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The Troll of Mustard Creek Bridge

|| City 32 Daily, medications for sale Page 40 ||

Letter to the editor, medicine City 32 Daily, symptoms Nov. 1, 2097.

I never write letters.  I only complain to friends.  But last night, I decided I would write to your Opinions column in the hopes that you will publish this in the morning edition.

Where I grew up (a small town in Ohio), Halloween was a big event.  Children went door-to-door for candy, dressed in all manner of costumes.

I’m used to the city being thin on children each Beggar’s Night.  Most only come to city-sponsored events where things are chaperoned and safe.  On Halloween night, though, I’ve gotten used to catching at least a few ghosts, goblins, and vampires at my door and daring me to, ‘Trick or treat.’

But tonight, no one knocked.  My street was empty.  The sun went down and there wasn’t a single child on the street.

I’ve known Halloweens with bitter cold and rain.  I’ve known Halloweens with high winds and early snow.  Nothing would keep the children away.  Last night, with all the recent Doll System malfunctions, the weather was actually perfect.  And still no children came.

The event went by without a single comment from your paper.  It was as if the holiday had been purposefully blotted from our minds.

I understand that there are children missing.  I’m not a parent, and I know I may sound insensitive.  But to keep the children away from parks, and fun, and Beggar’s Night is just not right.  Parents are robbing everyone of everything.  I’m in my 60s now.  I don’t have many Halloweens left.  To keep the children boxed up – that’s a great crime.

Maybe now that Alek Serkan is caught and no more kids have gone missing things will return to normal.  But normal isn’t happening fast enough.

It’s the parents who are doing it in our over-protective age.  We’re not missing every child in the city, are we?  Hundred of thousands weren’t touched!

For you parents: don’t punish children who have done nothing wrong.  It makes me want to cry.
Every Sunday, buy Fiction365 presents a new chapter of a previously unpublished novel.

City of Human Remains, look by Darren Callahan, store 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 41, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Hektor

Friday morning.  The weather system has had a near collapse when compared to the warm and sunny Thursday.  A cold thunderstorm lashes the city, buy viagra the orphanage, everything and everyone – the kind of storm that the Doll System has been designed to prevent.  The people of City 32, particularly those within Hektor’s earshot, can’t help but throw frustrated insults at Douglaz Doll and his pioneering ways.  Engineering’s for shit, rants Lorenzo as he dials in the broadcast pipe of the second floor’s recreation room.  You know it was bribes that got that thing goin’ in the first place.  Fuck Doll.  It’s worse this year than ever, don’t you think?  Jose?  Hey, you listenin’?  If it rained all the time we’d be used to the cold and the wet.  But we come to expect something and it goes nuts… Man, that shit gets me on the wrong side of the bed.

Out of the curve of his vision, Lorenzo sees Hektor in the recreation room doorway.

Shoo, get out of here, Lorenzo flits, as if to a cat.

No, Jose vetoes, he can stay.

Em-ploy-ees.  Lorenzo points to the sign on the recreation room door.  Got that?

Jose rises from his natty chair, encircles the small boy in his arms, and escorts Hektor across the threshold.  It’s okay.  He can see this.

Lorenzo can’t hide his irritation.  He searches for objections, but comes up empty.  Gruffly, he waves a hand.  Beh!  He returns to banging on the decade-old broadcast pipe until it begins to focus.  The image lights the wall.  I should be watching this on my Visor, he laments.  It’s the only thing comes in clear around here.  But somebody stole it when I put it down on the train.  Dicks.  Lorenzo adds over his shoulder to Hektor, What are you doing skipping class anyway?

I have a pass.  Hektor holds up a small piece of plastic.

From who?  Akkawi?  He’s soft on you because you can do geometry.  But you don’t know everything.

Leave the kid alone, Jose softly scolds.  The supervisor stretches the arm of the chair until the width can accommodate the new arrival.  Here, he says to Hektor, sit beside me.

The boy asks as he climbs into the chair, Have they shown him?

Not yet.

The image isn’t improving.  Lorenzo can’t tell if the machine or the channel is to blame.  With a last bang on the pipe, Lorenzo admits defeat and drops into an empty foldout chair.  I bet the storm’s messin’ with the satellites, guesses Lorenzo.  But that looks better than before.  Don’t it.

Hektor and Jose nod.

A reporter braces in the foreground under a rippling tarp.  He stands next to a mobile Media glide, dressed in open-collared shirt and buttoned raincoat, a channel insignia stitched on his breast pocket.  He struggles to maintain his composure, as the rain blows past the angle and pelts his mustached face.  In the background, City Hall and the steps of the courthouse are aged from the downpour.

The reporter talks in clips.

…the sudden change of venue for Alek Serkan… barrage of threats from all over the city…causes officials to be concerned for the safety of the only suspect in the largest single missing persons case in City 32’s history…

Do you think they’ll show his face? Hektor asks.

Lorenzo pumps a fist into his opposite palm.  They better.  I want a look at him.

Jose taps Hektor’s knee.  Yeah, they might.

…intense security.  As you can see, we can only get this close to the building.  Even though news of the transfer was just announced 45 minutes ago, the square… And after last week’s riots, there has been incredible show of f…

The boy lifts his eyes to meet Jose’s.  Has he said anything about the other kids?

I don’t think so, no.  Probably not.  He knows he’s in a lot of trouble.

Lorenzo laughs.  Trouble?  Heh.  They wanna KILL ‘im for what he did.  Tear ‘im limb from

Quiet, shushes Jose, he’s arriving.

Strafed by the rain, a bleak procession of 4 black-painted glides arrives on the square.  The glides slow then stop at the ramps of the courthouse.  The imager zooms to the lead car, then pulls back to the second, uncertain of which door will open first.  Several spring open at the same time, as if choreographed to confuse.  The imager jumps left than right then finally expands its iris to take in the entire line.

The emerging men all look identical – a dozen bulky figures wearing dark slickers and shielding their faces from both the rain and the armada of imagers.  Umbrellas deploy over the tops of heads.  The men’s protective circle swamps the third vehicle.

The reporter asks someone off-image, Can we get closer?  The reporter smiles just briefly then ducks out from under the tarp’s protection.

The imager focuses on the glides.  Just 10 more meters and Jose, Hektor, and Lorenzo will be able to know faces.

Someone’s jumps into frame, waving the reporter back.

It’s all right, it’s all right, explains the reporter as he holds up the palm of his hand.  We’re Media.  A thrust of arms sends the reporter backwards.  At the edges of the frame, blue uniformed patrolmen emerge to enforce the distance.

There he is!  Lorenzo jumps from his chair and stabs his finger to the pipe.

A man.  Balding.  Mustached.  Nose in bandages and arm in sling.  Alek Serkan, for sure – a dead match against the flash editions from the days before, caught in the flicker of the zoomed lens.

Before Hektor can really absorb the man’s face, the image cuts to another angle on a rooftop showing the full view of the square.

Wow, says Jose in soft wonder.

Thousands – citizens, Media, police – ring the square.  The perimeter has been barricaded, but the scope sinks in.  This city wants to see Alek Serkan.

The image propels into the crowd and the line defending Serkan becomes unstable.  The barricades are struck and reset by the police who tilt against the furious rain and the taunts of the crowd.  Serkan’s protective bubble shrinks.  Shouts and curses are hurled at Serkan and the hateful words carry into recorders and across 32.

Several imagers are online now, and the screen in front of Hektor splits with movement – wide shot, short shot, zooms to find their target.  There. There.

No.

There.

Look! shouts the reporter.  He hops and points the way for his Post It Man.

Another jump angle to the wet and confused face of the killer.  Serkan slips in the rain and has to be lifted by rain-coated patrolmen.  His arm’s sling comes loose and he winces.  Holding the wounded wing, he curries with terror towards the shelter of the courthouse.  Serkan, target of the mob, can clearly feel the palpable emotion directed squarely at him.

…I tell you viewers at home, stammers the reporter, the sound here is just incredible, and the…the…

His voice is drowned by off-screen commotion.

The reporter is overtaken by the mob.  The building imagers catch the arc of a gas canister lobbed into the square.  The missile explodes with a fuzzy pop, and then is quickly doused by the rain.  The gas blows up and away, touching no one.

The police are in full run to hustle Serkan up the courthouse steps.

A sudden burst of sunlight lights the square.

Doll’s back! snaps Lorenzo, biting his nails.  The ward captain can’t contain himself any longer.  He hops beside the pipe and rubs his hands together.  Weather can’t change that fast without help.

Hektor isn’t listening.  He and Jose are forward on the sofa and concentrating on the gale at ground level.

The city’s well-planned transfer is crumbling into a blitz.

The Heavy Team is not enough to keep back the flood.  The dam has busted.  The police try, short of violence, try to hold, but the zone between the mob and the courthouse shrinks in seconds.  A few in the crowd go down, trampled, rescued, forced back, and back, and back.  But the tide swells in the only direction it can: forward.

Serkan and his bodyguards have nearly reached the top of the steps.  The Roman columns protect them from thrown trash, bottles, cans, and other long-armed attempts to crack Serkan’s skull.

The procession of black glides is overrun.  The vehicles rock in the waves.  One is flipped on its side.

The ground imager has been incapacitated; the only visible shot is from the roof.  The channel’s needling commentary is been abruptly cut short.  The only audio is the blur on the square.

And the picture is centered on Serkan, from the waist up, looking as scared as a man with a noose around the neck.

Suddenly, in front of Serkan on the entry level of the courthouse, a man appears.  He comes not from the crowd, but from a place inside.  The image jostles to find the nearest 2 policemen, whose faces register confusion, and then blankness.  Everyone sees it at the same time – those on the steps, those watching on broadcasters, those in the mob below, and even Alek Serkan.

The man holds something in his hands.

A machete.

Eyes void of emotion, almost a mask, the man is not too old, nor too young.  He is dressed in gray overalls – perhaps a union man.  And his movements are swift and certain.

The first swing of the machete catches Serkan on the shoulder and sinks deep.  Even with the pixilated zoom, the fountain that erupts from Serkan’s skin is bright red and clearly shown.

Serkan staggers.

The machete man puts his boot to Serkan’s chest and with 2 hands yanks the weapon from the muscle so he can strike again.

A rain-coated policeman inserts himself between the attack.  He loses 3 fingers to the next swing, the beveled blade continuing through the fingers to Serkan’s cheek and right eye.

The machete spins down as the bodyguards make a grab for the man’s arm, but he’s too quick.  Free from rain, umbrellas, and constraining coats, the man is mobile.  Until this moment, the bodyguards’ focus had been on the mob, not the sanctuary of the courthouse, and they are paying for their blunder.

The crowd now understands what’s happening on the steps.  The first rows buckle and are knocked down by those tumbling behind.

Serkan’s cheek erupts in a gash of blood that soaks his coat and shirt.

A woman next to the rooftop imager gasps in horror, Oh – Jesus!

Jose races to cover Hektor’s eyes from the carnage, but the boy springs from the chair, rushes to the wall, and stares at the pipe like a gone-off firework.

The machete man takes a third swing.

Serkan has both arms up, even the broken one.  The damage to his shoulder has gone deep and his entire arm is threatening to fall away.  The tempered blade glistens as it slices Serkan’s hand from the wrist, leaving no further obstructions as it connects with the neck, where it sticks.

Four clambering police pry the machete man’s fingers from the grip.  The blade wiggles in Serkan’s neck.  No one helps him.  He’s unable to get the machete out – having lost a hand and almost his arm.  Amazingly, he is still on his feet.

The attacker is pinned to courthouse steps by a hoard of police.  Weapons show out of raincoats.  The police unload a storm of bullets into the attacker.

Hektor can see only flashes.  When the job is done, Hektor watches the flailing body, work overalls almost covered in red stains, as it tumbles down the courthouse steps.

Shouts and screams and sirens overtake the broadcast.

The audio blurs into distorted noise.

New people empty from the inner courthouse.  The police tackle the first few out the doors.  Everyone has drawn a weapon.  Everyone is screaming.  Everyone is waving hands, panicked, pacing the courthouse, going in and out, up and down steps, zooming and cutting, panning and swearing.

The rooftop imager tries to find Serkan.  No luck.  He’s disappeared lower than the undulating mob at the top of the steps.

For the next five minutes, the imager holds without commentary.

Nothing makes sense to Hektor.  Is he dead?

Go back to class.  Jose stands behind him.

No!  What happened?  Is he dead?

Shit, Lorenzo exhales and begins to pant.  Holy Jesus!  We just saw a murder.  We saw that fucker get chopped up!

Jose digs his fingers into Hektor’s shoulders.  The boy lets out a yelp.  Like a pressurized piston, Jose throws the orphan to the door.  GO BACK TO CLASS!

Hektor’s eyes swell with tears.  But he holds it in.  He looks to Lorenzo, who offers not a word, only a confused shake of the head before returning his eyes to the stagnant, wavering image from the pipe.

Hektor stomps to the center of the room and plants himself next to Lorenzo.

Jose jerks the boy off the floor and stuffs him outside onto the second floor corridor.  With a pounding crash, Jose slams the recreation door in the boy’s face.

Hektor shakes with fury.

You let that brat wander too much, Lorenzo complains in a muffle.  Hektor can’t hear the reply.

The boy starts back towards geometry class.  He can only hold his tears a few meters.  When they come, they are brutal and consuming.  His fingers whiten from balling his fists, and he reddens violently, as if from a fever.  He considers what might be said to Mr. Akkawi.  He’s been gone 20 minutes on a 5-minute pass.  But that doesn’t matter.  He can’t go back now.  Maybe not ever.

He races up the stairs to the sleeping floor and dives into his cot.  He buries himself under the covers, until Lorenzo finds him an hour later.

The ward captain takes a slow seat on the edge of the thin mattress.  Hey.  You.

Go away.

Jose’s lookin’ for you.

So?

Eleven more children have gone missing.

Hektor rolls his blanket down.

They were taken from a Zigon Park an hour ago.  There’s another lockdown.  Lorenzo rises from the cot’s edge.  You have to come with me.  We’re doing a roll call.

Eleven more children.  Eleven more.  Eleven more missing.

Hektor’s head spins as he follows Lorenzo off the floor, through the corridor, down the winding stairs and into the gymnasium where the wards occasionally play basketball.  It is crowded, noisy, and disorganized.  Hektor recognizes everyone.  But they are not his friends.  Some stare at him.  Two younger boys are laughing.  He is surrounded by his alienation.  Fleck’s words from the playground fester and rot.

Thankfully, he is not the focus of the children’s concerns.  Questions come from all directions.  What’s going on?  Why did they bring us here?  Prial says he’s scared.  Some kids play tag, oblivious.

Hektor tells them nothing of Alek Serkan’s murder or what Lorenzo told him about the 11.

At the main hall doors, Ms. Ximon and others, including Jose and Lorenzo, huddle together.  Teachers stand in a line.  The school’s nurse checks her lists.  For a flash, Jose catches Hektor’s eyes.  Hektor searches for apology.  He recognizes only dutiful procedure as Jose leans to the nurse and tells her to mark Hektor’s name from the list.

After a few more moments, Katherine Ximon steps forward and address the orphans.

Boys and girls… Attention please.  Our apologies for interrupting your classes.  Your education is our highest priority.  But we wanted to take a full count.  Today, in another part of the city, another incident has been reported.  40 minutes ago, 11 children were taken from a Zigon Park.  I’m sure all those children are safe and this is just a mistake.  I’d like to remind all of you that anyone in the building you do not recognize must be reported immediately.  Beginning immediately, there will be two police patrolmen assisting Mr. Burutzagi with the building security.  These police will remain outside of the building so you may not even see them.  But anyone else you see on the premises, please come and tell your teachers.  For now, I’m relieved everyone is accounted for and I’m sorry if any of this has frightened or distracted you.

She repeats the general message in Spanish.

You may return to your classrooms.

The faculty organizes the exodus from the gymnasium.

Eleven, Hektor thinks as he waits for orders, rolling the number over and over in his mind.  There are more Alek Serkan’s out there.  More danger.  Now, instead of 75 missing, there are 86.

His skin sweats; he feels dizzy.  A fire burns his feet that he has only once or twice felt before – the last was when that woman was beaten outside the gate and he was compelled – no, commanded – to help her.

The funneling of the children back to class happens quickly, like the organization of a hive.  Noise in the gymnasium grows with the buzzing voices of the children.  Fear bubbles from the boys and girls, particularly those who minutes before Ms. Ximon’s speech were playing.      I have to leave.

I have to leave.

Hektor breaks from the packed corner.

An unwatched door in the rear of the gymnasium stands opens.

I have to leave.

Hektor ducks down, shuffles to the rear of Mr. Akkawi’s formation, and slips through the open door.  Not one orphan even looks back.  He is completely invisible.

He is far down the corridor before the voices diminish.  An announcement comes over the broadcast system of the building: the children are to return to the classrooms in groups to avoid congestion on the front stairs.  This won’t affect Hektor, already racing up the back stairs.

On the uninhabited sleeping floor, he hears the a distant flock of fluttering children.  Hektor gathers his coat, underpants, toothbrush, a worn-down pencil, a small notepad from his studies, and three stashed candy bars from the strongbox under his bed.  He locks the box and shoves it under the cot.  Everything he stuffs into his coat’s pockets then slings the coat over his shoulder.

He knows he’s forgetting something.

It pricks him.

Rifling through the messy covers, he finds the Batman comic book with its torn cover and curled pages.

The corridor is still a ghost town.  He cuts for the stairs, painfully aware of his loud steps.  Speed is now more important than silence.  Down he goes, taking steps two at a time and wrestling with his brown coat, the heaviest standard for orphans, with a hem at the knees, wide lapel and trim collar.

He slips onto the administration floor and rakes the door open with his fingers.

Lorenzo is just turning up the front stairs and he can see the ward captain’s body disappear from the distance.

Hektor fits into the door and runs to Jose’s quarters.

With the sudden exactness, Hektor rips the first page from the comic book – freeing that glorious picture of Batman standing over Gotham City.  Hektor pockets the page in the inner fold of his coat.  The mauled comic, without a cover and now without a first page, Hektor disrespectfully pitches onto Jose’s blankets.

Hektor thinks of fire.  He has flashes of his dead mother and father and their small home as it burns.

Goodbye, Jose, he whispers.

The corridor is dead.

He finds the stairs and descends lower than ever before, even past the first floor gymnasium that now stands empty.  He smells the lingering rain through the walls of the shaft.  The sun hasn’t yet to hit this side of the orphanage and the day outside continues to be gray and oppressive.  At the very bottom of the stairs, he finds another boy.
I’m a dog lover.

My wife, see on the other hand, loves cats. She has several and her comment is “They’re almost like family.” I try to accept them because they make her happy. But I wish we didn’t have so many.

Our first marriages ended in divorce. But this marriage has lasted longer. We constantly reassure ourselves that we have found our soul mates. Her children and my children are “our” children.

Our marriage is meant to be one of those happily forever after unions.

We were busy enjoying ourselves and celebrating our anniversary when she started feeling weak and tired.

“Take a nap,” I said. “You’ll feel better after that.”

Since we were away on vacation she tried to put up a good front and say that she was fine.
In the days after we returned home I noticed that she still was pale and tired.

“Well,” she said “I guess that means we’re getting old.”

But there wasn’t any excitement in her voice when she said that.

Finally she went to the doctor. She was given vitamins and told to make an appointment for a series of blood tests.

When the results were ready we both trekked to the doctor’s office.

That’s when we heard the big “C” mentioned. Great strides have been made with cancer these days but not when it comes to being terminal. She was terminal!

The treatments were grueling. But she remained positive. I could tell that the disease was wearing her down.

This isn’t supposed to happen. We are soul mates. Lovers forever. I can’t imagine life without her.

As spring turned into summer she began to spend more time in bed. She would get up for dinner because she said that she didn’t want me to eat alone. I could see that it was a struggle for her. Then in early evening I would go and sit by her bedside and read to her. Since her vision was dimming she’d enjoyed hearing my voice and listening to me read.

I always came away from her room with tears in my eyes and a lump stuck in my throat.
I tried to be brave for her but it was difficult.

During that time her cats always kept her company. They would climb up on her bed and she would be smiling as she pet each one. I am almost jealous of those cats. I wanted them out of her room. But she said they brought her great comfort and joy.

Soon she was too weak to come to the table and have dinner with me. One day she said to me “I have something to ask you.”

“Sure, anything,” I answered.

“I want you to promise me something,” she replied.

“Whatever it is I’ll say yes,” I said.

“It’s important to me that after I’m gone you keep and take care of my cats,” she said. Then she hesitated, “One more thing. I don’t want you to be alone. I want you to find someone else to share your life with.”

I answered. “Yes, I’ll take care of your cats.” I never answered the other request. How could I? We were soul mates.

Every night she’d ask the same thing. And every night I remained silent.

Then one night after I had read to her she appeared more frail and weak than before and she whispered her request once again.

Feeling so sad I just said, “Yes, I will.” A look of peacefulness came over her as she held my hand.
The next afternoon she passed away.

Today I sit here thinking about the last days of her life. I feel the warmth of her cats and I can see her smile. It’s as though she’s with me. I’m glad I promised her that I would keep her cats.

I’m married once again and my new wife doesn’t like cats. She’s constantly asking me to find another home for them.

We seem to argue a lot and it’s always over the cats and the children.

Furthermore, I don’t think her children like me. I’m always talking about and I like to visit my children along with my second wife’s family. I feel they’re all my children. There’s great resentment with my new wife and her children. They want me to have less contact. My new wife said, “Those kids are from your past. You should accept my children along with your own. That’s it.”

I don’t like being talked to that way.

My current wife hates the cats. She constantly talks about the smell from the litter box. “Get rid of those cats, please,” she said one day.

“No,” I answered. “I want them.”

Our relationship continues to deteriorate. One day she said, “That’s it. I’ve had it. I’ll give you two weeks to find a home for those cats. If you don’t I’ll get rid of them.”

I don’t like ultimatums. I shouted back, “No way. These cats stay.”

Her answer to me, “We’ll see about that!”

I arrived home one day and found the cats we’re missing. “Where are the cats?” I asked.

“They’re gone,” she replied.

“Gone!” I shouted. “Tell me where they are?”

“They’re not coming back,” she said.

In a fit of rage, “I screamed, “My wife was my soul mate and I made her a promise.”

The color drained from her face.

I went and found the cats.

Our marriage ended quickly.

Today as I sit with the cats in my dingy apartment I can still see my sick wife’s face. We were lovers forever.

—–

Pat St. Pierre is a freelance writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, whose work has been published in a variety of places. Some of those places are: Joyful, The Homesteader, The Gardener’s Gazette, The Camel Saloon, County Kids, US Kids, The Writer’s World, etc. Her poetry book “Theater of Life” can be purchased at Amazon.com.

—–

To comment on this story, visit Fiction365?s Facebook page.
Doug’s Cottage was where people from my neighbourhood went when they needed a break from perching on over-stuffed sofas, sick from $12 cocktails with too many ingredients, from staring at their computer screens, from working at the chocolate factory or the local abattoir. The Portuguese and Italian Catholic priests and Greek Orthodox priest would often meet for a beer to talk things over between themselves or even to rub shoulders with their parishioners. Small groups of young women weren’t unwelcome, especially if they were secretaries or day care workers who needed a beer as badly as anyone else at the end of the day. Well, that was true as long as they wore their work clothes and kept the cleavage buttoned up.

It wasn’t a scene.

The wall coverings were paper machiér “logs” with painted chinking. A bright orange electric fire crackled in the real stone fireplace. People fed quarters into the pool table, played cribbage or euchre, checkers or dominoes and drank watery draft by the glass. As the evening grew later, the crowd got younger, but there was some overlap between generations. Fathers shared an end-of-the-day drink with their adult sons and sometimes nodded at their adult daughters who were sharing a drink with the girls from work. No one ever asked anyone where they worked or talked business or made deals.

And then, the band boys discovered Doug’s Cottage. At first, it looked like this new table of regulars would make the whole experience of having a local tavern more interesting, but mid-winter’s interesting is guaranteed to be disastrous by mid- March. They were a three-piece called First Names Only.

There was Lars Johannes, the bassist and brains behind the operation. He called himself a musicologist and dug deep into the musical anthropology of Doug’s Cabin’s regulars. He listened to folk music from the Algarve, from the Islands of Kos and of Tobago with the old men individually, each of them holding a single ear bud from the same pair of headphones connected to one of Lars’ collection of portable listening devices. They’d cackle away together at the bar and, eventually, Lars started making comments like; “Clearly Bob Marley stole that from him.” Or “It’s obvious to me now that the Beatles’ later work was just as influenced by the bouzouki as it was by the sitar.”

Julian Pierre, the lead singer and keyboardist, we found out later, was the actual talent behind the band. He didn’t say very much, but he was always politely interested in everyone.

And then, there was Ian Christopher, who played the drums and – at least from a female perspective – played that all important role of chief eye candy. He wasn’t exactly a band pretty boy, First Names Only wasn’t that kind of band. They wore the traditional uniform of faded leather jackets and jeans. They looked as if their fathers, sensing that jobs at the chocolate factory and the abattoir would not be there for their sons, had thrust instruments and dreams at them and said: “You might as well give it a go.”

I was introduced to the band by Doug himself while I waited for my best friend to join me after work.

“This is Marina, she’s an Internet girl,” Doug said. “She drinks draft slowly, never has more than two. She plays it safe, this one.”

“But I tip well, Doug,” I reminded him.

“What’s an Internet girl?” Julian Pierre asked.

“We need to talk to you about marketing, then,” Lars Johannes told me.

“This is not my office,” I told Lars. “This is my anti-office.”

“Cheers,” Ian Christopher said. “I like the way you think.”

When my best friend arrived, the band boys took their leave before I could introduce her.

“I’ll be seeing you later,” Ian Christopher said and winked as he walked to the pool table.

“Who was that?” my best friend asked. “He looked you over like a piece of meat.”

I had never been so flattered in my life.

First Names Only never played Doug’s Cottage. It wasn’t a live music venue and Doug said he’d never heard a band that wouldn’t chase at least half his customers away.

“Besides,” he said. “People come here to talk. You can’t do that if it gets too loud.”

Instead, the band boys played elsewhere. Those of us who knew them abandoned Doug’s Cottage on Friday or Saturday night for other drinking dumps around the city. They were the kind of places where, more than once, slightly drunk men would approach my best friend with the pick up line “I work for the city.”

“What are you, a garbage man?” she’d ask, and they’d slink back to their dark corners with another glass of cheap draft never to be seen again.

And, while I went to a few of their shows, I can’t say I remember the music. I never really had the chance to listen. There was always a friend to talk to, a drama to discuss, or a would-be paramour to reject.

“I saw you at our gig at the Kensington Kingsway,” Ian Christopher told me. We were playing a game of pool at Doug’s a few days after one of First Names Only’s shows.

“I was there,” I said. “I had a good time.”

“Yeah, but it’s not a great venue,” he said. “It’s not the kind of place girls like you should hang out.”

“Girls like me?”

“You know, Marina, nice ones,” he said with a smile. My heart hit the ceiling.

“You know how it is Ian,” I said. “Nice girls never get to go anywhere.”

“You can come to our next gig at the Responsible Banker Bar,” he said. “I’ll meet you there half an hour before our set.”

The Responsible Banker Bar was a new addition to the former industrial area where I worked at an Internet development studio. I dutifully told all of my colleagues about the great band I was going to check out that night.

“What are they like?” a programmer asked me.

“Cool,” I said.

“Johnny Cash cool, Leonard Cohen cool, or Otis Redding cool?”

“What am I, a musicologist?” I said because, really, I had no idea.

That night, I determined, I would actually listen to First Names Only. Surrounded by programmers, information architects, graphic designers, and Q and A testers with drinks in hand, I started keeping an eye out for Ian Christopher half an hour before the show.

“This place hurts my eyes,” one of the designers said.

It was an ugly bar that tried too hard to be trendy.

And then, I saw Ian Christopher. Our eyes met from across the room, we held eye contact over the oak panelling scavenged from an old court house and its modern chrome fittings.

I left my crowd and walked toward him. He met me half way and we stood together in the middle of the empty purple and green painted dance floor.

“Nice place, isn’t it?” he asked me.

“I hope you approve of my being here,” I said.

“I definitely, definitely approve,” he said, looking deeply into my eyes. Then, he bent forward, kissed me on the cheek sweetly and walked away.

“Who was that hot man?” the Q and A assistant asked me.

“He’s in the band,” I said.

“He’d better be a good musician and not just someone you want to sleep with,” the programmer said.

“Band boys are terrible boyfriends,” the Q and A assistant said. “You bring them home for the night and they never leave. They eat all the eggs, drink all the milk, never make coffee and use your phone for five hours a day.”

“I would never do anything like that,” the programmer told the Q and A assistant.

“I know,” she said and turned away from the programmer we worked with.

“Hey Marina,” Julian Pierre said. “Can I get you a beer?”

“Where did you come from?” I asked.

The band started to play its set, but all was not right with my world. I was too confused by my encounter with Ian Christopher to listen to the music. Was tonight all about a kiss on the cheek?

“The singer is going to make it big,” the programmer told me, “but your boyfriend is a no-talent twat.”

I felt worse the next day when Doug told me he’d hired First Names Only to play the following weekend.

“The old guys are excited,” he told me. “They’re waiting for some kind of world music break through to happen right here.”

“Really?” I said.

“Everyone of the old timers,” Doug said. “They’re all waiting for steel drum samples and bouzouki and quotes from corridinho. You’ve heard that band, Marina, tell me that they’re not going to disappoint.”

“A guy I work with knows music,” I told Doug, remembering the programmer’s words. “He says they’re good.”

It was the most reassuring thing I could say.

Feeling confused and being an Internet Girl, I naturally turned to the search engines for comfort.

I did not find it. Instead, I found a conversation thread about Ian Christopher on a discussion board about local bands.

“I am not the kind of person who attracts a lot of attention from men,” one post began, “but I got some from the drummer of this band. He acts likes he’s interested in me and we meet before or after his shows, but nothing ever happens.”

“I feel the same way about him,” another post began. “I met him at a bar my friends and I go to every Friday after work. I thought he liked me, I really feel stupid now.”

And so on, and so on. There seemed to be ten of us and I thought, among the posts, one of the women had to be Maria Giapappas, the shyest of the secretaries and Mona Lopes, one of the mousier of the nursery school teachers. And, let’s not forget, there was me too.

I found myself in the middle of a real beta babe heart break massacre.

And then, in the last post, there was something of an explanation.

“Ian and I have been boyfriend and girlfriend since we were in ninth grade,” it said. “You’re all just a bunch of desperate witches. Did it not occur to you that making themselves attractive to women is just what men in bands do?  It’s called marketing, you idiots. There is nothing personal in it at all you losers.”

I wrote one last message and arranged to meet all of the women, except the girlfriend, half an hour before the Doug’s Cottage show. We all got dressed up and waited for him. Ian Christopher walked into the room, scanning each of the tables for one pair of eyes. All of us stood up and turned toward him.

He didn’t greet us with chaste kisses on the cheek.

And then, it got worse.

First Names Only started to play.

I listened. It was garage punk with a grunge twist with some kind of brat pack crooning. Now, I don’t know much about music, but I do know this: the rhythm section needs to know how to count. This skill had obviously eluded Ian Christopher.

By the second number, it was clear there would be no steel drum or bouzouki samples and there would be no haunting melodies suggested by corridinho. One by one, the old timers, from Winston Churchill Smith to Joao Padua, from Nick Konstantino to Gian Bagavanelli, disappointment evident on their faces, walked out, leaving their drinks unfinished on the bar.

“You are a fraud,” Winston Churchill Smith spat at Lars Johannes as he left.

I saw Doug out of the corner of my eye. He was pale.

“Are you all right?” I asked him.

“I knew it,” Doug said. “I knew it would all end in tears the moment I asked them to play here.”

“It might not be as bad as you think,” I told him, but even while I was saying it, I knew I’d never sip another watery draft at Doug’s Cottage. It would never be the same kind of place for me. I was sorry to lose my local watering hole, but I never imagined the rest of the neighbourhood would feel the same way. Within three months, Doug gave up and closed the doors to his urban cottage.

I tried to tell my best friend about the Ian Christopher and the First Names Only fiasco.

“Is this going to be another one of those stories?” she asked me. “Is it going to be about one of these men you decide is your soul mate based on some really, really intense eye contact, but who – for some reason you never think about – you can’t be bothered to sleep with, or even talk to?”

 “Never mind then,” I told her. She had heard it all from me before.  My best friend was right. I hadn’t known Ian Christopher, or any of them, very well. It had been a first names only kind of thing.

—–

Kate Baggott is a Canadian writer living in Europe. “First Names Only” is from her book Tales from Planet Wine Cooler for which she is searching for a publisher. Links to other stories can be found at http://www.katebaggott.com

—–

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The tiny fragments of earth move through my toes, salve in this temperate water that gives me affection up to three feet; I am home.  Home from exams, diagnosis home from university mixers, home from girls who think it is more important to find the right shade of slate hair dye than it is to examine the biological theory that asserts there is an existence of a predisposition to rape.  I can see the discarded sand crab shells near my feet.  A thrown-away home.

This sound of water hitting water, dry gurgles of laughter from kids, the sun pushing pleasantness on my face and freckled arms, and the smell of suntanned fish makes me want to move back.  But I won’t.  The shore is spotless today.  Spotless aside from the girly-girls in their new summer thongs, and boys with salivating genitalia.  I would never wear a thong bathing suit; and my boobs are real and a size B cup.  I will have crow’s feet next to my green eyes because sunglasses irritate the bridge of my nose. 

My mother has always told me this, that eventually the wrinkles will consume me and turn me into a tan hag, and this is why I welcome those crow’s feet.

But thoughts of my source are submerged because I can see that one of those high school boys is struggling, panicking, losing against a smart sea.  He has underestimated, gone out too far, and cannot swim his way back.  So I move my shoulders into that competitive swimmer’s form that I left behind when I left this place, and I go to him.  Faster and faster as he hits the water with his clumsy hands and throws out half screams of help while the salt water slaps his face and the deep pulls him closer to her womb.  I am fast.  I won a lot.  So I am there quickly, beside him, treading while I try to grab his flailing arms to signal I am here.  He flaps and flaps and I am blinded by darts of water until I move behind him, put him in a headlock and start to tow him into shore.  But he does not feel me, he does not see me, and so his panic makes his body uncontrollable.  I am pushed under by his brawny man-boy arms and water sucks into my nose, burning my sinuses.  I swim away from him, flex myself into the swimmer mode again, and try once more.  I am pulling him, with success I think, until his leg kicks me in the kidney and I collapse into a ball, sinking and swallowing water.  I push up again and know that if he keeps this up, he will lose.  So I move in to him again, I yell and scream at him, I tell him to relax, I tell him I will help him.  But he keeps on and the arms hit my cheekbone, and the feet kick the inside of my thigh and I am shoved under the water once more.  I am trying.  But I know.  It is him, or it is me.  I move toward him one more time.

That boy with terror in his eyes, that gulping and crying the same gulping and crying I had after one of them pretended to like me. He took me to the wet grass by the shore and it felt like a sword jabbing my head my heart and my hole, and when he finished taking my first blood, he left me.  On that wet grass.  I go in again but he is still fighting me.  I am losing strength in this sea.  And that teacher who took my sister after school to give her lessons on his lap while his raccoon in the cage hissed.  My swimmer’s legs are dying. This boy is drowning.  And my dad who chose waves even further out over his children. This boy is drowning so I kick him in his balls and cock and he curls and vomits under the water.

So now he is sinking. I go to him and begin to cry as I yell at my body, at this little girl, that she better push that energy and shove that strength and I put him in a headlock again. My head is pulled under the water from the weight of his heavy body, but I am a swimmer.  He is limp. I am a swimmer and I could choke him but I move my head into the sea air to gasp and struggle and breathe life.  I am slow and exhausted but I pull him to shore. I dump him and hit his chest as hard as I can with my fists together so that water spews out of his lungs in a thrust. I wipe his messy froth, and I place my mouth to his.

—–

Alisa A. Gaston-Linn’s work has appeared in The Montreal Review, The Sun, HipInk, is forthcoming in Hawaii Pacific Review. She earned a master’s in Liberal Studies with Advanced Study in Creative Writing from the University of Denver, is a professional web writer and editor, and teaches writing to youth. Alisa is currently working on a novel.

—–

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Voices crossed the threshold of Jason Donovan’s dreams, sildenafil invaded the colorful haze, levitra blurred the line between reality and fantasy. His eyes snapped open. The familiar feeling of waking in an unfamiliar place rushed over him. He blinked the floral bedspread into focus, sale the feeling of freefall ended by the stiff mattress beneath him. Even though Donovan was awake, the voices from his dreams remained, drifting from the hotel hallway into his room.

His hand slipped from beneath the elastic band of his boxers and searched blindly for the clock radio on the nightstand. Still half asleep, he dragged the digital numbers into view. He couldn’t make them out without his glasses so he slid his hand along the back of the nightstand until they brushed up against the metal frames. He placed the glasses onto his face, bringing the world into focus, and read the clock again: 9:36.

“Shit,” he said.

His pulse pounded in his neck and the other half of him snapped awake, adrenaline flooding his veins and shocking his body into motion.

Where the hell was my wake-up call? he thought.

The faded garden on the bedspread fluttered to the floor. Donovan moved with as much urgency as his middle-aged body would allow. No time for a shower; the Versace pin-striped suit would have to be enough. Luckily he’d ironed the night before. He coated his body with his battle armor: circle jacquard woven shirt, his Versace suit, gold tip dress socks, his leather lace-ups, and his favorite pin-striped red and black tie. Even though he was short on time, he still went with the St. Andrews knot. It took longer to do, but Donovan never felt confident going into a meeting without it. If he was going to be late, he’d at least look fashionably late.

In the middle of the second tie attempt, heavy footsteps stopped outside the door. A man’s voice outside said, “Can’t wait to see the mess in this one.” The door clicked open and two men in JCPenny suits, one black, one white, stepped inside the room, the Caucasian holding a keycard.

The men froze at the sight of Donovan, standing in front of the mirror, his tie hanging half-tied in front of him. Donovan stared back, his hands frozen to his tie. He noticed their ties before he noticed their guns. Their ties were tied with sloppy Cavendish knots, quickly done by someone who had to wear a tie everyday and hated it.

“What the hell?” Donovan said.

No answer. The men stared at him, then each other.

“He’s alive,” the white said to the black. He spoke as if Donovan couldn’t hear him.

“What are you people doing in my room?”

The hands of both men shot to their sides and returned carrying 9 mm handguns, aimed directly at Donovan’s chest.

“Hands in the air!” the white suit screamed.

Donovan’s hands released his tie and were in the air before he even realized he moved them. The black suit stretched his head out into the hallway and screamed, “We’ve got a live one here!”

The white suit ordered Donovan against the wall. Donovan obeyed. Then he felt a hand move in, out, and around the Versace suit, the gun hanging in Donovan’s peripherals. The breath of the man fell heavy on his neck, reeking of instant coffee.

“He’s clean.”

The same strong hand turned Donovan around and pressed him hard against the wall. The white suit had his gun aimed in his face and wore a look one might reserve for a Nazi-sympathizer.

“What is happening?”

A woman with a hard jaw line entered, wearing black slacks and a blazer, just as white suit produced a pair of handcuffs from his belt. She cleared her throat.

“Carlson, what are you doing?” The white suit, Carlson, froze, the handcuffs dangling in his hand. “Get away from him.”

Carlson backed away, stepping behind the female suit and falling into line with his dark-complexioned counterpart.

Donovan stared at the three of them, blocking the door. Cameras clicked away in the hallway, the flashbulbs producing a tiny sunburst in the dimly lit hall.

“What the hell is going on here?” Donovan asked.

“I’m Detective Stokes—homicide,” the woman said. “What’s your name, sir?”

Donovan told her.

“Check the list, Miller,” the detective said to the black suit.

Miller dug a piece of paper from his inside suit pocket and ran his finger through its contents.

“He’s on here,” Miller told her. “Room 315.”

Stokes ordered her male counterparts to leave the room and clear the rest of the rooms on the floor. Whoever she was, it was obvious she was in charge. As soon as they left, Stokes ordered Donovan to take a seat on the bed. He did, and she pulled up the desk chair next to him, set it backwards, and straddled it.

“What time did you go to sleep last night, Mr. Donovan?” Stokes asked. She held a notepad in her hand.

“Just after eleven. As soon as I got off the phone with—with my wife.”

“Did you stay in your room all night?”

“Yes.”

“Did you hear anything suspicious before you went to bed or did anything wake you in the middle of the night?”

“No.”

“Are you certain about that?”

“Just the usual hotel noises. People’s televisions on too loud, people walking in the hallways—those sorts of things. What is this all about?”

“Mr. Donovan, do you remember—”

“No. No more questions. What is going on here?”

Detective Stokes abandoned her chair and walked over to the bed, taking a seat next to Donovan. She crossed her legs and placed her hands, stacked, on top of her knee. As a veteran in the business world, Donovan recognized the signs of someone preparing to deliver bad news.

“Mr. Donovan, last night thirty-seven people, including hotel staff, populated this hotel by the time the last guest checked in at 11:27 PM. This morning, of those thirty-seven individuals, you’re the only one still alive.”

Donovan’s breath caught in his windpipe, clogged, trapped somewhere between his throat and his stomach A tingling ran up his spine, a spider creeping along the spinal cord, eight legs crawling, crawling.

“What?”

“You’re the only person we’ve found alive—so far,” Stokes repeated. “We still haven’t checked all the rooms on the third floor, but, so far, you’re the only person who fell asleep last night in this hotel who still has a pulse this morning.”

“But—how? A gas leak or something?”

“Oh, no, nothing like that. There was a goddamn massacre here last night sometime just before midnight, Mr. Donovan. Every single one of our victims was murdered—in a very nasty fashion, too. Definitely a multi-suspect case.”

Donovan tried to wrap his mind around the detective’s words, but he felt unconnected to them, as if he overheard a conversation she was having with someone else. The contrast between reality and fantasy pushed at the inside of his brain cavity, his brain trying to break through his skull, the pain an all-encompassing fog lowering all around him.

“Maybe you want to call your family, Mr. Donovan,” Stokes said. “The press have been all over the story for the past hour.”

“I can’t be in here,” Donovan muttered. “I have to get out of here. Let me just grab my stuff—”

He tried to stand but stumbled, nearly crashing to the carpet. Stokes grabbed his arm, helped him to his feet. Donovan clumsily began to collect his clothes in his suitcase. After years of traveling, his packing skills were nothing short of immaculate. This time, however, he jammed his clothes and toiletries into the suitcase with as much ceremony as someone dumping a corpse into a dumpster.

“I’m going to warn you,” Stokes said, “when you step out into this hallway, you’re going to see some things you don’t want to see, Mr. Donovan, some things you’re not going to be able to unsee. I suggest you keep your eyes forward, don’t look into any of the rooms, no matter how badly you may want to. Do you understand, Mr. Donovan?”

Donovan’s head nodded mechanically. He adjusted his tie and wrapped his white knuckles around the handle of his suitcase.

“I’m ready,” he said.

***

The forget-me-nots stood in full bloom in the garden in front of the Donovan residence. Donovan remembered them being nothing but sprouts the last time he had been home. He sat in his Lexus, parked in its usual spot in the driveway—the one Stacy kept open for him no matter how long he’d been gone. The garage door desperately needed a paint job, and he added it to the long list of projects he made every time he came home. He had no idea how long he sat in the car before he finally managed to force himself to throw open the car door and begin the long march to the front door.

Donovan’s key still fit in the lock. He turned it, hoping to hear it click open. It did. He pushed the door open and stepped inside, gripping his briefcase. From the foyer, he spotted Stacy on the living room sofa, in the exact spot she sat the last time he had left. He walked into the living room and stood silently behind her. The television was on, and the picture showed a helicopter shot of the hotel Donovan had left hours earlier, the hotel with its halls that would forever be ingrained in the dark corners of his memory.

The caption at the bottom of the screen read Hotel Massacre leaves 37 Dead; Sole Survivor Released from Police Custody.

The gray hairs in Stacy’s brunette hair had multiplied; she had aged considerably in the last seven months. She sat staring blankly at the television (which looked new), her arms crossed over her chest. Donovan set his briefcase on the hardwood floor, afraid Stacy hadn’t heard him come in.

“I’m home,” he finally said.

His voice seemed to break her free from whatever trance she was in. Her arms unfolded into her lap, and she slowly rose from the sofa and turned around. Her hazel eyes met his, glassy and uncertain, and then she made a sound as if something were caught in her throat and she raced around the sofa and threw her arms around his neck.

Donovan hesitated only for a second, and then wrapped his arms around his wife as she wept into his cashmere long coat. They stood, interlocked, for almost five minutes, Stacy crying into his chest, Donovan gently rubbing her back with the palm of his hand. When she finally removed her face from his coat, she pushed away from him and said, “I’ll make some coffee.”

She left for the kitchen, snatching a tissue on her way. Donovan removed his coat and placed it on the back of the sofa. He sat and watched the report while he waited. The reporter, a young blonde, ran down the details of the massacre, quoting from a source on the gruesome scene inside. He picked up the remote and tried to shut off the television but found that the remote only operated the DVD player. It took him two more remotes until he finally managed to silence the reporter.

Stacy reentered with the coffee. She set the cups down on coasters on the coffee table and sat down, leaving one cushion between them.

“Stacy, I’m sorry about—”

“That doesn’t matter,” she said, interrupting. “Not anymore. I just need to know whether or not you’re all right. Are you?”

Donovan nodded. “You?”

Stacy took a sip of her coffee and set the cup back down. “I just—I thought the worst when I saw the report. I remembered that’s the hotel you usually stay at in New Haven and I just thought, ‘He’s gone.’ And then I remembered how you left here and I was so ashamed. I thought—”

“I know.”

Donovan and Stacy both reached for their coffee at the same time. They sipped greedily, paused, waited for the other to finish, and then continued.

“Do the police have any idea what happened?” she asked.

“Not really—at least not yet. Apparently the people who did this weren’t very careful. They left fingerprints and shoeprints all over the damn place. The detective I spoke to thought it might be some sort of ritual killing or cult massacre or something like that. The shit I saw in there—”

Donovan shook his head, trying to shake the memories clear. He finished his coffee.

“You should see the kids,” Stacy said. “They’re probably asleep but I’m sure they wouldn’t mind being woken if it was you doing the waking.”

Donovan glanced back at his coat.

“You need to see them, Jason.”

“I know. Just not tonight. It’s too much.”

Stacy opened her mouth to say something, hesitated, then nodded. “If that’s what you want.”

Donovan shifted on the sofa, ran his hand down his slacks. He felt something silky brush against his hand. He reached into the crack between the cushions and pulled out a clip-on blue and white tie.

Stacy smiled. “That’s where that ended up.” She reached over and took it, smoothing out the wrinkles. “Jack had his first jazz recital last night. He did great. You should have seen him up there.”

“A clip-on? You’ve got my boy wearing a clip-on? He’s almost in middle school, for Christ’s sake.”

“I don’t know how to tie a tie, Jason. No one in this house does.”

Donovan nodded, slowly rising to his feet. “Stacy, I should—get going.” He retrieved his coat from the back of the sofa.

Stacy walked him to the front door, but, as he slid his coat on, she positioned herself in front of the exit.

“You could stay here,” she said, “even if it’s just for tonight.”

“Can’t. Gotta get back on the road. I’m staying in Fairfield tonight.”

She shook her head and crossed her arms over her chest. “No, Jason, no. This thing—it happened for a reason. You can’t just go back to work like nothing happened—not after this.”

“I’m not sure why this thing happened,” Donovan said. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. Detective Stokes said it was a mistake—the people who did this, they made a mistake. I was supposed to die like the rest of ‘em.”

“It’s not a mistake, Jason. God doesn’t make mistakes this big. You need—”

Stacy stopped herself, brushed the hair from her face, reloaded. “If you really insist on continuing your trip, maybe I could come and maybe spend the night with you at the hotel. I could get my mother to come over and watch the kids—”

“Stacy—”

“Please, Jason. We should at least try.”

He thought about it and then nodded. “I’ll text you the info.”

She smiled and stepped out of the path of the doorway. He moved to leave, then paused in front of his wife. They both appeared to lean in at the same time, their lips met, held for a few brief seconds, then he pulled away.

And then he was gone.

***

Night wrapped around the brick apartment building like a warm blanket. Donovan jogged from his car to the building and quickly pressed the buzzer for apartment C-4. The few seconds before the door popped opened were excruciating. Finally it popped open and he jogged inside and up the stairs. Kayla stood in the hallway, tapping her fake nails nervously on the doorframe. She squealed when Donovan stepped out of the elevator. She met him halfway in the hallway and leapt into his arms, showering his face with kisses. Donovan carried her into her apartment and pushed the door closed with his foot.

“You had me so freakin’ scared,” Kayla said. “I was a mess. I took, like, a dozen Zanex after you called.”

Donovan dumped her back on her feet and ripped off his coat, throwing it on the futon in the living room.

“I need a drink,” he said.

Donovan marched over to the liquor cabinet and pulled out the bottle of whiskey from its usual place. He didn’t even bother with a glass. He shoved a few stray pieces of laundry off the back of the kitchen chair and plopped down into it. Kayla stood over him, inspecting him.

“So where you been? I thought you’d come right over after the cops let you go.”

Donovan took a sip from the bottle, cringed, closed his eyes, and swallowed. He coughed and wiped his lips clean with the back of his hand.

“I went to see my family.”     

The bottle found his lips again. The whiskey went down easier this time.

“Your family? What’d you go there for?”

“I just thought I should, damn it.”

Kayla grabbed Donovan’s necktie and led him, like a dog, toward the bedroom.

“Let’s get that mind of yours on more important matters.”

He followed her, obediently, and lost himself in her satin sheets.

***

Afterwards, Kayla lay in bed smoking while Donovan stared blankly at the ceiling. The dull whiteness of the ceiling transported him back to the hotel room, surrounded him once again with the flowered bedspread and the low roar of the heater. Kayla took a deep drag on her cigarette and let the smoke filter from the perfect circle of her lips. The smoke settled above the bed, a fog hanging in the stale air.

“Do you have to smoke that damn thing in bed?”

“How crazy was today?” Kayla asked. “I mean, you woke up this morning in a hotel full of dead people.”

“Do you have to talk about it?”

She extinguished the nub of her cigarette in the ash tray on the nightstand. She rolled over onto her side so she faced Donovan.

“What was going through your mind?” she asked. “What were you thinking when that detective told you that everyone else in the hotel was dead?”

The answer came immediately.

“I was thinking, why me?” he said without blinking. “Still am. Of all those people in the hotel, why am I the only one who walked away?”

“Luck.”

“Luck? Is that all it was?” Donovan rolled over to face her. “There was a church group staying at that hotel last night on their way to build homes for the homeless. All 12 members of that church group, including the priest, didn’t walk out of that hotel this morning. I did. A young couple and their four adopted kids stayed in the hotel last night, on their way home from vacation. They didn’t walk out of that hotel this morning. I did. So why me instead of them?”

Kayla laughed. Her laughter caught Donovan’s breath in his throat.

“What? Do you think you surviving was, like, some act of divine providence or some shit like that? The detective told you, the people who did this just missed your room. It was dumb luck. You don’t believe in all that psychobabble bullshit.”

“No,” he said. “I guess I don’t.

Donovan threw the covers to the side and stepped out of bed. He retrieved his clothes from the floor and started putting them back on.

“Aren’t you staying tonight?”

He continued dressing.

“Where are you going?”

He buttoned up his shirt, his back to Kayla.

“Are you really going back on the road? You’re going to stay in another hotel after what happened?”

Donovan took his time with his tie, his hands moving mechanically until they created the perfect St. Andrew’s knot.

“What’s it matter?” he asked. “It’s all just a crap shoot anyways. I’m just as safe in another hotel as I am here in your bedroom. A 747 could fall out of the sky and crush this entire building according to your philosophy.”

He left Kayla lying there. He staggered out into the living room and picked up his coat from the back of her futon. He put it on. Kayla appeared from the hallway, wrapped in the bed sheets.

“Maybe I could meet up with you tonight,” Kayla said. “You know, keep you company, keep you safe.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

His hand reached for the doorknob but froze. Kayla came up behind him, pressed the door closed. The sheets fluttered to the carpet. She pressed herself against his back. Even through the coat and his shirt, he could feel her nipples pressed into him. She reached around his waist and grabbed a handful of him.

“You’re not going to forget about me, now are you, Mr. Donovan?” Kayla whispered into his ear.

“No, how could I forget you?” He rested his hand on top of hers.

“Good,” she said. “Then I’ll see you later tonight.”

She released him and Donovan watched her walk proudly back to the bedroom completely nude. He was already in the elevator before he remembered his invitation to Stacy earlier in the evening.

***

Donovan raced his Lexus down Route 34. The familiar feeling of driving to a hotel made him feel safe, feel normal.

His cell rang and he checked the number. It was Detective Stokes.

He answered it.

“Mr. Donovan, Detective Stokes here. Where are you?”

Donovan told her he was on his way to a hotel in Connecticut.

“That may not be the best idea, Mr. Donovan. I can’t really go into details, but we have reason to believe the individuals involved with the hotel massacre may be looking for you.”

“Oh?”

“I suggest you find the nearest police station and stay put. I’ll come get you as soon as I know where you are, and we’ll find you someplace safe.”

Donovan’s hotel appeared on the horizon.

“I’m almost at my hotel, Detective Stokes. Couldn’t I just hole up in my hotel for the evening and report to you tomorrow after my meeting?”

“I can’t force you to do anything, Mr. Donovan, but I must warn you, you’re giving these maniacs another shot at you.”

“That’s all right,” Donovan said. “Maybe they deserve another shot.”

And he hung up.

***

Donovan sat in a garden of mattress flowers. The print was familiar, not much different from the last hotel he had stayed. The bed, the desk, the television, everything appeared to be the same. After staying in enough hotels, they all began to bleed into one another, morph into a single room that Donovan stayed in over and over and over again.

Donovan glanced at the clock on the nightstand. The red digital numbers told him it was just before midnight. He still wore his clothes, including his tie. He sat on the edge of the bed, listening for sounds in the hallway. Someone walked past the door with heavy footsteps, but did not pause, did not stop, kept moving.

Another minute passed.

A knock on the door, light, subtle, expecting an answer.

Donovan stood, adjusted his St. Andrew’s knot, and marched across the floor. He opened the door without even bothering to glance through the eyehole.

He was not surprised by who he found staring back at him.

—–

Douglas James Troxell received his BA in English and Creative Writing from Lycoming College in 2006 and always pushes the dresser in front of the door when he stays in a hotel overnight. His fiction has appeared in publications including Mobius: The Journal for Social Change, Word Fountain Literary Magazine, The Fringe Magazine, and The Wilkes University Review.

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There’s this fella from out of town who stops at the convenience store about once a month and he’s always telling me he don’t never want to move here. Last week I asked him why he always says that and he said he’d heard a lot about this area, cialis and then he mentioned Ed. I told him Ed was a friend of mine and this guy from out of town says that everyone knowed the Bridgeton fire department coulda come an’ cut them chains off Ed if they’da wanted to, viagra and the whole thing never woulda ended the way it did.

I don’t know about that.

When I first seen Ed walking on up to the Hotel Sterling I thought he was there to watch it come down, just like the rest of us was. Seemed like the whole city was there that day, to see the demolition of this historic hotel and all. People was mad as hell about it, too. Some there was carrying Save the Sterling signs, but most of us was there just to bear witness. Bunch of us from Joe’s Diner; we’d just decided that mornin’ to go take a look. Ed always got the special at Joe’s every Saturday, but I don’t recall if he ate there that morning. I been going there fifty years and I think Ed has too.  I used to get the pancakes, but had to stop that on account of my high sugar.

Anyways, we see Ed come up to the Sterling. He walks right past the police barricades, carrying these chains — long ropes of thick metal links that musta weighed fifty pound or more. He’s got one set over his shoulder and carries two others in both hands, like dumbells. He just goes right up to the front pillars of the Sterling — ya know, the grand entrance with them marble pillars — and attaches himself to one pillar with these chains, wrapping and wrapping, then takes out a couple padlocks from his pocket and locks them all together.

Now, I’ve knowed Ed Stanislaw ever since I can remember. He comes from a good family, good church-going people. Think he had one brother who moved away a while back. Ed and I served in Korea at the same time. When he come back, Ed married Patty Markowski, his high school sweetheart, and they moved into the same house Ed growed up in, with his parents. He was planning on following his Pop into the mines, but then the old man was one of those that never made it out during the Knox mine disaster.  It was unfortunate.

So then Ed had to figure how’s he gonna take care of his family with no jobs in the mine no more. But the company must’ve gave the family a little bit o’ money on account of his dad’s passing, and he and Patty used that money to open up a travel agency down there on Main Street. Stanislaw Travel they called it. Specialized in group packages: bus trips to New York and Atlantic City. People weren’t sure at first if they wanted to ride all that way on a bus to places like that, but after a while it seemed to catch on. After all, it was only for a day and they could be home to sleep in their own beds.

Ed and Patty closed up Stanislaw Travel about twenty years ago now. The building’s still there on Main Street though, and the sign.  Sometimes out-of-towners stop at the convenience store to ask for directions to the casino down here, and I tell them to just go straight down Main and make the left at Stanislaw Travel. One time a guy come back and says to me, he says “Don’t you realize Stanislaw Travel’s been closed some twenty years?” And I says, “Yes sir, I sure do, but that don’t mean I can’t give directions by it. The sign’s still here. The building’s still here.” See, some of these out-of-towners coming in, they got no respect. Don’t appreciate our history, the things that make this city such a great place to raise a family.

Now, Mayor Davis already was there when Ed showed up. And the Bishop too. It was damn near like a funeral for that Hotel Sterling. People was crying and what have you. Some of ‘em wearing all black. So, Mayor Davis and the Bishop walk on over to Ed and they says to him ‘Ed, what in the hell you doing?’

