by my frustration at her frustration. And it was often the other way around, where I’d express an innocent frustration, and she’d get flustered trying to solve it, and eventually we’d be yelling at each other, in a fight that would last until dream, as I’m sure I’d see happen to O’Malley and Sofia if I kept watching. It comes from our desire to tell our lover all the things that bother us, often in sequences triggered by an immediate cause, but reaching back through time: “Damn this lazy alligator, and speaking of, damn these slippery glasses, and damn these dim light bulbs, and damn the coldness of ice, etc, etc.” They are only expressions of frustration translating to, “Honey, darling, love, this is me, I am being honest now; these are my unedited and uncensored frustrations, and I desire you to be frustrated with me as if we were the only two in agreement against the entire world,” but this poorly articulated desire, this “Oh, for Pete’s sake,” when it hits an ear like O’Malley’s becomes confused with the need to solve your lover’s problems, to take upon yourself that threat which degrades the happiness of the person you’ve sworn to keep happy, so O’Malley hears only blame, the complaint taking on the precedent of “Because of you,” or “Maybe if you’d have,” such as, “Maybe if you’d have been a better husband this alligator would eat the damn fish, or else you’d have had the forethought to keep it out of our bar, or else you’d have better prepared me, philosophically, through the course of our relationship, for dealing with so much disappointment.”

Now I know, of course, that it was not my fault that the power in our entire apartment block went out, ruining the eggs Angie had been cooking, and O’Malley knows it’s not his fault that the alligator isn’t lunging for the fish, as of course Sofia knows it too, but O’Malley’s instinct that she has no right to blame him for something he can’t control further aggravates him, and Sofia’s knowledge that he’ll just take her exclamation as a personal insult further aggravates her, and so it goes, in a terrible cycle until the bed at bedtime becomes too large and the sheets between you cold, and it takes until well into the night for her to finally articulate to him that she was simply expressing her dissatisfaction in the hopes that O’Malley would acknowledge and agree and they’d be one moment closer to each other, instead of apart, as they are now, with Andrea still looking from behind the wooden frame near the bathrooms, towards the alligator’s bucket, but not at me because I have also stepped away and back to my table.

Later, after relieving the man of his plastic bucket with its baby alligator, now sitting beneath my table, with what felt like the ghost of the girlfriend who would become my wife hovering above my hand, I wondered if we’d ever get past the argument that had sent me here, into this situation where I’d become the proud owner of a baby alligator I had no idea what to do with, a baby alligator that swished its tail among the flakes of golden scales that had once been fish, for of course the alligator had mauled them when we weren’t looking. And instead of imagining what my girlfriend would think of living with a baby alligator in the bathtub, or how long it would take before I was the unknown man in another bar across town offering a baby alligator in a white plastic bucket to the first taker, I instead scribbled furiously into my notebook an explanation of how two lovers’ desire for both sharing and service are, and will always be, at least in the moment they are expressed, completely adversarial, and how it is with love that we enter into this paradox, and with love also that we will always try to overcome it, and always fail, only to try, and fail, and try.

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Scott Lambridis’ stories have appeared in Storyglossia, Black Static, received the Leo Litwak award in Transfer, and are forthcoming in New American Writing.  Scott is the founder of Omnibucket.com, and while completing his MFA at San Francisco State (where he received the Miriam Ylvisaker Fellowship), he’s working on a novel about the scientist who discovered the end of time. You know, the usual. Email Scott at scott@omnibucket.com.

Read more stories by Scott Lambridis

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From a basement outside the city, there I hoist my torso up through the tiny window leading to the driveway, viagra burrow under a fence and wrap my fingers tight around the neighbor’s yellow Schwinn bicycle. I’m visiting relatives who don’t understand the need for solitude. So it’s come to this.

Doing the back roads on the wrong bike, troche you feel every jolt in your hands as though performing a crab-crawl or wheelbarrow-walk. Dust and sweat cools arms and legs and forms a thin layer of grit. You begin to smell of water ensnared in a garden-hose. This is what I do each night, ferociously, and then calmed. I’m doing the training on how to be alone, how to demand more.  I’ve learned how to breathe so that details I’ve never noticed develop before my eyes. Green billows from the dirt. Stretches of asphalt expand as though tufts of volcanic ash, dissolve as though frothy sea-foam.

