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Damn, purchase health damn, sick it’s a glorious day, not a gratifying fleck in the sky. I have no tears left; my pillow has soaked them all. Jim’s stare had burned into the ceiling the whole night, we didn’t share a wink of sleep; we didn’t say a word. He dressed silently and slipped out without a glance. She must be all chirpy, hanging out for her weekly ride to Rosemary’s lookout. It’s a little hilltop that offers stunning views of Mornington bay in all its glory. On a day like this you can see all those yachts with their white sails, blending in with the seagulls. The emerald green of the surf, which alternates with deep and light blue as the sun plays, is truly a treat. The quaint trail to the top is via a shady Pine and Eucalypts copse. During the spring wild orchids and grevilleas vie for prime spots where the pine needles have spared the soil. She just loves it; thank goodness spring is long gone. In a way it helped that I loved this spot as well, we were brainwashed with it when we were kids. I brainwashed my kid with the same, there was no spite in that of course. I have to dress her up; I had cleaned up her wheelchair last night. She is a stickler for hygiene. But the last thing I feel right now is resentment. Then again, I have been at her beck and call all these years, despite the curses; which she never heard. I am sure I loved her, I still do I think. She became an invalid five years ago when she broke her back on the bathroom marble. I never really gave her a chance to miss her lifeless legs; I can feel something like sanity beginning to stir.

I must brace for that toothless grin, she looks absolutely hideous without her dentures. But I have never shown it; it has been a sheer act of will. Her gums leap out as she sees me; I want to feel revulsion, it even looks horribly cute. The gums are still on display; the weather has really given her the thumbs up. My senses have developed immunity to the stench of urine. I dress her up in her favorite cotton skirt and blouse with the garish floral pattern. She looks shocked as I give her a hug; her arms strong enough to detain me. My eyes smart and I thought I had drained all those tears. She is just skin on bones.

The sun just feels balmy on the skin, much as I had feared. The sky is still one insipid patch of bright blue. She breaks into a gentle hum, Que Sera Sera, my favorite childhood song; she seems hell bent on inflicting maximum pain. She is trying hard to crane her neck, to catch my face; see if I remember. Almost an invite to join in, I give her shoulders a gentle rub. I still have bloody tears left. I can already feel the salty breeze; surely it can’t be that close, I quicken my steps. Sure enough the start of the little winding path at the foot of the tiny hill pops into view. I don’t even feel her weight as I negotiate the rough trail through the grove. The delicious cool of the leafy tunnel drinks up the sweat. There isn’t a single flower in sight, cause for some consolation. The breeze is gathering strength; I can see the explosion of light at the end of the tunnel and the filmy strip of blue sea shimmering in the distance. My legs are getting dodgy; my heart might thump itself out any minute. The sun blinds me and the wind takes me off guard as we emerge. She wriggles on her chair like a dizzy little kid. I push her closer to the edge; she sucks in the view with sheer desperation. Her fingers are clenched into fists, that’s her rebuke to frantic excitement. Her broad smile baits my guts; the dentures do make a huge difference.

Surely a slight push can’t be that hard.

***

The wheelchair is quite heavy; the trip down took forever. I am out of the tunnel; the sky is still a cheery blue. The strains of Que Sera sera, turns back the clock, I can’t remember when I started humming. She is fast asleep on the armrest. We had spent a marathon four hours at Rosemary’s lookout. We had watched the sea change colours and we had invited the wind to rough us up. I had kicked the pine needles like a maniac to find that stubborn orchid or grevillea; there was none in sight. But I couldn’t stop it. I was a little girl again and it felt good.
The house brings our joys to an end.

I hope I have enough guts next time, but days with such glorious weather are hard come by.

—–

Jude C. Perera is a CPA with an addictive fascination for creative writing.  He prefers a story with a good sting in its tail, and crazy visions of publishing a full length novel plague his dreams.

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It’s dark at 2:30 in the morning when there’s a smell of smoke in the house and your husband’s in Holland and you’re not.

You think you’d hear crackling of flames if there were a true fire: the carpet and cabinets burning merrily, sickness popping bright little sparks into the air, viagra but everything is still. The bedroom and upstairs hallway drowse, medical draped in shadows.

A small nightlight downstairs is no comfort. There are three floors to prowl, groggy and cold-footed, sniffing like a wary animal stumbling out of the cave of sleep.

Nose lifted, scalp prickling, you mince down each step, waiting for the onslaught of ash, the rush of heat. The back hallway chills you and there is no fire, no arsonist, at least not here. But this isn’t all.

To the basement, then, that place of hidden thoughts and things, of cobwebby memories and corners and no curtains on the windows. Your nose is worn out, can find nothing, not a trace of danger or fire and you trudge back to bed, missing his soft snore, his slender back.

You curl into your black bed, still cold-footed and naked, wishing that smoke didn’t scuttle into your dreams when your husband is in Holland. And you’re not.

—–

Jane Banning lives in Oregon, Wisconsin with her husband and son.  She has received honorable mentions in the 2008 Micro Fiction Contest and the 2009 Glass Woman Prize Contest.  Her work has appeared in the University of Iowa Daily Palette, Six Sentences, Long Story Short, Boston Literary Magazine, Lyrical Passion Poetry and 52250 Flash.  She is pretty certain that this story is fictional.

Read more stories by Jane Banning

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Mr. Tatum had seventeen chickens spread between two enclosures. Each morning at seven and then again at three, sovaldi sale he tossed them handfuls of bread, treat leftover vegetables and stray bits of meat. While he sat smoking his pipe, drugstore sometimes he would catch grasshoppers for them by quick dipping his hand off the porch and into the tall grass. He kept them in a jar and when he had a few to merit the effort, would get up off his old bones and totter to the barnyard.

The chickens grew to love grasshopper time and lined up by the tarp eying him through the holes when he began his slow ascent to the hill where they lived. There was a creek just below and they were up hill as much for sanitary reasons as to prevent them being flooded out on a bad day.

A young girl had moved next door and wold watch him through the fence, feeding the chickens. She saw him toss trash on the ground and the poor starving birds ran for it willynilly. She saw he did not even bother to put their food properly in a dish. She saw that he drew their water from the mudhole in a dirty old bucket and laid it before them as if it were a splendid feast. She saw them so desperate for food, they ate bugs as their only alternative.

When he went into town, the girl, Matilda, would hop the fence and sit in the long grass to watch the birds. It was her hobby, that and plaiting her hair into long braids. She tried to sneak them food, but only got in trouble as her own family didn’t have enough to be sharing with strangers, much less chickens.

She saw them eating rocks and sand and bits of dust and tree bark and sticks and odd blades of grass or weeds. Her mother’s chickens came under plastic and rested on styrofoam so she had never studied one up close. She had been to school, was in fact quite wise for fourteen, but her learning had never taught her much about chickens.

Chickens relish tiny bits of grit and peck the dirt all day long. The crunchy, indigestible bits of hardness grind the food up in their gullet. At slaughter time, a happy chicken (well, no one is happy at slaughter time not even the slaughterer) has a belly full of sand and tiny pebbles. Without them, the food would pile up and suffocate them from the inside out.

But there was no textbook meant for a bright fourteen year old that told such tales. And, she was not one to ask questions. She preferred gathering her own information, silently. Her judgments were swift and universal. Bad or Good. She, by the way, was good.

Mr. Tatum had seen the poor family move in next door. He had hoped one of the children would show an interest in the chickens so that maybe for daily eggs, their mother would send one over to do a bit of the chores. But, they did not seem to need eggs, or did not realize he had chickens. Ten years before, he had gotten his yard mowed plus fresh tomatoes during the season for his lovely brown and sometime blue-green speckled eggs.

But, he had done nothing more than wave hi to the young family as they drove into the driveway and maybe that wasn’t invitation enough to drop on by as it had been once.

It was getting time to cull for the season. Weed out the one or two he would keep for eggs, maybe an old favorite, and then the rest, would depend. His freezer, or a neighbor’s. A chicken in the soup pot for Sunday, or Saturday, depending. Maybe some young child who wanted a pet and whose parents weren’t astute enough to know what that would mean over the winter. Trudging out through the snow to feed, knocking ice out of water buckets, the rest. He had a niece who traded the feet to her Asian neighbor in exchange for babysitting on the weekend. So, they would wind up with good homes, in one way or another.

This was not his favorite time of year. But it was a necessary time. It would be like leaving a crop in the field because you could not bear to cut the wheat with a scythe. Wheat might not like to be cut, but humans had stomachs. And stomach aches.

Mr. Tatum took his hat down off the post and got ready for the drive into town. He had considered replacing the tarp but it was so late in the season. Biddy and the one or two others he might keep would go into a smaller enclosure anyway to keep them warm during the coming season.

He thought of picking up ice cream for them next door, but again. Was that too forward? He jingled his keys in his pants pocket as he hopped down the last step. He took the other ones slow to save up the extra oomph for that last signature step of his. It was important to go forth into the world proudly, he felt.

Matilda was eating a bread sandwich when he pulled out of the driveway. She put down the crust. Her mother was not watching, so she hid it in her palm and then in the pocket of her shorts. It was a chilly day, but shorts it was until the next paycheck came through.

She took her book and sidled outside near the fence. No one else in the neighborhood could keep chickens except Mr. Tatum. The rules had changed long ago, but he had been there so long, it didn’t matter. Her mother complained of the noise in the mornings when they laid. She didn’t know it was their prideful, little look at me dance. She took it to be their I don’t belong here and you can’t do anything about it dance.

Matilda found her mother’s good scissors, the one she used for cutting out patterns. She cut windows for the chickens in the tarp so they could see the day and the sunshine as she did. First one chicken and then another began to perch on the tarp. They clucked at her, unsure of who the stranger was. But, enjoying their fancy new holes, nonetheless. Biddy, and a small, red unnamed one jumped down at once. Perhaps having given each other some secret it’s okay chicken signal. Long ago, Biddy had been in the coop up near the house. And also one down by the creek. She had even spent a night or two inside when she was healing up from a dog bite from a long ago (and now dispatched) neighbor’s dog.

She had had a long, if small life on this quarter acre. She had survived the butchering of the hogs, the coming and going of the seasons and now she saw the bushes she used to peck by the street the first few years of her life. She was till a bit lame from the dog, so was not allowed out as she used to be to roam here and there. She was more pet than product at this point as she had produced no eggs in nearly three seasons. She was like the auntie you kept propped in the livingroom who woke occasionally to say hi to guests or eat her jello after Wheel Of Fortune. You couldn’t bear to part with her, but you didn’t really expect too much from her either.

She set off at a trot for the berry bushes, drawn by the color or the shape or perhaps if chickens can remember that long, a memory. She scooted underneath it to get out of the wind that was picking up and began to snack. The red chicken had given up after a few steps and gone back under the tarp. She didn’t like the looks of the girl with the scissors. They were sharp and shiny like a hatchet and she figured she would take her chances with the old man.

Biddy, though, was in her element. Dirt and worms and dried berries littered the ground under the bush. After a bit, she heard Mr. Tatum’s standard BEEPBEEP BEEPBEEP though there had long ceased being anyone at home to greet him. She knew beepbeep beepbeep meant food.

She sailed out from under the bush right under Mr. Tatum’s tire. There was a bump, ugly, but not to Mr. Tatum who had merely hit a rock in his driveway. He rolled further up by the porch and unloaded his packages.

Matilda had watched all this, including his early return from next to the blue tarp. She stared at the scissors and tossed them back over the fence suddenly fearing her mother far more than she did Mr. Tatum. She picked up the largest rock she could find and heaved it again the side of his house. When something fell out of the sky and hit his home, Mr. Tatum went to go see what in tarnation had happened and Matilda slipped back over to her side of the fence.

When he came back, still puzzled, Mr. Tatum noticed the blood on the front left tire of his car. He was startled the way only an old man can be who has killed enough things on purpose to dread killing something on accident can be. He paced back down his driveway expecting the carcass of a raccoon, certainly no skunk as there was no smell. What he saw was Biddy, but not Biddy. It was not even a chicken anymore. More of a blob and ants were already starting to form. He vomited on the white gravel like he had never done when processing her sisters for food. He shouted in the language of his German grandparents, not even sure what the words meant himself anymore.

He took the handkerchief from his pocket and laid it over her, then went to go get his shovel. As he walked past their fence, he saw Matilda doing homework back there. Hey, he said to the girl. I’m thinking of getting rid of these chickens. Ask your ma if she wants ‘em. Either that or they’re going in the freezer by tonight. And he went back to bury his friend, not by the bushes as he did not have a long memory and had no idea this was her favorite spot, but over by the lilacs, which to his eye, seemed just fine.

—–

Meriwether O’Connor is a farmer, short story writer and columnist.

Read more stories by Meriwether O’Connor

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How am I supposed to publish this? Sure, capsule it’s the Mick. Purportedly, rx those are his words. We sent the questionnaire to him, thumb and someone sent it back, but who’s going to believe it? It was a simple question: What was your most memorable moment at Yankee Stadium? There were so many great moments we could think of: any World Series, even losing the home run race to Maris. Any of those would have been publishable, but this:  a blowjob behind the bullpen? Those are his words. People know he hit the bottle pretty hard, and drinkers, especially ones like the Mick, say things to be “funny” sometimes. Real funny Mick.

We’re just a small magazine, a newsletter. Once a year we publish a pullout of baseball statistics, so we can tell you decisively who should be in the Hall of Fame. (It’s our most popular issue.) We compare others to The Mick, Yaz, and the Babe. He’s one of the pillars.

I thought it was a joke. I checked the hand writing. It’s not a joke.  It’s his handwriting. For as long as I’ve been staring at his signature on baseballs I don’t own, I know the Mick’s signature. Maybe it’s his joke, but even if it is, it would send our circulation into orbit, but I don’t want it that way. An editor has to have integrity for his subjects. Sure, the story will come out eventually, and someone will get a national newspaper job, where they watch games from the stadium box, instead of on a TV in an office. A blowjob behind the bullpen: someone will find out eventually. The Mick will probably be dead by then, especially the way he’s been drinking, and it will just be another quirky incident. Nah. Our readers can stomach another story on the bias in baseball statistics, and how goddamn unfair the whole Hall of Fame thing is.

—–

Richard Armitage has had his work featured in a number of journals across North America.

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“The Browns show up so early and stay so late that I’m wondering if we don’t want to put different times on their invitation, cialis ” Vicky said.

“On just the Brown’s invitation?” Kenneth asked.

“Yes. My father was notoriously late to dinner parties, click so people always told him everything started half an hour earlier than it really did.”

“I guess I see the point. Did you put Margot down?”

“Margot?”

“Yes. She’s always come.”

“But she’s had such a tragic year.”

“Exactly, purchase ” Kenneth said. “It would be good for her to get out.”

“It might be good for her, but it would be bad for the party. She’d be the elephant in the room.”

“O.K. It was just a thought. What about the Fensterhoffs?”

“What do you mean by what about them?” Vicky asked looking up from the list.

“They seemed to have a really good time last year. That’s all.”

“Listen, I’m really sorry about that.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh. It was nothing. Jacob just had a few drinks and he was…”

“…flirting with you?” Kenneth chuckled. “I noticed. I’m sure you put him in his place.”

“Well, no. Not really. That would have been mean.”

“You don’t seem to mind putting anyone else in their place.”

“It’s just that Jacob and I go way back…”

“What exactly do you mean?”

“It’s really nothing. I thought you knew. We used to date in college.”

“You did?” Kenneth said. “I never knew. Is there some reason you never told me?”

Vicky thought for a moment. “I guess I never mentioned it because it was so long ago and it wasn’t a big deal.”

“Oh,” he said. “Does Emma know?”

“No. I mean I doubt she does.”

“Right,” Kenneth said, almost to himself. “I suppose it really is ancient history.”

“Exactly.”

“I have to admit, though, that it’s kind of strange to find this out now. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I did tell you.”

“Yes, just now, and sort of by accident. How long did you two date?”

“Not long. Two years.”

“Two years? What do you mean, not long, two years?” He paused. “You didn’t have sex with him, did you?”

“Kenneth, I mean. . . . really….”

“Oh, God. That means you did.”

“Well, it was a long time ago–before I knew you.”

“I can’t believe we’ve been friends with these people, had them in our house and now I find out that you two . . . . We can’t have them over.”

“It was years and years ago.”

“I don’t care. I don’t want him in our house.”

“Kenneth, if you’re going to forbid me for having any of the men I was romantically involved with over to the house…”

“What? Do you mean there are more men you’ve been with that we’ve invited to our house?”

“Well, I mean….”

“Great. What should I do? Ask you to draw a line through everyone on the list that you’ve slept with?”

“Sure, Kenneth. If it will make you feel better, I’ll do just that. Never mind that all of this happened before I met you. ”

“All of this? What do you mean all of this?”

“All of nothing,” she said studying the legal pad.

He watched her go through the list, wincing every time her pen touched page.

“See,” she finally said. “You’re making a big fuss out of nothing.”

Kenneth’s eyes ransacked the page. “You drew a line through four names. What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that when I was young and single, I had a few sexual relationships with men.”

“Right. . . . but . . . ”

“Now that I’m thinking about it,” she added, “you’d better put a question mark next to Peter Howell. I actually don’t remember if we did.”

“You don’t remember?”

“It was so long ago. I remember that he took me to dinner up at Blue Rock and then we went for a drive up Lookout Mountain, but I don’t remember if we ended up actually…”

“How many dates did you have with him?”

“Just one.”

“One? Only one date?”

“Yes. I mean, we were young, and he was very attractive, I just don’t remember if we actually . . . . Why?”

“You made me wait for five months, before you would sleep with me. We were twenty-six. That’s young. I guess you didn’t find me anywhere near as attractive as Peter Howell.”

“Of course I did. I married you, and I haven’t been with–or wanted to be with–anyone else in fifteen years. Can’t we please just drop this? It really is getting silly.”

“I suppose so,” he said. “I know it was a long time ago. I honestly didn’t think you got around that much, that’s all.”

“I didn’t get around that much. Maybe a baker’s dozen.”

“What? You mean there were more?”

“A few more, yes,” she said. “But then, for that matter I know I wasn’t your first.”

“No. But I can count the women I’ve been with on…well… a little more than one hand.”

“Was it for lack of trying?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Well then, Kenneth, to put this into perspective, I’m sure that you wanted to sleep with more people than I ever wanted to.”

“Right,” he said. “Like you aren’t at parties or in your car downtown during rush hour, or maybe at the store, looking around and thinking about who you would like to sleep with.”

“I’m not! Why? Are you?”

“Well…a little…” I mean, I have. Sometimes. Here and there.”

“Are you saying that there are women on our list that you’ve fantasized about?”

“I’m a guy. Of course I’ve had a fleeting thought or two.”

“I don’t mean a fleeting thought,” she said. “I mean an all-out sexual fantasy. Have you entertained those sorts of thoughts with any of the people on our holiday guest list?”

“Well… uh. . . kind of. . . .”

“I can’t believe this,” she said. “Here I was going around like a chump with hors d’oeuvres trays thinking we were hosting a nice holiday party, and meanwhile you were lurking around, thinking God knows what about our guests.”

“You weren’t?”

“No!”

“Well…I mean it’s not like I was thinking that about everybody or like I was walking around thinking that all the time.”

“Here,” she said handing him a pen. “Just for the Hell of it, put a check mark next to the names of all of the women you’ve had a fantasy about.”

“Are you sure you want me to do this?”

“Yes, absolutely,” she said. “I’ll be fine with it. I’m just curious. I just want to know.”

“What qualifies as a fantasy?”

“Something more elaborate than a fleeting thought. Something detailed and sexual that…. Oh Christ, Kenneth, I’m not going to come out and say it.”

“Give me a minute…”

She watched him without blinking.

“Here,” he finally said.

Her lips moved as she counted. “Nine names? You’re sick. You are really sick.”

“I’m a guy.” Kenneth had never used this defense before.

“Wait,” she said. “You don’t have a check-mark next to Ingrid. She’s gorgeous. I mean, she’s by far the most beautiful woman we know …”

“She’s pretty. But she doesn’t do anything for me.”

“But you have a check-mark next to Lilly Contapolous? She looks like a potato in an Angelina Jolie wig.”

“There’s something about her. . . .”

“And Nora? You’ve imagined having sex with Nora? I was in water aerobics with her. You should see her in the locker room. The minute she takes off her bra . . . .”

“Please. Stop.”

“And Lorraine Drexler? She’s at least eighty years old. “

“Yes, but …I don’t know…she just seems like she’d lose control and get really wild and there’d be nothing I could do about it…”

“I think I’m going to be sick. You’ve not only had sexual fantasies about nine of our guests; you picked some of the strangest ones.”

“I did not. Those women are plenty attractive. There are lots of women I find plenty attractive that you would never suspect…”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying,” he said, “that fantasies are fantasies. They just happen. They don’t mean anything.”

“Well,” she said, “they mean we’ve just cut out a big chunk out of our guest list.”

“You aren’t going to invite those women to our party because I’ve had fantasies about them?”

“Not if we’re not inviting the men I’ve slept with.”

“Well. . . . Do you still want to sleep with them?”

“No. I really don’t think about it. I honestly don’t,” she said. “Would you really sleep with those women if you had the chance?”

Kenneth paused. “Are you asking in the literal sense or in the hypothetical sense, like, say, if you were dead?”

“I mean literally.”

“Literally? . . . .No. I honestly wouldn’t because I know that if it were to happen in real life, it wouldn’t be that great; I mean it never is.”

“What do you mean it never is?” she gasped. “You waited for me for five months. I suppose you had fantasies about it the entire time and then when we finally had sex, it was just a big let-down?”

“No. . . . Of course not.”

After an agonizing silence he gently asked, “Vicky, Love. . . . Do you want to send out e-invitations or should we go with snail mail?”

—–

Caroline Zarlengo Sposto is the poetry editor of Humor in America. http://humorinamerica.wordpress.com/

Read more stories by Caroline Sposto

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You could always tell what kind of mood he was in by the way he set the table. On good nights, cheap our father laid the china plates down ever so carefully, help like each one was made of fancy crystal or something. He folded the paper napkins into tidy little triangles and, on really good nights, into little squirrels or bunnies for me and my sister.

A bad mood meant a crash landing; his calloused, thick-veined hands shoving the plates across the kitchen table as if they were on fire or something. Tonight, me and Maddy could hear the shatter all the way from our room. He must have missed his aim. The little fragments tingle and a large chunk spins to a dead halt on the floor.

Lying in our beds doing homework, we sit up suddenly, then freeze, as we wait to be called in for dinner.

He does the calling, “Wash your hands and get your butts in here.”

I feel a giant knot at the pit of my stomach as I listen to our mother sweeping up. But I’m brave for Maddy and smile a little as we head into the kitchen. Three years younger and only 9, she looks forward to spaghetti night and eagerly takes her place at the table.

The broken plate has been replaced, the shards hidden in the garbage, and our mother stands at the stove, stirring the sauce one last time. Though our father sits closest to the refrigerator, she quickly reaches in for his bottle of beer, pops off the cap and lays it down carefully at his place. He swallows the beer in long, brooding gulps while she dishes piles of noodles and thick, red sauce on our plates.

She takes a deep breath, then forces up a smile. “Grace, tell your father about your science project. School is so much more creative than when we were kids.”

“We’re growing frogs from tadpoles. Then we’re going to release them into Miller’s Pond in the spring. It’s part of our life cycle unit.”

Without looking up from his plate he snarls, “What makes you think them tadpoles is gonna survive in the wild after growing up in a plastic dish? Don’t your stupid teacher know that their chemistry’s all screwed up after a bunch a kids been pokin at ‘em?”

Our mother twirls spaghetti noodles tightly around her fork, trying hard to hold back. But she just can’t let this go. Oh how I wish she would just let it go. “Gil, I’m sure the teacher is making certain that the tadpoles are grown in a large tank with the right nutrition and what not. Right Grace?”

I want this to go away, and I wish I had never told her about the stupid tadpoles growing up to be stupid frogs. “Maybe Dad’s right. Maybe it’s a dumb project and all the frogs’ll grow up to be mutants.”

“You’re damn right they will. Aint nothin good ever comin from that freak show.”

I’ve ended it now, so we continue eating, the sound of our forks screeching against our plates. Maddy is the first one done and the only one to eat all of her food. “Can I go watch TV?”

Beads of sweat are forming above his rabid upper lip and he pierces poor Maddy in an instant. “You’ll sit your ass down until this meal is over. And I say when you get to leave, you got that?”

I can almost see the bones in our mother’s back grow rigid. She rises quickly from her chair and, in one clean sweep, she grabs up all of the plates and nearly slams them into the sink. The hot water and soap bubble up quickly and she hovers over the rising steam, “Have you both finished your homework?”

Maddy and me mumble “yes” to the dead space that lies between the two of them.

“Then run off now and don’t fight over who watches what. And remember to stick with the comedies. No cop shows.”

I spread out on the sofa and Maddy lies on the floor, head propped on her wobbly, little elbows. The silence in the kitchen sits there like a bleeding sore just waiting to burst wide open. This is the time I hate most because I know the worst is still coming. Another beer cap pops, and this tells me he’s going all the way with it tonight.

We hear him mumble in an angry slur, “Don’t you never cross me in front a them girls.”

Please oh please God, keep her safe. I will clean my room every day, say my prayers even when I’m tired, take good care of Maddy, never ever tell another lie….

“Don’t you got nothin to say, like sorry or somethin?”

But our mother refuses to cave. “So very sorry, should have agreed with you about the pathetic tadpoles.”

More silence, then a chair screams across the floor. He’s up, and she’s probably hiding in front of the soaking dishes. Water sounds like it’s splashing everywhere. Our mother is coughing. No, choking. Can a person drown in a sink full of dishes? Another crash, another plate. This time louder than the first.

The back door slams hard and he goes stumbling into the night. It is the most wonderful sound I have heard.

***

Our house is never still, even in the darkest hours of the night. The wood floors crackle and groan, and shrill whispers of cold air sneak through all of the windows.

He’s home now, calmed back down. The creak, creak grows louder. He’s walking towards our room. Maddy is safely asleep, as it should be. But I’m fully awake and expecting him. He kisses my forehead, grabs my hand and guides me out of my bed. “Let’s go watch some TV together.”

We walk to the living room, his arm around me in a soft, tender embrace. He gently pulls me down onto the same couch where I watched The Simpsons just hours earlier with Maddy. My eyes close instantly and I drift far, far away until I’m totally invisible.