And Ed looks them in the eye and he says “I need some water. Somebody needs to get me a drink of water.”

Well, I’ll tell you, it was hot that day. Sweat was collecting on my back, that sort of sweat, you know? The kind of day where if you sit down, sometimes you stick to the chair on account of the humidity. And Ed was not looking so good.

Mayor Davis sends one of his boys to fetch water, then asks again, “Ed, what are you doing?”

Ed spits and then says “Billy, you said when you took office that you was going to make sure to preserve this place, restore it, make it great again.”

Well there’s nothing the Mayor could say to that. It was the truth. But the Bishop steps up and he decides to bring up Ed’s wife Patty. I mean, no one ever done brought her up with him before, least not that I heard of.

First you should know that Ed and Patty never did have kids of their own. Don’t know why, but I suspect it was something they weren’t happy about. Course they never talked about it or nothing. Some stuff you keep to yourself. But my wife was real friendly with Patty through the church and my wife says Patty sometimes would have a good cry about it.

And she used to be real generous with the kids. There ain’t a lot of kids ‘round here no more. There used to be. You could ride your bike halfway ‘cross town and your ma wouldn’t be worried none. Heck, there was days I’d be down by the river fishing, then go to Aggie’s for some pagosh, then we might ride bikes over by the railroad tracks. But you don’t see kids out these days. I dunno why that is. Seems like there just ain’t any families much ‘round here no more, not like when I was growing up. But about a year or two ago, some of those Spanish-speaking folks started moving into the area. Don’t know where they come from or why they come here, but some of them moved in right next to Patty and Ed. And Patty would keep an eye on the kids there, you know? Not formal or nothin’ but she’d bake ‘em cookies and try to talk to them.

Well, one day, she’s sitting out there on the porch. Ed was inside watching TV. And Patty says to those Spanish kids “No, no, honey, stay out of the street, don’t chase that ball out there.”

They don’t pay no mind to her. Probably didn’t understand what the heck she was saying. So Patty gets up and plays with them. Now she was nearly seventy years old mind you, and every time those kids’ ball would roll into the street, she’d go chasing after it.

And wouldn’t you know it, bam! Some guy in a Buick hits her. Kills her, just like that. Right in front of the house. It was some guy fresh out of county lockup for holding up a convenience store. And Ed comes running out, hearing the sound and all. Eh.

So the Bishop I guess must have figured maybe Ed chained himself to the Hotel Sterling cause he was losing his mind, with Patty gone. Like all that grief was catching up to him. He was lost without her. So the Bishop looks at Ed and says “Tell me about the times you and Patty spent here.”

Ed sneers and says “Father, you know my parents was born here and died here. Patty and I was born here. We growed up here together. We’ll lay together in the ground.”

So the Bishop and the Mayor just look at Ed, not understanding nothing he’s talking about. And Ed asks again, “I’m really thirsty, can I please have a glass of water?”

He started wriggling around in the chains, like he was uncomfortable. The Mayor says “Ed, where are the keys? Where are the keys so we can unpadlock you out of these chains?”

And Ed shakes his head like he don’t know. By then the crowd is gathered ‘round. The police couldn’t hold ‘em back. Ed was everyone’s hero, being as how he was stopping the progress of the demolition.

Someone shouted out “Ed, why is the Hotel Sterling so important to you?”

Ed looked confused right then, like he’d no idea what the Hotel Sterling was. So he says “The Hotel Sterling’s been closed up damn near forty years, son. I ain’t never been in it.” Then he looks at everyone in the crowd, like he’s never seen none of ‘em before, and says “Ain’t none of you never been in it either. Any one of you been in this building?”

No one answered. ‘Cause come to think of it, it had been damn near forty years or longer that place had been closed up and we’d all been waiting for something to happen with it.

Well, everyone started getting real excited then. Talking about how they’d forgotten the place had been closed up and vacant for so long. The Mayor and Bishop got nervous, like they was worried there was going to be a riot or something, so they both held up their hands, like in peace, or surrender, depending on how you’se are looking at it.

“You can’t stop progress,” the Mayor said.

“Let us pray,” said the Bishop.

And that’s when Ed had a heart attack. Right there at the Hotel Sterling. Damn shame. There was just no way to disentangle him from those chains.

But you know, he saved that hotel. They couldn’t knock it down then. It’s still there. You’ll pass it on the way to the casino.

—–

Dawn Zera is a journalist living in the Pennsylvania mountains and pursuing an MFA.

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Aunt Mattie was chewing a gumball when she saw Jesus.  When he touched her on the forehead behind the Costco, hospital and told her that there was nothing in this world she could do to keep her from being loved.

She believed him.  It was the first time she’d ever believed anything a man said about love.

She’d just bought a case of bourbon.  She went home and poured it all down the sink.  She gave up smoking, even though it helped her keep her figure.  She gave up dating, although she also stopped telling me that men never tell the truth.  She even gave up sweets … although I could never get the justification behind that, since it’s not anywhere in the Bible.  But she kept the remains of the gumball.  Put it in a ring box and kept it on the shelf above her bed.  It was in her mouth when Jesus touched her head, and that meant something.

My family had always laughed at Aunt Mattie, so she didn’t take offense to us laughing at her for a whole different reason.  But the truth is I think she was happier.  She was the most loudly dysfunctional member of my family, but I know for a fact you can be quietly miserable.

She died a month before my wedding.  She’d always said the only people who’d attend her funeral would be ex-husbands, but there were two churches and an old-folks home there to send her off.

When the diamond fell out of its setting there wasn’t time to get it fixed.  I grabbed it, ran to the box of Mattie’s effects, and got out her ring box.  Somehow the gumball was still fresh and wet.  I stuck it in the setting and pushed the stone in after it, praying that it would stick.

Don’t laugh, don’t make fun of me:  but it’s still there.  It’s held all this time.  I feel blessed, although I don’t feel like it was intended for me.

—–

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

Read more fiction by Benjamin Wachs

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I’m sitting at the bar at the Omaha Ramada, cialis wanting to celebrate because I just closed the Ramsfield account.  I called my boss at home like he told me and he actually said, viagra “Good work, ailment son.” He never called me “son” before, although once he called me a lazy son-of-a-bitch.

I want to call Karen, but she’s probably putting Billy to bed.  When I tell her how big the deal is, she’ll say, “Goody for you,” like a little kid.  That’s what I love about her, her enthusiasm.  The best part is after all these years, she’s still enthusiastic about me.

I told her I’d call about ten when she can relax and we can talk dirty.  It’s dumb, I know, but it’s this little game we play when I’m on the road.

So I sit down at the nearly empty bar to help pass time.  I don’t drink much, but I order a scotch and water and try to make small talk with the bartender.  He acts like he has to polish the imitation brass railing along the bar separating him from the customers.   Someone’s played a Garth Brooks song on the jukebox, and it makes me feel like everyone has either just lost their best friend or is hung over.  Or both.  I don’t want to go up to my room because hotel rooms are even lonelier than hotel bars.  It’s funny.  If I were home, I’d probably be watching TV while Karen reads the newspaper or grades her third graders’ spelling tests.  But I can’t bear the thought of watching TV alone.

There are peanuts on the bar so I grab a handful and pop a few into my mouth.  The bartender brings my drink and I sign for it with my room number, not planning on staying past the one drink.  He’s less communicative than before.  Even giving him a decent tip doesn’t make him friendlier.  He just mumbles, “‘preciate it,” gives me my receipt and returns to his polishing.

So I’m sipping my drink and popping peanuts when this real knockout with long black hair sits down next to me, although there are plenty of empty seats.   She catches me looking at her and smiles.  I’m embarrassed when our eyes meet, so I turn towards my drink.  I’m thinking she’s a hooker and that’s a mess I sure don’t want to get involved in.

“Hi,” she says, holding out her hand. “My name is Gwen Whitner.”

I look up as if I’m surprised to see her.  I figure even if she’s a hooker, I could be polite.  “Jim Yoder.”  We shake, and I realize my hand is filled with salt from the peanuts.

I apologize like a fool, but she just laughs and wipes her hand with the napkin from under my drink.  She has one of those open-mouth, toothpaste commercial laughs.  It’s sexy and wholesome at the same time. 

She orders scotch.  The bartender asks if the bar brand will do and I notice he didn’t ask me.  When the drink arrives, she takes a long sip and sighs like Billy does when he drinks his first glass of milk in the morning.

“Rough day?” I ask.

“No more than usual.”

I stare at her, trying to think of something witty, but I’m still afraid she’s a hooker.

Finally, she helps me out by asking what I do.  I tell her and she tells me she’s with Payne Marketing.  I’ve heard of the firm, so we talk shop for a while and exchange cards.  That helps me relax, and the next thing I know I’m bragging about the Ramsfield account.  “It should bring in over a half million the first year,” I say.  “And if they merge with Bellows Electronics, the sky’s the limit how much that account can be worth.”

She asks about my company’s annual gross and she seems impressed, although Payne Marketing must be worth five times the amount.

“Ramsfield could be a big move up for me,” I tell her.

“Then we should celebrate,” she says.  “I have a bottle of J&B in my room.”

I guess I’m not the sharpest tack in the box because I say I usually don’t drink and I’ve already had my limit. 

She smiles.  “You don’t have to drink.  We could just celebrate.”

It finally dawns on me what she’s suggesting and I feel my heart pounding like it’s decided to stop playing back up and do a solo.  Finally, after a long silence, I say, “Thanks, but I, uh, have to call my wife.”

“That’s all right,” she says, quickly. “I know you’re married.  I can see your ring.”  She wets her lips with a pink tongue and raises her eyebrows just a little. 

Her eyes are just plain gorgeous.  Even in the dark bar I can see they’re green.  And the rest of her?  Well, let me just say she fills out the tan sweater she’s wearing under a dark jacket.  

Karen is good looking, but Gwen is, well, wet-dream gorgeous.  And she’s coming on to me. 

It’s been a while since anyone hit on me.  I must be one of those guys who looks like he was born married.  But to be honest, I like it that way.  It’s safe.  I love Karen and the life we have, especially now that Billy will be starting kindergarten and doesn’t demand our attention all the time. 

I’m a pretty decent looking guy and I keep myself in shape.  I jog every other day and I work out with weights twice a week.  But no one’s going to mistake me for a movie actor.  My nose is too big and when I was a kid I got it broken in the only fistfight I’ve ever been in, so it kind of slants to one side a little.  Still, I have a full head of dark hair with a few streaks of gray that Karen tells me looks sexy.

And I don’t mind admitting I’m feeling pretty sexy, too.  I can’t get over that this beautiful woman is coming on to me.  This could be the experience of a lifetime.  But then I think of Karen and Billy.

“I’ve been married six years,” I tell her.  “Seven in August.”

She smiles.  I try to think of something else to say, but all that comes out is, “My boy is going to be five in a month.”  I’m about to take out my wallet to show her pictures, but then I think that’s a little weird.

We talk some more about marriage.  “I was married for two years,” she says.  “But I knew it was a mistake from the start.  My ex was a good guy, but I don’t think I could ever be satisfied with one man.”

I’m feeling like I’m on Oprah or something.  I tell her if you really love someone, one person is enough.  But she kind of cocks her head to one side and gives me that raised eyebrow again.

“Really?  You’ve never cheated?”

I don’t know why I did this, but instead of telling her the truth — that I haven’t been with another woman since Karen and I started dating in college nine years ago — I tell her I had an affair when we were first married and another just before Karen got pregnant.  “But not since Billy was born,” I assure her. 

Now I’m feeling like a jerk.  I want to go, but I don’t want to.  She calls the bartender over and orders another round.  “This one’s on me,” she says.  “To celebrate your latest conquest.”

I look at her.

“The deal you closed today.  The Ramsey account?”

“Ramsfield,” I say, after a long pause.

I try to change the subject.  I ask about her job again and how long she plans on being in Omaha.

“A week,” she tells me.  “I’m with the American Beef Association convention.  My company does a lot of PR work with the food industry.”  She sips her drink.  “How much longer will you be here?”

“I leave tomorrow afternoon.  Got a few things I have to clear up in the morning.  Paperwork, mostly.”  There’s a long silence while we drink.  I sneak a look at my watch and see it’s nearly nine.  I consider thanking her for the drink and going up to my room and calling Karen early.  Then I imagine Gwen naked, straddling me, with her long black hair tickling my chest as she moves downward.

“You hungry?” she asks suddenly.  “Why don’t we get a booth and order some munchies?”

I already had dinner, but I follow her.  My eyes take in her rear end, which is round and shapely under a dark skirt that’s as short as the ones Karen used to wear back in college.  When we get to a booth, she takes off her jacket and the whiteness of her bare arms puts me on edge, like I’m seeing something I shouldn’t.

I’m surprised she orders hot wings.  I thought she’d get a salad, maybe grilled shrimp.  I’d like wings, too, but Karen always tells me how gross it is watching me tear into chicken.  I order a hamburger instead.  “No onions,” I tell the waitress. 

I usually don’t pay attention to other people while they eat, but she impresses me with the way she dives into those wings without the slightest bit of self-consciousness.  When hot sauce drips down her lip, she just wipes it off and grabs another wing. 

Meanwhile, we discover we’re both Midwesterners.  I tell her I’m from Clinton, Iowa and Karen is from a town called Carlisle, just outside of Des Moines.   “We met our junior year at the University of Iowa and we’ve been together ever since.”

She ignores my happily-ever-after story.

Instead, she tells me how she couldn’t wait to get out of the small town where she was raised.  “You’ve never heard of it, I’m sure.  No one has. Sarcoxie, Missouri.”

“Right off Interstate 44,” I say.  “Near Joplin.  Southwestern corner of the state.”  I would have told her how I read road maps when I’m alone in hotel rooms, but that’s not the kind of thing that impresses women. 

She tells me how lonely it is on the road and how she envies me having someone to come home to.  I tell her that a woman as good looking as she is shouldn’t have any trouble with men

“Not usually,” she says. We both laugh.

We order another round and then another and I’m feeling like we’re old friends.  I also feel her bare foot slipping under my pant leg.  I get chills as her toes touch the skin just above my sock.

I see it’s a little after ten and I think of Karen waiting for my call.  I pull my leg away and tell Gwen I have to go.  I try to stand, but the room spins and I stumble a little.  I call the waitress over and ask for our bill. 

“No, no,” Gwen says.  “Let me get this.  You can pay for breakfast in the morning.”

I think it over for what seems like hours.  A lifetime of sexual fantasies dance through my head.  When the waitress arrives, I sign the bill. “I have to make a call,” I say.

“You really are chained to your wife.”  She lets her eyes finish the thought.

“Yeah, I guess I am.”  I hold onto the table for support.

“It must be nice,” she says.

I smile and shake her hand.  She tells me she’s staying in room 458.  As I walk, unsteadily, to the elevator, I repeat the number to myself.  I turn to look back and watch as she drains her drink and orders another.  I punch the elevator button and  think of how Karen has wanted us to renew our vows.  I wonder if this counts.

—–

Wayne Scheer has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net.  He’s published hundreds of short stories, essays and poems, including Revealing Moments, a collection of flash stories, published by Thumbscrews Press.  A film adaptation of his short story, “Zen and the Art of House Painting,” can be viewed at http://vimeo.com/18491827.   Wayne lives in Atlanta with his wife and can be contacted at wvscheer@aol.com.

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I was walking down a street in my town when an old man asked me if I wanted to know what the secret to life was.  I said, information pills
“sure, pharm why not?” and he said it was to milk out and spread the maximum amount of joy from every single moment.

Ben found the armchairs on the Internet.   We had found each other at work.  Both of us divorced, hospital me since many years ago and with two teenagers.  We decided to get rid of my old loveseat and an end table that had belonged to Ben’s previous apartment. We simply put them outside with our garbage, and the next day they were gone.  Then we decided to buy the two leather armchairs.  They looked good in the picture, and they were cheap.

When Ben got to the house, he found a sad man in his forties and a couple of obliviously joyful little girls.

“My marriage is breaking up,” the man told him. “I am moving into a small apartment.  These chairs are really good, and not even a year old.  They’re recliners, you know.  They go back like La-z-boys. You’re getting a good deal.”

“You’re taking both?”  one of the girls wailed to Ben, though she was making a happy, goofy face.  “AAAWWWWW.”

Her sister chimed in for a while. The girls each sat in a chair, swinging their legs. They leaned back and the chairs leaned back too. Their father didn’t seem to notice.

When Ben had finished stuffing the chairs into the U-Haul and was about to leave, the man came up to the window carrying a giant stuffed toy elephant.

“You know anyone with little kids,” the man stated, rather than asked. “Maybe they’d like to have this.”

Ben told me he couldn’t say no.  The man just looked so desperate.  So when he came home that day we filled our living room with two new maroon leather recliners and one grey elephant.  The elephant was torn in the bum, and very heavy for a stuffed toy.  When we examined it we found it contained a broken gizmo that once made it talk; that was what accounted for the weight.

My kids asked us what an elephant was doing in the room.  I told them the story Ben had told me.  They didn’t say anything.

Everyone liked the chairs, but somehow we didn’t use the room as much as we had before.

One day Ben and I were going for a stroll in our neighborhood. I happened to look into an upstairs bedroom window of a house with green shutters.  There was a small child’s, perhaps a baby’s, bedroom, decorated in pastel colours, featuring a female version of our elephant.  Female, because it had long spindly eyelashes and a pink bow next to each ear. 

On Valentine’s Day, I took the day off to make a special meal for Ben.  I grabbed my reusable shopping bags, put on my winter jacket, my knitted cap with the flaps and my boots and headed toward town to shop for the meal. I carried the elephant, a tiny envelope pinned to his chest.  Inside the envelope I had put in a small glass heart I had found in the basement amongst my daughter’s abandoned craft kits, and a note:

To my beautiful elephantesse,
I saw you through the window.  Here is my heart. Please accept it.
 
I put the elephant on the front porch and continued into town.  I bought a bottle of wine, a steak, some tomatoes, mushrooms and artichokes.   On the way home, I walked by the house with the green shutters. The elephant had been brought inside. I smiled to myself.  I glanced up into the bedroom but couldn’t see inside; there were light curtains now that obscured the view. 
And downstairs, I suddenly realized, a woman was staring at me through the living room window. 

She was blonde and wore red lipstick.  She looked a bit like Drew Barrymore. She also looked completely terrified.

——-

Anita Anand lives in Montreal, Canada.  Her stories and essays have appeared in Frostwriting.com, the Louisiana Review and  the Toronto Globe and Mail.

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“We’re going to have a quiet New Year’s this time, cialis ” Ken said, speaking from his office phone. “If you want to come over, it’ll just be the three of us.”

“I’d like to bring something,” I said.

“Why don’t you bring a movie? Something light—really light.”

“Sure.”

“We’ll just get take-out. You like Su Hong, don’t you?”

“Su Hong is fine.”

“Then we’ll do that.”

Ken sounded tired. He had always had trouble sleeping. But he was having a particularly hard time since the oncologist told him and Pam that her chemo wasn’t working anymore and that it was probably time to stop.

He was silent for a moment, my cue that he wanted to talk.

“How are you two doing?” I said.

“About as well as can be expected. Pam’s handling it much better than I am. But they’ll be times like—.” His voice began to break, but he managed to go on. “Like last—last night. She felt well enough to make love and really wanted to. We were in the middle of it, and she started to cry. I held her. Then I started to cry. And she held me. And we just lay there holding each other and crying.”

He was silent again.

“I’m sorry,” I said, groping for words that didn’t sound overused. “I can’t imagine how hard this is for both of you.” There I went again—well intended but so inadequate.

“She’s only fifty-four,” Ken said. “Or she will be fifty-four if she makes it to March 12.”

“What does the doctor say?”

“Three months. Maybe four. Maybe two. You’re never sure.”

I had known Ken since college. Pam was his second wife. They met only seven years ago and snapped into place instantly like the right two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Then, when my wife and I separated and divorced, they “adopted” me for more than a year. The three of us went to movies and concerts. They had me over for dinner, it seemed, all the time. They even brought dinners over to my dingy divorce apartment. I couldn’t have asked for better friends. And, during this time, I became more aware of how delighted they were just to be together—how bright Ken’s eyes became whenever Pam entered the room, how freely Pam laughed whenever Ken said something funny.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do without her,” Ken said now.

“First, just focus on the time you still have together,” I said. “Take one day at a time.” God—so many clichés. I kept wondering what I could say that might be helpful or even comforting without sounding so trite and hollow. And I kept coming up blank.

*** 

Four days later, I was over for New Year’s Eve with a Ben Stiller comedy on DVD.

Pam wore the wig she’d been wearing for months and looked pale. But, despite everything, she was her usual gracious self. She had managed to make some appetizers, Ken and I went for the take out, and the three of us had a light, wide-ranging talk during dinner. The one subject we all carefully sidestepped was the future.

Afterwards, we watched the movie—peppering it from time to time with comments of our own. It ended a few minutes before midnight. And Ken pulled a bottle of champagne from the refrigerator, popped the cork, and poured glasses for us all. Pam turned on the TV to hear the countdown to the New Year. “Eight, seven, six…,” we chanted along with the people on TV. And, at the stroke of midnight, I hugged both of them and, in a strong, rousing voice, said: “Happy New Year!”

As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I blushed, released them from my hug, and dropped my head, astonished at my blundering. There must have been something else I could have said—something that wouldn’t have sounded so stupid and callous in this situation. I’d fretted about being trite. Now, I’d blurted this out.

But, a moment later, Pam placed her hands gently on my cheeks, raised my head, and looked straight into my eyes. “That’s all right,” she said. “I’m going to make this year as happy as I can. And I hope you do, too. That wasn’t the wrong thing to say; it was the perfect thing.”

With that, she kissed me on the cheek, picked up her champagne glass, clinked glasses with Ken and me, and sipped her champagne.

—–

David Meuel began writing flash fiction last year at the tender age of 60 and has published more than 25 pieces in such online magazines as Bartleby Snopes, Toasted Cheese, and LITSNACK. He lives in San Jose, California, and works as a freelance marketing writer serving several Silicon Valley companies.

—–

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

City of Human Remains, cialis 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 42, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Fleck

Fleck leans against the rusty rail of the stairs and puffs a stolen cigarette.  His dark eyes read half surprise, clinic half expectation.  Fleck tosses the cigarette to the floor and Hektor realizes that it is dirty and bent, not even lit.  Probably found in a pile.  The basement is where the smokers hide.  Lorenzo.  Others.  But not Jose.  Hektor can smell the dampness and the ashes jamming the wood rafters.

Where ya goin’? asks Fleck as he fake-stomps the butt with his boot.

Get out of my way.  You can’t stop me.

Hektor muscles his way past.

I’m not tryin’ ta stop you, stupid…

Shhh, be quiet.  Hektor jumps from the stairs to the foundation.  Arms out, he dives into the basement.  Storage stalls line the area.  Between the stalls are stacked crates.  Hektor scans the crate labels as he jogs past.  Clothes, condensed milk, medicine.  But he is more concerned with the doors and where they lead.  He wheels each knob.  All locked.

Fleck points, matter-of-factly, and says quietly, If yer looking for Prial’s tunnel, it’s ‘round that way.

Hektor stops, turns to Fleck, and then revolves once more to face the stalls.

Yeah, Prial tol’ me, too, explains Fleck.  I found it a few days ago.

Show me.

Fleck leads Hektor down the stalls.  The younger boy is smugly satisfied to be in control, it shows in the way he walks, and in his confidant and winking eye.

Hektor is the opposite – flushed and nervous.

Why you leavin’ anyway?

None of your business.

Come one.  Tell me.  You’re running away now because Jose’s bringing someone to adopt you.  That’s what you said, right?  You’d rather run than have new parents.

You don’t know anything, Fleck.

Ha.

No, you don’t.  I’m leaving because—

Hektor hesitates.

Why?  Come on, you can tell me.

I’m going to find those kids.

Fleck makes a face.  You crazy, he grunts.  You never gonna find them.

Hektor ignores Fleck’s pessimism and keeps on around the corner until the stalls abruptly shore into a wall.

Fleck thumbs to a shut door at the end of the line.  Hektor dives forward and shakes the door’s handle.  The lining cracks.  Through the door lies Prial’s mysterious tunnel, revealed to be a loading ramp at the rear docks of the orphanage.  The tunnel goes out 10 meters and coasts into blackness, the floor rising, ending at 2 bay doors suspended at the top, with a crack of light through the flaps.

Thanks, Hektor says to Fleck as he moves out.  Adios.

No, I’m coming with you.

Hektor waves him off.  You’re getting adopted.

I don’t want them.  They’re old.

Don’t come with me.

I won’t slow you down.  I promise.

Hektor stares at the escape.

No, swear, I’ll be great for you, swears Fleck.  You can ditch me when we’re in the city.  I’m gonna try get to 14 and find my dad.  I can find him.  I know it.  Just like you think you can find all those kids.  Only my odds is better.

You’ll never make it to another city, Fleck.  You don’t have a coat.  Or any of what you need.  Look, I’ve packed.  I’ve thought about things.

Fleck retreats to a narrow space beside the stalls.  His arm disappears to the elbow.  When he withdraws, he holds a plastic bag and a short, thin jacket.  Through the bag, bare essentials can be seen in outline.

I’ve been waitin’ for you, Hektor, Fleck says with a scoop.  I knew you’d run.  I was hopin’ it would be before they took me to those old people’s house.  I saw you slip out of the gymnasium so I came down to the basement and waited.  I already stashed this here a few days ago.

You could have run away at any time.

Fleck nods.  Yeah.  I coulda.

You’d rather tag onto me?

Yeah.  I didn’t want to go alone.

Why?

Fleck dusts his City Orphanage uniform.  Well…you’re good at geography, aren’t you?  You can help me find the highway.

Yeah, I don’t know the city too well, though.  In Akkawi’s class, we don’t study the city maps.  That’s for a reason, Fleck.  You wonder about that?  They don’t want us to go anywhere. I’ll be as lost as you.

Fleck mulls this over then says, I think I still got a better chance with you than without you.

All that stuff you told me about what people think?  You make that up?

Fleck shakes his head.

Hektor gives a grumble.  Do everything I tell you.

Hektor offers no hand as he steps up the loading ramp.  Fleck follows, plastic bag over his shoulder.

Their boots echo on the concrete and the sound shortens as they rise.  The enclosure smells of old fruit and winter.  At the ramp’s end, the bay doors stand shut above their heads.

This must be where they drop the food, Hektor deduces.  He feels for grooves on the bolt and slides it with a clack.  Standing beneath the handles, he pushes on the left-side bay door.  The gap between the slats widens and the door rises on the hinges.  Hektor’s arms are not long enough to reach the tipping point and the door slides back into place.  He snaps his fingers at Fleck.  Bring me that box.  I need to be taller.  He points at a crate against the wall.

Fleck abandons his plastic bag and with all his might attempts to lift the box.  It’s heavy, he groans.

Both boys are at the box.  They slide it under the doors.

Standing on the box, Hektor strains against the door until it falls from his fingers and bangs hard against the outside brick with a thunderous clap.  Hektor and Fleck wince.  But no one shouts.  No one comes running.

Hektor surfaces above the hole.  We’re in the yard, he whispers to Fleck below.  But a different part.  Not where we play.

Do ya see anyone?

No.  I see the fence.

Oh.  The disappointment rings from Fleck’s voice.

It’s behind us.  We’re outside of it.  And I can see the street.  Hektor crouches to meet Fleck’s eyes.  There’s a truck backed against the building, he reports, but no one’s inside.  We can hide behind it.

Let’s go then!

Hektor wrinkles his mouth, judging all the angles.  Yeah, he says slowly and cautiously.  I think it’s okay.  Give me your bag.

Fleck hands it over.

The jacket.

Fleck surrenders that, too.

Hektor lobs the objects through the overhead door and they listen for the landing.

Give me your foot.  Hektor laces his fingers together and Fleck obeys, placing his right boot into Hektor’s palms.

Fleck trampolines over the frame.  The boy flops awkwardly to the rear drop-gate of the truck, deployed all but a fraction from the ground.  He nearly slices his head open.  To Fleck, the truck resembles a great mechanical bear ready to swallow him whole, jaws open and strong.  Writhing, he’s able to overcome his landing and get to his feet.  His bag and jacket are a few feet away and he snatches them just as he is being tackled.  Hey—! he bites as Hektor pins him against the brick wall.  Any further objections are blotted by Hektor’s hand over his mouth.

Hektor tilts towards the street.

Two patrolmen in identical in blue uniforms strut on the sidewalk.

Those must be the men Ms. Ximon told us about, Hektor guesses, barely heard.

The two are talking with each other, but the boys can’t hear what is being said.

Hektor delicately releases Fleck and stretches into sunlight.  The afternoon has become a blend of the seasons – autumn air, summer sun, and winter cold.

Fleck shivers.  His jacket is on the ground in front of him, near to his bag, but to bend to get it would be a risk.  The plastic would make noise and draw attention.

Hektor sweeps beside the truck’s wheel then makes his way to the passenger-side mirror.  Angling, he catches the police as the 2 part company.  The taller goes north up the walkway.  The shorter whistles south, to the front doors.

Hektor crumbles to the ground and rolls under the truck just as the tall policeman inspects the zone between the truck and the building.  Hektor signals for Fleck to stay against the brick wall.

Fleck makes himself as thin as possible.  Palms against the brick, his heart races.  He didn’t expect his body to react so badly to danger.  This is easy, he lies to himself, and wishes he had Hektor’s courage.  Inside the building, the roles were reversed, but not that they were actually going through with it Fleck is crumbling like he knew that he would.  He would never have been able to do this alone.  Never.

Slowly, the policeman moves out of their site.

Fleck snatches his bag and jacket from the ground.

And the boys run.

They scuttle as fast as they can across the street – the same street Fleck watched every day as city strangers passed in waves, none of them his father, none the ghost of his dead mother, and wondered if he would ever be home again.

Fleck cocks his head over his shoulder.  The tall policeman turns past the building.

They didn’t see us! Fleck calls forward to Hektor, whose brown coat jumps with each kick of the leg.  Fleck wants to see Hektor’s eyes.  The boy is fixed on the windows of City Orphanage.  Fleck knows what he must be thinking: Is this right?  Will we ever come back?  Have we made a terrible, terrible mistake?

The boys land on the opposite sidewalk.

You know, Hektor—wait, this is kind of funny—they’ll think we gone missin’, too?  Hektor peels into an alley’s end and Fleck races, out-of-breath, to catch up.   Wouldn’t that be funny if only 1 kid went missing and then a bunch a’ kids just went looking for the kid and that’s how this all happened?

The alley branches and Hektor follows the left path.  Fleck brakes to put on his jacket but Hektor doesn’t wait for him.  Frustrated, the younger boy has only time to tie the jacket sleeves around his neck like a cape.  He has to battle twice as hard to catch up.  Hey, I thought you said you didn’t know where you were going!

Hektor doesn’t answer.  He takes another curve and the alley empties onto a two-lane street with blasting traffic and noise.  From his coat pocket, Hektor retrieves the notepad and short pencil.  KILLERMONT, reads the sign above the boys.  Hektor writes the name of the street in the notepad.  I don’t know where we’re going, he tells Fleck.  I’m guessing.  But I want to know where I’ve been.  The older boy then jumps into the flow of pedestrians on the sidewalk.

Hektor rips something from Fleck’s sleeve, handing it over in swift gesture.  It’s Fleck’s shirt patch – CITY ORPHANAGE stenciled in an arc above a moon.  Hektor’s own insignia in covered by his coat.  Thanks, says Fleck.

Fleck imitates everything the older boy does.  The way he walks, the way he wears his face, his confidence.

The boys walk for blocks and blocks.

Crest Street.

Sherwin Street.

Right on 99th.

Broadway to Monte Carlo.

Hektor writes the names and makes little symbols to show direction.

Fleck touches Hektor’s arm as he copies the latest street name.  Something’s wrong, the boy realizes.

Hektor looks at the space in front of them.

The streets are packed.  Glides knit together, facing in  a single direction.  In every glide, children are in the rear and adults nervously tap the controls, eyes forward.

Hektor stops a middle-aged, dark-skinned woman on the sidewalk who, along with everyone else, appears loath to be interrupted.  Excuse me, where does this street lead?

Goes to the highway, she replies.  She gives a suspicious glare.

Thanks…

The woman is soon lost at sea.

Hektor drags Fleck.  It’s a panic, he explains.  Eleven more children went missing today.  Everyone who has children is trying to get out.

Fleck scans past the stalled glides and toward an overpass he can see in the distance.

Hektor points.  That’s your way to City 14.

I guess it is, agrees Fleck, who does not move.  He stays glued to the pavement.

Do you have any food?

Food?

You didn’t bring any, did you?

Fleck frowns.

How about money?

I have some.  I stole a few dollars from the old lady’s purse when they were playin’ with me.

You shouldn’t steal.  Here…  Hektor reaches into his coat and takes out one of his three candy bars.  Don’t eat it unless you’re really hungry.  He hands it to Fleck.

Not unless I’m starving.  Do you have any money?

Hektor shakes his head.  I’ll be all right.  Put your jacket on.  Hektor waits while Fleck sets his plastic bag down and draws on the sleeves of his too-thin jacket.

Do you even know where City 14 is, Fleck?

Fleck nods.  Oh, sure.  Yeah.  He zips the jacket and shivers.  Pause.  No.  No, I don’t.

Adults whiz past on the sidewalk and the 2 two are momentarily separated.

Do you want to just stay with me? A gusting wind flutters Hektor’s coat.

Are you really gonna find those kids?

I am.

How?

I don’t know.  I just am.

Fleck smiles, but it fades.  I can’t stay with you.  I have to get to my dad.

Hektor places a hand on Fleck’s shoulder.  Good luck.

Fleck starts to move away.  I’ll be all right, the boy declares.  I’m used to goin’ alone.  My mom will be with me every step.  He backs away further, silently, wishing he had gotten to know Hektor better during his time in the orphanage.

He doesn’t sense the cart behind him and bumps into it, jarring the stand and making hasty apologies before running as fast as his feet will carry him in the direction of the overpass.
Every Sunday, sickness Fiction365 presents a new chapter of a previously unpublished novel.

City of Human Remains, remedy by Darren Callahan, buy 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 43, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Zabik

The sidewalk squall parts and Zabik notices the boy in the brown coat.  Reaching out, help the news seller steadies the hung papers jostled from the other kid’s clumsy collide.  He thinks about yelling, Watch it!  Or better yet, Pay attention, ya dumb bastard!  But Zabik controls himself.  It’s too late now anyway.  The boy is gone.

You.  You, come here, he orders the brown-coated boy with a snap of the fingers.  As the boy looks his way, Zabik lifts the roll of blubber around his beltline and shifts a tit from its uncomfortable place under his shirt.  Zabik wears a terry yellow blanket around his shoulders to keep him warm; underneath the blanket is a long-sleeved white tee shirt and blooming blue pants, loose on his round body.  He adjusts his cap and massages his bushy white/brown beard.  You, he repeats.  I said come here.

The boy steps towards the seller.

Zabik is framed in the day’s headlines.  Hung flash editions drape the proscenium of his wooden cart.

Eventful day, he growls with a shake.  I see you nodding.  You agree.  Don’t you, son?  You aren’t in any trouble, are you?  No.  Where are your parents?

The boy gives a indiscriminate point of his finger coupled with some faint story.  Zabik barely pays attention to the lie.

BZZZZZZZ.

Excuse me, he says, interrupting the boy’s tale.

He reaches for the buzz box that holds down his handwritten receipts, fat-fingers a button, and looks to the air.  In a few seconds, he begins to nod patiently as the confirming beeps begin.  The hung papers momentarily go white and then are recharged with the latest stories.

The front page of the 32 Sun reads:

11 ABDUCTED CHILDREN FOUND.

Zabik snatches a paper from the clip, never rising from his buckling chair.  He scans the story.

The boy leans in to read the encapsulation but is brushed aside by a wave of patrons hungry for the latest download.  Money changes hands and the next several minutes are occupied by transactions.  Zabik keeps an eye on the boy while filling holes in his arch.  He hooks new editions into spots with his wooden pole.

When the action has died down, Zabik speaks.

They’ve found those last 11 and made an arrest.  Sloppy Joe, this guy.  Wilderness hunter by name of Fredrico Gaarland.  Uses tranquilizer darts on a park of kids and a couple chaperones.  Then he loads the kids into his van-glide.  Needle don’t quite stick and one lucky little girl jumps out the back.  Got a license plate and everything.  Took less than an hour.  Full Heavy Team raid.  What’s that, son?  Nope.  None of ‘em harmed.  Probably all with headaches, though.  But alive and well.

Heh?  No, I didn’t watch that hatchet business this morning at the courthouse.  Read about it.  Sold a lot of papers over it.  Banner day.  This dog’s pile of tragedy does get me paid.  But that’s not right at all.  Flash a story about some new school ribbon-cutting and I sell three copies.  Something awful happens and I can’t keep stock.

Who was the guy who attacked Serkan?  That your question?  Morning edition said it was some daddy of the murdered six.  Daughter named Brecht or Bret or something like that.  Inside job, but I don’t know how closely they’ll be asking questions.  Serkan got what he deserved.  Here ya go.

Two more papers leave his hands to customers.

Of course you’re interested, kid – you’re a baby yourself.  How old are you?  Nine?  I’m guessing low.  You’ve got the disposition of a wise old fart, but you’re just a baby kid, aren’t you?  Smaller than most, aren’t you?  Seen a lot, I imagine.  Oh, not that much, you say!  What, you been in prison?  I’m kidding.  What kind of boy stays in a place his whole life?  Before I got fat, I did lots of things.

Zabik shakes his big belly and gives a toothy smile.

Want to know my theories?  Are you sure?  No one listens to a guy on a corner, but at night I’ve taken a few papers home and done a little research.

Did you know this: every one of those 81 originals had at least one parent working with the city.

Zabik holds up a finger.

Yes, I’m sure.  Don’t be a smart ass.

The first edition after the disappearances.  That fold-out, remember?  To help the Searchers?  Face of every kid plus a few biographies.  Well most in that fold out also had occupations of some of the parents listed, and a little over half of those were the government.  Post office, city courts, streets and sanitation – could be a janitor, could be Under Secretary of Lies and Corruption.  Level don’t matter.  So I went digging.  I made some calls.  I even hobbled my way to the public records office on my day off.   And, though I don’t have everyone accounted for, I’ve got 66, and every one of the 66 has at least one parent takin’ salary from the city.  Now what do you think of that?

Zabik throws a dismissive wave the kid’s way.

You don’t know.  Naturally.  I’ve told my brilliant conclusions to an idiot boy.

Yeah, ‘course I called them and left it on the tip line.  No one called me back.  I hope someone’s working on that, but I doubt it.  Last time __________ listened to a mere, lowly citizen I was probably as old as you.  This place has become a monster.  Full of ungodly goodness – equal parts ungodly and good until lately, though now I don’t know which way the ball falls.  Every day some new horro—

Here ya go.  Thanks, ma’am.  Mucho grazias.

Yes, damn right, I called the city __________.  Damn right I did.  This is __________.  It’s no number.  They teach you kids not to say it.  The old name.  It’s like they want the next generation to forget all about the past.  The future’s all numbers.  Propaganda.  It’s manipulation of the mind.  Mass hypnosis.  32 this, 32 that.  They don’t try to pull this shit in Europe, where cities are old and people have respect for their history.  Americans—beh!—we’re not good with the past.  It makes us feel like we’re not constantly reinventing ourselves to be so nostalgic.

It wouldn’t be the least bit of a bombshell if Cocanaugher took the kids himself just to collect votes.  He’ll come through and save the day, take all the credit.  Why do you think this isn’t happening in an election year?  No real risk, you see?  And that’s why the kids are all government kids.  Mayor called in favors.  The 81 are probably hiding in their basements until Cocanaugher comes and says, Boo!  Weirder things have been thought ‘a.  Weirder.

So, Kid…

That government thing’s my best lead.  But I’m no detective.  Hurts my back just to close the stall and go down the street to my apartment.  You think I’m going to comb __________ searching for needles in haystacks?  I mean everyone in the city’s been searchin’, what’s a guy like me going to do?

Nuddin’.

The sky above grows abruptly black with clouds.

Zabik looks up.

Gonna rain again.  Help me with the stall, will ya, kid?

Zabik and the boy in the brown coat batten down the hatches.  The boy ends up doing most of the work, following the owner’s instructions to the letter.  Strings release the rain flaps; chains pull the proscenium under the tarp; rollers move the footrests up and in.

Crack!  The thunder and lighting align and the deluge begins.

The boy scoots closer to the man in the folding chair.  He doesn’t have space underneath the tarp for either of them.  But he allows the boy to hold aloft Zabik’s wide umbrella to protect them both.

You’re a good kid.  What’s your name?

Zabik cocks his head.

That sounds familiar.  He gives a wry, knowing smile.

The rain is loud on the tarps and people rush by, some with umbrellas, others bare and soaked.

Doll System’s crash is the Mayor’s doing, too, asserts Zabik.  Be just like him.  Wants his city all straight, but really prefers chaos.  What politician doesn’t?

The boy shrugs.

Fucking weather.

A man with tight-cut beard and hat, white rain vest and white umbrella, late 40s, comes before them.  He’s wiping his nose with a rag.

Can I get the new edition?

Sure thing.  Zabik reaches left and snatches a flash edition from under the tarp.

The patron rubs the boy’s hair as he pays.

Adios, says the white-vested man as he heads into the tempest.
Every Sunday, tadalafil 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 44, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

7:03pm

She woke him from a deep sleep. To his right, viagra a young woman struggled to cram her suitcase in the luggage rack overhead. The First Class Compartment was flooded with a soft but brilliant glow as the setting sun was released from behind a passing mountain. He glanced at her exposed stomach, pharm heaving gently with the exertion of her task. Where the late evening sunlight fell upon her skin, tiny golden hairs, soft like down, glowed as if lit from within. A paperback book fell onto the table with a loud slap.

“Ah, bollicks!”

At least, he thought, it’s someone from home. She had abandoned the idea of using the luggage rack, and had now turned and bent over to push her case between two seats. He noticed she wore a backpack with two little silver wings attached. Having successfully stowed her case, the girl straightened up, turned around to face him, tied her long hair back with a garishly coloured kerchief, and – in a belated show of modesty – pulled the bottom of her striped tank top down over her stomach.

And that was how it started.

****

7:04 pm

She unhooked the backpack, tossed it onto the table, and flopped down into the seat opposite him. As the backpack landed, the blank-paged notebook that had lain before him for hundreds of miles was knocked from the table onto the floor.

“Sorry – er, I mean ’scusi,” she said without looking at him.

“That’s OK,” he replied, and smiled, though she still wasn’t looking at him. “And don’t worry about the Italian – I’m Irish.”

“Really?” she replied in a tone that indicated his nationality was a matter of supreme indifference to her.

He stooped below the table to retrieve the notebook and when he resurfaced he felt momentarily – but distinctly – giddy.

With the battery in his iPod dead, and suffering a mini writer’s block, he decided a comfort break might help. He stood into the aisle and stretched.

“I’m going to the buffet car,” he said, “Would you like a coffee?”

“Don’t drink coffee,” she said. She still hadn’t looked at him.

Although not untypical (in his experience) of people her age, her brusqueness took him aback somewhat. He was considering his response when she spoke again, her voice softer this time.

“A tea would be nice, though. Thanks.”

****

7:16 pm

When he returned with the drinks, she was engrossed in her book. He placed the cups on the table and sat down.

“Your tea.”

“Thanks,” she replied without looking at him.

“You’re reading The Da Vinci Code?” he asked.

She sighed and placed the book on the table.

“That’s right. Have you read it?”

She looked him full in the face for the first time and her beauty rendered him momentarily speechless. Glossy melted-chocolate brown hair framed a face of almost divine loveliness. He noticed two things about her : firstly, that the whites of her eyes were almost unnervingly pristine, throwing into greater contrast the glacial pale blue of her irises. Secondly, above her left eyebrow was a perfect pock mark, the legacy of a childhood bout of chicken pox, he guessed.

“Sorry, what?” he stammered, feeling his face redden.

“Have – you – read – it?” she repeated in a playful mocking tone. She was smiling at him for the first time. Her teeth were perfect.

“I have, yes. Some time ago – I was lent it by a friend.”

“What did you think?”

“It was enjoyable,” he replied. “Pacy, you know? But not really my type of book.”

“Right. So what are you reading at the moment?”

“The Color Purple – by Alice Walker? Have you read it?”

“God, no!” she said, laughing. “I hate that literary stuff – this means that, that means the other – why can’t they just write what they mean?”

“Good question. Not sure.” He liked her laugh – it was quick and light and girlish, but something suggested to him that she didn’t do it as often as she should. “So how’s your tea?”

“Awful.”

“Right.”

“So, will we be going all the way together?” he asked with a smile, aware of the inelegant double entendre, but emboldened by her casual friendliness.

It was her turn to blush now, and she reddened even across her neck and chest visible above the scooped neckline of her tank top. Although he was unsure why, this made her appear even lovelier to him.

“Sorry,” he said quickly. “That was just crass. I’m not even going all the way myself – I’m getting off in Milan.”

“Yeah. Look, before you make a total eejit of yourself, you should know I’m engaged and I’m going to Rome to meet up with my fiancé.” She waved her left hand to show her engagement ring.

“OK,” he said. He was struggling to reply to her forthrightness. Despite feeling mortified by the exchange, he found himself gratified by her presumption.

“Well, you’re safe enough on that front – I’m married.” He, too, waved his left hand, to show his wedding ring.

An uneasy silence arose between them and she returned to her book.

****

He was aware he hadn’t been entirely honest with her. Or had he? Was ‘I’m married’ inaccurate? Perhaps ‘I was married’ or ‘I used to be married’ were more appropriate. They were, however, misleading at best. And craven at worst. But anything was preferable to the dread ‘W’ word. Widower. ‘I’m widowed.’ That was true. Truly awful.

He was slightly surprised in a non-conscious way at just how infrequently he had been compelled to explain his marital status in the three years since his wife had died (the dread ‘D’ word). 

Oddly, it jarred most when filling out forms and completing surveys, a crunching grind through the marital gears, from ‘Married’ to ‘Widowed’, taking him straight through ‘Cohabiting’, ‘Civil Partnership’, ‘Separated’, and ‘Divorced’. Quite a ride.

His wife had laughed fondly at the diligent manner in which he approached any opportunity to offer his views through surveys, questionnaires, reader panels, viewer panels, listener panels, focus groups and feedback forums.

“If you don’t tell them what you want,” he would say, “You can hardly complain about what you get, can you?”

“They just want your data so they can flog you more stuff you really don’t need and probably can’t afford,” she teased him.

And he knew that was pretty much it. She was right. She got it, and she got him, and they were happy. They were very happy, even after she got sick.

‘My wife died.’ Somehow this seemed to him to imply that the person you were telling knew your wife. If they didn’t, it just sounded wrong.

‘My wife is dead.’ So brutal. A big mortuary slab of an answer.

‘I’m a widower.’

Truly awful.

****

She was aware she hadn’t been entirely honest with him. She was going to Rome, that was true, but it was her sister she would be meeting there, not her fiancé. And she wore an engagement ring, clearly, but there would be no wedding.

She’d told him two nights ago and he’d taken it surprisingly well. She suspected that his feelings were more closely aligned to her own than even he realised. It would have been an enormous mistake, the diametric opposite of what they should have been doing, which was splitting up.
Well now that was done. There were the parents still to talk to, and the ring stayed on until that happened. Her sister would help her sort it all out. It was the right thing. Disengagement.

She looked back to the older man opposite. He was nice. Made her smile. He’d seemed to care about her before they’d even spoken properly. That had struck her straight away. Slightly pompous, granted, but she’d be having none of that. He seemed kind of assured: confident, but not in a cocky or arrogant way, like men her own age. But there was also a sort of sadness around him that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. She liked him.

****

8:19 pm

They had been talking again for a while. The sun had now set and the carriage had fallen darker. He suggested that, given the limited time available to them, they use the “Critical Question Method” to get to know one another better.

“The what-question-what?” she asked.

“Critical Question Method”, he clarified. “We use it in work. You only ask and answer critical questions.”

She mock gagged. “Sounds fascinating. Why would you be asking and answering non-critical questions in the first place?”

“Ummmm, fair challenge. And I think you’ll find what you’ve just asked me is, indeed, a critical question.”

“OK, let’s get on with this. Where were you born?”

“In Dublin. You?”

“Belfast – born, bred and buttered. So where do you live now?”

“Just outside Paris. Work, you know?” he said, aware of the non sequitur. “So what was the first record you ever bought?”

“Kylie – ‘Can’t Get You Out of my Head.’ You?”

He winced inwardly at the thought that he had stopped listening to music in any meaningful way long before she’d even started.

“Good tune. Mine was ‘Ghost Town’, by The Specials,” he answered dutifully. He felt no compulsion to point out that this must have been five years before she’d been born.

“What’s your favourite food?” he asked, keen to steer the conversation into an area unbounded by time or era.

“Tuna plait.”

“Specific, and random,” he smiled.

“It’s the only thing I’ve ever cooked. We learned how in Home Ec when I was in school. Anyway, food’s dull. I hereby unilaterally declare it “non-critical”. So, next : what is your favourite film?”

“Ooooooh. Tough one. So many. ‘Mean Streets’. Or ‘The Mission’. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, there’s another.”

“Yeah, three’s enough. What about books?”

“My favourite author changes all the time, but I think if I were only allowed one, I’d have to say Philip Roth. What about you?”

“Ross, right,” she said. “Can’t think I’ve ever read any of his stuff. Her stuff? OK, OK, I’ve never heard of them. I’m more of a popular fiction kinda girl.”

“Roth”, he corrected with an indulgent smile. “He is a little dry, I suppose.”

Despite the utter randomness of their meeting, he could already feel an unexpectedly intense connection to this girl, and was desperate to know if she was feeling the same thing. This was very much uncharted territory for him – he just didn’t do this type of thing. He felt, however, that he might be about to.

“I was supposed to meet my brother,” he said, apropos of nothing. “In Milan. To go to a football match. But he can’t make it, so I’m kind of at a loose end. He had the tickets, so I can’t even go to the match on my own.”

“So why go to Milan at all?”

“Not sure, actually. I’d booked the train ticket and the hotel already, so I thought I might as well just go. Coincidentally, I thought I might visit Santa Maria delle Grazie.”

She stared at him blankly, and he nodded toward her book.

“The chapel in Milan? To see Da Vinci’s Last Supper?”

“Ahhh. Not sure I’ve ever seen it. The painting, I mean. Definitely haven’t seen the chapel.”

“Actually, it’s a mural, not a painting. Perhaps you’d like to come with me? To see it?” he heard himself say as he shot her an uncertain smile.

“I don’t think that’s a very good idea, do you?” she asked. Her eyebrows were raised in a mock stern expression.

“Well, I wasn’t actually asking whether it was a good idea or not. I was asking whether you wanted to do it with me. I mean, get off with me. In Milan, I mean.” He was flustered now, and felt relieved when she suggested dropping the subject.

“Do you smoke?” he asked.

“Certainly not. It’s a disgusting habit and it – will – kill – you.” That playful, mocking tone again.

“And that matters to you…why?”

“It doesn’t. Was just saying, in case you weren’t aware.”

“Yeah, that’s likely,” he laughed. “No one ever mentions that it’s bad for you, do they? It’s just I have a doobie here, the last of some weed I scored in Amsterdam, and I was wondering if you’d care to share it with me? In the loo?” He was asking more in hope than expectation.

A visible wave of deliberation swept across her face before she smiled and jumped to her feet.
“Ah, what the hell. Let’s go – as long as you stop talking like one of my brother’s stoner mates.”

“Deal,” he said, laughing, and rose from his seat. She walked off down the aisle ahead of him. When they reached the loo at the back of the carriage, he glanced around before they stepped in and locked the door. He pulled a little white reefer from his pocket, put it in his mouth and lit it.

Within a minute, the small room was filled with thick, pungent smoke. He offered it to her, but she refused, saying “I think just being in here with you is enough to wipe me out.” They talked, their conversation peppered with giggles, a result of the smoke and the absurdity of the situation – locked in the loo smoking, like a couple of naughty school kids.

“I feel about fourteen,” he said.

“You wish. I know what you mean though – I half expect one of the nuns from my school to knock on the door and bust us”.

He laughed. “You’re safe enough from that, I reckon.” The smile faded from his face as he continued, “But that’s not actually what I meant.”

“So what, ‘actually’, did you mean?”

“Well,” he began and took a deep breath, which in the circumstances was unlikely to assist him in thinking clearly, “There’s no easy way to say this – right now I want nothing more in the world than to kiss you.” He paused and glanced quickly at her. From the expression on her face he could tell the news had not been as big a shock to her as he feared. “But I don’t know whether I can. Or should.”

“And how do you propose finding out?” She was blushing again and he thought he could see her hand trembling as she pushed behind her ear an errant strand of hair.

“Ah, you’ve got me there.”

“You could try this,” she said. She took his chin in her hand, turned his face to hers, leant forward, and kissed him full on the mouth.

She tasted exquisite. He placed his right hand tentatively on her hip and could feel her warm flesh above the waistband of her jeans. Suddenly, she broke away from him – “Wait, no,” she said, “We both – ”, but she was unable to finish, as he was already kissing her again.

****

12:04 am

They had been talking for hours and she was exhausted.

“Well, I think I’ll go to sleep,” she said with a stage yawn.

“Really?” He was unable to keep the disappointment out of his voice. “So, will you come to Milan for the day with me? I know a little gelateria near La Brera Art Gallery that serves the best ice cream you’ve ever tasted. This train gets in at seven a.m. – I could wake you?”

“I thought we’d established that wasn’t a good idea.”

“I think you’ll find you said that; I happen to disagree,” he smiled. “I’ve checked with the guard and there’s a train from Milan to Rome at seven tomorrow evening. You could catch that? I’ll even walk you to the station.”

“Look. I can’t pretend I’m not tempted. And I won’t lie by saying that I haven’t enjoyed the last few hours – a lot. But we both have our own situations to deal with and I just don’t see how what you’re suggesting could do anything other than complicate those further.”

“What?”

“Sorry, I’m tired. I know that didn’t make sense. But the answer’s no.”

“OK,” he said, crestfallen. “Then I guess this is goodnight and goodbye.”

“I guess it is,” she said with a sad smile. “I’ve had fun. A lot of fun. But all good things come to an end.”

“So I’m never going to see you again?”

“Never say never.”

“I hate that phrase,” he said.

“Grump,” she said, laughing.

“Tease. Good night.”

“Good night. And goodbye”.

“Goodbye,” he said.

****

12:08 am

He had lifted his book and tried to resume reading it five times in the last three minutes, but it was pointless. He just couldn’t concentrate enough to read. And he was acutely aware that the sleeping girl in the seat opposite him would – in just six short hours – be leaving his life forever. He couldn’t explain (even to himself) why this grieved him so, but it did. He cursed the fiancé he would never meet, even the train for carrying them at such speed toward the moment he wanted never to arrive. The only aspect of the whole sorry situation he felt unable to be angry at was her, which confused him further, as she was the only one who could change things to allow them more time together. He knew how irrational it was to have developed such intense feelings in such a short space of time. It was quite unlike him. He looked across at the girl who just a few hours earlier had become the second woman he’d kissed in twenty years. She was beautiful – that was indisputable – and desirable to a point he had difficulty understanding, but that wasn’t it.

Or, at least, that wasn’t all of it. If it were just a case of unbridled lust, he was sure he could handle it. He had before. But it wasn’t that. She was also strong, smart, funny, and honest – sometimes painfully so: in that casual, unthinking way that people of her tender years often were. She was also courageous, fearless almost, in her ambitions and aspirations – for travel, work, family : her place in the world. He was reminded of what it felt like to be young and bulletproof. Before quiet desperation began to take its hold. Before life began to chip away at your armour, day and daily.

He turned to look at his reflection in the window beside him, the black Italian night beyond lending his image the clarity of that in a mirror. The artificial light in the carriage and the late hour conspired to make him look old. Actually, he thought, I just am old. It had been a gradual process, an incremental closing of the gap between the age he looked and felt, and the age he was. He was pretty sure he now looked every one of his forty-eight years. He began to feel foolish for thinking that an earthly goddess such as her – twenty-one (she’d told him to his discomfort) and fizzing with the possibilities of a life yet unlived – could believe he had anything to offer her. But then there had been the kiss and…..

But she wasn’t getting off in Milan with him. He imagined the day they might have had – breakfast in the Piazza by Il Duomo, morning at Santa Maria delle Grazie, lunch (had to be pizza), then the afternoon in La Brera and window shopping in the Galleria. And if he could dissuade her from catching the seven o’clock train to Rome, an evening meal and drinks before retiring to his hotel……..but he was just torturing himself. A tiny window of opportunity may have briefly opened, but it had been closed – and locked – almost immediately. He was embarrassed at himself for thinking that anything could ever happen.

He was tired now, but sleep was beyond him. He stood and arranged his coat over the girl’s legs, the temperature in the carriage having fallen suddenly. She twisted in her seat and smiled dreamily. He sat back down to watch her sleep, her beautiful face serene, and her long lashes fluttering as she dreamed of – well, how could he know?

****

6:03 am

Having lifted his suitcase down as quietly as he could, he stood in the aisle watching her sleep, his heart heavy as the train ground to a final halt at Milan Central Station. He found it improbably difficult to tear himself away, but knew that he must. He leant over her sleeping face and kissed her lightly on the forehead.

“Bye,” he whispered.

It was still dark as he stepped out onto the platform and the cold early morning air forced him to draw a sharp intake of breath. He set his case down and fished in his pocket for his cigarettes. Behind him, the train’s air brakes hissed and it rumbled off into the dawning day. He stooped over to prevent the gust from the departing train from extinguishing his lighter flame.

He turned around, to see her wake and slowly turn to look at him, as the window framing her face glided past, and the train gathered pace, taking her to a future of which he would not be part.
She spread her hands on the window, her fingertips and palms whitening, her perfect face between them.