When the temptation of loneliness hits, turn off the road and look for a scooped-out tree. Wedge your body into its cavern and listen. Such sealed sounds seem somewhere between closing the linen closet’s door in over you, and of sitting in an airplane at take-off while pressing down firmly on the soft flaps over your earlobes.

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Colleen Maynard is a Kansas City-based, to-be-Illinois based poet and visual artist. Her art-writing has previously been published in such places as the Australian-based Ceramic Art and Perception.  She is currently working on a chapbook containing prose and drawings.

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The only reason I’m here is because my parents can’t keep their big fat noses out of my business.  I mean, no rx I’m almost eighteen and married, ambulance I have some rights.

Yeah, that’s them in the waiting room, she’s the blonde with the big…well, the one sitting next to the guy with the handlebar mustache.  That’s my dad.  The red-headed guy?   That’s my baby, my honey—married seven months next week.  See my ring?  It’s not big, but isn’t it pretty?  Ronnie says it won’t be too long before he can buy one like I deserve.  He’s such a sweetie, always doing for me even when he doesn’t have to, like a couple weeks ago?  He says to me Let’s drive up to Fort Bragg and get some new tats.  Just like that.  It wasn’t my birthday or anything.  Want to see mine?  What? I thought you were the doctor. Aren’t nurses supposed to be women?

I guess I’ll have an exam, if I have to.  Will he…it’s a she?  I’m all mixed up today.  Will she have to tell my parents?  Not like I can ever keep anything from them.  Things were fine at first.  I mean, after they simmered down.  Ronnie’s been working for my dad for over a year now.  First time I saw him he was standing under the lift pulling the muffler off my Uncle Sonny’s truck.  I took one look at that curly red hair and thought Wham! I got to get me some of that!  My dad says he’s a real hard worker and my mom says he makes the best peanut butter chocolate chip cookies in the world.  We took some over the night we told them about us getting married.

As usual, my dad couldn’t keep his big mouth shut, saying that thing about buying the cow when the milk’s free, when he knows how sensitive I am about my weight.  Everyone, including him, says I take after my mom.   She’s always been a little thick in the waist but she has a real pretty face and hair, even if Clairol has something to do with that.  I mean what would you do, after all that ruckus and then the wedding and of course right off the bat my mom starts making plans for the baby?

Things just kind of got out of control, I mean I couldn’t just up and announce at dinner one night, oh, by the way, I got my period last night, not after all those months of everyone asking me how I was feeling and did I want anything special, especially not after Ronnie drove me to all those doctor appointments in Santa Rosa twice a month and him being so sweet and waiting in the car.  An exam?  I never had an exam.  I’d just go inside and read those magazines they have laying around.  If anyone asked, I said I was waiting for my sister-in-law.   After twenty minutes I’d come back out and we’d drive home, stopping at Farr’s on the way for milkshakes.  I must have put on forty-five pounds from those shakes, them and the bear claws Ronnie picked up after work every day just because he knew I had a craving for them.   My stomach started getting pretty big pretty fast, so I couldn’t tell anybody then, at least not after I started putting pictures of it up on Facebook anyway.   I was just trying to make that little bitch Julia Summers jealous.  She was in Ronnie’s senior English class last year.  He used to tease me saying she told him once she always had a “thing” for him.  The last time he said it, I threw the lava lamp across the room so hard it broke.  It made a mess all over the carpet.  Did you know those blue and orange bubbles are just big globs of oil?  The Facebook pictures?  I look at them now and maybe I don’t look so much pregnant as just kind of fat and then fatter, but everyone was just wanting that baby so much then.  I know I was.