Afterward, our father rewards me with what he calls my “princess potion.” He ever so quietly reaches into our mother’s ‘company’ china cabinet and pulls out two delicate, hand-painted cups. He fills mine with steaming hot chocolate and splashes some whiskey in his. When we are finished, he carefully cleans the cups and returns them to the cabinet, taking care to set them back in the exact same place. He takes my hand, leads me away from the kitchen table and whispers, “Remember Gracie, this is just our little secret. Don’t tell Mom we borrowed her special cups. You know how protective she is of the good china.” And of course, I know he’s right.

—–

Linda S. Mills is a health and lifestyle writer for both digital and print media. When she is not researching handy health tips for blogs, magazines and newspapers, she enjoys crafting short stories and personal essays.

—–

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I always knew I would kill my father. My grandmother predicted it, discount over and over again. In eighth grade I traced dark shadows of eyeliner beneath my lashes then applied cobalt blue mascara.

“You look like a puttana, viagra ” Nonna accused. “Jewel, unhealthy you are a little girl, not a puttana; you will kill your father.”

Multiple piercings came next. I punctured the cartilage to the top of my left ear with six shiny gold studs. I turned them gently each day and swabbed them with alcohol, then hid them beneath my long blond hair. When the swelling and redness disappeared, I replaced the gold studs with safety pins, hanging skulls and crucifixes hung upside down. I shaved the left side of my head.

“Diavolo!” Nonna crossed herself. “You look like a lopsided gypsy. This will kill your poor father and make God very, very sad.”

I figured she was right. It would make God sad if I killed my father. Then God would have to deal with him in line at the pearly gates. My father would be smoking, making all the new spirits wave their hands and cough. Oblivious to their steely looks, he’d blow smoke rings and lean forward towards a young woman spirit. “Come here often?” He’d laugh at his own joke and elbow the guy next to him until he remembered what was really important. “Hey buddy,” he’d ask the guy arriving at the end of the line, “what’s the score of the Pat’s game? I’m dying to know.”

That’s my father, a self-centered pain in the ass, even in line at the pearly gates. He never noticed my makeup, and the piercings and shaved head didn’t kill him. He just climbed into the blue Ford pickup and headed for a golf tournament.

Nonna stood in the door shouting after him. “I think you need a new pair of glasses!”

Dad didn’t notice my 3.98 grade point average either, or the cigarettes missing from his pack of Marlboros.

In eleventh grade when my GPA dropped to a D-minus, my father seemed more interested in my English teacher, Mrs. Salter, than my grades. He asked her out and Nonna blamed me.

“Your father is a handsome man. He will dry up, going with that thin-haired prune who lets moths eat her sweaters. Why can’t you be a good girl and stop killing your father?”

Dad dated Mrs. Salter until the beginning of the summer; I got a B in the class.

In July, Joey Paxton and I got arrested. Joey ‘borrowed’ his father’s car without permission and Mr. Paxton called the police. The police released us under our fathers’ supervision.

“Go wait by the truck,” my father directed.

Joey and I walked across the parking lot and leaned on the blue Ford.

“My son wouldn’t steal from his own father,” Mr. Paxton hollered.

“C’mon now Bill, keep your voice down or they’ll take us back inside,” my father soothed.

I watched my father stumble and catch himself. “Shit Joey, my father must be drunk.”

“This is your daughter’s bad influence; I can still press charges,” Mr. Paxton said.

My father led him away from us. We couldn’t hear the conversation, but when my father waved us over, we both had to apologize. Dad wrapped his arm around me and we watched Joey and his father drive away.

“Help me to the car, Jewel.” Dad leaned into me. “You better drive me to the hospital.”

I woke in a hospital bed, Nonna standing above me crying. “Ungrateful, selfish girl; he never should have let you drive. I wash my hands of you.”

“Nonna,” I pleaded, “is Daddy okay?”

“Diavolo,” she spit, and left.

I sat up, trying to remember what happened. Everything was so confusing.

The emergency room doors slid open and I walked Dad into the room screaming, “My father needs help!”

Three nurses ran to us as Dad slid to the floor.

“Is he taking any medication?” one of the nurses asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Find out.”

I ran to the car and found a plastic box in his jacket pocket. It held pills for each day of the week. I pulled open the glove compartment, spilling prescription bottles onto the floor. How could I not know Daddy was sick?

Panicking, I started the car, pulled the gear shift and hit the accelerator. The car lunged forward instead of backwards, crashing into the light pole in front of me. The airbag exploded, knocking me unconscious.

Daddy wasn’t in the car when I had the accident, he must be okay.

I knelt by my father’s bed, holding his hand, crying.

“Your father is brain dead,” the doctor’s voice echoed through my memory. “Heart condition…several strokes…vegetative state. No chance for recovery. Your grandmother has decided to keep him on life support.”

I sat with my father through the night, shadows painting memories on the wall. Thinking about charges dropped by Mr. Paxton and the B from Mrs. Salter; now I could hear his words clearly; words I couldn’t hear when they were spoken.

“Mama, she’s a creative girl, let her express herself. Life is short, and she is beautiful, no matter what.”

I eased the pillow from beneath his head. Standing, I held the pillow with straight arms, and covered his face.

Nonna always said, “You will kill your father.”

—–

J. M. Sirrico earned a Masters’ Degree in Library Science. She works several part-time jobs outside of this field to support her writing habit. Cape Cod Massachusetts is the beautiful place she calls home. Contact her at jsirrico@gmail.com.

—–

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|| Memo To Employees, recipe Dated October 11th, check 2097 ||

To all Doll Industries full-time, cure part-time, and contract employees with offices or workstations presently located at Company Headquarters, The Doll Building, 18 S. Remnant Street, Downtown, City 32.

Effective Monday October 18th, we are closing floors Ground through 5 of the building in favor of the facilities at 227 Claremont Bridge Boulevard, located less than 1 kilometer east of the current headquarters.  Transportation of your materials will be arranged.  All other elements of 227 will be made to match your requirements by the time of your arrival.  If you have any questions about this decision by senior management, please contact your shift supervisor.
Every Sunday, site Fiction365 presents a new chapter of a previously unpublished novel.

City of Human Remains, cialis by Darren Callahan, ampoule 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 55 can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Hektor

Hektor fights the urge to throw up.  The thought of throwing up and then rolling around in it is almost as frightening as what might be happening.  The driver’s not concerned with traffic laws or the angles of the road.  The glide hiccups and jumps roughly, healing wildly, and and Hektor’s body – inside and out – feels more and more fragile with each turn.

Hektor’s physical state is actually the worst he can ever remember.  Worse than his first lonely illness in the orphanage – the virus that wrecked his stomach and his senses for 3 days straight.  This night, viagra pain stings him everywhere, spreading from his black eye to the cuts and bruises from the 3-glide crash.  His arm is sore from dragging the dwarf.  The trunk’s unfastened tire iron welts his head and he struggles to push it far backwards so it won’t continue to roll.  The smell of the enclosure is leathery and strong, mixed with grease and exhaust, causing a vile headache.

And it is dark.  Black as black.

Had he thought faster, Hektor may have been able to get away.  He could have run from the man, gone into a fit or struggled out of his icy hands.  But he didn’t do either.  Instead, he allowed himself to be picked up and dropped into an open trunk without so much as a ‘no’ or ‘stop’ or a cry for help.

Come and rescue me, Jose, he prays.  I’m here.  In some man’s trunk.  I know you don’t know what color this glide is, what street I’m on, what block, who’s driving, but I’m here.

He estimates 20 minutes have passed since his abduction.  If he’s off on the time, it is not by much.  He is counting Mississippis.  If he knows the time, maybe sense lefts and rights, then he might be able to find his way back.  Might.

A hero like Batman would do the same, wouldn’t he?

He would give his left arm for any of Batman’s devices right now.  Reaching into his coat pocket, he comes up with only a candy bar, smashed flat to the wrappers.

Help me, Jose, he prays again.

The glide slams to a stop.  The driver’s side goes lighter and the door creaks.  The trunk comes open and it’s the man above him.  The streetlight behind makes him a silhouette and partially blinds the boy.

Don’t make a sound or I’ll kill you.

When he leans in to toward Hektor, more of the man is visible in the light: wrinkled suit and flown-open collar, hair pushed back flat and matted with something dark, dead eyes, no kindness inside.  He clutches a bent kitchen knife.  He snags Hektor by the coat and muscles him out of the glide’s trunk.

Hektor checks his surroundings – a wet lot beside a looming cathedral.  No one in sight, all lights off.  Testing, Hektor puts a foot ahead of the bumper and finds the knife’s pressed cleanly to his neck.  Cold.  It hurts.  He shivers.  The blade scratches on his skin.

You say or do anything and I’ll cut your head off.

He tugs the boy up the steps toward the rear door of the rectory.  The box beside the door has a buzzer and keypad.  The man pushes the white dimple and, far off, Hektor hears a whirring sound from inside the rectory.  Impatient, the man taps his finger box’s frame.  Come on, come on.  He pushes a second a third a fourth a fifth time until a voice comes through the box.

It’s very early, says a polite but irritated man through the mechanism.

I have to speak with the priest.

Is this an emergency?

Yes.

What’s the matter regarding?

The man hesitates then says, Emig Emberlan.

The box is mysteriously quiet for a few seconds.  Who is this?

Your friend from O’Malley’s Pub, Father Tesque… I recognize your voice.

The box light flickers.  A disconnect.

The man reaches out for the buzzer again, angrier than ever, and Hektor feels the pressure on his artery with the shift of the knife.  But before the man can ring again, the door opens.

He’s there – old and plain and wearing black silk pajamas.  Ted— he starts, but cuts off when he sees the boy.

The driver bursts through the crack in the oak door, dragging his kidnapped boy into the rectory’s high-ceilinged foyer.  He scans up and down, as if the place may be infested with rats on the attack.

The priest shakes with the cold morning wind and shuts the door, but that doesn’t stop his hysterics – he’s frightened, disorientated, knowing he’s made a mistake.  The boy, he begs, don’t—

Shut up.  Get your shoes on.

What?  I—

You’re taking me to Emberlan.

The boy, please…get that knife away from the boy and I’ll speak with you reasonably, please.

The man lifts the knife from Hektor’s neck and jabs it, nicking Hektor’s ear – not deeply, but painfully.  Blood ruptures from the ear and splatters Hektor’s shirt and brown coat.

The man puts his knife out to the priest.  His voice is a bottled scream.  You know what you did to me!  You gave them my name.  My NAME!  You know what they had me do?  And when I did it, they gave me their evidence.  They gave me what they had against me.  IT WAS A DRAFT OF YOUR SERMON!  It mentioned my first name and that I was a city trustee and that business I told you about the policeman – all the things we spoke about at O’Malley’s.  And because of your sermon they knew everything.  They thanked me for my help.  They knew everything.  Because of you, Father.  They made me do these things.

Please, I didn’t know, I didn’t know.

Emig Emberlan.  You take me to him.  I need to find him.  I’ve done something even worse, Father.  Even worse than the policeman and it’s your fault!

No, I, it’s…there’s no way I ca—

You KNOW where he IS!

From the rectory’s stairs comes a woman’s voice:

Father Tesque…is everything all right?

No one moves or speaks.

Father?

Answer her, mouths the intruder as he sweeps Hektor even tighter.

It’s Mrs. Whitehall, fumbles the priest to the disembodied voice on the stairs, as if that name explained everything.

Oh.  Okay, Father.  Good night, then.

Footsteps pound overhead to nothing.

You tell me where I can find Emberlan, or this kid loses a finger and you have to watch it.

Shaking, Hektor attempts to touch his bleeding ear.  But it’s too tender.  He doesn’t want to cry.  He wants instead to stomp the man’s foot, pummel him, beat him unmercifully, tie him in Bat-ropes and drape him over a chemical vat.  Bravely, the boy dabs his ear; a small triangle is cut from the outside rim.  It will scar and never heal.  And he thinks about all the things he’s lost– his parents, his home, his clothes, Matty Ximon and her sister Nary, Jose, the engineer, and now a part of his precious ear.  The fear of death changes him – not into a hero, but into a darker knight who wants to take the weapon from the man’s hand and thrust it into the man’s guts.

Don’t, don’t, says the priest.  Don’t hurt the boy.  I’ll…I’ll take you to Emberlan.

Get your shoes on.

They…they’re by the door.

Get them.

Outside, Hektor is at knifepoint until the priest is seated on the glide’s passenger side, where the old man waits feebly with his hands folded limply in his lap.  He shivers in his silk pajamas.  The driver pops the trunk with a button his key.  Hektor nearly crumbles with dread.  This time, he’s allowed to get his own self into the trunk, but, to Hektor, it’s almost worse than being thrown inside unwillingly.  Again, he cannot resist, the knife so close to his eyes with no Jose to rescue him.

The trunk slams with a funereal thud.

He waits.  He counts.

The driver-side door opens and the vehicle bounces.  He hears the door again.  Muted conversation leaks through to the trunk from the glide’s interior.  Fighting the start of the glide and the pull as the vehicle jumps forward, Hektor puts his cheek to the seam and listens.

You’re right, says the priest.  I knew of all the transgressions from confessions from my congregation.  I knew Emig Emberlan and I told him their names, if I knew them.  Or descriptions.

You gave me up after O’Malley’s.

I never gave that homily.

No, but you wrote it down and gave me away.  The driver’s voice drips with hate.  You told Emig Emberlan I killed someone and enough other bits to find me.

Yes, the priest confirms, great hesitation in his tone.  But I thought Emig was going to help.  I didn’t know they would make you do things… I swear I didn’t.  Though I doubt this comforts you.  Emig told me if I tell him the names, he would go to the police with evidence.  He said he used to be a detective.  He just needed all the details I had and he would build a case against anyone I gave up to him.  Over the course of a few months, I gave him 9 names.  People of all sorts who usually did nothing wrong…but then each one of them had a transgression.  Then the children began disappearing…and I have wondered what God has allowed me to do…

Not another word is spoken for many minutes.

Hektor dissects what he’s heard a dozen different ways.

You told them I killed someone.

This haunts him most of all.

I killed someone.

He’s at the mercy of a murderer.

Turns, turns, turns and the sickness floods back strong.  He’s not used to motion – not even very used to glides.  His time with the Doll engineer had been short, and the Q-glide had a different center of gravity.  Moving from repair to repair, he only felt a slight tug on the stomach.  Now it was a full riot.

Hektor combs the trunk in the hope of finding something to help him break out.  Under a leg, he touches the insistent tire iron.  Adjusting his position, he’s able to free it from beneath his body.  He could thrust it straight up and break the trunk latch.

I killed someone.

The glide is moving, and moving fast.  He’s as likely to fall out into traffic and be run over, or spill off a secondary or tertiary road.  There’s no way for him to tell which level he’s on, or how close to the barricades, or what else is happening outside the vehicle.

Just as he’s about to break the trunk lock, the glide begins to slow down.

Hektor readies the tire iron.

Better to break out at a stop, he thinks.

But the glide tumbles forward again.

Hektor can’t wait any longer.  He comes up hard with the tire iron.  The noise is tremendous, much louder than anticipated.  But the trunk doesn’t come open.  He reaches up and touches the dent he’s made.  He hits it again, and again.   Sweat and exhaust and hot, stale breath cloud the tiny space.  Using all his strength, Hektor comes up a fourth time and connects with the inner lock.  The trunk springs open.

His eyes are flooded with streetlights.  Flying past above him, he sees heavy beams holding a concrete ceiling stuffed with fluorescents, passing – zip-zip-zip – with the crossing movement of the glide.

He sits upright as the wheels jerk.  He flops and swings with the swerve of the glide.

I’m on a boulevard.

The streets are deserted and still.

The Financial District, pre-dawn Saturday.

The glide halts in the middle of the boulevard.  Hektor is thrown deep into the trunk.  His head slams into the open hatch and nearly blacks out.  Quickly, he shakes off the dizziness.  Sensing his last chance, Hektor fumbles out of the glide and onto the boulevard.  The tire iron slips from his fingers and clanks underneath the rear wheels.  He lands on his elbows and is injected with a painful vibration of bones.

The killer stands above him.

Hektor ramps out of his reach, towards the passenger side.  He collides with the priest’s door as it opens and the priest’s leg drops out.

A Q-glide on the boulevard zooms past the scene, not stopping, not helping, not noticing.

Tesque holds Hektor’s shoulders.

Hektor hears the scrape of the tire iron snatched from the pavement.  He turns as the driver’s arcing hand swings the iron.  The pointed tip rips the side of the priest’s head.  Tesque falls back a few paces, hands up – too late – before stepping on Hektor and tripping.  The priest and boy collapse together in a heap.

Get back inside! the man orders.

Hektor sums his kidnapper’s face.  The man is covered in flop-sweat, but retains the focus of a machine.  His tweed suit, torn in 3 places, carries the illusion of respectability.  But respectable he is not.  Hektor notes the dried bloodstains on the cuffs of the man’s trousers, right at his sightline.  The killer raises the tire iron above them both.

The priest clambers to his feet.  He uses the running boards for balance.  Hektor wants to run down the boulevard, to the alleys beside, between parking posts, towards the approaching lights of another early morning commuter DL Prix, get lost entirely, but the priest has a solid grip on his coat and doesn’t let go.  The priest drives Hektor into the rear seat of the glide.  We must do what he says, the priest emphasizes.

The driver slams and locks the door once his victims are locked inside.  He rounds the glide, slams the trunk, sees it come open, slams it again, sees it come open, breaks off the lock with the tire iron and slams it a last time, and it stays.  He jumps behind the wheel and revs into Drive.

Where did you get this boy? asks the priest as they  propel forward onto the boulevard.

No answer.

Ted… calls the priest, with a knot in his throat that Hektor cannot help but notice.  The name has fear in it.  Ted? he repeats, thinking he’s not been heard.

Don’t say my name.

Who’s the boy?

NONE OF YOUR FUCKING BUSINESS!

The priest shrinks, looks smaller to Hektor than before, like a puppy, kicked aside.  Tesque squeezes Hektor’s hand tight to reassure, but Hektor feels anything but reassurance.  .

Are we close? asks the driver.

Turn left.

They go left, right, left.  Another boulevard.  A narrow street.  A traffic circle.  The buildings grow shorter and smaller.  They pilot to the end of the district.  Hektor reads the signs.  He slips the notepad and pencil from his pocket and hastily writes them down.  A few names he recognizes from stories in the flash editions – streets known for money – and recalls Mr. Ducklaw’s teachings in the orphanage, his rants against spendthrifts and his terse explanations of economics.  They are entering the epicenter of City 32’s financial power.

Here, says the priest with a clicked finger, then again, Here.

This building is shorter than some, taller than others, a sliver of steel baring few windows to the outside.  The building’s front plaza has short trees lined around what appears to be enormous bowls of white milk.  A green path connects the street to the clear revolving doors of the entrance.  It is here that Hektor notices the sign.

DOLL INDUSTRIES.

This is the Doll Building? Hektor asks in a confused voice, starling the adults.

But he doesn’t get an answer.

Look, says the priest.  Who are these people?

Two-dozen cling to the Doll entrance like mayflies.  Each stands in the 5 AM cold, wrapped in heavy cloaking jackets and huddled against the glass.  When the bumperless glide comes into view, the crowd rotates with slow-moving exactness and tracks the beams of the headlamps.

Go down the ramp, instructs the priest.

Directly next to the building the pavement dips wide enough for delivery-glides.  Behind the dip is the entrance to the underground garage.  The glide nicks against the curb then steers away.  Iron fencing surrounds a call box at the top of the ramp.  Contrasting the neo-futurist architecture of the 41-story building, this part is utilitarian, imposing, and probably electrified.

Get down, Ted orders.  The driver adjusts the aim of the glide and sets the course to the flattened bit of pavement.  He’s no more than touched the curb when the crowd is on them, clinging to the side of the DL Prix.  Don’t say a word.

The driver gestures – probably with the knife – but Hektor can’t spot the weapon as it is below the connecting seat.  He can, however, still feel the piercing hurt in his wounded ear and dab the crimson dots on the collar of his gray shirt.

The priest squeezes Hektor even tighter and gives a cautionary shake to the boy.  Let’s do what he says and maybe we’ll live, communicates the gesture.

Go to the call box, Father Tesque whispers between the seats.  You’ll have to roll down your window so they can hear you.

The glide stops at the dropped gate, nearly touching the black speaker box hung at driver level.  A button is pushed and the window slips down.  A shot of brisk pre-dawn air floods inside the cabin.

Immediately, several images are thrust into the driver’s face and he tries to wave them away.  Hands clutch headshots of boys and girls and block the speaker box.  Please, says a man.  You must, says a woman.  Take it, says a mother.  I’ve got money, says a father.  This is my daughter.  This is my son.  Brendan.  Marguerite.  Val.  Gabby.  Her name’s Gabby Koof.  I’m a police officer, a young, bearded father keeps insisting.

The driver bristles and tries to brush the blue-coated man away from the window so he can reach out to the box.

She was 1 of the last 6, Officer Koof explains as he muscles the other parents away.  Please, are you going inside the Doll Building?  Are you?  We’ve been waiting for Doll.  He’s the most powerful man in 32.  More than the mayor.  He’s got money.  If you could just show him this picture, ask him, ask him to see if he can help us—

Fuck off, the driver says without emotion as he reaches through the arm of the bearded policeman and is finally able to punch the call button.

Faces are pressed against the glide, peering inside at the boy and at the priest.  Hektor stays frozen.  He can’t speak.  He wants to shout, but cannot find the words in his throat.  The priest ratchets Hektor’s hand so tightly that the blood runs out and the hand turns white.

PLEASE!  The father of Gabby Koof shoves the image of his daughter at the driver.  It slips from his fingers and into the driver’s lap.  Ted brushes it away as if it is an annoying insect and the image lands cock-eyed.  From between the seats, Hektor sees the face of the awkward young girl.  Plain, unadorned, average.  But smiling.  Hektor cranes forward to better see.

There is a buzz from the call box.

Ted says cleanly: Emig Emberlan.  After a second, he assumes he’s not been heard over the clamor of the pestering parents, so he repeats the name.  Emig Emberlan.  A third time, then: GET THE FUCK AWAY! he shouts at the crowd in a loud, irritated carve through their ranks.  His hand goes beneath the seat, to the knife, but then must think better of violence.  Instead, he reaches down and finds the image of the girl.  He tears up the picture and litters the pieces outside on the shoes of the girl’s father.  The driver flicks angrily at the glide switch and the window rolls up, nearly cutting the fingers of 3 hands – the police officer, a woman, another man.

The gate is opening.

Lights spin blue to white on the top of the iron fence.  A siren sounds, accompanying the whirr of gears and friction.

A booming voice comes over an unseen broadcaster.  Hektor hears the detonation of authority from inside the glide.  STAY CLEAR OF THE GATE OR YOU WILL BE ARRESTED.  The mayflies have no choice but to watch their latest hope vanish and the glide, and the glide alone, is allowed past the gates and down into the parking garage of the Doll Building.

Hektor watches the faces of those they leave behind.  Like zombies, the crowd waits, disenchanted, at the top of the ramp, and in just a few seconds they are completely out of sight.

The vehicle takes the first turn down the tunnel to the garage floor.

Ashamed, the priest cannot even look at Hektor.

Where are you, Jose?  I need help.  I can’t do this alone and this priest is no good.  Hektor sends his message with all the powers he can muster, getting no detectable response except a smug laugh, No one is coming for you, Batman.  Not even RobinNo one even knows you exist.  The glide strikes a speed bump and Hektor bounces on the seat.  As his eyes search the empty floors of the underground garage with poles and lined spaces whizzing by like a carnival ride, he wonders, Am I getting closer, or am I just going further and further away…
Every Sunday, sickness
Fiction365 presents a new chapter of a previously unpublished novel.

City of Human Remains, see by Darren Callahan, cure 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 56 can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Mizuro

TAKE A TURN TO THE LEFT.

THAT’S IT.

NOW RIGHT.

SEE THE ELEVATOR?  TAKE THE ARROW UP.

Mizuro’s voice sounds shrunken through the quarter-sized audio broadcaster embedded in the communications panel.  But he is certain it is thunderous on the floors below.  He considers his voice to be God, online rupturing ears.  Despite his omnipresent directions, illness it still takes his gatecrashers 5 minutes to reach the ground floor from the parking garage.  Slow, viagra he thinks.  These ones are very slow.  The escalator to the concourse is a 4-stage – turn, turn, turn, turn – and his voice guides the 3 up from the underground garage and onto the bridge at the building’s center.

PRESS 39, he instructs.  I’ll ALLOW YOU TO BY-PASS THE LOBBY.

The exposed elevator gracefully slides along the side of the Doll Building and, once it clears of the shorter low-rises on either side, there is a clear view of City 32’s early movements.  The sky is cloudy, but the light breaks with the dawn.  When this is over, Mizuro plans to visit the sunrise platform on the top floor.  He needs air.  He hopes this is quick.

The boy smushes his face to the glass as the world drops away below.  His expression is that of a sailor out to sea, who knows he won’t see land again for a long, long time.  From the angle of the image, Mizuro notes the trembling hands.  He is so very quiet, not at all resisting or questioning, or weeping (which is what Mizuro expects from a boy of his age.)  It’s possible, he supposes, that the kid has been drugged.  But his eyes don’t look it.  He is as alert and awake as the adults, maybe even more.  Mizuro can’t take his eyes from him.  The boy watches the city – its weather poles, skyscrapers, trees, humans, all becoming nothing more than models on a hobby table.

At 39, the elevator stops.

HERE WE ARE, GENTLEMEN.

The three guests step out to an empty corridor.  The carpet is trim and gray and the walls a shade of welcoming yellow, with leading black lines going off into the perspective.  The three pick a direction – the correct one, so Mizuro doesn’t need to adjust their course.

KEEP GOING.  YOU’RE ALMOST THERE.

Ted Appleton takes the shoulder of the boy’s coat.  He wants someone out front in case of traps.  Even the priest places himself behind the boy.  This gets a simple touché from Mizuro.

THIRD DOOR.

Unnumbered with a bulbous, silver knob.

COME INSIDE.

Appleton grasps the knob.  He twists and pushes forward.  The doorframe scrapes the thick carpet and the smell of fresh paint twists their noses.

The boy is first inside, first to glimpse Mizuro seated behind a wide and clear desk.

