Get Lit, Round 1: Short Fiction
A compilation of 19 stories that were published in the first 20 issues of Atticus Review (May 17 through September 27, 2011).
Publisher │ Dan Cafaro Editor-in-Chief │ Katrina Gray Managing Editor │ Libby O'Neill Fiction Editor │ Jamie Iredell Poetry Editor │ Michael Meyerhofer Mixed Media Editor │ Matt Mullins © ATTICUS REVIEW A Publication of Atticus Books LLC http://atticusreview.org SHORT FICTION 4 We All Have Needs│Melinda Baker 16 You’ll Never Get Anything Accomplished on an Empty Stomach│Chanel Dubofsky 19 Madame Ordoñez│Jamie Iredell 35 Deep Things│Steven Gillis 41 Long Division│John Abbott 54 Assurance│Nate Liederbach 63 Swimmers│Mike Hampton 82 Zeno’s Shotgun Paradox│Andrew Farkas 88 Rosie’s Funeral│Aaron Jacobs 97 Open Every Womb│Michael Hartford 108 Half a World Away│Darragh McManus 113 The Mermaid Eaters│Brandon Wells 134 Deep Blue Sea│Christopher Bundy 142 The Most Natural Thing in the World│Shya Scanlon 153 Fantasm│J.A. Pak 168 Domestic Ties│David S. Atkinson 181 A Simple Task│Michelle Bailat-Jones 187 Understanding Sheep│Paul Lewellan 192 The Last Story│Marcus Speh 196 About the Authors Short Fiction WE ALL HAVE NEEDS By Melinda Baker I’ll tell you what I know, but I can’t make any promises. They found their car about half a mile off the road in Badlands National Park, its front tires pulled right up to the edge of a cliff overlooking a burnt sienna and chalky-white striped geological scape that undulates unevenly like a long-dead city’s last monitored pulsations. From the looks of it, they had gotten lost. They didn’t see eye-to-eye on most things, including how to get where they were going. I can’t imagine that either one of them won that argument. Or maybe they felt a spark of adventure, wanted to get a closer look at the surreal scenery– a moonscape that had fallen to earth–and broke the rules. Of course, his half-eaten corpse slumped over the steering wheel and the large black vulture feathers littering the floorboard suggested something more sinister. That’s about all Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 4 Short Fiction the investigators could deduce, at least–that and the fact that he’d been dead for some time. He was buried in his only suit. She is still nowhere to be found. But I should back up. A month before they disappeared, she woke up with blood in her mouth and a damp tangle of black feathers clenched in her fist. She sat there for a minute, staring at the crumpled feathers and rolling the metallic flavor of blood around on her tongue, trying to puzzle out this new level of savagery. Oh, she would have found a way to blame him, no doubt. At least at first, you know. Because it was habit. But he lay there as innocently as a corpse, dead to the roar of their box fan, the steady tapping of the blinds’ drawstring against the windowsill, the dark circle of blood on his pillow where his partially gnawed-off ear had leaked during the night. And the delicate fetalshape of his body would have shaken her conviction that she’s always the victim. *** She stood over him, jostling his shoulder, whispering, “Wake up. You’re bleeding.” He didn’t respond. Rolling her eyes, she moved to his hips and rocked the entire mass of his body, back and forth, only managing to jar open his eyelids and jaw. She paused and stared at his face with slight disgust. She was unimpressed by the dull whites of his eyes and the way his tongue oozed out of the corner of his mouth like a slug. He looked like a zombie. Maybe that’s what she was doing in her sleep—killing a zombie. Biting his head clean off to end his miserable purgatory. She suddenly became nervous and wondered if he was breathing. She grabbed the cracked silver hand mirror on the bedside table and held it under his nose. When the glass fogged-up, she felt silly, guilty even, which then took its natural turn into agitation. She leaned-in close to his in-tact ear and said at full speaking volume, “Wake up!” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 5 Short Fiction He flinched and groaned. “Get up! I think you need stitches,” she said. She was already knotting the belt of her tattered green terry-cloth robe as he was reeling in his tongue and struggling to keep his eyes open. She could see the bloody ridge where his earlobe had been and imagined the countless times she’d sucked or nibbled on it during sex. But then she winced when she remembered that it was at present being converted to waste in her GI tract. “Don’t you feel it?” she asked, flapping her arms up and down, exasperated. He still didn’t move. “Your ear. Feel your ear!” she said, vigorously pointing to hers. He groaned again, and abruptly sat up, straight and rigid like the shaft of a rake that had been stepped on. His eyes kept rolling back in his head, and she winced again as he absently dug his finger around in the open wound. “What happened? I’m bleeding,” he said dreamily, rubbing his bloody fingers together in the universal gesture for money. *** You’d think the realization of bloodshed would shake-off any lingering veils of sleep, but he groaned and collapsed back onto the pillow, staining it with more blood. She stomped over to the bed in a huff and spun his legs off the edge of the bed with a grand swoop of her arm, then grabbed his shoulders and heaved him up to a sitting position. She put slippers on him, his robe, taped a cotton ball to his earlobe to keep it from dripping, and grabbed his arm and pulled him over her shoulder Romance-novel style. Of course, he would have been too heavy to carry out of the house like that, so she probably dumped him into the rolling desk chair they kept in the computer room and wheeled him out. Who knows how she maneuvered his dead weight into the car, but they eventually got to the emergency room. And he didn’t open his eyes until the doctor stuck a needle filled with Lidocaine into his wound. This kind of thing had been happening a lot, you see. But not like this—not with cannibalism or what have you. There was the time she woke up in a pile of brush in the backyard; another time in the tulip poplar in the front yard, draped over a low-hanging branch in nothing but her cotton panties; and Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 6 Short Fiction another running through the woods behind their house; and another, sitting at the dinner table eating cold leftover chicken casserole with a butcher knife. Less and less often would a dream ripple and mutate into the insipid beige firmament of her bedroom ceiling, marking her safe return to consciousness. It was as if her senses were turning inside out, or something. It happens more than you think. But it didn’t really start getting to her until a week or so after she’d chewed his ear off, when she gouged up his face and crashed through the sliding glass doors leading to the back patio in her sleep. He had gotten up in the night to relieve himself and found her splayed out in the moonlight amidst a mosaic of twinkling glass, covered in what looked like soot or crude oil. It was like some evil force was in the process of devouring her. The whole bottom part of her face was blacked out and her arms and legs look pin-striped. It was just all the blood, though. Have you ever noticed that? How blood looks black in the dark? *** She woke up with his face hovering over hers, rimmed in bluish moonlight. “What happened to you?” she asked. “What happened to me? What happened to you!” he replied. Her eyes widened and she smiled. “You’re awake,“ she said. “You’re awake. But look at your poor face.” She brought her hands to his face, gently brushing her fingers across his lips and cheeks. He flinched and hissed air through his teeth. His lips were busted and swollen; he licked them and could taste blood. And his cheeks felt like pumice stone, like he’d been sprayed with shrapnel. “I don’t know what happened,” he said, bewildered. “I’ve been asleep. But you’re bleeding. Everywhere.” “I was flying, but I was trapped,” she mused. “The glass doors looked like open air.” *** He must have felt sorry for her, like he’d found an animal that was broken all over and about to die. He ignored his own inexplicable, stinging injuries and drew her hand to his mouth, kissed it, flooding the shallow fissures of her knuckles with blood. You can still love someone and have no idea who they are anymore, you know. It’s a good and bad thing, I guess. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 7 Short Fiction After cleaning himself up, he stuffed her nose with toilet paper, covered all the cuts on her arms and legs with band-aids and took her to the ER. She was uncomfortable in the waiting area and squawked about how cold it was. She nagged him to tell someone to turn up the heat, and he did even though he thought the climate of the emergency room was pleasantly neutral, just to keep her calm. They never agreed on climate, either. Hospital records indicated that the nurse had taken her temperature once they were admitted into a room. It had been dangerously low—93 F—and the nurse had immediately pushed one of the cryptic blue buttons on the wall to alert a doctor. They had interrogated her, asked if she had been exposed to extremely cold temperatures recently, if she had taken any medications, experienced any flu symptoms, if she was allergic to anything, if she had had a bowel movement in the last forty-eight hours. The only thing out of the ordinary she had experienced was her sleepwalking. The doctor and nurse had bustled around her in blue and white swirls, securing heated bags of saline around her arms and legs with plastic wrap and lodging heating pads into the crooks of her neck, armpits, and then between her legs. Their final touch was a black ski mask, which they pulled over her head and cut a hole into where her nose was so that they could keep an eye on it. Nothing could logically explain her body’s sudden hypothermic spell; it was declared a medical anomaly. Once her body temperature climbed back up to 98 F, the doctor set her nose with an exacting snap, and sent her away with a prescription for Codeine and a referral to a sleep pathologist. She contacted Dr. Schwarmen the very next day. After his private animal psychiatry practice in Munich had gone bankrupt five years ago, Dr. Schwarmen had switched to somnology and begun treating sleep-disordered patients all over the world via telephone. He was so obviously a quack. He had one of those theatrically thick German accents where he prounounces his th’s as z’s and he skips over letters and words or switches back and forth from English to German in the same sentence; he was barely comprehensible. You couldn’t play a better quack on TV. She was his instant disciple, though. When you’re desperate and scared, you’ll believe anything—except when someone tells you you’re desperate and scared. *** After telling Dr. Shwarmen that over the past couple of months she’d been feeling like reality was shifting from a stairway to a slide and that recently Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 8 Short Fiction her sleepwalking had become a danger to herself and to others and that it seems, oddly enough, that she has been trying, in strange and bestial ways, to kill her husband in her sleep—in his sleep—and that black feathers have been mysteriously turning up in her hands and shirt sleeves and even in her underwear and that her nose had been in a constant state of soreness, though that was probably from the break, and that in general, she wasn’t doing well, Dr. Shwarmen paused, cleared his throat, and launched into a convoluted, though surprisingly pat diagnosis that she did not understand and yet ate up like it was her first meal in years. “Es ist REM behavior disorder or a strong case of somnombolism,” Dr. Schwarmen said. “Okay,” she said. “What’s that?” Dr. Schwarmen explained that when she reaches REM sleep, she doesn’t fully go to sleep but maintains a state of low consciousness and acts out her dreams like she’s the puppet and the puppeteer at the same time. “Okay,” she said, pausing. “What can I do about it?” Dr. Schwarmen explained that it was probably due to stress and that an overabundance of material possessions were clogging the synergistic flow of her soul, say, like too much junk down the sink or the toilet, and now her subconscious and conscious mind were having to work together around the clock in order to right a world that has gone all wrong. She twirled the phone cord around her finger as Dr. Schwarman spoke, her comprehension flickering in the midst of his hybrid German-English verbiage. Her finger was now red and swollen and she wondered if she could ever muster the will to cut off the blood supply long enough for her finger to turn black. “In a manner of speaking, you mean. Right?” she asked. Dr. Schwarmen answered in a loud and punctuated voice that startled her and made her stand at attention, “Nein. I am talking about the Western plague! Es ist imperative zat you transcend material reality for an hour a day zrough meditation for zee rest of your life!” She gulped. “Meditation?” she asked. “A sleeping pill won’t work? A noise machine?” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 9 Short Fiction “Nein. Meditation only. Only zen will you sleep.” She was silent. She could hear a woman in the background telling Dr. Schwarmen that his mother was on line two. “But I’ve never meditated before. I don’t even know where to start,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t even have a candle or mat. I’m too busy to be Buddhist.” Dr. Schwarmen assured her that meditation was simple, only a three-step process: Lotus position, breathing, and flushing of the mind, which he repeated three times like he was reciting a nursery rhyme. “Try it und call me in two weeks,” he said. “You’ll be pleasantly surprised! Google it. Okay?” “Okay,” she said. “Tschuss!” he said. “And remember: Was immer du tust, oder träumen zu können, beginne es. Kühnheit besitzt Genie, Macht und Magie! Now please hold while I transfer you to billing.” *** Now, it’s always unsettling when someone you know blindly commits to the relatively radical prescriptions of a seeming crackpot. Sure, she read a couple of thin volumes about Eastern philosophy she’d picked up in one of those New Age stores around town, but all they did was give her a trunk of shiny generalizations she could adorn herself with. She would say things like, Once I can stop craving, I can stop suffering, and even lose some weight, or If I’m pushing back, I can’t move forward, or I need to kill myself, you know, in order to live, or I must relinquish the things I love and hate in order to find peace, and her eyes would glow madly like the windows of a wood-burning stove. I was by no means alarmed by any of it, though. It was almost endearing because she hadn’t been inspired or passionate about anything in forever, and here she was, deluded as a child. But investigators saw all of it differently, and when they found a Target receipt from a couple of weeks before they disappeared, they held as evidence because it implicated a sudden change in thought and behavior and thus, intent. She had purchased three items that day: a hot pink yoga mat for $45.00; a box of assorted incense for $7.99; and a miniature battery-powered fountain for $29.99. I can still see the picture on the cardboard box the fountain had come in. It showed a woman in pastel, loose fitting clothing, sitting in lotus Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 10 Short Fiction position on a hot pink yoga mat with her eyes closed and her mouth stuck in the slight grin of a funeral-prepped corpse. The woman was crudely superimposed atop a prototypical mountain peak with multicolored ribbons of incense smoke encircling her like a stretched-out slinky, and the tiny fountain loomed large in the foreground and was splashed with the words, “Makes Real Mountain Spring Sounds.” She set up her meditation sanctuary beneath the bedroom window because it got the best light and because he lay on the couch in the living room all day, slipping in and out of consciousness and periodically getting up to eat and relieve himself. So for an hour a day, her fair skin pinking in the morning sunlight, she would channel the woman on the box, trying to achieve the serenity the picture promised. At first, it was difficult to unclutter her mind. She couldn’t keep her eyes from boggling around behind her lids like toddlers fighting sleep. She thought about how over-priced the yoga mat was, how the fountain would probably end up being one of those products you use only once or twice before it breaks. She would have thought about dinner. Then she may have sunk deeper into the moment and began thinking about her body, how her rear end felt flat and sturdy like a tree trunk, how the tension in her arms and legs was gradually diffusing with each deep inhale and exhale, how her breath expanded and contracted her lungs, her ribs, her stomach. And her face would have begun to relax. *** They stood outside the black vulture pen. It had been so long since they’d done anything nice together. He stood in front of her with his eyes closed, holding a baby vulture by her delicate talons. The baby frantically flapped her bald peach-fuzz wings and screeched, trying to escape. The other vultures in the pen were mad. There were seven of them, and one-by-one they were taking wing from plaster rock formations and hurling themselves into the netting between them and the baby. He mumbled something with his eyes closed, but all she could hear was what sounded like the roar of rushing water. “What!” she yelled. “What is that noise?” He didn’t hear her, and he stood there mouthing something inaudible, staring at her with the baby vulture fluttering in his hands. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 11 Short Fiction The strange roar grew so loud, she feared her eardrums would burst. She clamped her hands over her ears and crouched down. “What is it?” she screamed. She looked up into the vulture pen. On one of the simulated tree branches, all seven of the vultures stood side-by-side like a chorus line with their beaks wide-open, and she was struck by a nauseating pang of guilt, like she’d done something terrible that can never be undone. *** She never spoke much about her meditations. We assumed they were mildly helpful, relaxing, energizing, but not curative. We knew they were already past the point of no return, stranded on different islands with different laws of physics. When I talked to him last, he told me that he thought her meditation was making things worse. He said she’d recently fallen asleep while meditating and came-to on the bathroom floor with a prickling pain in her nose, the hot water on full blast in the shower, and the bathroom filling with steam. She picked herself up, turned the shower off and went to the sink to rinse her parched mouth with cold water, drawing several handfuls to her mouth, swishing and spitting. A stabbing pain spread across her face and she put her hands over her eyes, moaning and hissing air through her teeth. She switched the light on to see herself better in the mirror and screamed when she saw the strange reflection staring back at her with black, beady eyes. Her nose had swollen to nearly twice its size, extending several inches outward from her face and eclipsing her mouth and chin with its dark shadow. She had also gone completely bald on the crown of her head, which was now ruddy and dry like baked prosciutto. She frantically pinched and hit her arms, telling herself to Wake up! Wake up!, and opened and closed her eyes in hopes that the dream would evaporate, but it never did. Shortly thereafter, just two days before their disappearance, she told me about her sudden alopecia and pyramiding nose. She cried, told me she was scared, that she probably had one of those horrific rare diseases that doctors know nothing about and tap-dance around with experimental treatments until you die. She mentioned the black feathers again too. She had been finding more of them tangled-up in the bed sheets, under pillows, stuck to the skin of her arms like black band-aids. She said that Dr. Schwarmen advised her to go out in the sun more to absorb large quantities of Vitamin D and to eat more red meat—raw, if possible. He told her she was suffering from malnutrition, which is typically co-morbid with spiritual constipation Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 12 Short Fiction and somnombolism. If left untreated, he warned, her condition could escalate into full-blown psychic anthropomorphication, which could be terminal. She said she didn’t really understand what Dr. Schwarmen meant, but that she may as well do what he says since he’s the doctor. She said that he told her to continue meditating, though with greater vigor, and to Leeb! Leeb! Leeb! “What the hell does that mean?” I asked her. “I didn’t understand it at first either,” she said, “But I looked it up on Google, typed inl-e-e-b, just like it sounded, and it asked me if I meant l-eb or l-i-e-b, you know, at the top of the page. So I looked up both.” She said that Google said Leb is the German imperative form of the verb “to live,” andLieb is the imperative form of “to love.” She said she’d tried calling Dr. Schwarmen back to clarify but kept getting the operator. “It was a sign,” she said, “That I was meant to decide for myself what Dr. Schwarmen meant.” “That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” I said. “How is a word game any sort of medical advice? How is any of all the bullshit he’s prescribed any sort of medical advice?” She was quiet after that, like the phone signal had died and she wasn’t there anymore. “Mom?” I said. Silence. And then, a hissing sound. “Hello? What is that noise? Are you making stir-fry?” “No,” she said. The hissing grew louder. “I think the signal is dying.” “I think so too,” she said. “Hello? Mom?” “He was telling me to live, not love,” she said. “The word he said was leb. It makes the most sense. Why would a doctor ever prescribe love? It’s always Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 13 Short Fiction about life, right? The Hippocratic oath. Eat, sleep, exercise, take a million prescriptions. You know. We all have needs. It’s survival first, then serenity, and then love.” She stopped talking, and I didn’t say anything either. The hissing was getting to me. I was mad. I told her she was a stupid and silly woman and that she shouldn’t listen to anything that lunatic-doctor tells her, that she needed proper medical help. I told her I couldn’t believe how absurd she was being about all this. She laughed through her nose, but I could tell she wasn’t amused, but sad, rather. “Was I any less absurd before,” she asked, though I could barely make out her words anymore. “Can you go into another room to get a better signal or something,” I asked. “The static is drowning you out.” “It won’t make a difference,” she said. “What about dad?” I asked “Hello?” she said. “What about him?” I asked louder. “I think we’re going on a vacation. We’re long overdue for a vacation,” she said. *** They left the following week, told no one where they were going or for how long. For two weeks they were gone before someone found him on the edge of the overlook, hard and picked apart in the driver’s seat. Must have taken them about sixteen hours to drive there through the open country, westward all the way. There were no hotel records though; no credit card transactions; no maps in the car. Without stopping, they must have just followed the signs toward a place they had never seen but knew had been there all along, waiting for them. Before it all ended, they gazed at the vista before them—took in the spires, buttes, and pinnacles that sprawl tall and broad up close but begin to slouch Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 14 Short Fiction as the distance grows, shrinking smaller and smaller toward the horizon until everything finally condenses into a single point and vanishes. Atticus Reviewâ”‚Get Lit: Round 1 Page 15 Short Fiction YOU’LL NEVER GET ANYTHING ACCOMPLISHED ON AN EMPTY STOMACH By Chanel Dubofsky i. P leaves before noon, her U-Haul driven by a friend of hers whom he’d never liked. When the van is gone from sight, he goes for a cup of coffee. They had fought about this in the end–his need to buy coffee when there was a perfectly good coffee maker in the apartment. Now it’s in the U-Haul going to New Jersey and he can do whatever he damn well pleases. He’ll stay in the apartment, because he was there first. P’s new address is on the refrigerator with the only magnet left in the house. Maybe mail will come for her, and maybe he’ll forward it. People read The Times on benches in the park, even though it’s cold today. Soon, probably, there will be no paper version of The Times, no security blanket to carry on the train, nothing to reach for on the doorstep in the morning. With P gone, he will never have to recycle again, and there will be piles of Times around the apartment, so he will have one always. On the way back from the bodega, the coffee cup warm in his hand, he pictures the apartment, without P’s shoes on the floor, her plants, her ink pots, her boxes of paints and negatives. In the living room now is just the TV, on top of the coffee table he’s had since college, and his leather chair, which he wrestled out of his parents’ garage when he moved to the city. At the corner, there’s a boy in a prep school jacket. On the other side of the street is a round girl in a gray coat. When the light turns, she hustles, her breath coming in chunky clouds. As they pass each other, he shouts, “Maybe Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 16 Short Fiction if you weren’t so fat, it wouldn’t take so long for you to cross the street.” Then he roars with piggish laughter and continues on his way. For a moment, she looks like a doll, frozen, her eyes glaze, her mouth begins to twitch at the corners. Then a horn blasts, and she dashes into the park, where she disappears. He stumbles back to the apartment, unsure if the last moments had really happened. The cold saturates his bones and settles in his feet. ii. Some mail comes for P. He knows this because Victor, his upstairs neighbor, has been dropping it on his door step. He can’t remember ever giving Victor a mailbox key, although it seems like something P would do. For the last week, he has been calling in sick to work to sit in the leather chair and watch TV. He’s moved to piss, to put on a sweatshirt, and to eat some cereal, standing up, at the sink. He’ll have to leave the house soon, to get more cereal and milk, and toilet paper, unless he’s prepared to get creative, which he is not. Friends call. “I’m sorry,” they say, “That’s rough, man.” He thanks them, it’s easier than telling them that he doesn’t miss P, that it’s better this way, and they had both known it. But if she had never left, he might never have known that people were capable of something so randomly, hopelessly cruel. The girl’s face is still in his mind, her features contorted, nightmarish. If P were here, if things were like they were in the beginning, they’d eat greasy noodles and she’d make him watch some bizarre foreign film that would distract him. The Star Trek marathon ends, and he flips channels. An episode of Full House is on. The cheesy plot lines and attractive women (specifically, DJ Tanner in the late seasons) have become a freakish comfort. In today’s episode, the Tanners are babysitting the kid next door, a largeheaded baby named Tony. Everyone is charmed by this baby, except for Michelle Tanner, who is feeling jilted. Usually, he finds himself wishing she would catch on fire, but today, he’s weirdly empathetic towards her. “It’s okay, Michelle Tanner,” he mutters to the empty room, “you fight for what’s yours.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 17 Short Fiction iii. He falls asleep in the chair. When he awakens, his neck is stiff. On television, there’s a man in a suit hollering into a microphone about Jesus’ plan. There’s a knock at the door. At first it’s gentle and cautious, and then stronger. “Are you in there?” Victor calls. His voice is low and kind. When he opens the door, Victor is standing there, in a long coat and dark scarf, his hands in gloves. “I thought you might want to get something to eat,” he says. He feels frantic. He smells like shit. Victor looks at him, expectantly. “Okay,” he says, imagining his rancid breath reaching Victor’s nose in a toxic spiral. “I just need a minute.” From the shower, he can see the apartment building across the yard. P liked to stand in the tub fully clothed, searching with her camera for the right angle to photograph it. To him, the result never looked like anything, just a scrap of light, but she continued to take the pictures, hundreds of them. When she was loading the truck, the boxes of them seemed endless. Outside, he is startled by the light, as though he’s been in a foxhole instead of in his apartment. The air is cold, and he is clean and tired. Victor pulls open a door and warm air rushes out to meet them. There are long red tables, and women rushing around with steaming bowls. The bright letters on the menu read, “Noodles.” They sit near the window, watching people outside. When the noodles come, they are fat and greasy and warm, and as the food fills his stomach, he begins to cry. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 18 Short Fiction MADAME ORDOÑEZ By Jamie Iredell “Your lifeline forks.” Isabela examined Maria Ramos’ open, extended palms. She said, “This could mean any number of things. You’ve either had a change in your life—a drastic one—or the opportunity presented itself and you didn’t take it . . .” Isabela paused, watched Maria’s face for a reaction. Seeing none, she continued. “Or the opportunity has yet to present itself, or perhaps it is at your doorstep right now.” It wasn’t so odd, Isabela maintained, for her to be both a Catholic and a palmist. Both palmistry and Catholicism were systems of belief, and, though she’d heard some in the community called her a bruja, Isabela saw little difference between astrology and belief in the saints. Maria, apparently startled, stuttered. “I’ve been tempted,” she said, “by another man.” “Yes,” Isabela said. “I see you’re thinking about another in your life.” Isabela pointed to a faint line that ran up the palm toward the pinky of Maria’s right hand. She became a palmist because her mother, also a believer in mysticism and a staunch Catholic, had recognized Isabela’s clairvoyance while she was still a child—Isabela had brief flashes of the near future (falling glasses of milk, etc.)—and encouraged her interest in the subject. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 19 Short Fiction Her mother had kept four-leaf clovers and birds’ feathers in jars of colored glass she stored in the west-facing kitchen window so they caught the last rays of sun each day. She claimed that the rose garden she planted had been the key to holding her family together. When Isabela became pregnant—she was twenty-two years old, unmarried, her boyfriend a nineteen-year-old pot dealer—her mother told her that she was on her own. She taught Isabela to rely on no one but herself. Isabela believed that if one had problems and wanted to fix them, then the world provided earthly, and Heavenly, remedies. You only needed to believe, her mother always said. When her daughter was born, Isabela named her Cecilia, after her grandmother. “It’s just,” Maria said now, stopped, then continued. “My kids drive me crazy, and Jorge does little to help. He’s tired after work, and after a beer or two, forget it. And this other man, he’s young, has no children, and he likes me. I’ve fantasized about him.” “You want to run away from your problems,” Isabela said. “Maybe you should attack them at the root.” Isabela paused for effect. Maria’s eyes widened. She held shop in the tiny red house where she and Cecilia had once lived, before Isabela’s parents’ death. There she read palms and Tarot cards, provided remedies for ailments, relied on a short string of return clients, and occasionally did more than break even at month’s end. The shop sat, coincidentally, on the corner of Merritt and Palm Streets in Castroville, next to The Patio Drive-in, a hamburger restaurant where gangbangers—including Anita, Isabela’s cousin—hung out in the cabs of their white Impalas and candyapple-green Cadillacs and drank bagged bottles of beer. Isabela had painted her roadside hand-shaped sign bright red. Currently, to Isabela’s dismay, one of the election signs had been posted in the soil next to her bright red palm: neon yellow and announcing one Kenneth Ellsworth, who was running for Monterey County Sheriff. The gaudy signs had been placed all over town and this particular one distracted potential customers. Fortunately she served regulars, like Maria Ramos. Isabela had furnished the rooms in the tiny house according to function. The living room became a reception area and a small shop. Here she kept a couch, where waiting clients could sit, and a desk with a locking drawer to hold money. She stocked the shelf-lined walls with crystals strung on yarn, books on astrology, astrological calendars, and herbal remedies. She gave Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 20 Short Fiction readings in the bedroom where she and an infant Cecilia had once slept. A black sheet covered the window; candlelight illuminated the room and she and her clients sat at a card table bordered by two chairs. “Your husband and children,” Isabela said. “They need to help you; they need discipline.” Isabela herself believed in this assessment. She knew exactly what Maria wanted to hear. “You need strength,” she said. Days before, a young tourist couple had come into the shop. They’d pulled off Highway 1 in Castroville to see the quaint coastal town, and to get a famous Patio Burger. They’d driven down from San Francisco. They were on their way to Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur. How could Isabela have known all these things? the couple wanted to know. Clairvoyance was a gift, Isabela maintained, for having an eye to detail. She sold the couple her last two crystals. Today, Maria came in with “an emergency” and Isabela hadn’t yet bothered to order more crystals. From beneath the black tablecloth, in a rhinestone-studded bowl, she withdrew a fresh raw artichoke, gray-green in the candlelight. Maria looked at the artichoke and then at Isabela as if she had just shown her a bowl of pig entrails. “I don’t get it,” Maria said. She crossed her knees and arms, the first indication, ever, that one of Isabela’s return customers doubted her. “The artichoke’s strength lies in its protective layers,” Isabela said. She took the thistle in her hands to demonstrate. “Whenever you’re feeling inadequate with your family, whenever you feel like running away, simply peel a leaf.” Isabela peeled a single leaf from the artichoke, took Maria’s hand, and pressed the dark green husk into her palm. “There are enough leaves to give you strength. So by the time you reach this artichoke’s heart”—she emphasized the word—“you will have found your own.” Isabela impressed even herself with this explanation. And, apparently, the explanation also impressed Maria. She thanked Isabela—“Thank you, Madame Ordoñez”—for her insight, paid the forty dollars (twenty-five for the reading, fifteen for the artichoke) and Isabela reminded Maria as she handed over a receipt: “Let me know how things work out.” If only Isabela could listen to her own advice and control her own family. Before Isabela drove away from her shop after Maria Ramos’ appointment, she spotted her cousin Anita with her long black bangs combed into a poof held together with copious amounts of Aquanet in a stiff freeze above her Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 21 Short Fiction forehead. Anita was seventeen, her forearm already covered with various gang-affiliated tattoos. Isabela pulled next to Anita where the girl leaned against an old Chevy. She was drunk and probably hadn’t been in school in a week. “How are you, cousin?” Anita drawled. “Good Anita,” Isabela said. “How’s your mother?” “She’s fine,” Anita said. She giggled. In the Chevy sat a man with a shaved head, a teardrop tattooed under his eye, a permanent stain. He smiled creepily at Isabela. His teeth made Isabela’s knees feel like Jell-O. “Be sure to tell your mama I said hello,” Isabela said, and as she drove away, she thought she heard Anita laughing and saying …thinks she’s so high and mighty…can’t even control her own kid. And if that was what Anita had said, there was truth to it. Daily, Cecilia wouldn’t wake for school, didn’t want her hair brushed, would certainly not eat Honey Nut Cheerios for breakfast again. She wouldn’t pour the milk in the bowl herself—mom should do it—or be dropped in front of school— mom must drop her a block away so that she would not be seen with mom— which was embarrassing. And Cecilia should’ve walked to school in the first place, if the neighborhood wasn’t so dangerous. In their home, dirty laundry lined the halls, piled on the stairs, and strung the banister along the stairwell. Dishes stacked in the sink. Cecilia was sick of fish sticks for dinner. Cooking and cleaning had never been Isabela’s forte. Cecilia asked why Laura Ramos wore new jeans this year while she wore the same old faded, frayed pairs. Sometimes, with energy that burned Isabela’s heart, Cecilia screamed, “I wish daddy never left!” To keep her busy, Isabela involved Cecilia in as many activities as she could. For Christmas Cecilia played her part as one of the three kings in a performance of the story of Jesus’ birth. Sprigs of pine and red velvet decked the church pews and the altar. The candles glowed and glinted in the sequins on the children’s robes. The child-kings gripped staffs. Two children acted out child versions of Joseph and Mary, and in a manger filled with hay lay a doll to represent the Christ Child. As the audience watched it seemed to Isabela that the people of Castroville—a town that under normal circumstances was rowdily drunk and gang riddled—had settled under the peaceful veil of Christmastime. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 22 Short Fiction Cecilia played the king who brought Frankincense. But Isabela, and presumably everyone else in church, heard her clearly when she said, “I have brought Frankenstein for the Child Savior.” A murmur and some chuckles rose in the pews. Had Cecilia been younger than ten years old it might have been an honest, cute, mistake. But the children had rehearsed the play for weeks under Sister Nancy’s tutelage, and Father Scott squirmed in his seat on the altar. Isabela rolled her eyes, thought, Jesus, Cecilia, then crossed herself for taking the Lord’s name in vain. Then the three child-kings sang their song. But Isabela heard Cecilia distinctly, and instead of “traveled” she sang, “We three kings have ‘farted’ so far . . .” When Isabela retrieved Cecilia from Catechism, Sister Nancy asked for a word. They stood outside Our Lady of Refuge, away from the children playing in the dirt. Dust caked the hem of Cecilia’s dress from squatting to shoot marbles from her grubby fingers. “Can you believe all these election signs,” Sister said, gesturing to Kenneth Ellsworth’s name jutting up from the sidewalks. “Oh, they’re everywhere,” Isabela sighed. “What do you think about this new guy running for sheriff? His ‘I’m gonna clean up this town’ campaign?” “I don’t know,” said Isabela. “I wish he’d get his signs off the roads. That’s what I think.” “You going to vote for him tomorrow?” Sister Nancy asked. “I don’t vote,” Isabela said. “You don’t vote?” Sister Nancy said. “I don’t believe in it. They’re all the same, these candidates. They don’t make any difference.” “I see,” said Sister Nancy. “What did you want to talk about, Sister?” Isabela said. A grandmotherly figure with glasses, pink cheeks, and coifed black and silver hair, Sister Nancy never wore a habit. Isabela herself attended this church as a child and, although a relatively new addition to Our Lady of Refuge, simply Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 23 Short Fiction because she was a sister, Sister Nancy deserved respect. But, as always, Isabela cut right to business. “Yes.” The old sister seemed to come back from somewhere. “There doesn’t seem to be any progress made with Cecilia, dear,” Sister Nancy said, smiling. “It’s almost Easter, her Reconciliation is coming, and I can hardly get her to complete a Hail Mary, let alone a Rosary.” “I know,” said Isabela. She brushed a strand of hair that had fallen in her face in the day’s slight breeze. A nervous gesture. Since the Christmas play disaster she’d tried harder to control her daughter—half-enthusiastic verbal reprimands that Cecilia ignored—with little success. “I’ve been trying to get her to settle down, to not be such a nuisance.” She glanced at Cecilia, who circled the marble pot, wailing over some injustice in the game. “Do you think she needs medication? She’s not one of those ADD kids, you think?” Sister Nancy touched Isabela’s arm. “I don’t know anything about that,” she said. “She needs discipline.” Isabela nodded, fidgeted with the loose strand of hair. Sister Nancy must have thought, like Anita did, that she was incapable of controlling her own child. “Thank you, Sister,” Isabela said. Then, to Cecilia, “Time to go.” But Cecilia ignored her, and continued the game of marbles. “Cecilia,” Isabela repeated, louder this time. Still, Cecilia ignored her. “It must be difficult without her father to help,” Sister said. Everyone must’ve thought that. Cecilia asked about her daddy when she was five years old, after she’d started kindergarten. Laura Ramos has a daddy, Cecilia had said. Laura’s father worked at Pettigrew and Folleta Auto Parts. Cecilia compared everything to Laura Ramos. If only Isabela told Cecilia what Maria Ramos, Laura’s mother, said about her daddy. Isabela had told Cecilia the truth about her own father: Alex wasn’t ready when they’d learned of the pregnancy. What had happened to him? Cecilia wanted to know. He’d stayed in Castroville for a while; they never talked and rarely saw each other around town. Then, he just disappeared, must’ve moved somewhere else. Finally Cecilia slouched to her mother. “I called twice,” Isabela said. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 24 Short Fiction “The game wasn’t over,” Cecilia said. Sister Nancy smiled, touched Isabela’s arm again and said, “Good luck.” For a moment their looks lingered on each other, the way archrivals’ do in action films. Then Isabela smiled back and they left. In the car Isabela said a silent prayer asking forgiveness for thinking that the old sister was a bitch. *** Isabela patted corn flour for tortillas and Cecilia watched television. Together they lived alone in the big house that had once belonged to Isabela’s parents. Her mother passed away less than a year before and after the reading of the will, rather than selling the house and dividing the money between Isabela and her brothers and sisters, they agreed to keep it. Isabela’s father had purchased the house many years before, after he’d secured a decent job and could afford a down payment, after he and his wife had migrated from Mexico. The house was a symbol of their parents’ success, and after they died none of the children could imagine another family living in it. But someone had to and Isabela seemed the logical choice, since, unlike her siblings, she had only Cecilia and she still lived and worked in Castroville. When she and Cecilia moved in, Isabela painted the inside and tried to restore order to her mother’s courtyard. The garden had been planted before Isabela’s father added on the second story in order to accommodate their many children. After her father’s death, when her mother became so feeble she couldn’t walk outside to tend the garden, it grew wild. So far Isabela hadn’t found the time to tame it. She also tried to save money to contribute, along with her brothers and sisters, to replastering and painting the cracked and flaking walls. As Isabela stirred the browning beef in the frying pan Maria Ramos called to say thank you. “The artichoke really works,” Maria blubbered. “I haven’t felt so energized in years. I feel like I can take on anything. Jorge and the kids listen to me. It couldn’t get any better,” Maria beamed. “Very good,” Isabela said, and she remembered what her mother always said: all that matters is that you believe. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 25 Short Fiction Isabela loved the way one eats an artichoke: sucking the meat from individual leaves until reaching the heart with its tender core. Artichokes deserved patience—a true delicacy. Cecilia lacked such a delicate temperament, and thus couldn’t stand artichokes. But Isabela bought them for herself. Dinner was ready. “Cecilia,” Isabela called, “set the table.” Cecilia didn’t come. In fact the television’s volume increased. She could hear one of Kenneth Ellsworth’s annoying campaign commercials: “I’m gonna clean up this town!” Cecilia deliberately ignores me, Isabela thought. She took the milk from the refrigerator and, seeing an artichoke there on the shelf, peeled a leaf away. “Cecilia!” she screamed. She stepped into the kitchen, gripping the remote, a pout staining her face. “Set the table,” Isabela ordered. “Why don’t we eat in front of the TV like we always do?” “Does Laura Ramos eat dinner in front of the TV?” “I don’t know,” Cecilia said. “Then set the table, sit down and eat, and tomorrow at school you can ask her.” Cecilia stomped a foot, began a protest, but Isabela silenced her: “First go turn off the television.” *** She had peeled no more than the outer layer of her artichoke’s leaves and Isabela rose from sleep with energy. She cooked scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast. Twice this week there’d been fresh-squeezed orange juice. After breakfast she found time to wash the dishes. The laundry had been cleaned, dried, folded, and put away. Cecilia was her next project. She wouldn’t get away with a bad attitude any longer. No more ignoring her mother, no more spoiling. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 26 Short Fiction On Sunday Isabela threw the blinds and windows open in Cecilia’s bedroom, shedding bright morning light and cool air across her daughter’s bed. Cecilia moaned, rolled over, and covered her head with a pillow. “Mom,” she whined, “I wanna sleep.” Isabela had already slipped into a pink dress and pearl earrings. She’d applied her makeup. “Time for church,” she said. “I don’t want to,” Cecilia sulked. Isabela ripped the comforter off the bed, exposing Cecilia in her nightgown to the brisk air. Cecilia yelped. “Get into the shower and get dressed,” Isabela said. She took the comforter downstairs to the washroom, put it into the machine and began a cycle. Rather than cooking breakfast, Isabela poured herself cereal and crossed her legs at the table with the newspaper. After a few minutes Cecilia showed wearing a white T-shirt and jeans. Her hair a ratty mess, it was obvious she’d neglected to shower. No way was Cecilia going to church like that. “What’s for breakfast?” Cecilia asked. Without looking from the paper Isabela said, “There’s cereal.” Cecilia sighed, crossed her arms. “What’s the problem?” Isabela asked. “Can I have some cereal?” “I bet you can,” Isabela said. “There’s a cupboard there against the wall, and in it you’ll find cereal. Bowls are in the cupboard above the sink and spoons in the drawer. That big white thing’s called a refrigerator. Inside you’ll find milk and orange juice. Knock yourself out.” Cecilia sulked another moment then fixed her breakfast. At the fridge she said, “This artichoke looks nasty.” When Cecilia finished eating Isabela looked up from the paper, said, “Put your dishes in the sink and get upstairs.” “What for?” Cecilia said. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 27 Short Fiction “You’re changing, and brushing your hair.” “Come on, Mom,” Cecilia said. “Do you think Jesus cares what I look like?” “Probably,” Isabela said. “And I care. You’re not looking like that.” Isabela gripped her hips as Cecilia dumped her dishes in the sink, scowled, and turned toward the stairway. Isabela followed, said, “Next we’ll work on those faces. I don’t want to see them.” At the stairs Cecilia flung around, stuck out her tongue. “If I had a daddy he wouldn’t care,” she said. “He wouldn’t make me go to church.” Isabela’s hand stung and Cecilia fell against the stairs, bewilderment splashed across her face. Isabela had never hit her before and remorse rose immediately. Cecilia whimpered, but her eyes registered no pain. She was scared. For the first time Isabela felt like she had some level of control. Isabela composed herself, rubbed her palm. “I don’t want to hear things like that anymore,” she said. “You don’t have a daddy, you never did, and I’m in charge and you’re going to church. Do you understand?” Cecilia nodded. “Get upstairs,” Isabela ordered. In the following weeks Isabela created advertisements for her business and employed Cecilia to hang them on doors across Castroville. This was risky, Isabela knew; Castroville’s streets crawled with polyester-clad gangbangers. But Isabela told Cecilia that if they always lived in fear of their community they’d never change it. At first Cecilia scowled and whined, but after one forceful look she did as her mother said. A parade marched down Merritt Street on Saturday. The high school band rang out with patriotic tunes. The new sheriff rode in a convertible, his big belly flopping over his belt and his jowls swinging under his big cowboy hat as he waved to the crowd gathered on the sidewalks. Isabela and Cecilia walked along during the parade and handed fliers to everyone they could. Through the ads and word-of-mouth successes like Maria Ramos, people learned of Isabela’s artichokes and soon she was flooded with clients. The couch in her reception area filled. Her little driveway couldn’t park enough cars and clients began to use the Patio’s lot next door. The gangbangers who once hung out at the Patio moved elsewhere, and a few of them even saw Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 28 Short Fiction Madame Ordoñez for help. Isabela gave them all readings; she didn’t discriminate. And she sold them artichokes for their problems. She bought up all of Ken and Son’s artichokes from their produce stand on Cooper Street. It got to the point that Sister Nancy pulled Isabela aside one day when picking Cecilia up from Catechism. “The Church provides a solid foundation for those in our parish who need help,” Sister Nancy said. “These pagan rituals are dangerous. You should be honest with these people.” Isabela said, “I am honest with them, Sister. I tell them they’ve only to believe and they can solve their problems.” “We don’t want our parishioners practicing anything unnatural,” Sister Nancy said. “Of course not,” Isabela smiled. Since her husband died, Nancy Ausonio had been lonely. She craved companionship now that her children had grown and left the house, but no one seemed to care for her long stories that were sometimes even older than her. The men she’d met over the Internet—usually old fuddy-duddies in Carmel, or fakes, teens out to break an old woman’s heart—had proved fruitless. Isabela gave her an artichoke to peel away the pain of false matches. Omar Mercado’s wife hadn’t touched him in months. Isabela listened to Omar’s story, dealt him the Lovers from the tarot deck. She gave him an artichoke and told him to peel a leaf before each night he and his wife dropped into bed together. By the time he reached the artichoke’s heart he would have also reached his wife’s. And Anita worried about her boyfriend, who had dropped out of high school six months ago, and now planned a drive-by against Sureño gangbangers in Watsonville. Why had Anita come to her, Isabela wondered, instead of going to the police? She worried he wouldn’t make it home alive and safe. The cops were cracking down, Anita said. She didn’t want Hector—her boyfriend—to go to jail. Isabela instructed Anita to put artichoke leaves into the pockets of her boyfriend’s pants, inside his shoes, and inside various books. She said Anita should place these things around Hector’s house. This, she said, would make him want to stay close to home, in Castroville, and Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 29 Short Fiction he’d want to start reading books again, for the smell of artichokes would be irresistible. “You think it’ll work, cousin?” Anita said. “That’s up to you,” Isabela said. “If you believe it will work, then it will.” Anita, teary-eyed, stood and hugged Isabela. “I believe, Isa,” she said. Isabela said, “And what about you, Anita? When was the last time you went to school, or church? When did you last see your mother?” Anita looked hurt and her tears flowed so that the thick makeup caked on her face ran in streaks. “It’s been too long,” she said. “Then you, too, need help. You need to think about your family, about your own well-being, Anita.” “I know,” Anita stuttered. Her breath came in puffs from her crying. “I’ll try, cousin. I swear I will.” *** Walking up Merritt Street after dark three new sheriff’s deputies ran the main street in cruisers and Isabela would see families gathered around the table talking, the blue glare of a television absent from a darkened living room. To Isabela it seemed that Moe’s Liquors closed early, the store windows black by eight o’clock at night. Isabela imagined the network executives in San Francisco and the liquor manufacturers scratching their heads at the sudden loss of 6,000 viewers and drinkers. Isabela listened to stories from all lives in Castroville. Wives whose drunken husbands no longer made love to them. Husbands who knew their wives had cheated. Parents who worried their children would never be successful, or had begun to stray toward delinquency with the local gangbangers. Gangbangers who felt remorse for terrible things they had done to rivals. Finally, as if she could have predicted it, Isabela heard something about Sister Nancy. Maria Herdez, a short and dark woman who spoke little English and worked in the fields picking the very artichokes Isabela sold to her customers, who attended the late Sunday mass in Spanish at Our Lady of Refuge, came to Isabela for good luck. Having heard of all the good fortune to those around her, she asked Madame Ordoñez for an artichoke so that Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 30 Short Fiction she and her husband might earn more money in order to rent a larger apartment to house their three children . “Gracias, Señora,” Maria said, after Isabela had sold her the artichoke. “La Monja Anita,” she said, turning back at Isabela’s front door. Isabela had walked the tiny woman to the door and Maria stood in the frame, her round face dark against the foggy gray sky behind her. “Excuse me?” Isabela said. What did she say about her cousin? Since her parents had died Isabela’s Spanish had gone unused. “The sister. Sister Nancy.” At first Isabela thought the little woman spoke of her cousin, forgetting monja, the Spanish word for a Sister in the Church, and Anita, Nancy in Spanish. “She say you no good, that you bruja.” The little woman, her head covered by a babushka, flashed a toothy smile. “But I no believe her. You good.” “Thank you,” Isabela said. She knew Sister Nancy didn’t agree with what she was doing, but she didn’t know that the old nun thought of her as a witch. “She tell all children to pray for you.” “Well, that’s nice,” Isabela said. She waved Maria off, closed her door, and locked up shop for the day. She reasoned that with business going so well it didn’t matter what Sister Nancy thought. Then she thought of Cecilia, who attended Catechism with the old nun, and thought of Sister Nancy walking through the rows of tiny school desks in the Parish classrooms, smacking a ruler against an open palm, and instructing Isabela’s own daughter to pray for her mother, who was an evil witch and needed saving. *** Isabela retrieved Cecilia from Catechism that afternoon. Since the artichokes, Cecilia had learned the Our Father and the Act of Contrition, and she’d been wonderful around the house, cleaning up after herself. She even allowed Isabela to drop her off once or twice at school, but more often walked, now that the neighborhood streets had cleared of gangbangers, the gutters picked free of empty beer bottles. Isabela turned her Civic into a parking space and stepped toward Richard’s Hall where the children ran in the yard and shot marbles in the dirt. Cecilia came at once, after Isabela called for her. “Go wait by the car,” Isabela said. “I’m going to talk with Sister Nancy.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 31 Short Fiction Sister Nancy looked up as Isabela approached. She wore a flower print dress and her tightly curled hair, thick spectacles, and ubiquitous smile seemed to cover for any mal intent she harbored for Isabela. “Cecilia’s doing much better,” Sister Nancy exclaimed. “That’s because she listens to me now,” Isabela said. She crossed her arms. “What’s this I hear about you asking the children to pray for me? About me being a witch?” A frown crossed the old woman’s face. “Well, I never—” “Don’t think I don’t hear everything,” Isabela said. “Everyone needs praying for, dear,” Sister Nancy said. “I don’t need your prayers,” Isabela said. “I don’t need you turning my daughter against me.” Sister Nancy’s hand drew to her chest, her face clouded with astonishment. Isabela gave her one good hard look, then left. “What did you say to Sister Nancy?” Cecilia asked in the car. “She wanted to tell me how good you’ve been at Catechism,” Isabela said. “She doesn’t like me,” Cecilia said. “She makes me sit in the front of the room. So she can keep an eye on me, she says.” “You just be a good girl,” Isabela said. “I am, mom.” “I know,” Isabela said. *** At Sunday Mass, Isabela and Cecilia stood in a middle pew, left of the altar. Laura Ramos, who, along with Cecilia, recently completed her Holy Reconciliation, recited the Intercessions. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 32 Short Fiction Incense smoke hung in the air. “For those in pain and illness, we pray to the Lord,” Laura said. “Lord hear our prayer,” the church replied. It was late May and unusually hot. The church had no air conditioning and Isabela felt the sweat in tiny beads under her eyes. “For the unfaithful, may they find Jesus Christ, we pray to the Lord.” “Lord hear our prayer.” Cecilia wore a black dress with black lace around the neck. As they stood and prayed Isabela noticed that around them the other parishioners wore bright colors: reds, greens, and blues. “For the misguided, may they find the Church in their hearts, we pray to the Lord,” Laura said. “Lord hear our prayer.” Sister Nancy sat on the altar beside Father Scott and Isabela thought the old woman stared at her, a look of mixed pity and disgust, the way Sister Nancy might look at her shoe after she’d stepped in dog poop. Isabela missed the last Intercession. “Lord hear our prayer,” the churchgoers said. *** After church Isabela and Cecilia drove home. They pulled into the driveway and Isabela admired all the good work that had gone into restoring her parents’ house. She’d had the cracked stucco repaired and repainted. Rather than tame the bushes herself, Isabela had called a landscaping company and four men had trimmed the roses, pulled weeds, ripped out the overgrown sod from the tiny islands through which meandered the path Isabela’s mother had once walked to water her magnificent flowers. They stepped from the car, gathering their purses in clutched fists. Then Isabela noticed the graffiti sprayed along the outer courtyard wall, facing the street. “Bruja” it read in crude, childish lettering. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 33 Short Fiction In the otherwise empty and clean street, a lone Coors can rolled in the hot breeze and came to rest in the gutter in front of the house. Atticus Reviewâ”‚Get Lit: Round 1 Page 34 Short Fiction DEEP THINGS By Steven Gillis Out behind Marelton Park, Harshe in deep, dug through wet worm and oak root, his game plan set, he wanted to get to the bottom. Liz in garden shorts, bibbed blue, suspender straps and the slightest white tshirt beneath. A lean doe to Harshe’s rounded goat, red hair roped in braids, she looked across the yard and asked for something to be planted. He bought her a cherry tree, drove home from the nursery, burlap sack holding the tuber stem packed and placed in the bed of his truck. “Dig it.” Liz had in mind a spot on the side, half in the sun and half shaded, a soft spot for the baby bulb, a want to nurture. Before she married, Liz knew men who flexed hard muscle and left her feeling beaten. Harshe at forty offered a more temperate embrace. Liz liked the way he carried himself, purposefully yet not like guys who coiled up in Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 35 Short Fiction knots and pinched their jaws too tightly. With Harshe there was a willingness, a calm unruffled sense of all things being conquerable. They met six years ago, each copying papers at Staples. Harshe could not quite get the machine to work and Liz provided assistance. She asked him out and he laughed to think. “I want.” Liz with legs raised and temperature tested, waved Harshe over to the bed. She enjoyed his stomach moving against her smooth flat surface, the way he held himself above her and let his eyes go soft. He stood near, his white t-shirt stretched across a belly gone fat, his pants off, his member eager, rising past and ready to lay in fertile soil. No limp noodle he, Harshe had captained his high school football team, backed the line with reckless exuberance, played a year for the local Community College, until injury and circumstance caused him to reexamine his ambitions. All winter they tried to plant. When nothing grew, Liz distracted herself with thoughts of starting a garden. Harshe bought soil and mulch, cleared and tilled that spring, carried rose root and saplings against his chest. A surprise when his seed didn’t take, he tried vitamins and diets, exercised and quit bad habits, worked the boys into a lather, went off exactly when Liz told him. With Lynda, his first wife, the complications were different. A brief attraction, they found early on they didn’t much like living together, came to feel like animals caged and circling. Even after Frankie was born, the baby boy, broad fat with Harshe’s head and Lynda’s calves and pink-white skin, the gripe and growl between them continued. Harshe quit school and was working at Ridgeman Steel when Lynda left. He didn’t mind, though he missed his son, an effort to stay connected, like trying to glue bits of sand together. He let Lynda take the boy when she moved to Connecticut with a biotech salesman. Frankie came in summers and Harshe made trips east where they spoke of all the many things they didn’t do together. Liz in June wanted to build a compost. Harshe cleared a space at the rear of the yard, sank a metal trash can into the ground. With Ridgeman downsizing, shifts shortened, the market soft for steel, layoffs and terminations and early retirement packages, Harshe had extra time to help. Eighteen years in, he’d heard the recent rumors, talk of bankruptcy, of Ridgeman being sold or closed, splintered and auctioned off in pieces. He worried about his pension, the chance of losing everything to loopholes and legal slight of hand. J.T. Blane – another Ridgeman steelhead – called it, “A grab your ankles kind of fucking. Shit Harshe,” J.T. said, “what’s a couple of fish like us to do when the hook’s in the water?” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 36 Short Fiction Liz taught third grade at Everbrooke Elementary, worked in the summer with remedial kids who paid for special sessions. When Ridgeman shut down for a week and sent all three shifts home, Liz told Harshe to “Take the buyout. You can go back to school.” “Maybe.” He had his doubts, old dogs and new tricks. His skills were narrow, his ability to handle hot metals, how to temper and roll, granulate and run the hard drawn and continuous furnace. A trench mule, his value was measured by the muscle in his arm and willingness to sweat, he came home from half shifts and read the paper, looked for part-time work, placed calls to fertility clinics, hoping to improve his chances. When he made love to Liz, he could no longer find a comfortable rhythm. His confidence gave way, his big raw hands conspicuous, his large bones set in fleshy mud, his broad droop face a pug mutt where even an acquired taste was generous. Thursday night, they lay in bed, watching summer reruns. Liz reached over and touched Harshe’s wrist. He left his hand there even after his fingers began to cramp. The news came on and they listened through the sports scores. Liz fell asleep and Harshe went out into the front room where he looked at the job ads in the evening paper. In the science section, he read about the natural florescence produced by lightning bugs, about cures for poison ivy, and the anniversary of the record dig in Kola, Russia where the deepest hole ever drilled by machine was a snake-like boring nine inches wide and 7.5 miles down. A state-of-the-art rotary engine was used to spin the bit at the end of the lubricated shaft, the pressurized bit buzzing through rock and sand, iridium and basalt, coesite and fossil. Scientists hoped to reach the Mohorovicic discontinuity where the Earth’s crust and mantle met approximately nine miles down, but the drilling fell short after 24 years; everyone surprised by the intensity of the heat, the melting stone folding in and gripping the shaft. Harshe pictured himself on top of Liz, laying inside while scientists confessed, “Every time we go deeper, we find the unexpected.” Back in bed, he dreamed of things beneath the surface. The next day, after work, he went to the library where he read more about the Kola Superdeep Borehole Project, and the record dig in Greensburg, Kansas where the deepest hole ever dug by hand was an ancient well, 109 feet, excavated by a team of hired diggers, circa 1887. Harshe memorized the statistics, pictured the men with shovels tunnelling into the oceanic crust, steel spades Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 37 Short Fiction sharp at first then worn back by the repetition. He told J.T. about Kola, how the drilling went on for 24 years before stalling. “That’s a marathon, man.” J.T., in heavy lead-lined gloves, moved chains with fresh steel sailing overhead. Harshe kept hot sheets on the rollers, had thought the same, the years it took and still barely a dent, the distance to the center some 3,500 miles off. “It’s a long way to the heart of the matter.” J.T. peeled back the cuff of his glove and wiped his forehead. Liz was in the yard when Harshe got home, pulling weeds from between the flowers. He got the push mower from the garage and cut the grass. Halfway through, he stopped and took off his shoes, moved his toes and felt the ground beneath, the solid weight and softer top soil inviting temporary impressions. He jumped a few inches to see what moved, imagined the Earth floating there in space, rising and falling in its orbit as he bounced. Liz with her back turned, didn’t notice. She went walking after dinner with three of her friends, as she did two nights a week. Harshe went out to the garage, put a shovel in the bed of his truck, drove to the field behind Marelton Park. Far back from the main path, he sank his shovel into the dirt, worked his way through the first layer, down to the grayish clay and silt below. He made the hole round, carved one side and then the other, thought about the last time Frank came to visit, a few weeks ago, how they went to watch the Renton Monarchs play. Frank at fourteen was lanky tall, not broad like his father. The game ended with the Monarchs taking a beating. Harshe was disappointed, felt he’d somehow let Frank down. On the way home, he took Frank to the empty parking lot at the high school where he let him drive around between the lampposts. The gesture, simple and spontaneous, proved the highlight of Frank’s visit, made Harshe think how much of life came from what was least expected. He dug deeper, did not get home until after dark, went to shower while Liz watched tv. The ache in his arms and back felt right somehow, his hands sore. He came to bed hungry and hopeful. In the morning he worked an early shift, went to Ace Hardware, bought a chain ladder, a pulley and rope, stakes and bucket, a new shovel and pick and gloves. He spent a week digging down below his waist, below his shoulders, below his head where the ground did not so much surrender as slowly gave way. “Deep in it,” Harshe told J.T. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 38 Short Fiction “You need a real hobby, man.” J.T. wasn’t quite sure what to do with the news. “Come fishing,” he invited Harshe to, “Cast your line.” “Thanks but…” Harshe had no interest in standing by the water with a pole in hand waiting for something to bite. He rented a video camera to document his effort, placed a call to the Guinness Record people, asked what a man had to do to make his mark. The hole dropped below 25 feet and J.T. came to see. “Let me ask you something.” He brought beer, sat with Harshe at the lip, his feet large as football lineman’s dangling. “What if you could keep digging all the way through to the center? Hypothetically, not that you could, but we’re talking about a finite distance. What if you got right down to it, to the core and all, the geodynamo, what would you do?” Harshe considered the question, pictured himself where J.T. said, in the middle of everything. “If I got there?” He didn’t know. He came home tired, sat on the floor of the shower and watched the dirt from his face and hair and arms wash off him. He told Liz he’d landed some excavation work for a friend, felt bad about the deceit, smiled awkwardly when she pointed out the pun, “Landed excavation work.” In the kitchen, he leaned against the counter, watched Liz at the table reading through poems her students wrote. The hole grew and Harshe climbed down in it. On Tuesday flyers were passed out in the parking lot at work, encouraging those still undecided to take early retirement or accept a buyout. “For the good of the whole,” the flyer said. J.T. laughed. “You hear that?” He folded the flyer into a paper plane and tossed it into the air. Harshe called a friend who did home improvements, asked about picking up some hours. “Things are slow right now,” he was told, “but maybe soon.” He called his union, asked for advice, said “If I leave where will I go?” The rep on the phone answered as if Harshe was joking. “That, my brother, is the question for the ages.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 39 Short Fiction He called Liz over, reached for her urgently, made love holding on until she pushed him back, pushed him off, said “What gives?” She turned him over, climbed on board, assumed control. A tease of days when Liz was late. Harshe bought the kit, studied the strip, took it hard when Liz got her period. He went back to the woods after dinner. The night was warm and clear. He set the stake for the chain ladder, dropped the free end into the hole, lowered the rope with the bucket attached. The bottom of the hole was hard with rock, the air inside warm as if already breathed. Harshe could taste the dirt, the clay and plant root. He filled the bucket, tugged the rope up through the pulley, let the bucket tip and empty, then lowered it again to remove still more. Bits of soil slid down the walls, tiny avalanches spilling around his feet. He shovelled out all that was there, did not think of reinforcing the walls until larger chunks of dirt peeled away from the middle. The moon came out. Harshe rolled his shoulders, pressed the point of his shovel into fresh earth. In the underground between Lakes Michigan and Huron, down some 700 feet, as the amount of space narrowed from fifty to two miles across, the pressure created forced the waters to shoot through the thinning gap at speeds approaching 300 miles an hour. Harshe imagined the whir and pull and pounding waters churning below while the lakes above disguised the rush and did what they could to appear calm. He bent his back, worked the hole, thought of Liz as he touched her, her skin soft, a mix of air and roses. He pictured himself at Ridgeman, in thick lead-lined gloves, the hot metal chains and steel made orange and steaming. His hands on both had to adjust each time. The light changed and his fingers ached. He thought about what J.T. asked, how if he ever got to the center what he’d do, and climbing from the hole he went over to the stake that kept his chain ladder in place and pulled it out of the ground. Piles of dirt and stone removed in the weeks before surrounded the edge of the hole. Harshe kept on digging, began shovelling the earth back in, refilling the hole completely. When he finished, he smoothed the dirt and stood on top, shuffled his feet across the middle before tossing his shovel into the bed of his truck and driving home. The next day Frank called from Connecticut and Harshe listened to his son’s voice through the line. He remembered teaching Frank to drive in the parking lot, how the lightposts served as beacons, and the way he showed him how to draw close and still make the turn without crashing. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 40 Short Fiction LONG DIVISION By John Abbott Autumn already. The maples on his street turning, sycamore bark scattered on sidewalks, a chill in the air when he woke up and took a short jog before work, it all gave Williams a sense that the summer hadn’t really happened. Those warm, seemingly endless, days of sitting with his neighbor, Caitlin, in the alley behind their houses, barbequing hamburgers and hotdogs, playing gin rummy or, if her children were there, go fish. Those hot afternoons where they’d walk together through their neighborhood, her kids racing out ahead of them, to the city pool. And best of all, the mornings when she’d invite him over for coffee and they’d sit quietly, watching steam rise from their mugs, and he’d feel an overwhelming sense of happiness, of belonging, which came partially from the smell of her freshly showered skin and the rich coffee and partially from just being so close to her. A woman he had secretly always loved but could never admit it to himself until just a short time ago. But as he looked around the room and saw the Kimball upright piano her husband had given her and the framed pictures of them together, the ones taken just before he died, Williams felt more like a visitor to a foreign country; he was welcome to enjoy the sights and the smells and the sounds but he couldn’t stay and he would never really belong. Now that it was fall he rarely saw her except in brief moments. The other night he ran into her as they were wheeling out the dumpsters the night Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 41 Short Fiction before garbage day. She wore only jeans and a t-shirt and he saw her shiver as she let go of the dumpster. The wind picked up, blowing a few orange leaves off the maples. “It’s getting cold out,” he said. She looked at him and folded her arms across her chest. “Yeah,” she said. “I guess it’s jacket weather.” He nodded and they continued staring at each other. The wind died away and it was quiet except for the hum of the streetlight. “Well,” she said, uncrossing her arms. “I guess I’ll go inside.” Another time he was standing in front of his bedroom mirror, buttoning his shirt and combing his hair before work, and he happened to look out his window to see her. Usually her second floor curtains were shut but she must have forgotten and he watched as she walked across her bedroom in a bathrobe she hadn’t yet cinched at the waist. She was moving quickly through her room and with each hurried step he could see the brown and red checkered robe give way to quick flashes of her pale skin. For a moment he was so caught up watching her he forgot the distance separating them and the fact that he couldn’t go to her, slip off her robe, and feel the strong pulse at the base of her jaw. Even though he sometimes went days without seeing her he could at least hear her every afternoon. As he sat in his study grading homework and tests, he’d open his window and listen to her instructing her piano students, playing sections of Mozart and Chopin or maybe just scales. And he could always tell when it was Caitlin playing rather than the students. Sure, most of the students were beginners but even the more advanced kids, the ones who could play Mozart, didn’t play every piece with the same tragic approach. In Caitlin’s hands the most triumphant waltz sounded like a mockery of everything good about civilization, especially love and companionship. Sonatas, mazurkas, and nocturnes called to mind someone dying alone in a large and once great mansion. At work – he taught math at the local high school – he couldn’t concentrate. He would often find himself standing at the blackboard and forgetting which class, algebra or geometry, he was even teaching. There was one afternoon in particular where he really lost focus. He had been talking about triangles and then he suddenly broke off midsentence, staring out at the rows of faces Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 42 Short Fiction looking back at him. Every time he tried to form a thought all he could think of was the photograph of Caitlin he had taken out of his wallet at lunchtime. It was a picture of her swimming at the city pool and it somehow captured her quiet and nervous energy. He had made a promise to himself to never look at it, especially not at work, but things sometimes happened. The silence in the classroom seemed to grow and so did his sense of the awkward way he was standing; one arm raised partway, a worn piece of chalk clutched between his fingers. But still he couldn’t move, or speak, or do anything except stare straight ahead. Eventually, someone in the front row coughed and Williams turned to face the blackboard where he saw an isosceles triangle he had drawn moments ago. He quickly scribbled the proof he had been talking about, took a deep breath, and resumed at least close to where he had left off. Over the next few minutes his mind cleared a little more but he had no conception of the reason behind what he was teaching. If one of the more sarcastic kids were to raise their hand and say, Why do we need to know this? he probably wouldn’t have the answer. Because you need to pass Geometry to get your diploma. He might say that, if they really pressed him. He hadn’t seen her, really seen her, since Labor Day weekend. They were supposed to have gone on a trip together to her parents cabin in northern Michigan. The cabin was built next to a lake and they went every year for the swimming, tubing, and fishing. This would be the first time in years she would go without her husband. Williams had been surprised at the invitation. They were drinking coffee one morning, her kids quietly playing in the next room, and she leaned over and touched his knee. He remembered staring at her hand, the chipped fingernails contrasting with the perfect shape and color of her fingers. It was her right hand, the hand without the ring, and he had wanted to attach some significance to the fact. “Terry,” she had said. “I have something to ask you. I guess you’d call it a favor.” He knew he’d say yes to whatever she asked of him. He still remembered what she said after she invited him, I don’t want to be alone up there. At the time he didn’t think to mention that she wouldn’t really be alone; her two daughters would be there too. He started packing for the trip later that day even though they weren’t going till next week. His bathing suit was faded and smelled of mothballs so he went out and bought a new one. He also bought sunscreen, beach towels, beach toys, and two plastic fishing rods for the girls. Probably Caitlin already had that kind of stuff – or at least they would find it at the cabin – but he wanted everything just in case. He knew it Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 43 Short Fiction was ridiculous but he imagined a scene where he came to the rescue by having some much needed item. The two suitcases he had packed were still sitting by the front door, right where they were when he received her phone call saying she had changed her mind about him coming along. By late October his state of mind hadn’t changed much. If anything he felt worse; he couldn’t even hear strains of music from next door now that the weather was usually cold enough for people to keep their windows closed. He bought records: Mozart, Chopin, Shumann. Her favorites, music he never would have thought twice about before. He played the records at night, after he finished grading tests and just before going to sleep. A few times he drank wine or beer as he listened but mostly he closed his eyes, imagined it was still summer, and thought about her, the smell of her skin. He remembered all of their conversations too. He remembered them even though she mainly talked about her husband. We married young, she had told him. But neither of us knew what marriage was. We could barely live in the same house together. There was a night where, after playing records, he stood looking out his second story window at her house. No lights were on but the blinds weren’t drawn and he thought he could see a person walk by the window. She did this several times and Williams kept staring. Eventually, Caitlin stopped in front of the window and it seemed like she was looking right at him. He knew he should step out of the way, close his curtain or somehow pretend he hadn’t been watching her. But he felt detached from every part of his body except for his jaw, which was set tight, his teeth grinding against each other. Although he couldn’t tell for sure it seemed like she was looking right at him too and he had almost worked up the nerve to smile or raise his hand when she shut the curtain. In the moment before her face disappeared it looked like she was staring at the ground and shaking her head. He went to bed right afterwards but he couldn’t get the image out of his mind and it stuck with him till the next morning when he woke from a bad night’s sleep, went downstairs, and moved the suitcases to the basement utility room. He called in to work a few times too, something he had never done before. He just needed a break. Overall he was doing better with not spacing out during class, but there was one afternoon where he did a problem wrong on the board and a student, not even one of the smart kids from the front row, pointed it out. He had wanted to use a sick day so he wouldn’t have to see his students the following afternoon but he made himself wait till later in the week. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 44 Short Fiction On the days he called in he skipped his morning jog, stayed in bed late, and, after he finally got up, he sat in his office drinking coffee. From this spot he could see part of her living room; the piano, the couch, a couple paintings on the wall. Every now and then he saw her and always he would look away. Then he’d get up as if he had been planning on leaving the room. He would take his coffee and wander through his house, staring at the furniture, the walls, the clothes in his closet. Everything seemed so impersonal compared to what he saw in her house. Sure, everything he owned was of good quality – he bought expensive furniture and carefully selected his clothes after studying the mannequins at upscale department stores – but none of it said anything about who he was. Williams remembered what his last girlfriend had said the first time she came over, Everything goes together so well. Her comment made him think of math: addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, numbers and shapes, problems he could solve without pen and paper. At first he had taken it as a compliment but then he saw how she was biting down on her lip and shaking her head. He stayed the night at her place once. This was a couple days after she invited him up north. They had been watching a movie with her daughters and everyone but Williams fell asleep. He remembered watching the three of them and noting how they all kept one hand pressed against their neck, just below the jaw. After Caitlin woke up he rose from his seat, said he was leaving, and headed for the door. “Wait,” she said. “Let me put the girls to bed and then we’ll say goodnight.” When she came back she took his hand and led him to the couch. They sat down, still holding hands, both of them looking at the blank T.V. screen. Before long she turned to him and said, “It’s too quiet, don’t you think?” He shrugged. He wanted to hear her play something on the piano but knew it would be too loud with the girls being asleep. “I think it’s too quiet,” she said. She grabbed the remote, turned the television on to a channel that played music videos, and laid on top of him. She did all this without letting go of his hand. They made out for what seemed like hours and when he closed his eyes Williams could almost imagine himself fifteen years younger, exploring the taste and feel of a girl’s body for the first time in his parent’s basement. At some point they took off their shirts. They laid sideways with their bodies pressed against each other, not kissing, but just enjoying the feel of warm Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 45 Short Fiction skin. They stayed like this for what seemed like a long time and then she sat up and let out a loud breath. “What do you want?” she said. It seemed like the whole summer had been leading up to this moment and he answered her right away. “Everything.” He ran his hand along her hip and then moved it to the inside of her thigh. “That’s not what I was talking about.” He nodded, took his hand off her leg, and touched her cheek. Afterwards there was a feeling in the air like they had gotten away with something. Neither of them looked at each other although they held hands for a while. He didn’t look at her until he thought she was falling asleep; her hand fell away from his and her breathing turned shallow. The T.V. was still on and he stared at it for a while, trying to decide whether to wake her or not. He couldn’t imagine them both sleeping there the whole night; the girls waking up to see their mom and the next door neighbor half-naked on the living room couch. Every time he reached to touch her shoulder his hand seemed to stop on its own. Then he’d look at the blue light of the television on her face, her hair, the slope of her shoulders and he’d tell himself he’d wait a few more minutes before waking her. Eventually though, even he fell asleep. When he woke up she was standing above him. She was fully dressed and he couldn’t remember her getting up or putting her shirt on. The T.V. was off. “I guess I should go,” he said. She bent down, grabbed his shirt from the floor, and handed it over. “You don’t have to,” she said. “You could stay here.” He pulled on his shirt. “On the couch?” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 46 Short Fiction She nodded and looked away from him. “It’s the best I can do right now.” She walked out of the room before he could say anything. After she left he tried to be O.K. with the situation; he laid back down, shut his eyes, and tried to sleep but he kept imagining how the girls would react when they saw him in the morning. Eventually he gathered up his shoes and left, hoping she was asleep and didn’t hear him slip out. Her husband died in a car accident last winter. For weeks Caitlin’s driveway was filled with cars, relatives from both sides coming to stay with her and help out with the girls. Neighbors stopped by almost every day, bringing with them casserole dishes, pies, trays of baked goods, so much that he wondered how one family, even one with a lot of houseguests, could possibly finish it all. He waited a month before going over there. It was a weeknight, around eight-thirty, and he figured her girls would probably be asleep. He walked out of his house, up his front walk, down the sidewalk a short way, and then up her front walk. It would have been quicker to cut across his yard and then hers but it seemed wrong somehow; it had snowed the night before and his bootprints would have broken the yard of untouched snow. She answered her door right away, like she wasn’t at all surprised to have another visitor. He said he was sorry he hadn’t stopped by sooner. “That’s fine,” she said. “It’s been crazy over here.” She motioned him inside, crossed the room, and sat down on the piano bench. She sat on it sideways so that she wasn’t facing him or the piano. The only seat close by was a large sofa with cushions that sank under his weight. She didn’t seem to notice. He told her he was sorry about her husband. She nodded, dragging her fingers across the piano keys, stopping every now and then as if she had just remembered a song she wanted to play. “If you ever need someone to watch the girls I’m home in the afternoons.” She nodded again and turned so she was directly facing him. “Charlie used to sleep on that couch,” she said. “When he was home anyway.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 47 Short Fiction Williams knew her husband had been a truck driver although he had never given much thought to how much he was gone. “It’s strange,” she said. “The girls never asked me why he slept out here. They probably thought it was normal.” She laughed and quickly turned away from him, bringing her hand up to her mouth as she moved, as if to cover her laughter. “I should get home,” he said. “If you ever need me to watch the kids though.” She ran her fingers across the piano keys once more then stood up. “I feel like I should miss him more,” she said. “He was my husband.” She looked at him and raised her eyes in a way that suggested she wanted a response. “Well,” he said. Her eyes got wider and he opened his mouth to say more but nothing came out. One afternoon he looked out his window to see Caitlin’s girls raking his front yard. They already had a pile that was almost as tall as they were. He watched them for a while and before long they had set down their rakes and were jumping into the pile, tossing fistfuls of red and yellow maple leaves into the air. He went outside to the garage, grabbed his rake, and joined them out front. Both girls stopped jumping around when they saw him. Their cheeks were flushed from the cold and he could see their breath whenever they exhaled. They waved him over. “Terry,” they both said as he came closer. “That’s quite a pile you got there,” he said. Ellen, the younger girl, looked up at him and smiled. “We’re helping,” she said. “Yeah,” Louisa said. “I need some help with my homework and mom said we should do something for you.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 48 Short Fiction Williams nodded and said that was nice of them. Ellen smiled again and jumped back into the leaves. “What kind of homework is it?” he said. Louisa frowned and then said, “Long division.” He looked across his yard over to their house. He thought he saw Caitlin standing by one of the front windows. “That’s hard,” he told her. He helped Louisa with her homework every day for a week. She came over after school let out. Before they got to the homework she’d take out a bag of cookies, usually oatmeal raisin, her favorite, and split them with Williams. She always turned down the glass of milk he offered. They hardly spoke. He wanted to tell her how he missed spending time with her and Ellen; watching them practice their dives at the city pool, playing go fish, and barbequing their hot dogs the way they liked, charred all around. But since she never brought up anything about the summer he kept his mouth shut. He was surprised at how quiet she was though. Normally Louisa always had something to say but that was when her mom and sister were around. Aside from her saying hello or asking if she did a problem right the only sound was her writing. It reminded him of how all the times he was alone with Caitlin they never said much. One day though, Louisa stopped in the middle of a problem, looked up at him, and said, “Maybe tomorrow you should come over to my house.” He smiled and nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “Your kitchen’s freezing. My fingers get cold.” “Oh,” he said. “I have a space heater I could bring up from the basement. Would that be all right?” She said that would be fine. He wanted to tell her that he couldn’t do this anymore but they still hadn’t talked about remainders. The next day he saw Caitlin in his yard. She was raking his leaves – the girls had only finished half the job and he didn’t care enough to say anything. Williams threw on his coat, stepped outside, and walked over to her. She Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 49 Short Fiction said hello and smiled. Up close she looked different than he remembered; she had on glasses instead of contacts and her hair seemed more red than brown. He didn’t care for either change; she had the look of a woman who had moved on from something. “I like your hair,” he said. “The glasses too.” She nodded. “The girls don’t like it. They say it makes me look like this teacher at their school.” He pointed at the pile of leaves she had going. “You don’t have to do this,” he said. “I was just going to leave them there for the winter. Someone told me it’s good for the grass.” She stopped raking and took off her glasses. She held them up to her face like she was checking them for smudges. “Louisa tells me you’re really helping her out. I appreciate you doing that.” “She’s really doing most of the work.” She took one hand off the rake and touched his arm. He noticed she wasn’t wearing gloves and he was surprised at how dry her hands were. Probably they would blister from raking if she wasn’t careful. He was about to offer her a pair of his gloves when she said his name. “Terry,” she said. “I think we should talk.” They finished the leaves together and then went to her place. He waited on the sofa while she made coffee. It was dusk outside, the sky a dark purple like before a big rain. A few boys were in the street, practicing moves on their skateboards. Every now and then one of them would look his way and smile. The boys seemed to like having an audience because every time they did a new trick they’d catch his eye as if to say, Did you see that one? In a few years he would probably have those boys in his freshman algebra class, although by then they wouldn’t seek his approval or even like him very much. Williams watched them for a couple more minutes until Caitlin came into the room. She handed him his coffee and then shut the curtains. He could still Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 50 Short Fiction hear the boys; the clack of wheels against pavement after a jump and the shouting that followed. Caitlin took a seat close by him on the sofa. She blew on her coffee a few times before taking a sip. “I think we both moved too fast,” she said. “And I probably talked about Charlie too much.” He started to shake his head but she cut him off. “I should have been talking about you more, you’re so good with Ellen and Louisa. Jesus, Charlie couldn’t even remember their birthdays.” She laughed and then took a sip of her coffee. Outside, one of the boys was shouting and then the sound of the skateboards trailed off like they were riding away. “I’m sure he wasn’t as bad as you make it seem,” he said. “There must have been something between you.” She set her coffee mug down on the end table, crossed her legs, and looked around the room. Williams couldn’t be sure but it seemed like she was staring at each of the photographs. When she was finished she uncrossed her legs and said, “Did you even talk to him?” He told her they had only spoken a couple times. What he did remember was seeing Charlie playing catch with Ellen and Louisa in their front yard. Williams mentioned this to Caitlin too. “They looked like they were having a lot of fun.” “You’re not listening to me, Terry,” she said. “I’m trying to say that I think you’re a decent man.” She put a hand on his knee. He had been holding his coffee mug with two hands but now he took one away and set it on hers. “So what does that mean?” he said. Apparently it meant their relationship would be like it was before. They saw each other all the time except now that it was winter they did puzzles, watched television, and took the girls sledding. The red faded from her hair, she rarely wore her glasses, and she used a self tanner so altogether she looked like she did over the summer. She still talked about Charlie a lot, Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 51 Short Fiction pretty much whenever the girls weren’t in the room. She always apologized but Williams said he didn’t mind. He figured it was her way of moving on. Usually her comments about him weren’t of much substance but one evening she surprised him by talking about their sex life. The girls were staying over at their grandma’s