I mean, according to my dad all he had to do was look at my mom and she’d get pregnant.  My sister had five kids in eight years.  My brother has three and they’ve only been together four years.  You might have seen them?  She was Monika with a k on season two of Bridezillas?  No?  Point is I thought for sure I was just like all the rest of them.  I swear I missed two whole periods, one for sure.  The rate Ronnie and I were doing it, I thought it’d happen any minute and nobody would know the difference.  And just because we live in my parents’ trailer in their backyard doesn’t give them the right to mess with our lives, does it?  I mean we’re sitting at my parents’ house the other night, all watching TV when my mom says she sure would like some of Ronnie’s special peanut butter chocolate chip cookies but she didn’t have any chocolate chips.  Ronnie jumps up and says he’d drive to the Safeway in Guerneville to get some.  He isn’t out the door two seconds when my dad starts in on me asking what’s my doctor’s name and isn’t this pregnancy dragging on a little too long and how come nobody can see that baby kicking like every other baby.  Like it or not, he says, it’s been almost ten months, we’re going with you to see that  doctor next week and if he has to induce labor, so be it, you got to think about that baby even if you don’t care about yourself.

So here I am, but I’ve been wondering.   I read on the internet about something called “hysterical pregnancies”?   I was thinking my parents might accept that explanation, if it came from the doctor him…I mean herself.   I know my Ronnie would.   He’s just such a sweetie.

—–

Chei Ause lives on the North Coast of California where girls like the one in her story are also sometimes known to reside.  Cheri writes short fiction and poetry and maintains a low profile by keeping her ear to the ground.

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I opened the door to the insistent knocking. In an even voice, ed the dark-haired woman with blue eyes asked if he was in.

“No, he doesn’t live here any more.”

She knew I was lying—she could see it in my face. I wondered—I don’t know why this flashed through my mind– if I’d given it away by the sudden constriction of my pupils. I remembered reading that, when you go to flea markets, wear sunglasses so they can’t see your pupils dilate when you desperately want something.  Don’t wear any jewelry or perfume, they advise, and keep your clothing simple, but most of all, wear the dark-tinted sunglasses so they can’t see your pupils dilate and constrict.

No sunglasses since  I’d been sleeping and had just flung the door open. I didn’t expect her to be standing there, hands on her hips like she owned not just him, but the whole goddamned world, too.

She’d been scrutinizing me and now narrowed her eyes.  “Really,” she said, not a question.

“Really,” I mustered. “He’s been gone now for a month, maybe two.” I tried to say this brief sentence smoothly without her hearing how my heart was jumping in fear. I kept my face a mask.

“Hmm. That’s not what I heard. Not what his friends say.”

We stared at each other coldly.

“Like I said, he’s not here.” I said it with as much finality and conviction as I knew how.

The gaze of her blue eyes pierced mine. “Well, you tell him I’ll be back, honey. You hear?”

I closed the door, went back to the bedroom, and slipped in next to his warm, sleeping body, his blonde hair splayed across the pillow. Instinctively, his long legs wrapped around mine. I shook his shoulder gently.

“ It’s her. She’s back.

“Mmmmm,”

“Listen. You have to decide what you want to do about her.”

“Hmmmm.”

We fell back to sleep.

——

Abigail Jardine has taught and written for many years. Her stories focus on gender, family dynamics, and American culture. She lives in California.

Read more stories by Abigail Jardine

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“Rachel’s gone.” My aunt lobs the news across the silence between her rocking chair and my place on the velvet settee.

My hand freezes above the faded balsam fabric. “Rachel Horowitz? When?”

August; maybe September. It was humid, ambulance not the type of day to stand around in a graveyard.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I knew you’d come for Christmas.”

 “But, buy we’ve spoken on the phone a dozen times since?” I stumble then pull the thread of conversation. “How’s Isaac coping?”

“Who knows?” Aunt Helen scoffs. “He hasn’t seen his father since the funeral; calls from all the way out there in Cal-i-for-nia. You kids go off and never look back.”

Handing my suitcase to the cab driver I turn to wave, “Goodbye.” I fall into the backseat, relief washing through me. The airport gift-shop offers two choices for sympathy cards, narrowing the worry of how to choose for someone I haven’t spoken to for twenty years. Your mother was always so kind I write beneath the printed sentiment then seal the envelope quickly. I find Isaac’s address on my Blackberry and apply the stamp.

Snow falls softly outside my kitchen window offering a pure start to the New Year. I wrap my hand around a favorite mug and lean it’s warmth to my chest; cap a bagel and cream cheese with lox,
capers and a thick slice of red onion. Closing the Tupperware of onion slices, I listen for the familiar vacuum seal. The ‘burp’ pierces my memory, hollows my stomach and unfolds the truth.