Mizuro lifts his fingers from the communications panel inset to his left.  In the otherwise sparse and clean room, the battery of electronics is distracting. He knocks the gooseneck audio clip away from his mouth and back to wall.

Welcome! Mizuro greets his guests with good nature.  Robbed of the audio’s grand effects, his voice is not nearly as authoritative.  Please close the door behind you.

When Ted Appleton passes through, the recognition is immediate.  Appleton maneuvers his knife up near his beltline.  I’m armed, says the gesture, don’t come near me unless you want what’s coming to you.  The killer suspiciously appraises Mizuro’s white vest and neat presence.

The priest’s expression is altogether harder to categorize:  a blend of panic, embarrassment, fear, and disappointment.

And then there is a boy, with dirty hair and clothes, a black eye, bumps, bruises, and cuts, looking like he’s spent the night in the trash bin.  His ear has been sliced clean at the tip and brown bloodstains speckle his face and clothes.

Father Tesque shuts the door and gives an audible gulp.

Mizuro, in his yellow high-backed leather chair, leans forward and lets the cuffs of his white, tightly buttoned dress shirt slip out of his two-piece coal Italian suit.

Emig Emberlan, confirms Ted with a deathly glare.

Name’s actually Sidney Mizuro, he tells them.

You told me Emberlan was real.

Oh, the name’s real, he smiles.  It’s just not mine.  Pause.  Emig Emberlan died in a fall from a Zigon maze and broke his neck at the age of 7.

Father Tesque shakes his head.  I’ve never heard of Emig Emberlan before you used the name.  Which park?

Ninth and Electra.

Ted tightens on the knife – Mizuro has clear sight of it.  There’s no Zigon Park at that address, he says.

Not anymore, Mizuro sighs.  After the accident, the park was closed.  Tomas Zigon insisted.  Then it was leveled.  It’s now a garden.  If you look closely, there’s a dedication plaque with Emig Emberlan’s name on it.  Sidney Mizuro cocks his head.  Do you gentlemen know how many parks there are in the city, if you counted poor Emig’s ghost park?

Silence.

Mizuro notices the boy’s gears turning.

Come on.  What’s a popular number nowadays?

The child blurts, That’s it!

Ted and the priest turn.

Go ahead, encourages Mizuro from his chair.

81.  Aren’t there?  81.

Appleton and the priest look down at the boy, then up at Mizuro.

Mizuro is pleased.  He winks at Ted.  Who’s the bright one?  He knows a number the whole city has been too dense to figure out.  It’s our signature and yet it seems to be illegible.  Except to you— Mizuro points to the boy.

I took him, declares Appleton.  For you.

We’ve got the 81 we need.  No cause for a spare.

Nerves show in the boy’s expression.  The kid is looking for windows or a way out.  But Mizuro’s office is walled on 4 sides.  The only escape is the door, blocked by the priest.  The boy is also scanning for weapons – darting from a ledger on the shelf, to a marble horse with a hard edge hung on the wall, to Mizuro’s half-empty water glass…a framed picture hung on the wall, a potted plant, the leg of a chair.  He thinks like a scrapper, suspects Mizuro, and wonders if this conversation would be better without the stray.  He wants no wildcards.

Appleton’s face reddens.  I brought you the boy.  Now take him.  He’s my gift to you.  Take him.

Mizuro rubs his hands clean.  Really, I don’t want him.  In fact, you shouldn’t even be here, Ted.  It was a big fucking mistake to come and find me.  All the recruits from Tesque ended up in the river because they were risky.  I thought you’d be better than that because you have a life. And you seemed anxious to keep it.  You should have kept to yourself and not caused any more trouble.  Mizuro stubs a pencil into his blotter and shakes his head.  You were in the clear, Ted!  Did you forget we might have parts of a certain policemen in baggies?  Or, better yet, maybe we just left him chopped up in the sewers.  An anonymous tip to the police and you’d be history, Ted.  Mizuro dips his head to Father Tesque.

The priest is visibly nauseous, holding his stomach and turning green.

You’re useless, Ted.  But I appreciate you coming all this way.

Every muscle in Appleton’s face tightens like braids of sinewy rope.  Do you know what I HAVE DONE!  Appleton screams at Mizuro.  DO YOU KNOW?  DO YOU?  DO YOU?  I want to know what happened to the CHILDREN I took.  I want to know!  I want to know everything, everything.  EVERYTHING!  I killed my family!  I killed my daughter and my wife and my daughter and I killed them, I killed them.  Tonight.  To keep all these fucking secrets!  I killed them.  So you owe me.  YOU OWE ME!  Ted stamps his feet, clutches the knife as if it’s the last branch on a cliff he’s fallen over.  I want to see Douglaz Doll.  I want to see him RIGHT NOW.  The trail leads to you.  To this building.  It leads to Douglaz Doll.  GET HIM OR I’M GOING TO BE VERY BIG TROUBLE!

Ted stabs Father Tesque in the arm with the knife.  The priest yelps like a dog.  The knife sticks up to its handle in the skin under the priest’s black pajamas.  Tesque’s hand goes to the puncture and frames it, numb and stunned.

Appleton shoves the boy to the carpet with a pile-driver fist.  Next, he rushes Mizuro, a bull to a bullfighter’s cape.  The distance is only a few meters and Appleton closes it fast.

Mizuro bounces to his feet, both hands out, open arms.

Appleton torpedoes across the desk sweeping his arms, hoping to hit Mizuro with a jagged slash.

Mizuro has the advantage of the angle and hits Ted’s shoulders with the flat of both his palms.

All sound stops.

Objects from the blotter, displaced by Appleton’s diving body, tumble over the sides of the wide desk, contact muffled by the carpet.  The only hum are the soft moans of Father Tesque, who hovers his fingers at the implanted knife’s rubber grip.  An artery’s been struck and blood sprays from the wound and paints the wallpaper behind him in up and down streaks.

Mizuro raises both hands above his head…a preacher addressing his congregation (Tesque would recognize the pose.)  There are two round objects in his hands the size of quarters.  Mizuro stretches mostly for the benefit of Ted Appleton, splayed across the desk on his stomach.  In that moment, Mizuro is a magician, ready to explain the trick.  Mizuro asks the paralyzed man: Recognize these? He doesn’t wait for an answer.  Sleepwalkers.  Just like you used on those three kids yesterday.  Only these are adult doses.  A double shot.  You are mine, Mr. Appleton, for at least 16 minutes…  Without hurry, Mizuro uncorks the Sleepwalkers from his hands and tosses them aside.  They plink on the desk, spent.  Stand up, he orders.

Appleton – face twisted – raises his body.

Put your hands on the desk.

Ted obeys unconditionally.

Tesque and the boy are stunned.

From his middle drawer, Mizuro withdraws a pair of scissors, long and tingling in the track lights of the office.  He opens the blades with a stretch of the fingers.  The hinge squeaks.  A wink in his eye, Mizuro slips the points under Appleton’s pinky finger and closes the gap until the skin is barely pinched.  His victim’s face remains unchanged.  Ted Appleton does not move or scream or beg for mercy.  He makes no attempts to keep his hand intact.

Don’t.

Mizuro looks up, unsure if the voice was the bleeding priest, or the boy.

Don’t.

The boy.

Sorry, sniffs Mizuro.  I’ll do what I want to him.  He’d do the same to you.  We recruit only the worst and then ditch ‘em afterwards.  Company policy.  And I doubt he’d give you any breaks, kid.

Don’t.

The word is unadorned.  Not even a plea.  But it carries more authority than Mizuro expects from someone so young.

Mizuro removes the scissors from Appleton’s pinkie finger.  Then he lifts the scissors to Appleton’s eyeball – leaving the fulcrum open and point nearly touching one black iris of Appleton’s unblinking stare.  See no evil, jokes Mizuro.  His words drift to Appleton in icy cold fragments.  Let me tell you something, Ted…the only one of our recruits that gave us the slip was Alek Serkan.  He took six of our prospects with him.  Threw off our numbers so we had someone pick up the slack.  That Serkan was a scary little nut-job.  Just like you…  Killing your family?  That’s so fucking stupid.  I should have strangled you yesterday.  I bet you left your house full of blood and body parts and clues for them to find you.  I’d say you’re even dumber than Alek Serkan, and he was dumb.  You know what Serkan did to those children?  Cut ‘em up just to spite us.  And then the city did the same to him.  He got so scared that we’d find him before the police that he never even went home, found himself another place to squat.  Sicko.  And I know sickos!  You’re a goddamn amateur.

There is a slow hiss from the back of the room.  Father Tesque slides to the floor, his arm coated with sputtering blood – his lids in rapid blinks.  He is white in the face and twitching.

Pause.

Ted.  Do you want to know where those three children from yesterday are?  Nod, if you do.

Appleton nods.

Do you want them for yourself?  Nod, if you do.

Appleton nods, almost into the point of the scissors.  The beginnings of a tear can just be seen in the frame of Appleton’s socket.

Well, Ted.  These children are not yours to play with.  They’re here on business.

Mizuro drops the point of the scissors away from Appleton’s eye.  He slowly lowers them onto the desk, narrowly missing Appleton’s hands in pendulum swing.  Mizuro stabs the scissors into the wood of his oak desk.  He lets go of the scissors and they stick in the dents.  He faces one blade upright, the other hangs for balance in the wood.

Hell, Ted.  Why should I do all the work!  I think it’s better if you put these scissors in your own goddamn eyeball.  Mizuro, ritualistically, uncouples his fingers from the handle of the scissors – thumb…index…middle, ring, then pinkie.

At the lift of his pinkie, Mizuro notices something.

His office door stands open just a crack.

The boy.  He’s gone.
There was a time when I had a home. It was beautiful, viagra tranquil. But then the Broth erupted from the earth and every tribe coveted it. The flames of civil war ravaged our people; its fumes intoxicated our souls.

Five more warriors have fallen. The Alliance starship is coming.”

Shoko stood in the darkness before the messaging station, this
his head bowed low.

Many fled to the forests in terror the day the Alliance descended over our village. The Envoys were awkward creatures, moving clumsily on articulated limbs, gesturing with their short, hinged appendages. They did not move with the graceful flow of my people. How their race had conquered Space, I would never know. They entered Shoko’s hut, and I followed.

“This ridiculous war is proving much more dangerous than you imagine,” the Captain of the Envoys hissed. “The Abaddon have discovered you are at battle and are coming to harvest the planet of all Broth. Let the Alliance help you. Let us put an end to this war. Together we will activate a shield to protect your people, your planet.”

But Shoko rippled. “We cannot halt what has already begun.”

“You are battling over a resource you may share!”

Shoko lifted his gaze. “They have no right to extract Broth from our territory.”

“Don’t you see that’s mad?” the Captain yelled. “The Abaddon battleship is coming! They have reaped every planet they come across! Destroyed every civilization! Let us help you!” She pounded her brittle fist against Shoko’s wooden table. “The invasion is coming! They have sensed the stench of war and are preparing to plunder your remains. In a matter of months they will be upon your threshold! You must do something to protect your people!”

Shoko’s lithe skin rippled. “We shall pray to the Spirits and they will protect us.” He stood and left the hall.

The Envoys jumped to their feet, their giant heads swaying, their articulations popping and creaking, their movements mechanical, unsupple.

“There are no Spirits!” the Captain cried out. ”Your war will be your death!”

It was condemnable blasphemy, I know; I was watching it all unfurl from between the shadows. The Envoys then spoke to each other in their native tongue. I listened for a few moments, trying to guess what they could be saying, and slipped out.

That discussion had taken place many turns of the globe ago, and since their arrival the Envoys insisted on staying. They installed their spacefaring metal home on the outskirts of our village and often came and spoke to us. Nobody wished to follow their commands, for our fear of Shoko and the Spirits was much greater. Weeks passed, and the war thinned out our numbers.

The Abaddon were approaching.

Nuv the Servant was in the communion hut, whispering to Shoko. As I chose a seat, the hut began to fill with my fellow villagers. The ceremony would begin at the first crimson light of dusk.

Nuv lowered the carved idols from their perches and carefully handed them to our Leader. He polished each with tender grass shoots until they were cleansed. Then we passed our Spirits from one villager to the next until they had all been caressed by every one of my people. The icons were returned to their stands, now coated in the oils and scents of my tribe.

Silence hovered over us. Only the intermittent hum of Nuv the Servant accompanied our meditation. Soon, we flowed out of ourselves and into one common entity. An entire village, sharing the same thoughts, the same devotion.

Except me.

I could only think of the Captain’s words, all those turns ago.

Your war will be your death.

The Abaddon battlecruiser was hours away.

The Spirits were delaying their response.

Xenocide.

With growing dismay, I could feel my faith retreat. My body rippled. I tried to control my fear, but my concentration had already been broken. Slowly, silently, I crawled out of the hall and abandoned my people.

I found the Envoys in the field near the village, preparing to leave.

“An emissary!” one of them shouted upon seeing me approach.

“No,” I answered. “I am alone. The village is praying to the Spirits, but the Spirits will not respond. They have never responded.”

I could not decipher their expressions, although I could feel tension linger in the warm evening air. The Alliance vessel reflected the vermilion gleam of the evening sky.

“There isn’t enough time to shield you. Your Leader would not end the war… and now the Abaddon are upon you. We only have a few hours. We must evacuate. Will your people come with us?”

“They are praying for a godsend.”

“We are the godsend!”

Silence. The sky darkened.

“I know. I will go with you.”

The ascent into space was terrifying, but worse was the image of the Stygian Abaddon ship looming over my small, humble green planet. The Envoys insisted I did not watch, they tried to pull me away from their many screens, but I stayed. I needed to share the last breaths of my home. The battleship grazed the atmosphere and a single white beam emerged from its bottom. It traveled down to the planet’s surface, made contact and spread in a terrifying wave to envelop the entire sphere.

At that moment the Alliance ship came alive with millions of overlapping shrieks. I could identify the dismayed cries of the evening pearl finches, the bellows of the ember boars and the sighing of the forests as they bowed to their demise. I heard the cries of my people, the cries of my village, my friends.

The Captain spoke sharply over the cacophony and an Envoy touched a button on the wall which made the noise vanish. They all turned to me. We gazed at each other in silence.

It was the silence of death, the quiet that accompanied missed opportunities. What could have been and was not.

It was the silence of my people.

—–

Nadine Ducca Deharbe is a translator and English teacher. She has published various short stories and is now working on her first science fiction novel, Making Time. Although she has just come back from a month-long vacation, she still thinks it wasn’t long enough.

—–

To comment on this story, visit Fiction365?s Facebook page.
“Mama?”

The word echoed in the apartment. It came from Lilly, cheap standing at the open front door. The wide foyer acted as a megaphone, buy the call rolling past the kitchenette on the left, through the living room, then faded faintly into the three bedrooms at the rear. Lilly waited until her word died completely before shutting the front door behind her, glancing at the half-filled bags of groceries just inside the entrance that sat slumped against the wall. Canned carrots, cartons of milk, a melon, some pasta in packages.

“Mama?”

Usually her mama called back when Lilly got home from school and her sixth grade class.

Lilly pushed aside some food with her shoe-tip, sliding it up against the wall. Her mother was diabetic and obese and the larger she grew the less she moved. “Lilly,” she would say to her daughter. “Be a darling. Here’s a list. The money’s in my handbag.” Lilly would go shopping at the local stores and return with bags of groceries, which she left inside the front door. “That’s right,” her mother would encourage. “Just leave them there. Don’t tire yourself out. Such a good girl.” Lilly would then join her mother, who would be spread across a wide sofa in the living room. Her mama would list pains, imagining she was being comforting, “I can’t walk so much any more. My feet hurt. My knees. And it’s not good for my heart. It just knocks about inside my chest. Hurts me. Come here, cuddle. Make it better.” And they would watch the late afternoon television shows into the evening, until: “What shall we eat? What would you like? How about…go look, see what we have.”

Foraging like a cat in an alley, Lilly would kneel before the grocery bags in the hallway and pick things out and call into the living room. “Peas?”

“No!” her mother would shout.

“Eggs, tomato sauce, bacon, some green stuff —”

“The first thing…”

“Bacon?”

“Yes, that. And the eggs.”

And so their eating and living comfortably like this continued, Lilly getting chubby in mama imitation, sitting on the living room sofa, the uneaten food eventually spoiling in the hallway, the renewed shopping, the yelling out of partial potential diets, over the days and the weeks, for four years.

Coming home today, a day that seemed like any other, Lilly once more called out for her “Mama!” but more puzzled now. She bent to pick some food items to feel some objects in her hands, moving towards the living room with her offerings. Passing the kitchen, she glanced in the doorway, and came to a halt, a can in one hand, a bag of swaying pasta in the other. She stared at her unmoving mother spread in all her immensity across the kitchen linoleum. Lilly’s voice, much diminished, came out with the same question she now knew the answer to: “Mama…?”

Six days later, when they buried her mother, all sorts of relatives, mostly female, came to comfort her. They stood beside her and held her hand. Some had wet hands, some had dry hands, others had loose hands, the rest had tight hands. Aunts and second cousins and one ancient grandfather. Lilly kept her tearless eyes locked on the coffin at the front of the church while people went one by one to a pulpit at the front to say words about her mama. Another someone holding her hand spoke softly into her ear and Lilly stared straight ahead at the coffin where her mama was, not hearing this person who was not her mama.

“Honey?”

A not-mama.

“Dear?”

Not-mama.

“Maybe she’s in shock.”

“Having found her mother.”

“Like that.”

“So one shouldn’t be surprised. Sweetheart?”

People hefted the coffin and bore it away, and Lilly followed, watching the coffin go into the sunlight, into a long car, and later, into the dark ground.

The female relatives gathered.

“Your mama died of heart failure, do you understand that?”

No response.

“The autopsy said, dear…”

“…and she was so getting so…large…so much so that…and add the diabetes, ate junk food like a…and now look at her daughter—”

“…she can hear, you know.”

A group of faces, many eyes, all attention, bent before her.

“Lilly, want some cake, a drink?”

Some other face looked into her face, and then zoomed up out of view. “This is awful. Like a little zombie.”

“Ruthie, watch your mouth.”

“Watch her not blink.”

“Ruthie.”

“Who’s going to be her guardian? Not the father in Italy, he’s too— She’s just all alone. She’s just—”

“—ah-ha, she blinked!”

A different group of cousins, a collection of regular aunts, great aunts, and a bachelor uncle along with a fading great grandmother in her nineties, some curious relatives in their thirties and forties discussed Lilly’s next whereabouts.

“I can’t take her.”

“I could take her. But depends.”

“On what?”

“The stipend. The funds. Are we going to rent her nine properties? Will I get some share of the revenue while she’s staying at my house?”

Lilly’s father was a Lebanese who immigrated to Italy and ran a Middle Eastern themed restaurant in Milan. He had met Lilly’s mother while she was on holiday in Italy, and after a quick romance and a quicker marriage, followed by a quick child, Lilly’s mother became quickly exhausted and bored working in the restaurant fifteen hours a day and escaped back to Belgium, her homeland, taking Lilly. As Lilly’s mother explained to her, “He was not a bad man, he was a boring man. And I tried to live the life he wanted. But he just worked and worked. Because of his experience, being impoverished. He always told me about sleeping on the floor as a child. When I met him, I thought he was exotic. He just wanted to make good.” Lilly’s father remained in Milan, never considering giving up all he had worked for, dedicated only to prospering and never again sleeping on a floor. He telephoned the Belgian relatives to confirm he could not take her on at this time, have such a young child live with him; he spent eighteen hours a day at work. “It would not be fair. I cannot give her the attention she deserves. I can help with money, if someone could…”

The relatives asked Lilly, “Who do you want to stay with?”

Lilly had been listening to everything, saying nothing, thinking and remembering and not crying.

She spoke, “I want to stay with my mama.”

“That’s not possible.”

“My mama.”

Following much family debate, some recriminations and gossip, various maneuvering and negotiating, a second cousin, divorced with a daughter of her own but with no obvious agenda, accepted Lilly as her ward.

Lilly’s new room was on the top floor of a four-story house underneath the slanting roof. There she recognized some of her things brought from her own home. Her bed. Her own mirror. She looked around, sat down, and waited.

Her new not-mama tried to talk to Lilly about finances and legal procedures without overburdening her.

“Do you want to rent your old apartment?”

“No. That’s my mama’s place.”

“Well, shall we just lock it up for a while?”

“Lock it up.”

While the not-mama tried, Lilly did not. She was taciturn, slow moving, overweight, disregarding. She looked at this strange new world around her, without familiar routine or roots or her real mama.

The not-mama said, “You’re not settling in. Is there anything we can do? That you want to do? Do you want to talk about your mother’s death?”

Lilly always looked down, away, any place but hear words about death.

“Okay. Not yet.” The not-mama sat back. “One day, you’ll come into property and bank accounts you can’t understand right now. But you’re going to have to do better at school than before. I’ve seen your grades, and you can do much better….” Still the child would not look up, uninterested in this new universe of words and concerns and confusing finances. “Okay, we’ll go at your own pace. I’m simply attempting to… No, just…. Just relax.”

After they all went shopping together, her not-sister said, “Want to put things away together?”

Lilly looked from the bags on the floor to the large refrigerator with its doors wide open, to the many shelves inside and observed the two family people put things away. She was handed a container of milk and walked slowly forward and placed it in the fridge door. She backed away.

“Can I go to my room now?”

Lilly spent much of her time in her room where she was habitually found staring into space.

She attended a local school with strangers in it with different accents.

“How was your day at school?”

“Okay.”

“What did you learn?”

“I don’t know.”

Her grades during the first term were failing ones.

Things were explained to her: “In this house,” the not-mama explained, “there are certain rules. You really do have to wash yourself each day. You need to brush your teeth.”

Another week Lilly was told, “You have to wash your hair more than once a month.”

Unsettled in her new place of residence, she was told that rent from different residences and interest from investments were supporting her. She had to attend family meetings, she was told, she needed to attend, where people discussed her health and her well being. She listened for a bit, looking around, then putting her mind elsewhere.

“You shouldn’t stick yourself in your room all day. Come and stay downstairs with us. Become part of the family.”

Lilly looked out the downstairs window and stared. Her not-sister and her not-mother invited her to involve her in things:

“Let’s go bike riding.”

“Let’s go swimming.”

“How about a walk?”

Lilly remained absent, dutifully attending sessions with a school psychologist, talking very little, smiling and embarrassed at the type of questions and professional sympathy, which she did not understand.

In the spring, after months in her unfamiliar life, she came home from school and pretended to do homework to be ready in ten years to be an adult with too much money and not enough acumen. More and more, she remained downstairs, positioned near the wide windows looking onto the street. Sometimes cars passed, sometimes people passed, mostly time passed.

Her not-sister saw her staring intently, unmoving, much like a cat preparing to strike.

“What? Is there something?”

“There’s a woman.”

“Where?” She came beside Lilly to look out the window with her.

“The one with plastic bags. On the corner. Over there.”

“Her?”

“She was there yesterday, too.”

The not-sister nodded. “Oh, her. That’s the neighborhood’s homeless person. She showed up around springtime last year, too.”

The strange women with mismatching clothes and several different types of bags was the first thing Lilly saw when returning from the school where teachers told her not-mother the girl had attention deficiencies. Lilly took up her position at the front window, intently observing the homeless woman just standing there, hardly moving, except to get out of the way of people passing. It was as though the woman was at a bus stop that had gone out of service.

“What’s going on, Lilly?”

“It’s the homeless woman,” the not-sister answered for her.

“The homeless woman. Out there. With bags.” Lilly moved the curtain aside for the not-mama to drop her face next to hers and look. She breathed in her not-mama’s smell and focused on the woman on the street. “She looks lost, hungry.”

That weekend, after a three-day absence, the woman showed up again.

“There. She’s there!” Lilly had to stretch her neck and raise up on tiptoes on the sofa next to the window to see the woman standing on the far corner, immobile, bags collected at her feet, waiting for nothing. The woman looked like what Lilly felt.

The not-mama looked at Lilly, figuring.

“Lilly?”

Lilly looked up.

“Would you like to do something about the woman?”

The girl looked from her not-mama, then to her not-sister, and expressed her first desire in months. “I want to give her something.”

“What?”

“Some food.”

“That’s a nice idea from you….”

“And something to drink.”

“Well.”

They went into the kitchen and took neatly placed things from different shelves and made some sandwiches, and retrieved a two-liter bottle of mineral water from the basement. Lilly then selected some fruit from the bowl on the table. All of it went into a sturdy bag. Together, the two girls left the house and carried their package to the corner, but returned with everything.

“She’s gone.”

“Okay. So what do we do?”

Lilly had to think for herself. “Find her.”

Lilly and her not-sister went outside and looked left and right along their street.

“Where do we start?” she asked.

“Everywhere.”

The not-sister knew the area so led and Lilly followed. They searched the neighborhood, around corners and in doorways, peeking in windows of shops they sort of knew the homeless woman wouldn’t be in but they had to check anyway just in case.

“She’s gone.”

“We haven’t checked everywhere.”

“Maybe,” the not-sister said, “she’ll come back another day.”

Lilly shook her head. “No. We haven’t looked everywhere yet.”

They finally found the woman with her dirty bundles sitting quietly on a bench on a side street near a bus stop getting some sun that peeped between the leaves of the tree overhanging a small square behind her. They approached with the bag.

Up close, she was unwashed; her hair was dirty; her mouth caved in a bit, as though teeth were missing. Her eyes were closed as though she was enjoying the warmth of the sun.

“Hello?”

They made their arms straight, offering the package of goods.

“Are you hungry?”

The woman’s head swiveled round, eyes opening dully, the whole heavy mass of this slow effort coming to rest on her shoulder.

Lilly and the not-sister stretched out their bag of goodies further while taking a small step back. The lady looked closely at one, then the other, then the bag.

“Please. We made this for you. You can have it.”

The woman reached out, took the bag carefully, peeked gravely into the opening. Her hand went inside and moved objects; her head went closer in, taking stock. Then she looked back up, at one girl, then the other. A smile with three teeth came to the face, the wrinkles like trenches where the dirt was gathered.

And said, “Bless you.”

“How did it go?” the mother asked.

Lilly, thinking a little less of her dead mama, her papa far away, looked up and smiled. “It was good. Felt good.”

She laid on the cushions of the sofa under the window, gazed up between the houses opposite, feeling the same sun that the homeless woman was enjoying, and made her own face comfortable there in her own sunlight on that one corner of the sofa, starting to settle into her new home.