“Sorry,” she mouthed. ”Bye.”

—–

A. Joseph Black is a Forty-four year old father of three from Belfast, Ireland.  He writes mostly short stories, very slowly (while that first novel continues to simmer).  Occasionally he sets one free.

—–

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There are thirteen steps leading to my apartment on the second floor of the PennHills Building in Lansdale, try Pennsylvania. The first eleven steps I scale with ease, medical an Olympic sprinter climbing for the silver. It’s that twelfth step: something off about it. It feels shoddy, sales perhaps weak wood. It makes a noise when you step on it like a hungry baby, a dog with a broken tail, groaning, grinding.

I’ve phoned the management office twice a day to complain, implore, warn.

“What’s the problem now, Sam B-6?” asks Myrtle, the apartment manager. Her voice sounds like a vacuum cleaner with a bag full of dust and fuzz and dirt from shoe bottoms, ready to pop. Myrtle’s been a chain smoker since the womb, getting the habit from her mother.

“There’s something off about step number twelve. I know what you’re thinking. God. It’s that nutjob again. My ex would probably agree with you.”

I feel her pause, holding back a long sigh. I hear her Zippo click. She inhales, breathing in a lungful of corrosive, miasmic death.

“We’ve had maintenance out there twice.”

“They missed something. I’ve got smart feet, lady. Do you know how many times my toes have tingled just before stepping off a curve, warning me to stop? Saving me from some barreling bus or truck. I once stopped a lady with a pram next to me, just before a Waste Management truck jumped the curb.”

She exhaled more miasma, remembering how nice it was to share.

“Magic feet. Got it.”

She didn’t sound like she was taking my sensitive, psychic feet seriously.

“I’m trying to save you some trouble here. That stair is going to go taking anyone standing on it sledding down to the boiler room. Then some TV lawyer is going to clamp their jaws down on your ass, and you won’t have a dime to buy a pack of Virginia Slims.”

“Are you threatening legal action, B-6?”

“No. No. I’m trying to help.”

“I’ll try to get Ed out there,” she said.

“You don’t understand. I just don’t feel safe—”

Click.

***

I called out from work the next day. Truman High had plenty of substitute math teachers on call. I waited at the door of my apartment, listening out at the hall for the heavy hoof clops of Joe-Maintenance-Guy. I balanced on a fold-up chair, staring at the tarnished doorknob, opening the door a crack when I heard a noise—mostly neighbors going back and forth like a clock pendulum. A few times I nearly warned them, convinced as soon as their foot hit the twelfth step they’d crack the building in two, collapsing it into a pile of brick and drywall and pipes and people and little babies. I just knew the next time was going to be it. Implosion.

Meredith B-7 with those hawk-gray eyes spied me spying from my door.

“Sam. What are you doing?”

I didn’t close the door. She peered in, tomato curls dangling over her nose. She had warm bathwater eyes.

“Looking for the little man from the draft board? The second coming?”

“You’re not using that step? Right?”

She washed my skinny, whipped body with a gaze.

“I skip and jump over it every time.”

“Good,” I said through the crack.

“Why don’t you let me in?” she said. “I’ll make us some dinner. I just dropped Bobby off at his dad’s.”

My hand reached to the knob, to release, to allow, entreat, create a vacuum to suck her body in.

“I’m a bit tired,” I said. “Maybe later.”

The water in her eyes spilled down the drain.

“Ok buddy. Just knock twice on the wall if you want some company, but not too hard. You’re liable to bust through in this old firetrap.”

“Sure as sugar,” I said.

I shut the door, folded up the chair.

She’d reminded me I hadn’t eaten during my vigil, so I went to the kitchen and found a pizza box shoved into the bottom of the fridge from two days before. I grabbed a plate out of the stack in the sink, rubbed it down with a paper towel and stuck the last two slices in the microwave. I grabbed a beer, sat down on the floor and leaned against the wall, using two boxes of books as a table. I flipped on the History channel, something about Sherman’s march to the sea.

I chewed the pizza—the tomato sauce bitter, the cheese tasted like licking a wallpapered wall, bland wallpaper without little ducks. The grease smeared my lip and chin. I wiped it clean with a paper towel, but my face still felt sticky. I washed each bite down with a beer chaser like I was gagging down cough syrup.

I grabbed my cell phone. Just checking the time, I thought. I wasn’t going to phone anyone. I had one of those cat clocks on my wall with the swaying eyes and tail, but it lost a couple of seconds each day. So I had to check my cell. A few seconds accumulate. Lives begin and end in moments.

I had no intention of calling Jenny.

Quarter after five.

Jenny would be sitting down for dinner. I ordered my fingers not to dial, but I have rebel fingers, anarchist hands. They do as they like.

A baby-doll answered with a baby-doll voice:  “Brewster Residence. Alyssa speaking.”

“Can I talk to Jenny, please?” I said.

“Sure. Hold-on-a’ah-minutde, mist’ah.”

I heard the girl talking in the background:

“Mom.”

My stomach clenched, nearly ejecting the pizza and beer. I swallowed it down, but some of the vomit got into my sinuses.

Then I felt Jenny’s presence on the phone, the headset in her gentle embrace, the microphone just at her butterfly lips, floating milkweed breath blowing to my ear through electrons flying at light speed between us. She was right here again. How could my wife be so far in Colorado?

“Hello,” she said—sweeping me away, easing my stomach, untying the knots in my soul.

I heard plates clinking on a table, a gravely, ogre’s voice speaking to the kids.

“I miss Billy,” I said.

Sigh. Oh sigh. Blowing on the phone in gales.

“Ron wants me to get a restraining order,” Jenny said.

“Of course he does. He’s a lawyer. That’s how he solves things.”

She whispered so Ron couldn’t hear:

“You don’t think I miss him? I was his mother. Jesus Christ. Not a day goes by with Ron’s kids, watching Sesame Street, speaking in their little voices when I don’t have to stop and hold onto something because I’m going to pass out.”

“Doesn’t look that way,” I said.

“I’m so tired of being judged. What was I suppose to do? Bury myself next to him. And you? I had to move on, and you weren’t helping me. Ron was there for me.”

“Everything would be just fine and fine if they’d fix that step,” I said. “You left me.”

I felt her shaking her head over the phone, closing her eyes when she did, slipping away a little more each time.

“It was two years ago. I’m tired of the guilt. I’m married again. Ron is there for me. He doesn’t get lost in self-pity.”

“You abandoned your husband.”

Jenny, who is that on the phone? I heard in the background. She didn’t respond.

“You abandoned me long before. Jesus Christ. You ever going to come down from that cross?”

“Is that Sam? You tell him—”

“Don’t call anymore,” Jenny said. “If you need help, get a shrink or a canary, someone who will listen to you and not need you to listen back.”

“Wait. Before you go. Please.”

She huffed, hesitated.

“What Sam?”

“How much does Ron charge? I want to sue the apartment because they won’t fix the stairs. Maybe you could wrangle me a discount?”

The connection died. I clapped the cell phone shut.

I threw on my blazer. I was going to drive out there and talk to her, see her. I was going to tell her about my nightmare, the same one repeating over and over like spinning hands on a clock. I couldn’t do it over the phone. I had to see her, and maybe she’d touch me. I could sometimes see Billy in her face, especially in the cheeks.

I shut the door then hesitated at the steps. I inhaled, jumped over the twelfth at the top, then fled to the door. Damn. My keys. I’d left it on the boxes in the bedroom.

I took to the stairs, prepared myself at the eleventh to leap, but my legs wouldn’t respond to my brain’s commands. The wood had been replaced by a vat of cement, sucking my feet in and hardening fast. I stood there, staring at number twelve. It rose up like a Kilimanjaro, blocking me from getting to my apartment.

Waiting. Trapped in the vice.

Maybe Jenny would regret yelling, take a flight east, come and take my hand and lead me home. She’d tell me how her womb ached still for Billy, that her life was severed when his tiny clockwork body stilled from the cancer in his blood. It had been our blood that soured. We gave it to him, damned him to a brief life. I blamed her for at least half of it.

I sat on the eleventh step, leaning against the wall. The briny, putrid odor of a neighbor’s cooking brought on nausea, and I covered my nose, mouth with the black sleeve of my blazer. I sat there till the windows in the front door dimmed, a black curtain falling on the hall. My eyes closed. In only moments of sleep, the dream cycled through my head.

It played thrice until a voice reached in, pulling me from the nightmare.

“Sam? Not peachy keen?”

Meredith kneeled at the top of the staircase. I couldn’t reach her passed the chasm of step twelve. The black hole waited to suck me down and crush me. I figured it out just then. It wasn’t the step. There was something here unseen, lost in the veil beyond the eye, a geometric point like a singularity. I had found that pit in the world where all things collect when they are lost: house keys, important paperwork, that favorite toy, the memory of the face of your mother before she died. The hole of lost things began here at the twelfth step. I could reach in and pull out all misplaced and stolen matter and energy since the dawn of time. It floated off the ground, constantly expanding. The next person to step on the stair would crack the wood and fall in, and people lost could never be found.

Was that where Billy had gone?

“Here honey,” she said. “Take my hand. I’ll make us some coffee.”

“No. I don’t want you to be lost too.”

How to make her understand?

“Honey. What can I do to make it better?”

“Because you’re lonely too and think because we’re both divorced we could share our misery.”

She still reached for me.

“I know it’s hard getting close to someone again,” she said. I hadn’t realized before just how sturdy she was—solid footing, good calve muscles exposed through her Capris. She didn’t wobble, rooted into the floor.

“I hear you at night yelling in your sleep,” she said. “My bed is just on the other side yours. I reach out to the wall and try to hold you.”

“I close my eyes and I’m dreaming,” I said. “It never stops playing behind my eyes. My son.”

“I didn’t know you had a son,” she said. “Does he live with his mother?”

“He couldn’t take his eyes off his toy plane, running down the hall from his bedroom. He hit the stairs and tumbled right down, snapping it. He got a wicked gash on his temple. It had to hurt, but he didn’t cry. Not my Billy. So stoic. Tough.”

“We drove him to Saint Mary’s for stitches, and it was weird because he just kept bleeding. They find cancer like that, funny little accidents.”

She reached for my shoulder.

“In the dream, I’m chasing after him, trying to stop him from hitting the stairs. I see him go down, but when I get there, he’s gone like the staircase ate him up.”

“I had no idea. Please. Let me take you home and make you some coffee.”

“It’s going to snap, and you’ll be lost forever.”

“I’ll show you,” she said, plunging her foot down on the step.

The wood cracked, vibrating through my body. The stair bent then snapped, and her foot lost balance. She wobbled forward, throwing her arms to the walls to catch hold of something but not getting enough traction.

I reached for her as I did Billy in my dream. Her foot caught in the twisted wood, and her body turned as she fell. I braced on the wall, breaking her fall, reaching to keep her head clear of the banister.

She gurgled, trying to yell out I guess. I caught her, kept her from plummeting down the rest of the staircase, holding her. I could feel her heart race like a drum through her ribs. We both nearly tumbled down the stairs.

She felt my arms around her, felt little pain, still awake, still alive, and she sobbed into my blazer.

“I’ll get you home, Meredith.”

I lifted her, carried her as I stepped over the hole in the world. I didn’t dare look down into the dark bag, knowing I’d go mad if I saw the eyes of the lost souls frozen forever in the heart of the singularity.

I carried her to her apartment, opened the door and thought for a moment from all the packed boxes and dirty dishes that I had mistakenly stepped back into my flat.

I laid her on her couch, checked her leg for bruising.

“How did you know it was going to break?” she said.

“Magic feet,” I said.

—-

T. Fox Dunham lives outside of Philadelphia, PA. He is a cancer survivor, a historian, and an author published in many international magazines and anthologies. He is currently finishing his first novel, The Adam & Eve Experiment and writing for Beam Me Up Podcasts. His motto is: deconstructing civilization one story at a time. www.facebook.com/tfoxdunham.

—–

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Beth watches as he enters her store.  She smiles.  She can never predict when he’ll be in.

“Hey, sildenafil Beth, salve ” he says as he approaches the counter.  He’s dressed for work, cialis in khakis and a polo with “Capital Customizations” embroidered on the pocket.

“Hey, Ryan.”  Her smile widens.  She’s trying out a new shade of lipstick today, wonders if he notices.  ”The usual?”

“Yeah.”

She reaches for a pack of Marlboro’s as he pulls out his wallet, gets out his money.

“Anything else for you today?”  She leans forward just a little so that he can see her tits.

He pretends not to notice although she’s pretty sure he glances down at them as he slides the bills across the counter.  ”No, that’s it.”

“Did you catch Survivor last night?”  He mentioned once that he watched the show, and now she always makes a point of asking about it.

“Nope, missed it.  I had a really busy day yesterday and went to bed early.”

“Lots of jobs scheduled for today too?”

“Yeah, looks like it’ll be a full one.”  He pockets his change.  ”Have a great day.”

“Yeah, you too, hon.”

Her eyes trace the the outline of his broad shoulders, drift down to his butt as he leaves the store. He hops in his truck and drives off.

No sign of him the next morning.  The morning after that, he’s back but just for pay-at-the-pump gas.  Beth pouts a little but manages to console herself that at least he’s at the pump closest to the
register.

Ryan is back that afternoon.  She unbuttons the top couple buttons of her shirt before he comes inside.

“Hey, Ryan!”  She smiles at him, leans over a bit again.  ”Today must be my lucky day.”

“Oh?”  His brow furrows a bit, barely visible but she notices it.  She knows all the lines of his face.

“You’re here twice today.”

“Yeah, guess I am.”  That furrow is still there.  ”Pack of smokes, please.”

“Sure, hon.”  She turns around, reaches up to grab them.  Her shirt lifts up just a bit, revealing the top of her black thong.  She slides the cigarettes across the counter.  ”Anything else?”

“Now that you mention it, yeah.  I was too busy to eat lunch today.”

He grabs a couple sticks of jerky from the box next to him.  ”These too, please.”

Her breath catches in her throat.  Now is her chance.  ”My shift’s just about done.  Want to grab a bite to eat somewhere?”

He blinks several times before answering.  ”I’d love to, Beth, but I’m, well, I’m really tired.  It’s been another long day.”  He gives her a small smile.  ”You understand, right?”

“Yeah, sure.”  She rings him up, takes his money.  ”Maybe another time?”

“Yeah, maybe.”  He grabs his smokes and jerky, hurries to his truck.

She watches him leave.  That wasn’t a no.  And he’ll be back tomorrow, to ask again.  He always comes back to her.

*****

Outside the store, Ryan glances over his shoulder.  Beth is still watching him.

The next day, he buys his cigarettes at the gas station across the street.

—–

Ed Martin is a writer and high school teacher living in Davenport, Iowa.  Find more of my works at http://www.edmartinwriter.com.

—–

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England

March, medical 1941

Thirty dirty children are loaded on a tiny train. Some turn to wave a furtive goodbye to their mothers, store but most look straight ahead, sovaldi scrambling for the best seats with newfound friends.

Minutes later, the train lurches forward, slowly chugging towards a smoother rhythm. The children fall strangely silent as they leave the city.

The war has taken its toll on their voices, and even when they are chipper, they stay mute. Loud sounds are discouraged in the new Britannia, the better to hear a klaxon’s cry.

Miss Tate stands up from her place at the front of the train, raising two fingers in the air to draw the children’s attention.

“Come, my dears. Let’s have a song, shall we?”

The windows are rimed; cold frost used like canvas for a multitude of grubby hands. Initials are scrawled, tiny malformed animals brought to life, only to melt away as the sun rises higher.

The voices of the children rise higher, too. They chant a sing-song melody, warming their chilly hands under their equally chilly rumps.

“Five currant buns in a baker’s shop,

Round and fat with a cherry on the top.”

Miss Tate points to a child near the middle of the clump, and continues the song.

“Along came Enid with a penny one day

Bought a currant bun and took it away.”

From the back of the car comes another woman, Miss Marsh, carrying trays of day old bread. It’s a far cry from the plump buns the children have been singing about, but at least its something to fill their bellies on the trip north.

The children take them eagerly. All, except one older boy with lanky hair.

“Four currant buns in a baker’s shop,

Round and fat with a cherry on the top.”

Miss Tate points to the lanky-haired child who hasn’t been singing, hoping to goad a weak smile from his dour face.

“Along came Richard with a penny one day

Bought a currant bun and took it away.”

Richard closes his eyes and turns his head to one side, staring out a window as the rest of the children continue on with songs about buns and meadows and crocodiles.

He misses his mum, but he misses Da’ even more.

But his father is off fighting the Gerries, and mum wanted him out of the city. Away from the dust and the fear of falling buildings, away from her. She said it was for his own good, but he knew it was because he had accidentally broken a good china plate, a family piece that his mother fell to her knees and wept over when she saw what he had done.

The seat next to him, thankfully, is empty. Save for the hunk of bread Miss Marsh gave him.

He hates the way every other kid here is prattling on, excited about a train trip north, not understanding that some of them won’t get to go home. Not now, not ever.

His eyes blink into new focus, away from the passing scenery and to the blank, icy space before him. He raises the tip of his right pointer finger, hovering it above the surface of the hoary window. Ashamed, he drops it back to his side.

What could he have to say that would be worth writing down?

A girl with dirty blonde pigtails plops down on the seat next to him, scooping up his untouched bread.

“Oy,” she says, in a voice that is surprisingly soft-toned despite its grating accent. “What about this bread?”

“You can have it,” says Richard, still staring at the window.

“Ta’, mate,” she responds. Then, after a moment, she adds. “Truly, thanks. It’s not for me, y’know? It’s for me sister.”

“It’s fine,” Richard says, voice as cool as the pane of glass.

“Are you sure you don’t mind me takin’ it? Only, you en’t let me see your face yet, and you can’t ever be sure that a person’s true unless you can read their eyes, see.”

Richard snaps his whole body back to her, face red with suppressed emotion.

“Please. Just take it. And go.”

“Yeh’re all alone, en’t yeh?” the girl asks. “But yeh don’t have to be scared.”

“I’m not scared,” Richard hisses.

“No. No, of course you en’t. But if yeh were, like, yeh could come sit back with me and me sister.”

Richard stares blankly at her, moving his lips but unable to find the words.

“I ought to get back to her. But I’ll see yeh on the platform. And thanks for the bread.”

She smiles as she stands, a small gesture that Richard is unable to return. But he watches as she makes her way towards the back of the train, stale bread clutched tight against her chest.

The train continues north. Richard finds solace in the constant chugging rhythm that hums under his toes. Everything is changing around him, making the unvarying sound of the train at speed as comforting as the sound of his mother’s heartbeat.

When the train rolls into the station, Richard shuffles on to the platform. He looks left, then right. The girl with the pigtails is nowhere to be seen.

He lives through the war. His parents do not. Decades later, he takes the same train from London to the north for business. This time, he snacks on a packet of crisps, and a currant bun. When he steps onto the platform for the second time in his life, he looks left and right.

He still wishes that he had asked for her name.

—–

Tucker Cummings is the author of “The Strange Adventures of Margery Jones”, a 365-part microfiction serial about parallel universes, which can be found at MargeryJones.com.  Her work has won prizes in fiction contests and she is one of the contributors to “The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities” (HarperCollins, 2011). Her upcoming publications include the anthologies “Grim Fairy Tales” (Static Movement, 2012), “Future Lovecraft” (Innsmouth Free Press, 2011) and “Stories from the Ether” (Nevermet Press, 2012).

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I wake up to the candy soap smell of the bus wash. I’ve fallen asleep in the back of the bus again. I promised my dad I’d wait. Right here. The bus jerks through the dark tunnel and then pauses at the end. Hot water streams down the fogged windows.

All week, doctor the bus has been on an erratic schedule. I think it’s the new driver. From her dopey smile, viagra sale I could tell she didn’t know where she was going. Sometimes the bus stopped, sometimes it didn’t. I think that’s how he was left behind.

Yesterday, I parceled my lunch: a Moon Pie, half of a tuna sandwich and a bruised apple, thinking that by the last stop, he’d show up and take me home. Or take me out to eat. So I hadn’t thought twice about scarfing down the apple. (The baby had wanted dessert first. The tuna sandwich went to street corner Willie for playing my favorite guitar song.)

My gut gnaws with hunger. I glance at the driver’s seat. Empty. Guess she’s on break or something. Or maybe she went home. The bus is warm, so I tuck myself into an ball and try to go back to sleep.

The sound of the bus wash reminds me of a summer rainstorm, like the one my dad and I danced in when I was little. That was the first time he worried about my beauty. Told me I had to keep it hidden. Boys would want it for themselves. I was his and his alone.

When the driver returns, she doesn’t check the seats. Instead she tosses a white paper sack next to her seat and plops down, shaking the entire bus. She doesn’t even look in her mirror until she passes by two depots with people waiting in the rain.

I want to take over the wheel. What kind of a bus driver didn’t stop at all the depots? What if my dad was waiting there?

She’s a renegade. And I’m hiding in plain sight with a hoodie over my head. It’s just a fluke that it happens to be the same dingy green as the bus seats.

The driver finally glances in her mirror. She says, “You again?” She shoves an egg biscuit sandwich into her round mouth.

I gulp. She has noticed me. I nod.

She shakes her head. “Can’t hide you forever.”

I nod again. The scent of her coffee wafts and lingers. I clutch my stomach to stop the growl. The baby kicks my rib.

She waves for me to move closer. “You got a name, boy?”

All of my dad’s training has worked. She’s fooled. I pull back the hoodie to reveal my long braided hair. I unzip it to reveal my bumps. “I’m waiting for someone.”

She snorts. “Girl, whoever he is, he ain’t coming.” She widens her eyes. The whites of her eyes are yellow.

My dad’s a good man who always keeps me safe. This bus, for example, had kept me off the streets in the middle of the night. Away from those terrible boys. “How do you know?”

“You can’t count on a man.” She wipes crumbs off her mouth with her napkin. “I’ve been there before.”

I sit on the seat closest to her and wish for coffee. My mouth is cottony and sour.

The driver turns the steering wheel in a wide circle, jutting her elbows. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“No school today.” She knows nothing. I haven’t been to school since the fifth grade. My dad’s teaching me real life skills. I don’t need books, schedules or boys. All I need is him.

The bus rumbles under an overpass. When she stops at an empty depot, she glances over. “You eaten anything?”

“An apple.” Yesterday, I want to say. But it sounds pitiful. I was taught to be proud.

“Need a bathroom?”

It was like she read my mind. “Yes.”

“Get off here.” She leans toward the aisle. “Go see Mick. He’ll set you up.” She pulls the lever to open the doors.

“Where’s that?” The street is full of greasy puddles and old parked cars. When the bus door opens, the humid air reeks of stinky cheese.

“At the shelter.” She points to a long brick building that looks like it had been a factory in better days. “Through that blue door.”

“What if he comes?” My dad would never abandon his beauty. He was busy looking for another job. It was just a matter of time and we’d be in our own place with a door and a soft bed. His advice guides me, even now. I zip the hoodie and yank it over my head. No bumps. No braids.

She grabs her clipboard and pen attached with a string. She pinches the cap between her teeth and tugs the pen free. “Tell me your name and I’ll tell him where you are.”

“I can’t remember.” Which is sort of true. If you were left on a bus for two days would you want to remember your own name?

“Right.” She scrunches her lips into a pucker. “I’ll pick you back up if I find him.”

I search her eyes for understanding. “But you didn’t even ask what he looks like.”

“Willa Dew, you get to eat today. Can’t promise you it’s good. But it’s a start.” She shoves her hand into her too tight pants and pulls out three damp dollar bills. “Here.”

I accept the money. Tears blur my eyes. He’s not coming. I have to admit it to get my legs to move.

“Bonita,” I whisper. Inside my head, I scream at my stupid legs to move.

She adjusts her lap belt. “What’d you say?”

“My name’s Bonita.” I consider using Willa Dew though. Then he’d never find me. Maybe then, I could find a little place of my own. Just for me and the baby. Maybe then, I could get a job and finish school.

Exhaust belts from under the bus, clouding my view.

The bus driver checks her watch and says, “Bonita. That’s Spanish for something, isn’t it?”

—–

Stacy Post, a native Hoosier, resides in the flatlands with her husband and three children. A Pushcart Prize nominee for short fiction, her stories have appeared in One Forty Fiction, Referential Magazine, Rose & Thorn Journal, WOW! Women on Writing and Every Day Fiction.

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The winter was killing the farm. Not even the spiders had food. They shriveled up like the sucked dry carcasses already spun in their webs and fell to the floor gradually in little, tadalafil silent breaths.

The man, search Joe Potato, cialis and his wife, Marjorie, were young while also being old. Their shirts were blue, like their neighbors and their boots were tan. Their hair was combed back to look shorter than it was. At night, they let it hang down freely in the farmhouse, not worried then about looking too frivolous or prideful of their manes.

Marjorie would pat out flat bread for the griddle as she undid her barrette. Or, begin patting out the bread in her mind, always a step ahead of herself with chores. Joe was less rushed, much like his family name perhaps. He was solid, but a bit sluggish. His skin was over white while Marjorie’s was the outside of the potato, a nice brown from the sun.

Any children they had would have been known as small fries, they both knew and somehow, their pride kept them from procreating. It was unspoken but true. They had both been teased as children, he for the obvious and she for a mole just above her lips. Neither wanted that for their own. Or, rather, perhaps, neither could imagine comforting a child each evening after school as they themselves had had to be comforted for over twelve years.

Joe, can you come help with the bread?

That summer had been fruitful. Literally. But then then snow had come early and hard and had shattered all plans of a nice potato harvest. They froze in the ground. Later, they were dug up for home use but were useless for the market or even for trade. They didn’t mind the mealiness themselves but others would.

They kept rabbits in the barn for times like these. They ate the meat themselves or bartered it with neighbors. A man down the road came on Saturdays to do chores just so he could eat a good midday meal with them. Marjorie felt it was the best he had all week and always sent him home with extras.

This week she was uncertain. A man working for food and she with none to give yet too embarrassed to phone him. The phone had been disconnected once due to her pride, her inability to tell the woman on the line that she needed to pay in installments, please.

She paid it in full two days later, but they had already incurred a large fee which they only just got paid off this summer. Joe’s pride was different. He more cared about his TV being polished and no dust on the window sills. That was it for him. Oh, and a swept clean step. That was it.

Can you run down and tell Chuck we can’t afford him this weekend?

He chewed his tobacco thoughtfully, with an eye toward the television. That boy hates me. He’ll just think I don’t want him around anymore after he talked to your sister like that.

No, he won’t. Go tell him we want him, we just can’t afford him this week. She knew it would be another month but she was trying to keep hope.

Oh, let him come. You can always find something.

There is nothing. Go tell him.

You made me ask for more credit at the market on Tuesday. Where did that go?

In your stomach. You can’t let him come here to work and go home with nothing.

He ignored her and went back to the television.

She eyed the door to the barn that connected through the laundry room. Her favorite rabbit had just had kits. To use her now would kill that litter too. They would need a few more weeks with her to get a good start.

She could hear their mewing through the door, though actually she couldn’t. They didn’t mew. Their faces looked like they would but they didn’t. The main sound they made or, really, that Patsy the mother rabbit made, was a low bark, just like a dog, when taken out of the crate unawares. Normally she liked to be picked up, in fact, the dog came and licked her though the wood. Patsy leaned into the dog’s licks the way you might a warm shower after a hot day. She would be a hard one to eat.

Joe, really. I need you to go down and talk to him. I can’t.

He flicked the channel and did not look up.

Really, I meant it. Go tell him. I can’t.

She wiped her hands on the apron. Both were still clean, she hadn’t started chopping yet. He twisted his neck a smidgen. Just enough to let her know she was being ignored, but good.

She went to the fridge. There was cauliflower that had greyed with mildew. She shaved the spots off and added some margarine to a pan and began dinner. She dug into her palm just a small bit with the knife. An indentation, no blood. She exhaled. She searched around the back of the fridge tile she found some peas as a treat for Patsy.

A penance for tomorrow’s duty. She could skin the babies and put them in the grinder for the dog, small bones and all. He would never eat his friends knowingly, but in a round bowl on the floor with warm water to make gravy, they would serve up fine.

—–

Meriwether O’Connor is a farmer, short story writer and columnist.

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We were all packed into a tiny car. Tracy Chapman on the tape deck. The red desert before us and behind us. The blue bowl of the sky above us and around us.

We were all sweaty inside this tiny car, capsule and smelling of the smushed avocados that had ridden with us all the way from California, recipe blackening in the heat. The road spilled out before us like ribbon from a spool, cure no end to it, our tiny car sliding along it to the end of the world.

The tape finished, and we flipped it over to hear the other side, and then again, and again, till it got dark. Still the road spooled forth without end, and the red desert, gray now in the darkness, on all sides, beginning to loom. It had a looming feeling in the dark.

We lit cigarettes, all of us in the tiny car. It felt unseemly to smoke in the heat, but in the cooling air it made sense, and the red tips of our cigarettes were only so many more stars freckling the deep cold night.

We stuck our heads out the windows to look at the stars. Even the driver, whoever was driving, stuck his head out the window and looked up without taking his foot off the gas. We looked up at the stars, a head sticking out from each window, a red-tipped cigarette sticking out from each window, yearning up at the stars.

Someone said have you ever seen anything like that? and we all said no.

Then whoever was sitting in the middle of the backseat, whoever didn’t have a window to crane out of, and so was just looking straight ahead at the road, said holy shit. And we said yeah, this shit is holy that’s for sure. And she said no, holy shit, stop the car.

The driver said what? and he didn’t stop the car but he did draw his head back in.

I saw a lady.

What? A lady?

Yeah, by the side of the road, just standing there.

We all had our heads back in the car by now. We were still hurtling along the road, the car still eating up miles by the inches visible right in front of the headlights, foot by foot. But we were all looking at each other, confused.

Stop the car, she said. There was a lady out there, just standing by the side of the road, looking at us, and I don’t think she was wearing shoes, and I think she had on just a little sundress and nothing else.

I sensed that she was fabricating some now, but I was still getting spooked. We slowed down, and finally we stopped. But the driver, it was John, didn’t pull over. He just stopped in the middle of the road and didn’t cut the engine or even put the car in neutral. It didn’t seem like a good idea to turn off the car.

We all turned to Lydia–that’s who it was in the middle of the backseat there, next to me–and someone said, OK now, tell us exactly what you saw.

You all had your heads out the windows, and I was watching the road, and I saw a lady standing by the side of the road with bare feet and not wearing much and nothing or nobody anywhere near her, and she was just standing there looking at us drive by, and I only saw her for a second but I’m telling you her face looked grim.

But we haven’t seen another car for hours! John said.

And Lydia said, exactly. So what do we do?

Nobody responded. My cigarette burned down between my fingers, and I stubbed it out on the side of the car.

Here’s something I’ve never told any of you, Lydia said. She was hugging herself, and her eyes were open wider than anyone else’s. We all had our eyes hunched against the smoke that filled up that tiny car, but her eyes were wide and she was breathing slow and hard, like she was trying to draw in all the information she could from the world, so she could process something.

I have never told this to any of you. I ran away from home when I was 16, and I was gone for a month, and then I came home. But while I was gone, I hitchhiked all over Pennsylvania and New York, and mostly it was OK, it was pretty much fine, but there was one night that someone picked me up, and he was bad news, really bad, and I had a knife in my pack, so I got myself out of that situation, and I got out of that car, and that fucker kept on driving. But then I was on the side of the road, and he had my pack, and all I had was my knife and the wallet in my shorts, and I was in the darkest woods you can imagine, on some road in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania, and I stayed on the side of the road all night, just standing there, watching, with my knife in my hand and nothing else, and a few cars passed by, and I tried to look those drivers in the eye and find out if they were alright and let them know that I was alright to pick up, but you can’t see anything with the headlights bearing down on you, and I must have looked fucking crazy. So no one stopped. I’m just saying we should turn around, because who knows what that woman has been through, and who knows what will happen to her if we leave her out here tonight.

We all listened while Lydia talked, John with the car still in gear and his foot on the brake, Jake up there in front having turned down the music, me and Nancy in the back, each with a hand on one of Lydia’s knees.

OK, I said, let’s go back. Turn the car around, John. We have to go back and see if she needs help. We might be saving her life here.

Jake nodded, and so did Nancy, and John didn’t say anything, but I guess he knew he was outnumbered. He turned the car around but I can’t say he drove back the other way as fast as he’d come.

We drove for minutes, maybe four or five, and then Lydia said, stop. This is exactly where she was.

John stopped, and we all peered out into the dark, but we didn’t stick our heads out the window, not this time. We stayed inside the car. We kept all our extremities inside the car, but we peered and peered into the dark, and our pupils were huge, our eyes adjusted to the black desert night, but we didn’t see anything. We didn’t see any lady, just the sand lapping up at either side of the road, and in the distance the blacker shapes of the flat-topped mesas.

I guess she’s gone, John said.

Lydia was climbing over me, and before any of us figured out what was happening, she was out the door and wandering off into the sand, calling out to that roadside phantom.

—–

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

Read more stories by Chloë Gladstone

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Manuel Garcia ran along the shoulder of a road that led to one of the nicer neighborhoods on his side of town. He thought of some of the things that had happened to him on other runs—like the time he got hailed on and the time he got chased by a rabid raccoon—when he came upon a small, troche untidy feline horror flung out on the railroad track at an intersection. He stopped and studied it, whispered a curse at it, “You tawdry bastard.” God was Manuel’s Main Man, but He was flawed. It was a simple syllogism, really. A marginally bright child could reason it out. Man was flawed. Man was made in God’s image. God was flawed. But this didn’t mean that God was any less worthy of worship and reverence. As tawdry as the universe could be, it was divine and awesome and handmade by God. All of it. The whole whirling burlesque of it. God could be anything from a bolt of lightning to a mangled-ass kitty on a railroad track. He could be as goddamned flawed as he had a mind to be.

Manuel surveyed the intersection for someone to bare witness. An old man, using a walker, advanced achingly from fifty yards away. Manuel shouted at him. “See here, old timer!” He pointed down at God’s flaw manifestation, a stiff tabby body lying on one side of a train rail, in media res, whose head lay two feet away, on the other side of the rail, at the end of a mangy twist of elongated, still-connected-to-the-body neck. The head and stringy neck perversely suggested to Manuel a child skipping along a sidewalk holding onto a balloon on a string. The cat’s face was forever stuck with a hissing mask.

The old man’s demeanor perked.

“Once you arrive here take note of our lord’s aesthetic cruelty!” Manuel often thought of All Creation as something like God’s canvas and everything on it was produced by a stroke or series of strokes of God’s brush. This dead cat, all out in the open for anyone to see, was, to Manuel, a misplaced brushstroke.

The old man waved his hand in a dismissive way. He could tell that Manuel was talking to him, but he could not make out what he was saying—and he didn’t care enough to try. Manuel sidestepped the kitty corpse and slowly crossed the tracks, resuming his morning run.

Manuel didn’t run to lose weight or anything like that. He ran because it brought him closer to God. “‘The Runners’ High’ is what it is,” he would explain to people who asked him why he ran. “It’s a spiritual thing. God’s way of saying this is good.”

In this way the Run was Manuel’s Church. And so he ran. Six mornings a week he ran. God had only rested one day, so Manuel did too.

Miami was probably not a runners’ paradise. Manuel couldn’t say for sure. But it didn’t much matter, one way or the other, because Manuel did not live in Miami. Manuel had been born there, but his father, Manuel Garcia senior, had moved the family up to Atlanta when Manuel was two-years-old. Manuel senior, an American Civil War buff, had been one of Fidel’s “degenerate” exiles, as well as a very fine general practitioner with a Confederate soul (may it rest in peace). He had loved Robert E. Lee’s style. He had often told his receptive son stories of Lee’s purported dignity and grace under pressure, particularly of Lee’s surrender to Grant, how profoundly respectful and deferential Grant and the other attending officers had been to the defeated general.

Manuel didn’t have a prescribed route. He ran in the direction in which he was pointed by God. When he got to an intersection God would put a tingle somewhere in Manuel’s body—left, right, or center. The results were not always positive, but whatever happened, wherever he ended up, it was God’s will. This technique sometimes tested Manuel’s faith.

Manuel was coming up on a house whose front door had a doggy flap on it that sometimes spat out a feisty Boxer and he readied himself. The dog wasn’t there. It was quieter than usual, in fact, on this street. He looked at his watch. It was eight in the morning and he supposed he’d never come this way this early before. Instead of the Boxer an exceptional woman stepped out from behind the front door of the house. She was a warrior of a woman, a triumphal Greek statue with auburn hair. Manuel waved and the warrioress waved back and offered a nice smile. Manuel felt a tingle in his lips. “Where’s the dog?” said Manuel. It was God’s will.

“Oh,” she said. The smile leapt off her face. “Molly is gone.”

Manuel came to a full stop.

“Molly is gone? The dog is gone?”

“How did you know I had a dog?” she said. She glanced up and down the street.

“I’ve been chased.” He smiled to let her know it was okay.

She smiled too. “Oh, I’m sorry.”

“I’m usually later through here.” He pointed in the direction in which he had been running.

“Oh,” she said. She was standing next to the car door. She drove a nice car. Manuel didn’t know what kind of car it was because he was not that kind of guy, but he could tell it was an expensive one.

“I’m sorry about your dog.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “She was mean. It was,” she paused and looked around, “God’s will, I suppose.”

Manuel’s skin tightened and his head felt tentative. He tingled all over. He was compelled to say, I love you, and nearly did. He saw a series of vignettes, of shiny, tarnished-around-the-edges photographs of her and him in all the typical situations in which a couple finds themselves—courting, marriage, quant moments of yard work, and living room scenes of intimate familiarity, tender lovemaking scenes, scenes of them growing old together. She makes a beautiful old lady, he thought.

God had placed a beautiful woman in Manuel’s path.

“Forgive me if this seems forward, madam,” he said, “but I feel as if I’ve been presented with a rare opportunity.” He smiled and took a few unsure steps forward.

The woman put her hand on the top of her nice car, but did not speak.

“Would you consider accompanying me for dinner some night in the near future, perhaps a film as well? There is a movie house in Five Points that has a Deutsches Kino night. They serve St. Pauli Girl beer. The ushers wear lederhosen.”

The woman’s face went impossibly white which made her auburn hair look deep red. Manuel noticed now that her eyes were green. He felt her green eyes in a concentrated area just below his belt.

“Oh,” she began. She opened her car door and put a foot inside. Her mouth hung open, but no words came out.

Manuel began to feel sick and the dead cat scenario broke the surface of his daguerreotype dreaming. He leaned over and put his hands on his still sweaty thighs.

Finally she spoke. “I just don’t think so,” she said. Her voice was shaky with awkwardness.

“But didn’t you say ‘God’s will?’”

“About the dog? It was just something to say,” she said. “It wasn’t perfect.”

Manuel gathered up the little bit of dignity he had left and bowed to the perfect sample of female humanity. “Good day to you, madam,” he said.

The woman’s perfect smile returned to her perfect face. “Bye,” she said and tucked her statuesque body into her nice-looking car.

Manuel did not take off running. He walked at first. One can’t go from standing still to running. You have to warm the body up again. You have to take it slow. Manuel took it slow, and by the time he got to the next intersection he had built to a steady jog. The sensation came, God’s bidding, and it told him to go right. But Manuel went left instead. He pointed a finger to the sky and gave it a wag. “I’m just a lowly sinner down here, you cruel bastard,” he said. “She was a hymnal.”

—-

Gavin Lambert’s work has recently appeared in Word Riot and Writers’ Bloc.  He lives in the uncool, unhistorical part of Saint Augustine Florida with his wife and daughter. 

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It’s funny. Remember what you told me when you were first diagnosed? You told me not to worry. Not to try. Just to enjoy what time you had left. But I’d wasted my whole life on me, ampoule and it was time to start living it. For you. With you.

And that’s why I did all of this. For you. For us.

You see, before I met you, I had one thing going for me. I was good at my job. But you? You have so much to offer. You always have. Not only are you the one woman to make me rethink my life, but you’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever known. Inside and out. You’d walk into the room, even in your most fragile of days, and the light would surround you. No. Not surround. It was you. You were the light.

“Boss, you want me to give you a minute? I mean, alone?”

“You’re fine right where you are, Sal. She doesn’t mind. Not one bit.”

Do you, baby? Of course you don’t. You never do. You always just let people do whatever makes them happiest. Well, I’ll tell you. I was just about as happy as I could possibly be the night I met you. You remember. I know you do. But that memory is for us and us alone. Even Sal doesn’t know how we met. And he knows everything.

He’s the most noble of my cause. He’s been with us from the beginning, and here he is, still with us both, at what you would say was the end. You know, it’s funny. I never believed in any of this crap when you were actively pursuing and willing to believe in all of it.

Like when we went to see that old voodoo priestess over in New Orleans. I wanted her to prove it. I wanted her to hex an enemy of mine, cast spells on him and try to put a disease into him or something. “Doesn’t work that way,” he’d said. You told me to stop being rude. You told me it wasn’t magic. It wasn’t a trick. It was real.

But after the diagnosis, or as everyone but Sal and I called it, the death sentence, you seemed to have simply lost interest in finding any magic in the world. I did all of this for you. All of these trips, you just wanted to relax. And enjoy the beauty. But you know what, baby? Without you here, there wouldn’t be any beauty. So forgive me, and I know you will, for being a bit of an asshole on all of our trips.

We traveled the globe. You saw the sights. Sal hassled the thugs at the doors. And I spent every waking moment looking for a cure. First we went to Dragon Cave in Thailand, to study and pray and seek inner altruism with Buddhist monks. I tried to pay them, but they said that it was free, which was a load of crap because then they said that it wouldn’t work because of the evil spirits that followed me on my voyage. And before I could say that I had nothing to do with it, the head monk told me that you, my wife, were just as much to blame. Your willingness to look the other way, or some bullshit.

So we kept searching. Kept spending. Kept wasting. Stonehenge, England, in search of the otherworldly stones, trying to contact alien life forms for a cure. Milk River Bath, Jamaica, swimming with the minerals and spirits of escaped slaves for a cure. Sedona, Arizona, going on a Native American vision quest in the middle of nowhere for a cure. And the results were always the same. Indians are just a bunch of drunks and hippy potheads. You can’t even pee in the water or something would crawl up the stream and stay there. And aliens don’t exist.

The day of our wedding, we consummated our marriage and found out that it didn’t matter how much I loved you or how much you cared for me. We would not produce a child. No matter how we tried, how much we wanted it, we simply couldn’t. But we never stopped trying. You went to church to ask. I went to doctors to demand. And no god or man could help us. But we were happy, in our own way. We still had each other. Until the death sentence.

We traveled. We struggled. You believed, and I wanted to, but never really did. Blarney Castle, Ireland, to kiss the Blarney Stone for a cure. The White House, Washington D. C., to blackmail ourselves into the President’s oval office and look for the secrets of the virus in the journals of the Freemasons for a cure. Wishing Bridge, Switzerland, to make a wish after dropping a dime or something of importance into the water below for a cure. I wrote a blank check for a quarter of a mil with no results. The President outed his only son himself rather than reveal his involvement in the outbreak. And luck doesn’t exist.

When you started to show, you had to leave your job. Then you had to stop hosting the weekly parties. Then you asked me to change. At first, I thought you meant you wanted me around more. You wanted me to quit my job. But, like I said before, my job was all I was ever good at. My job is my life. But I was wrong. I should have left the mob when you begged me. I should have left when I realized that you were my life. Always had been. Always will be.

But I didn’t. I kept pulling strings and doing business all over the globe, all the while searching for something that you didn’t even want. Mecca, Saudi Arabia, drank the healing waters of the followers of Islam for a cure. Pilgrimage Church of Guadalupe, Spain, to touch the mysterious black Madonna statue for a cure. Illuminati Chambers of the Vatican, Italy, to read the secret journals of the original Catholic secret society for a cure. But all were failures. My mom’s always hated Notre Dame’s football team full of Catholic liars. Everyone knows the mother of Jesus wasn’t ever black. And God doesn’t exist.

And here we are. Right here. Right now.

It’s funny. Remember what you told me when you were first diagnosed? You told me not to worry. Not to try. Just to enjoy what time you had left. But I wasted my whole life on me, and it’s time I started living it. For you. With you.

You see, without you, the man I’m trying so desperately to be doesn’t exist.

Can’t exist.

And that’s why I’m not letting go. You may have made peace, but I’m sorry, baby. I just haven’t given up yet. You see letting go as giving in. And accepting. But that’s just not how I see it. I see letting go as giving up. And quitting.

“Go ahead, Sal. Dig her up. The caretaker says we only have until sunrise.”

See you soon, baby. I’ve got one more place to try.

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Jeff Hill is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, currently teaching high school English for Lincoln Public Schools. He is a regular participant of the Nebraska Summer Writers’ Conference, National Novel Writing Month, Script Frenzy, and the Clarion West Write-a-Thon. His fiction has appeared in Weirdyear, Cuento Magazine, and Postcard Shorts.

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You live alone and earn a reasonable monthly sum that keeps you comfortable and with enough free time to keep your literary aspirations hopeful. You have a desk drawer full of story ideas written almost wholly on sticky notes, cure envelopes, ailment and napkins. You bought a Mac, discount because you think that’s the instrument of choice for creative people like yourself.

You read a lot, but not as much as you would like. Perhaps 50 novels a year, perhaps 100. You are self-conscious about the holes in your knowledge of the literary tradition. Joyce alone, you think, deserves a year of study in himself. You feel wildly inadequate compared to the tenured professors who taught you in school, or even your friends just starting graduate school, because you did not go to graduate school. But you do have a handful of publication credits in obscure art magazines.

One day a friend comes over. She is depressed. She is freshly divorced. She wants to sleep on your couch, and you abide. You have known her since before her wedding and you have always enjoyed her. You live in the same city, and she did not renew her lease because she is moving out of the city because of the divorce, and now she is on your couch. You think of when your friends started getting married, and now one in four, or one in two, or a statistic larger than what you are comfortable with, are getting divorced, which you never thought would apply to your close friends, but you have also never been married so maybe you don’t understand the stresses of a marital relationship.

You wonder if she has come to sleep on your couch truly seeking a friend or if perhaps she is looking for an easy lay. You know she has other friends in the city, close friends, and you wonder why she felt you were the one to impose upon. Maybe everyone else is out of town; maybe in distress you were simply the first person she tried; maybe she is looking for an easy lay. You imagine the two of you would be good sleeping together, but think it would damage the relationship. It would end its casualness, its coquettishness. If she left the couch and snuck into your bed one night you would not send her back, but you would not yourself try to sneak onto the couch. For one thing, the couch is too small.

Concerning the subject, you imagine ways to get abreast without alarming her. Perhaps you could nonchalantly ask, Are you looking for an easy lay? Surely she would not be alarmed, given that you live alone and she is sleeping on your couch and you are not close with her now ex-husband. She would perhaps be flattered; she would perhaps even be grateful that the subject is in the open, free for response, maybe discussion.

You continue your day job. She stays in your apartment while you are gone. She says she is enjoying her “staycation,” using her saved-up personal days before she quits her job officially. She is deciding where to move next. She is a nurse, so she can move anywhere, because people everywhere have a tendency to get sick. Sometimes she bakes, or cleans, or watches daytime TV. The relationship becomes comfortable and domestic and continues to be sexless. She says she enjoys this more than most of her marriage.

Mostly, though, she reads your books. She says she has never had time to read, and suddenly she loves reading. She’s coping, she says, by reading all these stories. She explains to you, as if you weren’t aware, how calming it is to read about different lives, and how it makes her feel small but also less alone, and how surprising it is to learn that fiction can actually be more honest than facts.

She also finds your books about writing, and absorbs them, and starts reading your books thinking about how they were written and how she might have written them. She had never had an interest in writing before, she tells you. Then one day she hands you a manuscript, because she respects your opinion. She calls you a writer, and says she wants to know what you think.

You are stunned. You wonder how many drafts the story went through before it arrived in its present state. The last line makes you cry. You read the story again, just to make sure. You tell her the story is very good, but she should sleep on it. She is impatient, and the next day goes to the copy shop, and sends out 50 copies to 50 agencies. Three agents call, wanting to know if she has a novel written. One agent is still interested when she says it’s her first story. The agent is in town, and they go to dinner.

She sleeps with the agent and tells you it was because he seemed nice and it was easy, and if it helps her get a contract later on then all the better. She confides she had been needing an easy lay. She says she feels so good that she could sit down and start her novel right then. When you see her next she has 4,000 words written. Then 10,000. Her book sprawls throughout your home, and you become irritated with the amount of oxygen she is breathing.

Her book becomes so large that she splits it into two, then three, books. She is writing a trilogy on your Mac because you take your PC to work. You’re the writer, she says, and hand s you book one, and wants to know what you think. The protagonist is obviously based on her, with fabrications. For example, in the book, she is an architect instead of a nurse. She is coping with her second divorce. She has sex with a variety of men. This time, the last line makes you weep.

She sends book one to the agent she slept with, and he makes an offer to buy all three, which she accepts. He is in town again, so they sleep together again, and you suspect they even sleep together on your couch while you are at work, though you can’t prove it. Why they wouldn’t just use the bed, you can’t explain.

One day, she moves out. She leaves a check on the counter to cover her expenses from her time in your home. She is heading to New York, where she will at least temporarily live with her agent, to write, though she will nurse part-time. She makes an offer to buy your Mac, an amount which will allow you to buy a newer model, because she wants your particular Mac for sentimental reasons, and you accept.

Your relationship is damaged; it is no longer casual or coquettish. Now that she lives in New York, you only see her on her book tours, for a few minutes, about once a year; she is simply too exhausted, she says. You stop reading her books, because you find them irritating to read without being able to talk to her, and you two no longer talk. You are invited to her wedding with her agent, and you accept, but then feign illness and send a gift instead.

The last you hear the two are divorced and the agent is writing a tell-all book about his marriage to the literary icon. You await its release. In the excitement, you finally sit down to write.

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Robert John Miller’s work has recently appeared in DOGZPLOT, Bartleby Snopes, and Monkeybicycle. He is currently shirtless. He lives in Chicago and more can be found at bobsoldout.com/work.

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Excuse Me Miss Is Anyone Sitting Here?  Jeez God he was the fifth one in half an hour and it wasn’t even her table it was the table next to her they came they sat they pulled out their computers and stood up, viagra looked around the room and adjusted themselves, sick then away, downstairs, to the street, to the action, to the place that has whatever they were really looking for which was never a seat in a cafe, never a little table with no outlet, no I got the outlet.  She sat there with no tits to speak of  and her face was crooked you could see it instantly the way one side of her mouth curled up too high it was just the way things were and she didn’t mind for herself but it got old so she adjusted her papers she piled up her books putting Piscé Pure on top, the best one on top nobody knows what it means and you can tell so much by what people ask you by what they are willing to ask.

Excuse Me Miss Is Anyone Sitting Here.  I’m afraid so.  You can’t sit here.  I forbid it.  He froze he was surprised he stepped closer but I don’t see anyone at all there isn’t even a coffee ring are you expecting someone No I’m not expecting anyone at all it’s just busy Is it me are you just saying this because it’s me or is it everyone why can’t I sit here because I say you can’t because I don’t want you to it’s not okay.

That book is stupid he said and she said what book like she’d never even noticed it there nor the biography of Proust written without reference to autobiographical sources nor the third volume which was lyric poetry by survivors from the american invasion at Okinawa.  She didn’t like poetry at all but it was important some of those people barely escaped the suicides recommended by their own government if they were girls it was better to die than risk the alluring American candy bar and if they had poetry about it she felt she should read it yes that book is okay he said I can see reading that but the Piscé Pure book is just ridiculous do you really think eating any amount of fish will remove sin from your body if your body has sinned it just has and if you don’t believe in sin its even more ridiculous why do you have it.

Sit down she said.

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Leslie Ingham is a founding member of the Portuguese Artists Colony.  She is currently at work on a novel.

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In the old family photos taken at Strathmere, buy viagra a man stands among his five daughters. He is our father. Feet firm in the sand, try he wears blue swimming trunks, ambulance his shirt blowing in the sea breeze,. He looks straight into the camera, his eyes clear and unsmiling. When I look at these photos, I smell the tang of Old Spice and Coppertone. He is wearing the same maroon canvas shoes that I found after he died, crumbled into the bottom of an old shoebox in his closet.

We know that our grandmother’s beach house is gone. It was blown away by a hurricane sometime in the 1960′s. My older sisters are on a pilgrimage to see if they can find where it once stood. We walk down  Tecumseh Street to the grey bleached pilings of the sea wall. A forest of striped beach umbrellas are scattered across the sand, white fringe barely stirring in the sluggish air.

One sister tells me I do not remember any of this because I was too young. The other asks, do you?

I am small, peering over the prickly front seat of our new station wagon. The dashboard glows with silver circles and dials, rows of gauges, banks of chrome buttons. The lights across the dashboard glisten like carnival lights in the blackness. I see Daddy’s arms relax on the ivory circle of the steering wheel, his window is rolled down now. We are almost there. The night air, ripe with creosote, salt, and still warm asphalt, swirls into the car.

I sit on the sea wall with my back to the ocean, looking down the street. The beach houses on Tecumseh Street, homely and faded, innocently nestle below the flat faced condos that rise above them. Another hurricane on another day will remove more houses along Tecumseh Street, granting room for more condos to claim their entitled view of the ocean.

A little distance away my sisters sit close together, their heads bent over the old cracked photos. I look at the one in my hand. It is my favorite. I peek from around my father’s legs, a towel draped over my shoulders. Daddy is holding my hand in his. He looks straight and true at the camera.

I wait on the sea wall at Strathmere, looking down Tecumseh Street towards the highway, but no cars slow and turn in.

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Ruth Michel has been writing for three years and has recently completed a novella.  She lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

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The Prefect granted Joseph’s request and with a wave of his hand said, sildenafil “be done with it.” Nicodemus stood among his fellow Pharisees, patient listening as they whispered dissent, cialis and he understood the implications. Not until Joseph departed and the Prefect began other business did Nicodemus slink through the shadows to meet his friend in the street.

“Come back inside with me, Joseph,” Nicodemus said, glancing back to monitor his departure. “They may not punish you yet. You may only receive a condemnation, a slap on the hand. If you insist on this, they will kill you.”

“I do not need saving, Nicodemus.”

“Just last week, when I was impassioned about Barabbas, you brought me to understand. Please listen to me now as I listened to you then. Come back. The courts…”

Joseph waved a hand as if swatting away a fly. “They are little concern to me.” He spoke without slowing his walk.

“Joseph, the man is dead. You must return with me, and we must go about our lives or we will lose them.”

“You will do what you must, my friend. As will I.”

Nicodemus stopped and turned to re-enter the court. The gate stood empty and the few surrounding pedestrians paid him no attention. He felt certain no one had seen him leave. His presence would not be missed for some time. He watched the court gate for a moment, then turned to watch his departing friend. As Joseph neared the market, almost lost in the crowd, Nicodemus sighed and ran after him; a reluctant soldier disallowing another to fight in his stead.

Joseph bought fresh white linens and aloes and spices, while Nicodemus argued the cause was already lost. He borrowed a ladder from a charitable merchant, while Nicodemus listed reasons to return.

As the two men let the market and made their way down the main road, Joseph held his shoulders high and stamped each step, small plumes of dust curling out from under his feet. He looked straight ahead, ignoring the squinted angry eyes and hand-covered comments of the road’s inhabitants. Three paces behind, Nicodemus shuffled his feet; a worm’s trail in the dirt. Nicodemus looked to the bystanders, meeting their eyes and casting his glance down again. A strong word against him might have swayed him to halt, but none came. The bystanders kept their distance.

Nearing the garden, Nicodemus said, “Joseph, there are other ways. You don’t have to do this. Giving your life will prove nothing. Think of all you stand to lose.”

“It is lost only if I do nothing, my friend. I have not asked you to follow. You may depart as you wish.”

“But why, Joseph? Why? They will kill you despite your honorable name. You will have no case for their mercy. And all for one who is already dead?”

Joseph stopped. He turned. “Do you still believe as I do?”

Nicodemus looked to the ground and said, “I don’t know anymore.”

“I have never been more certain. I will not look into the faces of my peers and deny it anymore. I will no longer continue in secret and let others take the flogging that I too deserve.”

“But he is already dead, Joseph. Dead. He has lost.”

“And it took his death to make me understand.” There was a silence between them for a moment but neither looked away.

Joseph continued down the road. Nicodemus followed, pleading a logic that Joseph brushed away like dust off his hands. When they could see beyond the garden to the shadowy figures seeming to float in the air, Joseph said, “And he is not dead. Not in the way death comes to men like you and me.”

“Dead is dead,” Nicodemus said.

They passed through the garden. New flowers bloomed and insects rejoiced in the outreaching stamina. The lush grasses spread like a pool of honey, dense in the middle and fading as it stretched. Each plant blossomed; a healthy newborn child with curious eyes. The fragrance came to the men in the wind and they flared their nostrils. Nicodemus turned a melancholy smile at the garden while he walked past. A soft breeze blew through his hair and beard, and he did not want to go farther.

“It is right to lay him in this place,” Joseph said.

“There are many like it. Why give him your burial place?”

“Because it is right.”

Nicodemus knew that response, had conceded to it on many occasions. For the first time he rebutted. “Am I also to die for your righteousness?” The words gave Joseph pause. Nicodemus continued, “The judges will think me your accomplice. Not a man speaking reason to his reasonless friend.”

“Whatever debt you feel I am owed, my friend, consider it paid.” Joseph continued walking.

Far beyond the garden, the fragrance and color were gone, exchanged for the metallic foul smell of rotting flesh. Men’s coughs and cries replaced the sound of rustling leaves. Windswept sand impacted their faces; a thousand innocuous needles. No plant life accompanied the dying men, save the treated wood upon which rope and iron cast their victims. Among many broken corpses the men found the body. A small parchment had been tacked above its head, a cruel joke in which many took pride.