Isaac was my first friend when I moved to Aunt Helen’s. From my bedroom I could look down into his kitchen. His father would sit across the table from his mother, Isaac between them. Rachel, a large rectangle like the table, his father slight like the handle of Isaac’s dancing fork.

I wrapped the curtain around me and mimicked the movement of Isaac’s lips as he waved his fork like a conductor’s baton. I whispered, “Niiigh-t of the living Tupp-er-ware!” chorusing the song
he’d invented that afternoon. I giggled into the saffron fabric, recalling hours spent on his front porch surrounded by pieces of his mother’s Tupperware. Avocado green, burnt orange, mustard yellow, the ensemble cast in Isaac’s imaginary variety show that included songs, dances, and commercial interruptions. I rubbed the rough curtain against the furrow between my brows. I would have to tell Isaac not to perform for the kids at school; Isaac didn’t realize the armor
required to survive fourth grade.

Returning my attention, Rachel’s mouth was wide and quick. Hurling her words across the table, she blazed a path towards Isaac.  The thwack of adult fist against child cheek; lifted my shoulders as my body curled, rolling to the floor. Eyes shut tight, leaking the moisture of assault; my cheeks depressed to suck in the sting. My thoughts folded and creased this truth in on itself, over and over, making it small enough to slide into darkness.

The ringing phone breaks the memory into tiny circles that dissolve as they fall to the floor. Rising from the table I pull the neck of my pink terrycloth bathrobe closed and feel the moisture of absorbed tears. Reaching for the receiver I wonder which memories Isaac summons to eulogize his mother; which song he sings for himself.

Caller ID announces an unfamiliar number capped with the heading CALIFORNIA; answers arriving from the boy who moved out of reach?

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J. M. Sirrico earned a Masters’ Degree in Library Science. She works several part-time jobs outside of this field to support her writing habit. Cape Cod Massachusetts is the beautiful place she calls home. Contact her at jsirrico@gmail.com.

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A curious event occurs in the bars of New York City around one a.m.  It’s the last rush that bartenders have, mind and generally the most lucrative.  Mobs of working stiffs descend again, pills but this crowd isn’t white-collar regulars stopping for a beer on their way home from the office or bar-hopping personal trainers.  The final group is restaurant workers, cialis people whose profession is defined by the same parameters as the bartenders themselves.  They are the most sympathetic on a busy night and the most generous tippers.  At a quarter past one on Valentine’s Day, the heavy door swung open at Disrepair, corner of 5th and 2nd in the heart of the East Village, and the long, guillotine-ready neck of Hal Carroll extended into the putrid room.  He was followed, as per usual, by squat, bespectacled, stylishly-dressed Cassius Luna, the manager of Hudson Grill.  Bringing up the rear were the two women that Hal and Cash most enjoyed spending their drinking nights with.  Tara Farmer and Harvard McAllister looked like good and evil sisters in a Dickens novel: Harvard petite and dancer-thin, her limbs long and graceful, her hair blond and neck-length; Tara tall, curving with hair of such deep brown that it could be mistaken for black and grey eyes that were already growing foggy with drink (she hadn’t worked that night, just met up with the three at Cash’s invitation).  This quartet, accompanied occasionally by other members of the staff of Hudson Grill, came to Disrepair two or three times a week and had been doing so for about two years.  The foursome sat at the table nearest the door and got down to the business of re-distributing the wealth they’d taken from the well-moneyed customers of the restaurant via a relaxing beer or ten.  

Disrepair wasn’t quite classy enough to qualify as a dive.  It looked like a dorm room that had had a bar erected in it.  Everything stank of spilled beer, spilled ashtrays, spilled stomach contents and spilled secrets.  From the cracked booths, their Styrofoam insides bursting from the stained Nogohyde, to the jukebox lacking any music post-1979, Disrepair more than lived up to its name.  Cash Luna loved it not in spite, but because of its hideousness.

“What’s wrong, T,” Harvard asked her bereft drinking partner.

Tara Farmer brushed her long brown hair behind her ears and leaned down for a long pull on her vodka-tonic.  “I had bad tables all this week is all, so I haven’t made any money.  Plus I’ve got a fifteen page paper due Wednesday and I can’t make up my mind on the thesis.  I shouldn’t be here tonight.”