—–

Vincent Eaton  is a writer, publisher, video maker and voice artist.  His novel Self Portrait of Someone Else was published by Viking Penguine and re-issued by www.hidden-people.net.  Born in California, he resides in Europe.  His website is wwwvincenteaton.com

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Wendell’s bony shoulders act like a coat hanger.   His pressed shirts are dark, buy cialis green, and heavy like canvas.  They dangle around his waist.  He wears them year-round, no matter the temperature.  His hands are stained.  It took time, but he gave up trying to wash the dirt off.

The graveyard is small and circular.  The owners are trying to purchase more space for more burials.  There’s not much room for expansion in the city.

Wendell moves slowly.  The flowers are wilted, sagging, and dull.   He knows when they need to be removed. They fit nicely into his wheel barrow.  The voices are always thankful.

Rosemarie Cullen, beloved mother of twin boys, has a high and forced voice.  She mentions to Wendell that when she was alive, she drank hot tea all day.  Even in the summer time, she was still flabbergasted by that.  But, it was true.  She and her husband rented the same place on the beach every year.   As she got older, she needed to let the tea cool.  Sometimes, the same cup would last her until lunch. Wendell, of course, is aware of this.

“My daughter-in-law Bethany brought those to me, she just repainted her kitchen.” Placing the yellow flowers next to some matted dirt, Wendell acknowledges the voice with a nod.  He wipes his hands.  He moves on.

Mr. Battenfeld’s voice is like a slow truck on a gravel driveway.  He tells Wendell about how the love of his life slipped away.  He missed two significant chances to have a real relationship with her, his fault both times. He refers to her as “this person”.  But it was undoubtedly a woman.  She was only modestly attractive, and he was concerned about his friends at the time.  But, as he put it, “that was a family ago.”

“My grandson is going to Harvard, you know.”  The flowers used to be red and stare at the sky, now their heavy heads hang in obedience to the way of things.  All but one.  One of them is still good.   Removing the good flower, Wendell notices two from the Cullen bouquet are also still good.  He dusts them off and sets the three aside.  By the end of his round, Wendell hears many stories and has an eclectic arrangement.

Home is brown and neat.  The vase in the middle of the table contains dead flowers.  Two seats face each other.  Wendell removes the old flowers, wipes the ring from the middle of the glass vase.  Some dirt washes from his hands; stains remain.  The bright colors gather in his vase.  The rest of the room makes the colors noticeable.  Wendell arranges the flowers, prepares  dinner.

Subtle clunks pop from the table as two place settings are laid out. The voices continue.  Mrs. Sullivan is so happy with her violets.  “They know that these are my favorite.  They are all very thoughtful, my kids.”   Mrs. Sullivan prefers to be called that.  Even when her kids got married, their spouses knew to call her Mrs. Sullivan.  When she was alive, she was embarrassed by the fact that she preferred scotch to wine.   She always took the first sip before bringing her husband his glass.  This is why she never wore lipstick at parties.

Mr. Battenfeld chimes in. “I think the crimson is going to beat Yale this year.  Allan plays. It’s his second year, sophomores don’t play much, but, he’s having fun.”

George Halsey speaks up. “ I never really told everyone what I thought of them, or how proud I was. They don’t leave things for me as often as some others, maybe that’s why.”

The voices banter back and forth, and Wendell’s leftover chicken is dry.   The green beans are worse than they were yesterday, some are overdone now, rough and bumpy.

The plates and utensils plink and slide along the bottom of the sink.  The lines in Wendell’s forearms are defined, and flex as he cleans the dishes.  Everything is wiped dry and put away.

Mrs. Cullen speaks to George Halsey, “I wouldn’t feel so bad about that George.  Look at those lovely irises that they left for you. It seems like they do what they can.”

Wendell puts his plates in the cabinet, and wipes the water from the edges of the sink.  The kitchen wall paper is perfectly laid, but outdated.  His chair is hard.   The voices speak to each other about their spouses families, kids, and grandkids.

Ben Westerman makes excuses. He talks about how his kids are very successful and busy, that’s why they don’t bring flowers so often, but these are nice.  The others remind him that he’s proud of them.

The conversation ends, Wendell lays in his bed.  Duct tape contains the springs in his queen-sized mattress.  The sun sets, imitating a closing shade.

In the morning the flowers are sagging.  Only Ben Westerman comments on the weather.   Mrs. Cullen chimes in.  “This is a good tea morning.”

A humid haze hangs over the graveyard.  Wendell’s sleeves maintain a perfect crease.  The grass needs to be cut, and a hole dug.   Wendell wipes the grass from the tractor, and hoses off the shovel after the hole is finished.   There are no new flowers today.

Wendell’s work station is orderly, and clean.  He scans the old obituary sections for Anne McCarthy.  The hole is for her.  She leaves behind a husband and two teenage children. He imagines that in their younger years, she and her husband enjoyed a perfect sunset in Paris, and her voice as soft and gentle.  He considered the stories she might tell.

At home, only the voices of Mr. Battenfeld and Rosemarie Cullen remain. The other flowers are brown, flat, and silent. Battenfeld and Cullen were born around the same time.

“My father didn’t care for Eisenhower,”  Battenfeld said.

“You can’t mention that too loudly now, huh, but a lot of people didn’t,”  she responds.  This conversation remains throughout dinner.  Wendell listens, concerned that the flowers won’t make it through the night.  He changes the water, warm water for the rose.  He adds flower food, and stares at them.

The next morning, the flowers are brown and bowing. Both dishes slide along the table top, and all remains silent.   Wendell doesn’t eat, and leaves the dead flowers in the vase.  He centers the plate across from him with both hands; no voices come.

Silence, like always, brings the twitch.

His palms press into the table, he knows what’s about to happen and braces himself. The pull in his eye is slight at first.  The kitchen light flickers in only one eye.  Vibration tickles up his arm. The chair slides and bangs as it hits the floor. Wendell is not hurt.  His mouth grunts and froths like he’s lifting something heavy.  His feet are the last to stop twitching.

There’s no way to know how long he’s down this time.   He folds his legs, and stares at the ceiling. A cabinet handle digs into his back, but not the center.  Wendell lingers for a moment, exhales forcefully, puts the dishes away, and irons his clothes.

At the graveyard, the sunlight pokes through the trees like the favorite parts of a song.  Any bouquets today would be new.  He can’t take buds from new arrangements until they are ready to be thrown away.  Today’s plants and arrangements are too small to pick from.  The only live bouquets that can be picked from arrive on top of caskets, the arrangements are big enough, no one notices.

The McCarthy burial is taking place as scheduled.  A pristine, lily-white monster of a box sits atop the hole and waits to be lowered.  A mound of floral perfection rests on it.  Wendell doesn’t feel his feet moving toward the casket to see what exactly makes up the colors.  There’s roses, of course, some gerbera daisies. The colors are dark, heavy, and somber.

Suddenly, the voice next to Wendell is clear, present, and alive.  It’s a harsh whisper with consequence.  “Sir, Sir.”  Wendell feels himself staring.  “I was wondering if I could help you with something.”  The voice addresses him directly.

The man is tanned and wearing an appropriate suit.  Wendell looks at the ground and speaks through a tight jaw. “I umm, I’m sorry, I just didn’t want to speak or move while this thing is happening.”

“Well you’re a little close don’t you think?”

Wendell notices that he is too close to the ceremony.  Half of the people succeed in ignoring the confrontation; the other half fail. The Reverend continues speaking.

“Sorry about that. It’s just that the flowers are nice. I-I think she probably appreciates them.” Wendell’s voice is soft and apologetic, and he looks at the light coming through the trees.  Dust particles are visible.

The man whispers in a scold.  “Look sir, it’s not a thing, just, we’re going to be here a while, okay.   So, please move along and let us be.”

“Yes, I have work to do, anyway.”

“I’m sure you do.”

Wendell moves about, and feels the man’s eyes follow him.  The bushes only look okay to the untrained eye.  Wendell knows they need to be cut.  This job keeps him close to the burial. After that, there were cups, cigarette butts, and wrappers on the ground.   Wendell picked up the cup, and left the others.

Only to make another pass and gather the wrapper, then the butt.   The ceremony will end soon.

The bouquet is fresh and the crowd begins to dissipate.  Another man is accepting hugs from everyone as they leave.  The man who confronted Wendell, holds the other man’s shoulder, points to the flowers.  Wendell sees the man’s mouth move “You should do something with these, y’ know, people might want them. I’ll get the car.”

The other man nods.  The two stand for another moment and look at the ground.  The grip is causing lines on the suit.  They are similar in build only.  Wendell no longer pretends to work, and circles the grave.   The man who confronted him, shoots one final look and leaves.

Soon enough, the quiet man stares at the grave.   The late afternoon creeps over the hills of the cemetery. The speedy crunch and hush of the traffic increases.

Wendell stops moving and stares.  The two are in speaking distance.

The man fights through a bubble in his throat.  “She was my wife, you know.”

“I figured.”  Wendell speaks just loud enough.

“She was young.  I think she was young.  We always feel young don’t we?”  He forces a laugh and wipes his eyes.  “That sounds stupid.”

Wendell steps closer.

The man continues. “It’s stupid, like there’s ever a good time, you know, like there’s an okay time to die.”

They stood in whispering distance.

Wendell’s stained hands hang by his side. “No one usually stays this long.”

“Really?” the man asks.

“They usually go back to a thing or something.”

“She usually planned those things.  She knew when to leave, and when to arrive.  She just knew that stuff.” He sniffs and turns away from the coffin. “I think my brother’s coming back for all of this.”  The road to the grave site is open and blank.

Wendell kneels down next to the coffin and tugs on a bud.   He feels it separate from the rest.  Numerous identical buds remain and the hole is undetectable.  He places the flower gently in his pocket, and his thin shoulders relax.

Anne McCarthy’s voice is soft and gentle.  “The ones you love, and the ones who love you, they all gather here.  This bouquet is exquisite.  Aren’t my children wonderful?  Isn’t my husband wonderful? I don’t have to die alone.  This is most wonderful.  We were going to try and get back to Paris, you know.

But, it was enough. It was all enough.”

Realizing that no one is coming, the man speaks to the highway. “Having to deal without someone, huh? People do it, right?”  He turns back to Wendell, who is staring at the ground and back-pedaling. “People do it?” He asks.

“Oh,” Wendell says.  “There are ways.”

Michael Baird lives in New England with his wife and family. He writes all day, and types when he can.

Read more stories by Michael Baird

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She breathed in… and breathed out. She dipped her hands back into the water, case feeding through the soap suds – finding the corner of a dish and wiped off some grease and a nugget of meat. Of course Louise Bruce was happy enough that her son had gone to the effort to cook everyone food. But no one took the slightest bit of notice that she didn’t actually eat meat. Then again they probably didn’t care. Still, she was on holiday. Time to recuperate energy, meditate on thoughts that escape most of the day to day life, resurrect relaxation and every other factor that had become alien. 

The Turkish night air crept in from the open window behind her shoulder. Through the window some boats distantly bobbed up and down on the Aegean Sea, fresh scratches on the rental car glistened beneath the moonlight, a costly memento from the days mishaps. If she’d glanced out at that point she would have noticed her son Michael wandering back up the hill from wherever he’d been and if she’d looked even closer, she would have seen her two other sons in the football court – Joel Bruce trying to score some drugs off locals, whilst his brother Toby Bruce stood there with his back turned wanting to have no part in the matter. 

The glass door at the front of the holiday flat slid open and Michael walked in. He’d left royally pissed off and wherever he went the walk seemed to have calmed him down. Looking slightly embarrassed he unfolded the sofa bed and slumped into it. His mother simply smiled back at him and triumphantly drained the sink, retrieving, rereading and revising her most recently compiled to-do list:

-Check toilet paper supplies. 
-Find postcard for Diane.
-Call rental car company.

It was a good job she was on holiday or she’d have been bored stiff. She needed work to appreciate the time off. How people didn’t work, was something she couldn’t fathom. Louise reached for her lukewarm cup of tea, with a desire to read something, a book ideally, a paperback – the obligatory kind that people read on holiday. It was the only time she read these days. She’d been surprised to see that Michael had packed a book – Captains of Sinking Ships; it was funny to see what passed as the written word these days. James Joyce, Faye Weldon those were wordsmiths, Louise concluded. But there was nothing of the sort there. 

Louise tried to kill time, pacing back and forth across the brown tiles. Not that it made much difference, but Louise hated being alone for long. She didn’t understand and pitied anyone who said they were happy and single. It was how she’d put up with her family as long as she had. Fear and endurance. Though in a few moments that would make a rare and brief change. 

Louise slid back the glass door and stepped outside – adjusting to the heat of the night. She looked out as the headlights from another taxi drew up to the complex. Louise waited, expecting it to unload the next inseparable couple, happy family on the homestretch of another fore-filling evening, or another outfit of lads on tour as they stepped out, puking up their cherry alcopops. It wasn’t how she imagined but her first guess was closest. The taxi briefly waited before sounding the horn. Eventually two girls – twins, cordially walked up to it dragging their baggage along the ground as their mother stopped at the front and made it clear she had time to check her make up against the light from the car, whilst her husband walked behind her and double checked a piece of paper – flight documents possibly. The girls got inside as the hubby took one last look at the scenery. Enveloped in that aroma of chargrilled food and warmed tarmac, Louise squinted her eyes at the figure. 

“Donald…” Louise said. 

Louise watched as the taxi suddenly churned up some gravel from beneath it and froze as she heard a smash from downstairs, realizing that one of the men in her life had returned. She looked like someone caught doing something they shouldn’t have been. And with all the awe of a post-holiday romance she watched the taxi depart. For that one moment the mosquitos serenaded themselves around her and she stood there feeling things that she thought had long gone. 

The taxi became a warm blip on the horizon. It seemed a little too much and she thought about Donald as more than a name or time, and of the mental purgatories of old lovers. The night had suddenly painted a defining stillness to everything else. She felt a tear slide from her chin as she stared back inside to see her husband trying to pick up shards of broken glass looking a little mystified. Louise opened the door, put on a smile and joined in. A few more nights passed and the holiday was over. 

Life wouldn’t wait and back home, Louise went to work and carried on with her other job, as mother and wife. Louise’s mother-in-law moved in with her laundry list of complaints too, as her sons and husband spent many a night holding rounds of ping-pong competitions, whilst Louise drew closer and closer to a breaking point. That holiday, she’d known it had been Donald. She’d been sure. Yet, she didn’t follow it up, or question it. in all the years since they’d last seen each other, not once had she even thought she’d seen him – she was good like that, ignoring things, not letting them plague her mind. Or had been. Of course she loved her family and what not, but what if that could have been her? She thought of her sons, Toby with his heart set on becoming an actor, Michael who spent his time at war with the world when not trying to get by packing dog food. As for the other, Joel, she really wasn’t too sure what he actually did. Then there was her husband, that ordinary man she loved, but somehow never really knew. To her, deep down they were all equally doomed, not that she’d ever mention anything. Not her style. 

The brief and unexpected excitement of her holiday had caused Louise’s mind to start digging out many thing she’d waved goodbye to. Growing, the visions came back in installments, most so during times of leisure – staring at the television set, or bedroom ceiling. She’d leave the room, close her eyes and start to recollect.

*  *  *

As the sound of the needle pressed against the wax, she was twenty years old again, her flesh reforming, still in the wondrous days of art school, as she walked through the incense smoke and around the quarters of Donald’s flat. 

“…For me it’s not just the health aspect that draws me to vegetarianism. I mean it’s funny, I hear all these people saying how much they love animals, yet, there they are exploiting them, funding their unscheduled demise, if not at the hands of some man dressed as a clown, stuffing their faces, hoping to keep them lazy, stupid and submissive!”

Louise stood there listening, enthralled by Donald’s passion.  

“It’s people like my bloody dad that really annoy me with the, we’ve been eating meat forever argument. In terms of some primitive cavemen scratching his balls, chasing a chicken around his cave then maybe, yes. But – with that same analogy do you think that’s how humans are supposed to survive? Picking up their meals in some pretty, plastic box, that the supermarkets and businessmen have folded up behind factory doors? Is that the way we’re supposed to be, relying on frozen poultry, trawlers, slaughter houses? Not me.” continued Donald, not that Louise was really listening anymore. 

She drew her hand through her hair and watched Donald. To her it felt like she was part of something, like Donald was the second coming. His love for animals, the anti-war protests, his paintings – whatever they were actually of – his ability to captivate her like no other, the evenings he’d recite the poetry of James Joyce to her, the ballads he’d perform on his bongo drums. But at that moment she was most surprised on how someone’s dietary choice could have made her so wet. 

She stepped up to Donald and fixed her chin on the back of his shoulder and narrowed her eyes with a sense of warmth, with this given knowledge that one day, years from then – if she’d make it, she’d look back at herself at how perfect and safe that one moment had been. A rare moment, as if she was bookmarking it and smiling at a future self. Donald then turned around and shoved his tongue down her throat, which startled her, but she still went along with the act and grabbed his balls, as she started to undress, before Donald dragged her back down to the carpet. Louise then smacked her head on the side of the coffee table, knocking a paint can clean off as it trickled down on them from the side whilst they were rolling around the carpet. Then smearing the odd piece of paint across their hands and knees, Donald proceeded to slowly mount her. 

A night that seemed so long ago. Louise could visualize it still – the pair of them, covered in drying paint and body fluids, Donald finally wrapping his coat over them as they looked out of the window at the night sky – branches of the beech tree swaying outside, across the street a billboard for the soon to be built shopping centre illuminated glared back at them. Both of them young and broke with everything and nothing to worry about. 

*  *  *

Louise finished regurgitating sentiments for a moment – it was a long time ago. And eight days from that same night, she broke up with Donald and met Charlie Bruce. Charlie and Donald had finished school in the same year, but Charlie was everything Donald wasn’t, simple, and on a clear and promising path to achievable plans. Deep down Louise was also beginning to loathe the realities of the starving artist routine and found herself longing for the security that she couldn’t feel without money – it’s what it all came down to and she had none of it. She quit art school and was soon pregnant with Charlie’s offspring. 

Now back in that future Louise stared at the clock. She didn’t normally have any problems sleeping and she couldn’t hear a sound from the others. But compulsion convinced her to head to her old bureau and look inside – alongside the bills and legal documents, there was a small and dusty pile of her diaries from over the years. She’d stopped writing them years back when that future finally arrived and over the following years scarcely looked at them too, not wanting to disturb anything. The boys had been born and she resisted thinking about any other life. Though as they started to leave, so did her sense of identity. Life outside motherhood had become alien. And it was only a matter of time until they were all gone. Most days it was just her waiting for Charlie to get back anyway. It wasn’t even apparent as to why anymore.

Louise didn’t really run. She didn’t leave a note. She just walked. There was no real precept other than she was doing something, that she wished she’d done before. She grabbed her bag, locked the door and got the night bus. The only other people riding the bus were a couple that she could hear groaning from the back seat as if a pre-warning from some sort of ghost of Christmas past. Ironically in the back page of her diary, was a Christmas card from Donald, she’d found it there waiting for her one December morning and kept it hidden. It said very little other than he’d moved to town and thought he’d spotted her on her drive; he’d half forgotten that she was even from the place until he’d thought he’d seen her and sent the card hoping it was the case. He left an address at the bottom and suggested meeting up in the following year, to see each other again after all that time. Louise wasn’t too sure if it was one of Donald’s, but the card looked hand made too. Her reply had taken some time, but there she was, riding bus 24A, finally with a written reply on a greeting card some woman had pressured her into buying ages ago. She’d found a purpose for it after all. Still, nothing would happen. If something happened she’d tell Charlie straight away, but nothing would happen. 

As her stop approached she reread the address. Donald’s house was two roads up from the stop. Louise got off the bus and started walking through the night. If she was quick enough she could post the card and get bus 12 back home. They were both spoken for and not even Louise knew what she expected to come from any of this. But she’d left her phone number on the postcard and was going to see what came of it. It was just two old friends meeting up.

The walk to Donald’s house was brief and Louise paused for a moment, before she tried to think of what she’d say, if Donald, or Donald’s wife – actually spotted her outside their house. The gate let off a sharp creak as she opened it, which prompted to make her to move twice as quickly and nervously – almost twisting her ankle on a toy doll that had been left outside. She made it to the welcome mat. A second later a security light with a hoard of dead insects inside its casing, beamed on. Illuminated she pulled out the greeting card and shoved it through the letter box, managing to drop her mobile phone against the floor as she did. 

From inside the door, Louise heard the lock click. The door then opened and a middle aged Thai looking woman wearing a robe and matching slippers looked down at Louise questioningly. 

Louise stood up, clutching the pieces of her mobile phone and searched for something to say. 

“I… Sorry, I just meant to drop something off, I was walking past… I didn’t mean to disturb you…” Louise said.

“Huh?Who are you? What’s this?” The woman asked picking up the greeting card. Louise blushed and looked like she might break. 

“Oh… That’s a card, um I sent it to Donald, you see I used to know him ages ago… I was passing by…”

“Who?” The woman said, shaking her head back and forth.

“Donald Stamner,” Louise said adamantly. 

“No, Donald Stamner here! I live here with my husband and my daughter! We’ve lived here for two years!” the woman said shaking her head “Are you drunk? Why are you posting things now anyway?” The woman asked, still not satisfied. 

“No… And …I don’t know,” Louise said. 

The woman shook her head again and closed the door, partially, “Donald does not live here, okay? Go home,” The woman shouted, threw Louise’s card outside and slammed the door.

Louise stayed there and considered double-checking the address, but it had been an answer enough. She picked the greeting card up from the floor and slowly walked back to the gate. The security light switched itself off. 

By this point any curiosity or excitement had worn off. Louise sat at the bus stop for a few minutes, before a cold wind rattled the bus stop and convinced her to keep moving. She walked for a further fifteen minutes, before finding somewhere to rest. It was a greasy spoon cafe, not Louise’s ideal choice, but for five minutes it would beat being outside. She heaved open the front door and walked inside. 

Louise went straight to the till behind which a man looking half asleep himself, handed her a menu. She asked for a coffee, then was surprised to see that they offered a Vegetarian full English breakfast. Things had changed. She ordered one and sat down.

She took a cup of coffee and sat down. The food came out just as swiftly and a Polish sounding waitress handed her the plate. Louise forced a smile, picked up the fork, tore open the veggie sausage and drank some more coffee. Yawning she took in her surroundings. Almost soberingly an early morning re-run of the television show Quantum Leap, played in the background. As Louise peered across the room, she could see that the other customers consisted of a disgruntled elderly looking man, who sat staring into his coffee cup and another man a couple of seats away, grinning with a few strands of dreadlocked hair and piss stains down his trousers. He grinned at her, she didn’t quite know what to do. But for once, she wasn’t that bothered. It was a transition of day and night. It wouldn’t be too long till the early birds rose and the others were left to stagger back. 

In some ways the evening had been liberating for Louise, but mostly it had been humiliating and she sat there feeling tired and stupid. But as she looking around the room, the future had arrived for them all. Life wound on and was lived until it couldn’t. There was no cinematic happy ever. Love could be overpowering, ridiculous, liberating and stressful. It was great, but there were many hidden horrors to relationships, when it came down to it; it was a lot of hard work. Sometimes the best thing you could do was to leave it. Maybe it hadn’t even been Donald. Maybe it had been much more of a waste of time than she’d thought. Maybe she deserved it. She probably did deserve it, she thought. Louise imagined herself if things had been different and it had been her that Donald had the daughters with, maybe she’d have understood daughters more, but she didn’t really want to trace it any further. Her children had left home, she’d spent so much time as a mother it was hard to be little else, she’d searched to find purpose elsewhere. Charlie worked too much. She told herself that she probably had a lot of life left to live, that was a reasonable enough thought too. It was adjusting, again. She and Donald could cross again, in some shopping aisle or bar, even if he was even alive. Until then she’d make note to check the obituaries. But finally, she didn’t really know him anymore, anyway.  

Louise took a bite of some fried mushrooms, but didn’t feel like more after that and began to think about what was going to happen next. She had work in a few hours. She wanted to be next to Charlie, in bed ready to wake up for another new day. But then again maybe, she’d think of something to say. Who had to even know? It wasn’t like her to do things like this; she could make up some story. They’d probably not even notice though. 

Outside dawn was breaking and Louise left. She stood at the bus stop for a bit longer before giving up on the idea. It was getting a bit warmer and she started to walk. She came up to a set of flats and passed the second of the yellow bricked block as an old woman stared at her from inside, looking like she’d been waiting for someone to pass. Louise kept walking. 

Unsure whether to head to work or home, she’d passed continued along the path, feeling somewhat disorientated. She took a deep breath and trying to force her tired eyes open, stared up through the autumn branches as the birds started to sing. Further above, a plane tore through the sky. She guessed that it had probably taken off from Gatwick, and she started to imagine all the people inside, wondering about where they were going and how quickly the time had gone since her last holiday. Something told her that she could have really done with a holiday.

Louise kept walking. The whole thing had been insignificant and of course it was, that was why it had left such it bitter taste in her mouth, why it stung as it did, why she’d tried to fight for such importance, significance, she confessed to herself. 

She stopped, bit her lip and tried to search the sky for the plane, but couldn’t see it. Slowly she breathed in… and breathed out. She closed her eyes, as her lip quivered. She had a new to-do list in her head. 

—–

Gwil James Thomas is 24 Years old and currently lives in Brighton, England. His stories have appeared in Muingbeing Magazine, Mint Magazine, Cynic Online Magazine,Perhaps I’m wrong About The World and More Noize: The Worst Fanzine in The World. His novel Captains of Sinking Ships was recently published by Kenton Publishing.

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I am sitting in the terminal munching a five-dollar soft pretzel and watching a financial broadcast I cannot understand when a woman with long dark hair and freckled skin asks me to watch her bags. Without waiting for an answer, viagra she sets her matching cloth suitcases next to my duffel and makes a grimace signifying extreme discomfort.

“Can’t hold it,” says the woman, and smiles the smile of women who are used to getting what they want.

She gets what she wants.

I watch the woman breeze away, focusing first on the wonderful fit of her designer jeans and then on the sway of her coal black hair as she disappears into the parade of travelers. There’s a sign for the men’s restroom across the way, but nothing for women. I assume it is farther down.