“We must release his feet first.” Joseph dropped the ladder and wrenched the formidable nail.

“It is no good, Joseph. The nail is too deep and the wood is too strong.” Nicodemus looked behind him. “And others have seen us and know we are here. There is still a chance.”

Joseph tilted his head, examining the corpse. He grabbed the feet and pulled upward. Bones cracked and the congealed blood oozed as the feet began to slide up the nail. He called Nicodemus to him, but Nicodemus refused to help. Joseph repositioned himself under the nail, pushing until the flesh released. The body slumped; a threadbare flag pulled flaccid by gravity. Nicodemus stared at Joseph’s calm and strong blood-covered hands.

Joseph mounted the ladder. With similar cracking bone, the body’s arm came free. “Come,” he said, grunting with exertion, “hold him here while I release the other.”

“I will not touch him and implicate myself,” Nicodemus said.

“We are alone, Nicodemus. I ask only that you hold a man’s arm.”

Nicodemus examined the empty road. Assuring its vacancy, he held the body’s shoulder and arm high over his head, looking down and away, coughing. “Hurry,” he said, “he is getting heavy.”

“You are strong and he is little more than a skeleton.”

“His blood is dripping on me.” Nicodemus clenched his teeth at the sound of each metacarpal breaking around the iron nail.

“Prepare,” Joseph said, pulling the limp hand free of the nail and releasing the body. Nicodemus caught the nearly weightless corpse and carried it like a sleeping child. He examined the broken and beaten body in his arms, peaceful despite its violent end. He knelt to place it on the ground.

Nicodemus washed himself and Joseph washed the body. Nicodemus watched as his friend smeared the body with aloe and sprinkled spices on its skin. Joseph struggled with the wrapping and looked to Nicodemus. With tacit compliance, Nicodemus assisted. When he looked up, a small crowd stood down the road, too afraid to come closer than visibility necessitated. Nicodemus felt the weight of their eyes on him. And as Joseph finished tying the linens, Nicodemus said, “They have identified me for certain. You have condemned your friend to death too. Now three must die where before there was only one.”

“It is an honor to have this opportunity, Nicodemus.”

“There is no honor in this,” Nicodemus said in a harsh whisper. “I see nothing but your senseless pride. A pride that has gotten me killed.” Joseph put a hand on his friend’s shoulder as Nicodemus wiped away the tear welling in his eye. Joseph scooped the body in his arms and stood. He watched Nicodemus in silence. Nicodemus waited. He looked to the gathering crowd, then to his friend. He reached for the body, and the two men hoisted it high above them, not letting it fall as low as their shoulders. Their bobbing torsos and the cadence of their feet fell into synchronization; the marching rhythm of a proud army.

They turned into the garden. Nicodemus felt the soft grass poking between the straps of his sandals and he basked again in the fragrances. The sun formed a semi-circle over the horizon, its fingers reaching to dance on the white linen. The men squinted and continued through the garden to its farthest corner point. There, they laid the body aside for a brief moment to roll away the stone. They placed the body in the tomb.

Both men stood silent with heads bowed, each for a different reason.

“Is there anything else?” Nicodemus said.

“Nothing more is asked of us.”

“Except to face our death,” Nicodemus said.

“To face whatever comes next.”

After replacing the rock, they returned to the road and proceeded to town.

“They will be waiting for us.” Nicodemus said, a small rattle in his voice. “It won’t be much farther than around this bend.”

“They will. But there is little to do now.”

“We can go home a different way. We can gather our things and flee. There is still time.”

“You are free to do as you wish. You have been a good friend and I thank you for it.”

Nicodemus lifted his chin. They walked the road. With backs to the setting sun, their shadows reached far in front of them like giants walking into the sky.

—–

Christopher Cervelloni graduated from Butler University in ’06 with a bachelors in creative writing. In the past year he has published; “Leaving Home” in Foliate Oak, “The First Stone” in CC&D, and “Laughing at Jane Ellen’s Pillows” and “Derek Kelsie Receives Bad News” in Cynic Magazine. He teaches writing in Ft. Collins, CO.

Read more stories by Christopher Cervelloni

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Top of the ninth, cialis one out, men on second and third. I have a chance to redeem myself for my fielding error last inning that gave Binghamton the lead.

I set my stance in the batter’s box, working the bat, keeping my fingers loose. Two balls. Two strikes. On the mound, Lang bends down, glove covering his forward knee. He squints, taking in the catcher’s sign. I wonder if he needs glasses. I know the umpire does after that last call. If that ball even grazed the black, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.

Settle, I tell myself. Relax. Morton’s on third and our speedster, Jimmy Jackrabbit, on second. All I need is a ground ball to the right side, just roll my wrists over and pull it. Morton will score easy. Tie game. But, man, wouldn’t a single be cool right now. No way any of these outfielders have the arm to gun down Jimmy at the plate. A ground ball makes me that guy people remember in the morning, that guy who did his job and tied up the game. A single makes me the guy people can’t forget. Who am I kidding? I need the single; hell I need a home run. I’m 26 and still playing double-A ball. There aren’t a whole lot of chances left for me to impress.

Lang starts his motion. My grip squeezes tight. Fastball, I think. He’s not going to want to go 3 and 2 on me. He’s not going to nibble either. The ump owes me a call after that last one. It’s going to be a fastball and it’s going to catch the plate. All I have to do is swing hard, lift the ball. Here it comes.

I feel the grunt pushing from my stomach, the spring releasing from my legs and hips. I feel the bat swinging through its arc, tracking the ball. If I hit it, it’s going at least a mile.

“Steeerike three!” the umpire bellows.

Changeup? I think numbly. Who the hell throws a changeup on 2-2 with the winning run on second?

“Two down!” the catcher bellows, stepping past me over the plate with two fingers held high. Two down. “Don’t get too down,” I hear my father’s voice whispering in the back of my head. “Paint it black.” He always told me that when I was growing up. Paint your mistakes black, blot them out of your mind and move on. The best memory is a short one. It’s how you succeed in a sport where even the best fail two out of three times.

I walk back to the dugout and carefully slide my bat into the rack.

“Get ‘em next time, Billy Boy,” the field coach coos. My name is Jeremy, I want to tell him yet again. Groenig, our manager is less tolerant. His slicing glare says it all. Ground ball, Walker. How many times I got to remind you to think a situation through?

I did think it through. The larger situation. My situation. I need press clippings and praise, not routine ground balls. Paint it black, I tell myself, as Simmy pops out, ending the game. Our sixth straight road loss.

“Paint it black.”

At the hotel, I’m waiting for the elevator when a slender woman seems to pop out of the dim corridor like a flash bulb. I startle. She’s wearing a yellow dress and holds a matching yellow fan in one hand.

“Sorry, I didn’t see you there.”

“I watched you tonight,” she says, fanning her face. “I watch you every night.” She has a pretty face, blonde hair, blue eyes, a petite nose and mouth.

“Flattered,” I say. “May I return the favor?”

She laughs and extends her hand. We shake. Her grip is much firmer than I expect. I evaluate her body beneath the dress, which hangs a little loose. Her shoulders are broad for her frame, there’s hints of bicep in her arms. An athlete.

“So,” I say, “tell me why a beautiful woman like you would watch my sorry ass play ball.”

She twists her hand so that the back side of the fan shows. On it, printed in black block letters: I’M A FAN.

I laugh outright.

“You have potential,” she says. “I’ve always known that.”

“Glad one of us does.”

The elevator dings. I hold the door for her. Inside, the ceiling light flickers.

“Floor?” I say.

“Down,” she says.

I frown. “This is the lobby level. There is no down.” The door slides closed.

“There is now,” she says, and presses the Emergency Stop.

My body tenses. I lift my hands defensively. But she only laughs and throws the fan aside. She wriggles out of the loose dress and stands naked before me, her firm body going in and out of focus in the flickering light.

Later, we cuddle in my bed. I’ve never been much about cuddling, but she brings it out of me. She’s a refreshing change in my routine, especially after tonight. I find myself relating the experience of that final at bat, telling her about my father’s cancer, the long year of watching him waste away, holding Mom close at the funeral, how I couldn’t cry.

“I guess I painted it black.”

“He was wrong about that, you know,” she says.

“It helps,” I tell her. “It keeps the pain from getting so bad, you know? It helps me to focus on baseball.”

“No it doesn’t,” she says. “How can you expect to learn from a past you refuse to remember?”

“I learn,” I said. “I’ve learned plenty.”

She strokes my face. “You’ve learned to absorb,” she says. “You haven’t learned to project.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’ve watched you for a month,” she says. “You caught my eye in that Erie game. That single in the first inning, the way you made your turn at first, that sliding catch you made later. My breath caught, watching you.”

I grunt softly. “If potential mattered, I’d be in the Majors now.”

“Not potential,” she says. “Passion. Love for the game. Lust to experience something greater than yourself.”

We lay silent for a time. I hear a television through the thin motel wall. I wonder if they heard us making love earlier. I wonder if we’ll make love again. I like making love to the yellow woman. I haven’t asked her name. I think I’m afraid to.

“When you obliterate a bad memory,” she says, finger making gentle circles around my nipple, “you also blind yourself to the future. Do you see?”

“No.” I kiss her hand.

“Your father was right in a way. It is about painting, only it’s not the past you must paint, but the future.”

“You make my head spin, woman.” I try to pull her on top of me. She resists.

“Hear me out, okay?”

“Okay.”

“The future is black to us, right?”

I nod.

“Think what might happen if you were to concentrate on painting that blackness with vivid color. Instead of waiting for the future to happen to you, paint it with possibility.”

“You mean, visualize? I’ve been through all that. In Single-A the coaches drummed it into us. Visualize the pitch. Visualize the bat making contact. Visualize the situation before it happens.” I sigh. “I did that tonight, as a matter of fact. I visualized a fast ball over the plate. He threw a change up.”

“Why didn’t you visualize a change up?”

“What? Why would I–”

“That was wishful thinking, Jeremy. I’m talking about painting futures, not predicting outcomes. I’m talking about painting the black with fastballs over the plate and changeups and curveballs in the dirt. I’m talking about imagining possibility so fully that no matter what comes, you’re ready to seize the moment.” She kisses me, a long, lingering connection of lips. It releases something in me. I feel suddenly out of breath, on the verge of vertigo.

“I’m talking about releasing the past,” she sighs into my ear. “Let it go, don’t just black it out.”

And suddenly I’m standing by my father’s coffin, seeing his placid face, no more worry creases, no more inspirational speeches, no more hands squeezing my shoulder, no more hugs before I go to sleep at night. No more.

A sob shakes me. Tears roll from my eyes. God, how I wanted to hold him. I wanted to kiss his cheek and tell him how much, how much. How much. Memory flickers into focus. For just an instant it’s real, the lips pressed to mine are his.

In the morning, the yellow woman is gone. I lay naked in a pile of sheets and blankets, the pillow case still moist from my tears. A shudder runs through me, a feeling of intense loss. My instinct is to paint it black.

I fight it. I fight it hard.

She left something on the other pillow, a red card with my image photoshopped within a yellow-bordered triangle. A baseball card. My baseball card. I turn it over. The back is blank. I imagine it filling in with numbers, Major League stats, home runs and RBIs, OPS and Stolen Bases. I imagine her face smiling from the stands as I slide home with another winning run.

—–

Stephen V. Ramey’s short fiction has appeared in various places, from The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts and Bartleby Snopes to Daily Science Fiction and Strange Horizons. He co-edits the annual Triangulation anthology of speculative fiction. Find him at http://stephenvramey.wordpress.com

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After a night of drinking we were talking about freedom, seek and wild abandon … something we’d both thought of as our life’s work when we were 10 years younger, and didn’t know each other:  when I was in Russia getting drunk at a different club every night, and she was in Sweden making love to an older woman who’d promised to show her the world.

The difference was, she’d let go of  herself all that time … and floated away from every limit, while I had been searching, hunting for that thing that would take my boundaries away, the holy grail of bliss through amnesia, and never found it.  The further away I went from my home and hearth, the more deeply I sank into the man who’d sat in front of them.

“Did you ever find it?” I asked her as we walked down the cool Oakland street, almost at midnight, almost at the hour when the trains stopped.  “Did you ever find freedom in wild abandon?”

She pursed her lips, and wiped her brow, still sweating from dancing at the last club, whose house music we could hear faintly echoing from far back down the street.  “For a little while,” she said.  “For short periods of time, I mean.  But … no.  No.  I’ll tell you where I found freedom.”

“Tell me.”

“I started this year $10,000 in debt, trying to run a small business.  I’ve watched every penny, cut every coupon, followed every financial guideline.  Thank you for buying dinner tonight, by the way, so that I didn’t have to watch my pennies.  That meant a lot.  And now, the year’s almost over, and I’m almost debt free.  I’m not carrying any of that around with me, I’m my own woman:  debt free is free.  Following the rules made me more free than wild abandon ever did.”

I nodded.  I looked up at the moon.  Big, round, and full:  the kind of moon things happen under.

“I think the last train’s going to leave soon,” I said.  “You’d better drive me back to the station.”

She looked up at the moon. “Yeah,” she said.  “I guess so.”

“Yes,” I said.

“I guess so.”

—–

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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Emig

Emig Emberlan tucks the flash edition into his vest so it will remain dry.  He will read it while he waits.  He knows there will be waiting.  There is always waiting.

The Fyboad Building is six blocks south and he strides through the buckets of sweet-smelling warm rain to reach it.  Before block 5, sick the rain cuts like a faucet.  Emig smiles widely, gazes to the sky, and utters an amused grunt.  He shakes the rain from his umbrella and snaps it closed.

Emig crosses the street at the walkway and enters the Fyboad Building through its double doors.

I have an appointment with Ted Appleton, 21st floor, he tells the guard, a paunchy woman with kinky hair and military-style uniform – white lapels and a green clip-on tie.

Name?  The guard drags a ledger from beneath the security desk’s encasement.

Emberlan.  Emig Ember—

He breaks into an attack of sneezes and has to cover his narrow nose with a white sleeve.

Sign here.

He pauses before signing.  When the pen connects, Emig takes care so each letter is exact.  He silently scans the neighboring names, and is even so bold as to fan the book’s pages.  Not digital?

We’re offline.  The storm’s messin’ with us.

Emig Emberlan understands, even appreciates.  He clips the pink VISITOR badge to his lapel.  Terrible weather, he imparts flatly.  (He makes small talk so he will be forgotten.  No one who makes small talk can ever be remembered, his mother once told him, and that has since proven to be true.)  Doll should get Repairs on that.

Yep, the guard agrees dryly, they should.

Emig taps his badge.  Thank you.

Elevators to 21 are first on the left, she informs him.

Emig finds his elevator past a line of the gold and marble support posts.  Once inside the car, he depresses the Braille-embossed button for 21 – a floor near the top of the light board.  He sneezes again and listens with satisfaction to the chimes.  The elevator ride begins with 3 other passengers.  The ranks dwindle to 2, then increase to 9.  But every 1 of them exits before Emig Emberlan arrives at his destination.

21.

Cold and efficient.

Tan carpet, off-white walls, glass transoms and symmetrical lines leading past the etched logos of corporations.  Emig likes this environment.  He has literally grown up with walls like this and they warm like a thick blanket.  The smells: a light coating of generic disinfectants, human odor, climate-controlled air, and the faint strokes of premature decay in the plumbing.  Emig’s senses are fine-tuned to such details.  They mix into a single, predictable recipe.  He breathes the 21st floor deep into his lungs before sneezing once more.

Here it is.

Mr. Ted Appleton, he tells the waifish redhead at reception.  She is underneath an obnoxiously large Kramer & Ramirez logo seated at a minimalist desk, an impractical phantom made of aluminum tubes and rainbow-colored glass.

Do you have an appointment?

No.  I’ve been sent to give him a critical message.

Please have a seat.  The receptionist unhooks the Eye Dial and fingers a number.

Emig plants himself comfortably in a crushed-velvet love seat to the left of reception.  Beside him, an identically patterned high-backed chair.  He withdraws his flash edition and begins to read.

Sergio Reverte, machete man, killed by police.  Alek Serkan, dead at the scene.  Glide-van kidnappings.  Eleven children, two adults, tranquilizer darts, escape, arrest, children free and returned to the loving arms of parents.  A sidebar tells of the 3-hour traffic bedlam caused by the flight of panicked families from City 32.  Many have made it safely away and probably won’t return until the 75 originals are recovered safe, happy, and healthy, says an editorial criticizing the police and prophesying the loss of tax revenue.

Emig rolls his eyes.

On the back page, an article on the Doll System’s maintenance lays buried.  The Repairs schedule, by zone, for the next month’s upgrades, appears to be the focus of information, alongside a thin analysis of the patent.  There is conjecture that the recent spate of technical difficulties may hurt the ongoing inter-city license negotiations.

Emig crumples the paper and carelessly tosses it onto the seat of the high-backed chair.  He hates the Media and their topsy-turvy notion of priorities.

Big news day, huh? chimes the waif.

Emig gestures to the discarded edition.  Would you like to—

No, that’s okay.  I read it at lunch.

He smiles then sneezes.  She does not bless him.

Emig had forgotten to eat.  The clock hung on the front of her desk reads 10 minutes since arrival.  A dozen people have come and gone through the lobby in that time.  None of them were Ted Appleton.

Always waiting, he thinks.  When they don’t know who you are, they treat you like a beggar.

Can you confirm if Mr. Appleton is still available? he asks the waif in a pleasant voice.

She nods with a smile.  I’ll ring him again.  Just as she extends her slender arm to the Eye Dial, a well-dressed man rounds the corner.  Oh, here is Mr. Appleton, she says.  The waif lights up with a scoop of her hand.  Mr. Appleton, this is Mr… Mr…

She’s forgotten my name.  Small talk does it every time.

Emberlan, the man in the white vest completes.  Emig Emberlan.

Emig stands and meets Ted Appleton halfway across the carpet.

Appleton has his left hand outstretched, but Emig doesn’t take it.  I have a slight cold, he explains.  I wouldn’t want to make you sick.

This show of courtesy pacifies the immaculate trustee, who drops his hand and snaps straight his tailored black suit-jacket before asking, What can I help you with today, Mr. Emberlan?

Do you have somewhere we can speak?

Appleton glances to the girl.  I’m not much for sales calls, Mr.

Emberlan—

Not to worry, Emig assures with a polite and understanding expression.  This isn’t a sales call.  But it is private.  Emig sneezes into his sleeve.

Bless you, says Appleton.

Thanks.  Emig wipes his beard.

Pause.  Appleton looks squarely into Emig’s hangdog eyes.

We can use my office.  I only have a few minutes before a meeting.

A few minutes will be fine.  I don’t want to be a burden.

Appleton leads out of the lobby.  They pass a succession of glass doors, exposing meetings between developers, architects, managers, and trustees, knee-deep in their Friday deliverables.  Most of these people are male, and all look deathly serious about their work.  They must have no children, Emig guesses in passing, for the day’s events (kidnapping, exodus, foul weather) don’t seem to be affecting the men’s devotion to duty.  Emig calculates of the price of suits, admires ties and leather desk chairs, again takes in the full aroma of the office, but not for long.  He and Appleton come to a corner passage.

No, Emig corrects, this isn’t another passage.  It’s a rare and enormous office.

Triangle-shaped, decorated with a woman’s touch, the office is stuffed with books on architectural design on wide, floor-to-ceiling shelves.  The windows are recently washed, with crystal-clear views of City 32’s cavernous streets.  Emig has been in higher buildings, but with the triangle shape of the office and the still-dark clouds, he has a sense close to weightlessness.  He wonders if Ted Appleton is ever dizzy.

Please sit, indicates his host.

As Emig takes a chair, Appleton settles opposite behind his desk and bare leather blotter.  Before speaking again, the man saws together his legs and snaps straight the cuffs of his black trousers.

What are you here to ‘wow’ me with today, Mr. Emberlan?

Excuse me… comes Emig’s reply.  He retrieves his kerchief from inside his vest.  Excuse me, he repeats, and sneezes with vigor into the white square.  Once done, he returns the kerchief to his pocket and meets Appleton’s expression – horror at the germs from his guest.

I thought you said your cold was slight.

It may be getting worse.  I had to come here in the rain.

Ted drums his fingers.

I will get straight to the matter, Mr. Appleton.  Last week, you murdered a policeman named Lucrecio Adalberto in the basement of this building.  Then you chopped the man into pieces and hid the body further down in the sewer ducts.  We have images of the body in its current condition and some other evidence, which I will not discuss at just this moment.  This evidence would prove to any court of law that you have committed this crime—

Ted does not crack.  He face remains unchanged.  What are you talking about?

Emig sneezes once more and does not bother to cover.  You have a wife and two daughters so I suggest you shut the fuck up, Mr. Appleton.  Or should I call you Ted?  As we’re close friends now…aren’t we?  Emig filters a smirk from his mouth.  I am prepared to offer you a deal: we will better dispose of Officer Adalberto, as you’ve really done a piss-poor job.  Then we’ll return our additional evidence to you and forget everything regarding about the murder…

Murder…?

Now he’s acting; Emig can tell.  His shell is cracking.  Yes.  Murder.  We will forget this crime if you do us a vital service.

Appleton uncrosses his legs.  He leans forward.  His face – a drained-white mask behind eyeglasses – has changed little since greeting Emig in the lobby, but something in his body language has evolved and, to Emig, has become animalistic.  Beneath his suit, Appleton’s muscles have tightened; Emig notes this in the way the trustee flexes his fingers and his muscles.

A letter opener and spare set of scissors are dipped in the pen box on the blotter between them.

Emig slowly and deliberately knocks the box from the desk to the office’s thick shag carpet, where it lands with a mild thump.  Do you want to hear more?

But of course, replies Appleton, I’m more than happy to hear this nonsen—

I want you to come with me now.  I have three children I want you to meet.  We will go to where they are today, and I will instruct you on how to abduct them.  You will take the children to a designated spot.  There, I will meet you again with your evidence.  We will trade and all will be forgotten.  Understood?

Appleton reclines.  He laces his fingers across his hexed, black necktie and, for the first time, looks frightened.  Emig Emberlan, he states, pronouncing each syllable carefully.  Is that your real name?

Yes, it’s a real name, but knowing it will do you no good.  There are layers upon layers.  I’m just a messenger.  But, be assured, those who know about your predicament are few in numbers.

Are you recording our conversation?

No.  That’s beneath me.

Pause.

I have a meeting.

Cancel it.

Appleton gives only a simple nod of the head.

It’s important that we leave right away.  We have a schedule to keep.  I can meet you outside the building, if you’d like to be most cautious.  Or you can say we’re going for a late lunch.  Whatever you prefer…

Whatever…I prefer.

We should leave.

I know, I know.  Let me think.

You have no options.  Ted.

Did that man who darted the 11 children in the park have no options?

He wasn’t with us.

Oh, really.

Of course not, smiles Emig.  He was caught.

And I won’t be?

Not if you follow my instructions to the letter.

Pause.

What happens to the children after I hand them over?

That’s none of your concern.

It is.

Not really.  And if you make it your concern you’ll be very fucking sorry.

Appleton turns his chair to the wide window.  The breaking sun startles him and his shoulders jog.  Emig sneezes once more, followed by an apology.  This time, he does not get a salutation.  Instead, a softy spoken:  Yes, all right… followed by a very trepidatious bob of the head.

The waif watches as the men leave together.  Emig thanks her on the way out.  Appleton says nothing.

In the elevator, they are alone for exactly three floors.

Don’t try to harm me, warns Emig.  I have friends.

How did you find me?  Appleton’s throat catches as he asks.

Like I said…I have friends.

The men do not speak again until the car reaches the ground.

I have a glide, or we can take yours, states Emig.  Either way, we should ride together.

I take the train into the city.  But I drove today.

Very well.  I’m several blocks away anyhow.

Appleton’s transportation is a non-descript family-size waiting on the top floor of a packed city garage.  Politely, he unlocks the glide for Emig.

Appleton says nothing.

Nothing as he starts the engine.

Nothing as he exits onto the tertiary road.

Nothing for the first two kilometers of driving, until…

Who are the children?

The first one I’ll show you is a 9-year-old girl.  Daughter of a city food inspector.  But I shouldn’t tell you too much.  I can give you the Christian name, that’s all.  That’s in case you need to use it to catch the girl’s attention.  Emig hands Appleton an object the size of a quarter, gray with a protruding 5-centimeter spike.  I want you to use one of these on her…  It’s fully charged, so don’t poke yourself.  I’ve got two more of them to give you, and you’ll need them for the other children.

What is it?

It is called a Sleepwalker.  Slap the girl with it, point-down, and make sure you puncture the skin.  It’s a shock-tranquilizer that will buy you two minutes.  She’ll go where you ask without any trouble.

That’s quite an invention.

It’s been in the works for a while.  Emig flags his finger ahead at the road, indicating that Appleton should pay more attention to the fast-moving traffic.

Emig guides Appleton to streets, intersections, and neighborhoods of City 32 the trustee clearly never knew existed.  The neighborhoods resemble others – neither poor nor rich – without specific attractions or character.

2:25, announces Emig with a glance to his silver wristwatch.  The girl was released from school at 2:10.  That’s an hour before her classmates because she’s in the gifted learner program.  Another smarty-pants friend to her twice-weekly piano lesson will accompany her.  The lesson’s over at 3:30, when she’ll be alone for 10 minutes waiting for her mother to pick her up.  Stop here, Ted.  Emig throws up a palm.  Right here.

Appleton steers to the curb and two following glides quickly zip past.

This street’s too busy, notices Appleton.

You’ll park your glide in that alley over there.  When she waits for her mother, slap her on the shoulder with the Sleepwalker.  Emig taps the Sleepwalker in Appleton’s hand.  She’ll come with you.  Willingly.  Without speaking.  While she’s still in that state, you’ll need to gag and tape her.  We’ll pick up some supplies at a drugstore a few blocks from here.

Emig watches as Appleton focuses on the corner.  On the first floor of an apartment building hangs a sign: PIANO.   Emig patiently allows a full minute to pass, then checks his watch, and just as Appleton begins to notice the silence, he points and says, There she is.

Appleton glances out the side window.

The girl’s hair is down, auburn-colored, and she is pretty.  She talks excitedly with her friend, who is a bit plainer and clutches schoolbooks close to her chest.  She limps.  On her foot is a thick boot, a special orthopedic correction with steel tips and heavy weight.

Her name is Kasey.

Pause.

What’s wrong with her foot?

Don’t worry about that.  We cut her from the first round because of it, but it shouldn’t slow you down.  She’s been wearing it a month.  She’s really perfect, except for the foot.  We got picky in those last days, but now not so much.

The men watch as the girl waves goodbye to her companion at the stoop of the apartment building.  She smiles, giggles, and hops up the short stack of stairs to the apartment door.  After knocks, an unseen hand lets her inside.

Questions, Ted?

What if they don’t leave her alone on the stoop?

If it’s not safe, don’t take her.  I’d rather have her get away than you get caught.  But if you don’t come back with at least one of the three intended targets, you’ll be arrested for murdering a policeman by tomorrow morning.  So don’t fuck with us.

Appleton wipes his forehead of perspiration and wraps his fingers around the steering wheel nervously.

Emig smacks the driver’s arm.  Do you understand what I’m telling you?  You’re a trustee.  You realize the implications, don’t you?  If you don’t do this and do it right, you’ll never be with your family again.  With the evidence we have, you’ll be convicted for life.  Emig speaks very slowly, as if to a hard-of-hearing baby.  Do.  you.  understand.  what.  you.  have.  to.  do?

Appleton slowly nods.

Start driving.  We’ll hit the drugstore and then I’ll show you the other two kids, as well as the drop location where I’ll be waiting.  All these kids are in this neighborhood so you’ll be able to get the two others first and be back in time for Kasey.  This can all be over in less than 90 minutes, Ted.

Appleton holds up a hand.  Wait, hold on.  I’m doing this right now?  I thought you meant maybe later I’d—

We’re on a timetable.

I have to get back to the office.  I have appointments—

Emig breaks forward and grabs Appleton by the throat.  He clutches hard and, for a moment, he seriously considers killing the proxy.  Die you fucking sonofabitch trustee fucking dickweed I can’t believe I’m even here talking to you, you goddamn fucking piece of fucking shit!!!!!!  He squeezes harder and hard and is surprised at how little Appleton is resisting.  It’s almost as if he prefers this way to any other.  But there are more passers-by on the sidewalk.

And the children are more important than Emig’s anger.

He releases.

Appleton furiously coughs, massages his bruised throat, and catches his sputtering breath.  He stares directly ahead, afraid to look at the man in the passenger seat and temp him any further.  His face is red and bloated.

Emig explains nothing, does not apologize.  Drive, he says.

Coughing, Appleton ratchets the glide into gear, checks the traffic with a look over his shoulder, and pulls away into the street.  He takes a final mental picture of the girl.

Kasey, he whispers to himself, memorizing.  Kasey…
Every Sunday, viagra 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 45, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Kasey 

Oh, physician but Mrs. Jackson, levitra she protests, I don’t want to go.

You have to.  It’s time.  Your mother will be expectin’ you.  Knocks at the door.  Hear dat?  Mrs. Jackson points.  Vinita’s on the dot so you cain’t stay.   Kasey slides from the piano bench, leaving a trail of notes with her fingers.  ‘Sides, you the only student I know that wants to keep practicing.  Most cain’t wait to get outta here.  More knocks.  Mrs. Jackson, short and dowdy, 50s, flecks of white in her Afro hair, with short fingers that used to be nimble, dials the lock of her door and welcomes inside Vinita.  This student is 11, Philippino, tan-skinned and brown-haired, with pink dress and patchy yellow jacket.

Hi ya, Mrs. J.!  Vinita skips through the door.  I brought a new song today.  The girl is digging in her school bag before it is even off her shoulder.

Kasey is curious.  What did you bring?

‘Make Believe Girl.’

I like that song, shines the teacher.

Can I stay and hear it? asks Kasey.

Mrs. Jackson funnels Kasey to the apartment door.  You’re mother is gonna be here any minute.

She’s always late.

Last time she had to get outta her glide and come and get you, I never heard the end of it.

It’s cold.

Naw, weather is good this after’.  ‘sides, Vinita hates you spyin’ on her, and you know that.   The piano teacher opens the close and unhooks the girl’s coat.

Kasey, resigned, pulls her blue-cloth jacket from the hanger and buttons it tight.

Mrs. Jackson opens the door for Kasey as Vinita scoots onto the piano bench.  The piano is a black baby grand with 71 dampered keys, a type especially made to be soft for apartments, with uncounted knicks in the wood.  Vinita fans the pages of her song on the music stand.  She then folds her hands in her lap, impatient.

Kasey peers out at the ribbon-thin sidewalk where she is supposed to wait.  The bricks are dusted with fallen leaves and the dying grass of the median is filthy from dogs.  But the scent of the morning rain touches her nose, along with the accumulation of glide exhaust from the nearby street, and it makes her feel a little better.  Kasey turns and asks, Will you watch me?

‘Course.  Day like today, says her piano teacher, I’m not gonna let you out of my sight.  But if you worried about goin’ missing, Kasey, you got ‘bout as much chance as being run over by a rhino as stolen.  Mrs. Jackson moves into position by the apartment’s plain front windows.  She plants the frayed, terrycloth ottoman against the wall – a perfect vantage of the sidewalk where Kasey must kill the minutes before her mother’s arrival.

Can I just wait—?

You cain’t stay in here.  You know how Vinita feels.

You make me nervous, sniffs Vinita.

And you shore know how your mother feels.

Fine, Kasey laments with mock indignation, go and play that stupid song.  Kasey feels the gentle pat of Mrs. Jackson’s hand on her bottom.

Mindful of the weight of her orthopedic boot, the necessary support for her improving club foot, Kasey hops the first step, then the second, until she is level with the sidewalk and street.  She glances through the part of the curtain.  Mrs. Jackson waves, watching over her as promised.  Kasey waves, too, and steps forward to the curb.  She balances on the divider as if it were a trapeze.

‘Make Believe Girl’ begins.  Vinita’s interpretation is not very good.  The rhythm is wrong and the technique clumsy.  Kasey barely recognizes the melody.  Through the walls, Kasey hears Mrs. Jackson stop Vinita at the second verse.   She starts again from the first bar.  Kasey squints back at Mrs. Jackson’s window.  The teacher is still on the ottoman, a guardian angel.  Mrs. Jackson rolls her eyes at Vinita’s playing (for Kasey’s amusement) and this makes Kasey laugh.  The girl returns to balancing, arms outstretched, wavering, an airplane coming in for landing, the weight of her backpack full of schoolbooks and her special shoe giving her troubles.

I’m better than she is, Kasey sings-songs.

She feels a jab into the skin of her left hand.  She drops her book bag onto the sidewalk.  The puncture doesn’t hurt or make her cry out, but she feels it.

A man is beside her – in a suit, smiling oddly, his face pale white.  Her first impression is that this man is ill and should visit a doctor.  A deeper look into the man’s eyes frightens her.  She begins to speak, but her mouth won’t move.  Her tongue has grown fat and the only thing she can do is shift her eyes to the apartment window.

Mrs. Jackson is gone.

Maybe she’s coming to the door, Kasey hopes, because she has seen this weirdo touch my hand.

Panic drives into her veins, along with a strange rush of a poison that paralyzes her with one arm out, the other left by her side.  Her heartbeat slows, but the throbbing in her hand where her skin was pierced intensifies.

Come to the door, Mrs. J… Pleeeease.

Follow me, the man says in low and controlled voice.  His eyes nervously assess the street.  He doesn’t touch her.  Follow me, he repeats.

To her surprise, she responds to this stranger’s command.  She tries to open her mouth once more but nothing comes out.  When she puts a foot forward, the man steps quickly in front of her, as if he may start running.  Go, go, run far away, she hopes, but this does not come true.  Her throat trembles, but not a word – not even a moan.

Follow me.

She walks.

Mrs. Jackson’s apartment is soon completely out of Kasey’s sight.  She can still see the apartment door.  But it’s not opening.  Mrs. Jackson is no longer watching.

Kasey returns her eyes to the street – to where her mother’s glide is set to arrive.  Please, Mom, please.  Please, I don’t know this man.  Please, Mom.  Kasey’s mother is late.  And Mrs. Jackson has forgotten her.  Vinita and her poor rendition of ‘Make Believe Girl’ have taken attentions.  Please, Mrs. Jackson.  I don’t want to go with this man.  Please.  I don’t know him.  I don’t want to go.  Please.  LOOK OUT YOUR WINDOW!

The man motions to a glide parked in the alley.  The doors are shut and he takes a moment with the key to get the back seat open.

Get inside and sit with your head down, he instructs.

Kasey obeys, though every ounce of her flesh begs to resist.

Two other children are pushed down between the rear seat and the front panel.  One is a boy, younger than Kasey; another is a girl, about the same age.  She is black and he is white.  Both are restrained by heavy-fiber duct tape wound tightly over their mouths, shoulders, hands, and feet, rendering them unable to speak or move.  Both begin to struggle as Kasey is pushed down into the seat beside them, but they can’t help the new arrival.  They’re trapped, just as Kasey is trapped.

Mrs. Jackson will come around the corner any second.  My mom will pull up and know what’s happening.

Kasey shouts for her mother, but her tongue won’t cooperate.  She is a slave to something from the puncture – her hand is burning.

Lay down.

Quickly and without precision, the man tapes her as he’s taped the others, only tighter.  She can barely breathe.  Her nostrils are covered and she’s smothering and he doesn’t even notice it.  She begins to gag and twitch with asphyxiation.  This forces him to act.  With a trembling hand, the man frees the tape over her nose and stretches it lower to Kasey’s lips.

As he finishes, the poison that controls her body begins to seep away.  Her faculties are returning, her mind loosening.  And as quick as the drug attacked her system, the paralysis has ended.  She is again her own motor.  Her first act is to scream against the gray fiber tape, but too late.  She can’t be heard except as a muffled, human presence against the seat.  The door slams.  He’s starting the glide.  Quickly, the vehicle speeds out of the alley.

Mom!

There she is!  Her mother’s glide rounds the corner onto Mrs. Jackson’s street.  Kasey can see her through a split in the glass.

MOM!!!!

But her mother may as well be on the other side of the city.  Another turn and Kasey loses sight of her mother’s glide completely.  When she tries to rise above the dividing seat, something whacks her on the head – a briefcase, swung from the front.  She slips down and nearly blacks out.

When she recovers, her eyes meet those of the other children.  In them is what is in her: terror.  Kasey now realizes that she has become 1 of the missing, 1 of the city’s missing children.

Kasey wonders what she has done wrong.

Kasey wishes she had stayed inside Mrs. Jackson’s apartment.

Kasey hates Vinita for not letting her wait inside and hear ‘Make Believe Girl.’

Kasey fumes that her mother wasn’t on time.

She remembers the playground stories about the first six to be found – children butchered, cut to ribbons.  She shivers uncontrollably and flops forward, her feet stuck next to the footboards.  The leather of the seats gives an odor that is sickening.  She wants to throw up, but the tape holds her back.  The chopping of her fingers and losing her ability to play the piano frightens her the most.  This awful doom stays with her for blocks and blocks.  Kasey sweats into the thick tape that barely holds her pieces together.  To not see her impatient but loving mother again, or her kindly father, even her spoiled brother, 5 years younger, makes her weep.  Her legs warm as she wets herself, as the others have done long ago.  She can smell it.  She knows now that she will be found without legs or arms.  This scares her into silence as the glide takes another unknown turn.

The dashboard Eye Dial rings.

It rings several more times before the man impatiently answers.  Hi, honey… I had a meeting… No, I’m offsite.  I’m almost done… Oh, Christ, sorry.  That was today?  There’s a quaver in the man’s otherwise unruffled cadence.  I’m sorry.  I don’t think I can… Well, they’ll just have to wait there… I know… I know… Of course, but—

Kasey hears the bird-like chatter through the line.  A woman is upset with him.

ALL RIGHT! he snaps and the bird goes quiet.  Let me think, he says.  Five seconds later he continues: Okay, let me get organized.  I’ll be there in 10 minutes.  I know.  It’s not far.  They’ll just have to come with me on an errand… Yes, sounds good.  Turkey is fine.  All right.  Fine.  Fine.  Yes.  Fine.  I love you, too.  Goodbye.

The man disconnects.

A few minutes later, the glide stops.

The man gets out.

There’s a compression of air from the trunk popping open.

The kidnapped children meet each other’s terrified eyes.

The man rounds the other side, opens the rear door, and reaches in.  He grabs the black girl by the scruff of her foam coat and hauls her out.  She disappears.  Kasey listens to a thump and feels the sudden shaking of the glide.  He comes back for the boy, who is harder to lift and takes two hands.  Thump.  With the boy, the glide rocks back and forth twice as much as with the girl before him.

The man next comes around to Kasey’s side.  He grabs her roughly, without any regard to her brittle position, her orthopedic boot, or the twist of her arms under the binding of the tape.  She gets a glimpse of the landscape – the glide is stopped behind a grocer’s loading dock, hidden on all sides by dumpsters.

The man stuffs Kasey sideways into the trunk of the glide.  Thankfully, it is a large trunk, but with the three of them it is nearly insufferable.  He has trouble closing the trunk because of her orthopedic boot and he forces it with a painful twist of Kasey’s leg.  He starts to slam the trunk and all three children protest in panicked, muffled blasts.  He halts.  Leans in.  Says with spit from his mouth: If you stay quiet I will let you out in 15 minutes; if you don’t, I’ll kill you.  He pushes Kasey’s arm so she’s out of the way of the edge and slams the trunk.

The children are dropped into pitch-blackness.

The glide lurches forward again.

Kasey ranks her fears:

Being drugged and unable to speak is third; being led to the glide’s rear seat and stuffed inside – that’s second; first is definitely now – stranded in total darkness with little air, darkness, and the breathing of two helpless strangers, wondering why your mother is always late and why your piano teacher is so obtuse.

It isn’t long and the glide stops again.

A door opens and shuts, then another does the same.

Kasey can hear two girls’ voices seep from the rear seats where the kidnapped children once were, and into the trunk where they are now trapped.  The words are indistinguishable, but the voices are most certainly those of young girls.

Only these children are not gagged.

They’re not screaming.

They are laughing.
Every Sunday, viagra sale 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 46, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Annye

Annye and Melina Appleton sing their hearts out and, unhealthy for the first time in a long time, try their father doesn’t shush them.  He drives, buckled very tightly in the front seat so his suit jacket wrinkles in the corners.  Annye’s song is about being older than her sister – impromptu lyrics over the melody of ‘Hush, Little Baby, Don’t You Cry…’

…Melina is a baby cause she is five!

Melina, behind the empty passenger seat, reaches out and swats her older sister.  She simultaneously drowns her out with a louder variation of, ‘Old MacDonald Had A Farm…’

… and that farm she had a BRAT – A-N-N-Y-E!

The girls’ melodies collide and strengthen.  Their father says nothing.  Soon, they tire of singing and these new lyrical insults.  The glide grows quiet.

Pee-poo, says Annye with a sniff.  It smells like cat mess in here.

Her sister smells it, too.  Did you pee? she asks her sister with a slap and a laugh.

And the whole rambunctious routine starts up again, just like that.

The glide is far from the schoolyard when Annye thinks to ask, Where’s Mom?

At the dentist, replies her father.  That’s why I picked you up.  She’s running late.

Oh.  Will she be home for dinner?

Yes.

Great!  What are we having?

Their father squints ahead at the road like he’s lost.  The glide decreases speed.

I want spaghetti, declares Annye, with meat-a’-balls.  Her play Italian accent draws a laugh from her sister, as does the mocking shake of her right thumb to the fingers of her hand.  Uh spicy meat-a’-balls!

We’re having turkey, finally answers their father, distracted.

The girls heave great sighs and laugh again.  They have the giggles.

Finally, whispers their father when they come upon a particular street.  He steers the glide into a narrow 1-way and finds a fork at the end.  Right again, then left, between the monochrome warehouse buildings.  The girls have stopped talking.  Their father glances to the mirror for just a second, but says nothing.

Annye’s smile fades.  Where are we?

I have an errand.

For what?

He doesn’t answer.

Another turn.

The glide jostles over the rough road then enters a broken concrete yard that stretches 50 meters square and is dotted with patches of dirty snow.  At the end of the lot is a tall, gray-painted, warehouse with its workhorse façade.

A bearded man in white vest leans against the corrugated aluminum sidewall.  He lazily stabs at his teeth with a toothpick, which he throws down when the glide hits the yard.  Satisfied, he nods to Annye’s father.

The distance quickly shrinks between the glide and the warehouse.  When close enough, the man in the white vest taps his knuckles on the driver’s side window.

Their father presses a button on the panel and the window hums down.  Late-afternoon chill sweeps into the vehicle.

The man looks at Annye and Melina seated in the rear seat, and his good humor suddenly vanished.  Who are they? he barks sternly with a finger to the girls.  They’re not—

My daughters.  I…I had to pick them up from school.  Their mother’s running late at the dentist.

Where’s—

Yes.  All done.  Annye’s father tilts his neck.

The white-vest man stands upright.  He looks around the concrete approach before pointing at the front bay of the warehouse straight ahead.  We’ll open the doors, he says.  Your daughters can’t come in.  Understood?  With that, he walks away, back to the corrugated aluminum wall, expressionless.

Their father spins in his seat.  Girls, you’ll need to get out of the glide.  I’ll only be a few minutes.  Stand…over there.  He angles to a patch of weedy grass at the mouth of the lot.

But it’s cold, protests Melina.

You waited outside your school, Melina, so you can wait here.  Father reaches back to the girls and unbuckles their safety straps with quick pushes and clicks.  Go.

The girls stay put.

Don’t worry, darlings.

I won’t be long, he assures gently.

The girls stay put.

I won’t be more than 5 minutes.  Go.

The girls stay put.

GO!  FOR CHRIST’S SAKE!  IT’S FOR WORK!  GO!

The girls jump.

He never yells.  Never ever.

Melina is the first to open her door.  Her sister follows, a little slower, a little hurt and confused.

As soon as they are a few steps from the glide, it rolls forward.  The warehouse door draws open and the man with the white vest flags DL Prix inside the dark hole.  As he whirls his arms and mimes directions, the vest man keeps his eyes on the girls.  Annye doesn’t like this man at all.  She doesn’t like his drooping face and his teardrop eyes, or his beard.  Soon, the glide disappears along with their father into the dark space.  The white-vested man pulls the doors shut by the straps and enters behind at the last possible minute.

What’s Daddy doing? asks Melina.

Annye takes a cue from her father and keeps her mouth shut.  She kicks stones into a snow bank then sits on a wrecked parking block.  Rebar pokes through and it resembles a stone insect.  Annye lets out a falsely heavy sigh.

Melina wraps her arms around her shoulders and shivers in her pink coat.  I don’t want to be outside.  It’s freezing.  And what if we get stolen?

Annye rolls her eyes.  We won’t get stolen.  Daddy’ll only be five minutes.

Melina takes the spot beside her sister on the parking block and lays her head on Annye’s shoulder.  The two girls pass the time without speaking.

There is a loud creak of tin in the distance.  The family glide reverses out of the warehouse doors.  No man in white vest, only her father behind the wheel.  The tires crackle against the broken gravel and he slows then stops where his daughters wait on the concrete block.  Okay, I’m done!  He smiles at them with his head out of the driver’s side window.  Hop in.

The Appleton girls climb back inside the glide and buckle their safety straps.  But they do not sing.  They stay quiet and cautious, with frowns on their faces. Their father, however, is now the opposite.  He wears a grin and taps fingers on the wheel.  Driving out of the warehouse district, he takes to the main north thoroughfare.

Did you get what you wanted on your errand, Daddy? asks Annye.

Yes, nods her father with confidence.

The broadcaster plays soft, plink-plink music that the children normally enjoy.  Their mother plays this kind of music often but their father never does.  Until today.  They remain silent all the way home, where the three bedroom unit awaits them, unchanged.  It is close to 5 o’clock when they pull into the parking space.

Annye tosses her school bag onto the cushions of the love seat and switches on the pipe to watch cartoons.  Melina asks for water and her father brings her a plastic cup filled to the brim.  For the first time in a long time, their father joins his girls on the love seat.  The 3 watch cartoons together, his long arms draped over each daughter’s shoulder.  He even laughs at a mouse and cat in a tumble.  The girls smile at him.  The bizarre ride home begins to fade from their thoughts.

At half past six, their mother comes home, shaking snow from her shoulders.  Sorry, sorry, she apologies, the trains were murder.  Um, why is it snowing?

How are your teeth? he asks.

Oh, she sells softly as she tosses her house keys in a bowl on the nearest table and sloughs off her indigo coat, I don’t even want to talk about it.  2 hours in the chair.  Can you believe it?  My DPG needed complete rewiring.  She hangs her coat on a hook and starts to pass the love seat.  Have you eaten?

We were watching cartoons, he explains.

Both girls smile up at their mother.

So I guess that means I have to make dinner for you?  She waits for volunteers.  Okay, lazy-butts.  Give me 10 minutes.

Over the blaring soundtrack of the cartoon, Annye hears her mother in the adjoining room as she clanks dishware, opens and shuts cupboards, and sets silver on the dining nook’s table.

Her father twists on the love seat and asks, Do you need any help, Maria?

No, she calls back, resigned.

The smell of warm turkey and potatoes fills the Appleton’s home, striking the children’s noses before drifting down the long hallway to the three bedrooms – Melina’s, Annye’s, and their parents’.

Annye once more turns from the cartoons.  Their mother stands above them.  She wears an expression of absolute contentment.  I love to see the three of you like this.  You don’t get enough time together.  You look so cozy… But come on, dinner’s ready.

The girls rise and take places on opposite sides of the dinner table.  Father switches off the cartoons and joins them in a chair beside Mother.  The house is suddenly very quiet.  They say prayers – together – Melina leading.  They fill their plates as Mother slices turkey from the breast with her over-large carving knife.  She forks mashed potatoes onto everyone’s plate.

Daddy yelled at us today.   Melina says this with a full mouth of food.

Oh, really?  Their mother has a knowing glint in her eyes.   You probably deserved it.

Can we talk about something else?  Father reaches out and puts his hand on Melina’s shoulder.  She’s the closest daughter to him.  And he squeezes.

Ow!

Not so loudly, Melina, please, calms her mother.

Father takes his hand away.  They eat for 20 seconds.

What were they doing? asks Mother with a full mouth.

What?  He pretends not to hear.

Why did you yell at them today?

I don’t remember.

Annye remembers, and says, It was because we wouldn’t get out of the glide.

When you got home? Mother asks distractedly.  They’ve done that to me, too.

No, when we were at—

Please!  He drops his fork with a loud clank and lays his hands flat on the dining table.  He takes hold of Melina’s wrist and squeezes too tightly.

She doesn’t yelp.  Instead, she shakes, and says, Daddy—you’re hurting me.

He doesn’t let go.

Daddy—

Maria speaks.  Let her go, Ted.  She half-laughs.

He lets go quickly and Melina suckles her wrist to her small chest.

Everyone is staring at him now.

Particularly his wife.

Annye notices the frightened faces of her mother and her sister.

Her mother’s hands are trembling.   Ted, she says, preparing for what looks like bad news.

Annye’s father raises his eyes to meets the frozen expressions of his family.

Oh, fuck… he mutters.

The words shock his family more than any possible alternate.  He gets to his feet and picks up the carving knife.

Annye, in the haze of three seconds, sees misery, like worms, feed into her father’s face.

He arcs his arm and the carving knife connects with Mother’s head, spiking straight down into the hair, the brain.  The knife sticks.  Her body doesn’t slump, doesn’t fall, but stays propped at the elbows, the woman held upright by the table and chair.

Annye’s mother’s eyes remain open as she begins to bleed.  Her mother might protest, her mouth is open a crack, but Annye somehow knows there won’t be any of that.

Her father rushes forward to Melina and grips the girl’s head with his strong hands.  He twists and she kicks.  Her throat issues a terrible, high-pitched cry.  Dishes, turkey, potatoes, knives and forks, and even the tablecloth splatter everywhere.  Melina stops moving her neck goes rubbery.

Annye, in horror, falls backwards in her chair and lands hard.  He’s coming around for her now.  She ducks under the table, between the stagnant legs of her mother – the statue – and her sister – the rag doll.  Annye runs as fast as she can to her bedroom and slams the door, locks it.  She scrambles under the bed and feels the drift of the dust into her nose.  She lets out a violent sneeze.

The door rattles, but doesn’t come open.

She hears his footsteps over her panicked tears and she covers her ears.

The window, she thinks.  She should try for the window.  But she’s too frightened to move.  The window.  The window.  The window.

He’s found the key.

He’s opening the door.

The window the window the window the window.

She never makes it.
His cell phone glows with the crispness of white numerals. It’s 3:14 AM and he lies on the left side of a queen-sized bed, salve wrinkles and cool covers his companion on the right.  Exhausted from a long day of phone calls, emails and an irritating checkered necktie, he manages to stay awake far beyond what he thought was possible. His stimulant: worry.

When at last his wife slides into bed, almost fully clothed, pantyhose and makeup, the tendrils of darkness and dreamless sleep recede enough to arouse him. It is not yet light out.  He catches the worn residue of another man’s scent radiating from her skin.

He rolls into her, prepared to ask her where she’s been, then pauses, silent. Is it worth upsetting the balance of ignorant comfort? Then her arms slide through his to embrace him, burying her face in his chest. With his last drifting thought he wonders if he will remember this moment, or if it will be drowned in the sea of sleep.

Then the lid of waking claps shut and he is lost to the other world.

—–

James Gilmore is a writer and filmmaker with a passion for very short flash fiction. He lives in Los Angeles with his lovely wife and daughter.

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It is all fake. It looks real. It looks like Earth but of course it isn’t. On close inspection, buy there’s no substance to it. It’s all facade. I know what it is, capsule It’s me. This planet is trying to give me what I want, cialis trying to make me feel at home. It’s kind of sweet in a twisted way.

I remember when my lifeboat first landed here. Everything was so strange, so alien. The plants were orange and looked more like coral than anything I’d ever seen. After a few sleep cycles the sky was blue and the grass was green. It was as if the planet read my mind and was trying to make me feel at home. I know that sounds crazy but how else to explain this place? It’s like a movie set. It’s the landscape of my boyhood home in New Hampshire. There are the White Mountains, Wilmer’s Pond, the apple orchard, the woods behind my house where I used to play. I expect to hear my long dead mother calling me to wash up for dinner. It’s all here, but not really; it’s an illusion. Try and climb the apple tree and you’ll see what I mean. The tree’s trunk looks round and smooth but it’s bony and rough to the touch; the branches look leafy but there are no leaves, not really; and the apples, I dare you to try and pick one. Go on, reach your hand and pick one, you’ll see it’s just a dream.

I’ve been living off the local biota since the crash, weird tasting creatures that sometimes look like squirrels, sometimes hares except they aren’t either. Once the veil of illusion is pierced and the reality is revealed, the creature reverts back to what it really is—more a multi-legged slime mold than a squirrel. I have my sidearm and I use it to bring down some of the larger animals. The planet makes them look like the familiar animals of my youth. The other day I shot a deer, but it wasn’t anything like a deer, really. A real deer would have fed me for a month, but this hallucination dressed out to hardly more than a rabbit’s worth of meat. You can’t trust anything on this world.

Several times now I’ve dreamed about rescue only to see the fantasy projection of a ship landing off in the distance. The first time I got so excited I ran off waving my arms in the air, shouting for joy. There was, of course, nothing there. The second time I walked to the ship which looked substantial enough from a distance but, close up, proved to be just a mirage. The third time I didn’t even bother to go. After that there were no more rescue fantasies.

I get the feeling this world is trying very hard to make me happy. I don’t know why but that seems to be the case. I’ll give you an example: the other night I had an erotic dream. I’m a young man and those things happen naturally to men my age. Anyway, a day or two later this woman appears at my camp. Of course it’s a phantom but this time it was one I wanted. She looked vaguely like a girl I used to know, I forget her name, but I called the hallucination Kyra after my old sweetheart. Kyra didn’t speak but her presence was a comfort and I spoke to her endlessly. She’d smile and appeared to listen but, like everything else on this world, she was fake. One day, for no reason, I poured boiling water on her. She didn’t scream, she just disappeared. I felt bad about killing Kyra but not so bad that I didn’t kill her a few more times over the years.

When we abandoned ship, I shared a lifeboat with four crew mates. The Calamity. That was my ship, the SS Calamity— not the most propitious name for a space ship as it turned out. When she hit that rock, I didn’t see many life boats get away. I guess we were five of the lucky ones. Our good luck soon turned into a nightmare. We drifted for weeks, slowly dying. Rations were gone, air was scarce, lots were drawn. I’m not proud of what I did, but survival makes a man do desperate things and, if nothing else, I learned some things about myself I hadn’t known.

Several times the planet has sent those ghostly images to me. My four buddies come and sit with me around the fire. I apologize to them for what I did. They sit there mute, half eaten and forgiving until I can’t bear the guilt any longer and kill them all over again. I think this world has come to understand that not all my dreams are pleasant and not every memory begs to be revisited. At least I haven’t see my old ship mates for quite some time.
The only possible explanation I can think of for this world’s behavior is that somehow this planet is conscious. Not only conscious but lonely, possibly female and doing it’s best to seduce me into loving it. Of course, I don’t know any of this for certain and I may very well be out of my mind, but this is what I believe. I miss Earth, so she re-creates the Earth for me or her best approximation of a place she’s never seen, scraped together from bits and pieces of my memory. I long for familiar things, so she does her best to supply them. I want companions, she makes Kyra and my old shipmates for my amusement. I can’t say she’s won my heart, but you have to admit it is touching in a bizarre sort of way.

I know now that I’ll never be allowed to leave this world. Even if a rescue ship lands, I will not be permitted to leave with them. I know this because of what happened several weeks ago. I was at my camp in the New Hampshire woods. The sun, as always, was shining. Kyra was there looking delicious in a short skirt and translucent blouse. I could just make out the outline of her breasts. I was telling her some lame old story I’d probably told her a dozen times before. She was smiling like always, when I noticed a flash of light and the streak of a descending space craft over her left shoulder. Having been hoodwinked before, I wasn’t about to drop everything and go off expecting anything real. I remember telling Kyra, “I thought you’d given up on that tired old trick.” This time, however, she looked perplexed and her pretty face scowled back at me.

Not more than a half an hour later, a dark cloud blotted out the sun and the air grew cold. It was the first time I had experienced anything other than perfect weather in all my time on the planet. It was startling. A wind came up and a brief thunderstorm complete with thunder, lightening and pouring rain drove me into my shelter. This was something new and unexpected. I wondered if I’d done something wrong and that maybe the world was annoyed at me.

As the storm raged, I looked out and saw Kyra still sitting where she was when the storm began. She appeared to be thinking. Then just as suddenly, the sky cleared and the sun shone down on my perfect world. Kyra was standing and signaling me to follow her. She often guided me on hunting trips and I had come to rely on her especially for the bigger game.

We made our way through the familiar forest for a mile or two. At the top of a rise, Kyra motioned for me to hide. I gladly complied. I knew that whatever game it was, it was not going to be what it appeared, but I couldn’t help but feel excited by the thrill of the hunt. I was a kid again in the woods with my uncle and my dad. I lay still and waited.

I wasn’t prepared for the small herd of elk that crested the hill before me, but Kyra urged me to shoot them all. I knew I wasn’t going to be eating elk steaks for the next year, but I didn’t care. I shot to kill and with four quick shots I left four dead elk. No not elk, of course they weren’t, What lay dead on the ground were human beings, four of them, two men and two women. When the mirage was dispelled and the reality of what I had done was revealed, naturally I was stunned. I expected to be tricked but not into murder. I had slaughtered my rescuers. I was angry and disappointed. I railed at Kyra before shooting her too. She, of course, just vanished. I knew she’d be back. As for the rescue team, well, they weren’t elk but they weren’t bad eating either. After a while, I forgave Kyra and we’ve had many a pleasant meal together since.