“Nonsense,” Cash proclaimed, draping his arm supportively across the back of Tara’s battered chair.  “It’s important to relax your brain before you go diving into a paper.”

Tara looked sardonically at Cash, her grey eyes exhausted by too many pressures with too little payoff.  “All I’ve done is relax my brain for the last week.  I need to research educational policy in the Reagan administration, not bars’ bathrooms,” she deadpanned.

“Lot of bars’ bathrooms are inhabited by products of Reagan’s educational policies, I find.  Maybe kill two birds with one stone, huh.”  Hal Carroll lifted what remained of his left eyebrow (burned in half in a failed attempt to light a cigarette using his kitchen stove) to punctuate the point.

“I’m serious, Hal.”

“So am I.”

Cash Luna smacked Hal upside the head.  “Boy, you’ve never been serious a day in your life.  Sarcastic, yes.  Serious, Hell no.”

“Well, what is sarcasm but the coward’s tone for delivering truths?  I’m going for a smoke.”  One of the best indicators of drunkenness in Hal was how creakily he stood for his smoke breaks.  Wobbliness had descended upon him, but a full-blown case of the stumbly-wumblys was a ways off yet.

“So, bad tables…” Harvard prompted.

“Oh, like last night, there was just a demanding seven-top that didn’t have much of a bill.  ‘Excuse me, but I asked for lemon with my tap water,’ ‘this Diet Coke was supposed to be no ice,’ and then they left me fourteen on one-oh-one, plus I had a deuce that thought the sea bass was too spicy and then didn’t want a replacement, so I had to split it off their check, and they ended up with only like a forty dollar tab.  Nothing unusual.  I wanted to try and pick up tonight, since I’m fucking Brokey McBrokester, but I think it’s better I didn’t.  I would’ve brained the first person who asked me if they could have the sushi without rice.”

“I hate people,” Harvard said consolingly.

“I don’t know how to break this to you, but you may be in the wrong business,” Cash said, sipping at his Heinekin.

“We’re all in the wrong business.  The existence of this business is wrong.  We might as well be homeless people window-washing; it’s all begging.”  Harvard’s statements against her profession came often once a few beers lay in her belly.

“Listen, can we talk about something other than work,” Tara pled, hoping to avert the argument that always arose between workaholic Cash and work-hating Harvard.

“Fine by me,” Cash said, moving his arm up the chair until his hand rested on Tara’s shoulder.

The group sat silently sipping at their drinks.

Hal bit into the small sandwich with great vigor.  He was passionate about egg-salad sandwiches, and it really was fitting.  With his gray hair, ill-fitting clothes and penchant for incoherent mumbling, he was already a reasonable facsimile of an old man, and egg-salad sandwiches just made the portrait more convincing.

“Bastards didn’t toast this very well,” he grumbled.

“You buy a sandwich at three in the morning, there’s only so much you can expect,” Harvard chided.

“How hard is it to toast bread properly, no matter the time,” Hal shot back.  He spoke with his mouth full and Cash reflected how much it looked like Hal was eating his own teeth.

“Wait a sec,” Tara half-yelled.  “I thought you went to smoke,” she said, pointing an accusing finger at Hal, who continued stuffing his face.

“Mmm,” he began, pausing a moment to swallow the last of the sandwich.  “I did smoke, and while I was smoking I noticed that I wasn’t able to focus very well, and so I decided to get something to eat before I got too drunk.”

Harvard looked Hal straight in the eye.  “You know, when I don’t want to get too drunk, I don’t eat, I just don’t drink everything in sight,” she said.

Stung, but not betraying himself, Hal nonchalantly made to lean his elbow on the table.  He failed spectacularly, missing the table and leaning instead on thin air, which surprised him so thoroughly that he lost all equilibrium and tumbled over, hauling his chair and the table along with him.

“Holy shit,” Cash exclaimed as his fresh glass of beer spilled onto Hal’s defeated face.  He then leaned over and helped Hal back up onto his feet while Tara dug around in her pockets for her pack and Harvard giggled, hiding her face in her hands.  Hal sheepishly righted the chair and the table and, without a word, walked to the bar to replace all the spilled drinks.