I look down at the bags, which are red and black plaid, and wonder if I have just committed a crime. Or is it more a rule of thumb? The bags are stenciled with the initials AJR and smell of perfume. I wonder how many freckled terrorists are planting bombs in monogrammed bags these days. I decide on the spot that we have gone too far as a society and that I will apply a modicum of reason to the present situation.

“You’re not supposed to watch other people’s suitcases.”

The speaker is a stick-limbed Asian boy of 10 or 11 sitting catty-corner from me. A handheld video game rests in his lap and his parents appear to be in the adjacent aisle, with their backs to us.

“She just has to pee,” I say.

“Doesn’t matter. You could go to jail.”

“I don’t think so. It’s more of a rule of thumb.”

The Asian boy squints at me. “I’m not talking about your thumb, mister. There could be improvised explosive devices in those suitcases.”

“I doubt it. They smell so nice. Do you want to smell them?”

He squints at me some more. “I’m telling the cops.”

With this, the boy’s mother turns, smiles at us and turns back around. I get the sense she does not speak English but did recognize the word “cop.”

“There’s no need for that,” I tell the boy. “She’s my wife.”

“Is not. You don’t even know her.”

“Sometimes it feels that way,” I say, and wink.

“She wouldn’t marry a guy like you.”

I force a smile. “Sometimes we get lucky, kid.”

“Then where’s your wedding ring?”

“Don’t wear it when I travel. Good way to lose it.”

“You’re lying,” says the boy.

“Pretzel?” I say, holding out the half-eaten snack.

“I’m telling the cops.” He stuffs the video game in a backpack and begins to rise from his seat.

“No, no,” I say, unzipping one of the cloth suitcases. I reach in and pull out a handful of undergarments. I can’t help but notice a black lacy thong, thin as a pencil. “Uh, see? No bombs.”

The woman is back. “What the hell are you doing?” she says, and hits me in the face with her handbag. It’s a large handbag, with hard objects inside. She swipes at the undergarments while continuing her assault.

I relinquish the undergarments and bury my head in my arms. From this position I can see the boy and his mother nodding.

“Married for sure,” says the mother, in perfect English.

Suddenly two airport police officers are separating us and asking in authoritative tones as to what, exactly, is going on here.

“This man—” says the woman, then stops and looks at me. I see the recognition in her lovely face that she may have violated the law, or at least a rule of thumb. I fold my arms and cock an eyebrow, waiting, as a husband would do, for an explanation.

“This man is incorrigible,” she says, throwing up her arms. “John, you’re absolutely incorrigible. How dare you say those things about my mother.”

“If the shoe fits,” I say, and the woman hurls a thong. A nice touch. I remove it from my face, recognizing the lavender scent.

The officer in charge, an older man with stripes on his collar, jabs a finger at me.

“Make this right and get this mess cleaned up,” he says. “Unless you want your day to go from bad to worse.”

I go to the woman, showing the officer that I can, in fact, be the bigger person.

“Sorry, babe,” I say, and reach out and take her by the shoulders. They are dainty shoulders, and within them I feel tension. I lean in. The woman is shaking her head ever so slightly, lips pursed in warning, but the truth is we have to sell this thing, and deep down I think she knows it.

So I lean the rest of the way in and press my lips to hers, lingering, as a husband would do, and wait for the tension to ease.

—–

Andy Henion’s fiction has appeared, online and in print, in Hobart, Word Riot, Thieves Jargon, Ink Pot, Spork, Monkeybicycle and many other pubs. He lives in Michigan and flies occasionally out of Detroit Metro Airport. He will not watch your bags.

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I want to thank all of you for coming and I hope you lied to your family and  friends about where you were going to be tonight. I have to say this is a pretty  impressive turnout for a club that only advertises via small, mind classified ads. I  think you’ll soon discover that being here is one of the best decisions you’ve  ever made, sovaldi sale because in a few short weeks you’re going to be certified to set up  your own club anywhere you want, and you’re going to be making a lot of money  and helping a lot of people at the same time. Everybody wins by you making the  right choice to be here. This is a pretty special group.

Now the very first lesson we teach you here at the Liars’ Club is to stop thinking of a lie as something that’s “deceptive” or “untrue.” Those are dirty,  vulgar simplifications that adults use to explain things to children, and we  aren’t children. The word “adult” comes from the Latin meaning “less pure,” because we as adults know the world isn’t as simple as we make it out for our kids. And that right there is an example of how most people lie all the time without even thinking about it–how we talk to our children. When our kids grow wise to all the lies we adults tell them, they become one of us, and the cycle starts all over again. Since you’re all here tonight, you should go ahead and congratulate each other for figuring this out.

And I really do mean “congratulate,” because the difference between “us” and “them” isn’t that we “lie” more often than they do or anything like that. The difference is that we just lie more deliberately, which actually makes us more honest. Think about it. When we proud members of the Liars’ Club lie, we lie on purpose. Most people who lie don’t even know it, because the first person they lie to is themselves. Ipso facto, the person you should never trust is the person who doesn’t lie. It’s just common sense. Write that down.

I say again, “adult.” Like “adultery.” To “adulterate” something means to corrupt it. In our culture becoming a mature, contributing member of society means we lose our innocence–which is a fancy way of saying “stupidity” or “harmlessness”–and that is a good thing. Go ahead and write that down, too–being an adult is a good thing to do, and you don’t have to apologize for it.

Now here is a pro tip from an experienced liar. This is what you guys are paying for, so listen up. Lean in close. Now here it is: The very best people to lie to are the ones who want to believe you. If someone wants to believe you, they will. If they don’t, then they won’t, but then the question is, “How can I make someone want to believe me?” And the answer is simple: If you give someone a reason to believe you, then they will. You hear that word I just used, “reason”? Reason is built right in to lying, because lying is a rational thing to do. Ipso facto. That’s another point that proves itself, so I won’t bore all of you to tears explaining it. You’re smart people and it’s all right there, nothing to explain.

Now for another obvious point: There is only one thing you can never get with a lie, and that is the Truth. Fortunately for us the Truth doesn’t exist, or I guess to put it more precisely: The Truth is just a lie in fancy clothes. But just like you and me, you get dressed up in fancy clothes, you’re still naked underneath.

So that’s my introduction to the course, and after the break we’ll have plenty of time for questions, but I can already see the light bulbs going off in your heads. So now I’m going to turn things over to my wife, Liz, and she’s going to guide us through the next part of this first workshop, an ice breaker activity where everyone tells us who they aren’t. It might be tricky at first but once you start I think you’ll find it comes pretty easily.

While she’s doing that, I’m going to go around the room and collect the fees for this week, and if you can afford to pay in advance for the rest of the month it would help defray some of the early overhead for us and make the rest of the course run that much more smoothly. No personal checks, please.

—–

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.

Read more stories by Robert John Miller

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The rape parade bore down Mission Street, unhealthy men, cialis women and children of all sizes and ages wearing hand-lettered tee shirts or carrying signs that read, “3 rapes & molested,”   “Respect this Vagina!” “8 years old when I was rape by my uncle you never said sorry. I’m over it.  I’m done with the secret,” and “I [heart] Consent.” The ones in front sang the loudest, like in a church; they carried the banner. Many of the raped wore warm-blooded colors – red and orange. Their chanting reached us in the upper floors of the Institute, and we left our desks and crouched around the window to see the rape parade as it passed. The parade stretched from Tenth to Ninth, and from there to the Federal Building, so singularly defended with its concrete reinforcements and aggressive green design (and yet the raped in their warm bloody colors poured across the plaza). From where we sat crouched on our haunches in the upper windows of the Institute we saw a ribbon of the raped, each person in the rape parade representing a protest against a specific, historical rape, or series of rapes endured, survived and embodied by that person.  Each person also represented a protest against the whole form of violence collectively understood as “rape,” and the parade represented the solidarity of the raped.

The atmosphere was both political and festive, like a party – a party of the raped.  It was impossible not to notice and admire the solidarity and diversity of the raped. The raped had been violated by their fathers, brothers, uncles, dates, johns, pimps, soldiers, strangers. They had been attacked by penises, bottles, sticks, bats, guns, sperm, viruses. The raped looked like a 400-pound man, a woman on stilts in an orange dress, like twins holding hands, like children with braces, like the old man with no teeth, like the transman with a blonde bob, like the sex worker with the silver bone, like the one with a cigarette, like the one with a puppy on a leash. The raped looked like a twelve-year old and an eight-year old and a fifty-one year old and an eighty-one year old. The raped came from Anchorage, Brazzaville, Chiang Mai, Delhi, Kigali, Lodz, Mill Valley, New Orleans, Stockton and Zagreb. They came from villages, suburbs, islands and ice caps.  The raped had piercings.  The raped looked androgynous. The raped looked like babies. The raped looked mad. We crowded in the window and looked down as the rape parade passed by.  The raped called out in loud, boisterous tones; they demanded everyone’s attention. On this Saturday afternoon the raped became ascendant, a supermajority. The raped dominated both the rapists and the unraped – they exceeded all the others. The raped became supreme.  It seemed in that moment inevitable that the old regime that had tolerated and even subtly encouraged rape as a tool of oppression, a means of expression or a weapon of war must finally topple. The future would be dominated by the raped, by the point of view and the agenda of the raped. The raped and the allies and constituents of the raped would rule – by force, if necessary. The masses would submit to the wisdom of the raped. The administration of the raped would force underground the supporters and practitioners of rape, the hard- core believers.

These few would take their cause underground, to caves and bunkers from where they might still wield a marginal power, issuing videos and press releases denouncing various actions by the raped, going so far as to accuse the raped of hypocrisy for imposing their political will on those unwilling to submit to their agenda and thus replicating the act upon which their entire protest and very existence as “the raped” rested. Even in a position of power – dominant, on top! – the raped could not rest. The regime of the raped could not be passive, benevolent, idealistic, hopeful. It must remain always vigilant and fierce, a shark in the water alert to any scent of blood. We waved casually and then more urgently from the upper windows. We called out to the raped, we screamed like maniacs.  Before the parade passed by, we wanted to be counted.

—–

Carolyn Cooke is the author, most recently, of the novel Daughters of the Revolution, which was listed among the New Yorker Magazine Reviewers’ Favorite books for 2011 and as one of the top five novels of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle. She teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

This piece was read as part of the inagural production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.  Other pieces in the series include:

Die Brizl, by Scott Lambridis

The Fix, by Benjamin Wachs

Sculpture Garden, by Ben Black

Look at Murphy, by Cary Tennis

—–

To comment on this story, visit Fiction365?s Facebook page.
I hadn’t eaten all day so that I could fit into the leather skirt.  I’d had to buy the right shade of lipstick just for this purpose.  It looks like blood and tasted like stale milk.  I’d never wear it again.

Deciding that I had to do it was the hardest part:  I’d never thought of myself as that kind of girl.  And if I was going to do it, buy cialis it had to be done right.

I put on the highest heels I had, unbalancing open toed pumps.  I put a silver charm bracelet with a skull around my ankle.  It was a gift from my sister, who I think had found it on the floor after her wedding.  Nothing about that had made sense.

I picked up my keys.  I only needed one more thing.  The bolt cutters were on the kitchen counter, picked up fresh from Wal-Mart today.  Just as heavy as they looked.  I picked them up and snapped them a few times in the air, just to feel it.

I picked up my keys and got in the truck.  My housemate was out for the night, so getting out of the driveway was easy.  I put my foot on the gas and kept it there.

40 Caliber is not a nice bar, although it’s worse on a Saturday than a Thursday.  Thursdays are just a three fight night.  Rubes park in the front, regulars in the back.  I drove the truck around back and left it running, because I didn’t belong.  I knew this would have to be quick.

The lot was empty.  Jason’s bike was in its usual spot.  If someone was there I would have done exactly what I did with them watching me – and maybe I would have felt more powerful, or maybe I would have been terrified.  But I had dressed up, and I still would have done it.

The juke box inside was playing something nasty and the parking lot light was flickering as I got out of the truck and opened the bed.  I lowered the detachable ramp down.  I walked over to the bike and hefted the bolt cutters.  I snapped the anti-theft device in two.  I put the key he didn’t know I’d had copied months ago in the ignition, and pushed.  Once it was in the bed I tipped it on its side – that’s all the protection it needed – and detached the ramp and closed the back.

I got back in the truck and drove away.  So easy.

I was at Hermano’s by 10:30.  The shop was closed but he was waiting for me.  He whistled twice, once when he saw me and again when he saw the bike.  We wheeled it out and he replaced the wheels and swapped out the handle bars and mirrors and painted it pink and white.  Then we loaded it back up on the truck and I drove away.

I was at the Klassy Kat Lounge by 1:00.  I got in free because they don’t charge women, and sat in a booth drinking a ginger ale until Lilly had finished her set.  I got lipstick all over the glass.  Then I waved her over.

“Wow,” she said.  “Look at you!”

“Come out back,” I told her.  She went and got a robe and then we walked out into the parking lot.

“How are you holding up?” she asked me.

“You got it worse than I did,” I told her.  “That’s why I wanted to do something for you.  For us both, really, but you most of all.”

“He’s a cocksucker,” she said.  “Such a fucking pussy.  Fuck.”

We got to my truck and I climbed in the bed and wheeled the motorcycle back down.

“Oh my …” she gaped. “ Ohmy … holy shit … that’s not … is that?”

I held out the key.  She started laughing.  “Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod.”

“It’s yours,” I said.  “You’ll have to get your own fake papers … sorry about that … I don’t know how to do that, but, I hope you drive it around.  It gets great gas mileage.  It feels great between … well, you know.”  She was still laughing.

She grabbed the keys.  She grabbed me.  She tried to make out with me, but, I’m not like that.  “God I love you right now,” she said.  And I hugged her because I think I knew how she meant it.

“He had it coming,” I said.  “He so had this …”

She started laughing again, and we agreed to get together sometime.  I got in my truck, smiling like the queen of the world, and drove back home.  I put the radio on and rolled the windows down and sang along.

Stacey was back, it was hard to get back into my spot.  I opened the door and saw her there with her sister Amanda.  They saw me and their jaws dropped and Stacey started laughing and Amanda said “You’re a goddess!”

I kicked the shoes off.  Those fucking shoes.  I saw they had a fire going, so I picked them up and walked them over to the fireplace and threw them in.  They started to melt and it smelled terrible.

“What the fuck?” Stacey said.

I was less inhibited than I’d ever been in my life.  I slipped the skirt off, right in front of them.  “I’m getting rid of these clothes,” I said.  “I have to.  I’m not this person really, I can’t … I can’t go back here too often.  It’s like … I’m so amoral right now.”

I unbuttoned the top and took it off … right in front of them.  The top and skirt both went in the fire.  The spirit started to vanish.  “I’ll …” I stared at them.  “I’ll … put the underwear on the fire in a minute,” I said, and started to walk to my room.

“Wait!” Amanda shouted to my back.

I stopped and turned.  I tried to place my hands appropriately.  I wondered what she was looking at.

“Can I …” Amanda hesitated.  “Can I have the anklet?”

“What?” I’d forgotten all about it.  “I … I … what do you want to do with it?”

“I don’t know,” she said softly.  She was so young, I realized, and I was still in my 20s.  “But I … I, if you’re going to destroy it anyway … I think I want to keep part of this.  Whatever it is.  Can I …?”

I bent down right in front of her, probably for the last time I was every really comfortable with my body, and unpinned it.  I walked over and handed it to her and then ran back to my room.

I stopped thinking about Jason the next day, and soon I barely remembered him.  I saw Lilly riding around on that bike all the time – it was great.  Once a friend of mine said “Do you know Jason thinks you stole his bike?  He’s gone, like crazy paranoid.”  And I knew I’d won.  I’d fixed it.

I haven’t seen Stacey much over the last few years … I think maybe I’ve seen Amanda once.  I don’t know what happened to the anklet.  I didn’t ask.  But I like to think it makes its way from hand to hand, and that there’s a goddess inside who can do what needs to be done.

—–

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

This piece was read as part of the inagural production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.  Other pieces in the series include:

Die Brizl, by Scott Lambridis

The Rape Parade, by Carolyn Cooke

Sculpture Garden, by Ben Black

Look at Murphy, by Cary Tennis

—–

To comment on this story, visit Fiction365’s Facebook page
They met in a country western bar, sickness she in a red plastic hat, look he with sawdust in his socks.  They smiled, he smiled, she smiled, they left and they came back again and they outgrew it when the crowds got bigger.  The new place they found was a sculpture garden, green and gray and occasionally rust brown.  They walked together past the man with the discus, head down, legs twisted with effort.  They lingered on the bench made to look like a giant toothy grin, he perched on the bicuspid, she reclining on the molar, her feet crossed at the ankle and resting on the sign:  Do Not Touch Sculptures.  When it rained they caught each other by the arm and moved with quick and loping steps to hide under the ironwork hair of the Furies.  The Furies had large feet sticking out under their robes and they laughed at these as the water dripped from the angry flowing metal hair.

Once, the sculpture garden was closed for a private reception honoring an opera singer, so she waited on the street for him.  She was too early and her jacket was too short so she stood and stamped her feet and tugged at her sleeves to get them to cover the bases of her palms.  He was on the other side, by the gate, waiting for her.

She didn’t come and he didn’t come because the garden was between them and not around them like before, and when he called later to find out where she had been she didn’t answer.  Later she saw him at the produce stand in front of the nectarines and pursed her lips angrily but they wouldn’t stay closed.  They went back together to see where they had missed each other, each standing on the other side, looking across parallel streets, listening to opposite sides of an aria.

The next time they went to the sculpture garden the opera singer had closed it again.  This time they walked in like they were invited and mingled with tuxedos.  The tuxedos got in the way of the sculptures, obscuring the tooth bench and crowding around the Furies and sitting on the edge of the fountain that never ran.  He hid among the marble lawn bowlers while she stole two drinks from a tray.  The opera singer got up on her opera shoes and they listened without looking because if they looked she would see them and sing out their names and shatter the glass globes hanging from the tree with her voice.  When a man detached from the crowd and came  toward them, they posed like the stone lawn bowlers, but this was not a cartoon and the ruse didn’t work.  They fled the party, walking together with synchronized steps to the fading sound of the opera singer’s warble.  They got away quickly because each of their legs was exactly the same length.

He didn’t have a problem and she didn’t have a problem, so they ate and they watched the news and sometimes they sat and stared until they realized they were boring.  The bar where they had met burned down and he took her to see it.  He thought they would stand in the rubble, but it was blocked off and official sifters were sifting through it so they stood across the street and watched, pretending to be solemn.

He did not meet her mother when she came to town, and she did not meet his, and when he needed milk he didn’t call her to see if she had some, which she did because she always bought it and forgot to drink it.  Instead he went to the store and bought more for himself and forgot to drink it.  She watched the news with her mother while he was forgetting about his milk, and when her mother left she turned off the TV and didn’t watch the news for a month.

When he went to the sculpture garden alone, the tooth bench had a sign near it dedicating it to the opera singer.  Plaque, he said, pointing to the small gold sign, but an old man passing by didn’t hear him or didn’t get the joke.

The opera she went to was about a man and a woman who loved each other but couldn’t be together because their parents were at war, probably.  She wasn’t sure because she spent most of the time trying not to fall asleep.  She wondered why she had spent so much to dress up like a display store mannequin just to sleep sitting up in a folding chair while a woman screamed at her from sixty feet away in a foreign language.  Later someone told her that the opera was in English.

When they met again at long last under the Furies, he asked her if the opera had starred their opera singer, but she couldn’t  remember.  They laughed about this and then he showed her the plaque by the teeth and they laughed about this too.  They hung their jackets on the stone lawn bowlers and forgot them there.  The jackets stayed and were still there when the opera singer returned with her guests and sang at dusk for them again.  A waiter tried the jackets on after, but one had sleeves that were too short and the other fit the bowler better than the waiter so he left them both.

In the sculpture garden there are classical sculptures and  abstract sculptures and postmodern sculptures and things which hardly qualify as sculpture, but there are no lovers captured in stone.  The tourists don’t notice this, but the opera singer did and so she began to hold her parties in the orchestra pit after hours, to be near her stage, a place where love acts itself out every night.  She has not returned to the sculpture garden, so she doesn’t know what happened to the plaque dedicated to her: two performance artists removed it one night from beside the teeth using a sturdy rope made to look like a huge piece of floss.

—–

Ben Black is an MFA candidate at San Francicso State Universtiy.  His story, “The Wolves” is forthcoming in New American Writing.

This piece was read as part of the inagural production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.  Other pieces in the series include:

Die Brizl!, by Scott Lambridis

The Fix, by Benjamin Wachs

The Rape Parade, by Carolyn Cooke

Look at Murphy, by Cary Tennis

——-

To comment on this story, visit Fiction365’s Facebook page
The thing I love about my family is how well-adjusted we all are. You see some of these families that have alcoholism and drug addiction and just plain strangeness in them. You ever go in one of those houses where you just know something is not right? You ring the bell and you see the mom has, check like, cialis smeared lipstick across half her mouth and her dress is askew and it’s not her husband there, it’s this neighbor guy with the loud car, and he’s got a large crescent wrench in one hand and a whole chicken in the other and he’s just leaving, and he puts the chicken on the table and goes past you as you’re doing your pitch for Ladies Home Journal — and also Boys Life for the kids — and then you notice the husband asleep on the lawn some mornings and you figure that family is not like yours.

That’s what I love about my family. There’s five of us kids and each one of us knew what we wanted to do from the earliest age. My oldest brother went into dad’s accounting business. My sister, next in line, married a former fullback for the Atlanta Falcons and has a floral arranging business in Marietta. I’m right smack dab in the middle. I’ve been happily employed by Martin Marietta Aerospace for 26 years now, I’ve got three kids, one already in dentistry school and the other two just about to graduate, one in pre-med and the other in law. We’ve got this great, leafy-green front yard with a green lawn and a big old-fashioned mailbox and, believe it or not, a white picket fence running all around the house.

So I’m comfortable. That’s the thing people have always said about me, whatever else they might think about my stance on fiscal issues and my Episcopalian faith — my wife is Catholic, that’s about as radical as I’ll get. I exude comfort in my own skin. That’s me. I enjoy an occasional beer out at a game but don’t have much of a taste for alcohol otherwise. Who needs it? When the sun’s out on the inside, who needs artificial stimulants? I can’t imagine being any happier than I am.

So it came as a bit of a shock recently when I found myself looking through my wife’s closet — I was looking for my tennis racket, which I sometimes would store in there — and I found a pair of her panties and a camisole on the floor and, well, best as I can describe it, I didn’t do anything at the time, but I noticed them. You know what I mean, when you notice something more than you usually would, and don’t think anything about it except the next time you notice it again, or even with more, well, I wouldn’t call it intensity, but perhaps clarity.

But anyway, I found my tennis racket and played a pretty good game of doubles with the Murphys down the street and then we went for a steak dinner afterwards at the clubhouse and Gene Murphy, who always struck me as a little odd, I mean, he’s an accountant, which is OK, but for a firm that specializes in entertainment, which is a business I’ve never known much about and which doesn’t really excite me, except to say that it’s a kind of field I would want my kids to steer clear of, anyway Gene is going on the way he sometimes does, all wide-eyed, about a certain well-known singer whose taxes he’s doing, and how this singer is taking certain business deductions for massage and psychotherapy, and travel to some resort up in Canada where they indulge in what they call past-life regression. And he’s concerned about what will be deductible and what won’t be. But he tells us, Gene Murphy does, that while it may not be deductible, strictly speaking, he himself has some sympathy with the view that past lives can be contacted, or reconstructed, through certain methods. He’s a red-faced guy even when he hasn’t had a beer, but he’s all lit up now after winning 6-3, 6-0, 6-4, which I don’t mind, I don’t mind losing a few sets, I know my lifetime average I’m on the winning side, and that keeps me in a sunny disposition. So Murphy says, “Yes, I know it sounds strange, but I believe, really, that I was, in a past life, a streetwalking whore in 16th-century London.”

I nearly spit out my ginger ale. I said to Betty, I think I left the dahlias in the car, and excused myself. I felt a little ill in the parking lot. Picturing Gene Murphy as a London streetwalker just did something to me. I figured I’d drop in on Father Harry later and just try to calm down. But I had to come back, so when I walk back in everybody’s in stitches over something Gene said about Boswell or some such, and I tried to slide back into my chair like nothing had really occurred, and I changed the subject to a new line of golf clubs I was considering purchasing with my expected bonus. But Betty’s all intrigued now about this past-life business, and Gene says, Oh, it’s nothing, but if you like I’ll put you in touch with this singer. Oh, he’s a crazy one, he says.

A crazy one, can you believe that? So I give my wife this kind of look that I have that I give her from time to time, but she just goes on playing the innocent with Gene Murphy and this crazy idea, like she doesn’t see me, and then she says, and I kid you not, “Well, I think my husband here was a high-fashion model in a past life, in Paris in the 20s.”

“Waiter,” I say, “Bring me a scotch and water.”

So, curiously — though in a way it wasn’t all that surprising since I’m not a talkative sort when it comes to things in the theoretical realm — I couldn’t speak at all for the next few minutes. It was almost as if I’d been paralyzed by a dart from a blowgun shot by a scantily clad warrior from the Amazon, or some such thing. So my wife launches into this absurd tale about how she’s been having dreams in which I, her utterly normal husband who’s worked in engineering at Martin Marietta for 26 years, am actually strutting the runways of Paris in various very ruffly and colorful high-fashion costumes. And I can see that old Murphy is snickering at this. He seems to find it very amusing. So I challenge him. I say, Look, Murphy old boy, you seem to find this pretty amusing. Maybe you find it a little too amusing. Know what I mean? What do you say to a little friendly competition?

So that’s how it came to pass that Murphy and me raided our wives’ stashes of lingerie and ended up giving this show, which wasn’t supposed to be at all public, it was just supposed to be me and Murphy with our wives doing the judging. But then the kids got involved. You know how wives are with kids. Always getting them involved.

So … being an engineer with 26 years experience one thing I know is planning. I’ve done plenty of sales presentations and first and foremost you need lighting. So let me tell you I’d done my homework. There was lighting and a stage and a runway, and, well, you know how kids are too, next to wives, they’re the most talkative, so word gets around the dentistry school and the other schools the kids attend and so pretty much by then we’ve got cars pulling up and a crowd gathers. Now, I’ve done pretty well in life and have a fair-size great room, and even with the stage and runway me and Murphy rolled up our sleeves and built ourselves — I had to help him along in the hammering department but he got the gist of it — there was still room for maybe 50 people. Like I say, I’ve been fortunate in life to have a good-sized great room.