—–

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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Maii was a different one, viagra she had lights in her eyes and masses of dreams she said she couldn’t explain. She didn’t talk too much but her eyes said a lot. She was a part of this world but also another creature entirely. I woke to her screaming one night, illness her eyes were wide awake, she was breathing a million miles an hour, but her hands were unclenched, smooth, relaxed, draped over the side of the bed like an angel, a sacramental dream, or something. I don’t remember what she said the dream was about.

I´d come to Georgia because I needed a change, I don´t really know what I expected to find, I just kind of ended up there. My life had been going nowhere, and I hadn´t been happy. It was an ancient world with ancient traditions, remains of castles and cobblestone streets, covered by grapevines, dry grass, and storms from the mountains that never reached the city. I imagined Turks speaking in the archways, but really there was just a lot of traffic and people doing their thing.

When I met her she was begging, asking for pennies on the street. She was just getting old enough that people didn’t feel sorry enough to give her money. She was at the stage of selling useless crap or pretending like she was decrepit in widow black. On the metro with about 5 million people she looked like she did not belong in the least. Her hair was done up fashionably, wrapped around the side of her head black and straight, and at the same time tangled as all hell. I kept looking at her but she didn’t meet my gaze, aloof, didn’t seem to really give a damn about any of us.

I got her attention finally as she was switching cars, telling her she had dropped her bag. Her eyes lit like fire and flashed across my face. It silenced me, brought me back. But her black dress swayed and I stepped forward, asked her name, told her a bad joke (she didn’t laugh at all), and I asked her to come eat with me. She saw a perfect opportunity and of course complied.

Later on I got drunk enough, she never left me, to offer to get a hotel. Into the room I tried to make small talk, told her she had beautiful hair, danced when she walked, all that kind of thing. She was completely untaken by it, slipped close to me, put her hand down my pants, my breath shot it, she was amazing, she smiled for the first time that night, mysterious and sincere, I was blown away by how beautiful she was in the half light.

Later on she danced for me, it was like nothing I’d ever seen. I danced with her awkward and clumsy, there was a group playing in the bar next door, it was the farthest thing from dancing music you could imagine. She smiled then too. I paid her while she lay dark and unfolded next to me in the bed, her arm draped over mine, her legs spread comfortably open, she’d done this before, there was none of the virginity queen matriarch crap that the Georgians held so dear. Maii laughed at my awkwardness. She took the money mischievously, kissed me on the lips full and long and with a hotbed of desire, laughed like a girl, jumped up and left.

I found my wallet missing the next day, knew exactly that it would happen, held nothing against her and laughed because I’d put my money card in my shoes. She had my library card, I went to the café, asked around, found out where they stayed. I really didn’t give a damn but a library card was the best excuse I could come up with to try to find her again.

When I came to the camp I was kind of thrown back. There was trash in the streets and the buildings were dilapidated and worn down. I don’t know if the buildings had actually been like that for years when they moved into them, or if the buildings were built new for them and they managed to let them go to pot so fast. They would have had to actually go at them with sledgehammers I think.

I just said fuck it and went for it, walked down the street before I looked like a housing developer, or desperate broke bloke, or something funny. There was no other way to go about it. Suddenly the whole camp was quiet. The kids just looked at me. I didn’t think I was dressed all that well, but apparently I stood out. I got about 20 meters into the place when I was surrounded by about 10 large, stone faced men wanting to know what the fuck I was doing. I had no idea what I was doing there. I just wanted to see her, I couldn’t get her off my mind.

When I tried to explain, they either didn’t understand me or else didn’t want to. When I saw what I’d got myself into, it was too late. They beat the shit out of me and took everything but my shoes. I was walking back broken and buzzed. I bought a pint of vodka and tried to forget a little, sat on a little hill overlooking the place and figured they wouldn’t care enough to bother me so I could rest a little.

I could hear them laughing down below, someone was playing an accordion. It was really pretty, rough, but pretty. Maii came out of nowhere, she was wearing green like the trees, out of place otherwise. She saw me all bloody, burst out laughing hard, aloof and as if she didn’t belong there as always, and walked on. My heart stopped, I tried to say something, gave up and got up to walk home, freezing in the rain. When I got around the corner she was there again, gave me an old coat, kissed me on the cheek, never really looked me in the eyes, not really even tender, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Maybe the day wasn’t so bad.

I saw her off on and on for the rest of that year. She was magic, she was fire, a dark angel, a dancer, not really a dreamer, just sure of herself, absolutely beautiful. We had nothing in common, what she told me was all bits and pieces. Her dad was a merchant one time, a soldier one time, a traveling circus man, whatever she thought I might believe. She showed me how to sing some songs, some words in her language, I taught her how to curse, it’s pretty easy in English, one or two words will suffice. The only time she ever lost it completely was when I made a joke about the mother she wouldn’t tell me about. She was like a child, and sometimes the strongest woman. She was my friend and I loved her fiercely. We got wasted on vodka, got kicked out of more than one place, I lived in the woods with her sometimes, my clothes got old, I sang a lot. I still never got to know who she was.

One day she just disappeared. I went to the camp and they were gone, not a trace. She hadn’t said a thing to me. I’d seen no lasting sadness in her eyes. No sorry goodbyes. Her eyes had been dark and impenetrable as always. Sometimes I like to pretend that she was a Martian, she fit in about as well. I miss her, she’d taught me to live. She was on my mind a long long time.

I moved to Russia, there was no revolution there, it was cold snow and ice. The nights left you too much time to think. I don’t know why I went, I hate the fucking cold. There was a little bar where you could get cheap vodka, and there was sometimes live music, I went there a lot. I met a girl there, my first and only internet hookup. She was older than me, had a husband, never told me, was tall and blond and pretty, but there was no love. She pretended like she was hard to win, but there was never any waiting and no mountains to cross. I tried to give her my heart, she never gave me hers. Maii had given herself so freely, but was never one I could catch, or name. I know that wherever she is she moves others like she moved me. You couldn’t look away, darkness drew you in.

In the streets of my own country again I felt utterly and completely alone. The dust drew me and the water didn’t wash it away, just turned into mud. I remembered the girl I’d left so long ago while I loved her, I remembered my friend I was too shy to meet her advances in high school, I remembered wasting my time building roofs and the chemicals of my mind turning the meth I was smoking into the taste of a woman’s lips. I bet all those roofs have been replaced by now, long past the 15 year warranty.

So I walk on, I move forward, my friends live in different worlds, I have no one anymore. I’m thinking of you, you go with me where I walk. The lights still sparkle in the cities, I bet you can see them from the sky. It amazes me when the whole city goes dark, loses its power, becomes what it always was, a part of the earth. For you, gentle Maii. For the rest too.

—–

Joseph Carney grew up and spent most of his life in Springfield, MO. He hasn´t lived there for a while. He teaches and writes.  

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She really likes the town.  Sure it’s small and there’s not a lot there, cialis but it’s a college town.  Those are always good for a few bookstores, viagra for a food co-op, for some semblance of a local music scene, for a handful of decent restaurants and a bakery, for people who want to be doing something and want the town to be something.  They’ll give things a chance.  She has to admit, the public’s support of her little theater has been overwhelming.

More than anything, she relishes opening night.  It gives her a rare opportunity to adorn herself.  Growing up in Minnesota, it wasn’t as if they were fashion plates or anything, but at least for church or Christmas or weddings a person could slip into a dress and maybe a tasteful strand of pearls.  A woman could feel like a woman.  She thinks of Minnesota every time she dresses for an opening, and recognizes an ironic twist.  She honestly feels as if she’s moved up a bracket, culturally speaking.  A twinge of guilt accompanies this thought, every time, because she does not mean to disrespect her roots.  Her parents and neighbors were the most wonderful people.  “I wouldn’t trade that childhood for the world,” she tells herself every time she dolls up.

But her new circle of friends are well-read, and well-traveled and such.  Their eyes are a little more open – food, cultures, that sort of thing, but also problems and causes.  They worry about the world.  But it seems as if their status has earned them the right to be casually chic, nothing more.  There in the mountains people wear khaki and denim everywhere.  A tweed sportcoat with jeans is the closest to dressed-up you will experience.

At the play’s opening she goes overboard, but being the producer, it’s her party.   She feels extraordinary in this black satin gown, long and tight, with a vintage silk scarf and onyx earrings.  She imagines herself a starlet: Judy Garland or an early Audrey.  Black and white.  Sophisticated.  She’ll be the first to admit, she has a nostalgia fetish, and most times when she’s dressing up she puts on thigh-high stocking with a garter.  Not for any kinky reason, at least none she is aware of.  It’s just that they seem to summon a bygone era, when sensuality was something iconic.  Sensuality was every woman’s secret right.  More a craft than a commodity.  More than tricks and tips touted in magazines by supermarket checkouts.

She wishes her husband were there.  Ian appreciates her moments of “elegant brilliance,” even if he is a Dockers type himself.  Cass tells herself this while making awkward contortions of her hand and arm to secure the zipper.  Ian always likes to do the zipper.  She likes him doing the zipper.  Every time he zips or unzips her, she thinks of either Hitchcock films or Minnesota.

But Ian the world-saver is preparing for a trip to Honduras, because he’s a lawyer concerned with third world labor conditions.  He was married when they first met at some benefit.  She wore a two-piece spaghetti-strapped bodice and skirt piece.  He asked to see the label of her gown, and when she let him, he told her the meager wages those workers received for stitching the garment.  He told her the likely ages of the workers who stitched the garment.   In retrospect she wonders if he meant to educate her or if it was just an excuse to touch her back.  Because, his fingers lingered on her spine.  They were cold from his drink.  Raised goose-bumps.  He smiled.  Ever since, the same thing.  If the man has a fetish, it’s a back fetish.  He likes to trace around her vertebrae with his fingers, tiny soft circles, the way most men would handle a breast or an heirloom pocket watch.

She only remembers this so vividly because she’s just been reminded.  Gary, a young man, maybe 24 by her estimate, who plays Lane, in The Importance of Being Earnest, just touched her back in a similar way.  With the cast party in full swing, he was going to the bar and wanted to know if she fancied anything.  Yes, he used that word exactly – Do you fancy anything?  A touch of humor, but also a subtle homage to Cass’s outfit.  If she wanted to role-play, he’d indulge.

For a few weeks he’d been after her to consider putting something by Tom Stoppard on the playbill next season.  She suddenly became so depressed and began to cry, and worry that her mascara would run and accentuate her crow’s feet.  It suddenly became very important that she was 38 after all.

38?

Director of her own theater.

In some sleepy Montana town.

The people love it.

Childless.

With a good man who loves her.

Who isn’t here this night.

Because he is important.  Thinks of others.

She’ll have to unzip her own zipper tonight.

Gary knocks on the bathroom door and asks what’s wrong.

—–

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

Read more stories by Martin Brick

——-

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I staggered to my feet, viagra tasting blood on the bottom of my lip. A crude harmony of mocking laughter peppered the air around me. Struggling to regain my equilibrium I realized that I had never been punched like that before. Ever. Not even once, pharmacy forget twice.

“Look at him. He dropped like a ton of pussies.”

“Haha. Yeah.”

The taunts only served to warp the situation against me. I finally get my body fully erect again when I glance over to my right and see Carla, standing there against the bar’s ‘Happy Hour’ sign, looking on at the ruckus she helped create. Short raven-black hair and deep, comforting eyes, she has her hands nervously tucked into her oversized sweatshirt sleeves; a wracked, neutral spectator ready to rain sympathy on whoever the losing side was. And that was unequivocally me, at the moment.

“Stop looking at her, dickhole,” says the bullish lesbian that just slugged me in the face. She’s wearing a Broome Community College Rugby t-shirt. “That’s what got you in trouble in the first place.”

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” I respond. “We were just talking…”

“Yeah and you got caught,” the bull snaps back.

“Not all dykes hang out at dyke bars you dumbshit,” adds one of the bull’s two mulletted cronies.

“It was harmless,” I continue to plead.

“I saw how she was laughing with you,” the bull mentions. She turns to the passive Carla. “You never laugh like that with me.”

Carla just shrugs.

“You got nothing to say to that?” the bull persists.

“Just…stop hurting him,” Carla finally answers.

“What? It was barely anything.”

“He’s bleeding,” Carla entreaties.

The three dykes laugh amusedly at this.

“Yeah. He is bleeding,” one of them chimes.

I muster up a somewhat forceful, if delayed, response. “Listen, I’m not fighting any of you. This is ridiculous.”

“Why don’t you want to fight?” the bull asks, amused.

“Because… I don’t want to fight a woman. What man does?”

The bull storms over to me after I finish this thought and grabs me by the collar. “I’m twice the man you are, motherfucker,” she sneers.

“I agree,” I respond through constriction.

She punches me in the gut with unmerciful force and drops me to the ground writhing. The bull then stands over me as I struggle to catch my breath. “Now I can be a real man and piss on your back.”

I cough and spit up a little. I hear the other two dykes laugh.

“He dropped like a ton of pussies again!”

“Listen,” the bull growls at me while she looming over my battered body, “I don’t feel like kicking your ass anymore. I want to go drink beer. So I’m going to walk inside the bar now and do just that. If I see you come back in that place, this is all happening again. But this time I’m also going to rub dogshit in your face. Okay?”

“Okay.”

The bull nods at the other two and they follow her into the bar. As she strolls past Carla she asks, “You coming in or what?”

“I’m just going to have a cigarette,” Carla murmurs.

“Well, hurry up,” the bull orders. The trio continues inside.

Carla pulls out a pack of Marlboros and walks over to where I was crouched. She holds out the pack to me. “Cigarette?”

“I can barely breathe as it is.”

She sheepishly puts one in between her lips. “I’m really sorry about all of this.”

“No, no” as I struggle to my feet again with her slight assistance, “it’s not like this was your fault at all. Oh wait, I’m sorry. It was totally your fault.”

“I didn’t think she was going to show up here, I swear.”

“So are you straight or not?”

“I’m bisexual. Although Stephanie is my first steady girlfriend.”

“Stephanie? Huh. She doesn’t seem like a Stephanie.” I spit some more. “She’s very protective of you. I’ll remember that when I’m shitting blood later. I’ll think, ‘She’s very protective, that one.’”

She takes a long, expert drag. “We’ve been together three years now.”

“So, if you don’t want to be with her…”

“It’s not that.”

I look at her.

She shrugs and looks down. “I don’t know.”

“You came up to me, frankly, like you were very single.”

“I wanted to think that, I wanted to feel that way.” She takes another drag while peeking back at the bar. “She’s done so much for me. I mean, I had no place to go when I met her. No one in my life that gave a shit about me.”

I hold out my hand dismissively. “Spare me the sentimental origins. You led me on. I thought I had a great spark in there with you. I didn’t know you from a hole in the wall, but I felt like I was getting to know everything about you very quickly. Turns out I did!” I exhale. We pause. “Just forget it.”

“No,” she peeks back at the bar again before continuing. “Don’t forget it.”

“I’m forgetting it.” I gesture towards the bar. “What can one man do against such reckless lesbianism?”

“Well,” she suggests with a gleam in her eye. “If you feel that strongly about me…you can fight for me.”

“What?”

“You can fight for my honor.”

I start to laugh but stop because it really hurt to laugh. “That’s quite a romantic notion and all–“

“You really like me?”

“I just met you.”

“And…”

I check for more blood on my lip.

“It’s dried up already,” she points out.

“Look, I’m just not the type of guy beautiful, fun, down-to-earth women like yourself randomly come up to in bars and initiate things with. I’m just not.”

“You’re a handsome man with a kind face.”

“I’m not that handsome where a woman could walk by and feel compelled not to continue being a complete stranger to me.”

“I think you are,” she says softly.

We both look at each other, and through the blurred vision in my walloped right eye I feel that connection again. The one we felt inside that bar before all hell broke loose and I was left internally bleeding probably.

She leans into me. “Fight for me.”

“I just got my ass kicked by a girl.”

“She’s no girl. And you didn’t even try to hit her.”

“It doesn’t feel right.”

“Does this?” She proceeds to kiss me on the lips. I get lost in it for a moment until reason hits and I back away a little.

“Are you trying to get me killed? I don’t want to be another chalk-mark on your girlfriend’s body count wall.”

She smirks, tilting her head at me. “When was the last time you got laid?”

“When was the last time I got laid?”

“Don’t delay an answer by repeating the question.”

I chuckle nervously. “You don’t want to know. And I don’t want to remind myself.”

“Just tell me.”

“No.”

“C’mon, I already saw you get your ass kicked by a girl,” she teases. “What could be worse than that?”

I stammer still.

“It can’t be longer than me.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s longer than you.”

“Believe it or not, even though I’ve been in this relationship, I’ve had a long dry spell. I mean does Stephanie look like she has a penis?”

“What do you mean? It’s probably bigger than mine.”

She laughs, quietly but hard.

I finally concede. “It’s been…well, it’s been over a year.”

“Wow. Really?”

“See. I’m pathetic. I’m a loser.”

She abruptly smacks me across the face. “Don’t ever call yourself that.”

I rub my cheek. “Oh, I’ve called myself much worse things than ‘loser.’”

She smacks me again. This time a little firmer. “That’s for those other things you’ve called yourself too.”

“Okay. Jesus.”

One of the crony dykes peeks her head outside. “Hey Carla. Steph wants you now. She says stop being a bleeding heart and give her cash for another round.”

Carla doesn’t look back. “I’ll be right in.”

The crony smiles and shakes her head at me, then goes back inside.

Carla leans in to me again. “Fight for me. Let’s put both of our droughts to an end.” She kisses me quickly on the lips once more then turns around and goes in the bar. She glances back at me before finally entering. I’m left standing alone, thinking to myself.

I think of all the lonely nights in my apartment: the Cheeto stains on my bed sheets, the disturbing foreign porn that I watch for hours on end without even touching myself, the fruitless scouring of personal ads on Craigslist, the sitting and staring at nothing with no music playing. Long solitary periods of time where you start to think nobody could ever possibly come around to giving a damn about your existence. And worse, that you accept this fact, and you go on with a forced serenity that just maybe this is your lot in life. You joke with friends and family about it, you make self-deprecating wisecracks to mask the true hopelessness you feel, but moments hit every now and again that can’t be overcome by jest; that make you realize you have to do something.

My light-headed contemplations are interrupted by a haggard voice.

“Do you have any change, boss? Nickel, Quarter? Preferably a quarter.”

I turn around and see a very homeless individual with a disgusting beard and one shoe on his foot. He stank of a mix between death and spoiled milk. He was reviling, but had a stewed vibrancy about him. Someone you’d certainly want running away from you and not coming at you. Then it hit me.

“How about instead of a quarter, I give you twelve dollars…and you help me kick somebody’s ass?.”

He turns away for a few seconds in muddled thought. “Is it another homeless person? Cuz I done too many of those already.”

A battle-tested mercenary. “Nope. This person has a home.”

He shrugs and rasps, “Sure. Fine. Even if I get arrested I’ll be inside for a bit.”

“That’s the spirit.”

I put my arm shamelessly around his shoulders. He felt kind of filmy. I lead him into the bar. “Then after the job is done, I’ll buy you a drink.”

“The last time someone bought me a drink, I had to blow him.” He looks at me and smiles something hideous. “This’ll be much easier.”

“We’ll see.”

I proceed to walk head high into the bar with loyal reinforcements at my side, ready to win the hand of a lady. Now I know what chivalry means. I looked it up right before I sat down to write this story. It means ‘the sum of the ideal qualifications of a knight, including courtesy, generosity, valor, and dexterity in arms.’ None of those things describe what I was doing in the least. But still, at that moment, I felt chivalrous. Proudly. Erroneously.

—–

Joe Thristino is an award-nominated playwright.  His most recent play, Helicopters, has had three performances is set to be produced by Alpha Tree Productions.

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Let us now touch down with tyres smoking on the scorched runway in one of our beloved holiday destinat­ions: the south of France. Le Midi, ampoule hear the majesty in those syllables. Feel the sun and light and sand, the wind in our madly bleached hair as I drive our imaginary sports car to Antibes, Monte Carlo, the unbearable awe in our hearts at je-ne-sais-quoi slugging away, as I swoop round these woozy bends to Cannes.

Had it not been for years of exhibition posters, planting the idea, I would never have crossed the sea to the lands of the south. But at a moment off my many guards my thoughts filled with the blue behind the slanting pines: for years advertising boards had regaled me with print-ups of the art master­pieces of dappled nature, the many-azured Med, lavender fields, parched valleys and leafy paths I fancied walking down, laid to canvas by those gentle­men of the tricolour who laboured with their oils in boxes and paper in boxes and brushes in more boxes and easels and equipment any artist worth his weight in salt would take with him to execute chiaroscuro, hatching and pas­sage. These crackpots lumbered this about with them like golf caddies. Just so they could sit by a mountain and widge paint around until, fed up, they went back to their huts for some old cheese. Enduring their golf-caddy existence as an excuse for lying amongst the cicadas, steeping them­selves in the blues of the sea and the red roofs, all highly market­able once slapped down and left to dry. But such a struggle. Those winds shot down to the Med straight at these misfits who were forever running after the bits of equip­ment they had failed to pin down properly with rocks. Many a time they trudged home bitter that another master­piece had kited upwards, far into the azure reaches towards Africa, lost.

It was in the midst of all this south-of-France blue, it was with pines slanting all over the place, a hundred years after the inauguration of the historical context I’ve just been so sumptuously, selflessly and digressively describing, that I met Miss Robin.

And I was in love. Armin in love beside the godlike seas so blue, turquoise, doing all those things a person does when rapt in sweet deli­cious love, for example breakfasting à deux in heaven. Eating off funny glass plates which stop being funny, which are frozen by love from being funny to enter that dreamlike realm supercharging all objects handled during love.

We were breakfasting in heaven, talking to each other against the din, the pan­demonium of the cicadas, les cigales, which provide atmosphere at no cost by rubbing bits of their tummies together, incessantly, each hooked up to an invisible 1,000-watt Marshall amp. This pest, these walls of sound, floors and roofs of sound apart, however, life was effortless and perfect. I was a god. Miss Rob a goddess, sitting in the shadow of a blazing sun. It was love on the Cote d’Azur, the Riviera.

We were having late breakfast in the middle of this racket, or as they say in those books you find at airports, and I too have my airport-book side: we were having a late breakfast with golden coffee and croissants among the mimosas and cicadas. Oleander scent drifted scentily through the garden, our table was adorned with the fabled yellow blooms of cour­gette plants, the herbs we’d picked were croaking to a dry crumble de Provence. I love you Robin, I shouted. I love you Armin, she screamed. The Arminal heart heaved with happiness. Gods, we stayed our coffee bowls and kissed. Sighing, we turned to behold the panorama beyond the breakfast table, beyond the property which Robin was caretak­ing for her dreadful parents, to the military barracks annex, slanty pines, the marshy plain of Fréjus now well dry after the earthquake years before, when the Reyran river had burst through its dam and swept 400 dead, including the trainload of passengers that was tipped into it off a bridge, beyond the red roofs of Sainte Maxime, to the distant Med.

Pass the marmalade, I screamed. There isn’t any, she replied, this isn’t England. The lack of marmalade meant I failed to notice at the time that Robin was extremely particular about, enormously careful with marmalade. It was never to be left alone without its top on and had always to go back in the fridge. But there was none, and its lack caused no swerve to the effortless path of Armin’s love.

I turned casually to my goddess, who was rubbing her bronzed toes, nails silver varnished, on the terracotta tiling. Do you know something, I said in a totally uncharacter­istically smug but otherwise normal tone: No distance from this patio Pablo Picasso, Pablo, whom my guide book calls that bald Spaniard with the stripy shirt, er, sculpted. I let the sensual overtones of this idea linger: sculpted. My god­dess, her cool grey eyes huge behind her clean, clean glasses, said nothing. As I spoke I looked at the slanty pine in the garden plot and felt the last vestiges, what a word, vestiges, of the tremors of our lovemaking tremor through me. I knew I was at last a master of something, of the Mediter­ranean life, of adult­hood, love and sex, of conversation, even at breakfast. Don’t you think, darling? I said coda-ing my remarks. Only then did I note that Miss Rob, despite loving me deeply and endlessly, was ig­nor­ing me in favour of gazing at our neigh­bour François, who was constructing a kind of Greek temple on his dustheap of a property to our left.

Talk about augers. I checked the sky for ravens, the distant roads for hay carts. I endured a further minute of my angel’s open lips as she stared at shirtless François strutting about his bomb site, shaking a cypress and testing a new balustrade. As a jet appeared, silver and white over the sapphire sea, he waved to us and screamed it was a plane leaving Nice, and my darling Miss Rob stood up smiling beside the table, from where he stood she would have been all goddess, young breasts under her white T-shirt, and gaily waving back she shouted BONJOUR FRANÇOIS! At this he summoned an idling Hyundai caterpillar digger from behind a mound of rocks to stop hiding and drive full traction towards us. As it passed his commander’s post he leapt up commandingly beside the cab, shades of Stage­coach, Spartacus, Boris Yeltsin, and instructed his man to start gouging a hole by the fence just ten yards from our lovers’ table. Spurred to riposting, my angel again waved wildly, her T-shirt riding up this time. François did a mock bow. I tell you, paradise is a tough place. He turned to the digger and the digger dug. The noise drove the cicadas to hook their amps in relay and experiment in Jimi Hendrix feedbacks. Plump waist and chubby thighs, I stood up, drank up, pulled up my boxer shorts which dualled as swim­ming trunks, and returned inside in a secret huff which I am only now declaring.

This is nonetheless but a drop of water flicked on a hot stone. I was about to meet her parents.

Beam this in. It is week three of our hols. We have just returned from the holiday pool, a François-free zone on top of a hill, a pool in a domaine, as we hope­lessly gifted linguists say, among a comp­lex of houses domained on a hill. Bit like you see every­where in Spain. Mimosas line the roads. Helicopters chop over from the barracks. As I have already intimated, the cicadas and their Marshalls cover the whole of the Cote d’Azur, the amps running on solar power. At the pool, orbing madly, the sun blazed overhead. Leaving my sunspecs in my sandals and wearing my boxer shorts dualling as trunks, I swaggered round the kidney-shaped waters with their weird waterfall and flung myself in at un­expected moments, gracing rippleless waters with my elegant carousing, yet turning brightly animated when joined by my goddess, which was almost never. She sat cross-legged and topless in her baseball cap, reading. While I pretended to read A Brief History of Time and Principia Mathematica she read, she sailed through A Year in Provence, one of those blockbusters made of pastry, written by a soddenly rich non-farmer, non-builder, non-gardener, non-vintner, non-cleaner, non-cook, who could nevertheless pour drinks and answer a phone, order building work and walk from a res­taurant door to a table and back, work spoons and forks, maybe even a toothpick, all unaided. And yet, he knew how to make this experi­ence drive like a chisel into people’s funnybones. So what. So Miss Rob sat at the pool in her baseball cap, this paperback before her breasts, smiling.

She fastened her bikini and dived in once, and we returned to base.

Mr and Mrs X arrived at the ranch convoying themselves in two cars, Mrs X first, proving once again that machodom has many layers and twists and Moebius strips within it. Mr X had the key to the door, which Robin sought to open simul­tan­eously from inside but without luck. Don’t do that, said Mr X greet­ing us in his friendly way. After two weeks alone in heaven but for Robin and a gecko and our blue sheet it was a shock to suddenly face his lumberjack shirt, those blue eyes and brows thick with thatch, his healthy outdoor bravado. Petite Mrs X came in with her head down, carrying everything. Joy leaping in me, I saw she had the same grey eyes as my goddess. She beetled into the kitchen to set down her packages before beetling straight back to the front door to close it. Not stopping to stroke those eyebrows, or even twirl his mous­tache, Mr X immediately lunged into the kitchen and declared this once person-friendly site his personal territory, we would get nuked to carbide if we crossed a line which he then drew on the floor with red crayon, I’m kidding, nobody’s that crazy. He was, though. He went into the garden and Mrs X pursued him to close the door he failed to shut. She asked us what our plans for the afternoon were. Such a gentle-sounding question. We might go to the beach, said Robin. Immediately Mr X returned in a trauma from the garden, which we had failed to water according to speci­fications. Robin crossed the line into the kitchen and inside his pocket Mr X pressed a button to nuke his own daughter but she dodged back over just in time.

Mrs X, OK she wasn’t called that, Mrs Dangerfield, how’s that. Or how about the Marquise, to adopt Robin’s private word for her mum, as in de Sade? So the petite Marquise, to return to my delightful tale of everyday Gestapo life, remarked that although there were still several baby croissants which we should be sure to toast for break­fast there was no bread. On our way to the beach would we buy some pain de campagne? We should write this down, did we have a card to write on?

It was round about the time of this question that Robin got very, very edgy, although she did have a stack of cards to write on. With my antennae honed to rapiers on my own grindstone of family life, I detected immediately something was up. Many things. Of course we will buy this item, I said, sensing it was some­how a brave reply. The Marquise said I should call her Nancy. Brushing one mottled hand across his carwash eyebrows, her husband the Marquess then confirmed I should call her Nancy and himself no, not Nancy, very amusing. Carlton. Charlie, he added, and how about a beer? Not before driving to the beach, I replied at my most politest.

Well already this talk was in a blue funk, Robin said later. She herself made one of her diversionary moves, plunging into a session of in­tense questioning of her mum and dad on the thermometer on the mantelpiece, Galileo’s termometro­lento they all called it. Where had they got it and what did it cost and did it work and why had they got it and look, said my goddess, there’s another thermometer by the window, so why had they got two, the Galileo’s didn’t even work, bin it.

The replies to this onslaught varied. Robin! said the Marqu­ise running daft-chickenly about the kitchen, up and down and back, her head all over the place. Charlie went to the hi-fi system and chose a CD. I stood lonesomely, centre living room, scratching my head, trying to glean the sense of things, notic­ing my dand­ruff was lighting on one shoulder—and with that, the potion had worn off, my godful state had gone.

Now when you buy the pain de campagne, said the Marquise, get the dark flour, the long loaf with the lines that go like this, don’t go to the first bakery where they have that cheap labour and apple turnovers, go to the second one, the lady with the bow will know which loaf you mean, and do it yourself, don’t let Armin, he’s new round here and he’s sure to get it all wrong, all right, Robin darling? I’ve written it down on a card for you, here.

This is my music, said Charlie standing in front of the music system. He twist­ed his moustache and waited for the sound. I was still deaf in one ear from the cica­das. Irish harps, he said. So you’re Arm, Arn…, said the Marquise sudden­ly, we’ve heard so much about you. You’re an entertainer, of sorts. Would you like a beer now? Charlie asked, we’re out of champagne. I’ve heard about you as well, I lied to them both. Head down, the Mar­quise steamed down­stairs after her daughter, who had expressed an intention of using the bathroom. Shut that window, yelled the Marquise. OK mum, yelled back Robin, who with each minute was becoming more difficult to square with the per­son I had been knowing so carnally, so sensational­ly, so profitably when I stop and think in terms of material for my shows.

Off we motored for the beach. You have to mull things sometimes. I mulled among the mimosas and thought I might continue mulling in front of the Med so turquoise. But Robin suddenly said she didn’t fancy the beach after all. She wanted to look at some chapel we’d already set out for once, up in the hills. An unusual thing then happened. She took a sheaf of cards from somewhere and threw them out of the window so I saw them through the mirror scattering beside the road. I had never seen these cards before and now would certainly never see them, but later I would see no end of packets like them, for this was what Robin did for much of the day, write notes to herself on filing cards, anyway from there we went up in the hills and, as they say in the US of A, it was some chapel. One of those artists I was talking about designed the whole thing, from the urinal tiles on the walls to the stained glass and the altar made in some stone that reminded him of bread. This reminded us too and on the way back we saw a patisserie and I dashed in for a loaf.

I should have guessed we’d stumbled on a munitions factory from the way the baguettes stood like stacks of rifles, but I didn’t. I simply let my eye run past the shelves of grenades before setting on a nice crusty-looking timebomb which in no time I was lobbing onto the back seat as we sped on our way, straight towards the newly-laid minefields. Seriously: The air was still hot, the sky Med coloured. The orbing sun licked us with its solar flames. With the windows vvvvvermd down, there was again wind in the hair of the gods, there came a return to our pre-bread state of bliss. Robin put her hand where I knew she would, we pulled over by a lake and like god-fishes we swam and glid and bared our skins upon its shores. I forgot the de Sades. If you want to know what comes next put your money down first. Entrance money doesn’t count, that was for entering. Thank you, pass the hat, don’t look inside, pass it, thank you. Empty as usual.

Seeing us arrive through the kitchen window, the Marquise was up smartly to close the door just after we opened it. I am sure she is able to close doors before they are opened but have not actually seen this. Here is the bread, said Robin, hightailing it for the bathroom. This, said the Marquise, holding it, the bomb, the fresh shit off a corpse I must have picked up at the baker’s. She beetled away to retrieve the forensic expert from his room, from which he appeared, stupored. Care for a beer? Using her chin to gesticulate at it, the Marquise tried to pass it on to him without gag­ging but he sort of sailed past her, missing the baton. I bought the bread, I said nobly, using up the last of my fading godgiven batteries. The Mar­quise tried to pass the loaf again, then tried to lay it by the sink but was soon bent by a fit of laughter, which means maybe she thought it was play material, anyway, what with the cackling and the stupor, neither of the Marquises could quite reach the sink in an upright position, oh mon Dieu, they said, Zeut!, mirth was landsliding into the kitchen from dumper trucks next to the window, Ça alors!

Astute as I am, it was about then I made a connection between the two Mar­quises and Robin wanting to smash Galileo’s termo thing, I looked at the termo thing and looked at Mr and Mrs Marquise and at the stairs to the bathroom and the bread, which was a normal loaf yet darker, smaller, broader, everything-er, than the Marquise would have liked. Ah ha ha ha ha ha, she and Charlie were going, he’s bought the wrong bread.

We sat on the terrace eating supper.

I drank beer.

Robin was not hungry.

François appeared by a pillar and waved. Robin waved. I showed him a finger. He disap­peared.

Robin gave the world a sulky look and started eating bits of everything off the Marquise’s plate.

We talked. Ch is for Charlie, Mrq the lady Marquise.

Ch:      Armband, I nearly called you Armband.

A:                     Armin. I get called all kinds of things. Can you pass the bread?

Mrq:    You call this bread?

R:                    Mum, if you didn’t know he meant it you wouldn’t be able to ask that.

Mrq:    What?

Ch:      Ever been to America, Armbin? Call me Charlie. Another beer?

A:                    No thanks. Charlie. Can you pass the bread?

Ch (applying drunks’ logic):  All over America they look at that and they say: bread. Know what I mean?

A:                    Whatever it is, I wouldn’t mind a piece.

R:                    Today.

Mrq: Well someone will have to eat it. We never eat bread ourselves.

A (bold): Is there some butter?

Mrq:    Of course.

R:                    I can’t see it.

Mrq:    It’s in the fridge. It wouldn’t last two seconds in this heat.

Ch:      I’ll get it. Kitchen. My province.

A (uneasy, Ch’s not moving): Right.

Mrq: So how was the beach. What made you come here in June? You must be mad. (cackling) Charlie, they’re mad.

Ch:      Be right back.

A:                    Hard to say.

Mrq:    The butter. Charlie, put it straight back in the fridge.

Ch:      I’ll put my music on first.

Mrq:    On the way back. Not on the way there.

A:                    We went and looked at a chapel.

R:                    I’m tired. I’m going to bed. Bonne nuit.

Ch:    So you went with my daughter to a chapel. I’m just trying to makes sense of things, you understand. You’re religious, Armbin?

A:                    No.

Ch:      I am. You have to be. To explain all this. (epileptic gesticulations embracing a few trees and parts of army barracks)

Mrq:    Sit down, Charlie. Before you knock something over.

Ch:      I was only pointing to the view. The sea. The woods.

Mrq:    Why?

Ch:      Because there’s an idea at work. A pattern.

Mrq:    Oh that. (conspiratorial whisper) This is what he thinks about in his room.

Ch:      So you don’t get it, Armin, God?

A:                    I haven’t thought about it for a long time. No.

Ch:   Another beer? A conversation can get parching. No beer? Mon Dieu, Armbin, you’re a disappointment to me.

A (wondering if entering a lying mood might help):  I’m used to keeping sober.  For my shows. I have to keep on top of things.

Ch:    Never heard such nonsense. You’re certainly not giving a show now. Is he, Nancy?

A:      You have to keep sober. We get all kinds of louts coming in. Orangutans, let loose—

Mrq:    From their cages.

Ch  (in minute-long spiritual slump, staring at glass, then staring ahead):  What do you believe in then, Arm, Arm—

Mrq:    Armbin.

A (polite guest to the end): Ø

Ch:    What do you? Nothing. You just get up everyday and eat and that’s it.  Have sex with my daughter.

Mrq:    Charlie.

Ch:    Charlie what? You just get up everyday, go to work and eat and have sex with my daughter.

Mrq:    You said that already.

Ch:      You’re a big disappointment, Armbin.

A (sighing, daringly pouring water into empty pastis glass): Ø

Ch:   And that isn’t the way a Frenchman     pours himself water.    He’d never make a Frenchman, Nancy.

So you see. Loaf Story, for which I have the film rights, would have amounted to little had it stood as a lone incident in a happy family-type holiday marked by affec­tion, understanding and tolerance. Or even in a normal family-type holiday. But it did not stand alone, it stood lumpy and stupid, next to the butter that belonged in the fridge, the doors that weren’t to be opened, and next to their sequels, the bathing trunks issue, how to approach coffee grounds, French bees, trays of ice cubes, Arabs, South Africans. So what did we do, apart from decid­ing not to eat bread or butter, drink drinks, or spend more than two minutes in the bathroom? What would anyone with a few days of heaven still in sight do?

We phoned our banks.

Thus saving the hols. And: I gained insights, who knows that word nowa­days, into the character of my goddess. I saw what she was up against. How she had to mould herself to deal with these situations. From the earliest days I was au fait with her need to shut doors and deploy her marma­lade rescue squad, the need to knock the world in shape with index cards.

I didn’t worry about the money we so generously showered on hotels and res­t­aurants. I knew when I got back I could write Five Minutes on the Cote d’Azur and ride piggy­back, fiscally speaking, on the millionaire with the Provence book, and so reconstitute the missing millions by Christmas. Untrue. Actually we camped out two nights by some slanty pines, got bitten and sped back to the airport at Nice to get one of those silvery planes.

I almost forgot. It was days before the newspapers ran the story. But the day the Marquess never crayoned a red line before the kitchen area a missile with a big red C down its side apparently fell into the sea off Marseilles.

Just joking. Marquise and Marquess, Robin, François, take it from he who never lies, believe Armin. Although those pines did slant, none of this ever happened. Never happened, not by a half.

—–

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.

 

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The kids in that dollhouse got to do things I never would, no rx like climb on the roof to have a talent show, ambulance and rotate their bedroom every two days, and spend weeks in the bathtub. The pond was a flattened aluminum cigarette ashtray I stole from a bar when I was six, though Mom says I must have picked it up off the ground. The grass was two sheets of green felt which my sister and I took turns re-arranging on the wide counter in front of the dollhouse. Sometimes the doll-family scooted down our real-life handrail like it was a mountainous slope of polished ice. The kids committed suicide every day from the top of the house, before I knew what that was, or the cliff out in the back; or they performed dances in which they often flew, performing back-flips in the air. The adults lay side by side in their bed at night like one was the fork and one the spoon, and they’d never, ever venture past their plastic divider.

I haven’t forgot that old dollhouse that we had to leave behind. Such small rooms always made me want to be either tiny myself, or collapsible, and to push open a hand-drawn door and go inside.

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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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Yes, remedy it is spring. Yes, physician this does feel hormonal. But until I meet Thomas, the new owner of the Cookie Café, it is easy to ignore those urges because I find all the single men I come across fundamentally unattractive: egotistical, loud-mouthed macho slobs. Other women’s cast-offs.

The first time I order coffee from Thomas he smiles so broadly I think he is going to break his face. He is tall and gangly, has white streaks in his black hair. His haircut is a little odd, short back and sides with something like a small shelf on top of his head. It makes him resemble Kramer on Seinfeld. He is soft-spoken, whispering “a dollar seventy-five, please” almost apologetically.

I am divorced with two children in elementary school, and I am suddenly interested in dating again.

I come in a few times a week to observe him. A snappy dresser, a different retro cardigan and pair of pleated chinos every time, such a contrast with his partner, blond, conventionally handsome Cory, who sports the simpleton look: a cookie monster t-shirt, faded jeans. Cory knows he is good-looking and acts cool. Thomas, on the other hand, gives his customers genuinely sweet smiles. Something about the way Thomas tilts his head when he smiles, though, sends me to my gay hairdresser, who happens to be around the corner, to find out what is known about Thomas’s sexuality. Oh, they know. He is straight. They’ve tried. And tried and tried. He is definitely straight — and single.

I am delighted. I go back to the café, and boldly hold his gaze until he comes over and talks to me.

“I love your dress,” he tells me. “Is it linen?”

I return the compliment. He tells me we should go shopping together. I keep thinking, oh, this is great, I can’t believe he is straight. What a coup! A nice man with an obvious feminine side, who isn’t gay, and who is available! I think of my ex-husband Jerry, how bored and belittling he could be about the clothes I liked to wear. The only clothes Jerry appreciated were tops which revealed my breasts when I bent forward, or pants that were so tight I couldn’t breathe.

I invite Thomas to a party at my house. We live in a run-down rented farmhouse furnished with second-hand Ikea junk. Thomas tells me my house is fabulous. My ex, Jerry, is there, and he rolls his eyes. I introduce Thomas to my kids.

“You people are awfully small. Are you really people? Or are you bugs? I don’t mind bugs, as long as they don’t bite. Do you bite? You kind of look like butterflies. But you sound like bees. Should I be scared?”

They are shy, but friendly, and giggle a little at his awkward attempts at humour. Thomas looks at me and tells me he approves of my eyeliner. I blush. I only put on a touch of make-up and didn’t expect it to be noticeable. Who cares, I scold myself. Linen, liner, what’s the difference? It’s good that he notices!

The next day my kids tell me that Thomas is a lot like one of the teachers at their school, Patrick Allard. Patrick Allard is the kind of person my hairdresser would call a raging fruit loop. “I think it’s his neck,” my daughter said. “Or something about the way he moves it,” my son said. “And his voice. It sounds like the tinkly high notes on a piano.” I decide I am pleased: they both like Patrick very much; his computer class is what they live for at school.

Later, my friends ask me where my new guy was, wasn’t he supposed to come to the party? Yes, the guy you’d never met before, that was the new guy. They think and think. Finally: “You mean the gay guy? You’re dating a gay guy?”

Thomas calls to invite me, in his tinkly voice, to go camping with him the following weekend. How very rugged of him, I think. None of my gay friends (well, okay, I have one at the moment, the guy who does my hair, but I have had others, at other points in my life) have ever enjoyed the great outdoors. Wait, why am I thinking that? He isn’t gay. And anyway, I don’t like camping either. None of this proves anything. As my other gay friend Phil used to say, “We’re all different. Like snowflakes.” Anyway, why would I have to prove anything? I tell him I don’t really like camping, have only ever done it for the kids, and the kids will be away at their dad’s this weekend, so camping really wouldn’t be — and he interrupts me, in a manly sort of way, except for the voice, and tells me he is going to change all that. He will treat me like a princess (did I imagine the lisp?) – I will be comfortable; in fact, I will be in the lap of luxury. I am not sure what he means by that; he is nervous and saying odd things, but I am nervous too. In fact, the word lap makes me blush. We haven’t gotten close to the subject of laps; just one quick peck on the check after the party, that’s all that has happened.

As I drop my kids off at Jerry’s, he asks me who I am going with. He looks puzzled. I feel triumphant. Hah! Yes, Thomas is interested in me, and yes, in that way! He mentioned laps!

Thomas picks me up in his van. I am relieved that it is quite the battered looking vehicle, and that there are empty pop bottles rolling around. Wait, why should that be such a relief? We drive to Horseshoe Bay, take a ferry to Vancouver Island, arrive at the beach at eight in the evening. It is only April; it is raining and cold. Thomas is well-equipped, though, with Mountain Co-op sweaters and jackets. I want to know if the clothes he is lending me once belonged to another woman, but can’t bring myself to ask.

“Isn’t this great? The air is just so fresh and invigorating!” he says, turning to me hopefully.

“Are we allowed to camp here? I thought I saw a sign that said no camping until June.”

“We’re trespassing,” he explains.

That’s interesting. Now why would I find that interesting, exactly?

“But, you know,” he continues, “nobody checks. Nobody checks because nobody does this. Except me. And now you.”

He tells me that his friends aren’t interested in camping at this time of year, and he hasn’t had a girlfriend in ten years.

Ten years!

I feel him feeling me stare at him.

“It’s been six since I even slept with a woman.”

He says this as if this is commonplace. He is thirty-eight years old, not ninety-seven! I tell him I am going for a walk and he smiles happily as if I have said something completely delightful. I order myself to live in the moment. Concentrate on this place, completely desolate, yes, at first glance, a place of different shades of brown and grey: sand, driftwood, seaweed, pebbles, rocks, rainy sky. But then there is the polished peachy pink of the seashells, the gold of a starfish, the brilliant black of mussels clinging to the gleaming wet rocks, the blue and silver of the water. And now he has run up behind me and is hugging me from behind. He turns me around and kisses me. There is nothing tentative about this gesture. But this rough, rocky landscape seems to contrast with and highlight his lack of masculinity: the air is rank and salty, but he smells pretty. He is very clean-shaven; kissing him is like kissing a girl. Maybe tomorrow he will be less clean-shaven and I will feel something. Maybe I am still in sexual mourning for Jerry, after all. Jerry smelled clean but also somehow organic. He had a body smell.

In a wild windstorm, we collect and then eat mussels. The wind dies down, the sky clears and then there are a trillion twinkling stars. He deftly sets up the tent, a large, luxurious one equipped with a fancy air mattress, expensive down-filled comforters, colourful cushions worthy of a harem. He invites me to lie down, then crawls in himself and suddenly pins my arms down and smiles into my face. I smile back, feel myself relax.

“Did you think I was gay?” he asks in his gay voice.

“What?” I feel my smile go away.

“Oh nothing; lots of people think I am gay when they first meet me.”

With that he competently undresses both of us under the comforters. I am not exactly aroused, but I am curious, and offer no resistance. I also fail to feel anything at all. What happened to those hormones?

In the morning he wakes me up by reaching a hand inside the flap of the tent from outside, stroking my hair, withdrawing the hand, and, a few seconds later, putting a cup of coffee next to my head. Then the hand comes back and there is a wild rose next to my cup.

Later, we walk along the beach. It is drizzling.

“You know,” Thomas begins hesitantly, his shy voice hard to hear over the screaming seagulls. “Cory couldn’t believe that a pretty woman like you would be interested in me.”

“And not him,” we say at the same time.

“What a jerk,” I say carelessly.

“Hey, he’s my friend!”

“He looks like a Nazi.”

“Hey!”

“That’s okay. You’re too nice for this world, Thomas.” I say, and give him a hug.

We drive home that afternoon. In the evening he leaves while I pick up the kids and put them to bed at home. At midnight, he sneaks in. We lay in bed in my attic bedroom and he asks me what I want to do. I shrug. The fact is, I really don’t want to make love. Can I say that? Incredibly, he says:

“Are you reading a novel or a book of short stories right now? Would you like to take turns reading aloud?”

I am so lucky. A sensitive man who enjoys literature.

But after several pages of hearing him lisp through Wuthering Heights, I think: tomorrow, before the kids wake up, I must dump him.

“Oh well,” he trills. He smiles. Then his smile disappears, and then he does. And that is all.

Two months later I run into him at the supermarket. He averts his eyes. When I say hello, he barely answers. I am pushing my children in the shopping cart, even though they are too big for this; they are too heavy for me to push. The wheels keep getting stuck. I am just so tired. What I really need is someone who will push.

——-

Anita Anand lives in Montreal, Canada.  Her stories and essays have appeared in Frostwriting.com, the Louisiana Review and  the Toronto Globe and Mail.

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I’m a teenage boy, see Mac Roebuck, mind senior in high school. I have acute lymphatic leukemia. I’m anemic which swings a hammer to pound in my ears. I faint. I work to breathe—when’s that verb going to change to struggle? My hunger for pizza died.

An organization, advice Ask Our Genie, represented on the telephone by Clare, who puts bubbles into flat life with her sunny voice, told me they have compassion for the dying. If I’d yearned to do something, and if it were possible for them to allow me to do it, they would find deep meaning in it. In return for this generosity, they would use my name and story in publicity releases.

“I’d like to diddle Kate Winslet while I still have the strength. Since I saw her in Titanic, I’ve wanted her.”

Clare laughed and I heard Willie Nelson singing, “When the party’s all over . . . .”

“That would play hell with Genie’s image. Give me something else.”

“I’ll have to think about it. No second choice ready.”

“You do that, and when a wholesome one flags you down, pick up the phone and dial our client-friendly 800 number.” She gave me the number.

I thought and thought about wish two. Do something about my nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea if I have chemotherapy again. Ha, ha.

One evening while I was watching a dirty movie at my friend, Ralph’s house, I noticed a book of Borman Stone illustrations on the coffee table with one of his most famous pictures on the dust jacket—a farmer shows a boy how to bait his hook as they sit in a boat on a pond.

The next day, I called Clare. “Hi, Mac Roebuck, with my exciting second choice.”

“Who?”

“Mac Roebuck, small town, middle America, dying of leukemia.”

“Oh sure, what’s up?”

“Ready with my heart-expanding second choice. Give me fifteen minutes with Borman Stone.”

“Great choice, Mac. He’s a Genie special friend. You’ll find him compassionate without any unctuousness. A fine artist and a real super awesome guy. Did the illustrations for our Camp Genie brochure.”

Ask Our Genie seated me on a plane and limousine to wheel me to Stone’s estate in a small town in western Connecticut’s hills. Entering the great man’s studio, I could smell oil paint plus cherry aromatic pipe tobacco. I looked up at a skylight streaked with grime.

Lots of “people” around, illustrations like photographs—barbers, truck drivers, old ladies, kids, soldiers, teachers, policemen, men and woman in business suits, farmers, preachers. All the wholesome people you might find in five cities all there in one room. What you would have if Barney had gone to an art school instead of a dinosaur school.

The great man himself was as ordinary as a small town merchant held in his store for long hours by the need to feed and educate a family. He was slightly pudgy with smooth white skin. His thinning hair was gray. He kept lighting his pipe with kitchen matches. If you saw him on the street, you would never think, There goes one of America’s most famous men.

I held out my hand. “Mac Roebuck.”

“Borman Stone. What can I do for you? I’d use you for a model except you look a little sick.” The old man chuckled.

“Yeah, that’s the point of my being here.”

He turned serious-faced. “Oh, sure, how thoughtless of me. Your request to Ask Our Genie brought you here. Macabre outfit, agree?”

I nodded. “I want you to draw a dirty picture I can use for a tattoo on my arm.”

Stone sat and rested his head on his hand. “Hmmm. I haven’t done anything dirty since high school. Hope I haven’t lost the knack.” He laughed. “I’ll relish it. Fifty years of living conventionally is enough. I’m a damn tourist attraction. People wait around to see me leave my studio to go for a walk.

Ooh and ahh over me as if I were Robert Redford when I could model as a faceless bureaucrat.”

“With a Borman Stone tattoo on my arm, I’ll die happy.”

“One condition.” The old man deflated. His smile disappeared.

I leaned toward him and made a steeple of my fingertips.

“Post tattoo, contact a tabloid about it. Mr. Respectability? No way. He’s a dirty old man. That kind of thing. After fifty-four loyal years to my wife, I’d like to slide out clothed in a scandal. Watch me though. I might do something sneaky and underhanded.”

“Small matter. Remember, I’m the tragic dying boy.”

“I know a fine tattooist here in town, a master of living, mobile art.”

I ran my fingers over the finish on Stone’s perfectly-restored, turquoise-blue Packard. It felt like Steuben glass. On the inside, the black leather upholstery smelled new. In this car lover’s treasure, we glided to the tattooist.

In the tattoo parlor, I heard the tattoo gun’s hum and, on the walls, saw photographs of fresh tattoos—a rat, snake, and a dragon—the colors intense, the flesh around them angry. I had expected the parlor to smell like a doctor’s office, but I smelled nothing when I took a deep breath. The artist himself, Axel Nash, small but muscular, tattooed a large woman.

After a wait for Nash to finish with his customer, he told me I looked sick. “Are you?”

My first thought said lie, but I told the truth.

“You’ll be demanding that your sick body heal the tattoo,” Axel said. “I’ll be putting thousands of tiny holes in your skin. Your body’s failing now. If we load it further, it will fail.” Axel touched my shoulder with his hand. “I’m sorry. I know you had your heart set on a Borman Stone tattoo.”

My head drooped.

In silence, we rode back to Stone’s studio. Riding in the old Packard gave me a secure, solid feeling I never get riding in my hatchback. However, that did nothing to ease my disappointment.

“I’ve got it,” Stone said, his frown turning to a smile. “I’ll draw the tattoo on your arm with permanent ink markers. Keep soap and wachcloths away from your art, and it’ll stay long enough for the tabloid picture.

“I’ll give you my unlisted phone number,” Borman said when he finished. Give me a call to let me know how you’re faring. My mind’s a lot dirtier than people think, but I do have a golden heart.”

Post tattoo creation, for a few seconds when I stood before Stone’s mirror in the walnut frame with angels and devils carved in it, I forgot I was dying. I owned a freckle-faced farm boy sitting on a pond bank. Everything—with one exception— looked like your normal Borman Stone wholesome illustration including the little dog beside the boy. Have you ever seen an illustration in which an erect penis was used as a fishing pole? Neither had I until that moment. The world possessed one soul with a Borman Stone original work breathing on my body. The boy’s fishing-pole-penis extended above his head.

Once home, I phoned The Interrogator. They said they’d send a reporter- photographer.

The reporter popped his purple bubble gum. It smelled like grape. When he saw my tattoo, he whistled. “if a kid had a pecker that size, he’d have all the exercise equipment he needed.”

The reporter made a face when he smelled me.

I grinned when I saw The Interrogator’s headline.

DEL PENIX SWEARS DIRTY TATTOO DRAWN BY BORMAN STONE!

To protect him, The Interrogator has changed his name to Del Penix. Who’s he? A real, brave boy dying of leukemia awarded a last request by Ask Our Genie. “A Borman Stone tattoo,” spilled out of Penix’s mouth in a nanosecond! sources say.

“This reporter was shocked when he saw the tattoo on Penix’s arm. Interrogator readers know to look for us on the high road, that we would never print a picture shocking even for a madam!

In my published picture, they’d black-rectangled my eyes and the picture on my arm.

A week later, The Interrogator screamed—

BORMAN STONE MAINTAINS DYING DEL PENIX THREATENED TO BOMB HIS NINETEEN GRANDCHILDREN IF STONE REFUSED TO CREATE DIRTY TATTOO

I called Stone’s unlisted phone number.

“Yeah,” he said. “I told them that. Remember when I told you you might have to deal with the unexpected and tacky?”

“Yes.”

“Wasn’t shitting you, was I?”

“Not in the Borman Stone book of family values.”

“You counter what I said. Say I’m a liar, senile old dissembler. I’ll counter your counter. We’ll see how many weeks we can keep it going.”

“This might be even better than screwing Kate Winslet.”

“How’s that?”

“My first choice to Ask Our Genie.”

The old man cackled. “Damn good one. Anyway, now we’ve got an accusations-trading project that’ll get you thinking about something other than yourself and your problems.”

“If someone tells you that once he died, but never cried, he lied.” (I prepared this one in advance.)

“Hey, my friend, good—“

I hanged up the phone.

In my mind, I saw Kate Winslet naked on a bed. She moved a forefinger back and forth, up and toward her hand. I shook my head, afraid my thing would never—

I would call Clare, the always-up telephone personality at Ask Our Genie. This time she remembered me and my nemesis.

“Would you guys send me on another ride?” I said.

“Mac, I wish.”

“Could I call you just to talk? Say whatever?” Please. There are buzzards in my dreams.

“I could lose my job.”

“Then we could have an authentic time for sharing.”

“Tying up our client-friendly 800 number. Clearing it with corporate could take weeks.”

“Put the humanly-possible on fast forward.”

“I don’t want to give you false hope.”

“Give me all you’ve got with extra hot fudge and nuts.”

Clare laughed.

—–

Lincoln Swift has written for a number of years.  This is his first published story

—–

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Olympic-sized indoor pools are all the same: A vault echoing with the splash and suck of water, advice air sharp with chlorine, rubber heads breaking the surface of artificial blue like blind worms threading up and down the lanes.

But it’s past your bedtime. What in the world are you doing here under that cement sky, those electric neon stars? Wait and see. A man approaches. He is fully clothed in cords and a sweater, leather loafers. He is holding a net on a long metal pole. He has the supercilious expression of someone used to giving dictation. He is not smiling.

But this is the outside view, and you’re no fly on the wall. No, you’re the kid in baggy trunks with your skinny arms wrapped around your chest. You’re not omniscient but you know his middle name and that in his trouser pocket he carries fingernail clippers, a handkerchief, and a fat fold of bills clamped with a simple gold clip. You know that he likes his steak medium rare and his martini dirty and that the clothes in his closet hang on identical wooden hangars. He loves his mother, he does sixty pushups every night, and he sleeps like a baby.

But you don’t know why he’s not smiling. “Go on,” he says, and there’s no use arguing, you’re old enough to know better, so just squeeze your shoulders and walk to the top of the steps, lean your bony hip against the twisted metal rung, wait and see.

The skin of the water is elastic, shivering. Along the bottom of the lane, a long blue line of tiles stretches, rippling like a giant snake. But there’s no time left for looking. You can’t read minds but you know what he wants you to do. Just grab the rail and back down the ladder.