“Smoke,” Tara asked Cash, holding a second cigarette out for him.  He nodded eagerly and the two of them headed for the exit.  Hal returned, bearing the new glasses with surprising coordination.  He set the glasses down gently and sat with utmost deliberation in his defiled chair.  Harvard watched the thoughts flicker in his eyes as he tried to compose whatever it was he meant to say to her.  After a long exhale, he leaned towards her, penitent, and hiked his thumb in the direction of Tara and Cash.

“They don’t know, y’know.  But there’s a real reason for all this.  Ideals and shit like that.  Like, there’s power you get when you’re as weak and fucked up as me.  You don’t judge people anymore.  You can’t, that impulse is just beaten or burned or just plain drunk out.  And you get to see people the way they are, and why, and how they’re like you and vice versa.  You start taking everyone you come across exactly as they represent themselves.  You may know that they’re lying, but you don’t judge, you just think, ‘oh, the way this person just presented themselves to me is totally false, how odd,’ and go about your day.  But there is a point to this, I swear, and the point is this.  I may not be judging people, but that doesn’t really mean I’m liking any more of ‘em.  You’re like the only person I like.”

As he spoke, he leaned closer and closer to Harvard, and by the time he arrived at his point, their faces were separated by next to nothing.

Harvard closed her eyes and felt the warmth emanating from his face, so near.  She could smell the stale sweat of the night’s work commingling with the foul remnants of those blasted cigarettes.  She could kiss him now, as she wanted.  As he wanted.  She could kiss him and then tell him to ignore it, to write it off as drunken foolishness, and know that he would do just that.  She could kiss him.

Unlike Hal, Cash and Tara, however, Harvard had brakes, and she slammed down hard on them now.  She drew herself upright and opened her eyes.

“All you do is tell the truth, and still I can’t trust you,” she said, shaking her head ruefully.

Tara, noticeably blushing, stalked back into Disrepair.  She beelined for Harvard, bent down and audibly whispered “bathroom” into her ear.

The Ladies’ Room at Disrepair was not aesthetically dissimilar to the main bar area.  Stickers for garage bands extinct since the 1980s still adorned the walls, along with loopy writing proclaiming that “Scott is a drunk stud” or advising “don’t fuck in the bathroom – very bad choice.”  No matter what the trash was overflowing with used paper towels and tampon wrappers.  

Once Harvard had entered the bathroom, Tara drew the brass bolt and balanced herself on the sink.

“I just got kissed.”  Tara breathed the words out slowly, uncertain of not only her friend’s reaction, but of her own.

Harvard covered her small mouth with her right hand and gently stroked Tara’s hair with her left.  “By Cash?”  Her question was confirmed by an enthusiastic nodding of Tara’s head.

“And you have to come home with me, to get me home,” Tara pled.  “I mean, he’s my friend and my boss and what if something does happen and I do go home with him or, y’know, the other way around,” she drew a circle in the air to clarify, “because then there’s tomorrow and I don’t know what to do with that.”  

“Don’t worry.  I’ll make sure it’s all right.”

Tara’s head bobbed up and down a few more times as she nodded her gratitude.

“Come on,” Harvard prodded, wrapping her arm over Tara’s shoulder, “we’d better have another beer.  Don’t wanna be suspicious, after all.”  She forced a smile and Tara responded.  A boom echoed through the women’s room as Tara struggled with the lock.  Both girls jumped.

“It’s okay, just some boy banging his head against the wall.”  Tara let go of the lock and put her hand over her heart, allowing Harvard to slide the little brass rod out of its housing and escape the toilet/confessional before any more could be demanded of her.  She walked back out and found Hal alone at the table, his sneakers propped on the edge of the table.  He possessed enough good sense to not lean back on his chair legs, she was thankful to see.  She was not thankful to see that he’d taken the liberty of ordering yet another round of shots.

“Are you trying to forget your way home,” she asked, her long fingers plowing through her short hair.

“No, more just what I said just now,” he responded.  Chewing his cuticles, he was a bit muffled.  Harvard had heard what he said, but she made him repeat it anyway.

“Well, I’ll remember that you just said that.”

“Yeah, me, too.”  He broke into a big smile and shrugged.  “Basically I just wanted another shot, and I figured since y’all were in the bathroom, I’d play it safe and just go a whole round.”