Now, Murphy huffed and puffed about how he wasn’t planning on a crowd, but I figure anything worth doing is worth doing for an audience, you know, nothing to hide, just a little friendly competition.

So we flipped a coin like in the NFL and Murphy won and elected to receive, that is, go on offense, so the first outfit he chooses is this weird leather and latex number, and I’m thinking, how did he even find that in his wife’s closet? I know there’s nothing in there like that because I’ve done a good bit of friendly-neighbor pawing around in there myself when they’ve had us over and I’ve had to go upstairs to use the john. I never saw anything like that in there.

But anyway, the point of all this is, that you never know. You just never know. And Murphy, in fact, though I did my best, and though I can still beat him in tennis, Murphy won the popular vote and I had to pay him $50. Which I did promptly after the event, in cash. And who called the police and why I’ll never know, because I’m fairly certain you don’t need a cabaret permit for a private party. I could go into all the things that happened after that, but let’s just say life throws you curveballs and you do your best to catch them. I was only doing what I thought was right, but people seem to get overly upset when they find a man in the wife’s closet, going through her things. I do understand that, now, now that it’s been explained to me. In my mind, it was all a series of unfortunate misunderstandings, but even with the best lawyer I ended up doing a little time over it, which really ruffled the family feathers, believe you me, but prison wasn’t anything like they make it out to be, not if you watch your P’s and Q’s and use a little politeness.

I never had any trouble there at all. In fact, looking back on it, I think I learned a thing or two.

One thing I learned is you just never know. You think you do, but not really. Like my boss at Martin Marietta, a good Episcopalian like me. What did he do the minute word got out? Well, he let me go. A little sheepish, I’d say Andy was. Sheepish. But still. They let me go, which did not seem very Episcopalian to me. Not at all.

But look on the bright side. That’s what’s gotten me through the unemployment and the disapproving looks I get at Whole Foods, the murmurs of disapproval you hear in the neighborhood and so forth, and all the awkwardness at the company and even in church, which I continue to attend regularly.

Like I say, look on the bright side. Things could be worse. You just never know.

I mean, look at Murphy for heaven’s sake. Just look at Murphy!

—–

Cary Tennis is the advice columnist for Salon.com

Read more stories by Cary Tennis

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This piece was read as part of the inagural production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.  Other pieces in the series include:

Die Brizl, by Scott Lambridis

The Fix, by Benjamin Wachs

The Rape Parade, by Carolyn Cooke

Sculpture Garden, by Ben Black

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“I wonder where he’s going?” said Momma. I looked up from the floor to see what she was talking about. In the far distance a man walked towards our home.

“Who’s that Momma?” I asked.

“That’s Mr. Mason.” She said.

“I remember him!”

Mr. Mason was always so nice, here he used to help out around the house all the time a few years ago. I stood up from the porch to run toward him.

“Don’t you move.” said Momma.

I stopped dead in my tracks.

“How strange, cialis ” said Momma. “How very strange.”

I turned to Momma and then turned back to Mr. Mason. He was dancing now. A funny, cialis eccentric dance. I wanted to join him, he looked like he was having so much fun. “Momma can I dance with him?”

Momma said nothing. Mr. Mason continued to dance and move rhythmically towards the house.

“Very strange indeed.” said Momma.

“What’s so strange?” I asked.

Mr. Mason had almost reached our porch when Momma stood up and yelled “Go back to where ya’ came from now. We don’t want any trouble, you are not welcome here Mr. Mason. YOU ARE NOT WELCOME!” Just then slowly but surely Mr. Mason stopped, turned around and began dancing away from us.

“Momma,” I said “That was rude.”

Momma sat back down in her rocking chair, shook her head and hummed an old gospel song to herself.

“Well,” I said “I never knew that Mr. Mason could dance like that.”

Momma looked up at me and laughed, “Yeah he was always a good dancer and I would have let you go out there and dance with him to…if he were still alive.”

My heart almost dropped into my stomach. In a state of shock, I watched Mr. Mason dance all the way back to the graveyard.

—–

Rickey Rivers Jr lives in Mobile, Alabama. He mostly writes short stories and flash fiction. He has been published in everydayfiction and flashesinthedark.

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If I hold the candle high enough, see I can just about see it. I reach higher and higher, I stretch so much I feel as though I’m going to snap. I’m almost out of here. I’m balancing on my tip toes, just a little more higher and …

A hand grips my ponytail and pulls me backwards. The candle falls from my hand; my head hits the bare floorboards, then darkness.

‘We can’t go out there, don’t you understand? Not today, not any day, it’s not safe, remember?’ A voice whispers above me. I can’t see her face but it’s her, it’s always her.

‘Don’t you ever listen to me child?’ I feel a hand touch my face; it runs over my nose and lips, fumbles to the side of my face and finds my ear.

Her breath is warm, her voice soft. ‘We can’t go out there,’ she whispers in my ear again. It sends a shiver down my spine that goes right to my toes.

‘But I ….’

‘Shhhhhh.’ I imagine her raising her finger to her lips. Maybe that’s the good thing about living in darkness, I can imagine whatever I want and no one can take it from me. Like the walls are really bright yellow, and there’s a window above my bed that lets in lots of sunlight and birds flyby and….

‘Shhhhhh, I told you.’ I lay still, maybe they heard my thoughts? Maybe they’re outside the door waiting to smash it down and grab me, to drag me from this cave I call home. They’re out there, and they’re coming to get me.

There’s a noise, a very faint noise, my eyes search the room.

‘Look, I can see….’ I point to my discovery. Light pours through the gap under the door casting long beams of light across the floor. We both rush towards it, me crawling, my white skirt, which is now dirty and frayed getting caught under my knees and her running.

‘Now look what you’ve done, they can never see us, no one must know we are here.’ She pushes the scrawled up piece of newspaper back under the door and then it’s gone. The light is extinguished, just like my hope of ever getting out of here.

No one will ever find me, because no one is looking, does anyone even know I exist?

She tells me I’m seven, that means seven years of nothingness, seven years of wondering what it’s like on the outside, because there is one, she’s told me so, she’s never kept it from me. There’s swings and parks and lollipops too but not for me she says, I can never have any of it because humans are bad. They do bad things to each other, they make the world unsafe. When I’m eight I’ll be able to reach that lock and run right out of here. I won’t even have to go on my tippy toes and I’ll face those bad humans.

‘Get away from the door child, get into the corner.’

‘No one’s going to hurt us Mummy, not everyone is bad.’

There’s a smell of burning and then a ball of light, I watch as the flame flickers. She holds the match in her hands steady, her eyes fixated on the burning glow. She smiles but I’m not sure why. She lowers the match and relights the candle.

‘And how would you know?’

I walk over to the naughty corner, head down.

‘Sit in the corner and read your book, here, light another candle.’

‘But I read it, loads and loads of times.’

‘But not the way I want you to read it. You must learn the way my mother taught me, so you can remember every word, so that if I test you, you can recite each chapter and verse.

‘But I…’

She lunges towards me, I cower down by the sink, my back against the wall but she’s too quick. Her face presses against mine. I can see hot wax dripping down the candle on to her hand, she doesn’t flinch.

‘Count yourself lucky. This cellar is much bigger than the hole I lived in. It’s worse living under the stairs. Those footsteps, thud, thud, thud. I knew they were coming to get me, mother’s were lighter, but that father of mine, thud, thud, thud.’

‘I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.’ I swing my arms around; kick my feet out but that hand is upon me again forcing me to the ground. It clamps around my neck getting tighter and tighter, how can one arm be so strong? It locks me in place; I’m glued to the floor like a squashed mosquito.

‘Lord have mercy on your soul child, that you be shown the error of your ways.’

The walls are starting to cave in on me, the darkness is swallowing me. I can’t fight anymore; my energy is being sucked out of me. I pull at her arm with both of my hands, dig my nails into her flesh but it’s no use

‘Lord, keep this child from all the evil people in this world.’

‘Mum…please. I… I can’t ….’

She releases her hand. I gulp on the air. My breathing is heavy, my brown, dusty jumper, full of holes now wet with sweat. I pull my knees into my chest and feel the warm trickle of urine down my legs.

‘Emily. I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m, forgive me.. I …’ She reaches out a hand but I daren’t touch her.

I watch as she walks away, the only image is the flame flickering and the trail of smoke it leaves behind her. I see nothing else but my hands are my eyes and I know every shape in this damp cellar. I know the table and two chairs live in the middle of the room, and the food cupboard hides in the corner. There’s a shelf above the sink where I keep my Mickey Mouse tooth brush and then there’s the fireplace, but there’s no fire anymore, it’s just a hole now filled with a mattress and pillow. Mummy reckons I should be grateful, that I’ve got more room than she ever had when she lived under the stairs. I keep testing her, hoping she’ll remember anything that was good. She reckons she only escaped because God sent a miracle and made her parents forget to bolt the door again. She grabbed her moment and ran and ran and ran.

‘Why do you keep us locked up in here Mummy?’ I ask between sniffles as I wipe my nose in my jumper.

‘I’ve told you, because humans are sick, so we’re better off in here, just me and you. Safe from the outside. As long as you stay with me, you’re safe, no one can hurt you, not even them, you understand? If you try to escape, they’ll kill both of us.’

‘Not everyone can be as mad as your Ma and Pa? Mummy….. can I have a cuddle?’ She’s silent for what seems ages, I daren’t move.

‘For a short while and then sleep for you.’

I cuddle into her, and lay my head on her chest. Her breast is like a fluffy pillow and my head rises up and down with each breath she takes. Her brown, scraggly hair falls around her face. It smells real bad; she makes me wash mine till my scalp burns. I take a piece of her hair and twist it around my finger and snuggle into her dress, it’s way too big for her. This is the Mummy I like best, not the other one. I look upwards to her; I know her face is there even if I can’t see it.

I want to tell her I know her dirty little secret. She thinks I’m dumb, but I know this darkness better than her, I was born here, I know every inch, every hole, and that door opens, it opens and there’s an outside, an outside I want to live in, with pretty dresses and friends to play with. No baddies ever come in but she always goes out.

She creeps out and always manages to step on the squeaky floorboards and wakes me up, she thinks I’m still sleeping but really I’m wide awake by then. She lights a candle and walks over to the door and disappears for an hour or even two, then she’s back, she’s back with food and stuff. She tells me it’s a gift from God, that he leaves it by the door for us when we’re sleeping. She tells me lies, if it was that unsafe, she wouldn’t go out there. She thinks by locking me up in here, I’ll be safe, but this bad Mummy I have is just as bad as the other nasty people in this world.

‘Your daddy was a bad human too.’ I remember her telling me that when I asked why so many of her teeth were missing.

I can barely feel her breath on me now, her body seems limp and every few seconds there’s the biggest snore ever. This could be my chance, but I can’t reach, I know I can’t reach it. She’s caught me before. Like the time when I tried to balance on a tin of beans and I fell and twisted my ankle, so she puts everything up high now. If I try again she will starve me for the day. The crying of an empty stomach is enough to make me think twice. This time I’ll be much better, I’ve a new plan. I’ve been hard at work, scraping the sticky stuff that makes the chairs stick to the floor, I’m a great worker at night, don’t need eyes for that job.

I break free from the arm around me and tip toe to the chair.

My heart crashes against my chest, if it wasn’t glued into my body I’m sure it would smash its way out. I hear it thumping in my ears and rattling around in my head. I put my hands on my temples and clamp my eyes shut.

‘It’ll pass, like a ship floating by and then calm.’ I mutter in my head but it doesn’t. I take a deep breath and put my hands on the chair.

I feel the smoothness of the wood in my hands. I fumble along its back until I reach its legs, bend and pick it up; it’s free at long last. I want jump and dance and scream all at the same time but there’s no time.

She coughs. If she wakes, if she sees me, if she knows I’m up to no good. I hold my breath. My whole body seems to be taking on a life of its own, shaking and creaking but she settles, how lucky am I?

My muscles strain, my back slouches, but I make it to the door. I jump up; unbolt the lock and the door creaks open. A gush of air seeps from its grasp, it tickles my noise. Scrunched up bits of newspaper fall from the door frame. There’s so much light, it stings my eyes. I use my hand to cover them and the other to feel my way around. I sneak a peek through my fingers. There’s lots of tins and packets on shelves, a cooker too. My stomach lets out a loud, crying noise.

I pull my hand away. I’m waiting for them to come and get me, to come charging over and beat me but nothing. I walk across the floor; the tiles are cold on my feet and I run to another door. This time I can reach it. I pull it open. There’s cars and trees and a garden too. I smell grass; I hold a finger under my nose to stop me sneezing.

‘Emily, get back here, they’ll kill you, get back here now.’ I turn. I can see the size of her eyes before anything else bearing down on me. Her face takes it in turns to go red and white.

She runs towards me, this whole stranger who I’ve never seen completely, only the parts that the candlelight dares to show.

She grabs my arm and tries to pull me back into the house. I twist and turn and fall to the ground. The carpet burning my legs as she drags me back down the hallway.

‘Let go, let go of me you crazy bitch.’ I reach up and sink my teeth into her hand; I squeeze so hard I can taste her blood in my mouth. She pushes me back and stands there; mouth draped open, clutching her hand.

‘Where are they then? Go on, tell me where, Mother.’

‘They’re here, all around us, they’ll come and kill you. They’ll lock you up under the stairs, beat you, starve you, try and….’

Her eyes are all bloodshot and glazy, her lips tremble. I take her hand in mine and squeeze it. She must have been so scared as a child. Her eye brows crease and she stares down at me. ‘Emily. I’ve been a terrible Mother, I thought I was protecting you but I….’

She stands there in silence. She’s been ill forever but no one needs to know. I’ll take good care of mummy on the outside now, there’s no need for us to be scared at all.

—–

Claire Hay, lives in South Wales, UK. A lover of tennis and writing, she has had some short stories and flash fiction published. She currently works as a HR professional and is starting to think about writing her first novel.

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My love for him was the stiffened dignity of an old world order walking to its demise through the gauntlet of his post-modern sensibilities. He acted as if the reality of his death absolved him from accountability to the future. Acted as if the context of emotional relativity was an excuse for bad manners. “I am a man with no expectations, sovaldi sale ” he would say. Not true. He expected me to believe him.

I try to give him his humanity. Already you can sense I’m having difficulty. His humanity is not mine to give. He has a humanity all his own, unhealthy bestowed on him by nature or nurture or both. I could define it for him, ailment or describe it to him, but I wouldn’t be accurate. I’m not purely objective. In fact, I don’t like him. I may even hate him if I’d let myself go that far.

That’s the crux of it, isn’t it? A matter of preference. As in, he didn’t prefer me. I most certainly would ‘ve thought better of his humanity if he had.

This isn’t about some world crisis, though, is it? Just another failed attempt at romance. Girl stuff, I guess. We’re the only ones left who persist in believing in the complementary possibilities inherent in romance. Still, I think the world would have fewer crises if the people in it could learn to make their preference for one person over another less obvious.

His voice would get all soft and caring when he spoke to her. When he spoke to me he wasn’t soft. He wasn’t mean, either. Just not all velvet and gentle, which would have given me the impression that I was delicate, someone to be cared for, protected.

Maybe I don’t come across that way. Delicate. Precious. Someone to be cared for and protected. So then this is my fault? Is that what you’re thinking?

Listen. He didn’t tell me about her. I had to guess by paying strict attention—to the way his voice tone changed, to the way he avoided touching me in public, how he would step away when I drew close. Clues. Having a relationship these days is like trying to solve a god damned mystery. Being with him was like standing beside a chalk outline and wondering what the hell happened.

I could be so mean. Blood lust. Vengeance. Don’t think I haven’t thought about it. I could be Pakistan about to ignite the bomb. Unrequited love and nothing to be done about it? Betrayal AND impotence? Now there’s a combination that proves lethal every time.

And yet my heart, it appears, is a vagrant who’ll go anywhere for a meal. He and I are friends now.

—–

Mary Magagna lives in California but comes from Wyoming

Read more stories by Mary Magagna

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Eddie Luhan was a poet, seek though he hadn’t written a word he liked in almost five years, sovaldi sale hadn’t sent a poem out to any journals, pills hadn’t given a single reading in all that time. Yet when he left his house near the Pueblo, and drove his old rattling army Jeep into town, he discovered that he was still something of a local celebrity. People in Taos tended to show him respect. There weren’t a lot of groupies hovering around these days, but apparently his old poems had a life of their own, and his reputation still served to attract the curious ones, the adventurous ones, and the slightly crazy ones. Those who held shared memories with him always smiled with the sort of world-weariness he felt himself on these crisp fall days when the chamisa bloomed golden on the mesas and along the ridges.

Dori’s Bakery was closing soon, which broke Eddie Luhan’s heart. He loved the bakery. In the past he’d often held court there over breakfast. It was his best first place to go when the New Mexico sun was just revving up its thermostat, and the red rocks and blue sky were coming into focus. Where would he go now?

He sipped his pinon coffee, buttered bread, and studied the patrons, a few tourists. He was the only Indian in the place and the only regular until Bernstein walked in. He waved a hand, and Eddie Luhan nodded. What the hey? Bernstein ordered a stack of hotcakes, pulled up a chair, and slopped coffee on the tabletop.

“You gotta wake up, man.”

Eddie Luhan studied him? What did the fussy little bookseller from New York want now? “Why?” he said. His first word of the morning. Dori always prepared his usual on a nod and a wink.

“Eddie, man, she was at it again last night after the reading at Tazos. You have got to do something about her. Good reading, too. You should have been there.”

Eddie Luhan hadn’t missed anything, he was certain. Two poets from Santa Fe, followed by an open mike, which would draw: touristy poets, cowboy poets, that lesbian poet with the dangling 6” beard, Dennis Hopper wanabees, more drunken losers than he could stomach, plus her of course. The old girlfriend. Star. The one who’d stuffed most of his drafts from the long dry spell into a backpack and walked away.

“Did she read well?”

“Well enough I guess, but it was so obvious they were your poems man, and she’s showing them off as her own. I mean there’s just no way.” And then Bernstein sneezed. Caught the snot in his hand. Rubbed it on a napkin. “I mean you have got to do something about it. She’s got to stop.”

Eddie Luhan considered what Bernstein was saying. Watched as the nervous man adjusted his glasses, took them off, attempted to clean them with the snotty napkin, failed, licked the glasses and tried again.

“Did she win the slam?”

Bernstein looked exasperated. “Well, of course she did.”

Eddie Luhan smiled before sticking his fork into another slab of bacon and raising it to his lips.

***

Nobody else had found their way up the mesa to the hot spring so early in the day. Eddie Luhan was glad. He submerged his naked body into the bubbling water and tried to forget watching Bernstein eat. That had proved even more comical than watching him clean his glasses. He’d managed to drip syrup everywhere. So instead he thought about Star, about their time together.

She was a tiny woman and he was a large man. Their relationship had a circus quality to it from the very beginning. He had first seen her at the laundry mat. And then again at the vegetarian place he’d helped build out on the highway. He’d been doing some repairs for Syn and Raven, the lesbian couple who owned the place. He liked them and they liked him, though their patrons always drew in a shocked breath or two when he walked through the door. He knew he scared most people when he rose up to his full 6’ 7”. But he generally walked slightly stooped, slightly bent over. Bad knees. Too many games of hoops on the rez. He creaked slightly when he moved now and didn’t have the same zip.

He remembered that it was abundantly clear right away that Star didn’t realize she was sitting in a lesbian place. She was attracting a lot of attention and was slightly freaked. The crazy streak was pretty apparent though. He’d accepted some lunch as payment for fixing the bathroom electrical outlets, he loved the dressing Raven put on the salads, the sesame seeds and lemon and tahini mix he could never duplicate. It was like inhaling lemons with every bite. Eddie Luhan was man who loved his citrus.

Star had smiled at him and he’d winked at her and that had been enough for her to flee to his table and attach herself to him for the next few years. His shadow swallowed hers when they walked.

Star’s craziness manifested itself in a nuclear temper, foul language, self-destruction, and the paranoid idea that everybody was out to get her. Even Eddie Luhan. He was confident enough in himself and his place in the universe not to let her throw him off kilter. But even his enormous patience was pushed to the limit.

She cheated on him, she got drunk and forgot to come home, or else she crashed his Jeep and the cops would bring her home. The sex was good when they had sex. But Star would give and give and love and love and then she’d dry up like a dusty arroyo. Eddie Luhan was finally coming to grips with the cycle of her good times and bad. Then she went too far. She came to him straight from another’s bed and didn’t clean up. He could smell the other man on her, smell the sex. He’d been sleeping and Star had tried to start something, her breath like whiskey, her words slurred, trying to arouse him.

Hurt, angry, disgusted, he’d climbed out of bed and walked outside into the desert. Behind him he could hear her screaming and breaking things in his place.

When he returned, she was gone. She’d scrawled a note meant to pull his chain. The language was crude and rude. He remembered searching around on the floor for the frying pan and coffee pot. He remembered that numbly he’d fried eggs, bacon, and made coffee. He remembered the first forkful and how good it had tasted with that first sip of fresh roast until his eyes eventually focused on the open drawers of his writing desk.

After that he’d been angry. Revenge fantasies blossomed bigger and wilder than desert flowers after a summer rain. He wanted to hurt Star in the worst way. She knew he didn’t write with a computer. She’d taken his originals and his drafts. He had nothing to show for the past five years, the years since the appearance of his only book of poems—-Ghost Oceans. She’d taken everything. This wasn’t about heartbreak. He hadn’t loved her in awhile, he had come to pity her, and to wish to help her mood swings. No, his reaction was born of betrayal. Pure and simple.

In the old days, Sioux Indians would wrap a white man in a buffalo hide and wet it down to shrink in the hot sun. In the old days, Indians would bury a man up to his neck in desert sand and leave them without water to die of thirst. Both punishments seemed too good for Star. His anger consumed him for a while. He got drunk and ran his Jeep into a ditch. In a panic he tried to recall his poems from memory. Saved one, saved another. No more. He was blocked. Couldn’t write a word. Couldn’t think of anything new . . . only revenge.

Eddie Luhan heard voices. Two women cresting the hill, coming to the hot spring. Normally he’d stay put. Let them deal with his presence. Not today. He stood up and picked his jeans off of the sagebrush where he’d set them. The women stopped talking and paused in their climb up the hill. Eddie waved. They took him all in and giggled awkwardly. He dressed quickly, waved again, and took a different path back down.

***

Moby Dickens Bookshop was wall to wall. The audience locked on the grizzled writer at the front, a dead ringer for Stevie Ray Vaughn. The reader stopped when he noticed Eddie Luhan, and his face lit up into a broad grin. After a pause he continued reading his story about the Vietnam War, prisons, death, and redemption.

After his friend Stu had signed every autograph and talked with every pretty face, Eddie Luhan made his way over.

The two large men hugged and laughed.

“Damn, it’s good to see you Bear.”

“I see you still draw a crowd.”

“Thanks for coming. I miss reading your stuff. You have to get a new book out.” And the man pulled a curled up copy of Eddie’s one book from his duster.

Eddie Luhan was moved.

“I carry this everywhere I go my brother, everywhere I go.”

“Eddie does need to write a new book,” a woman said.

Star.  She was so small she’d disappeared behind the bookshelves. Eddie Luhan hadn’t even noticed her. But here she was now in her fringe jacket, the lace-up moccasins he’d given her, and a pair of silver eagle feather earrings.

“So you guys know each other?” Stu asked.

Eddie Luhan’s face was inscrutable his teeth grinding. What could he say? He wanted to fade into the desert night. Catch a thermal and soar above Angel Fire.

“Sure, Eddie’s hard to miss in this little town,” Star said. “Everybody knows Eddie.” She was smiling. She’d been at some wine or maybe the Bush Mills.

Her breath smelled of alcohol. The scent Eddie Luhan remembered best about her to his chagrin.

“We’re going over to . . . where are we going again Star?” Stu looked puzzled.

“Tapas de Taos.”

“Why don’t you join us for dinner?”

So that’s how it was. Before Eddie Luhan could say anything, an exasperated Bernstein gave Star a withering glance, and in his role as reading series host asked Stu to sign some more copies of his books.

“You guys go on, I’ll join you in a bit,” Stu said.

“You know where the restaurant is?” Star asked.

“This isn’t New York ya know.” He pointed to Bernstein and the spirited woman who managed the shop, her eyes the same color as the turquoise that adorned her arms, her neck, and her ears. “I’m sure they can steer me in the right direction.” The manager’s laugh was like delicate birdsong as Stu joined her at the front counter.

Star hooked an arm around Eddie Luhan’s thick belt and tugged. “Let’s go.” This small woman impossibly pulling this large man.

Once they hit the street, she released her grip. “I didn’t know you knew Stu.”

“Is that a question?” Eddie Luhan was surprised to discover that he wasn’t pissed at her. He was amused. Star was not subtle. His time away from her crazy streak gave him clarity–tonight he could see her coming miles away like a storm across the prairie.

“Look, I don’t want to play word games with you. I’m with Stu and I don’t need a lot of your Native American mystical b.s.”

The streets were still jammed with traffic, rarely deserted even on September weeknights. They walked the block or so to the restaurant. Every room in the place featured a different color paint job. They settled in the blue room and ordered drinks.

Eddie Luhan was surprised to hear early Rolling Stones over the sound system. “The Singer Not the Song.” He remained silent, listening. Star was getting anxious, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before she exploded. And eventually she did.

“I did it for you, to shock you out of your apathy. To try and get you to open up and air this work out. Let it breathe Eddie. Let it breathe, c’mon. You’re a great poet and you’ve lost your way.”

“Is that so?”

“Well, think what you want. But that’s why I did it.

“That’s why you stole my work? Or why you left me?”

“It’s just as much my work, you wrote those poems about me. I think you owe me that much.”

She’s terrified, Eddie Luhan realized. Paranoid. Afraid I’ll blow her cover to Stu. Afraid I’ll take her new poet personae away. She’d have to leave Taos. She hadn’t liked the place very much until he’d escorted her around his favorite haunts. Now she tried to carry herself like a native Taosonian. Quite a stretch for a tiny gal from Newark, New Jersey.