The cold swallows whole, calves and thighs; wince as water snakes its icy vice grip into the fabric of your trunks and squeezes. You are a beating heart in an ice box, a tongue skewered on an icicle, a chunk of live bait. If you could see yourself now, you’d probably cry. Instead, you grip the metal rung and turn to face that loafer jutting over the edge.

“Do it,” he says. When you can’t loosen your grip, he pokes your hand with the metal pole. “You’re staying in there until you do.”

The only thing to do is let go. It’s all about the struggle now, it’s all up to you and your skinny arms thrashing against nothing, feeble legs beating, beating against the void. It’s an exercise not in trust but in suspended disbelief, a lesson in blind faith, an empty baptism. The leather toe inches along the edge; the butt of the metal pole prods. It takes a lifetime to reach the other end but you do, drag yourself up onto the ledge and sit there, teeth clacking in code but not crying, you know better than that.

He throws you a towel. When he says he’s proud, you know he’s talking about himself. Finally, he turns away toward the dressing room.

—–

Anna Fonté has written two novels, short stories, magazine reviews, pseudo-poems, and descriptions of her ongoing attempts to make friends with the neighborhood crows, all archived on her blog at http://www.girlinthehat.com.

——-

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As he wheeled off his carry-on Philip recognized God in the lobby of the Burbank airport. She stood at the counter of the Orange Julius franchise (“I’ve always admired their graphics, remedy ” She confessed to him later) wearing a midi skirt and a pair of Frye boots, both of which would have been fashionable when he had attended high school twenty years earlier. She slurped on a straw filled with orange foam when Philip apologized for interrupting Her, “I just wanted to say, Hi.”

She smiled, waved a finger, and said, “I know you,” She said. “Give me a minute.”

Up close She looked much older, lines around Her eyes, Her mouth, on Her forehead, Her neck. A multicolored shawl draped across Her shoulders, distracting the eye from the ample figure underneath. Philip had one glance at Her golden brown eyes, filled with depth and secrets and mysteries, before She covered them up with a pair of Prada sunglasses.

“Philip Seer, born Berlin Germany, 1965, current resident of Pasadena California father of three girls.”

“Two,” he said.

She arched one eyebrow. “English teacher. Avocation, poet.”

Philip shrugged, in what he hoped was a self-deprecating manner.

“Dies in—” She stopped Herself. “I’m so sorry. I’m always on the verge of doing that. Spoils the ride completely. Trust me, I should know.” She gave his hand an impulsive little squeeze. “How’d you recognize me?” She said. Her voice was deep and throaty, one that might have been shaped by whiskey and cigarettes and raucous behavior. She slurped loudly, finished Her orange drink, and tossed it into the waste receptacle. “Usually it’s only people near death. And not too happy about it, I can tell you. But you are.”

“I’ve seen you around before,” he told Her. “This time I just felt a little braver.”

She nodded, as if it made sense to Her. “Mexico City, right, Teotihuacan?”

He nodded.

She murmured to Herself.

“Well, now. Why don’t you buy me a lovely drink somewhere outside of this airport, and I’ll answer one or two or three of all those tiresome questions. Sound fair?”

“Utterly and completely.” Phillip made to pick up Her lap top case until She stopped him.

“You have no idea how heavy it is. Don’t even try.”

She lifted her case like a barbell and walked a half step ahead of him all the way to the parking structure. Philip unlocked the passenger side of his seven-year old Toyota Corolla, and held the door open for Her. After a slight fluttering of Her skirt, and an adamant refusal to fasten Her safety belt, the two of them drove off, and exited the airport parking lot. He attempted to park at the first bar they passed.

“Absolutely not,” She said. Which She repeated at the second and third attempted stops. “I know a place,” She said. “Turn right up ahead.”

At the corner Philip spotted a homeless woman with a cardboard sign which read “Be merciful to the poor”

“Pull over here. Sharp stop. Good. Have you got $20?” Phillip opened his wallet and brought out forty. She rolled down the window and shouted. “Elizabeth. Elizabeth! What in My name are you doing here? You’re asking for trouble, you know, it’s getting dark.”

Phillip was unable to hear Elizabeth’s response, but the woman on the curb curtseyed deeply, before taking the bills held out to her.

“For My sake, please. Go home.” Elizabeth folded the two bills into the back pocket of her jeans, without looking at Philip or his passenger.

God shook Her head. “Saints tend to miss their martyrdom. And you know Hungarians, of course.”

Philip did not.

“Look, take a left here, that’s it, and down the alley here, there you go, and park right there. Here we are.”

Philip parked in the half empty lot.

“While I’m in the loo, order me a whiskey sour. And a packet of Corn Nuts.”

He gave her order to the bartender, then added, “and a bourbon for me.”

After the drinks had been served God sat down next to Phillip, placed Her hand on top of his again, and said, “Now isn’t this fun?” He noticed Her long red fingernails, and the backs of Her hands. Not wrinkled at all, but lined with thick green veins.

She glanced at him, around the bar, at the bartender, and then became fixated on the flat screen. “I love television,” She said.

When She returned her attention to him Philip tilted his glass to Her and watched as She drank, then waved for another. Despite the bartender’s scowl she pulled out a cigarette, a Virginia Slims, Philip noticed. He found a packet of matches on the bar counter, struck one, and She tilted into the flame. She leaned back, inhaled, exhaled.

“I have soft spot in my heart for these places. My people, you know?” She seemed to settle down on Her bar stool. She kept Her sunglasses on as She faced Philip and said, “But the truth is, each place is special to me, for different reasons. Phillip Seer of Pasadena California, thank you for the drink. You may ask me whatever you like, provided it stays on this earthly plane. Also, know full well, that you will have no memory of this whatsoever.”
Phillip swallowed what was left in his drink. He cleared his throat, gathered up his thoughts, while something deep and resonant from within the laptop case began to chime. Philip noticed the ice in his drink quivered. God spent thirty seconds at least fishing around in Her carry on until She glanced at the device, rolled Her eyes, pushed a button which stopped the chiming then set the gadget in front of Her on the counter.

“Hold that thought, and order me another drink.”

Another sip, and now She leaned into him confidentially and said, “You know, I have to admit, I’d check in on the world every millennia or so, just to see how I was doing. Big mistake. First of all, it’s not about me, it’s not about how I’m doing, it’s about how all of you are coping. Secondly, every time I tried to feel the pulse, as it were, a new religion sprouted up. Not that I have anything against religion, mind you, I don’t want you to take it the wrong way,” she caught herself, and sighed. “I should have stuck to nebulae,” she said. “Really, I don’t know why I made fun of Elizabeth, we’re both doing the same thing. We miss this world. We miss the marvelous sensory aspects of this world.” God took in a deep breath. “Even if it smells of stale cigarettes and Lysol.”

She waved the electronic gizmo in front of him. “This is sorted by galaxies, then divided into solar systems, then planets, then creatures. Thank myself and dark matter that I had the foresight to sprinkle it across the universe or I’d never have time to catch my breath. Whew. Of course, I’d had plenty of practice throws by this version. ‘Do over!’ I’d say, and roll the atoms again. Lucretius was validated. Einstein was so disappointed when we discussed this. So disappointed in Me!” She had a wry smiled on her face. Philip admired the fullness of Her lips. Kissing God? Wouldn’t that be blasphemy? Not to mention infidelity—

“Lots of belief systems incorporate , how shall I put this, congress between the mortal and the immortal. As I was saying, Einstein just proved my entire point. Disappointment borne of unrealistic expectations. Are you hungry? I’m starving. And, speaking of expectations, I have a tremendous craving for Cuban food. Will you drive? I’m not sure I’m up to even standing at this point.”

Phillip paid the bill. Within thirty minutes the two of them stood in the foyer of a simple restaurant. White walls, white table cloths, servers in black slacks and white shirts, and bright lighting. They were seated after a few moments wait. God switched from whiskey sours to Penafiel soda, pineapple flavored.

“Um,” Philip was now worried about what he should order. “Are you a vegetarian?” He could feel the glare from underneath the sunglasses.

“You, dear man, are talking to someone who accepts the scent of sacrificed meat. Who, quite frankly, revels in it.”

“Kosher?”

“It depends. Let me order for you.”

She spoke to the waiter in Spanish with a Cuban accent, and then after ordering leaned back, sipped her pineapple soda. The two were silent for a moment, but before Philip could become uncomfortable he realized he felt deeply relaxed. And quiet. And calm. They sat in silence for quite a long time.

God said “Ah, look at this.”

The waiter introduced the plates to Philip. Chicken fricase, platanos and yucca, ropa vieja, and moros y cristianos.

“Now that’s what I call a sense of humor. Black beans as moors, white rice as Christians. Yes, that’s it, just help yourself to a little of everything. Last time I was here, not too long ago, twenty-five years, I think, it was spectacular. I hope you don’t mind I didn’t order fries, honestly you can get those anywhere. Literally. And I don’t mean on just this planet, either.”

Philip served himself, and watched as God bit down on a piece of butter and garlic drench toasted bread.

“As good as I remember it,” She pronounced. “And how many times can you say that? Everything improves from a remove. Even you all.”

She smiled at him magnificently. Philip felt a pain in the back of his eyes.

“Sorry,” she said. “Got to keep that under wraps. Don’t what the entire restaurant passing out, fading out and fading back in. Can not tell you what an absolute nightmare that would be. What do you think?”

Philip tried mouthful after mouthful after the first tentative morsel. “Heavenly,” he said.

“I was hoping you’d think so. For all our shared bloodthirstiness no one ever appreciates my humor. No one ever sees the jokes stitched onto every leaf of every tree, embedded in the scent of newborns, swirling around the sky with the sunsets. All of you, all of you take it far too seriously.”

For the first time in his life, it struck Philip, and it was actually quite embarrassing for him to even think it, that God was rather needy.

“You see, there, again you prove my point. That’s precisely what I mean about my sense of humor not being appreciated, and how unrealistic expectations lead to disappointment. Un licuado, por favor. De fresa.” The last two sentences were aimed at the server, who added another basket of butter and garlic drenched bread to the table. “Now, what did you want to discuss?”

Philip knew he was ordinary. He was. He loved his wife, he loved his children, when they weren’t driving him mad. He wasn’t, and no one he knew, was dying from a serious illness. His life no elements of tragedy, at least not yet. Why him?

“Why me?” that was the question he had wanted to ask from the very beginning. “If, Philip of Pasadena, I said, good naturedly and with wholesome humor, why not, I sense you would be disappointed. What you want to know is what spectacular achievement or quality has brought you to my attention in the first place. But let me remind you, you were the one who recognized me. Isn’t that stupendous enough?”

Philip felt a giddy ripple within him, immediately tempered by doubt: was it banal to be thrilled to think you had something special, a gift that no one else did? Or was it human?

“Madam, all I really ever wanted to say is, truly, it is an honor. I drink to you, to your eternity, and to my brief, however brief, span Here. To all that you do, the good and the ill. To the moments of consciousness you have bequeathed us. To you, madam, again and again and every day.”

She said nothing for a moment and Philip realized he had ruined, squandered, whatever moment had been his. Well, that was his life wasn’t it? Runner up in countless contests, second best no matter what at his high school. But he meant it, he meant every word, and the day he say down to quiz God face to face was the day he had hubris in place of awe.

She unwrapped the shawl from Her shoulder, set the gadget back in Her lap top bag. “Ah, Philip. Philip Seer, you touch me deeply. I do not grant readings or predictions or pleadings, but Philip,” the glass was set before Her, “I do speak to those who can hear.”

She leaned into him, confidentially, a woman of a certain age, deeply attractive. She said, “Your gifts will not be recognized or rewarded by the wide world. That can breed a brittle bitterness, depending on the person. To avoid that, listen: you are what you believe yourself to be. A poet. To recognize the divine, Philip, is your gift.”

She reached across the table and patted him on the back of his hand. Then She held onto it. Philip felt it at first as the light touch of dry parchment, a whisper of flesh, and then when she held his hand he could no longer see her or the room. Great bursts of gas and energy came from the light fixtures, the eyes and ears of the customers; colors showered, shimmered, hovered then disappeared. The smells of the food on his table entered his body as he inhaled, and then spread throughout the room as he expelled his breath; then he held it. He knew better than to look in Her direction, so he avoided her, and looked upwards where it appeared that the ceiling had fractured and spilling through the fissures was the breath of the night, and star beams which refracted throughout the room.

He breathed again and the casual conversation around him turned into a cacophony of strange scraping and tinkling and jangling, incomprehensible guttural noises. The last bite of beans and rice filled his mouth and he sensed it infused his body with an spicy earthiness. He thought, “ I do believe I am being shut down and restarted.” He was filled with controlled excitement and fear. “Forever this remember will I,” he thought.

Philip stood at the kitchen sink staring through the window watching the leaves rustle. He smelled gardenias and Dove dishwashing liquid . Outside a gust of wind sent another sputter of leaves swirling. A squirrel skipped across the chain link fence. The scent of gardenia faded, and to his left a small brown eyed girl said, “Dad?” with a worried look on her face. “What are you thinking?”

Each time Philip saw Lilia’s worried face he felt touched and humbled. Lilia’s charm and sweetness could not have possibly come from him, which meant it came from his wife. There were her eyebrows, close together with concern.

“I—don’t know.” He picked her up and gave her a squeeze. “What’s your mom doing?”

“She’s out in the back, digging up weeds. Are you okay?”

“I feel like I’ve been dreaming,” Phillip said. He knew he had flown in from Phoenix yesterday, but he couldn’t remember a single intervening detail. And he was ravenous. “I heard about this great Cuban place in Glendale,” he couldn’t remember who had told him, someone on the flight? “Maybe we can head out there for a bite, if it’s okay with your mom.”

The café that her father owned was across the street from a ravine where the sewer ran. All day long she wiped up after the customers, moving their glasses and dishes out onto their tables and back into the kitchen. In between she would stare at the mountains behind them yellow in the morning, granite in the afternoon, then a deep purple as the day faded.

Today she stared at the man who had taken the remaining seat outside, when it was crowded by the men who gathered each day to drink coffee, smoke their cigarettes, and argue with each other. After they had left, he still remained. He was huge, fat, spilling over his chair, reading an American newspaper from under his sunglasses. He was horrible! He was wonderful! He sat there and ate and drank and read and sometimes looked at her. He had eaten three bowls of goulash and twice as many bottles of beer. He was frightening to behold, but she could not look away.

She was afraid that he was what God looked like.

When she thought that the American’s head jerked in her direction. She could not see his eyes underneath his thick dark glasses, so she couldn’t assume he was looking at her, but then he waved her over.

He had only spoken to her father, but now he spoke to her, in Albanian. “Is that what you think of Me?” he said.

The girl, stuttered, not knowing what to say.

“Maybe instead of horrible and wonderful,” he continued, “you meant fascinating.”

She looked at him and gave him a broad smile. That was the word, not insulting, not mean, not strange. He was fascinating.

“Could I have the bill, please?” he said.

She came in and told her father who slapped her for talking to the gentleman.

“Don’t be stupid. You want to end up like your mother?”

The small girl shook her head. She wanted to be with her mother, but her father never asked her that.

Her father took out the restaurant bill, brought in the bills of money, and returned to the customer more bills and coins.

The small girl stayed inside the restaurant, staring at the changing shade of the mountains, and at the man as he stood, awkwardly, and with the help of a walking stick headed across the street and got into a car that seemed far too small for him, which sank to the ground as he seated himself. She went outside and picked up the American newspaper, with the lettering she could not decipher, and the empty pilsner glass with its sputtering of foam at the base.

Fascinating. That was it. She decided then she would always be on the look out for fascinating people. And if she couldn’t find any she would decide to be one herself.

It wasn’t until she was falling asleep that night that she wondered how he knew what she had been thinking. She had a peculiar feeling that she would be seeing him again.

—–

Des Zamorano is a Pushcart Prize nominee, playwright, and author of the recently published
mystery HUMAN CARGO. She runs a center similar to Dave Eggers’s 826 Valencia at Occidental College
in Eagle Rock, CA.

——-

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It was silent, salve in the grave.

Will remembered having once heard that there was a time when the dead were accompanied by worms. Now, store thanks to modern embalming methods and sealed burial vaults, viagra sale he was utterly alone. It was dark. Cool. Silent.

He remembered wind chimes. Not like the ones you buy in a souvenir shop. This wind chime was formed of twine, bolts from his tool shed, and a wire clothes hanger. He remembered his daughter, Crystal, smiling as she presented the gift, wrapped in the comic section of the Sunday paper. He remembered that his wife, Tori, had laughed, though here in the grave he could not remember the sound of her laughter.

He remembered the seconds, minutes, hours, of Crystal squealing, wind chimes clinking, Tori talking. He remembered not being able to hear the game, though here in the grave he could no longer remember what game it had been. He only remembered wishing all the squealing clinking talking would stop.

Time twisted dizzily, and faces rushed through days, weeks, years. Mouths formed words that Will could not hear over the deafening silence of the grave.

Days, weeks, years.

Will remembered in pictures, like lightning flashes in a storm: Tori’s face growing tired and angry, Crystal’s eyes becoming distant. He remembered the open mouths, that there were words, that there was noise.

Days, weeks, years.

Will remembered leaving his house full of people whom he did not like and had not invited there. He remembered the sadness and hurt lurking behind the anger in his wife’s eyes when she watched him leave. He remembered her face: tired, lined, and angry. But here in the grave, he could not remember her name.

Seconds, minutes, hours.

Will remembered a bar. Dark, air heavy with dank odors of alcohol in glasses and on breath. He remembered the smell of onion rings and cologne. No cigarettes. Even though he’d quit, he remembered missing the heady blanket of smoke that once hung in bars. He would have smoked that night, if he could.

He remembered a woman’s face and thought he should remember a voice because she was talking to him. Her hand lay across his arm and her eyes never left his except to find her drink. He remembered that she had been sitting very close, and remembered that she smelled better than the bar, better than cigarettes.

He remembered a touch on his shoulder, and a stranger pointing to a girl in the doorway.

Crystal, a young woman now.

Will remembered her eyes, a riptide of disappointment and fear pulling him down and away from the woman on his arm. Crystal spoke, but he could not hear her. He remembered telling the other woman to shut up. Be quiet. How about a little quiet in here? How about some silence? From here in the grave, he struggled after her name. Maybe he’d never known it.

He remembered turning back, and the girl in the doorway – his daughter – what was her name? – was gone. He dropped money on the bar. It made no sound.

He went after the girl.

Snow fell, silent.

He found his keys and opened the car door. He slammed the door so that the car shook, though here in the grave he couldn’t remember the sound of it. It should have made a racket, like the woman at the door of the bar who waved her arms and kicked snow. She would have been making a racket too. Here in the grave, he could see but not hear her fury.

He remembered that the windshield wipers pulled haltingly across the windshield in a vain attempt at clearing the snow. He remembered steering, over-steering, then sliding. He remembered lights piercing the snow, then darkness.

Seconds, minutes, hours.

Will remembered light, even though his eyes were closed, then as now. He remembered that he had heard a beeping sound, but from here in the grave he couldn’t remember the sound itself.

He remembered the feeling of someone grasping his fingers. He had opened his eyes, and the girl from the bar was there – not the one who was chasing him, but the one he had been chasing. Now he couldn’t remember who she was or why he had been chasing her.

The girl’s face – not just her eyes, but her whole face – was full of tears. Makeup streaked her cheeks and left black marks on her white sleeves. Her mouth opened and closed, but he couldn’t hear the words. He remembered wishing that the beeping would stop so he could hear the girl.

When the beeping stopped the girl’s face turned from sadness to horror, and his vision drifted from ashes to darkness.

Days, weeks, months, forever.

In dark, cool silence, Will wanted to remember every sight, every touch, every smell, every sound. Relentless, they slipped into the twisting confusion of time, faces, touches, words, noises, laughter, and tinkling bolts suspended from a wire clothes hanger.

It was silent, in the grave.

—–

Jess Harris’ publishing credits include Sniplits.com, Short Story America, and Toad’s Corner, among others.

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I think that everyone should, stuff at a very young age, viagra but not too young, maybe nine or ten, everyone should decide on one trait their future husband or wife will have.  Then stick to it.  Write is down if need be.  A lot of divorces could be avoided this way.

I decided long ago that I would never marry until I met a man who could play “Let’s Pretend” as well as my sister Cass.  Growing up, it was my favorite game.  Basically we pretended to be people and to do jobs.  Sounds stupid and common, I know.  Every kid pretends.  They play house or doctor or war or fireman, whatever.  But it wasn’t the game itself, but how my sister played it.  She committed to the highest degree.  We never discussed rules, just played as it felt natural.  But now, all these years later, though the game was just “Let’s Pretend,” I see there was always a winner and a loser.  The loser was the one who broke character first.  Cass almost always beat me.  I haven’t yet met a man who can.

The worst game was veterinarian.  I was maybe seven, Cass nine, and her class had taken a field trip to the local vet clinic.  So we began with our stuffed animals.  Though Cass had gone to a cat-and-dog-type clinic we pretended to be zoo vets so we could treat the giraffe and the polar bear and the walrus with the abscessed tooth (Cass knew this term).  She was the head vet and I acted as her assistant.  We wore Dad’s white shirts as lab coats.  After we ran out of stuffed animals I rounded up our pet tomcat, Turnip, who was eighteen-years-old and tired and put up with almost anything.  We pretended that he was a tiger cub.  I told Dr. Cass that he swallowed a battery, because I happened to see a 9-volt across the room.  It seemed like what a tiger cub might do.  Cass asked some questions — I forget what — and then declared that we had to put Turnip to sleep.  “For the operation?” I asked, thinking anesthesia.  “That’s not what I mean,” she snapped.  “Weren’t you paying any attention in vet school?”

Now another unspoken rule to the game was that you couldn’t try to force the other to break character.  And Cass wasn’t doing that here.  The cases had slowly been growing graver, so we were due for one we couldn’t save.  And her character had been fairly derogatory from the start.  She was justified in explaining in a pedantic tone, “Young lady, I mean we have to euthanize this tiger.  We have to put it out of its misery.”

“Kill him?” I said on the border of losing it.  Cass said that she was afraid so.  She explained that batteries contain acid and that the battery would leak and burn a hole straight through the poor animal’s stomach.  I asked why we couldn’t just operate and take the battery out, but young cats have very delicate stomachs and a hole was no doubt starting to make its way out already.  The tiger was probably in agony.  Then she got her leathercraft tools from the closet.  She called them “surgical implements” and they did look vaguely medical.  Stainless steel handles, about six inches long with different heads that would be used to punch designs into moistened leather by hitting the end with a mallet.  I knew because I had seen Cass use them for Girl Scout projects.  But she made me lay them out on a tray while Cass prepared for the procedure.

I changed the story.  I said Turnip never ate a battery, just an eraser.  One of those pink kinds.  “X-rays don’t lie,” she asserted, which technically was a breech because no one mentioned x-rays before.  I screamed, “No, Cass, please don’t hurt Turnip,” because I was convinced she would carry through on something hideous.

So why would I want a man who could push me to that extent?  I’m not sure why, but I miss that game.  I guess it’s a trust thing, like those dumb team-building exercises where you fall backwards, trusting someone to catch you.  That’s what it’s like to play a character to such an extent.  You really open yourself up to getting hurt.  But the right man will catch you.  If it works right, there is an epiphany when you fall.  You realize that you fell because he knows you so well.  Knows you on a don’t-have-to-think-about-it-can’t-consciously-explain-it level.  I could love a man like that.

—–

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

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It started when Malachi was eight and he taught his poodle Francine to dance. The dog learned to prance on two feet and stretch her front legs to Malachi’s hands. It wasn’t the waltz and it wasn’t the mambo, cialis but it would do for them.

Malachi sang Pennies From Heaven, cialis though the dog just heard a crackling noise that meant, no one’s talking about food right at the moment. That year Francine got pregnant through a consensual rendezvous with the pit bull next door.

Mr. Jones, Malachi’s farther, got angry. I don’t get home til midnight just trying to feed you. He gave Malachi the kind of look that said, even for a frail eight year old you eat too much.

So Malachi began thinking. He wanted to see the pups but how would they pay for the food? What if Francine needed an operation like their corner neighbor did? Drowning them was a cruel waste, he knew that from the TV.

That Thursday before payday when they ate the heel of the bread, it came to him. They could eat the puppies. He was so proud he sat up so straight til his backbone nearly popped. He sneaked Francine more food from the table than usual to fatten her and the puppies up.

He hugged her in bed that night. Just wait. Dad can’t complain if you’re bringing us food instead of taking it away. You’ll be our little dancing cow. He squeezed her and looked deep in her eyes.

Francine laid her head on his pillow and snuggled her nose behind his ear where it fit just in the space Mr. Jones had accidentally cut when he was trimming Malachi’s hair the evening he heard about the puppies to be. It had that nice healing smell that older wounds did and she licked it and sniffed it til they both fell asleep soothed by the routine.

As Francine got rounder, the boy got prouder. He would show her off to the neighbors like a prize sow. He had never been proud of anything in his life and it was unusual of him to brag this way. Every time someone said that dog of yours sure is getting fat, he pulled his shoulders back YES SHE IS. And he beamed at her and she back at him.

He began to look through random magazines for recipes for puppies. He looked in the waiting room at the doctor and at his friend Bobby’s house when he went over to spend the night. Do you have any dog recipes? he asked Bobby’s mother.

Well, l think there’s a recipe for dog bones over by the record player. My grandmother used to always take old bones, make soup and then let ‘em have it afterwards. She called it dog bone soup. She laughed and thought of her mom’s mom putting the beef bones in the tall pot and the nice smell it brought into the house.

The marrow is the best, she said. The absolute best. The marrow. Okay. Thanks. He wasn’t sure what marrow was, but his dad would have to be happy with anything that was the best. And dog bones had it. The marrow. He tried to think of words that rhymed with it so he wouldn’t forget it.

He walked back in the room and asked her to write it down on a piece of paper for him. Sure she said and whisked off the word marrow in just a moment’s time, not slow and long like it took his dad who sometimes just handed the paper back empty with a glare.

He had been going to wait til the big day itself but found that he couldn’t. It was like holding back a surprise party when you just have to spill the beans to someone, no matter whom.

When his dad got home that night, Malachi was waiting up for him. I figured out what to do with the puppies. I got a recipe. We make marrow from them. It’s the best. Bobby’s mom said so. He said this all in one breath and then stepped out of the way in case the mention of the word puppy caused a swing of Mr. Jones’ arm before he could hear the good news.

The man was tired from the factory, but his gray face at midnight still had enough blood in it to turn bright red in outrage. EAT THE PUPPIES. You little profaner. What are you talking about? You can’t eat them damn puppies. You’re a profaner. You’re a profaner. That’s what you are. A profaner.

He was too discombobulated to punch Malachi much less spit on his proud kitchen floor. He kept spinning around, literally, his toes doing a dance he remembered from when Malachi’s mother was still alive. Daddy Loves Mambo was going through his head. He sat down for the first time in twelve hours. EAT THE PUPPIES?

By this time Malachi knew he had done something wrong but he wasn’t sure how. His dad had fairly toppled into the chair no one sat in, the one the Grandmother who said Malachi was a bible word for messenger said keep open for company. He had planned to parade Francine in front of his father showing off her chubby tummy and now he wasn’t so sure.

He kept out of arm’s reach as he asked, What’s a profaner? Did pro mean he was good at it? Go look it up, his dad said. Where? They didn’t have a dictionary. Well, go find one.

Malachi took the leash, the best one with the purple cloth and the diamonds on the handle and took Francine for a walk to the marrow lady’s house to borrow one. It took him two blocks to realize it was midnight, his errand was so important. So he went to the park and sat under a poplar tree listening to the leaves make music with each other. And Malachi Jones waited til morning.

—–

Meriwether O’Connor is a farmer, short story writer and columnist.

Read more stories by Meriwether O’Connor

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Tonight Wrecking Crew. And Eddie Hodge. The sign was cheap ass and tacky, buy viagra the same quality as those removable numbers on a gas station post. Eddie Hodge looked up at the sign and smiled. Cheap ass and tacky was just his cup of tea.

Eddie was the laziest musician on the planet. He was fine with the $50 and unlimited bar tab he was getting. The fact that he was getting that much was part and parcel of his not really giving a shit one way or the other. Because, despite his best efforts, Eddie had lucked into the underbelly of rock and roll stardom.

Eddie Hodge was a one hit wonder.

And he had always made it plain that he would only play that hit. Thank God for ‘Rockin’ Rumble’! All 2:24 of it. On a long night, he could usually bullshit his way through the song and be out the door in under five minutes. If he was feeling generous, he might throw the audience a bone with a bit of history. Then it would be five minutes on the nose.

Eddie walked through the side door of the dive bar. It had a name but Eddie didn’t care enough to ask or to look up at what was most certainly a raggedy assed sign. Eddie knew the score. He was the opening act, the raw meat for a bunch of rowdy drunks who were waiting for the cover band headliner.

Eddie walked through the darkened postage stamp of the dive and up to the bar where a sullen biker looking chick, all tats and leather, was washing out glasses.

“I’m Eddie Hodge.”

The chick was not impressed. But she knew who he was and reached under the bar, brought out an envelope and slid it across the bar. Eddie opened it. Two twenties and a ten. Time to start the tab.

“What do you have that’s cold?”

She didn’t look up. “Bud.”

Eddie played along.

“And?”

“Bud,” she growled, finding more interest in a clouded glass than Eddie.

“Okay. Make it a Bud.”

Eddie nursed his beer off in a corner as the club began to fill up and the Buds began to flow. They were loud, the f bomb seemed the only word they knew He sized them up wearily; high school dropouts, minimum wage flunkies, dead end lives, Republicans…His kind of people.

Over the din, a totally disinterested voice through a distorted sound system said. “For your listening pleasure, Eddie Hodge.” A smattering of applause, a couple of very loud farts and a belch to rattle the rafters greeted Eddie as he sauntered onto the stage, beat up six string in hand. Eddie stared off into the lion’s den.

“Name’s Eddie Hodge,” he drawled into a mike positioned face high. “I had a big hit some 40 years ago called ‘Rockin’ Rumble.’ ”

“Never heard of it! Fuck you! Play ‘Free Bird!”

Eddie smiled. His kind of people. Which is why he determined that they would appreciate the whole sad story of ‘Rockin’ Rumble’. He remembered it like it was only yesterday.

Long hot day of saying ‘Do you want fries with that?’ Bored. Drunk. Pick up my pawn shop guitar and begin strumming the only two chords I know. Thinking ‘What if I mixed ‘Wild Thing’ and ‘Dirty Water together?’ What if I throw in some lyrics; oh something like ‘You’re so hot baby/Give it to me baby/ uh, uh, baby/?

“Yeah ‘Wild Thing’ motherfucker! Play it! And don’t forget ‘Free Bird’!”

Eddie smiled. Now where was I?

Oh yeah. Neighborhood scumbag offers to pay for a recording and put a grand in my pocket. Just a hoot of course. All I had to do was sign this little old contract. Cut to the chase. Song gets picked up by a radio station, then another, then another. Before I knew it ‘Rockin’ Rumble’ was top 20 on the national charts. Of course I had signed all the rights away and about the time the single had sold a hundred thousand copies, was being covered by a lot of garage bands and some scraggly ass wannabe folkie named Manson, I was already back pulling double shifts at Mickey D’s.”

“Man! You’re a fucking moron!”

“Not telling me something I don’t already know.”

So I’m in hell. Too pissed off to write another song. Too damned lazy to learn a few cover songs and try to turn some coin on the club circuit. So I’m dead and deader…Until 1982 when I get a call from a joker whose putting together a 60′s oldies show and wants me on board. I tell the cat I only know one song. Cat says that’s fine. Before I know it, I’m opening act on a 40 city tour of one hit wonders. Bands like The Balloon Farm, The Village Callers, The Peanut Butter Conspiracy (minus everybody but the original drummer.) The hotels sucked. The vans we drove in reeked of B.O. and frustration. Occasionally I’d snag some Cougar poon. Couldn’t complain about the hours. One five minute set a night. $100 a show. Hit that scene for a few years. And now…well here I am.”

“Hey fuck the sob story! Play the motherfucking song!”

Eddie obliged, strumming an A, then a D, then a A/D. Repeat until you’re seeing those two chords in your dreams. He sang the dumbass lyrics in a hoarse, labored croak that was easily drowned out by the crowd’s frenzy of f bombs, bodily functions and all around drunken, put down laughter.

Eddie mentally counted down the seconds until the end…10, 9, 8, 7, 6…He finished with a chunky guitar flurry and was done.

“Thank you and good night,” he said dryly as he turned to exit stage left.

“Hey motherfucker! Where do you think you’re going? Play something else!”

Eddie turned around to face the audience. This sort of thing happened once in a while and it could get ugly. “Hey guys. I told you ‘Rockin’ Rumble’ is the only song I know. I don’t know any covers! Now have a good night.”

“That’s bullshit!,” yelled one drunk from out of the darkness. “Everybody does covers.”

“I don’t,” responded Eddie as he inched toward the back of the stage.”You’ve heard the only song I’ve ever played.”

“Play ‘Free Bird’,” yelled another denizen of the dark. “Everybody knows ‘Free Bird’. A chant of “Free Bird, Free Bird” rumbled through the club. Eddie was like a deer caught in headlights as he stared into the din.

That’s when the beer bottles started flying.

Empty bottles of Bud whizzed past Eddie’s head, shattering against the back wall. Another exploded at his feet. Now Eddie was pissed. Another bottle was tossed underhand from somewhere in the dark. Eddie snagged the bottle in mid air and, with a screeching yell, his best vocal since the heyday of ‘Rockin’ Rumble’, he fired the bottle back into the crowd. …

Just as another bottle flew out of the back table and crashed into his forehead, slicing hard into skin and unleashing rivulets of blood that snaked down Eddie’s face and turned him into the ultimate rock monster. Eddie went to his knees, stunned. He could see the headlines now.

LOCAL MUSICIAN KILLED BECAUSE HE COULD NOT PLAY ‘FREE BIRD’

That’s when the cavalry stepped in. Sullen biker chick tossed a very dirty looking towel in his face. Two other leatheroids stepped in and began wailing on the crowd. Eddie staggered off the stage and passed the members of Wrecking Crew waiting by the exit. They offered compliments, saying that was the best gimmick they had seen since the 1993 Kiss tour.

Eddie said nothing but continued his stumble out the back exit, towel pressed hard against his forehead, attempting to staunch the blood flow. He found a trash can, turned it over and sat in silence as the aroma of beer, sweat and urine washed out the open bar door and over him. Eddie sat in silence for what seemed like a half hour.

Finally the blood stopped. He would need stitches but he would live.

But that throbbing at the back of his head. It was deadly, consistent, and, if he could get around the pain, it was a pretty good beat. Eddie laughed at the futility of it all. Once he stopped laughing, his head slowly began to bob and weave in time to the imagined rhythm. There was something in this. The more he thought about it, the more it felt like something.

Like rock and roll.

Eddie reached into his back pocket and pulled out the envelope containing the cash. Another pocket dive produced a piece of crap Bic pen. He stared at the envelope for a moment, put pen to paper and, shakily, started to write. After a moment he stopped, looked at what he had written, crossed out the part he didn’t like and wrote some more.

Everything hurt like a motherfucker but Eddie managed a wane smile. This was pretty good. Eddie continued to write on his perch behind the bar. When he ran out of envelope, he fished a ratty, beer soaked paper bag out of a nearby box and began to write on that.

Eddie Hodge had crossed over into the possibility of being a two hit wonder. And it felt good.

—–

Marc Shapiro is a published book author, short story writer, comic book writer and poet. He does not take no for an answer.

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

City of Human Remains, no rx 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 47, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Hektor

The sun disappears at 7.  Hektor watches the moon in the clouds above the lowest buildings of the city’s skyline.  Hektor considers how rarely he sees the moon from the windows of the orphanage’s sleeping floor.  Stars cannot compete against lights of the city, health but the moon’s arc over the horizon makes him feel warmer, click even as the temperature drops.  He remembers Fleck’s thin jacket and wonders how many kilometers away lies City 14.  Hektor can point to the location on a map, but he has no real sense of distance.  His navigable space has been limited for so many years he’s lost the ability to calculate real things.

On this first night of November, the city is a giant whale, swallowing Hektor, Jonah-style.  Wandering the crowded streets, he believes he is invisible.  Passers-by pay no mind to this young boy alone at night, aimless.  If they were to speak to him, it might be to deride him at how poorly prepared he is for this adventure.  Two candy bars and zero leads to the missing children.  He’s already starving; his belly tightens.  But he decides to wait and not eat yet.

No, not yet.

He draws his brown coat around his body.  His city-issued shirt, trousers, and wool socks do little to stave off the chill.  With pockets full of underpants, candy bars, Batman, and his toothbrush, Hektor travels north to south.  The traffic on the tiered roads is louder than he would have imagined.  Glides are quiet, but you get enough of them together, he supposes, noise happens.  The sounds of the city – voices, the wind against buildings, horn honks, calls of vendors and beggars, arguments, trains, and intermittent music in disparate hemispheres (supplied by Mariachi bands whose players clutch instruments with natty gloves) – these things confuse and disorient the orphan boy.

And punching through the fog, the headlines…

11 ALIVE AND WELL, MAN IN CUSTODY.

SUSPECT NOT CONNECTED.

COPYCAT CRIME.

Hektor’s flight from City Orphanage has been hasty and pointless.

A department store window catches his eye.

A dozen crystal broadcasters with silver frames light the sidewalk.  A banner reads: ON SALE.  Like-minded tickers scroll the bottom of the broadcasters.

More news.

6 MORE CHILDREN TAKEN.

Hektor jumps at the window, practically suctions himself to the glass, eyes wide, mouth open.

Three from the North side, two from the West, plus a stray from downtown.

 

Gabriel Gonzales, 9, boy

Bonnie Petrovsky, 8, girl

Gabby Koof, 10, girl

Tahu Yacano, 6, girl

Kasey Chaubaud, 10, girl

Juan Nord, 6, boy

Hektor’s and Fleck’s names are not listed.  He recognizes none of these latest missing children.  But he feels that he knows them.  Has known them.  May know them again.  In front of the department store window, just before being shooed away by a store clerk for dirtying the glass with his fingers, his purpose is renewed.

He sets off again…though with no more clear sense of direction.

The sun’s burned out and the city glows with artificial light.  The Friday commute is over, replaced by gathering crowds in restaurants, cafés, and bars.

An old beggar grabs the boy’s arm.  Hektor violently shakes him off and runs four blocks in under 20 seconds.

It’s quickly 10 o’clock.  His head hurts.  He rubs his aching stomach and his pounding temples.

He stretches tall beside a Zigon Park that’s full of modern equipment, a perfect place for boys.  But it’s closed at this late hour.  He has no recollection of playing in a park with his parents.  Memories from before their deaths are the blurs of passing trains.  Listless, he leans onto the park’s sign and wonders if his dead parents would have been good playmates.  Would my burned father have chased me around the slides?  Would my charred mother have pushed me in a swing?  He can’t think about it.  The speculation makes him melancholy.  And he should be focused on the search, not his own empty guesses.

At this dark hour, chains drape across the swings, the parks lights doused.  Go away, says the park.  Just go away.

Hektor rests on a large chisel of rock at the park’s edge.  He molds his fingers on the cold surface and realizes that the rock is a fake.  Hollow.  Made of an unnatural material.  He reaches into his coat and withdraws the first of his candy bars and begins to eat.  Slowly.

If I were to disappear, he thinks, where would I go?

Considering the question, he realizes that he, in fact, has disappeared – in the eyes of Jose and the orphanage, at least.  Jose will be mad as hell.  The supervisor may be searching the city for him at this very moment.  He wonders if Jose misses him and, just as he thinks this, he realizes he misses Jose.  If he had stayed, Jose would be helping him with the dishes, or tucking him into his cot, or giving him another comic book.

Too late now.

He’s made his decision.

To find the children.  To fight the Joker.  The Penguin.  Two-Face.  All the villains from the pulp pages he savors nearly as much as his stale nut-and marshmallow candy bar.

Behind him—

A noise from the depth of the park.

A moaning.

He stops eating and peers over his shoulder.

Soft moaning.

He cannot tell if it is man, woman, or animal.

Hektor curls the wrapper over the remaining wedge and tucks the candy bar back in his brown coat.  The pedestrians have thinned.  If any of the remaining can hear these sounds, they don’t let on.

Hektor swings over the fake rock.

Moans.

Turned from soft to pained.

Hektor jerks up and leaps inside the park’s grasp.  He hops further into range, holding the last chew of candy bar in his mouth as the marshmallow melts on his tongue and into his teeth.

He can’t see much.  The playground’s equipment is in the way.  And where there are not swings and slides, there are shadows.  The soft surface of the ground absorbs Hektor’s boot-steps.

If I were a missing child, he thinks, I would hide in a park.

A grin crosses his face.  He is a child; he is in the park; he is, technically, missing.

He turns at the seesaw and dips down toward the Jungle Gym.  An odd-shaped figure moves back and forth in the center of the maze of metal and plastic.  Hektor has visions of a hunted urban monster, a misbegotten cluster of human parts, wandering the city and grabbing children with its four arms and stomping them with its four legs, eating them with its moaning mouth.

This image stops him cold.

He shivers and wants to run away.

The monster is in front of him.

Near the swings.

The male figure looks up.  So does the female in his lap.  Someone rushes to explain things to Hektor’s approaching silhouette.  She’s not a hooker, mister, I swear!  The voice is a teenager’s and it trembles.  He struggles to zip his blue jeans.  She’s my girlfriend, so, so, it’s not, not a problem.  Okay?

The girl stands and wipes her mouth.

Both have their eyes on Hektor.

Hektor calculates the bulk of the teenager.  He’s immense – tall and athletic.  He wears a tight—fitting black jersey with hood and white drawstrings dangling over his chest.

His girlfriend’s face is flat and severe.  She wears a micro-skirt, warm leggings, and torn-sleeve jacket.

In an instant, the teenage boy’s face changes.  Shit.  Some kid.  Fucking kid.

Hektor backs away.

Come here, you fuck, I’m talking to you!

Hektor makes it halfway to the fake rock before a strong hand snares his coat.  He struggles to get away and almost slips out of his sleeves to get free.  But then his skin feels the prick of the cold, and he remembers the potential for the frosty night ahead.  He’s going to need this coat.  So instead, he winds his arms around his body and allows himself to be pulled onto the ground.

Fucking pervert.  Come to watch?  Like to watch, huh?  Fucking pervert.

Let’s get out of here, D., urges the girl with the lazy voice of someone roused from sleep.

What’s a guy got to do to get a little time alone with his girlfriend around here?  The older boy pounces into Hektor.  His fists connect with Hektor’s shoulders, head, and hands.  A nasty blow lands on the boy’s right eye.  Hektor defends himself by curling into a ball and rolling in the opposite direction of the attack.

You fuck! punches the teenager.

A pack of soldiers talking loudly walks near the park.  Their voices break the pounding.  As the soldiers haze each other (oblivious that 10 meters away) there is a boy in trouble, the teenager follows the uniformed men with his eyes.

Shut up, he whispers down at Hektor.  Hektor can smell the beer on his breath.  Don’t you fucking say a thing.

His girlfriend is getting nervous.  Let’s go, D.  I’ll…I’ll finish you around the corner.

Fist up in the air, cocked and ready, the teenage boy winds for a punch to the face.  Then he opens his hand.  Ehhhk, he dismisses.  He walks away.

The barrage is over as quickly as it started.

Hektor doesn’t watch them walk out of the park.

The soldiers vanish around the corner.

Alone, Hektor straightens himself.  His other candy bar has been crushed with the fall to the ground.  Under the streetlamps, he realizes his right eye has swollen nearly shut.  The damage could be worse.  Slowly, the adrenalin drains from his body and he is left with soreness and sadness.  He wants to sleep somewhere comfortable for a long, long time.  Hours.  Days.  Weeks.  And he is ashamed.  A boy just a half-dozen years older made easy work of him.

I have no powers, his voice inside laments.  And, though Batman has no actual special powers, Batman has special equipment that Hektor cannot in a million years hope to afford.  I can do nothing.  I am nobody and I can do nothing.

He wanders away from the scene of his ruination.  Every block looks the same: closed storefronts, trash-clogged gutters, faint echoes of music from cracked windows, plus the whirring sounds of glides en route to better and brighter.

At the end of a block, Hektor discovers flat, uninhabited terrain surrounded by wire.  There is a small hole in the fence and he crawls through it, catching and tearing his coat at the sleeve.  His feet are throbbing.  Huddled in a corner near a junction box and a Siamese connection, he begins to cry.  The tears are cold on his cheeks and his wounded eye hurts him more than ever.  He can’t even touch it.
The concurrently best and worst feeling I’ve ever felt involves watching a female cry.  I learned this at a young age, thumb the time when anyone who knows anything about love learns what he knows.  At ~ what was I, viagra ten? ~ I had a girlfriend.  But then Connie Newhouse gave me a valentine.  We had to give one to everyone in class, the teacher said, only Connie had written, “I really mean it” inside mine.

So Connie and I kissed, actual lip contact, at recess, when my girlfriend ~ and I completely forget her name ~ caught us and started crying.  Like a ball-peen hammer between the eyes an epiphany hit: I had power over this girl, the jilted one.  It felt good.  But it also made me sad, to know that it was a power to deny someone.

I said you learn at a young age, but you learn and forget, and go on living your life and you hurt people, and the sensation comes back.  Always too late.  She’s out the door, hurt, sobbing in a Toyota and unable to get the key into the ignition, and you think, “Oh, I meant this much to her.”  You had assumed you meant to her what she meant to you.  Revelation of the imbalance spawns the concurrent thoughts: “How could you?” and “You could have used her for more.”

If you’re lucky you get a second Connie Newhouse, a woman who intrigues you like none-other, but in that very intrigue, reminds you, you must hold some currency to deserve such intrigue.  She at once threatens and empowers you, and for a rare moment, you are operating at full awareness.

Audrey was pretty.  Amazingly pretty.  Maybe the prettiest girl you can imagine.  But then again, that’s not a big deal.  Let me tell you, being good looking helps you get beyond the looks.  You date some stunning women and they bore you.  So you begin to look for more.  Well, Audrey had more.  She was magnetic.  She drew you in and consumed your attention.  Almost childlike how she was always pretending to be something, which I guess explained her attractiveness.  Unpredictable, like a child.  Any Sunday, fully-clothed afternoon in the park could turn into an adventure.  She always wanted to make-believe we were anything from spies to restaurant critics.

So one day I initiated.  We were watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and there’s that scene where Jimmy Stewart is trying to fashion Kim Novak into the old Kim Novak character who supposedly died, and they are at a high-end store where you ask for a type of dress and models come out to show you all the variations.  You’re in a private room, and it’s like this fashion show just for you.  I asked if stores still did that.  Audrey said she thought some did, downtown, for the very rich.  So I suggested we pretend to be filthy rich.  We could go and act pretentious, and maybe even buy one of those dresses, because we could put it on a credit card and return it next week.

She went for it.  We were giddy with anticipation as I put on a really sharp suit but without a tie, and she donned a nice dress and pretended I was so common.

I guess I took a cue from the film.  I decided to treat Audrey not like someone I knew, but like someone else I’d like her to be.  Some mammoth force from the past I was trying to resurrect.  We got to the store and she began to admire a dress, blue and glittery, and backless but in the front it came up very high around the neck, which I actually considered remarkably sexy.  But I found myself instantly saying, “no.”  I wanted something black.  Off the shoulder.  She can wear a scarf is she gets cold.  Audrey protested, but I was surprisingly short and pointed out, “Who’s paying for this?”  I took out cigarettes, the expensive French brand I bought on the way over, even though I knew they wouldn’t allow smoking in the store.  The saleslady asked if I “minded,” and I produced an irritated scowl.

Audrey liked the first black dress they modeled, so I dismissed it.  The model vaguely approximated Audrey ~ tall, dark hair.  I presumed that intentional.  The whole process felt almost royal, as if Audrey were given a double so she could see herself without the bother of changing her own clothes.

“You smoke?” I asked Audrey while fumbling with the pack.  Audrey doesn’t, but by the rules of her game she could do whatever she liked.  She shot me a quizzical but disappointed look.  Probably believed I’d broken character, paused the game to ask about her character.  So I clarified:  “Cause I don’t like women who smoke my cigarettes.”  It occurred to her that maybe we were not a rich couple, but rather rich strangers.  Or a rich man and a desperate woman.

“Nadia used to smoke,” I told her and looked across the room, locking my eyes on the crown molding so as to appear lost in something far away.  “But always her own.  Benson and Hedges.”  Audrey appeared to dismiss this ephemeral “Nadia” but a pause, more a tic, a staticy glitch, revealed she registered it.  She confirmed that she did not smoke.  I suggested she try.  “It draws attention to your hands and to your lips.”  I took her hands in mine.  “Anyone with elegant fingers can only benefit from smoking.”  She wanted to practice and reached for the pack, now in my breast pocket.

“No.  Buy your own.”

“You’ll buy me a two thousand dollar dress, but not a seven dollar pack of cigarettes?”

“Principle, darling.”

A new dress arrived and it had a strap over one shoulder but not the other.  It was horrible and I said “absolutely not” before the model even fully entered the room.

Did she know what Nadia means?  It means “hope.”  In Russian.

Somehow she read my mind.  “Do you think I want to hear about Nadia?” Audrey said.

I said, “Nadia would listen to me talk about you.”

Silence for a long time.

“Did she look like me?” Audrey asked.  Not really.  “Do you want me to look like her?”  Not really.  “She had a black strapless dress?”  No, she had this self-conscious thing about her shoulders.  Thought they were too bony.  “You’re not using me to remember her?”  No, I want you to make me forget her.  “So why this talk of Nadia?”  It’s the only way to make a subject tiresome.  Silence, on the other hand, equals mystery, equals infatuation.

New dress.  Short.  Completely off the shoulders.  Would look great with pearls.  “You have this in her size?” I asked.  “Yes, of course.”  I told the lady, the hostess or service attendant or whatever, to set Audrey up in the dress, to take her over to lingerie and get the proper undergarments, to get a string of pearls, and to put it all on my charge card.  I made a point of telling this to the lady, not to Audrey.

“You’re buying this for me?”  We both had a suspicion the game would fail, or we’d be called out. We’d go home empty handed, not even something intended for return.  But I was shooting the moon.

“Yes.  Don’t disappoint me.”

“Like Nadia?”

“Nadia rarely disappointed me.  Only once, really.”

“What’d she do?”

“Don’t ask me.  Just don’t every do it.”

“How can I not, if I don’t know.”

“Asking is half the problem.  Don’t you know me?  Know me better than she did.”

Audrey could tell the act was through, that there really was a Nadia, even if not by that name, but she also knew that to ask would mean to lose.

—–

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

Read more stories by Martin Brick

——-

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I

Last night I went to a bar at the end of a block in downtown Fargo. I drank a diesel pint and listened to a pair of women talk feminism over post-work margaritas. The skinny one got suddenly animated; she made a fist, patient then made an uppercut, pharmacy grabbing onto her bicep with the cupped fingers of her other hand. “This will be our new salute,” she declared. “The new feminist salute.”

You weren’t around to do it, so I went over instead. “Ladies. Excuse me, but I’m just wondering. How is that a feminist salute?”

Neon glow from an off-brand beer sign had tinted our skins to shades of jaundice. The jukebox played something angry, with a baseline you could feel in your teeth. Glassware clinked and pool balls clicked and drunks told jokes too loudly, and alls that was missing was the cigarette smoke, and the legal right to breath it in bars.

“It’s like, famous,” Skinny Girl shouted at me. “A pose on a poster. That chick. What was her name? Wore a bandana or something?”

The friend snapped her fingers. “Rosie.”

“Yeah! Rosie! Rosie the Riveter. Haven’t you ever seen that poster?” Skinny made the uppercut thrust-and-grab again. “Feminism! And…and…factory work!”

“Yeah, Rosie worked in a factory!”

I raised my own arm slowly. “Rosie the Riveter pulled her sleeve back. Like this, see? To show the muscle?”

Blinks.

“You, you’re just doing a Fuck You, grabbing your arm like that.”

Another blink from Skinny. “Shit, is that true? I don’t think that’s true.”

“Damn it,” said the friend, taking a stymied glug of margarita. “Now we’re gonna have to come up with something else.”

“Jesus. Thanks a lot.”

“Jerk.”

“Yeah. We don’t need your misogyny over here.”

I returned to my side of the bar, reminded (not for the first time) that even though you not being here is the most ridiculous thing in the world, the world will always throw out stiff competition for the title.

II

Later on that night, post-suffragettes, the bartender came my way. She had short dark hair in that coffee bean shade you used to like in chicks and a small silver eyebrow ring, which you never liked in anyone. I gave her the smile she was looking for and threw down some crumpled paper money—too many pieces for my bill, and looking far too close to how I felt.

She nodded at my tattoos. “Nice ink, Mr. Misogynist.”

“Thanks, Rosie.”

“Get it done local?”

“Naw.”

“Are you local yourself?”

“Uh uh.”

“What brings you to Fargo?”

“Nothing important.”

She changed tactics. Brought me another diesel and then started in with the brewery trivia, and the fancy pours, a few pops of good old-fashioned lean-n-cleavage. She told me how to make something ridiculous involving Tabasco sauce and Sambuca. I told her about that drink we invented the night the Red Sox won the pennant. She poured out two, one for her, one for me, and said “on the house, for Boston.”

And when the jukebox switched to something electronica-infused and I said it sounded like the soundtrack of a Nintendo dungeon, she fell just the tiniest bit in love with me. Not marry-me love, or the rescue-me fairytale stuff. Just the kind of head-over-heels you sometimes get in dark bars.

It’s like I said before, about all that competition.

III

When the time came my bartender friend rang an antique farmbell for Last Call. She gave me a plate of pretzels to chew while she pried a drunk from the toilets. I helped with the sweeping, the wipe-downs, the locking of all doors, and she led me to a back staircase that led to an apartment above the bar. I made sure to keep your epitaph hidden when the clothes started coming off. It’s across my back, inked above the vertebra that paralyzes you if it breaks.

“Not tired?” the bartender asked, later on when we were done.

“No. Not really. Is that a fire escape out your window?”

“It is.”

“Does it reach up to the roof?”

“It does. But it’ll be freezing up there. Like, really fucking cold.”

She wasn’t lying. The winds dug into my nostrils, into my cheeks and ear canals. It got into my lungs and in through the sinuses to the very back portions of my eyes. I wore long underwear but had forgotten my hat in the bedroom. The bartender had a hood lined in fur.

“This used to be a lake,” she said, pointing out past the city lights to the tabletop darkness of the prairie. “That’s why it’s so flat. This whole state is all just the bottom of some prehistoric dinosaur lake.”

“Is that true?”

“No, I’m lying to you. I like to take strange bar guys to my roof and lie to them about topography.”

“That’s cool. I really dig being lied to on a topographic level.”

She took a flask from her pocket, and a pair of shot glasses that clicked together like marbles. I took mine slowly (straight-up Jack Daniels) and then took something from my own pocket. The cheap plastic of the kitchen baggie crackled as I scooped up the contents.

“Dude, is that cocaine, or…” The bartender’s eyes widened. She took a few steps backwards, for privacy’s sake. I didn’t need that much. One quick flick of the wrist and everything was gone, swept away to the prairie in filmy scatters of gray.

“Who was that?” she whispered, but did not press for an answer.

When they gave me my portion of ashes I cut up a map of the United States, put all fifty pieces into that Red Sox hat you always wore in summer. I picked three times. Your favorite number. North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Georgia. I like to think my ashes used to be your hands. Most people have hands like dead spiders, but not you. You, you had a pianist’s hands. Or maybe a strangler’s. You should have worn more rings in your time.

My hands are ugly, too big and too hairy, but the bartender held them on the roof last night. She led me back inside and made us bagels, bacon, coffee with just sugar, because her month-old milk had gone to chunks in the fridge. She smiled when I kissed her goodbye and said “it’s too bad we can’t do this again” and I smiled too, and I meant it. It’s not everyday you find a girl who won’t flinch when you toss human remains off her roof.

Pennsylvania, you’re up next.

Georgia, you’re on deck.

I’ll hit up every bar in both states.

I’ll find two more strangers who don’t mind taking stranger-me to bed. Pretty or sideshow; sparkling or strung-out; dumb/funny/female/male I don’t care. When we’re done I’ll do just what I did last night; I’ll climb to the top of something handy and throw out the remaining pieces of you. Some people might say it’s a ridiculous way to conduct any kind of a funeral. But you, you always spent your time fucking strangers in bars.

You’d probably say, “this is perfect.”

——

MK Laughln’s publishing credits include short stories in Dirty Napkin Magazine, Red Weather Literary Magazine, Queer Ramblings Magazine, Farmhouse Magazine, and the collections A Flash of Red, Vera Icon, and Funeral Pants. This past summer, she left her teaching position in the English Department at Westfield State University to enter a PhD program at North Dakota State University.

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Willy’s mother Loretta was from back when reputation still mattered. That went double if you were only first-generation American; her clan, try like most, ampoule wanted it known that even if they had left the old, prescription worn-out country behind, it wasn’t a nation of barbarians. And so, things weren’t called by their real names. Her husband Walter, for instance, “liked a drink.” He was just “nervous from the service.”

The police were called on a regular basis, the red spaceship rays that shot out from the cherry-topped roofs of their squad cars skimming across the grass and piercing through every picture window on the block. Still, Walter’s family clung to their reputation even as he was being lectured in the back of a police cruiser.

Reputation was one reason Loretta stayed with him longer than she should have. Another was how she would get along, much less get her three kids, including the girl, through college (college meant everything to a grocer’s daughter), when she’d never so much as signed her name to a check.

Most times Walter just exploded. Other times he methodically channeled whatever it was churning inside him into some lengthy undertaking requiring a great deal of thought, like the night he spent a couple of hours in his basement shop constructing a cat-o’-nine-tails out of plastic tubing for when the kids got out of line.