“Hal, you’re the only person I know for whom ‘playing it safe’ means buying it anyway.”  She sat down and pushed her glass towards him.  “I’m going to finish my beer and then I’m going to get Tara home.”  She looked out the window and saw no sign of Cash.  “Where’s Cash?”

“Bathroom.”  Harvard turned back towards the bathroom and watched as Tara attempted to navigate the tables and sprawled chairs of the remaining customers.  It was definitely time to get going.

“Cash seemed pissed when…”  Hal made a hand gesture that weakly approximated Cash standing at the table.  “’Sat ‘bout?”

“Just banged his head against a wall.”  Tara slouched down in her chair in time to catch Harvard’s last remark.  She looked at Hal with utmost seriousness.

“That scared the shit out of me, too.  It was sooo loud.”  She downed her shot without showing the least surprise at its appearance and made a grotesque face as it disappeared with a burn down her gullet.

Hal was now thoroughly confused but couldn’t put together the words to express this confusion, so he continued alternating which eye he looked through in a hopeless effort to discover which was making the world spin.  Harvard drained her beer and looked intently at Tara to follow suit as Cash appeared at the table, steadying himself on the edge of the Formica.

He shot Hal an accusatory look.  “You got more shots, sicko.”

Hal nodded as he swigged his Miller, resulting in a foam-over that trickled in multiple streams down his shirtfront.  He didn’t seem fazed and continued gulping until the bottle was drained.

“Fuck it,” Cash announced with a tight-lipped glance at Tara.  He put down the whiskey in one gulp.  “Thanks,” he said, tapping Hal’s old skater shoes.  Hal nodded once more, now looking distinctly incapable of speech.

Harvard spoke first.  “Why do you always do this?”

Hal gave her a shrug.  “I mean, fuck else’m I’onna do with money,” he sighed.

“Get a haircut,” Cash said.

“Buy new shoes,” Harvard proposed.

“Find clothes that fit,” Tara threw in.

Hal nodded deliberately and then began laughing maniacally.

“Okay, I’m done,” Harvard said with an eyeroll.

“Yeah, me, too,” Tara added.

Cash made to stand, but Tara waved him down.  “I’m fine, I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll get her home, Cash,” Harvard said gamely, as though the idea were just now occurring to her, “you get him in a cab, okay?  I don’t want him on a bridge tonight.”  Hal had an inexplicable predilection for walking back to Brooklyn over the bridges, whether drunk or sober.

The girls gathered their coats and left after an awkward twenty or so seconds of pushing the inward swinging exit door.  Cash and Hal stared despondently after them, then Cash rose and fetched two beers.

A wolf’s tooth moon greeted Hal and Cash as they stumbled from Despair onto the barren waste of the East Village at closing time.  Grunting and moaning, they spoke a primeval language lost to the civilized world.

“I needa see ‘er,” Cash mumbled, stumbling and subsequently tumbling into the oncoming traffic along Second.

“Whoa, Pops,” Hal said as he attempted to help Cash onto his feet.  Both ended up crashing into a newsstand.  Ever vigilant for a bargain, Hal snatched up the New York Times that tumbled from the busted box.

“You’re no fuckin’ good,” Cash exclaimed, wiping the sweat that had accumulated at the edge of his wool cap.  “Women… they don’t just…”

“I am,” Hal gulped, hoping that Cash wasn’t witness to his newspaper thievery.  Hal Carroll never could stand appearing less than princely before his friends.  Unless he was drunk.  Drunk he could explain.  Except when he was drunk, of course.  Then the humiliation was unbearable.

“You are what,” Cash queried as he made his second attempt to navigate Second.

“I am a good man,” Hal called, jogging across Second to an empty storefront where he pissed profusely.

For a few seconds more, peace prevailed along Second.  And then the furious Cash caught up with the urinating Hal.  Steadying himself against the brick wall and straddling the river of piss that was running down the cracks towards the curb, Cash blinked.  “Nice and good arrn the same,” he growled to Hal’s back.  “I’monna see ‘er.”  Bobbleheaded, he turned into the cold wind and staggered towards Tara’s place.