Star crossed her legs and bent over to retie one of the moccasins. She’d been genuinely happy when he’d given them to her. Girlish. And though a few moments ago he’d wanted to slap her across the parking lot, now he felt something unexpected. She must have felt it, too. Eddie Luhan tried to hold onto his anger to churn it around a little bit. But Star fingered a curl and smiled–a genuine smile that gave off sparks. What memories co-existed between them seemed to surge to some kind of mutual understanding. So, Eddie Luhan forgave Star. She can’t help it, he thought. She’s just plain off and nothing I say or do will change that. Yet she had her winning moments and this was one of them. Something inside of him began to lift. Then Stu arrived with Bernstein and the evening unwound calmly, predictably, with Stu telling tales about how he first met Bear at a writer’s conference in Missoula. When Bernstein started to out Star, Eddie Luhan chilled him with a wink and a headshake, so the little man made an excuse and left. Soon Eddie Luhan did the same.

“See you around Star,” he said. Her face relaxed for the first time all evening.

“This little gal’s a mighty fine poet,” Stu said Sotto voce, one hand clamped on Eddie Luhan’s shoulder. “Reminds me of your work.”

Eddie Luhan smiled. Stu’s eyes were asking a question he didn’t feel like answering, so he drifted off into the night.

Once past the Kit Carson house, he reclaimed his Jeep and droves out to the gorge, another of his favorite places. He parked and walked off down into the sagebrush, his flashlight sweeping light back and forth on the rocks. He walked for a long time, stopping at the sound of running water. Sat with his flashlight off and listened to the water talk and emptied his head of Star and Stu and Bernstein and poetry.

Soon he was thinking about his father dying in his arms. He’d found the old man at the bottom of a ravine in Truchas, his head caved in on a rock. The blood like paint. When he’d hoisted his father’s body into his lap, the sand had clung to the mouth and face. The old man felt like a papier-mâché version of himself. A husk. The spirit flown. Then he thought about holding his sister’s baby, Walking Rain, how he’d been astonished by the volume of her wails. Her little scrunchy face. Her perfect little fingers and toes. So small he could hold her in one hand if he dared. Death in life, life in death. All part of the great wheel.

And then Eddie Luhan studied the Milky Way above his head. The star wheel. He chuckled, the chill already creeping into his sad knees.

***

Eddie Luhan was stiff when the sun came up. He must have dozed some. A magpie was singing. When he stretched, the bird flitted from branch to branch in a large cottonwood tree by the banks of the creek. And he realized he had always loved the flash of white on the black bird when it opened its wings, that he loved the magpie’s shrill call.

The magpie watched Eddie Luhan pat his denim jacket pockets, searching for a pen and something to write on.

—–

Richard Peabody edits Gargoyle Magazine and has published a novella, two books of short stories, six books of poems, plus an e-book, and edited (or co-edited) nineteen anthologies. He teaches fiction writing for the Johns Hopkins Advanced Studies Program.

—–

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The shrill laughter of the women, cialis sale booming male voices raised in discussion of politics and warfare, site the clink of fine crystal and the clatter of rat-tail silver on rare, health gold-embellished Sevres flatware drift down the lofty shaft of the dumb-waiter to where the brigade of cooks bustles in the steamy kitchen.

Overseeing all, the Chef, Monsieur Edouard, and the Butler, Graves. They work as a silent team, the fixed points around which all other activity revolves. They taste, consult, an eyebrow is raised and a modicum of spice or salt is added to the array of dishes in preparation for the dinner that has just begun in the grand, Gothic panelled dining room above their heads.

There are Peers of the Realm, a former Prime Minister, a Head of the Church, four generals, an Air Vice-Marshall, and two noted philosophers at the table of Lord and Lady Albacore tonight.

There is no indication, in the splendour and the gaiety, of the war that rages beyond the high stone walls of the estate. Perhaps the military men would better be employed in guiding tactics and logistics on the western front of the campaign. Perhaps the statesman should be on hand as an advisor to his young and ambitious successor, whose rise to power he so elegantly steered from behind the scenes. No doubt the Lords should be in the Upper Chamber tonight for the debate; and almost certainly the clergy and the philosophers should be deep in pensive meditation on how to sustain the morale of a damaged nation at this time of crisis… but when the Albacores of Gorey Manor invite one to dine, not even Vandals at the gate could prevail over the urge to sit a padded bottom on a Chippendale chair and tuck in to the fine wines and sumptuous food for which such soirées are renowned.

There is no indication, either, in the menu for the feast, of the rationing and the shortages to which lesser mortals are subject at this trying time in the nation’s history.

A chilled soup, the pale, translucent green of a jade figurine, has already been served to the eager diners. The chef himself has gathered the leaves from the walled kitchen garden, and the cream was provided by the estate’s fat Jersey cows just this morning.

The shallow bowls, wiped clean of every speck, have just descended in the dumb-waiter, and chef and butler exchange a discreet smile of satisfaction as a maid scuttles them away to the kitchen lad for washing.

Next comes the fish course. Quenelles de brochet – fat dumplings of pike, fished from the Manor’s private lake, light as clouds floating on a pool of dill-flecked almond sauce. Graves lifts a spoon to check the sauce just as it is to be poured, but Chef Edouard stays his hand.

“There is no need, my friend, all is as it should be.”

Graves nods. “Of course, Chef, I defer to your palate on such an occasion.”

And the fish is away is the creaking lift, to be presented by the serving staff along with the chilled 1932 Chablis chosen by Graves from the vast wine cellar to accompany the dish.

The laughter from above is more raucous still, by the time the last morsels of the great freshwater predator have been consumed and the fish knives and forks have been gathered away. Two of the generals are mapping out the Battle of Waterloo with salt cellars and mustard pots, fiercely contesting a point of strategy, while the Churchman tops up his glass of Pétrus from the decanter at his side and mildly tries to intervene with a homily about the feeding of the five thousand, quite unrelated to the battle of the cruets and thus ignored by the generals.

The main course is pigeon, shot by Graves himself ten days ago in the coppice on the hill that overlooks the manor, and left in the cool store to hang by the neck until so ripe as to be almost rotten – just the way Lord Albacore likes it. The birds have been roasted intact, their bald heads tucked under a plucked wing, and can be torn apart by the diners for whom such manners, which would shock the common people, are considered perfectly correct form. The birds’ gizzards have been pounded to a rich paté to be served on heart-shaped croutons, as Lady Albacore demands. Chef’s underlings have peeled and turned carrots and potatoes into unnatural little bullet shapes by way of accompaniment. A rich wine sauce, scented with juniper and other berries, will coat each plate with its blood-black juices.

By the time the dinner plates are empty but for gnawed bones and beaks and claws, some diners are inclined to take stroll around the grounds, but here the war does play its part, and the heavy velvet drapes must not be parted to let a chink of light escape. And so they sit back, and pat their stomachs in mild protest, and pick at fruits and water ices to settle their stomachs before the cheese board and the nuts and grapes and, of course, the ancient pipe of Port, are hauled up the dumb-waiter and brought to the table. Graves is on hand to decant the Port, and to advise on the choice of cheeses – English classics such as Stilton and Wensleydale, for even Monsieur Edouard cannot work a miracle and call upon cheese from France while the seas swarm with gunships and submarines.

If anyone is feeling at all nauseous, or a trifle unsettled, he or she would never be so impolite as to mention it in such elevated company.

Downstairs, the kitchen is becoming quieter. The brigade of sous-chefs has left for the night, heading back to the estate’s tied village through the still, dark night.

As the last plates return to the kitchen, Chef Edouard is wiping down the surfaces himself, assiduous in his thoroughness. He waves the kitchen boy away from the sink and the lad has grabbed his cap and coat and is out the door, whistling, before Chef has a chance to change his mind.

It is quieter, too, upstairs now. The gentlemen have retired to the billiards room for brandies and cigars, the ladies have declined coffee or tea and are making their way unsteadily up the grand oak staircase to bed. Graves stands silently at the foot of the stairs, listening. His sharp ears, as every butler worth his salt must have, pick up the faint sounds of the lady philosopher vomiting into the basin of the Blue Boudoir. A slight smile crosses his lips.

It will be the first of many such unfortunate upsets tonight. For every course has had a tiny, subtle addition, as yet unrecorded by Larousse Gastronomique. A rogue berry here, a note of bitter almond there, a pinch of this, a modicum of that…

Graves returns to the kitchen, where Chef Edouard waits alone. The two men shake hands in silence. Their job is done. Graves pours them each a glass from the remains of the Pétrus, and they sip in silence.

A bell rings, urgently, on the board above the doorway. The Master Bedroom bell. They look at one another. It has begun. In a few moments a chambermaid on the top floor will hear it and then…

They don their coats in silence, and leave the kitchen, Chef clicking off the main switch as he closes the door. They both have bicycles propped against the wall of the scullery.

“You go on ahead,” says Graves. “I’ll catch you up.”

Chef nods. There is a train to catch and people that will meet them to spirit them away and pay them well for tonight’s work. He has no intention of missing it. He mounts the bike and starts to pedal off.

Graves picks up a shotgun from behind the wisteria, aims, and fires. The loud retort echoes around the silent grounds, but it’s just like any night, when gamekeepers and poachers are on the prowl. After the brief cry and the clatter, there is just the quiet whirr of free-spinning wheels.

Graves mounts his own bike. He has no intention of catching the train. He has not done this for the money. He has been waiting to do this for years and years. Another small smile passes across his face as he puts his foot to the pedal and moves off, past the motionless form that was Monsieur Edouard, down the long gravel drive.

It is dark, and he is lost in pensive satisfaction at a job well done. On any other night, he might have spotted the tree branch lying in his path, but not on this night. He is jerked into flight before he knows what has happened, and the last thing he hears is the first scream echoing from the Manor as a chambermaid enters the master bedroom, and Graves, the loyal servant, the devoted butler, the dutiful slave, laughs. Then he, too, like those he served, is dead and gone.

—–

Fay Franklin is a seasoned travel guide book editor and writer. However, she often strays away from the world of non-fiction as a regular participant in the weekly Show Me Your Lits literary flash fiction writing challenge, where this story originated. Her work has been published in The Legendary and HazardCat e-zines.

—–

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

City of Human Remains, cialis by Darren Callahan, thumb 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 57 can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Cameras on 39 – 2 Corridor, mind North (2CN)

Running.  Past the corner wall.  Running.  The boy’s removed his coat, pilule
slung it over his back, order and exposed his red-spotted shirt and torn trousers.  For a moment, he is not visible to any of the 10 cameras tracking him, except as a blurry dot.  Far off in other systems of the Doll Building, the boy’s weight, height, body temperature, skin color, hair color, eye color, density, speed, structural composition, dental history, and any evident abnormalities are being calculated, called-up, and analyzed.

He’s fast.

He’s covered most of the 39th floor in barely 30 seconds.

His heart rate is rising, but to an acceptable level.  He’s not panicked.  He’s focused.  But he clearly doesn’t know his destination.

He avoided the elevators.  He passed two sets of stairs.  He found a bank of windows and looked out.  But he makes no sound, does not shout for help.  Aside from his steps on the corridor’s carpet, he makes very little sound.  The sensors placed at upper and lower grids barely read 2.6 on a scale of 10.

Another sound, though, makes the needles jump.

ID Print: Sidney Mizuro.

His body is a match, quickly run through the automated system of the building’s security profiles.  The address system in his office has been re-activated.

COME BACK!

The voice of Sidney Mizuro peaks the meter.

YOU CAN’T GO ANYWHERE, KIDDO.

The cameras have lost the boy.  Last location near the west stairs, but sensors show the door as locked.

The dumbwaiter lights.

One green blip.
Every Sunday, for sale Fiction365 presents a new chapter of a previously unpublished novel.

City of Human Remains, purchase 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 58 can be found here. Links to previous chapters are listed below.

Enjoy!

Douglaz Doll

He reclines in his soft and easy-to-adjust yellow chair, sovaldi groping the fabric with the fingers on his right hand, massaging the arm as if it were a cat’s spine.  In his other hand, he holds a tumbler half-full of whiskey and rum – a Brownie, something his father, Robert Quinn Doll, invented.  And his son Douglaz loves him for this, his father’s only invention.

The alcohol tugs his senses. 

His ears are touched by noise – little things, usually unnoticed, such as the breeze through climate vents, the echo of his shifting ice in his glass on the curving wall behind his chair, and the chirping of the chair’s frame when he crosses his legs. 

Oil, he thinks, and the word fades leisurely. 

Other vocabulary comes and goes, too, just as sandy. 

Mustn’t.  Hammock.  Feather in cap.  Watch.  Wristwatch.  Timepiece.  What time is it?

It approaches 7 in the morning.  It may be later than that.  He’s not slept and his eyes show the weight.  He squints and can barely focus on the reflection before him.

His mezzanine sanctum is a ‘D’ shaped room with no view outside.  A wide plex-window, fully covered by an elegant, patterned curtain with spiral print, wraps the wall in front of his recliner.  And on the other side of the curtain is blackness.  The sun has come up.  It must have; he knows.  But the shutters in the adjoining chamber are tightly secured, turning the half-wall into a shadowy mirror. 

Douglaz Doll rises from his sedentary post to peek around the covering curtain.  He sees only shapes.  Soon, he lets the curtain fall back into place and stumbles to his recliner.

To his left sits a life-sized neon palm tree with clear tubing to form the trunk. 

To his right, a dark wood chair, where he has haphazardly stacked 11 hardbound books, all novels. 

Behind him is a watercolor rendering of a weather pole, exquisitely captured by one of his own employees and given to Douglaz as a gift at a company party.  He liked it well enough to hang it (or, at the very least, have it hung on his behalf,) in his most sacred room.  But in the last few weeks, he has decided he doesn’t like it.  More than once, he wishes he had had it destroyed.  Run a knife through it.  Anything to not have the pole staring down his neck, judging him.   

Further to his right and bolted to the curved yellow wall is the most sophisticated piece of equipment he has ever designed.  Flanked by two Spanish shields and covered with oversized dials that can fill a person’s entire palm, the device is something no electrician would even consider.  They would probably not even count it as a functional apparatus.  Possibly a work of art or an antique, but not a practical device. 

Not that anyone would enter this room.  Even with the elevator door seamlessly fitted into the start of the wall, access is limited to non-existent. 

Only Douglaz has the key to the elevator.

He has been cut off for days.  Sidney Mizuro sends messages over the ticker machine that’s embedded in his chair’s armrest.  Other things are sent down the dumbwaiter. 

Plied with fifths of whiskey, rum, cigars, simple sandwiches, there’s really no need to ever leave the mezzanine.  Doll has everything right here in his 200-square-meter sanctuary – even a toilet, shower, and wardrobe, hidden by a narrow door just to the left of the weather pole painting. 

He considers his appearance: checkered green and black pants, cuffs rolled to his ankle socks (1 toe showing), un-tucked button-down shirt, green smoking jacket with white, curvy patterns, in fine condition (if you do not count the whiskey stains), rings on his finger and, around his neck, a faintly feminine necklace.  His hair is dirty, but he keeps it combed back and tight so it just looks gelled to holy hell.

He considers what he was then and what he is now.

A boy, an orphan.

Now. 

Age 50.  Wealthy. 

Owner of a high-rise with only two occupants. 

Correction: 5 occupants.  They have three guests.  The ticker-tape message from the chair arm told him so less than 30 minutes ago. 

Or did I dream that?  I’ve dreamed it before.  That people have arrived.

He drinks his whisky and rum.

Where is my maintenance staff?  

He hired them.  Or, to be more exact, he had Sidney hire them.  6 men.  All dark-skinned and talented.  Or so he was told.  He has never seen any of them.  They must have gone home.  

What are the hours again?  Did Sidney tell me?  Did they have a schedule? 

When he stands from the recliner, Doll has to steady himself with a hand to the footrest. 

He makes his way to the contraption in the corner, passing the twentieth century encasement and closer so he can touch the components.  He reads numbers on the panels, the blinking lights guiding what knobs to turn, what switches to throw.  He returns to his chair satisfied, falling back into the cushion with a great, lazy sigh.

Hello?

Hello?

Noise comes from the dumbwaiter. 

Sid?  Something for me?  Sid?

The tin dumbwaiter vibrates. 

Sid!

The vibration stops.

Doll scoots forward and lets the footrest slip back into the chair’s frame.  His toes touch the trim carpet that resembles a well-mowed, sun-colored lawn. 

He stands. 

Walks to the dumbwaiter. 

Bends, ever so slightly.

Puts a finger to the gold handle.

And rips the dumbwaiter door upwards.

Crouched inside the dumbwaiter’s square bucket, a young boy clenches the tether rope.  His body is shaking, but his face carries fearlessness.  The boy does not flinch and instead meets Douglaz Doll’s suspicious eyes.

Ah, Doll says and steps back a pace. 

He gestures that the boy should come out.

One leg, then the other, hooks over the dumbwaiter’s ledge.  The boy drops inside the sanctum.  He surveys the mezzanine then fixes his gaze on the machine.  You’re Douglaz Doll, he states.  I’ve seen your image.  And they teach you at school.

Doll backs even further, as if he wants the boy at a greater distance to distinguish his full body.

What’s your name?  He asks this in a tone of curiosity and surprise, not accusation.

Hektor, answers the boy.

Doll retreats to his chair.  Dropped next to the footrest are stapled sheets of paper – a list he rifles through before he even knows his destination.

Spell it.

H-e-k-t-o-r.

Doll repeats: Hektor, Hektor, Hektor, Hektor.  He searches with a finger.  Hektor.  Herman?

Hektor.

His finger moves forward again, tracing, turning pages, eyes squinting.  He throws the list to the floor and sighs.  He finishes his drink through a long, loud suck, leaving nothing but the diffused cubes of ice on the bottom. 

You, he says.  Boy.  Hek-tor.  You’re lying.  You’re not on the list.  My list is accurate and it tells me what every one of them is named.  Sidney typed it himself.  And there’s no H-Hektor, he stutters, drunk.  And how did you get in such bad shape?  You look awful.  Worst one I’ve seen.  At least…I think so.  You get beat up by one of the others?

You’ve got them.  Haven’t you? 

What?

The 81.

But aren’t you…?  Wait.  And again: Wait. 

Doll remembers the ticker.  The message from Sidney.  The inventor bounces forward and stabs a venomous finger at the boy.  You’re an impudent little fuck, aren’t you?  This is my home.  You don’t know anything.  Stowaway.  He grabs the boy, turns him around, and smacks his bottom like he is a misbehaving brat. 

Hektor twists away, but not before Doll’s fingers tear the boy’s pants pocket.  The force rips Hektor’s trousers and the pocket comes free, along with a page of folded paper.  Doll separates the page from the fabric while hoping backwards on a foot. 

Hektor rolls into the corner.  He’s against the curtained wall with his fists raised to fight. 

But Doll’s stopped his pursuit.  When he regains his balance, the page in hand distracts him.   Batman? Doll asks in a daze.  He flaps the page at Hektor.  It is the torn inner leaf from a comic book.  Doll’s words are licked by drunkenness:  Did you think… He takes a long, plaintive look at the comic book.  He traces Batman’s cowl with a finger.  Dismissing, he balls the page and tosses it freely across the mezzanine, where it lands on the carpet near his machine.  Revolving around Hektor, he taunts him.  More than a stowaway.  Did, did you, did you think you were a superhero?  Doll’s words are a whisper, less menacing than hallucinatory. 

The boy doesn’t respond.  Keeps his fists raised.

You’re in bad shape, aren’t you, Batman?  Nasty pluck of the ear, that eye.  And yes, I recognize your clothes.  I do.  You’re an orphan? Just like Batman.  What happened to your parents?  Robbed and killed in an alley outside the op-errrrr-a.

They died in a fire, answers the boy.

Doll raises his hands above his head.  I think of all the people that tried to get into this building.  All those parents outside.  And it’s none of them.  It’s you.  What are you, 9 years old?

11.

Sid’s looking for you.  You’re the one who he let in along with that proxy and our priest.  They’re killed soon if they’re not killed already.  Sid will take them out with the trash.  It’s what he does when things smell bad.   Takes the body out and dumps it in the river.

Doll stomps over to the machine and punches buttons, turns dials in a random, unthinking order.  Panel lights switch on and off. 

The boy steps from the curtain. 

Thunderstorms in the East Wards! Doll declares with dramatic glee.  Perfect for a Saturday morning drive! 

The boy’s mouth drops.  That controls the weather?

I built the fucking system – I can knock it down.  Doll gives a last spin to a fat dial and, like an orchestra conductor, madly writhes and bows.  I OWN THIS GODDAMN CITY!  He dances from the machine.  This – (he points) – ‘the wrench,’ I call it.  Does anything I want.  Built on analog circuitry so that they’ll never find it.  Runs every weather pole in 32.  They’re so busy looking for 0s and 1s, they’ve completely ignored what Thomas Edison invented 200 years ago.  I tell you, Batman, you want to put a trick over nowadays, just use something old.  It’s like people forgot that things happened before we were all born!  It’s like everything has to start now, like we’ve pulled it out of thin air, with no sense of history. 

Doll’s fist comes down on the machine’s shield and rattles it in its moorings.  Marching across the mezzanine, he locates his bottle of whiskey buried behind his wooden chair and beside his stack of novels.  With a flick, he topples the books to make way for his mixing.  Rum.  Whiskey. 

Dark Knight want a Brownie? he asks the boy, who says nothing, does nothing.  So Doll continues.  You know, kid.  It was me.  It was me who gave them their stupid money for their goddamn parks.  He mumbles as he stirs with the straw.  Tommy Zigon gets the credit because he drew a few nice pictures.  The city built ‘em for him, with my money.  Anonymous donation.  Not doing one of those again.  See how this city takes advantage?

Doll smiles before continuing:

But what did Ziggy ever do for the city that was as great as what I did?  Tell me THAT.  Old man drops dead at 41 and he’s lionized for some damn swings and slides.  I’ve lived to— Say, how old do you think I am?

The boy shrugs.

Doll smiles.  To a kid, everyone over 18 is a fossil.  He drinks.  I can feel it.  I can.  I can feel my bones crinkin’ up.  21 centuries of progress and they still can’t cure fucking CANCER.  Probably caught it from all the goddamn pollution.  Things change but not fast enough.  People still smoke cigarettes, politicians are still greedy, cars still run on gas, people still get cancer.  I’m an engineer, not a doctor!  I’m done my fucking job, made my contribution.  But what has anyone done for Douglaz Doll! 

He drinks.  And drinks. 

The weather, he huffs.  Just a parlor trick.  It’s meteorology and physics with a stick up its ass.  What I’ve foisted on the city is nothing compared to the ass-kickin’ it tried to give me back.  Franco Cocanaugher wants to rob me of everything when I’ve got just got the 1 thing left.  My sweet little legacy.  They’ll rub me out as soon as those licenses are gone.  I’m pariah.  I’m fucking Nikola Tesla…  Cocanaugher.  Fuck him.  He thinks he runs 32?  He’s doesn’t run ANYTHING! 

Here’s how it happens, young man:

I build something beautiful.  For the city, sure.  But for me.

To see it.  To have done it.

To be remembered for it.

To make money for it.

They want to take it away.  Not even asking.  Just taking.  It’s an insult that can’t be ignored.

Then in the middle of flipping the bird, I get sick.

And nothing can cure me.

So Sidney.  You know Sidney.

Sidney has a list of names from a priest and he talks me into some strange, strange shit.   This is what the doctor ordered, he says.

Take 81 children. 

Tell Cocanaugher nothing. 

Hope he gets the code, the hidden number. 

Zigon built the parks – 81 of them…with my money. 

Ah, ha!  Say le Mayor.  Light goes on: I should pay Mr. Douglaz Doll a visit.  (Here, Doll weeps and falls to his knees, melodramatically in front of the boy.)  Oh, pu-leeze, Mr. Doll.  Help me find those children.  Please help me.  I can’t find a single one and the city thinks I’m shit.  But you must know, because there’s a code that we know about.  Stop hurting and help, will you, pal?  Will you?

Doll gets up from his knees.

But, one of our proxies doesn’t deliver the full batch.  Goes missing and takes six of the kids with him.  And he kills them all.  Now I’m in deep. 

Deep.

Deep.

Deep.

Instead of Mr. Important coming to me for help so I can turn tables on negotiations, he thinks there’s a psycho on the loose and I’m stuck with a bunch of useless kids.

So Sidney says: Take more.  Get that number.

I say we’re giving away the farm.

But I’m so goddamn screwed up from the medicine and this fucking disease, that I…that I…

Pushhhhhht.

Doll stumbles away with a wave and leans on the wall.

I’ll take everything the mayor’s got.  I’ll take his weather, I’ll take his votes, I’ll take the children that play in the very 81 parks I PAID FOR!  I’ll take this godforsaken city right out from under him!

The boy has a glimmer of sympathy.  If you’re sick…maybe there are people who can help you that you haven’t even asked.

Doll scratches his chin.  Optimist, huh?  Well forget it.  It’s in the bones.  I’ve got less than 3 months.  Ah, I’m just screwed all around, Batman. 

The boy stares dumbly. 

Why am I even talking to you?  You don’t know a goddamn thing. 

Doll dismisses with a wave.  He tastes his drink, adds more whisky. 

Money’s what matters.  Money and reputation.  Oh, but Gotham City knows that, doesn’t she?  Those things matter the most.  Doll gives a great sigh of exhaustion.  Money and reputation is all we got in this town. 

Those two things mean everything. 

Always does, always will.

Another voice shoots into the room.

MR. DOLL?

Douglaz Doll snaps back, What!

IS THERE A BOY WITH YOU?

Of course there is.  He came down in the dumbwaiter. 

THE OTHERS ARE TAKEN CARE OF.  IF YOU’LL LET ME DOWN IN THE ELEVATOR, I’LL ATTEND TO THAT BOY.

Leave him alone!  I don’t get much company.  Kid thinks he’s Batman and I’m his Joker. 

MARSHA VAN NUYS AND A POLICE CAPTAIN ARE AT THE BOX.

Doll opens his mouth and shuts it again.  He’s thinking.  Shit.  He drinks.  He looks to Hektor.  He smiles nervously.  Well, Sid…you knew they’d be here eventually…

UNLOCK THE ELEVATOR, PLEASE, MR. DOLL.  I’LL RETRIEVE THE BOY AND GET YOU READY.

Pause.