The handle, of heavier-gauge tubing, formed a perfect hangman’s knot (thirteen coils, just like it was supposed to be). The cords were each fourteen inches long, with three knots each at three-inch intervals, starting a half-inch from the end. A real welt-raiser, that’s for sure. Loretta’s own father would have just grabbed his belt.

Walter had a saying—“Do a thing, big or small—do it right or don’t do it at all.” This strict standard applied to everything he made from the exquisite, exact machine parts he fabricated as a tool and die maker (long before computers were part of the process) to the instrument of torture he designed on a whim and a few shots.

It was from Walter that Willy had inherited his talent for art, no doubt. Although Willy also remembered his mother’s lovely singing voice. When he was little it would rise up out of the kitchen while she was ironing or preparing dinner and flow in warm golden waves throughout the house, until it became less frequent and was finally lost. Now that she was almost ninety, she never mentioned it.

Willy came to understand Walter’s violent outbursts, given time. One of those ancient uncle’s cousins always said that the war had changed him. Loretta made no bones about the fact that her mother-in-law was a horror. There was one incident, though, that always stayed with Willy, that he spent endless hours thinking about—the time they built that car for the Pinewood Derby, not long before his tenth birthday. Maybe because it was so determined, such a bizarre twist on his father’s perfectionism. Or maybe because it seemed so willfully and obviously perverse, and yet so full of hope for a happiness that never would or could be…

The Pinewood Derby. That ancient Cub Scout ritual for little boys designed to give you lessons in the true spirit of competition, winning and losing graciously, and whittling. The idea was to fashion a racecar from a regulation hunk of pine around 2/3 again as big as a stick of butter, two regulation oblong pieces that were supposed to serve as axles, and four regulation plastic wheels. Pretty basic—due to the proportions of the pinewood block, anything you did came out looking like one of those tube-shaped 1940’s sprint cars. Your paint job was about the only means of making it stand out any way. Winning the actual race was most likely more a matter of chance than anything else. Oh sure, you could attempt to cut down on the drag by sanding the chassis till it was as smooth as a blackboard; you could lubricate the wheels really well—but when all was said and done, a five-ounce (maximum) carved wooden racecar was a five-ounce (maximum) carved wooden racecar.

The newsletter described it as a shared father-son activity. Which of course it had to be. Willy put off asking for as long as possible, not knowing what Walter’s reaction would be, and not wanting to be alone with his father anyway. But he knew it wasn’t something he could accomplish on his own, and at last approached his mother to act as intermediary. If she could catch her husband at a good time, between moods, maybe, just maybe…

Fortunately, a couple of nights before the race, the stars aligned, and Willy found himself in his father’s basement workshop.

“All right, if we’re gonna do it, we’re not gonna do it half-assed. What do I say? ‘Do a thing, big or small’…now pay attention,” Walter barked, sounding like a drill instructor.

Willy knew that tone. It meant he was going to be a passive bystander, just like how he “learned” carpentry when Walter built those shelves for the garage—his job would be to stand holding a flashlight or a hammer, while barely a word passed between them.

The project got off on a bad foot.

“They expect me to use this crappy wood? How the hell am I supposed to make anything decent out of this?”

Willy mumbled something about how they had to use the official kit that was given them.

Walter started up the circular saw, cut the block of wood in half, and threw it in the garbage.

“My kid’s not gonna show up with some chunk of balsa. I need quality materials. Just like your uncle—expects me to work with that cheap steel they make in Japan. You can’t give that to a client—it’s lousy.”

Willy wanted to say something, but thought twice.

His father rummaged through a pile of scrap, and found a nice piece of maple.

“That other shit, you can put a dent in it with your fingernail. This you’ll have for years.”

Once things got underway, all the cutting, filing, sanding, nailing, and painting, the rest of the night, which lasted till 1:00 AM, passed without a hitch. Willy’s father smiled now and then as he turned to him and said, “Now this is something you can be proud of.” His mood improved exponentially as the car came closer to being finished. By now, he normally would have put away a whole six-pack and a few shots of Seagram’s Seven Crown or blackberry brandy. No matter that Willy was still expected to stand mute—inside he was overjoyed to see his father in such a good frame of mind. It was just like it as supposed to be, almost.

Finally, it was done. And it was so beautiful—a near-replica of a Lamborghini Espada, low, sleek, and silver, with a rear spoiler of such correct proportion, with such a graceful curve, that Willy couldn’t help but slowly ski the length of his finger down its slope, following its soaring trajectory into the air when he reached the end. And so many hand-painted details nobody else’s would have, at least, nowhere near as skillfully done—the perfect phosphorescent ovals of the headlights, the windows, with their edges straight as a razor blade, the elegant number 7 surrounded by a finely drawn circle on the hood…something that wouldn’t look out of place at the Indy 500, much less the Pinewood Derby.

The last step was to add a little “ballast”, the miniature vehicle’s only fuel being gravity. Most kids glued a couple of pennies to the bottom, which was fine as long as it didn’t go over the specified weight. Willy’s father bored a one-inch diameter hole in the bottom, and bolted in a stack of six or seven washers. Willy worked up the courage to ask if that was okay, and his father snapped that it would be fine. “You wanna win, doncha? Listen—your car”, he said in what amounted to a decree, “is takin’ first place.”

The night of the race, Walter again drank less than usual. Just a couple of beers, no shots.

Unbelievably, he even offered to drive three other scouts there when the scoutmaster called and said one of the other dads had gotten sick. Only once before had he agreed to do that, and then only because the scoutmaster told him he was their last resort and Loretta had begged on Willy’s behalf. He spent the next week grumbling how he’d had to cart a bunch of brats all the way to the Elk’s Lodge and back. This time, he seemed delighted to do it. Willy wondered if he was the last resort this time too.

The ride turned out to be more fun than it would have been if Mr. Miller had taken them. Walter was in a mood to tell jokes—the dirty ones that ten-year-olds love to hear. And he fed Willy the opportunity to rattle off a few too—although his were more of the Reader’s Digest variety Mr. Miller would have told. It didn’t matter; the other kids laughed at them too. Or were they laughing at him? Whichever—Willy, shy by nature, was never the center of attention, and he liked for once not being on the sidelines. When one of the kids told Walter he was the “funnest dad he ever met”, Walter replied, giving the enraptured Willy a side wink, “That’s because we’re gonna take home a trophy tonight.”

The black-with-red-interior ’63 Chevy Bel Air made a sharp Batmobile turn into the lodge parking lot, and everyone tumbled out onto the gravel laughing like circus clowns. They immediately sobered up, though, once they entered the large pillared front hall of the Elk’s.

The first order of business was to get signed in and have your car undergo inspection. Since it would be the first time they’d be taking the results of their and their father’s labors out from under wraps, their finished products were subject to the scrutiny of everyone attending.

There was already a crowd ahead of them, and Willy watched as one near-identical racer after another was unveiled. He couldn’t wait for his father to lift his shining silver beauty from the modified shoebox it was waiting in. Everybody else’s would look like a toy in comparison. Willy imagined that the whole inside of the box was illuminated from the supernatural light it radiated.

Then, a kid named Roger was disqualified, because his car was too heavy.

Suddenly, Willy panicked. He all at once realized that his car was wrong in every way. Even without the bolt and washers, it was far over the weight limit, and probably too wide to fit the track. It wasn’t even made from the right type of wood.

Roger popped a couple of pennies off the underside with his scout knife, and passed through.

“We can’t show them mine,” Willy stammered.

“Whaddya mean? I spent all night on that damn thing.”

From experience, Willy had learned how to spot the signals that indicated one of his father’s mood changes, just like he’d learn to recognize which plants to steer clear from in the woods from his scout handbook. He felt sick, and just wanted to turn and run, all the way home if he had to.

Naturally, a full range of reactions greeted Willy’s car—resentment, admiration, and complete puzzlement. None of that mattered. There was no question that they wouldn’t be able to participate.

“It’s very nice, but I’m afraid…”

Walter started yelling, and got them removed from the hall.

As they drove home, he fumed at Willy, who sat silent in the passenger seat. “Stupid sons of bitches, don’t know anything about what’s good, don’t know anything about quality—all they know is that cheap shit they get from Japan…”

Walter would only live another seven years. Years later, Willy still had the car, displayed on a shelf in his living room.

—–

Gene Wisniewski is an artist and writer.  www.genewisniewski.com

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In the summer of 2003, I got a job driving an ice cream truck. Mr. Floppy was the only ice cream brand that proudly advertised its need for Viagra.

Mr. Globus owned the franchise. He was a recent immigrant from the Middle East. He was stocky with black hair, bushy eyebrows and a mustache, all tinged with gray. He didn’t know much about ice cream. He had arrived in this country with money to invest. He had gone to a convention where franchisers hawked their businesses. Mr. Globus had liked the presentation given by the Mr. Floppy representative. He thought he would get a good return on his investment. He bought in. The ice cream route was an investment, but it was not Globus’s only income. He also was involved with home remodeling, renting duplexes and was office manager for his wife’s medical practice.

There was no advertisement in a newspaper about the job, just a sign hand posted on a telephone pole with a number to call. Globus told me he preferred to higher family members, and made it clear to me that my hours would be cut if any of his relatives arrived from overseas for a visit. I was okay with that, because I was on summer break from college and didn’t really want to have to work every day. When he said he wanted to pay me under the table, I was okay with that. I didn’t need traceable income fouling up my meager financial aid for school.

Mr. Globus was proud of the white and blue truck he had gotten as part of his hundred thousand dollar bargain. He made me wash the exterior and scrub inside every day before setting out on the road. Appearances mattered.

The truck was equipped with large chrome and steel refrigerator units with different types of soft ice cream in the back of the truck. The driver was also the salesman. There was a space where I could walk back from the driver’s seat to where the ice cream dispensers and sales window was. My job I was to drive around the area that was part of the franchise territory, going down streets and looking for groups of kids. I was told to hit playgrounds and school yards several times during my run since kids were likely to congregate there. I was to keep broadcasting a silly kid-come-hither tune weaved from chiming bells from an external speaker and pull curbside when flagged by a customer or when I thought sales were likely to be generated.

The first day went okay. I didn’t mind making cones with or without sprinkles, mixing shakes or dealing with the kids. It was sort of fun. Every kid loves the ice cream man. What American kid didn’t fantasize about becoming an ice cream man? Few of the kids were snotty. A lot were impatient. Adults were worse, but there were not a lot of grownup customers, though a few mom and dads watched over the children’s purchases to make sure that they were not cheated or kidnapped. Most of the customers were under fourteen. They saw that I was young, and that seemed to make me cool in their eyes. It was a great job.

That’s not entirely true. There were a few things I did not like. There was a lot of driving. Exhaust fumes got sucked in whenever I opened sales window, and I’d have to breathe it. I got damned tired of the electronic jingle on the first day, but had to keep listening to it day after day. It penetrated through my headphones and is stuck in my brain to this day. The worst thing though was the creepy crawlies. I saw them climbing in and out of the ice cream spigots and scurrying across the floor. I was a trooper and kept a smile on my face for the customers, not letting on the kind of companions I had in my little truck.

When I got back to base, that is the driveway of the Globus house, that night after a run that had lasted from 1 PM to 11 PM, I told him about the bugs. He said he would take care of it, but was more concerned about the receipts.

“This is not enough,” he told me after counting the cash. “You need to sell more or you will ruin me.”

He told me if I did not sell more the next day, he would either have to cut my wages or replace me with someone who could do better. I didn’t have another job lined up, and I certainly didn’t want a reduction in what little I was earning, so I told Globus not to worry. It had just been my first day. I would do better tomorrow.

When I reported to work the next day, I washed outside of the truck and cleaned the inside of the truck. In the back near the ice cream dispensers I detected what smelled like a mixture of insecticide and air freshener. I thought this could not be good for the kids. I was about to say something to Mr. Globus when he yelled at me, “You still here? You should be out on the road making money.”

I was young and did not have the back bone I should have had. I didn’t speak up. I just took the truck out. At the start of my route I saw this fat kid, really obese, standing by himself on the front lawn of a house, up the street playing together, but this kid was alone. He seemed lonely and sad. He kept looking down at the ground. He didn’t even seem to notice my arrival despite all the brightly painted truck and the endless chimes coming from the loudspeaker. I thought, “This kid appears to be a clear candidate for ice cream. Why isn’t he flagging me to stop? “I thought about Mr. Globus’s warning about selling more ice cream or else. I pulled over next to the kid and rolled down my window and honked my horn. The boy looked up at the truck.

“Don’t ask for who the ice cream bell rings,” I said. “It rings for you. Want to buy some ice cream?”

The boy licked his lips, but said nothing.

“I bet if you buy ice cream for you and the kids up the street they’ll start playing with you.”

“Do you think so?” The boy asked his face as dull as an ox.

“It doesn’t matter what I think. What do you think? Would you play with a kid who bought you ice cream?”

The boy’s eyes widened. He started running as fast as his thick legs could carry him to the door of the house. “Mom,” he shouted. “I need you to buy ice cream.”

The boy ran into the house. A few minutes later a fat tired looking woman came out of the house followed by the little buy. The woman was wearing shorts, and the blue bulbs of varicose veins stood out from her pale skin.

She came up to the truck.

“Two cones. Chocolate with jimmies.”

“Right away. Is that all?”

The boy tugged at her arm.

“Can’t we buy some for my friends?”

“What friends? You told me those boys won’t play with you.”

“Please. Please.”

“Alright,” she said. “You go run and tell them to come here fast if they want any.”

Of course they did. Who would pass up free ice cream?

I got to work, hoping the smell of insecticide had not worked its way into the ice cream. I had learned a valuable lesson. Always search for the weakest link. I felt good watching the fat kid walking up the street with his new best friends, all of them carrying ice cream cones. I felt less satisfied as I pulled off the street and saw the fat kid being punched by his buddies in the rear view mirror.

I did a little better that day with sales, but Mr. Globus was not satisfied.

“Kid, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you!” he scolded after checking the balance sheet. “You’ll drive me into bankruptcy! You have to do better. One last chance, other wise I have to cut your wages.”

I promised him I’d try harder. At least I had seen no bugs in the truck that day. I wouldn’t see any bugs near the ice cream the rest of the time I worked there, but there would always be that sick smell of insecticide and air freshener in the back.

The next day I smiled when I saw the fat kid hanging with his new friends. I had done a good deed. The children all looked up when they heard and saw my truck. They waved for me to stop. I pulled up to the curb.

A scruffy looking kid in a dirty tee shirt shouted, “Give us ice cream!” He seemed to be the leader of the crowd.

“No problem,” I said, going back to the sales window. “What do you guys want?”

A bunch of orders were shouted at me. I tried to keep track of them all.

“Okay,” I said. “That will be two fifty each.”

The kids all turned to the fat boy. “Go pay for it,” they said.

The boy looked caught. He looked at me. He looked at his new friends.

“Come on,” said the scruffy boy. “We want ice cream.” He punched the fat kid in the stomach. “Go get some money.”

The fat boy ran home and came back with a twenty dollar bill.

“All right!” said the scruffy kid. “Way to go Chunks!”

I served out the cones and took the cash.

“See you tomorrow,” I said.

The fat kid looked at me and then at his new friends. He seemed troubled.

Although I had done better than the previous two days, it was not good enough for Globus. He cut my salary by ten cents an hour.

“You can get it back,” he told me, “If you work harder and bring up these sales figures.”

I thought about quitting, but I still needed a job. I would just have to do better.

I got to know a lot of fats kids in my territory. Not just fat kids. Skinny kids too. Any kid who appeared to be left out. The losers. The exiles. The kids that needed ice cream to barter for a social life. I got to know them not by name, just by sight. I felt like a shark swimming around in that truck, preying upon the week, the vulnerable, the calorie addicted.

My sales average kept climbing week after week, but Globus told me I wasn’t making it. He told me I was breaking his balls. So he broke mine. He cut my salary twenty five cents an hour. I should have quit, but I didn’t. This time I did check around for other jobs. I couldn’t find anything. I figured what the hell. I only had another five weeks before I had to pack to go back to college. Besides, Globus had promised me, if I could just get sales up by another ten percent, he would restore my twenty five cents. I redouble my efforts.

That first kid, the fat one, he hated me now. I could tell. I could see it in his eyes. Sometimes he hid when he saw or heard my truck coming. The other boys on the street would look for him, drag him from his hiding spot and demand their hit of ice cream.

If he said, “My mom says she can’t afford it.” Or, “I have no money,” he got pummeled. It was sad to watch. My other loners weren’t doing much better. There were exceptions, a few seem to have been genuinely been accepted and were getting treated to ice cream as often or more often than they bought it. But these were exceptions. I watched with horror as my social experiment began to unravel. That fat kid stopped coming out of his house all together. The last time I saw him he seemed bigger than ever. He was putting something in the trash. When he saw me he waddled back inside as fast as he could and slammed the door.

Despite my failures as a social engineer, sales did go up, but not by the ten percent that had been demanded. Six percent was the best I could muster. Globus just shook his head.

“I can’t understand it,” he told me. “A bright boy like you, a college boy, why can’t you do better?”

One morning he called me.

“Don’t come in. I don’t need you any more.”

“What? Am I fired?’

“Yes and no. You’re not fired, but I don’t need you. I told you when you were hired, family comes first. My cousin’s son has come over to attend graduate school in town. He needs money. School is expensive. You know that. He will stay with me until classes start.. He will do the ice cream run. So I don’t need you. Not now anyway, but he says he wants to see some of the country. He might take some days off. So I might still call you if I need you, if you are still interested.”

“What the hell,” I said. “Call me.”

I blew some of the money I had saved with a trip to the beach, but was careful to husband the rest for tuition, bus tickets, text books and partying at school. Globus called me to work a few times before the summer ended, and I went in and drove the route. During the second week of August I told him I was done.

We were in the small office Globus had in his garage.

“I go back to school next week. I won’t be available to work after this weekend.”

He looked shocked.

“This is it?” he said. “I hope to have you for Labor Day weekend.”

“I live on campus and my classes start before Labor Day.”

“That sucks. I’ll have to find someone fast. The last two weeks of August I am okay, but my cousin’s son will be leaving. I may have to do the route myself. I had hoped to get away with the wife and kids. Are you sure you can’t come back for just that weekend?”

“Sorry Mr. Globus,” I told him. “It would be too much trouble traveling back and forth from campus.”

Globus knitted his bushy eyebrows and grew silent.

“I see,” he said after a pause. “Well, my friend, I will miss you. You were a good employee, much better than my cousin’s son. Better than the man who worked for me last summer.”

This took me back. Globus had never stopped telling me how lousy I was, how I did not work hard enough, how I did not sell enough ice cream. Hell, he had cut my pay twice.

“I want to give you something to remember me by,” Globus said. “Wait here.”

He got up and went into the house while I stood around in the garage. Globus came back with an envelope.

“This is for you. Consider it a bonus.”

I looked in the envelope. There were two hundred dollar bills. It didn’t make up for all the lost hours or the cuts in pay, but it did put Globus on more even ground with me.

“Thanks Mr. Globus.”

“You’re a good kid,” Globus said. “You made money for me. You can work for me next summer if you want. I think you could be an even better ice cream man next year if you tried.”

“I’ll have to see what happens.”

“Sure. Sure. We’ll both see what happens.”

He held out his hand.

I shook his hand and left.

I went to school. One of my courses was biology. I learned about poisons being absorbed by the body and accumulating in fatty tissue. I thought about all the insecticide in that Mr. Floppy truck. I thought about all the fat in Mr. Floppy’s ice cream. I thought about my own body. Then I thought about all those kids eating ice cream. I thought about the loners, the losers, the ones I had set up. I thought most about one fat lonely kid staring out the window of his house at a world that rejected him. The following summer I did not go back to work for Globus. A friend from college invited me to stay the summer at his family’s place down the Jersey shore. I got a job scooping ice cream on the boardwalk. What can I say? Ice cream is part of me now.

—–

Joseph Farley has had tales appear recently in Shlock, Pyrta, Blue Crow, An Electric Tragedy, Golden Visions, Sc-Fi Short Stories, and other venues.

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“We only have so much in the way of provisions, viagra you know.”

Alec continued removing the fresh fruit and veggies from the barely chilled refrigerator. “I know. But, order this fresh food is going to waste. We have to use it while we can. It will be rancid by tomorrow.” He held up a green pepper that showed the beginning stages of rot. “We might as well get all the nutrients we can from it. We’ve got a long couple of days ahead of us.”

As usual, Alec was a master of the understatement. To be more exact, we’d be lucky to survive the next few days.

“Alright. A gigantic salad it is. How about that ham in there?”

Alec turned back to the fridge and lifted a deli bag from the drawer. He removed a piece of the lunchmeat and waved it in front of his nose. “Yeah, I think that has seen its better days. Old veggies taste gross – old lunchmeat can set you back a few days. Best not to take chances.”

I nodded. Food poisoning was not on my to-do list. Surviving, however, was. The two seemed mutually exclusive.

A candlelit dinner soon commenced. We sat on the floor around an old coffee table. The veggies tasted old and the bread stale, but we ate anyway, realizing that any meal could be our last. After diner, we sat in silence, staring into the darkness outside our illuminated bubble.

“So what do you want to do tonight?” He crawled around the table and came to a stop beside me. His newfound proximity paired with his intense stare kind of creeped me out.

“Um, I don’t know.”

His hand found my thigh and moved steadily north. “I mean, it could be our last night alive.” His eyes bored into mine.

If I really concentrated, the dinning by candlelight could almost be romantic – a clandestine meeting between two lovers. But I had to really try. It was hard to forget that we were squatting in an abandoned house. I had a difficult time not remembering that if we were caught, it would be certain death. And most especially, I couldn’t forget that this was not my husband – or someone that I even remotely liked. In fact, I kind of hated him. Too bad all the people I actually liked were dead.

My stomach tightened. I grabbed our pinched bottle of wine and chugged.

Ugh…apocalypses.

—–

J. M. Vogel lives in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio with her husband and two small children. Other works of fiction by J. M. Vogel can be found in The Creative Minds Collective anthologies, Volumes II and III, as well in the online publications, The Fringe Magazine and Thrillers, Killers ‘n’ Chillers.

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Ray sat at a dinner table big enough for just two chairs, here a can of Black Label beer in his hand. He’d punched out an hour ago, and often it was here he’d sit – right through the meal with his wife – until he went to bed. Then up before the sun, driving back to that gray building in the damp chill that rolls off the sea. Back to the knife and slitting open cold fish, taking off heads, removing guts.

His hands were nicked and scarred, and he thumbed a flap of skin on his right index finger, a fresh cut from today’s work. This morning, when his grip slipped and the blade sliced in, he’d stared at the blood leaking from the wound for a full 30 seconds before finally getting up and walking to the sink.

The wind swept over the field, tumbled across the driveway and whistled into the crack in the corner of the trailer, entering just to the right of the sink. Ray swore he’d been hearing that sound his entire life, even though they’d been living in the trailer for only four years. But four years is a lifetime, isn’t it, for some things?

Wasn’t he once going to be the greatest?

The young look straight ahead, evenly, at the horizon. But their necks weaken, their chins tilt, their eyes drift downward to rest on the ground just before their feet. It happens to others, he knew; how had it happened to him?

A youth filled with heroic things. A game-winning home run – notable not for the hit but because fate had placed him in that position. Losing his virginity to a pretty girl, years his elder. A friend pulled from a river swollen with spring melt-off. A fistfight won against a man while himself still a boy.

Ray put a slight dent in his beer can with his thumb, then popped it back out. He put it to his lips and sucked at the liquid.

Stealing a neighbor’s car in the dead of a black night, speeding down a poorly lit road, his friend pounding the dash in excitement, shouting encouragement. A short chase by the cops and dizzying speeds, but the wheel had vibrated and the pavement blurred and his friend, scared – both of them scared – had screamed for him to pull over, and it ended.

Thievery wasn’t the point. While his friends had talked and talked for weeks about stealing that car, that rebuilt Chevy, Ray had simply walked up to it that night, seen the keys inside, opened the door, put it in neutral and pushed it silently down the drive. He had always done the things that others watched and marveled at.

He had believed that indicated something about his future.

His wife came out of their bedroom, her shoulders bumping, this one then that, the sides of the narrow hall. She smiled and slid past him, her fingers touching his neck. At the table, his mouth set flat and straight, he said nothing as she grabbed a glass and flipped the tap at the sink.

She was the cause of this, he wanted to believe. A hot night five years ago, a lake, clothes coming off, a body so lean and curved he could not afford to disregard it. After that, long talks in the dark, in that summer’s heat, of dreams and hopes. They had been 18, Ray’s heart had fluttered, and it sure felt like love. Why not get married? And so it went. And here he was.

It wasn’t that she held him back or had dragged him down so much as he’d needed a repository for his angst, and she was vacuous and always present, an easy place to pump despair. The body wasn’t lean any more, though; even her ankles were swollen, her back ached and she slept poorly beside him.

Time had gotten away. With little money but married; buy a trailer for the lot his uncle had sold him cheap. Get a job so he could pay on the trailer. Work at the canning factory because he needed a job. Fish. How many times had he said he would not work with those fucking fish? The smell had been there forever and sometimes he felt it was the only one he ever knew – pungent and meaty, laying over the town like a fog and twisting through his every childhood memory.

In his mind at the time of hire, the factory was just for one year, to pay for the trailer, the lot, a couch. Save some, then go. Take to the road, see where it led them, because Ray had always gotten chosen, had always won, he moved to the front and others followed. His life had proved that to him for his entire 23 years.

But it wasn’t that way now, and the crowd behind him was gone, dispersed across this town to mobile homes and cabins and pre-made houses slapped together. To hunting lodges – just for now, just to get a start – or back into parents’ homes for help with the feedings.

If she weren’t around he could just say fuck it all and – but she was; he’d meant it when he asked her to be his wife, he’d known where marriages lead, and he would not run off and leave them now. There was no fault to lie at her feet. He heard the faucet snap off behind him, and she was brushing by. At the last second, when any further hesitation would put her out of reach, he grabbed for her hand, curling two of his uninjured fingers around her smallest digits. Her head turned, white teeth and a smile, and then she was gone back down the hallway.

He was walled in. The lot and trailer were theirs clear, but the factory did not pay enough so that they could afford to build, this was it, and he could no longer see where the clouds met the ocean.

The fish broiled in the oven, and the smell he could not take. Ray stood from the table, grabbed his jacket off the chair and went outside onto the two-bit porch, shutting the door behind him. It was spring, but dying piles of snow under the trees chilled the air. He closed his jacket with one hand, drank beer with the other.

His truck sat just feet away, the keys in it. It would take no effort to put it in neutral and push it free from the drive, so quiet his wife would not hear, would not go to a window and look.

Ray stared at the windshield, at the salt-stains on the sides, at the snow tires. He tilted his beer and emptied it down his throat. Mindful of the cut on his finger, he crushed the can, then let it drop to the porch. The wind moved out from under the trees, shushed over the field and found the crack.

—–

Brady Huggett is a writer and editor living in New York City.  His work has appeared in Verbsap, The King’s English, Atlanta Magazine, Charlotte Magazine, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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The room is wallpapered with some pebbled white plastic.  It hasn’t had time to get dirty.

Didi sits in a black leather and chrome waiting chair.  The design is striking, discount but it doesn’t fit her back.

The receptionist is dressed as a nightmare nurse, cheap though she has never handled any injection more delicate than reloading the printer ink.

Didi sits at the dark end, looking towards the light.

The man with no foot rises when called and walks unevenly through the swinging door.  Like the others, he never reappears.

Didi wonders about the other exit.  Maybe it leads to the park.  Maybe it leads to the parking garage.

The receptionist stands, a black silhouette against the window, regarding Didi.

It’s Didi’s turn.

The hallway is long and wallpapered in the same pebble pattern, but now it’s light green, lemongrass color.

Didi is supposed to feel reassured.

Didi is supposed to feel hope.

Perhaps there is no doctor, no transplant, no bionic replacement for her broken part.

Perhaps they won’t turn, but will walk forever down the hallway, to the park or parking lot.

Pausing at the door, the receptionist sees Didi’s face and becomes herself more human.

“It’s okay, Miss.  I’m sure he can help you out, whatever it is.  We get all kinds here, and he can always help them out.”

Didi walks through the doorway.  The walls in here are blue.

Blue is calming.  Blue sky.  Color me blue.  Am I blue?

Didi watches the doctor watching her.

She sees his hair, which does not match his face.

He sees her legs.  Her skirt is unfashionably short.

“Doctor?” she says and he replies, “Please sit down.”

“Doctor, it’s my heart.  I broke my heart.”

—–

Leslie Ingham is a founding member of the Portuguese Artists Colony.  She is currently at work on a novel.

Read more stories by Leslie Ingham

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“Last requests?” said the commander.

“I want to know how this works, pilule please, here
” I said, patient tapping my temple. They kept staring. I detected a smirk on the closest face.

“You think if you ask the right question we won’t shoot you?” The commander rubbed a leaf against his upper lip and smiled. I said nothing. I waited for a real answer, as I was promised. Their mule flipped its tail in the wind rising from the gorge where they’d taken me. The mule looked bored, too bored to lift a hoof, and the reins hung in the dust and twitched. It looked like it wanted to be rid of me too. The bushes shook their leaves, impatiently awaiting my absence. The rest of the men sighed and held their breaths, and cocked their weapons, fingers on triggers in unison.

“What if the mind’s not supposed to work at all?” said the commander.

The other men shrugged. They let out a little breath in unison. The commander began to laugh, and so the men slowly allowed themselves a little laugh too. With rifles still pressed against their shoulders, faces still pressed against the wood, their laughter went through their shoulders. It was like a pattern of shrugs. Their shoulders lifted and dropped, lifted and dropped, and when they lifted again – but before they dropped, before the commander could say “Alright, let’s proceed” – I grabbed the mule’s reigns and stepped back over the edge and into the gorge. I pulled the mule with me. We fell and I prayed that they would all hear my laughter, all the way down. I prayed it would fill their heads, spread through the nerves in their brains, fry every synapse. The hot air was too strong though and became a wind that pushed through me and choked me. I gargled and gasped. Distracted from prayer, I wondered how the mule falling with me still managed to bray in such hot wind.

—–

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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Don Newlander watched his fifteen-year-old son, thumb Carl, study the menu at CJ.’s Diner as if decoding a secret message. The table was still wet where the waitress had wiped it down, and a remainder from the last customer’s meal–perhaps a bit of cornmeal stuffing–rested next to the napkin dispenser. Don flicked it with his index finger and it stuck to the wall.

He needed to say something wise and reassuring to his son, but the boy covered his face with the menu.

The waitress, a bleached blonde in her sixties, approached the table. “What looks good to you, boys?” she asked, holding her order pad in front of her as if she’d been born in that pose.

Don resorted to his salesman banter. “You look good to me, but I don’t see you on the menu.”

Carl rolled his eyes.

The waitress smiled. “If I was on the menu, honey, you couldn’t afford me.” Her voice had a practiced friendliness, which enabled her to flirt without being personal. She gave Don a moment to laugh at her comeback. “Now what’ll you have?”

“The meatloaf good today?” he asked.

“Had it yesterday. It was good then.”

“My wife’s meatloaf is always better the next day. I’ll have that with mashed potatoes and extra gravy. And creamed corn.”

“You got it.” The waitress turned to Carl. “What’ll it be, hon?”

“The CJ burger with fries. And a Coke.”

“I’ll have a cup of coffee,” Don said.

“I’ll get right on it, boys.”

Don stared at his son. Snow fell haphazardly over parked cars. It was cold and late, but they weren’t eager to return to their motel room. “Your mother looked good today, didn’t she? She’s getting stronger.”

“Yeah,” Carl said, showing no expression in his face or voice.

“The doctor said she might be discharged tomorrow.”

“Uh-huh.”

Don looked at his son and saw his wife’s deep, dark eyes. He once felt happy that Carl had Mary’s eyes. Now they frightened him.

“You miss her, don’t you?”

Carl shrugged.

He wanted to reach out and grab his hands, but knew Carl would pull away. “It’s okay to admit you miss her. I miss her.”

Carl remained silent.

The waitress returned with their drinks. Don put both hands around the hot cup, raised it to his mouth and blew gently. The rising steam comforted him.

“You from around here?” asked the waitress. “Thought I saw you yesterday.”

“We’re just visiting. From Libertyville.”

“What keeps you in town?”

“The hospital,” he said. “My wife’s a patient.”

The waitress lowered her eyes. “I’m sorry. I hope it’s nothing serious.” After an awkward silence, she said, “Well, if you’re here tomorrow we have our all-you-can-eat fish fry.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Don said. “But me and fish don’t get along. Bet my son here can eat enough for the two of us.”

She looked at Carl, whose expression never changed, and smiled. “Your food should be coming right out.” She offered Don a sympathetic glance before turning toward the kitchen.

The thought of another meal away from home sickened him. He wanted his life back. He wanted Mary out of the hospital and back home with him and Carl. He remembered how the three of them used to play Monopoly on the kitchen table. He and Mary would arrange trades so Carl would win. That seemed so long ago.

He turned to his son, but the boy looked away. After a long silence, Don spoke. “Look, your mother loves you. You know that, don’t you?”

Carl sipped his Coke.

“She loves you. You have to believe that.” His raised voice caught Carl’s attention.

“I guess.”

“No guessing. She loves you more than…more than anything.” There was so much he wanted to say, but all he could do was repeat, “Your mother loves you.”

“Then why–” Carl’s lips moved, but no sound came out. His bottom lip trembled. “Why’d she–”

“Here’s your food, boys. Told you it was coming right out.” The waitress placed two plates on the table. “CJ.s special burger for the good looking young man and yesterday’s meatloaf for the other one.”

Don nodded and thanked her.

“Let me know if there’s anything else I can bring you,” she said, and left them alone.

Before Don could say anything, Carl grabbed the ketchup and poured it over the fries. He blotted the excess ketchup with the bun and put three fries in his burger, the way he did since he was a child, leaving the lettuce and tomato on the plate. He took a big bite. Ketchup dripped from the side of his mouth.

“Good thing your mother doesn’t see you eat like that.” Don used the side of his fork to cut a piece of meatloaf, spear it and submerge it in the mashed potatoes and creamed corn. The white potatoes, the brown gravy and the yellow corn formed a gooey, beige paste over the meat. “Since she’s not here to complain, I may as well eat like this, too.”

Carl looked up. Don could see anger in his son’s eyes. “You think she cares how we eat?”

“She cares.”

They ate in silence. Don recalled how fragile Mary looked, especially in that damned hospital gown. His mind jumped to the pink sweater she wore on their first date. She was sixteen, only a year older than Carl is now. She loved to dance and sing, landing the lead in their school’s production of South Pacific. He could still see the envious looks of his classmates as they walked the school halls hand in hand.

“Your mother wanted to be an actress. She loved musicals.”

“I know,” Carl said. “She’d drag me to them when you had to work.”

Don shook his head. He leaned forward to share a secret. “You want to know the truth? I’d arrange appointments with clients when I knew there was a play she wanted to see.” He smiled. “God, I hate musicals.”

“Tell me about it.”

For the first time in what seemed like forever, they laughed.

“You want to know something else? Your mom knew what I was doing. But she didn’t mind because she liked being with you.” Don felt his face flush. He turned to the window. “Snow’s beginning to stick.”

Carl took a bite of his burger.

Don knew Mary wasn’t happy. He had known that for a long time. He thought she had learned to accept her life, working at Wal-Mart so she could afford extras, like season tickets to their local theatre group. He had never wanted to sell insurance, but it beat starving to death.

“Your mom tried out for this season’s production, but she didn’t make it. I told her she should try again for their next show.”

Carl put down his burger. “You think that’s why she…she took the pills?” His eyes glistened.

Don had wondered that, too. “The doc said it probably wasn’t any one thing.”

This was his chance, Don thought. But what could he say? He turned to see how the snow had covered the ruts in the parking lot so it looked smooth and clean.

“He said when she gets home, we shouldn’t try to force her to tell us why she did it. She probably doesn’t know, herself.” His voice quivered. “And she’s ashamed.”

Carl’s hand’s shook. “The day before–.” His voice drifted to an almost inaudible whisper. “The day before it happened. Mom and me had a fight. I told her I wasn’t gonna wear that stupid shirt she bought me.” Tears rolled down his cheeks.

“It was ugly, wasn’t it? She told me you didn’t want it, but that it would probably fit me.”

Carl wiped his face with the back of his hand and smiled. “Serves you right. You can wear it when you two see the next play.”

“That’s a deal. But we’re buying an extra ticket for you.”

“To see you wear that shirt in public, it’ll be worth it.”

—–

Wayne Scheer has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net.  He’s published hundreds of short stories, essays and poems, including Revealing Moments, a collection of flash stories, published by Thumbscrews Press.  A film adaptation of his short story, “Zen and the Art of House Painting,” can be viewed at http://vimeo.com/18491827.   Wayne lives in Atlanta with his wife and can be contacted at wvscheer@aol.com.

Read more stories by Wayne Scheer

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My wife is showing people around the house. Prospective buyers. I can hear them chatting and walking across my floor, hospital touching my things. She’s showing them the front room that I fixed up myself a few summers back. They might be admiring the half-wall I put in to separate the living area from the dining, tadalafil because my wife doesn’t like to watch TV during meals. Or the shag carpeting I drove all the way across town to find while I had a raging head cold.

She’s charming the buyers in the kitchen now, physician demonstrating the cupboards and telling them some story about how we had an ever so romantic night cooking together on Thursdays. You know, all that marketing bullshit. I redecorated the entire thing, since it was originally decked out in classy 1970s yellow and orange cork board. The benches are made from solid marble, the blinds have UV-resistant coating and the stove can connect to the internet.

“My husband put all this together himself,” I hear my wife say, “these cupboards are originally from an old supply ship.”

The buyers ooh and aah about that as she leads them into the master bedroom. And then they go silent.

Buyer #1’s mouth drops, “Is that a…”

“I mean, it definitely is. Isn’t it?” Buyer #2 says.

“Oh, don’t say anything about it. If you comment it will just encourage him,” says my lovely wife. “He only wants attention.”

“It’s a giant… uh… a giant phallus.”

“Yes,” says the wife, “George is unhappy about the move. You know how men are, always acting out when they don’t get their way. It’s silly really.”

The buyers laugh, but they aren’t buying it. The story or the house. It might not be part of the deal, but finding a big, pulsing cock wriggling around on the bed leaves an impression.

“I think he’s being very spiteful,” my wife states as she ushers them out.

***

That night, I make it up to her by becoming Clevon Little, the black sheriff from Blazing Saddles. One of her favourites.

Then we lie there together in the dark.

“You have to stop acting like this, George. You’re not a child.”

“I don’t want to leave, Ellie.”

“We need a new house. This place was already too small for us, and now with the baby coming…” She sits up and looks down at me. “We can’t stay here forever.”

“I don’t see why not. We’ve put so much into the place. Babies don’t take up that much space.”

“Right. And what happens when it magically turns from a baby into a small child? And then a teenager? I suppose you’re going to build a new room overhanging the street, or our child can sleep in the bathroom.”

I stare at her.

“Fine, George. Sulking now. Why does it always end like this? You get to feel like you won because you stuck your lip out like a fucking child.”

“I’m going to sleep,” I say, rolling over.

“Wonderful.”

We both lie there under the cover for a few minutes, not sleeping. Eventually I get up in a huff and head downstairs to sleep on the couch. Eddie Izzard gives her the finger before I go.

***

I get up for work the next day and leave with my human face on. Ellie doesn’t say goodbye, but she does give me my toast fingers.

At the bus stop, someone has written FUCK MUTANTS in big red letters. It’s probably not a suggestion. On the bus, there’s a young kid being bullied by a bunch of red-haired kids. He’s trying to hide it, but every now and then a forked tongue slips out of his mouth.

When I arrive at work, there are 43 emails waiting for me at my desk. 12 of them are complaints from clients.  One of them is from my boss, asking me to come and see him.

“Good morning, George.”

I jump. Like a trained hawk, he’s standing at the opening of my cubicle.

“Morning Steven. How are things?” I ask.

“You’d better come in to my office when you get the chance,” he states, then walks off. Always the charmer.

Once I’ve gotten settled, had a coffee and a trip to the bathroom, and put on my Employee of the Month face – not literally – and head to Boss Central Command. He makes a face which probably should have been a smile, but came off as a grimace, then motions for me to sit
down.

“George, there have been some complaints about your work.”

“Yes, well-”

“Client reports say you’ve been rude, unhelpful and sometimes actually offensive to them during meetings and phone conferences. We nearly lost the Ferguson’s Goods account after you told Mrs Ferguson she should stop sampling the stock. Luckily Davis stepped in and smoothed things over.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Are you having problems here at work I should know about, George?”

“No sir.”

“What about your home life?”

“Maybe. Yeah, I guess so.” I shuffle my feet and stare at the dozen or so executive stress toys on Steven’s desk.

“Did you want to see the counsellor here? The company covers you-”

“No, my wife is just knocked up. That’s all.”

“Ah! Well congratulations!”

“It’s not really a celebration. I mean it is, but I don’t want it.” He looks momentarily shocked, but it’s too late now, I’ve started talking and I can’t stop. “It’s this… thing that’s coming. And it could be anything. I don’t mean boy or girl, that doesn’t matter. But what if it comes out and it’s a mutant. A little mutant
baby.”

“But you’re a mutant, George.”

“Exactly. I know. I know what it’s like. What happens to mutants growing up. It’s bad enough for normal kids, just try to imagine passing through a school full of children when you have a tail, or sparkles shoot out your nose when you sneeze, or what the fuck ever. When I was a kid I was pushed around every day. Other children used to throw balls of paper at me if I was lucky – rocks if I wasn’t. One older kid – Billy, or Barry, or something – waited outside my house one morning and chased me down the street with a piece of wood.”

I stop for a second and see Steven looking at me as if I just peed my pants. A tiny bit of disgust mixed with a huge helping of pity. In a way, it’s worse than all the childhood horrors I’m suddenly remembering. I get up quickly and head back to my desk.

***

The next day I go to work with my real face. As I’m walking out, Ellie stops me.

“Is this some kind of protest?” she asks, arms folded.

“I’m making a point,” I say, and leave before she can question further.

On the bus, people stare. Not as much as I expected them to, but they still do it. My naturally shiny, flat and featureless body is pretty conspicuous.

When I arrive at work there are initial double-takes and whispers and the ding sound of people sending computer messages, but once that dies down there is nothing. Nobody comments on it at all. Even when Steven comes in he just gives me a nod and slides past to his office.

While I’m in the staff room at lunch, eating a cheese and onion sandwich, a girl comes in and starts looking at me. I recognise her as one of the artists from the design department. Alice, or something.

“Is that your face?” She asks, eyes wide.

“Yes.”

I want her to say it’s hideous, that it makes her uncomfortable. But she doesn’t, instead she scrunches up her mouth.

“It’s interesting to see it for the first time. Makes me feel better about you.”

I don’t even know what that that means. But she’s gone anyway.

***

I go home. Sidney Poitier makes love to my wife, but my heart isn’t really in it. I’m feeling confused. Today didn’t go the way I expected.

Ellie keeps wanting me to touch her stomach, but I can’t. I don’t want to know about that thing inside. So we just lie there as the night passes. Then the phone rings and Ellie gets up to answer it. Some muffled conversation and she comes and hands me the phone.

“It’s your dad, George. He’s passed away.”

***

I grew up in a mining village. You know the type: one general store, one doctor, one bar. A small collection of houses clinging to the side of a mountain, with a coal mine struggling to break even on the other side. Even though most people spend their whole lives here, a lot of the houses are pretty new. Turns out there are a lot of rock slides.

You can see most of the village from the cemetery where my father is currently being laid to rest. As they drop him into the ground I try to think about him, but it’s not easy.

He spent most of his time working, and when he was at home he was always very distant with me. I saw him talk to his garden more than us kids. I doubt I could tell you 10 things about the man.

My sister squeezes my hand, and I feel my mum do the same on the opposite side.

Back at the family home, everything goes back to normal. It’s like nothing has changed, except now my dad is gone forever. I notice myself barely noticing his absence. We drink tea and fill the silence with small talk about work and social lives and the weather. Because god knows nobody ever really cares about the weather.

I look at my sister Jane and her webbed fingers. She had it so easy. So lucky to have something so small and easy to hide.

“It’s nice to get back,” says Jane, “I remember how nice it was to have family and friends around.”

“I don’t,” I say.

“Yes, well. You were never very popular, poor little thing.” My mother tuts and drinks her tea.

“It isn’t my fault I look like this, mum.”

“They didn’t hate you because of your looks, George. They hated you because your daddy was rich. They liked that boy with the horn just fine, didn’t they?”

“Why didn’t they hate her then? She’s a freak too!” I gesture to Jane.

“Because I’m not an asshole,” Jane says.

“Excuse me?”

“You’re a giant, attention-seeking bastard who uses being a mutant as an excuse to fuck with people and be a colossal shithead. And then you act surprised and hurt when they don’t like you, so you can get sympathy. Poor Georgie, people always being mean to him. Give me a break.”

Everyone is quiet for a minute or so.

“Please don’t fight. Not today,” says mum, not looking at us.

So we don’t.

***

When I get back home, I go for a long walk. Not going anywhere, just walking and walking through the city streets. I see mutants of all shapes and sizes going about their lives. I see non-mutants too, but maybe they are mutants and I just don’t know.

I sit on a bench by the ocean for a long time.

Eventually I head home and find Ellie washing dishes in the kitchen. I kiss her with my real face. She looks surprised.

“I think I’m going to be a bad father,” I say.

“Why?”

“Because I’m a bad brother, a bad friend and a bad husband.”

“Lucky for you, I’m an extremely forgiving wife.”

“It’s scary, you know. I could fuck this up. I probably will fuck this up. And this kid is going to grow up thinking his dad is a jerk. It’ll probably ruin his life.”

“It means you’re normal, you stupid man,” says Ellie. “I hope you can figure that out at least and talk to me next time, instead of becoming a big dick about it.” She touches my face.

“Okay.”

“You’ll be a great father. Or a terrible one. It’s your choice.”

“Okay.”

She stares into my eyes and then gets a mischievous grin.

“And before we go to bed, you’re going to be Denzel for a while.”

“Yes dear.”

—–

RJ Astruc’s short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Abyss & Apex, Aurealis, and many other magazines. Her latest novel is Harmonica + Gig. Andy Astruc writes about video games for anyone who’ll pay him, and is a staff writer for Gamefreaks and Destructoid. His short fiction is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction and has appeared previously in Necrotic Tissue.

—–

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I met Marian below a blossoming young tree on top of a grassy hill. Surrounded by a small field, viagra the hill bordered my grandfather’s plot.

The sun blinded me through Marian’s long black hair. I sported my best smile and tried not to look too exhausted from the walk. It felt like an eternity that we stood there, click the sun lowering behind the hill. I found myself lost in Marian’s dark brown eyes.

We’ve talked a lot about who said what that day, or who actually spoke first, but we left that tree together, hand in hand, strolling into our future.

Since then we visited our tree on top of the grassy hill every year. And every year the tree grew bigger and stronger. Marian gently touched my shoulder as I carved our names on the base of the tree. We kissed and, with one knee pressing into the lush earth, I proposed.

Her white wedding dress flowed like angelic clouds as she made her way across the field and up the hill. We hardly noticed the guests. The tree radiated with a life unlike the world has ever seen. By the time our kids were able to climb into the safe arms of the tree, it was fully grown.

With time my grandfather died and left us his house. We waited for the kids to go off into the world – in search of their own trees – before we moved into the house.

After that we started taking long romantic walks up and around the hill every weekend, watching the sun set over the river. Sometimes we’d hold hands and stare at our initials, kiss, and make love beneath the bright green canopy.

Then one morning the tree appeared pale, almost lifeless. Every day it grew weaker. No one could say why.

We took fewer trips up the hill after that. I went alone a couple of times at Marian’s request, to take photos of the tree, but I never had the heart to show them to her.

In the early hours of a fine Sunday morning, when the sun was just high enough to warm my old bones, and all our kids said their goodbye’s, the tree died.

With the help of my children and grandchildren we planted another tree on top of the hill. We used the lumber of the old tree to make a bench for me to sit on. The part of the tree which held our initials now forms the wooden cross adorning Marian’s grave.

Hopefully I won’t have to wait too long before I get to see Marian again.

—–

Joe Mynhardt is a South African speculative fiction writer and teacher. While having dozens of short story publications in several magazines, e-zines, websites and anthologies, Joe also tends to a tome of story ideas scraping for a chance to be written. Read more about Joe and his creations at www.Joemynhardt.com or find him on facebook at ‘Joe Mynhardt’s Short Stories’.

—–

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An old man writes a terrible book about his wife.

He publishes it himself and takes it to the bookstore.

The bookstore clerk says it’s a terrible book and insults the old man’s wife.

The old man’s wife gets sick and dies.

The old man burns down the bookstore.

The old man writes another terrible book and takes it to the bookstore in its new location.

He tells the clerk he’s written another book.

The clerk says, help “What’s it called?”

“It’s called Fire, sale ” says the old man. “It’s called Fire.”

—–

Cary Tennis is the advice columnist for Salon.com

Read more stories by Cary Tennis

—–

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The text message says: It’s me! And for a minute I let myself think it might be you before I snort a little. Probably the usual thing. A phone solicitor, treat a ruse to get me to call some recording in Florida telling me I’ve won 5000 dollars in free travel vouchers, a wrong number. Hardly anyone calls my cell phone, and no one ever texts me. I look at the message again. The number looks legit, not an 800-number, local area code and all. It’s me! Could it be? There’s only one way to find out.

Who are you? I text back, slowly. I see kids do this at lightning speed all the time. Me, I never do it, and it takes a lot of effort. But I get it sent off, and it’s nicely done, I must say. Succinct. To the point, doesn’t sound desperate. I don’t think. Of course, I tell myself, don’t get your hopes up. It probably isn’t him.

I put the phone in my pocket, go out to walk the dog. Beautiful day for December. The sunrise clouds are orange and purple over the snow-blue hills in the distance. What a gorgeous day. Could it really be you? You never used to have a cell phone. You weren’t exactly a snob about it, but you were kind of proud of being a Luddite in that area. Rebel, rebel. I always thought it was because you prefer to be inaccessible. You’re much better at those games than I’ve ever been. What you see is what you get with me.

I decide I won’t obsess about this. I won’t drive myself crazy over a two-word message that probably isn’t even from you. I stop the dog, put my iPod on, shuffle it. Doris Day comes on: Once I had a secret love that lived within the heart of me…

So you broke down and got a cell phone, eh? What’s up with that? Guess you’re growing up a bit, changing. Well, you’re not changing that much. You haven’t texted back yet. I know you. You’ll probably take days to get back to me, and then you’ll be all casual, like, “Oh, I just thought I’d check in and see how you were doing.” Well, if it’s even you. Careful. Don’t get all worked up about this. You don’t even know who it’s from.

Back at home I go about my business. Do some work. Leave the radio off, in case the phone rings. Well, I mean, I know it probably won’t. And even if it does, it probably won’t be you. You’re at work, you can’t just stop and text me, no matter how much you want to.

– I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I could have been thinking. Can you ever forgive me?

– Of course, darling.

Now, wait. No. I can’t say that. Of course, darling? How desperate does that sound? Go ahead, darling, grind me into the ground some more. Hmm. Well, that’s a little bitter, isn’t it?

Stop this. Stop this now. It probably isn’t even him. Whoever it is hasn’t even replied yet. Just put it out of your mind.

I warm up lentil soup for lunch, breathe in garlic and lemon and ginger. Sing: All at once my secret love became impatient to be free…

I think I sound like Doris Day when I sing that song. I sound like her when I sing “Que Sera, Sera”, too. We’re both altos. You said you liked my low, sexy voice. I liked your low, sexy voice, too. I wonder if you like Doris Day? It doesn’t seem all that likely. I could get you a Doris Day CD for Christmas. That would be kind of a sweet little gift. I wasn’t going to get you anything at all. Of course, how ridiculous would it be to get you a gift? But now that things are different — well, if they’re different — um. Oh. There I go again.

Is that phone even on? Maybe there’s a message and I just didn’t hear it.

Mid-afternoon I take a break, brew some coffee. Listen to it drip into the carafe, breathe in the aroma. It’s me! That’s so like you. All carefree and breezy, after what you did to me. But I guess you know I can’t resist you. I never could. What would be an appropriate kind of meeting, I wonder? Coffee? A drink? A walk in the park? Lunch? I could wear that new green shirt I got. The cut is very nice, but the colour is a little — I don’t know, frumpy, maybe. Can a colour be frumpy? Something low- cut? I don’t know. I guess it depends on where we go.

The whole thing is ridiculous. I try to keep my mind off it, try to stay occupied. As I play some scales on the piano my phone makes its piercing message notification noise, consistent with the time you get off work. I feel a little twinge in my stomach, stay rooted on the piano bench for a minute before I walk down the hall to pick it up. I want it to be you so bad. But what if it isn’t? Or worse, what if it is? What will I say? What will you say? I take a deep breath and open the message.

Re: Who are you? It’s me, Claudia. Yesterday, remember?

Who the hell is Claudia? I read it several times, as though I’m somehow misreading it and it actually is from you. Through tears I try to blink away, I text back slowly, as is my wont: You have the wrong number.

God dammit.

—–

Lori Hahnel is the author of  Love Minus Zero (Oberon, 2008), and a story collection, Nothing Sacred (Thistledown, 2009), which shortlisted for an Alberta Literary Award. Her credits include CBC Radio, The Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire and The Antigonish Review. Work is forthcoming in the anthology Freshwater Pearls (Recliner Books, Sept. 2011).  www.lorihahnel.ca

—–

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Her body is flat against the long horizontal lines of the bamboo floor board. She is tired but it seems obscene to be on the bed. Thieves and other creeps should stay low, discount in the regiments of dust, physician with their hearts beating against the ground.

She looks up at the ceiling made of textured faux-concrete, popularly installed in buildings built before the 80s. Her college dorm room had the same ceiling. Once high on acid she had meditated on the crevices and thought their porous cracks were caves housing tiny mammals and also God.

But today she doesn’t see God. She also doesn’t notice the bright Southern California sun streaming through the blinds. The sun beats strong through tall palms in still heat. Things seen are not important these days. She is focused on what she can hear. On sound. The clock is ticking. She listens to the clock, waiting for the ringing at the top of the next hour.

The conversation began with an offered cup of White Darjeeling Tea.

“This is the champagne of tea,” he said.

She was intrigued. She savored the taste. The flutter of its sweet note impressed upon her tongue. Its scent, slightly spicy, was like sundried marigolds crushed with saffron threads. She found it peerless and delicious.

He is a sous chef. He is a devotee to food, to the mouth, the biology of digestion. Taste is the sense, above all, which he loves. It was the early afternoon in his restaurant when they sat together drinking White Darjeeling Tea.

She knew he was waiting for her to comment on the tea. She knew but she declined.

“I was born in the year of the rabbit,” she said.

“You have good luck.”

“I’ve always wondered that – wondered whether I have exceptionally bad luck rather than good.”

“I think it’s good,” he said.

“You would,” she replied.

“I was born in the morning,” he volunteered. “I’m the youngest and my mother said it was a wonderfully easy –,” he began.

“Would you like to see some of my photographs,” she asked, a hand already in her handbag searching for the prints.

“Oh, sure, I’d love to.”

“You’ll just adore these photos, I know it.”

Freud said men love narcissistic women, a natural yet disabling attraction. She’s Pompeii. She’s Sodom and Gomorrah.

She has met up with her sister to go shopping for a silicone cake pan in the shape of a heart. They walk together, side by side, nearly the same height and width the way siblings can be, sharing a physical geometry.

The sisters have chosen their outfits meticulously.

The younger one wears a drop-waist dress which hangs loose over her body and a boy’s school blazer found in second hand shop. Her shoes are new, black boots with fringe sewn over the toe like a man’s dress loafer.

The older one wears a dolman cut wool sweater over a nude lace camisole and gray wool shorts. Her shoes are also new, oxford boots with a slick sole giving her an unreliable traction. They both wear fine jewelry, diamond and pearl earrings inherited from their mother of impeccable taste.

“I am going to tell you something and it’s only because I know you would fight for me, despite better reason,” she says.

“Go on,” says her younger sister.

“I hear screaming in my head.”

“Oh yeah, of course, I completely understand.” Her sister nods as they turn into an aisle of clearance bric-a-brac from various holidays.

“It’s, like, loud turrets-like screaming. It’s my voice, going ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’”

“I have something like that. I think really mean things sometimes. Like when my classmate Karen told me she felt studying for the Bar had been hard I thought ‘Coz’ you’re fucking stupid!’”

In a cooperative and natural act of obscenity, the sisters, without discussing it pause at the same shelf to position the Christmas bears and stuffed Valentine’s Day cupids into violent and lascivious positions.

“Well, that kind of makes me feel better you hear strange things too.

“Of course.”

“Do you think everyone hears voices?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Anyways, I wanted to tell you because I know you wouldn’t let them put me away even if you knew they should.”

Her younger sister is laughing hard.

“Stop, you’re going to make me go peepees,” the younger sister says.

She smiles and looks down at an oven mitt embroidered with a pumpkin.

“You wouldn’t let them take me away, right? You promise.”

“No, I’d defend your honor.”

“Do you like how I curled my hair today?” she asks.

“I do, actually, Pope,” her sister responds.

“Thanks John Paul.”

As they walk towards the hair accessories, she spits on the ground, where the tile meets the carpet. The cashier nearest to them reminds himself to walk around the damp spot later. He is unsure of what else he can do. No manager would believe girls that looked like that would spit on the ground.

The sisters leave the store without the cake pan but agree walking around was pleasant all the same.