Stunned that Cash would abandon the discussion without allowing further rebuttal, Hal turned, spraying across the heels of Cash’s black Pumas.  “Wait,” Hal yelled, but Cash had already turned.  Horrified, he watched Hal, still directing his dick with one hand, lunge forward, his other arm extended like a cop’s.  Rather than jump out of the way, however, Cash released all the pent-up aggression – his anger at Tara for not getting it; his fury at Hal for all the wry, truthful comments; most of all the rage of being an individual consciousness without the slightest input about the workings of the universe, of being stranded at the end of history with no control over the past and little regarding the future – and let fly with both fists.

There was a satisfying thud as his knuckles smashed into Hal’s cheekbone followed by an extremely rewarding smack when the young man fell face-first on the sidewalk.

Hal Carroll was scrappy by nature, though, and didn’t lose what remained of his wits for an instant.  He kicked out with both legs and felt his attacker’s knee snap back from the impact.  Flipping over and hauling himself up, he put his penis back in his boxers and socked Cash good and hard in the chest, sending the boss reeling back until he hit the urine-soaked storefront.  He rushed at Cash, momentarily stunned, and aimed his next blow at the skewed glasses, shining from the shadows.

Cash ducked out of the way, but Hal still managed to find Cash’s shoulder blade in the darkness, eliciting a welcome “oomph.”

But Cash was far from done.  He landed hard on the ground, tearing the knee of his jeans, quickly righted himself and began throttling his employee with every ounce of strength left in his hands.  Hal smacked and tore at Cash’s fingers, to no avail.  Cash’s vengeance was swiftly nearing its end.  Gasping, his legs beginning to buckle, Hal focused all his energy and jerked his foot at Cash’s wounded knee.  Howling in pain, Cash released and Hal collapsed onto his chest, causing both to plummet hopelessly onto a pile of filthy trash bags.

Silence blanketed the avenue once more.

Cash Luna stared dumbly at the clouds, bruised and bloated with the weight of soon-to-fall snow.

The older man gathered up what dignity he could and began the arduous process of standing up.  Back on his feet, he turned and held out his hand, which Hal took without hesitation.

The two men stood, bracing themselves one on the other.  Their eyes met and the look they exchanged was of deep understanding.  Hal had mastery over nothing, save his feelings.  Cash was his opposite.  Equally powerful, they counter-balanced the small corner of existence they inhabited.

“Coffee,” Cash said.

“Fuckin’ A,” Hal nodded.

Each draped an arm over his fellow’s shoulder.  With great caution and ginger movement, the warriors stalked from the battlefield, seeking sobriety and sanity somewhere off in the pre-dawn chill.

Dawn came quickly as the two sat over coffee, nursing their wounds.

“How’s the knee,” Hal asked with a smile.

“Better than your face,” Cash responded, not smiling.

Hal dabbed his cut with a napkin and ate a spoonful of oatmeal.  

“So do we tell anyone about this,” he croaked.

“I don’t really think we can hide it.”

“I guess the truth’s always best, huh?”  Hal ate another spoonful of oatmeal.  Cash rubbed at his weary eyes and smiled as Hal winced from the heat of his breakfast.

“The truth of what happened, sure.  Why, maybe not.”

“Me pissing on your shoes?  I think that makes it even funnier,” Hal said, as ever failing to grasp the point.  

“No, Hal, the why that could fuck things up between me and someone else.”  Cash looked at Hal over his glasses, making absolutely sure the boy grasped the point.  

Cash threw down a twenty on the stained Formica table.  “Breakfast’s on me.”  Brave but unsteady, Cash walked out into the harsh morning wind.  His shoulder really hurt.

“See you in a couple hours,” Hal called, to no response.

A moment later, the poor waiter stuck on the end of the late night shift dropped by Hal Carroll’s lonesome table.

“More coffee,” he asked of the stinking, bleeding young man who would be his only customer until the suits dropped in on their way to the office.

Hal nodded and forgot to say “thank you” after his cup was refilled.  He realized that there wouldn’t be enough change from the twenty to pay for a cab.  No matter, bridgewalking is the city’s version of nightswimming, a simple, careless act that renews a battered soul.

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Robert Voris’ writing has appeared in Slow Trains, JMWW, New York  Collective and New York Resident. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

 

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