Doll sets down his drink.  Smiles and rolls his eyes to the boy.  He thinks he employs me instead of the other way around, he whispers to Hektor and then decides.  Okay, Sid.  How about this?  I’ll come to you.  Doll sets down his Brownie.  He dusts his green smoking jacket.  How do I look? he asks the boy, who does not answer.  Do me a favor, Batman.  Help me put on a suit and tie. 

The boy gingerly obeys. 

The man sobers a bit by the time he ties his necktie.  You probably never needed a tie, he laughs to the boy.  You’re lucky.  They choke you. 

When he’s done, Doll inspects himself in a tall mirror nailed to the washroom door. 

Satisfied, he moves to the analog machine. 

A storm’s brewing, Doll comments with a wink.

How do you know?

Because I’m putting the pot on.  He twists the dials, sets the coordinates.  Far outside the building the distant thunder starts.  The tremble grows quickly closer.  A rain to wash the troubles away, Doll laments and rubs the boy’s hair.  He withdraws a circular key from his discarded green smoking jacket.  He locks the dumbwaiter with a swipe.  Stay put, Batman, he says over his shoulder as the elevator doors part.  He seals the last way out with the same, uncaring quickness.

I wanted to kill them, stuff my uncle and aunt, pharm as they bared their teeth like hyenas to laugh at the photo on my mantelpiece.  My friend Marc and his new husband Phillip, stuff in tasteful blue and brown suits,pants rolled up, barefoot in the tide line.  The photo represented a triumphover a childhood of vicious bullying followed by years of subtle but powerfullypainful ostracism.

My aunt and uncle laughing together, whispering like small children, “gays!”

I wanted to kill them.  Or at least hurt them very badly.   I thought of hurling a chair.

Sometimes I get really mad at people, and feel they are responsible for everything that is wrong with the world.  Nobody realizes this about me because I don’t make a lot of noise. I bristle, which is something you have to be listening for, like snakes in the grass.

***

I don’t like French nouvelle cuisine. It’s gross and not even good for you. Rich food for rich bores. But nobody asks me for my opinion.

A few months ago my friend Claire and I planned to meet at a vegetarian restaurant, but then this guy Jamie, her friend and my acquaintance, called Claire and asked her to change our plans for him.   He was coming in fromToronto and wanted to see us, and also drop in at the French restaurant where he used to work.

I spent the evening bristling.  There was nothing for Claire, a vegetarian, to eat, and Jamie kept getting mad at me for not eating the pretentious food correctly.  For example, a custardy goop with a name like a long French sentence was served in something like a test tube. I decided to share it with the others, and began to spoon some of it out on a plate.

Jamie shook his head, closed his eyes and moaned nooooo.

I wished I had a magic carpet.  I would whisk him away to Haiti where people literally eat dirt pancakes for supper.

***

When I was a child, a teacher wrote on my report card: “She has a keen sense of justice.”

And injustice.  Just because I hit my head doesn’t mean I don’t remember what happened. Russell had lied, and now our mothers were laughing at me at thehospital. We had been in the playground. Russell’s mother was across the street, making lunch.  Russell was in charge of us because hewas the big boy. I was having a perfectly good time, happy on the swing, wiggling my toes so that my flip-flops would just almost fall off, and wiggling them back up my feet again, looking at the sky and wondering how close I could get.  Suddenly, Russell rudely pulled my swing to a halt and announced that Baden and I were going to go on the teeter-totter.

“Why?”

“Because Baden wants to, and I am too big.”

“I’m too big too.”

“Only a little.  I have a Plan.”

Russell made me sit on the teeter-totter.  He pulled the other side down and put Baden on it.  With a rock beside his bum.

I wasn’t sure about this.  I wondered where he’d got the rock.  From somewhere else in the park, probably.  I wondered if this was stealing.

Russell let go. Baden swung up, and the rock flew straight across and hit my head.

Russell told everyone that he had been playing patty-cake with Baden when he noticed me lying in a puddle between the teeter-totter and the drinking fountain, asleep, with blood in my hair.  His mother and mine both praised him for how quickly he ran home for help.

“Faster than a speeding bullet.”  Mrs. O’Connor had copied that from Superman.  I was sure that copying was a sort of stealing.

Whenever I started to talk, everyone started laughing. Our two mothers apparently thought my story was some kind of hilarious dream.

When I grew bigger, I was going to go back and get that rock.

***

Fast forward twenty odd years.  I am in the apartment I share with my husband and newborn baby, and our kitchen floor is a small river.  Again.  The hose of our wringer-washer has slid out of the sink. I’dgone out of the room to get Eddy. Who was crying.  Again.

And now Madame Dumas is marching up thestairs, again.  The screeching isabout to begin.  I open the door wearily, my son, now asleep, in my arms.

“Do you want to come in?” I say mildly, moving my head to indicate the water. My legs are in it, mid-calf.

No, of course not.  She will stand in the doorway to do her screeching in French.  The gist of what she says is: There will be hell to pay, Missy.

I know that she will tell the landlord.  This is the thirdtime.  Water leaking into herkitchen cupboards, destroying her sons’ collection of cassette tapes. Hô làlà!

They are, all three of them, divorced, lightly employed men in their forties.  They leave in the morning, but are sitting out in the courtyard drinking beer by early afternoon.  Why are you still coddling, protecting them?  Can’tyou just give me a break?  I just gave birth ten days ago and I am exhausted. Don’t you remember what this is like? And why do you let them keep their cassette tapes in your cupboards?  Where do you put your food and your dishes?

And who still listens to cassette tapesanyway?

I don’t say a word.  Madame Dumas is turning around now, about to make her old lady’s slow descent down the stairs.  For some reason she is all sprightly, marching up.

I call out an apology as she goes. It sounds pleasant and sing-songy. But my nerves feel raw.

Then, as I mop the floor, Eddy in a sling across my hips, I daydream about the perfect murder.  It seems I can’t stop the washing machine hose from sliding out of the sink and flooding both of our kitchens.  A sort of uncontrollablewashing machine whim.  Qué sera sera.

However, I think I know how to eliminate the second problem, the screeching voice.

I could find a rock.  We live near a park. There are probably rocks.

I could put a small boulder in a bag and bring it home. The next morning, sneak out onto our balcony. Wait until Madame Dumas came out into the courtyard to water her tiger lilies.

And then:  Oops! Plop! Thud! One final short scream.

I could feign ignorance easily.  Lack of sleep since giving birth gives me a dopey vibe. Even if they found out she had been killed by a rock, how would they know where the rock had come from? Maybe it had come from theapartment above ours.

Would they go to the trouble of trying to figure that out?  “Oh well, she had to go some time,” people would just say. They wouldn’t suspect the dopey young mother.

My phone is ringing.  I put down my mop.

My uncle died. He was sixty-five.  I hadn’t visited him during his illness; I was still bearing a grudge. I can’t write anymore because my eyes keepflooding with tears.

——-

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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My father hasn’t lived with us in years. But lately, levitra the way this collection agency has been calling my house about his credit card debt, nurse you’d swear he still did. And boy, salve this guy who’s been calling lately is sneaky. He just assumes that I’m my father, calling me by his first name as soon as I pick up. Like I’m his long lost pal or something. He’s probably testing out some new tactic down at the call center.

Right off the bat, I tell him that I’m the son and that my father hasn’t lived here in years. He always acts like I’m lying, like he’s some telephone detective sniffing out my line of bull. After about five minutes of explaining to him that I didn’t have my father’s current number and that it’s impossible for me to relay this message, he assures me that my number would be removed from his list. He still calls the very next day. After that, I just stopped answering the phone all together. Let the machine deal with it.

To be honest wit you, I actually do know where my father is and I do have his current number, but something inside of me just can’t blow the whistle. I guess I can be sneaky too. I can play the game as well. Still, the guy keeps calling, still leaving messages for my father to return his calls, still believing he lives here. I guess it means my father’s debt still hasn’t been paid. I hate the guy from the agency, but at least he knows how much my father owes him.

—–

Christopher J. Campion is a freelance writer pursuing a MFA from Wilkes University.

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It all started with a dog named Rufus.

He was covered from snout to tail in soft yellow fur, cure except for a heart-shaped patch on his back where the fur grew in white and wiry. He wasn’t small, check but he wasn’t exactly big, either.

He belonged to the Robbins family, but he loved little Nina Robbins the most. She was nine, and he was seven. They were closer than siblings, and Nina couldn’t remember a time when Rufus hadn’t sat under her chair during dinner or licked her face while she watched a movie with her parents.

It was the summer between third and fourth grade, Nina and Rufus spent every hour of the day together, as they had done for every summer before. They played in the park, they took bites off the same hot dogs. And at the end of the day, Rufus always slept at the foot of Nina’s bed, her toes curled up against his softly rising back.

That summer proved memorable for two reasons. First, because of the tornado that struck in late May, killing no one but leveling much of downtown. And second, the opening of Hazelton’s first Death Prediction office, located in the new plaza that sprung up in July after the city finished rebuilding the devastated business district.

For Nina, summer was about sunshine and exploring and chasing down the ice cream truck with Rufus; there was no need for her to take notice of construction or new businesses or the gossip of adults. She heard her parents whispering late at night, after they thought she was asleep. They shared rumors about who had been tested, and debated the merits of getting tested themselves, but for Nina, it wasn’t nearly as interesting as finding out which new flavors the ice cream truck would have next week. Still, she overheard some of the stories of the machine from her parent’s room.

Stan and Bev Johnson had gotten tested: “Raccoon Bite” and “Food Poisoning,” respectively. Mr. and Mrs. Kim had refused to get tested, but their teenage daughter Soo had rebelled and gone to get her blood drawn. Rumors said the machine had predicted “Stray Bullet,” but Karen Paulli swore it was actually “Stray Cat.” Nina’s mother whispered harshly that she overheard two women talking in the grocery store about how Mr. Edelmann’s prediction had been “Noose,” and how the women were bickering over whether it meant suicide or execution.

Nina’s father said that they ought to start imposing age limits on using the machine, that people were just out to make a buck without considering how a teenager might overreact when they got their prediction. But Nina’s mother said that everyone had a right to know how their story was going to end.

But for all the scandal and gossip, Nina simply didn’t care about the death machine. At least, not until the first week of August, when tragedy struck and Nina became fascinated with the machine and what it could do.

She went walking with Rufus one afternoon, the hazy heat of the dog days of summer making the sidewalks shimmer. They had been digging a hole to get under a fence behind the old house on Fuller Street, hoping that they could find out whether the place was really haunted or not.

As they reached the corner of Fuller and Baker, she saw another dog across the street. The Smith family’s German Shepherd Max was a little territorial, and didn’t like seeing Rufus near his house. He ran towards Nina and Rufus, barking in sharp, staccato bursts. The Shepherd’s eyes were fixed on the intruders, so he never saw the blue sports car come flying down the road.

Nina screamed, and the dual squealing of tires and dog was a sound that she heard in her dreams for the rest of the summer.

That night, she stared at the ceiling, too shaken to fall asleep. Rufus had crawled up higher on the bed, resting his head on her stomach so she could scratch behind his ears.

The Smiths had all started crying when they saw what happened to their beloved dog, even burly truck driver Rick. Nina had never seen a grown man cry before, and it was almost as bad as watching the accident.

What would she do if she ever lost Rufus?

Her parents were talking down the hall again, murmuring her name and the names of other neighbors, recapping the day’s news behind closed eyes. She couldn’t catch every word, but she did catch “machine.” They were always talking about the machine these days.

And then, it clicked. If all the parents in her neighborhood were getting tested, why couldn’t she have Rufus taken to the prediction room?

By 9 am the next day, Nina was waiting outside the testing bureau. She had Rufe’s leash in one hand and her piggy bank in the other. She hadn’t expected there to be such a line, but with so many other businesses still closed or operating at reduced hours, most people in Hazelton had plenty of time to kill. So why not spend it at one of the few air conditioned businesses in town?

There were some unfamiliar faces, and Nina guessed they must have traveled from several towns over. But there were also faces she knew well from her block. Elderly Mr. Gupta, and that painfully thin cheerleader Marta Lennox. The portly junior high gym teacher thumped his stomach and nervously switched his weight back and forth between each leg, while Dr. Pirelli chewed his nails at the front of the line. There was even a perfect nuclear family: architect Evan Guzman, his wife Alicia, and twins Mira and Mark, age 14.

Nina hadn’t expected such a line, and certainly not one that was so slow-moving. But a sort of camaraderie began to form as the minutes stretched into hours, with neighbors holding spots in line for others who needed water or a quick trip to the bathroom. Towards 2 pm, when perhaps only 6 people had been seen out of the 25 or so in line, one person even ordered pizza to share with everyone else still waiting to use the machine.

Finally, Nina was next, and at 4:45, she was likely to be the last person tested that day. She and Rufus were brought into a cool white room with two chairs. She sat in one, and Rufus curled up underneath her.

A few moments later, an attendant came in. She had dark curly hair massed in an unruly knot at the back of her head, and a nametag on her chest identified her as “HOW CAN I HELP YOU? MARGARET.”

“All right, sweetheart, how can I help you?” Margaret asked Nina as she sat down across from the girl.

“My name is Nina and I want to get a test done. I brought all the allowance money in my piggy bank. It’s eighty-five dollars and fourteen cents. And two bus tokens. Is that enough?”

“That’s more than enough,” Margaret laughed nervously. “But to be honest, I’m worried you might be a little young for this. It can be pretty scary, getting your prediction done.”

“It’s not for me, ma’am. I want Rufus to get tested,” said Nina, bending down to scratch him behind his ears.

“Oh. Ooh. Your dog? That’s…well, Nina, I’m sorry, but I don’t think we can help you. We don’t use the predictor to test animals, only people.”

“Why?” asked Nina, in the tone that only the very young use to question the actions of adults.

“Well. Because. Because the machine’s not for animals. It’s for people. It’s too important to use on animals. And besides, the Predicta has never been tested on animals, so it probably wouldn’t work for dogs anyway.”

“But if it’s never been tested on dogs, then how do you know it won’t work?”

“Because if it worked on animals, then the manufacturer would have told us that when we bought it,” the attendant snapped. “Now, it’s almost closing time, so you’d better get your dog home, okay?” she said, rising to her feet and guiding Nina and Rufus out the door and towards the exit.

“Oh, wait,” said Nina. “Can I just use your bathroom first, before I go? It’s kind of a long walk back to my house.”

“Sure. It’s that door up there on the left,” said Margaret.

***

Forty-five minutes later, the prediction office had closed up for the night. The lights were off, the main door was locked, and all the staff had gone home.

In the bathroom, Nina unfolded her legs and helped Rufus to get off her lap. No one had come into the bathroom, but Nina thought it was best if they both kept their legs out of sight.

“The thing about grownups, Rufus,” she explained to the yawning dog, “is that sometimes, we’re so small, they forget we’re even here. If you aren’t a grownup, then they don’t even notice you half the time, unless you say something to them. Kind of silly, huh?”

Rufus answered with a very quiet bark in the affirmative, and Nina opened the stall door to let him out.

“Now that we have the place to ourselves, we’ve got hours to figure out how to work the machine. It can’t be that hard. I figured out how to use my camera and write html for computer class without ever looking at a manual.”

Nina and Rufus made their way out of the bathroom and back down the hall. Along the way, they checked each door they came across. Room after room, all they uncovered were more waiting areas, although they did manage to find a break room with a vending machine. Nina bought them beef jerky and peanut butter crackers to share with some coins from the piggy bank, and then moved on down the hall.

The last door on the right was locked, with a keypad attached to the door handle. After a moment, Nina typed in “12345” and hit “Enter”. The door clicked and swung open.

“Honestly, Rufus, when will grownups start using their imaginations?” she asked, to which Rufus replied with another bark and a lick to the back of her hand.

They entered the room, turned on the light, and there it was. The Predictamatic. The Death Machine. The Dark Fortuneteller.

To Nina, it wasn’t that big a deal.

The machine was ratty looking, distressed. It looked like a cross between an old arcade game and the coffee vending machine at her Dad’s office. The machine was covered in fake wood paneling that was beginning to peel on the sides, and embossed with lettering that looked like it had been in vogue at least two decades earlier.

“Power” read the text next to the big red switch.

“Insert finger here” read the legend over the tiny square hole.

“Prediction Prints Here!” read the final phrase over a credit card-sized slot near the bottom of the machine.

“This is what all the fuss is about? Grownups are weeeeird, Rufe,” Nina said.

She switched on the power, and the machine stirred to life. It was ready to go. All the machine needed was a sample.

But there was a problem. Rufus didn’t have any fingertips. His paws were too big to fit in the hole where the blood was drawn. His tail was too short to reach the hole, and his floppy ears wouldn’t slide into the appropriate space, either.

“Okay, Rufe. It just needs a little of your blood, right? Maybe we can find a way to draw some of your blood and give it to the machine, and then we can get your prediction. Come on, boy. Let’s go exploring!”

The pair retraced their steps. Nina hoped that there would be some room with medical supplies, or something else she could use. Anything to help Rufus, find out his future, and protect him.

In one of the little waiting rooms, Nina pawed through under-sink cabinets and drawers, and even the trash cans. Then, she looked up. On top of a tall metal cabinet, there was a cardboard box labeled “Replacement Needles.”

“That’s perfect, Rufus. We’ll just grab those, get your blood, and then we can finally use the machine!”

But the steel cabinet was almost as tall as the ceiling, too tall for Nina to reach on top of, even while standing on a chair. She was overtired, frustrated, and acted rashly. She stood up on the chair, took a deep breath, and jumped towards the cabinet.

She managed to grab on to the top of the cabinet with one hand, but as it rocked in place, the whole cabinet began to tip. It fell straight forward, and hard. Nina fell hard, too, rolling off to one side.

***

The sun was rising. Nina could feel it on her face as she rolled over. Her head hurt, and her jaw was sore. The memory of the falling cabinet hit her all at once, and she stood to her feet in a flash, surveying the damage.

The heavy metal cabinet had fallen, and all the needles and other pieces of sharp equipment had come down underneath it, spraying out on either side.

Something else had been sprayed, too. Something reddish and sticky.

“Rufus?” she called out. “Rufus!”

There was no answer. She began to scream.

The attendants found her there a few hours later, hands covered in tacky fluid where she had tried to lift the cabinet off from Rufus. They called her parents in, and Nina’s mom took her into the bathroom to clean up while her dad talked to the manager.

Nina watched the water in the sink turn from red to pink as she washed her hands, and then threw up.

Later, after her parents had everything explained to them, the three of them were shuttled into a room at the back of the office. Her father kept whispering the word “sue” to her mother, who kept responding with something about “juvie.”

Curly-haired Margaret was behind the desk, her face a strange blend of somber and intrigued.

“Nina, I know you must be very sad. But I want you to know that Rufus didn’t die in vain. After…what happened last night, I got curious. I collected some of your dog’s blood after the accident and got the machine to give us a prediction reading. The machine doesn’t always use the clearest language, but we think that in this case, the prediction was correct. And that means the machine probably does work on animals, which is something we didn’t know before. It’ll be good for expanding our business, and that’s good for the whole town.”

Margaret took a small piece of oaktag paper from a manila folder in front of her. It was no bigger than a business card, and embossed with the Predictamatic logo on the back. She slid the card, face down, across the desk towards Nina.

It was still warm, like it had been freshly printed. Like it was alive. Nina turned it over. The card read: PUPPY LOVE.

The next few moments were a blur for Nina, and try as she might in the coming years, she couldn’t remember the exact order of events. But she did remember one thought very clearly.

If loving things kills them, then I should just stop caring now. Now, and forever.

“Oh, Rufus,” she wailed. “I’m so sorry,” she keened as she burst into tears, and her parents reached over to comfort her.

By the time they got her to the car, she had stopped crying. As they drove off, she stared out the window, seatbelt tightly fastened. Her hands were twisted together in her lap, white around the knuckles, purple at the tips.

The ride home was silent as the grave.

—–

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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When the band takes the stage, viagra it is clear they are all drunk, which might be problem but the audience is drunker. There is a girl sitting near the front who has bloody bandage on her knee that on closer inspection proves to be made of toilet paper. People wobble, pretending to dance to hide their drunkenness, before the music even starts.

Out on the rooftop there are screams, girls screaming in a way that makes you stop, listen, and decide I think she’s having fun? I think? And then you think Shit, I’m too drunk to deal with it anyway. The band members have taken off their shoes for the sound check and the audience starts to take off their shoes too,despite the broken glass on the floor.

Another night in Brooklyn, you think, and there are tears in your eyes when you decide to go outside with that guy who offered you a bump.

You check to make sure you still have your own shoes on, seeing around you so many shoeless drunk kids. It is a hot night, and many of them, the boys and the girls, have cut out the necks of their t-shirts, some so deeply that the shirts are falling off their shoulders, the girls and the boys, and so many of them are wearing cut-off jean shorts and no shoes that you are reminded of summer camp in the mountains back in California, kids in cut-off shorts and bare shoulders and feet stumbling around and laughing so hard they spit but they don’t care.

But it turns out you do still have your shoes on so you follow this guy outside onto the rooftop and down the stairs, and as you walk down the stairs you think I was crying earlier, why? But you don’t think about it too hard because if you do you’ll remember why and you’ll start again.

You get to the street where suddenly, past the rush of blood in your ears, you notice it’s perfectly quiet. Alert now, you look around, moving your head too fast, and you’re dizzy and trying to take deep breaths but god it’s so humid you might puke. But you won’t. This guy is watching you. Who is this guy? The guy with the coke. Where are your friends? Oh fuck, they are performing right now. Their band just went on and you’re missing it. It’s only warehouses here, and you can’t even remember which one you came out of, and this guy is saying something about how he just got out of Riker’s. And okay you’ve been around long enough to hope to hell that he was just there for dealing.

“What were you there for?” you ask him and suddenly you realize you’re smiling in that way you do when you’re terribly afraid. He says it was for a misunderstanding with his girlfriend and you think:  What has happened to me that I couldn’teven go outside and check when I heard those girls screaming out on the rooftop, and what am I doing out here? and you see the tiny square bag in his hand and you remember.

He’s holding out a key with a little white pile on the tip of it, and you automatically lean into it, and maybe you spill some of it, and he laughs but it’s not a funny laugh, and why is your back up against a car? Why is this street so quiet? It’s never quiet in Brooklyn. In California you were afraid of people but here you’re afraid of silence. It always feels wrong when you walk down a street and there is no one on it. This is a street you should not be on. And you have an idea.

“Hey,” you say. “I gotta go to the bathroom.” Because this guy’s face is too close to yours and your back is up against a car. “And my friends are playing and they’ll be pissed if I don’t see them play.”

And he says,”They are way too drunk to care and anyway I want you out here with me.”

“They’ll know,” you say, and there is a new hardness in your voice and there is a new hardness in his face as it moves closer to yours. His hands are on your shoulders and his hard-edged knee is burrowing between your bare ones. You begin to succumb to the boozy limpness that is trying to take over your body, and you think:  Nothing will be the same after this.  And you’re right; nothing is ever the same.

—–

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.

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Just a mile from the cemetery is when he always remembers the rose. But this always reminds him of the 711 nearby. They sell roses. One for a dollar. Convenient for people like him.

He pulls into the 711, drugstore gasses up the Explorer, scans the snack isle, relieves himself in the smelly restroom, says “how ya doin?” to the clerk, and pays for the rose. He pulls back onto the road before making a right onto the dirt path leading towards the cemetery. It’s a one-way that can only fit a single car. With trees on both sides, he always wonders what he’d do if another car came the other way. Never happens. Including this time. Lucked out again. Something always seems to watch over him as he enters.

The countless tombstones, poking up from the summer grass. Cold hard reminders of what we become. Some have flowers on top. Some have little American flags in front. Some have nothing. Others have fallen over. Dead weight.

He spots the groundkeeper’s truck, an old Chevy, parked alongside a rusty shed. He always parks next to it but never sees the man. Maybe it’s a woman. Whatever, don’t think too much. Just get out, walk down the field, put the rose on the grave, and leave. He opens the door. His boots hit the squishy ground. The air is muggy. It’s always muggy around this time.

Her grave is approximately twenty feet behind an old Civil War canon. The big stone with the name FOREMAN sits behind four smaller ones, lined horizontally. She has the one farthest right. A newer stone. Prettier than the others. A gray plastic cat in the loaf position sits next to it. Twenty dollars at Wal-Mart. It needed a home. She needed the company. It made sense.

Looking at her grave is like a dream. Not a happy dream. Not a sad dream. Just a dream. That all-too-familiar out-of-body dimension bringing about the question of whether this is really happening. He brushes off dead leaves and lays the rose along the stone’s base. After this, he never knows what to do. He draws blank, but still promises not to cry. He always promises not to cry. Keep emotions in check. No use crying anymore. Eventually, you’ll have to stop. Right?

Yet the grip releases and allows something. A spiritual being like a wild animal. Once caged, escapes. It runs through those secret hallways with forgotten doors. It turns the handles that have been slammed shut from fear of seeing what’s beyond.

It pushes one open. Her beautiful smile, her blue eyes. It opens another one. Her quiet strength, never giving up when life wanted her to. And then another. Her loving embrace when the world had beaten him down. She was there, always. And finally, it turns handle on the biggest door. He sees the diagnosis, the chemo, the hospice, the viewing and the funeral. All of it spills onto the white marble floor, making a giant mess impossible to wipe away.

His face becomes two hands squeezing invisible fruit. He covers his eyes as if hot cinders flew into them. He never cried here before. He never wanted to, but he always wanted to. To hell with it. Let it out. Let it all out. Spill it onto the floor. Let’s see it.

Tears stay, chilling his fleshy cheeks. For once, he’ll just let something go. A glass breaks, a white hair on a black shirt, dirt smears a white shoe. Clean it up. Right? Return it to that corrective state, that artificial sterility. After all, it might infect something. It might serve its purpose.

He’s grown tired of hiding. Just let it all fall like water from an overflowing bathtub. Watch it roll down the stairs until it’s onto the yard, until it soaks into the dirt and grows something.

And the doors stay open. The spirit roams free as the son takes a deep breath like a newborn child. He takes another, and then another, trying to find the rhythm. There, he’s got it.

He says good-bye, for now. He turns and walks up to the Explorer. He opens the door, turns the key, and begins his quiet drive home. And still, no one ever comes down the one-way path. No one ever blocks the exit. Something always watches over the departures.

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Christopher J. Campion is a freelance writer pursuing a MFA from Wilkes University.

Read more stories by Christopher Campion

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