The first time happened two Christmases ago. The first time had been an accident, unintentional as an overdose or a rainbow. She was home, back east for the holidays. She was looking for a party, had misplaced the slip of paper which held the apartment number. She thought it was Room 133 but it could have been Room 138. In her mind’s eye she could see a blurry snapshot of the slip of paper, the roundness of the lines she had written. She wore contacts. She thought her mind’s eye had poor sight as well. But there was no question, there were round lines so it had to be one or the other.

She knocked on the door of Room 133. She thought she heard murmurings and music. She turned the knob. It was a lovely apartment with high ceilings, modern paintings, and fashionable paper lanterns on the floor. A large plasma screen television was on but otherwise the apartment was empty. Now she knew she was supposed to go to Room 138 but thought it wouldn’t do any harm to look around such a beautiful little home. If the occupants came, she knew she looked harmless being a young, beautiful girl in a tight dress and smooth thin legs. They would help direct her, with a smile, to the correct apartment. She is beyond reproach, beyond humiliation.

She saw two small white jewelry boxes on the kitchen table. She went over to them and fingered the white felt softly. My God, the felt. The sense of touch had never seemed to mean as much as it did then. She opened them. The earrings were hideous. The necklace completed the set. She was full of desire.

“What’s it like when you do it?” asked the little sister.

“It’s kind of like cooking. Sometimes it’s boring, sometimes it’s really fun. Sometimes there’s a big mess, sometimes there’s hardly anything to clean up.”

“Who was the last person you did it to?”

“You know how sometimes after you meet somebody new, you’re like wow I fucking hate you!”

“Yeah all the time, everyday.”

“No, Linus, not like that. I mean, not your everyday offensive idiot talking his idiot ideas. Just a regular bland conversation but it’s enough, enough to leave you with a bad taste. It comes from, I’ve observed, at least 80% of the time from inappropriate facial expressions,” said the older sister.

“Oh my god, yes! Yes, I know what you’re talking about. The people who don’t mirror. Who don’t smile back. I read an article about this. Man, I hate people like that.”

“Yes, the people who look confused when they’re happy or tell a sad story with a smile. Or worse a vacant face.”

“Dead eyes.”

“It comes from insecurity I think. I did it to a guy like that. He’s someone I used to work with.”

“Nice.”

The older sister went to the pantry and removed a rectangle box of Battenbergs. She put one on a platter and handed it to her little sister.

“Here you go.”

“Thank you.”

“So anyways, he is a very neat and tidy, anal kind of guy. All his notes are always just so. If he had to do any kind of presentation, I’m pretty sure even his pauses were accounted for in between his horrifically precise language. Anyways, for all his facetiousness, he couldn’t smile back at his own face in the mirror probably.”

“That’s why autistics have no friends. They don’t mirror.”

“After all we’re just monkeys. We need the mirroring or it’s unbearable.”

“You really think its insecurity or a sincere social problem.”

“Oh for some it’s certainly nothing more than insecurity. When you don’t express yourself when you’re afraid of letting everyone know who you are and how you feel. He was so poached in his own bullshit, his tidy little notes,” said the older sister.

“What’d you take from his place?”

“Unsurprisingly, everything had its place. I put ice cream in the sweater drawer, toothpaste with utensils, books in the bathtub.”

“You are a genius, Lucy.”

“I haven’t told you the best part yet, Linus. I took all his cleaning supplies and laid it in the middle of his floor and threw the litter box all over it. Here little pussy, pussy,” the older sister laughed hard. “Oh, oh and then with some of his notes I made a little effigy and hung it from the ceiling.”

“After all that you didn’t take anything?”

“On his dresser he had six pairs of cuff links. I took one from each pair.”

The younger one finished her cake and took a drink of water.

“Of course, all the situations are different. That’s just one,” the older one finally utters.

She waits for the top of the hour because he is in love with her. He is bungled and broken for her but the world goes on with its air raids, snake bites, and losing lottery tickets. She accepts his futility but at least offers him a discipline in her method, offers control amid inconsequence. Stupid fucking sucker, ok, I’ll at least do it at the top of the hour. Timing is everything, she’s been told. So be it.

The bamboo floorboard doesn’t creak at all as she walks toward the bathroom. The smell of the room is very familiar, it is the scent of his soap and cologne. She’s fascinated by how the smell of some people lingers in the air. She knows hers doesn’t despite the excellent quality of her perfume. It’s one of the few things that upsets her. Somehow she can’t make her presence last.

Out of curiosity she checks out his medicine cabinet and finds nothing but toothpaste and shaving materials. Under his sink a six month supply of toilet paper and she is slightly impressed with his forward thinking.

Moving on she walks to his bedroom. She opens his closets and all the drawers of his dresser. She cracks his safe and undoes all the knots in the socks under his bed where his cash is. She inspects his stereo, his computer, and other devices. She leafs through some receipts and business cards in his dresser but it’s in his file cabinet, next to his box of blank checks and tax documents, she finds what she wants. Alright, she can leave now.

As she walks through the ruin of his home her phone rings.

“Whaz up Brigitte?” she answers.

“Whaz up Bardot?” her younger sister says.

“Nothing. Just chillin.”

“Wut, wut!”

“Oh my gosh by the way I did have a weird dream last night,” she says as she fixes her hair in the mirror by his front door.

“What happened?”

“I was in the desert looking for quarters in the sand. I woke up so irritated. I needed them for laundry,” she says as puts her hand on the doorknob to leave.

“Want are you doing right now?”

“Just on my way home. Finishing up errands. It’s actually been a pretty relaxed day.”

“Nice. Want to hang out tonight? I am cooking butternut squash risotto and I just finished a half pint of homemade ricotta gelato.”

“I can’t wait. I’ll come by after I go home for a second,” she says as she closes the door behind her.

“Bye Bert,” her sister says.

“Bye Ernie.”

When she gets home, she strips down to her underwear. She turns on her stereo and surround sound bangs around, elbows and knees scissoring the air, the music playing loudly. She sings along, “All aboard for fun time!” After dancing she is covered in a thin film of sweat as she lights a cigarette and puts on her spectacles that damage the appearance of her eyes with their thick, ugly lenses. She looks at herself in the mirror with her repulsive glasses that she loves.

“Hello, hello,” she says. “Who are you in there?” she asks and knocks on the mirror grinning.

She sits down at her desk. As she catches her breath, she examines her new treasure under her bright beauty mirror light. The envelope is a faded brown, made of a soft, vulnerable paper and smells like the attic of a grandma. Old, worn, keepsake paper. She opens it and smoothes her hand over the certificate. She strokes his small infant footprint. She looks at the faded type of his vitals. Five pounds, five ounces. The date, the signatures, the hospital name.

“Rice-a-roni, the San Francisco treat,” she sings while imagining the low-lying clouds hovering over the mountain in West Bengal where Darjeeling tea grows.

—–

Sinta Jimenez is a writer and fine artist. Her paintings and poetry have been published in several literary magazines including Underground Voices, Otis Nebula, and The Black Boot. In 2000, she was a recipient of a National Association for the Advancement of the Arts Award in Short Story. She received her MFA from Otis College of Art and Design. She lives in Los Angeles.

—–

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Martin Tuffet threw down his pencil in frustration. It clattered on the hardwood floor, order the lead snapping off in a jagged, angry hunk that cracked the wooden casing around it. He looked back at the drawing in front of him and rolled his eyes.

“Some illustrator,” he muttered, and snatched the page from his sketchbook. He crushed the paper between his palms and threw the wad across the room, to the recycling bin. Insult to injury, the wad bounced off the rim of the blue plastic and knocked over a vase. Water and flowers spilled everywhere, but at least the glass didn’t break.

And then it rolled, and then it fell, and then it broke.

Martin’s chair tipped over as he tantrumed out of the room. He slammed the screen door behind him, leaving angry mutters in his wake. Gravity helped the puddle of water eventually find the chair, and then the broken pencil.

An hour later, and he was back at his desk, the mess cleaned up and a fresh piece of paper in front of him.  He stared at the page, tapping a new pencil in his hand lightly against the side of his head as he mapped out the drawing in his mind. Outside his window, the sun had slipped below the horizon, and the air that crept in from the screen door was now chilly and carried the sound of crickets.  Steam rose from the cup of black coffee beside him, curling up and dancing under his desk lamp, hot from the pot.

Martin closed his eyes, seeing the empty page behind his lids. Blank pages did not tell stories in children’s books, and thus did not pay the bills. Pages with pretty drawings on them paid the bills. The drawing should be there in the story, and all he had to do was put it on the page. This story, however, did not tell him what to draw. It did not conjure a specific picture, and would not give him direction. It baffled and frustrated him. He couldn’t imagine a child being interested in it at all. He struggled with his grown-up mind to find a child’s pictures for the words, but all he had come up with was the blank page before him, and the scribbled on, crumpled page in the recycling bin.

He rubbed his eyes, flipping back to the first page of the prose he had been given. It was a simple book, not even a story, really. It was the most basic of bedtime books; ‘now it’s time for sleep’ roundup of things from a kid’s day, but the things in this story were oddly ambiguous.

“Today I played, new friends I made, before me now the light does fade,” he read aloud. “It’s dark tonight, and wish I might, naught will hurry back the light.”

Martin snorted. “A bit morbid, isn’t it? For a bedtime book?” He tossed the prose back onto his desk and stretched his arms over his head, hearing his shoulder joint crack and pop. Crepetis, it’s called, or so his ex-wife had told him. She had been a nurse, and prone to pointing out his many quirks, medical or otherwise.

He wondered again at the first two lines of the story, and tried to imagine what they could possibly mean to a kid. He had been a kid once, hadn’t he? It seemed like another lifetime. Too much had happened between ages five and forty-five, and mind-cobwebs had begun to overtake age five.

What did he like when he was a kid? Comic books, Laffy Taffy, Saturday morning cartoons, and all the crayons he could get his hands on. He had wanted more than anything to be a comic book artist, and had made up many of his own characters to write about. He vaguely remembered a complete rendering of Star Wars done entirely in crayon and construction paper. His mom had been so proud of it she had put it in the bedtime book rotation. He wondered if she still had it somewhere.

Why had he taken this gig again? This was his first foray into children’s literary illustration, a fluke, really. The school textbook circuit was his usual gig; finding spot-color ways to illustrate word problems for math books or famous historical moments for the history books. His contact at the publishing company had sent him this as a favor to a friend of hers, as a freelance project. The friend was paying decent money for a couple of drawings to go with his manuscript, and Martin had never turned down decent money. Hell, he never turned down indecent money; but that was another story.

The desk chair groaned as he leaned backwards and recited the first two lines out loud, again, cupping his hands over his eyes. The pencil was now tucked behind his ear, on hold, as if putting it closer to his brain would bring some sort of artistic, inspirational osmosis. “ … Hurry back the light, hurry back the light …”

“She’s afraid of the dark,” came a voice form beside him.

Martin gave a strangled cry and nearly fell out of his chair. He spun to face the intruder, and gaped at what he saw – a small boy stood in the doorframe, his expression matter-of-fact. Martin hadn’t even heard the screen door open.

“How the hell did you get in here?” Was the first question that came to his mind, even before “Who the hell are you?”

The boy ignored his questions and pointed past Martin, to the sketchbook. “She’s afraid of what lives in the dark.” He shuffled forward as a baffled Martin watched, stopping next to the desk and holding out his hand.  “Here,” he said, his palm outstretched. Martin shook his head, but pulled the pencil out from behind his ear and handed it to the boy.

Pencil went to paper, a look of concentration on the child’s face, his tongue sticking out ever so slightly between his teeth as he focused on the sketchbook. The graphite scratched on the paper over and over, around and around, and out of the pencil came two scenes; one, a scene of a little girl playing in her room with dolls and stuffed animals artfully arranged in a tea party. The second was a dark, ethereal scene. The dolls and bears took on menacing forms, and in the middle of it all sat a small girl in pajamas on a circular braided rug, eyes wide, taking it all in. The boy turned and handed the pencil back to Martin.

“There you go.” He grinned.

Martin was agape. “How … ?”

“It’s easy. It’s right there in the words.”

Martin stared at the boy, who stared back in that simple, pragmatic way that kids do when they know their logic is right. He looked back at the drawing, noting how very good it was. He recited the first two lines of the story again, while staring at the drawing. It made sense. It all made sense. Relief flooded him. As did inspiration. He turned back to the boy.

“Thanks,” he said.

The boy gave him a crooked smile. “Don’t mention it.”

Martin watched as the boy shuffled back toward the screen door, noting his pillow-mussed hair and Star Wars pajamas. I had a pair like those once, Martin thought. Before he could think more on it, the boy stopped and turned back to face him. “You know what else? You should start buying comic books again. That’d be rad. Maybe draw some too.”

Martin smiled, and the boy smiled back. He pushed the screen door open and disappeared into the twilight.

Martin turned back to his desk and picked up his pencil. He reached for a notepad and scribbled “Call Mom, RE: old sketchbooks,” and then stuck it to the calendar hanging next to the desk. Then he turned back to his sketchbook and smiled a crooked smile.

Graphite scratched against paper, over and over, around and around, and well into the wee hours of the night.

—–

Marcy Mahoney writes the spooky and the fantastical and sometimes the hilarious.  She lives in Los Angeles, CA.  Follow her on Twitter at @PlaytymAtHazmat.

Read more stories by Marcy Mahoney

—–

To comment on this story, visit Fiction365’s Facebook page.

 
Every Sunday, treat 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 48, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Ugg

Ugg Ingold holsters his clippers and switches on the miner’s light centered on his yellow helmet.  The beam startles the boy hiding in the corner of the weather platform.  The boy is up and crawling on hand-and-knees, healing fast, towards the fence hole before Ugg can even get a word to the boy’s ears.

Hold up, hold up, there, little guy.  The boy is already to the fence before he turns to check distance.  Ugg bobs on his short legs with his arms out.  Whoa, whoa, don’t be scared.  The boy slows and looks Ugg up and down.  Ugg can read the wheels: Am I really seeing this?  Ugg is accustomed to the reaction, particularly at night, in the dark.  He views himself through the escaping boy’s eyes.  Ugg is a dwarf, after all, with a light on the top of his head, a tool belt around his waist.   You don’t hafta go, Ugg says.

The boy stops crawling.

Ugg holds on the platform.  I won’t tell anyone you are here.  It’s private property, but I’m not so strict about it as the company.

The boy’s eyes scan the structure behind Ugg.  His face registers a collision of thoughts, up and to the sky, following the Doll weather pole 100 meters into the air.  Ugg appreciates the perspective.  He, too, turns and looks, though, to him, a weather poll is nothing particularly new, or even very special.  He thinks of himself as a seasoned professional, but he notes in the boy’s expression something Ugg remembers from years back, when the first weather pole was constructed in his neighborhood, the tallest thing for a square kilometer.

Haven’t you ever seen one of these up close?  Ugg gestures up and down.

What is it?

The boy’s voice is so soft Ugg can barely hear it.

Don’t you know?

No.

It’s a Weather Pole.

The Doll System?

Right-o.  The Doll Weather System and…AND… Ugg goes backwards and spreads his body wide, grandly presenting the mechanism, until Ugg resembles a luminous white ‘X’ in his Doll worker’s white vest and uniform.  And, he repeats with intensity, this particular Weather Pole – at a height of 328 feet, carrying over eight million charges of power, 1 of 4000 such poles standing watch over City 32 – happens to be a Class A fog and mist generator, also containing inhibitors for snow and rain, maintained at an annual cost far exceeding what you or I would make in a lifetime.  AND! he concludes (louder this time,) it’s actually…broken!

Broken?  The boy deflates.

Yeah.  You’re not with the Media are you? ‘Cos if you were, I’d have to kill you.

The boy cocks his chin, knowing the joke, but prepared to fully give over to the possibility.

Ugg shuffles a few steps.  He reaches his knotted hand to his helmet and adjusts the beam of the lamp at the boy’s face.  The boy squints.  Heck of a shiner you got there, kiddo.

I got beat up.

Your Dad do that to you?

Pause.  Yeah.

I know where you comin’ from, kid.  My pap never liked me neither.  Too short for him, I suppose.  Ugg smiles.  Say, it’s against the rules, but you’re welcome to stick around, watch me try to get this baby back online.  Interested?

The boy hesitates, the nods once.

What’s your name?

Hec— Jose.

Hec Jose?

Just Jose.

All right.  I’m Ugg.

Ugg takes the pair of pliers from his belt and spins them by the handle – a trick that even in lowlight shows nimbleness.  The worker hostlers the pliers like a gunslinger and grins.  First, he begins, I need to get into that box behind you.

The boy turns his shoulder to the junction box.  Slowly, he stands and moves to the opposite corner of the work shack.  He stays close to the hole in the fence – just in case.

The dwarf moves forward, pops the latch, and shines his light at the box’s inner guts.  He huffs.  These things have been failin’ all over the city.  I’ve been working 20-hour shifts for 2 weeks now.  I get slaphappy when I don’t get much sleep.  Pardon me if a crack a few bad jokes.

Sparks pop from the box.

Or, Ugg says wryly, if I electrocute myself.

Ugg slams closed the tin door.

Time for the big guns, he announces with grand wave of the fingers.  Walking 10 meters away to the far end of the platform, he suddenly stops when he realizes the boy isn’t following him.

It’s all right, Jose.  You can watch.  None of this is Top Secret or anything.  You can learn all this in a correspondence course.  Doll keeps the best stuff to himself.  Maintenance is for losers like us.

It isn’t more than another 12 paces and he feels the kid on his boot-heels.

Ugg opens the gate in the fence.  Just outside of the platform’s perimeter a Q-glide is parked.  On the side panel of the driver’s door is an industrial sticker: DOLL INDUSTRIES, with the logo of a doll’s face.  Under that, a slogan: BETTER WEATHER.  TODAY.  Ugg pops the trunk of the glide and pulls out a heavy crate.  He struggles with it.  The boy goes to help, but Ugg shakes his head.  No help needed, kid, I do this everyday.

The boy follows Ugg back inside the fence and onto the platform.  At the base of the weather pole, Ugg sets down the crate.  He unfastens the 10 clasps and lifts the cover.  Reaching in, he plugs in wires and flips a switch.  Lights come on inside the crate and something starts to move from within.

You might want to stand back, Ugg suggests.

A shape grows from inside the crate, something with rectangle arms and connected to a 10-centimeter diameter white tube.

Ugg points.  This little guy will find the problem.

The black metal robot begins to crawl up the side of the weather pole, still connected to the crate by the white tubing, which expands like an endless accordion as it makes the ascent.  To Ugg, the helper looks more like a cubist’s version of a spider than a robot, but he’s used to the design.  Within a moment, the robot has disappeared up the weather pole and into the darkness overhead.  It is only visible when its parts catch the incremental flickers of red and green lights that pulse up the length of the pole.

I spend most of my time waiting on that damn robot to come back down, complains Ugg with a laugh.  But I can’t do a thing until I have the data.  I rarely can fix the thing myself.  Ugg turns to the boy.  Here, let me have a look at your eye.  The boy steps back.  Don’t worry.  I won’t hurt you.

Seemingly embarrassed, the boy agrees.  He holds his head while Ugg examines the bruises.  Ugg is nearly a foot shorter than the boy, who has to lean down.  Ugg adjusts his helmet so the light doesn’t blind.  Nasty, he assesses.  Does it sting?

Yeah, the boy answers softly.

I wish I had an icepack for you.  Ugg steps back.  The bastard.  1 day, you’ll hit him back.  Is he a big guy, your pap?

I guess.

Like I say – 1 day you’ll sock him good.

The boy’s eyes go up.

The robot is coming back down the pole.

Ugg moves his beam to the descent.

With a whirring of gears, the white tube retracts and the robot again comes to a rest inside its wooden crate.  Ugg pushes a button on the robot’s top.  A ticker prints from a slot on the robot’s side.  When the printing finishes, Ugg tears the strip from the slot and reads the output.

The boy moves closer.  What’s it say?

Failed Temperature Processor.  Always something different.  I wish I could find a pattern.  This kind of stuff is driving Central crazy.  Ugg balls up the printout with both hands and tosses it, basketball-style, over the fencing.  Good news is, Jose, is that I know how to fix it.

He gets to work.  Tools fly out of his Q-glide, his belt, his trunk, the robot crate and other smaller crates, and he doesn’t speak for 30 minutes.  The boy watches every turn of screw, every reconnect of electrics, every reprogramming of code, every motion or perplexed look the dwarf gives and, for Ugg, it is weird and wonderful to have an audience after years of being by himself.

Ugg steps back from the dim platform and gestures grandly for the kid’s benefit.

Is it fixed?

Wait…

Incrementally, the lights along the pole turn from red to green.

See?  All better.

Ugg returns to the Q-glide.  He punches numbers into the keypad on the dash and reads the square display.

What are you doing now? the boy asks.

Telling Central that this one is fixed.

The display fades in and out with more text.

Nuts.

What?

Bulletin, he snorts.  Three more poles are down.

The repairman lets loose with a long, frustrated groan.

It’s been like this for weeks, he says.  Failures all over the city.  Always something different.  Before all this, something fails and you go to the root of the problem.  Some stupid thing that’s busted.  You fix it and everything’s back online.  But not these days.  Different poles, different problems.  I’d say it’s vandalism, but it’s across the whole system.  No vandal could be everywhere at once.

A bunch of vandals could, remarks the boy.

True.  A little vicious army.  But cops have been watchin’ the polls, when they ain’t lookin’ for missing kids.  Wait a minute… Ugg scratches at his face, thoughtful.  He stares at the boy and squints an eye.  You ain’t a missing kid, are you?

The boy shakes his head.

Ugg holds, but then continues.  Okay.  Anyway, the cops haven’t seen squat.

Ugg unhooks the Eye Dial from beside the display and punches in a code.

I’m calling in.  What time is it, like 11?

I don’t have a watch.

You hungry?  Wanna get something to eat?  They’re gonna send me out, I know it.  You can tag along, if you’d like.  I’ll teach you everything I know about makin’ predictable weather.  The boy doesn’t answer.  Sorry, it’s okay, you don’t have to—

No, it’s—

I don’t want ya to get into trouble.  With your dad and all.

I’m not going home.  But I can’t pay for the food.

Oh!  That’s no problemo.  It’s on me, Jose.  It’s just good to have company.

Someone answers on the other end of the line.

Station 13, it buzzes.

Ingold.  Platform 369 repaired.  Just sent my notes.  I’m packin’ up.

Okay, crackles the speaker, head on over to Platform 1052.  We’ve got reports of snow.

Roger.  Ugg hangs up.  Told ya, Jose.  Another assignment.

I want to tell you something, says the boy.  My name’s not Jose.

Ugg thinks, nods.  I figured.

Hektor.

Okay.  Do you like scrambled eggs, kid?
Gomzalez

Blinkers all over the place.  He’s got a raging headache and the red is playing tricks on him.  He hangs up with Repairman Ingold and covers his eyes with his long fingers.  Christ, buy
he sighs and then looks up again at his failures.  1052, cialis 75, buy viagra 1929, 3266, 2500, 922, on and on and on.  He has 140 men in the field putting out fires in every quadrant of the grid.  Messages come in from Central every hour of unusual weather, red lights at the poles, tripped switches, or just plain bitchy citizens.  Twelve years with Doll Industries Weather Division and he has never seen such a string of bad luck.  The city is at the mercy of the fragile ecosystem.  System instability drives him to 80-hour weeks, and also to drink, and to headaches, fatigue, and anger.  More than the effect on his body, bad weather also hits 32’s economy, favored by businesses, shoppers, and tourists alike for being the only city in the union with a reliable climate.  And Gomzalez can feel the pressure.

He had already been yelled at four times this shift.  Screamed at two more (all by Mr. Quam, the highest ranking man on duty.)

I feel like I’m playing that old game whack a’ mole, he jokes to the controller next to him on the board, Cairo.

That’s the truth, Cairo laments as he swigs another big sip of coffee from his quart-sized mug.  Cairo’s got 12 lights of his own to deal with; he’s waiting on a field report.  Listen to this, Gom: Failed Regulator, Failed Timing Hitch, Failed Rotator Sensor – three problems on three different units since 10 o’clock.  Never the same thing twice.  We’ve got gremlins.  Cairo punches a button his board.  What was Ingold’s fail?

Temperature Processor.

Cairo shakes his head.

Gomzalez rises from his seat.  I have to take some pills.  My head’s killing me.  Watch my board, will ya?

The break room seems a long way off.  Every step plays with Gomzalez’s head, and his stomach; the nausea is seeping in like rain.

On the icebox, a magnet holds the latest flash edition.  The headline reads in bold font: 6 MORE.  Sub-headlines beneath read: ‘11 From AM Not Connected, Copycat’ and ‘Traffic Snarls, Exodus of Families Continues.’  Gomzalez searches for news about the weather.  He finds a buried article on page 23.  It contains speculation by some no-nothing writer, accompanied by rebuffing quotes from Doll senior leadership.  The only mention of the system’s inventor, Douglaz Doll, is in passing, noting the start year of the pilot test (As if we didn’t all know that already, sniffs Gomzalez.)

In his youth, the weather system’s science and promised improvements to the quality of life was all the flash editions could talk about.  Gomzalez is now in his early 50s, an engineer and tinkerer all his life – beginning on the repair squads and then transferring to dispatch to troubleshoot field questions – and it is intriguing to him to see the flash editions turn on their most favorite son, Douglaz Doll.  Gomzalez knows that talking about the weather system is as dull as talking about the weather itself.  Not really worth page one anymore, he supposes, even with the recent troubles.  But page 23!  Priorities have slipped, or Cocanaugher and his handlers are trying to keep the things hush-hush.  Or, more likely, the story of the missing children, now numbering 81 again with the day’s count, is more newsworthy.

Gomzalez is a confirmed bachelor.  Not even a girlfriend, not for a decade.  He is interested in the female of the species, in general, but he’s become stone in his ways, in the way he sets his table for dinner, in his choice of recurring meals (beans, rice, flautes, pizza, avocado salads) or his choice of entertainment (action movies, pornography, motorcycle maintenance.)  A woman would disrupt all that.  And, if he had a woman in his life, he’d surely catch holy hell for working so many hours since the system went haywire.  And children, forget about children.  They’d be strangers.

Distracted by his thoughts and the flash edition, he has forgotten to take his pills.  He yanks a paper cup from the water cooler, fills it to the brim, dips in his pocket and extracts three white tablets.  He pops them on his tongue, drinks, closes his eyes, feels dizzy, waits for some sort of medicated rush, then returns to his post, feeling no better than when he’d left it.

Any action?

Nope, replies Cairo with a shake of the head.

Gomzalez drops the earphones over his head and leans back.  Do you ever wonder what Doll thinks of all this?

Central you mean?

No.  Douglaz Doll.

Cairo shrugs.  What’s he supposed to think?

That his system’s turned into a piece of shit.  Look, I’ve got…what, light snow in 9-7 and, and…55 degrees and mild in 44-14 and…Jesus, probably a frickin’ rainbow somewhere.

You can’t have a rainbow at night.

Anything is possible.  It’s nearly the end of the century.  Pause.  So, Cairo, my friend…if you had to guess: what is Douglaz Doll thinking?

Probably that we’ll fix it.  If I had that beautiful building all to myself, I wouldn’t want to be bothered either.  I hear it has a swimming pool.  Gold lobby.  Nine bedrooms.  Sunrise platform.  Furnishings where I couldn’t afford a footstool.

Jealous?

No.  Another light turns red on Cairo’s board.  Shit.  He scans the lists.  I’ve got no crew to send.  It’s…3706, in 8-0.  Cairo leans back and points his hands at the board – fingers aligned and outstretched like a gun.  Bang.  Offline.

Let me see who I got… Maybe I can loan you somebody.

Gomzalez clicks through his display for the numbers of available repair glides.  Ingold was my last, he sighs.  Sorry, I just gave him an assignment.  I feel like I’m going to puke.  My head’s killing me.  I’ve got crew that hasn’t slept in days because I’m running them all over the city.

So…you can’t help me.

We’re both going to get fired.

The men look at each other, dead-faced.

Gomzalez takes a breath and rolls his eyes.  I think you should call Quam.

I’m not calling him again.

Pause.

Gomzalez shrugs.  You wanted my advice.

Gomzalez goes back to staring at his own hopeless board.

Long pause.

Cairo taps his pencil.

Will you call him for me?
Every Sunday, levitra Fiction365 presents a new chapter of a previously unpublished novel.

City of Human Remains, case 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 49, can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

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 50 can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Quam

Quam is surrounded.  Six men, viagra four women – every one of them the rank of Dispatch Chief.  Most wear their gear – orange hats, sale white vests, treat black trousers made of anti-shock material, the safety requirements for access to Central Weather Command.  Quam, however, breaks these rules.  He is dressed in a tan slacks and golf shirt, no necktie, with a long-tailed Derby coat.  He’s earned his right to stand out.

In front of Quam is a bank of Eye Dials labeled with the numbers of LWPs – Local Weather Precincts.  All the Dials are lit with incoming calls, but he answers none of them.  He gestures lightly to a 20-year-old East Indian woman, fresh-faced and unsure of her responsibilities, that she should take the chair.  She sits down, sacrificing herself on the grenade of complaints and inquiries from controller stations in every sector across City 32.

Today I retire, declares Quam softly.   A few catch his promise.  They laugh at him.  They don’t believe him, even when he turns from their questions and begins to leave the command room.  They continue to press for answers.  But he keeps walking out the door and into the corridor.

Once outside, he begins to breath.  Then a cabal of four chiefs tries to waylay him.  I’m old, he sloughs off.  I’ve been on the job 26 years, seven of them with Doll Weather.  I’ve earned the right to ignore you.  He leaves his people standing dumb, half-believing he won’t come back from the men’s washroom where he pisses for the first time in three hours.  It’s a long urination – the sum of too many cups of coffee and a long-delayed heed of the body.

As he zips his tan trousers, he notices a man beside him with a silly grin on his face.  Quam tries not to look at him.  He goes to the sink and cleans his hands like a surgeon.  I’ve had every controller on the line call me at least twice, engineers a dozen times, he says in the echo of the washroom.  I’ve yelled a lot.  But it’s gotten me nowhere.

The man peels himself from the tiled wall.  He’s a tall, all-American, apple-pie sort in a gray suit and tie with bold print.  He pushes in stall doors to confirm it’s only the two of them in the washroom.  You know what’s wrong…don’t you…Mr. Quam?

Quam wets his hands again and pats his hair down as flat as it will go to his round head.

No, he answers solemnly, I don’t.  Every day is something else.  Every day is…is a 100 new failures.  I do like you ask, I look for a pattern, I look to anything that will tell me the cause, and every day I get no peace from it.  It’s not life and death, you know?  There are no tornados or hurricanes or floods.  It’s just a damn inconvenience, isn’t it?  It’s just the weather, not like those kids, but—

Someone enters the washroom that Quam recognizes – a gopher for middle managers.

Walk with me, suggests the man in gray suit.

Quam is led down to quieter parts of Central Command – the empty snack room on the B floor, where 1/3 of the vending machines are broken, and the remainder need stocked.  The man gently presses Quam against a dispenser with the palm of his hand then releases, as if he’s setting a broom that may not stay where it has been placed.

It… It… Quam’s voice is nearly desperate pleading.  It’s has got to be sabotage.

Have you told anyone else?

No, Quam whispers back.  No, but they all suspect it.  They have for a week now.  By someone who knows the system.  Engineer…maybe…but…but could be anyone.  And, it’s never ever enough to break the system completely.  Only enough to make a point.

Can you get me any evidence?

Quam thinks.  He cups his chin with a hand.  Maybe, maybe, maybe…  I.  I have not slept for days.  Quam stutters, his left eye twitches – signs of high building fatigue.  I’m tired.  I can’t even guess at—

The man snaps his fingers in front of Quam’s face and redirects the system director’s attention back to the man’s eyes.  I repeat: Can you get me any evidence?

I don’t even know where to start.  Pause.  I have my logs.

The man waves.  No good.  We know there’s trouble.  If you haven’t found anything in the maintenance logs by now, you never will.  But we have to know if this is internal sabotage.

Quam looks up.  And what would the mayor do about it if I found something?  There are daggers in his inflection.  This stops the gray-suited man cold.  He takes a step back from Quam, turns away then turns back.  I don’t even like to be seen talking to you, whispers Quam.  Everyone knows who you work for, Mr. Silvers.

It’s my job to know what’s going on, explains the man.  I’m paid to be here.  Paid more than you.

Don’t patronize me.

The man comes very close to Quam’s face.  I could, you know…tell them that it’s YOU causing trouble.

Me?  I haven’t left my work since all this started.

Stability of the system is your charge, is it not?

I’m not the top man.

You’re not?  Silvers grins.

You may find it hard to believe, but I am not.  I report to Sidney Mizuro, so you can take it up with him.

I’d rather not.  Mizuro’s a little hard to reach for a scapegoat.  You might be just the right height for what I’m thinking.

Quam straightens his back.  If I’m responsible, then you have my resignation.  Bring me up on charges and it won’t stop your foul weather.  No systems director could keep the network running any better than I have.  You…rain, snow, hot, cold, up, down – 4,000 poles in this city, you… You.  You run it then, see what… YOU RUN IT!  THEN YOU SEE!

The man surrenders.  Whoa, whoa, Mr. Quam.  Don’t get out of sorts.

What, you accuse— Fuck you.  Quam stamps his foot.  His voice carries and he knows it.  Fuck you.  Fuck you.  I am not your spy, Mr. Silvers.  Don’t put this disaster on me.

Calm down.

Fuck you.

Just calm down.

Quam paces the break room, nervously manipulating his dry and chapped hands, rubbing one on top of the other, eyes shut tightly.  He settles his body and tries to concentrate.  Someone is playing with us, he says at last.  The outages, the failures…someone is playing a joke.  They know that we’re being pulled like octopuses to fix so much.  It’s an enormous waste of resources.

And while you’re running around the city, putting out fires, what do you think is happening?

Quam stops.  He looks at the man, dead on.  I don’t know, Mr. Silvers.  Pause.  Yes, Quam points, you go and tell your mayor that.
Every Sunday, tadalafil Fiction365 presents a new chapter of a previously unpublished novel.

City of Human Remains, prescription 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 51 can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Chris

Thankless fucking job, healing Chris Silvers spits as he leaves Central Command via the underground garage.  He steers his rented DL Prix northward.  Closing in on midnight, physician he’s hesitant to ring his supervisor, but does so anyway.

Dyle, it’s Chris.

News?

Need to talk with Cocanaugher.  Now.

Do you know what time it is?

I’m aware.

Pause.

Hold on.

The line goes mute for two minutes.  Chris passes by several streets and kicks his glide’s heater up a notch.  The night is getting chilly – the Doll System struggling to hold back winter’s cold eventuality.

The drop in temperature doesn’t stop the whores, though.  Ladies hang at intersections wearing little more than panties and raincoats.  Girls wave at Chris’s passing glide and try to get him to stop at the flash of a tit or the suck of a finger.  Some scatter, suspecting his black, unmarked DL Prix to be a past model for the vice squad (which it was).  And the smallest minority of the whores simply turn away, disinterested in his business.  He’s fucked them all before, anyway.  But no time tonight.

Chris.

Yeah, I’m here.

You’re in luck.  He’s awake.  Taking a meeting with the Commissioner of Police.

Okay, where?

Downtown office.

Not his house?

He’s been working non-stop on that kid thing.

Well.  Chris is honestly a little surprised.  All right, tell him I’m on my way.  Thanks, Dyle.

The downtown office is little known.  It is where Mayor Cocanaugher and his staff get most of their work done, away from City Hall and the pressures of lobbyists, concerned citizens, and bothersome Media that ignore the distance order.  Dyle’s former boss, Konrad Conzulis, first gave Chris the address back in 2095.  The office is on a low floor of the Pontiac Building, 1 of many doors found after many turns.  No signs, no security, nothing to draw attention to itself.  It is rumored to be a former law office for Cocanaugher, when he was a young trial lawyer with only a casual interest in public office, and he is rumored to have retained the lease for decades.  But Chris Silvers cannot verify any of the site’s history.  To him, it doesn’t look like a lawyer’s office, but instead the playroom of a bachelor.  Exquisite pool table.  Music.  Computers – some for toys and others connected to city terminals.  Shelves busting with novels, memoirs, biographies, how-tos, and histories.  A small kitchen with refrigerator stocked full of beers from all over the world.  Imported coffee.  Easy-to-prepare food.  Furniture – comfortable and overstuffed.  The windows are wide and the curtains always drawn tight, no matter the hour, no matter the weather.  The bank of Eye Dials in the corner is mostly in temporary blackout.  The only time the lines are opened would be for Cocanaugher orchestrating city business, like a campaign. The trundle bed feels like nails and the broadcaster is antiquated; these are neglected comforts, the casualties of non-stop conversation better facilitated by the pool table.

Chris has never seen more than four people in the room at a time – ever.  Including tonight.  He knocks and a woman he recognizes instantly opens the thick door for him.

Hello, Chris.

Hello, Marsha.

Marsha Van Nuys, Commissioner of Police for three-and-a-half years.  She is late 40s, but carries much older.  A Zen calm exudes from her and she’s the most polite woman ever appointed to office in City 32.  At least Chris thinks so.  Though, for some reason, Chris always feels a bit nervous when she’s in the room.  Maybe it’s his history with the whores.

The door opens wider and Chris notices the others:

First, Grace Levine, Cocanaugher’s personal secretary,  the young woman’s right eye covered by an ugly black pirate patch.  He had heard she had been injured during the riot. And Efdrey Andrezzi, the most powerful lawyer in the city, and the mayor’s chosen counsel, in fine suit with necktie unknotted and dangling.

Chris shakes hands.  Pleasure to meet you, he says to Andrezzi, a man he has read about but never has had a formal introduction.  Grace, he dips to the secretary.

The mayor has his back to Chris and is calculating a shot on the pool table.  In a hand, he twirls the cue before casually letting it fall into the opposite hand.

The grandfather’s clock in the corner chimes 12 o’clock.

I’m very busy, Chris, Cocanaugher coughs but does not face his man.

I know, sir.  But you’ll want this.

What could be more important than what we’re talking about?  Jesus, Chris, what?  Cocanaugher slowly draws up his finger.  You know, Chris…every goddamn day kids go missing in this city.  Every day of the year.  Murders, beatings, drownings.  But you lose 81 of them in a day and you’re remembered for it.  Forever.  And these are good kids, Chris.  These aren’t runaways or beggars.  We’ve found out the fakers.  We even got back the 11 from that copycat – I’m surprised there weren’t more of those disturbed impersonators sooner.  Cocanaugher bends at the waist and prepares his shot.  Probably going to be more friggin’ copycats tomorrow.  The mayor cocks his arm and, in a jab of his arm, cracks the cluster of colored balls apart, driving a solid yellow ball into the corner far pocket.

Good shot, Mr. Mayor, commends Chris, moving closer to the Mayor and his table.

I’m stripes… laments the mayor with disappointment.  He slides away from the table and lets the pool cue rest against a bookcase.  Cocanaugher slumps into a plush red chair.  He folds his fingers onto his lap.

Six more today, Chris, says Andrezzi.  We’re back up to 81.

Chris nods.  Yeah.  I know.  What’s the significance of the number 81?  He looks to Grace, who does not answer.

Cocanaugher huffs, and drills a finger to the others.  We don’t have a clue?  He thumbs over to one of the terminals.  And neither do the databases.  But the number must mean something.  We know that now.  It’s not random.  We were supposed to catch the meaning on in the first batch, but didn’t,  so someone’s giving us a second chance to decipher it.

No leads? asks Chris as he steps further into the ring.

A few possibilities, says the commissioner, but none of them solid.

Cocanaugher continues.  That psycho Serkan was definitely involved in the first batch of abductions.  There’s too much evidence to negate it.  But with more kids taken and Serkan dead, more killers must be still out there, working together like some sort of Legion of Doom.

Chris smiles.

You read comic books, Chris?

When I was a kid.

Cocanaugher runs his fingers through his bristle-brush hair.  Leans back.  Meets the eyes of the others.  Nods.  Okay, Chris.  What’s so important?  You’re here to talk about business, aren’t you?  Business.  Heh.  You have a man chopped to bits on the steps of City Hall it becomes tough to focus on bizzz-ness.  Cocanaugher rolls eyes to his comrades.  Am I right or am I right?  So, Chris…what are you going to tell me that’s more barn-burning that what we’ve got going on here?

Chris draws a breath.

You’re about to lose a trillion dollars.

Pardon?

You’re going to lose the nationwide deployment contracts for the Doll System.

Andrezzi stands.  What are you talking about, Chris?

You’re going to lose the contracts because the system doesn’t work.  The story’s already starting to hit the flashes and soon it’s going to snowball – probably a snowball created by the very system that was supposed to prevent snow.

Grace wrestles from where she sits.  Where do you get this information?

I spent two days shadowing Doll’s top engineers.  Including Quam.  They all think it’s the big ‘S’ – Sabotage.  My guess is someone’s trying to sour the licensing.  And it’s going to work.

Cocanaugher considers Chris’s words.  I trust Quam, he says finally.  Two weeks and he still doesn’t know what’s happening?

Nothing except that it is sabotage.  They don’t even know if it’s external or internal.  They’re all pullin’ their hair out over at Central.

Efdrey Andrezzi brushes his forehead.  The lawyer is sweating.  He fans his face and leans against the pool table.  All this bad weather’s starting to get noticed.  That must be why I had calls from Regulatory today.  Now I wish I had returned them.

Regulatory?  Cocanaugher stands and combs his moustache with his fingers.  His face registers absolute despair.  The weather, the weather, the weather, the damn weather.  When it rains, it pours.

Excuse me, interrupts Marsha Van Nuys with a raised finger, what licensing are you talking about?  What trillion dollars?

Cocanaugher rises from the red chair and stumbles to the mini-bar.  He fixes himself a drink – whiskey over ice: very little ice, mostly whiskey.  It’s complicated, Marsha.  And confidential.  I’ll tell you the generalities, but you’ve got to keep everything I say under wraps.

What about Grace?  Marsha dips a hand.

Grace knows.

Oh.  So I’m the only one?

It’s not a police matter.  Cocanaugher turns with his fresh tumbler in hand.  He downs a giant swallow of his whiskey before speaking.  Efdrey and I are working out a deal for the deployment of the Doll System in 3 other cities.  The system’s at the end of its 7-year pilot period and it’s ready for individual licenses.

I see.

No.  You don’t.  Over the last six months, Efdrey here’s been working with the patent office to wrest prime control of the revenue from Doll Industries and back to us – the sponsors.

Oh, no.  Marsha shakes her head in disbelief.

Cocanaugher’s voice infuses with defensiveness.  It’s our right, Marsha, to capitalize on our investment.  The mayor thrusts his glass at the air, rattling the ice.  We agreed to put up the goddamn money for the infrastructure – those 4,000 weather poles, the pricey real estate the monstrosities sit on, the stations to run them, the satellites to control them, the bookkeepers to pay for them, people like Chris here to audit… When we told Doll’s people we’d do all that, we made damn sure we had a chunk of the profits for any future licensing.  But it’s not enough.

I thought your revenue came from the increase of tourism and business.

Andrezzi drinks his own drink now – vodka, lemon twist – and faintly attempts to cover his face as he speaks.  Those benefits, Marsha, he says, were 32’s public face.  But eventual licensing was the primary driver of the deal.  So seven years ago, Doll and the city came to an agreement.  The city retains 18 and a 1/2 percent of the licensing revenue for up to 51 years after the pilot.

That sounds very generous.  I’m surprised Doll agreed to that.

He really had no choice, points the mayor.  We’re the only ones who we willing to invest in his experiment.  And based on nothing, I might add, except for a few controlled demonstrations.

Nods Chris, seven years ago no one had any proof the invention would work.  But now…now it’s not such a sweet deal.  It’s like giving away our shirts.

And our trousers.  Andrezzi sniffs and sips from the top layer of Vodka.  We want 75 percent majority.

75 percent!

Damn right, Marsha, argues the mayor.  There would be no licenses to sell if 32 hadn’t been committed to a pilot! Doll’s going to be making piles of money off these licenses for the next 2 centuries.  Our support of the infrastructure allowed his triumph to be possible.  And, with revenues like we’re calculating at 75 percent, we’ll be able to make significant improvements to the city itself.  Possibly make 32 the wealthiest city on the planet.  A new Rome.  Picture it, Marsha.  No deficit.  We could hire so many police, there’s be little to no crime.  Everyone would have a job.  Maybe even forego taxation for its residents.  Can you imagine?  Who wouldn’t want to be a part of the city where there’s no State, Local, or Federal property or income tax?  Instead, an unbroken stream of astronomical licensing fees from every other city in the world.

And maybe even a little into your pockets?

In the quiet that follows, Cocanaugher’s head sways and then nods.  I believe that was part of the speech Efdrey and the other board members gave me at the start of the legal action.  It seemed to be – (the Mayor sends a piercing gaze at his lawyer) – a plan without complications.  Use legal action and threat of government influence to negate our original contract with Doll in attempt to gain a more favorable rate.  That’s what you said, wasn’t it, Ef?  I’m quoting from memory, as the recordings were destroyed.

Christ, I hope so.  The lawyer winks.

Chris cuts off the trail of conversation with a wave.  This isn’t the point.  The meat of the matter is that everyone will lose everything if the sabotage can’t be stopped, the saboteur unveiled and convicted, and the system shored up from this type of thing ever happening again.  If a hole in the system is exploited during the pilot, Mr. Mayor, no one, I repeat, NO ONE will want to turn the power of a hurricane, a snowstorm, or a heat wave over to a madman.  There is the potential for series commercial damage, and serious climate damage, if someone can undermine the entire network without getting caught.  Right now, whoever’s behind this is just fucking with us.  I can tell.  They clearly don’t want to flood the city.  They would have done that already.  But the potential for meteorological disaster is definitely in this entity’s hands.

Cocanaugher aims at Andrezzi, but his question is for Chris Silvers.  Who do you think is doing it, Chris?  Another city?  Someone jealous of our revenue potential?  That’s it, isn’t it?  We’ve got a turncoat in our midst and another mayor’s got hold of our plans.

Yes, that’s one thought.  Another city might be predicting the eventual imbalance.

But you think it’s something else?

I don’t know what it is, sir.  Honestly.

Could it be Doll himself? asks Grace.

Sidelong glances to where the assistant sits in the corner.

After all, she continues, it’s his system.

The four absorb this speculation.

I hear that Douglaz is sick, offers Marsha into the void that follows.

Sick?  The mayor looks doubtful.

I don’t know what with, but I’ve heard it mentioned in certain circles over the last few months.  I don’t even know what he might have, or if it’s treatable or terminal.  I know that he moved his employees out of the Doll Building about a month ago.

He did?

You know he can be a recluse.

I hear he hasn’t been outside of his building in a year, adds Grace.  He’s taken over more and more floors…it’s almost like a castle.  Does he even like people?

The mayor rolls a green ball into the far pocket and says softly:  He likes people…  Maybe he likes ‘em too much to put up with the shit we pull.  The mayor puffs.  But it’s true.  I haven’t seen much of Douglaz lately.  Only that Sidney Mizuro.  Regardless.  I don’t think it’s Doll being a thorn in my side.  And I’ll tell you why… Because even if we take 75 percent, the money Doll would make off 25 percent is more than the zero he’d make if the system’s stability were to be questioned.  Money’s still money.  And besides, I don’t think Quam or any of his directors would stand for it.  They’ve worked for decades on this thing.  To have it fail on the eve of deployment would be unacceptable to them.  They’re all shareholders, you know.   He could fool the four of us, but Doll couldn’t fool a man like Quam.

And I believe them, offers Chris, Quam and his team.  They really don’t know what the hell’s wrong.  These are the finest digital weather engineers in the world and they’ve been working around the clock since the trouble started.  I find it impossible that—

Perhaps I should go speak with him, Marsha interrupts with a raise of her brows.  She checks for a reaction.  Douglaz and I go back to the 70s, when I worked as the security liaison to Jesus Rey and Douglaz was pitching bullet vests he invented for the police.  Couldn’t I just go talk to him?

Andrezzi looks to the mayor.  The mayor looks to Grace, who looks to Chris.  Her proposal is silently considered.  The mayor shakes his head.

But, Franco!  No one would turn away the Commissioner of Police.  We really did know each other pretty well once…socially at least.  I admit I’ve lost touch over the last few years.  Douglaz Doll is actually a very decent man.  Though I agree with you, he has grown stranger and more isolated with each of his successes.

No, the mayor concludes with finality.  I need you to help me find those missing kids, not running some political errand.

But Mr. Mayor, cautions Chris, this is a trillion dollars.  You have to think of the greater good of the city.  Maybe she should give it a whirl.

Placing his whiskey on the oak sideboard, the mayor once again picks up his pool cue.  Chris, it’s like this… You don’t have children so you can’t understand.  I have my sons.  Marsha has her daughter.  Efdrey the winner with four, all his kids past college age and flown the coop.  None of our children are as young as the missing ones, but I can easily put myself in those families’ places.  Grace has been fielding calls from inconsolable parents.  Some of these parents have influence in the city.  Actually, I know several that serve under my appointment and a few are even personal friends.  Like Katherine Ximon.  I’m going to be at her daughter’s funeral tomorrow and it breaks my heart.  I’ve lost 81 kids!  And it’s even more frustrating because I know those kids must be inside the city limits.  They have to be.  I know that because of the roadblocks, I know that because of the inter-city bulletins, and I know that because we found six stuffed in a drain.  And you damn well know that if I recognize my culpability, that the registered voters in this town recognize it, too.  If I don’t find those kids alive and well, I won’t be around next term to reap any of the rewards of the Doll licensing.  So come on, let’s focus on one damn crises at a time before we’re all out of friggin’ JOBS!  Cocanaugher smacks his cue down on the green felt of the pool table with a painful snap of his wrist.  He comes up gripping the strain.  Help me find those kids.  Then we’ll worry about what the weather’s like.  Cocanaugher waits until each gives a nod, Chris the last.  Okay.  I’ll send you, Efdrey.  You’ve got tact.  And I don’t picture a lawyer helping much on the immediate search.  Tomorrow morning first thing, soon as the sun is up, you talk to Doll.  You tell him he stands to lose everything from his Great Invention if he doesn’t get hold of his fucking system.  Go bang on the damn door of his castle until he answers.

Efdrey sets down his drink, unfinished, next to the mayor’s own.  Okay, Franco.  I will.
Mr. Irish Johnston kept his pocketknife close by on full moon evenings. These were the best nights for walks along the river bank. No fish to speak of, tadalafil just minnows. But, decease his neighbor enjoyed hanging her feet off the bridge on her creek. And he liked his neighbor. Well, liked is a strong word. He more liked to whittle as he watched her dip her toes in the cool evening water.

He brought his flashlight along most evenings. It was strong, and had a nice heft to it. A watchman’s flashlight. Almost a spotlight. He also brought rope as you never knew when you might need it. Duct tape, too, as it was awfully handy. Really, he had a whole backpack he kept of supplies just in case. He kept his white cap in there as well as well as his extra shoes. And a new belt with a fine, shiny buckle. It said RODEO on it in big letters.

His great uncle had rodeoed, not him, but he liked the look of it. It said something to folks who liked the way it glinted in the light. Miss Southern, Ann Southern, was the gal who liked to dip her toes in the moonlight. A splash of water up against her ankles wasn’t bad either. Good antidote to the too long days at work and after putting the kids to bed.

She, too, had a pocketknife that she kept with her on moonlit nights. She was not proud of hers in the way Irish was, but Miss Southern knew how to use hers just as well. She also knew how to swing an axe, but liked the curve of the handle of her pocketknife and the way it fit in her hand. An axe was rather forward, she felt. She had been raised not to be forward or obvious in her attentions, to be lady-like no matter what the cost.

What this caused was a preparation on her part that was part innocent and part single woman who enjoyed sitting alone in the moonlight. She was young, though tall, with slightly buck teeth. Or, what would have been called buck teeth. People were too polite to use such a term these days. Both her children had inherited this feature. The family loved corn on the cob which was perhaps God’s little joke and perhaps just the sheer joy of using those big teeth to do what they were meant to do.

It was a Saturday night and Miss Southern had slipped down the creek for her nightly moment alone. The children were just up the hill in bed with the door locked. The mastiff snuggled up under the covers with them, as good as a mother as you might find. This was what Miss Southern needed to dip her feet in the water and lean back on her wooden bridge. That, and a cola at her hip, in a bottom heavy glass that was difficult to knock over in the dark.

She had come down here seventeen nights in a row. Her neighbor, she couldn’t help but notice, turned off his lights and edged his screen door open shortly after she made her descent. He was friendly, but awkward during the day. At night, he was more forward, and it did not become him.

She had brought a hard boiled egg in her pocket and she tapped it on the bridge. She should have brought a salt shaker, but had not considered that. The yolk was creamy and large, the way homegrown eggs were. The yellow showed up dark gray in the moon, but in the sun it would have been a yellow’s yellow. Chickens who stretched their legs and fetched their own greens from the yard as blades of grass or random weeds always made prettier eggs and hers were no exception.

Irish knew this, and helped himself to hers when she left for work each day. She would have gladly shared with him, but Irish didn’t want them to eat. He wanted them to have. He coveted things that weren’t his and asking for them would have ruined their taste in his tinny mouth. He preferred pepper to salt, and sometimes ate them with a mouthful of hot sauce. He needed things to burn or he could not enjoy them. Had always been that way since he was a boy.

The neighbor then had been an old gentleman who grew the neighborhood’s best tomatoes. He ate one during the season everyday on the way to school. He had never asked then, either, as even at that young of age, asking took all the pleasure out of it for him.

The doctors had diagnosed him about this when he was seven and then again at thirteen when he had pulled off his cat’s nails with pliers. But that doctor had moved away for better pay and few people remembered that now. Irish no longer had those pliers, he had buried them with a host of other things out behind his cabin. He kept a pile of rocks and leaves over it, tending it the way someone else might a baby. His real tools, his special tools, were close at hand but also easily hidden. Well, maybe not easily, but again that was part of Irish’s joy. The stealth of love. Or, not love. What was the word?

He liked his tools the way others might love their morning coffee. Something he could not function without, even if it was not fit conversation for polite company. He kept them at the ready for the right moment as others might a tray of creamer, sweetener and spare coffee cups for unplanned visitors. He kept his for unplanned moments which could never properly present themselves unless one planned beforehand to the extent that Irish was known for. Or, not known for, except for by his long gone cat. And the doctor. Who had moved away.

Miss Southern was still missing the taste of salt when the hairs on her arm, just under the cuff of her summer shirt, noticed Irish’s approach. Her ears didn’t recognize him. They often did. He would purposefully make a little cough. Sometimes to let her know he was there politely, and sometimes to test to see if she recognized his presence. He had a different smile prepared for each situation.

Not hearing his cough, nor seeing his favorite belt buckle glint, she knew he was there with a different sort of mission that night. It was when she could not hear him that she was most aware of his presence. His need for control was so focused that he sometimes forgot that even those under observation could observe as well. Sometimes your chicken dinner on your plate wakes up and looks back up at you. Not often, and sometimes only in drunken dreams, but it does happen on occasion.

Irish, to his credit, was not drunk that night. Nor had he smoked any of his nephew’s funny cigarettes. His mind was clean and clear. The night air seeped into this lungs a bit at a time as he did his best to breathe as quietly as possible. He could hear the cicadas and hoped that their noise would cover any of his own.

Miss Southern had by now finished her egg and washed it down with her soda. It was not a good flavor combination but it wold do to get the dry out of her mouth. She set her no-spill cup down three inches to her left, which happened to be just where Irish’s foot had come to rest as a cloud passed over the moon. The cup, unbalanced, fell over backwards. Irish, who had wanted to make a good first impression, accidentally stepped backwards out of instinct so as not to lose his balance himself.

Miss Southern pulled for his ankle but got his boot. The leather was just old enough, with enough to give to allow her the tiniest finger hold. She jerked with all her might and to both their surprises, Irish found himself hanging over the bridge. It was not a steep drop by any means and not one that would actually be scary, if it were not that it had happened to him by surprise and in the pitch dark of night as the cloud passed in front of his normally friendly moon.

His hand grabbed for her, or anything really, that would settle his feet back on dry ground. He found her hair and then his claw scraped her face. She made use of her God given talents and Irish, who had always liked burning sensations, for once found one he didn’t like. Even in the not light, he knew that his hand was now dripping bright, hot red.

Miss Southern hopped back out of instinct and left Irish twirling, trying to find his way back up on the bridge. She chewed for a moment on the appendage the way one might a toothpick. It was rubbery, and not tasty, but satisfying the way a zucchini you had grown yourself over a long hot summer might be.

She reached down to pick up his flashlight that galumphed to her side. The fingernail was clean, for a man’s, and the knuckle bony from arthritis and hard work. She stood up to walk back, then on second thought, ran back home. She had separated her neighbor from one of his favorite parts and it was possible he might want it back.

The noise in the yard had woken the mastiff. There was a satisfying crunch as he sat for his snack and a pat on his head, good boy. The mastiff was used to the large beef bones from the extra freezer where Miss Southern stored her meat. A man’s knuckle bone was not much a treat, but it was fresh and from his mistress, so the animal was appreciative as always.

A sleepy voice called from the landing, Mama what was the noise? Oh, sweetie, that was just Jonesy wanting a midnight snack. The child, sleepy, went back in and rolled back over. The moon came back out from behind the clouds and shone on his face through the window. His blue eyes were not their true blue this time of the night but when Miss Southern stepped into his room from the hallway, she recognized them as her own. She cracked the window for a little night air, the first time she’d felt able to since they’d moved in. She wasn’t quite ready to take the bars off, but this was a start.

Tomorrow they would have corn for dinner as a treat. She could taste the butter and the ice tea. Maybe a picnic on the bridge. With potato salad. All sides and no main dish. She was not hungry for meat and the children preferred their starches anyway. Maybe even a blanket for a tablecloth. And, a big, beef bone for Jonesy. Tonight was just the hors derves.

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Meriwether O’Connor is a farmer, short story writer and columnist.

Read more stories by Meriwether O’Connor

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