house and they had cooked dinner together. Afterwards Caitlin had made a fire while he washed dishes. When he was done he joined her by the fireplace. It was almost Christmas and the mantle was hung with stockings and the photographs had been cleared away to make room for various decorations. They each said that dinner was good and then they were quiet for a while until Williams asked if she would play him something on the piano. He asked her expecting to hear her usual response which was, No, it always seems like work to me now. But if she heard him she didn’t show it. Instead, she told him that the one thing she didn’t hate about the marriage was the sex. “We hardly spoke to each other,” she said. “But we still made love. And to keep it interesting we’d play games, pretend we were strangers. I’d lie in bed with the lights off and I knew he’d get up from the couch and come to me but I didn’t know when. It got to be so that was the only way either of us liked it.” As she spoke he stared at the flames until his eyes lost focus. He tried not to hear the nostalgic quality of her voice. When she came to the end she laughed and then said, “See, Terry. You really don’t want to be with me.” He had the feeling that she was somehow testing him and that if he spoke too soon or waited too long she’d quit seeing him again. He kept looking at the fire, as if the random flickering held an answer. When the silence had gone on for longer than he could take he turned to her, smiled what felt like a weak smile, and said her name; it was all he could think to say. “Maybe it would help if you told me about the women you’ve been with.” He shook his head and turned back to the fire. “There isn’t that much to tell.” She slept with him that night and he felt like it was mainly out of pity. They were tender, almost careful, with each other and they both seemed to fear the awkwardness that would come when it was over. And so they spent a lot Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 52 Short Fiction of time kissing and asking each other what felt the best, as if this could solve their problem. Afterwards, when there was nothing left to ask, they laid by the fire some more, holding each other and looking at the flames and the Christmas decorations. When the logs got down to a few embers she asked if he wanted to stay. He looked around the room, first over to the Christmas tree and the presents he had bought for the girls, then over to the couch. “It won’t always be like this,” she said. “I’m trying to change.” She leaned over, kissed him, and then rose to her feet. He thought about saying that he was trying to change too and decided it would sound weak. “I’ll get you some blankets,” she said. “Maybe that’s why you left early last time.” She said this in a tone that somehow didn’t place blame on either of them. Still, he got up and said he was leaving. His voice was quiet though and he wasn’t looking at her. “What if I played you something?” she said. “Would you stay then?” He paused for a moment as if he was really weighing this choice. Then, he nodded and made his way to the couch. He woke up to the sound of his name and at first he thought he had been dreaming. But he heard it again, Terry, it said, and he knew it was Caitlin although he couldn’t tell if she was asleep or awake; her voice had a hollow, far-off quality he hadn’t heard before. He got up from the sunken cushions with some difficulty and crossed the room, walking slow and waiting for the reassurance of her voice calling out again. When he got to the Christmas tree he paused to look at the brightly lit branches, the decorations, and the presents underneath. She said his name again, louder and clearer than before, and he hurried through the hallway to her room. But when he reached the open doorway he stopped although she was telling him to come in, “I changed my mind.” And he knew he would do as she said but for several minutes he stood in the doorway, staring into the darkness, waiting for his eyes to focus, as if he could see not just her dim figure in the bed but also the man he was becoming. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 53 Short Fiction ASSURANCE By Nate Liederbach Howell’s called into Fasano’s office and Fasano says, “Take a seat.” “I prefer to stand,” Howell says. “Suit yourself. But if you get tired it’s not going to make me tired.” “I have a new assignment?” “We’re waiting,” Fasano says, “and Mazza’s joining.” “I’ve never worked with Mazza,” Howell says. “He’s Health and Fitness and I’m Home Living. A joint piece?” “No,” says Fasano. “He’s a man, I’m a woman. You’re a man. There’s no together-story. It’s for the meeting he’s coming. Assurance.” “Assurance?” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 54 Short Fiction “My assurance. Your assurance. Mazza’s. The company’s.” “All the same assurance?” 2408331378 “I’ll say nothing until Mazza arrives,” Fasano says. Mazza arrives, jogging in, breathing hard. He’s in workout clothes, a soaked headband. “Handball,” he says, “every day on my lunch hour. And after the meeting I’ll need to shower, Boss?” “Understandable,” Fasano says. “A seat.” Mazza sits, looks up at Howell. “Hey, you’re standing?—oh, yeah, forgot why we’re here!” “That means?” Howell says. “Shall we shut the door, Gentlemen?” Fasano says. “Or keep it open for assurance?” “More assurance?” Howell says. “I for one,” Mazza says, “am down with assurance—then again, the door, hey, it’s why we’re here!” He laughs, gives Howell‘s pant leg a slap. “Ouch,” Howell says. “We’re here, Howell,” Fasano says, “airing things out.” This time Mazza slaps his own knee. “Airing things out! Airing things in!” “Really, Mazza,” Fasano says, “you’re only assurance. Now, Howell, normally I would not conduct this meeting, but I’ve been asked, as your superior, to discuss your habits.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 55 Short Fiction “My work habits? In Home Living?” “Certainly no. Your work habits are top-notch. Your last piece, the houseplant as metaphor for collective family wounding, exceptional.” “It’s on my fridge,” Mazza says. “Not me, Briana. My partner loves it. Gnat eggs as microscopic motes of spite. Overwatering as a need for personal space, personal time—” “Mr. Mazza,” Fasano says. “Then I’m confused,” Howell says. “What habits?” “Other habits. Those beyond our formal work areas.” “The breakroom? The lobby?” “I’m blushing,” Fasano says, and she waves her hand in front of her face. “I did not want to blush because I didn’t want you to confuse an excess of blood in my face as an emotional reaction. Note that this is purely a physical reaction to established apostrophes that I’m recognizing but you’re not recognizing? In this context? Not recognizing? My blushing is neither embarrassment nor shame, as our meeting is not a question of emotions. Good. So, Howell. No, it’s pragmatic social ethics. Similarly, it’s not about preference, with the exception that I would prefer not to be having this discussion, but it’s my job to keep this machine running, this office in tune with itself.” “If I may explicate,” Mazza says, “to give you time to recover composure, Boss?” Fasano nods, takes a long drink of water. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 56 Short Fiction “Your spider plants are getting far too much temperature change. Being right next to the window there? Fasano? Aren’t they, Howell? Explaining the crisp, brown tips? The sallow, flaccid leaves? Much like teens, spider plants may appear gregarious and thick-skinned—” “Stop, Mazza,” Fasano says. “I’m fine now.” Mazza pretends his mouth is a lock. His fingers hold an invisible key. He turns the key, puts it in his breast pocket. “I get it,” Howell says. “The bathroom.” “The bathroom.” Fasano smiles, nods. “My gassiness increases when a big project’s due…” “Sure.” “But, so,” Howell says, “so isn’t it best to take care of it in the bathroom—” “Gas isn’t our concern,” Fasano says. “The stall. The stall door? You take it off its hinges?” “Though carefully. And I always put it right back on.” “Do you want people to … view you, Mr. Howell?” “View me? I’m claustrophobic is all. I can’t go when I’m claustrophobic. It’s like I’m being locked away.” “You’re not being locked away,” Fasano says, grinning, “you’re being given privacy.” “Then I don’t want privacy.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 57 Short Fiction “You’re giving others privacy.” “Or,” Howell says, “they’re trying to steal privacy from me.” “It’s uncomfortable for people,” Fasano says. “It’s physically uncomfortable for me if—” “Mr. Howell, stalls exist for a reason. Stall doors for a précis of that reason. Reasons greater than the individual.” “Exist? Where did the stalls come from?” “Meaning origin?” “Sure,” Howell says. “Genesis? Galapagos? Cooperstown?” “Do you, Howell, shut the bathroom door at your house? With your wife? Your kids?” “I have a huge bathroom. I open the shower curtain. There’s a window just above the—you … you‘re blushing again?” Fasano waves both hands now. “Mazza, where’s your key? Mazza, please explain why, as a man, you don’t want to view another man engaging in bowel movements.” Mazza unlocks his lips, puts the key back in the breast pocket. “See here,” he says, and crosses his hands behind his back, stretches out his ribs. “First off, you look like a girl when—” “One looks like a girl,” Fasano says. “With one’s pants down and one’s thighs bare, one looks like a girl sitting on the john.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 58 Short Fiction Howell frowns. “But I have defined quads. I have thick, black hair on my thighs. Fur pants, my wife calls it—” “Forcing me to wonder,” Mazza presses on, closing his eyes as he speaks, “if you’re sitting down to poo or if to pee—” “Why does it matter to anyone else which—” “Mr. Howell,” Fasano interrupts, “let Mazza finish.” “Thank you, Miss Fasano.” “Just Fasano.” Mazza cracks his knuckles. “As the Head Editor of Health and Fitness, I can say that pooing is grosser than peeing. Now, I realize I’m beginning with basics, but only to strengthen the foundations of my claim. Pooing is grosser due to the sheer aesthetics of our given acts. I put a good deal of weight in science, I do, but we cannot forgo the sheer social significance of conventional signification.” “No,” Fasano says, shaking her head, “no, I don’t feel we can forgo that.” “Pee is golden. If not golden, clear. Where scientifically this distinction may mean something drastic, all it means with aesthetics is that golden and clear both, traditionally, symbolize loftiness, sunshine, limitless skies, spring water, wisdom, lucidity—” “Except for blood in urine?” Fasano says. “Absolutely right, Boss,” Mazza says, blinking. “Blood in urine is more terrifying than blood in poo because of the stark contrast. Poo is dark and earthen, so blood’s absorbed into the natural opacity. That, and we sort of Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 59 Short Fiction expect blood in poo, no? Poo is like the rotten part of the body breaking off. Like the old parts of your insides have died. Dead tissue. Spotting.” “Not that,” Fasano says. “But when the endometrium—” “No. No vagina. Leave that out.” For no particular reason, Howell sits now. He sits and calmly says, “The human body’s sixty percent water. The brain’s seventy percent water. The lungs ninety percent. Blood’s more than fifty percent water, compared to urine as ninety-five percent water. So when men pee side-by-side at the urinals, how is that not like death—” Mazza studies Howell, he says, “Huh?” Then he turns to study Fasano. “Boss?” he says. “Dirt to dirt, right?” “Exactly,” Fasano says. “Ash to ash.” “Ass to ass!” Mazza brays. “That’s not what she said,” Howell says. “Mr. Howell, I implore you not to force me,” Fasano says, “to have Mazza punch you in the mouth. But, you, Mazza, look, Howell is right. ‘Ass to Ass’ is not what I said. Though, I don’t think it’s a mistake that injures your argument. On the contrary, Mazza, you’re spot on: seeing someone else poo reminds us that we, ourselves, poo. We all agree on that. Yet projection doesn’t stop there. No, there’s another factor: the distinct relief. Relaxing our rectums, exposing our most vulnerable and private and alien orifice and giving it over to an act that confuses the fecal with the erotic, death with sex, business with pleasure—” “Exit Only,” Mazza says. “Isn’t that right, Fasano? Exit Only?” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 60 Short Fiction Fasano ignores him. “And such confusion, Howell, you’re compelled to silently agree, well it disrupts logic. By creating paradox. Water’s out of the question. Paradox is akin to death. See the circle? For paradox is the disruption of distinction. As the individual’s awareness vanishes with the brainwaves, so does the individual’s pride, its loftiness and any abstract notions of humanity as more than human. Gone. Vanished with a sloppy plunk.” “Because that’s another point I wanted to make, the sound—” “The key, Mazza.” Mazza holds up both index fingers. “Sure, sure, but just really, really quickly. See, peeing is like a stream, not of water, but music, like rain showers, like clean, active, and purposeful—like that Judds’ song? What was that Judds’ song?” “Turn It Loose?” Fasano says. “Big Bang Boogie?” Howell says. “No, no,” Mazza says. “Forget it. But seeing and smelling, and then having to hear Howell take a dump, well that’s overload. Because if his mouth sighs at the same time his―” “My Strongest Weaknesses?” Fasano says. “The Judds sing that, yes?” “Sure, sure,” Mazza says. “But it’s not the song I‘m—” “I was where?” Fasano says. “Vanish with a sloppy plunk,” Howell says. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 61 Short Fiction “Very good. Notions of the individual vanish with a sloppy plunk and so one tries to get them back. One does so by wiping. It’s why wiping must be private. The white cloth to the death hole, the rectum now a stab wound and the martyr dead on the toilet, crucified, exhausted, trying to quickly recover, to force death onto a garment that symbolizes another body, a savior perhaps, a tainted Jesus that I can then flush, emerging from the stall as from the tomb, but now there’s no stone to roll away, see? See that? At least not for you, Howell, no stone. Because you’ve removed it, and that’s why we’re here. So have we said enough? I think it’s pretty simple, Gentlemen: when we’re trying to work, when deadlines press, we don’t need to be reminded of mortality—” “Goddamnit, wait!” Mazza shouts, leaping to his feet. “Excuse you,” Fasano says. “Are you addressing me?” “Yes I’m addressing you!” Mazza says, pointing at Fasano. “You’re yelling at me?” “Yes, I’m yelling at you!” Mazza yells at Fasano. “What,” Fasano says, “are you yelling at me for?” “I’m yelling because you cannot,” Mazza says, “make me punch anybody!” Fasano stands but says nothing. After a minute, Howell stands too. He steps over to the window sill. He slips on his reading glasses. Gently, he fingers the brittle tips of the spider plants. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 62 Short Fiction SWIMMERS By Mike Hampton Denise Collapsed on a rose-colored couch, under a black and white print of children exchanging bouquets, Denise soaked her feet in saltwater and waited to be appalled by the cruelty of nature. According to the entertainment section of the newspaper she had already missed a documentary about a boy who had been born with two heads, and a countdown show featuring the One Hundred and One Most Bizarre Self-Inflicted Injuries. This left her with only the last half-hour of the The Eight-Hundred-Pound Man before she began her ritual. She rubbed the soles of her feet together in the lukewarm water and tried to muster a sob. It seemed impossible to Denise that a man who weighed more than eighthundred pounds could play an instrument, but as she watched he strummed a guitar on his stomach while a nurse at his side hummed along. Denise inched the volume up until she could almost make out the tune of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” The medical staff brought a hydraulic lift to the man’s bedside. Orderlies gently moved his guitar off-screen while they positioned Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 63 Short Fiction themselves to the side of his limbs, readying straps in place before the commercial break. Denise sat silent as a commercial for newly-solved medical mysteries played, and prayed that the man would survive the show. She had witnessed narrated reports of deaths off-screen before, and hoped this program would end with a soft-focus shot of the man walking hand in hand with a loved one through the park. She had to hope that some medical impossibility could be solved, that people like herself could be saved, or else there would be no point in believing in the promise of tomorrow. When the program returned, the narrator gave ominous warnings about the eight-hundred-pound man’s circulation and escalating diabetes. While he addressed the audience at home, the man’s sister wept in a hallway as an emergency surgery was conducted to correct the giant’s deficient heart. At this, Denise turned the television off and hoped that angels would intercede on the man’s behalf, but feared that they wouldn’t for the sake of drama. She dried her pedicured toes with a dishtowel in front of the television, pleased that she had found her pity for the night. A failing body is a private temple. Nightmares of television crews had visited Denise. Cameras would light in the dark of her apartment and pan across the baby magazines lying on her floor. Glossy photos of smiling children, of pregnant women in yoga wear, were illuminated for the audience at home. The steady voice of a narrator came from the ether, begging of her “Why don’t you have children?” Boom mics dangled like nooses in front of her face. In her sleep she whispered “I am trying,” before the lights engulfed her. In her quiet room she could hear the film turning on reels until she was shaken awake, suddenly alone. When the dream had come and evaporated, she knew that television cameras would never find her. She was a medical oddity too common to consider past primetime. But for Denise there was community in the world for the childless, and it was this sisterhood that she prepared for each night with cable shorts about plastic surgery disasters and children born allergic to water. Only when she was filled with sympathy, when tears for strangers crowded the corners of her eyes, could she join women like herself online to post updates about Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome or uterine linings too thin to hold an egg. “Soul-Cysters” was a website for women like Denise. On it they posted updates about drug treatments while their husbands slept. They wrote down Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 64 Short Fiction all the things the men in their lives couldn’t hope to understand. They cried together, and promised to meet on a day when all their children would play in the sun and be photographed for parenting magazines. They dreamed together when fertility clinics had given up hope. If Denise hadn’t worked at a fertility clinic, if she hadn’t seen so many women like herself flip through the pages of baby catalogues they would never use, she wouldn’t have needed the television. But the years had stripped the pity from her, leaving her to watch documentaries about conjoined twins or shark attack victims before she could log on. She understood if she couldn’t grieve, if even for herself, there was no place for her in the world. Fox Fox watched the sports report alone in bed while the dog he greatly envied ignored him. His dog was a cock-a-poo, the result of suburban science’s efforts to minimize everything masculine in the world. When he looked down at his dog casually licking his paws clean, he saw the great progression of dogs running wild in the forest tearing apart deer, to dogs being taught to beg for peanut butter flavored bones and mouth “I love you” by housewives, all the way down to dogs like his own who were woolly mild-mannered things afraid of laundry baskets. His dog was evidence of the hands of women shrinking the wildness of the world into cute packages they could shoo away. At that moment he never felt closer to the dog he named Whiskey to annoy his wife. Together they lived in a home neither of them owned, and kept to themselves to avoid the tasks his wife might assign them. They had been domesticated. Whiskey was a stop-gap measure, a stand-in until his wife had a child. That was four years ago, when the nightstand next to their bed held condoms and massage oil. Now next to the bed medical journals laid stacked under an ovulation kit that measured the hormone levels of his wife’s saliva. Fox watched Whiskey roll onto his back and grin, completely unaware that the world around him was heading south. “Are you coming to bed?” Fox called down the hall, as he absently scratched Whiskey’s belly. Only the sound of keystrokes answered as he switched off the lamp. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 65 Short Fiction Before dreaming, Fox imagined his wife having a lurid affair over the internet with a man who wouldn’t appreciate her. He saw himself coming home one day to find only the dog and a note from his wife detailing how he never supported her. On that day he would move to Montreal, and begin a new life full of afternoon flings with women who spoke broken English. In that world before sleep, he saw himself visiting museums older than America, drinking tea in French cafés where little girls mouthed, “There is nothing to fear.” He walked the streets of Montreal with the only one who understood him, off his leash. In that world they were unbound. Greta Down the hall, Fox’s wife Greta was exploring her own dream world, one warmed by the glow of motherhood. At her desk it occurred to her that a voice had called for her several minutes before, but by the time it came to her it was only an echo. Bent over the keyboard she had been too involved to answer. Her struggle against herself was foremost on her mind. Taking a moment to stare down the hall toward her bedroom, she glanced to see if the light was still on but found only the indigo glow of a muted television flickering in the dark. She made a note to apologize in the morning and posted it to the side of her monitor, the yellow square adding to her solitude. “If he only knew what it feels like to be broken,” she thought. “If he couldn’t do what he was meant to…” This was a familiar refrain; one she no longer bothered to share. Her train of thought derailed, Greta slid her hand underneath envelopes holding electric bills and mortgage statements until she found the pencil box she kept hidden. Inside it were three cigarettes. With one in hand she quietly walked down the stairs to find matches before easing out the backdoor of her home. She lit a menthol as she sat in a folding chair on the lawn, and watched the blue glow from the bedroom above her shimmer while she reclined alone with her secret. Fox believed she had given up smoking a year and a half ago. He also believed that she was happy, and that having a child was a financial decision. When he found her sobbing over baby clothes in department stores, he would frown and tell her how rich they were. That they should be Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 66 Short Fiction grateful they didn’t live like African refugees or the poverty-stricken families who were advertised by charities. But for Greta, the opinion of a man who couldn’t tell a crib from a cradle offered no comfort. Staring into the smoke trails that lifted in the breeze, she saw the great progression of her life from a child beauty queen to a Phi Beta Kappa student landing a rewarding asset manager position. She had achieved so much by twenty-eight. Only bearing a child was left to do, and her life would be complete. But her body was against her. She watched her wedding day swirl in the smoke trails above her and disappear in the night. In the kitchen, she washed her face and hands to remove the scent of mint and tobacco; then she made her way to the bed where the men in her life lay asleep. Under the covers she watched charity ads for third world relief agencies featuring starving women with swaddled children in their arms. She envied them greatly. Denise Behind the glass of the waiting room’s office, Denise rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and turned the radio to a classical music station. Across from her a young couple sat on plastic furniture whispering to one another. The young woman struggled to smile and reassured the tired-eyed man sitting next to her, explaining things Denise couldn’t hear. Realizing they were being watched, the young woman turned her attention to a childcare magazine, and her man slumped down in his seat, pulling his baseball cap down over his eyes. Denise watched as the young man’s feet bounced against the floor like a school boy about to receive a booster shot. She had seen hundreds of men like him pass by the glass in front of her reception desk, and knew that a semen analysis was the closest a man could come to understanding how she felt. Sometimes these men would sit on their hands or pace from one end of the waiting room to the other with naked worry on their faces. Would they be able to perform? Would their count be high enough? Their number was beyond their control. If it was too low, would they still be men? The young woman signed for the man she introduced as her husband, and Denise led them to a room down the hall with a plastic cup in hand. As the man entered the room dropped-shouldered, Denise smiled faintly at his mate. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 67 Short Fiction “I’m sure everything will be fine,” she said. “These things just take time.” “We’ve been trying for almost a year,” the young woman said, biting her bottom lip absently. “Some people struggle for years before it happens. We had a patient last month who got pregnant after six.” Denise began to feel as if she was speaking to the door as much as to the client standing next to her checking her watch. “You know the worst part?” the young woman asked, her hand pressed against the wall. “I hope it’s his fault. I really hope he is the reason. It sounds terrible, but if it’s him I can find someone else.” Tears inched down her soft cheeks quietly. “I’ve found matches you know, from restaurants we’ve never been to. I’ve still got the matches.” The young woman pulled matchbooks from her purse and held them up for Denise to see. “I still have them.” Denise took a tissue out of her smock and led the woman back to the waiting room, inside hoping that the husband was the reason as well. She thought about how men don’t have the same aching for children that women do, and she envied them for that. After a few minutes passed, the young man returned to the waiting room and sat down next to his wife. She whispered questions to him, her hands motioning for details he couldn’t supply as if he could judge the quality of his sample by holding it up to the light. Denise watched quietly as they worked out their positions on where they were together, and when the mood cooled she scheduled a follow up appointment with a polite smile. As the couple walked toward the door, she passed pamphlets to the young woman covering in-vitro fertilization and adoption services. Damir Denise returned to the room to retrieve the young man’s sample. She walked quickly down the hallway leading to the lab, and hoped no one would stop her to make small-talk since the fresher the sample, the higher the count. In the lab she thumbed a label onto the plastic cup, and handed it to a lab tech named Damir who had once asked to kiss her. He had asked so Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 68 Short Fiction earnestly and desperately that Denise was left no chance at offense. She could only stare back in confusion, hands at her side, which for a reason she would never understand made the technician cry. “You have to know,” Damir had pleaded. “You have to know if I kiss you now, I will be free. I will cross over. I can leave this office and be with another woman. It will break the bond.” He had looked at her as if he had expected something she couldn’t imagine. Standing in her comfortable shoes, with her simple glasses and her hair pinned back, she must have looked clinical. When the memory comes to her, Denise pictures herself dressed as a nun standing with her back against the sink listening to Damir’s confession as he stammers to make sense. “My wife,” he continued, “I could never cheat on her. I wouldn’t know how. But I want to be free again. I just have to step across. Then I will know.” When Damir remembers this moment, on the nights he drinks alone in his car before coming home, he imagines Denise flirting with him. She uses her beauty to torture him. She wanted a child. It was no secret. She would destroy him for a child. In memory he pushes Denise away as she struggles to kiss him, and is proud of himself. He knows he is an honest man. The kiss never came, and that day in the cramped lab seems as impossibly distant to both of them at this moment in time as their kindergarten graduation or their first word. “Just one,” Damir asked, as he took the sample from Denise. “Yes. It’s still warm.” “Maybe he is a swimmer.” “I don’t think so,” Denise said. “We haven’t had a swimmer in seven months.” Fox At thirty years old, Fox felt he was too young for a mid-life crisis. But as he edged the volume of his stereo up as far as he could without causing a migraine, he had to wonder what direction his life was taking. Wearing pajama pants and a Motorhead T-shirt, sitting on the floor of his guestroom Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 69 Short Fiction unshaven and bored, he felt much the same as he had when he was a thirteen-year-old. The only difference was that instead of his mother, the door to his room shut out the evidence of the woman he had promised to love for the rest of his life. He watched the numbers on the clock tick down to the time when Greta would return, and danced around the room with his arms in the air. His life for the next hour would be on his terms. The decision had come early in the morning. A scratch in his throat gave birth to the idea that he was dangerously under the weather and shouldn’t show up for work. With his best raw-neck voice he phoned a personnel secretary at the management office where he worked and told her of his plight. Then he began to drink, filling the bathtub with ice cubes and cool water to keep his beer cold as if he were on spring break. Greta had gone to work and to the doctor, moving through the routines that got her what she wanted, leaving him alone to remember the pleasantness of being properly drunk in the afternoon as the rest of the world moved on completely unaware. He had spent the morning reading yearbooks filled with people he could hardly remember. The pictures were awkward caricatures of youth with hairstyles as outdated as his record collection. He toasted his former classmates, and wondered if he called them at home to ask them what they did with their lives how many would answer with the number of children they had. This only made him drink more, until he shouted at the pages, “Go to Denmark before you die!” or “Steal a car to see how it feels!” By four in the afternoon, the yearbooks were scattered on the bedroom floor and Fox was considering getting a tattoo of an eagle fighting a tiger. This thought dissolved in a haze as the garage door clattered open. His time was up. Greta made her way up the stairs to find her husband on the floor next to a stereo blaring incomprehensible British metal. It was not the homecoming she had hoped for. “You didn’t go to work today?” she asked. “No,” Fox replied. “How did you spend your day?” “Spent, just spent.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 70 Short Fiction Warm water melted the ice in the bathtub as beer bottles were stacked next to the toilet. Fox gave in and lifted himself off the floor before making his way to get clean, knowing she would want to talk. “You can’t do this anymore,” Greta said as she watched her husband’s head disappear underneath the water every time she spoke. “I know.” “No, you’re not listening. No drinking for the next three days.” Again his head played submarine. “It was a day for drink. What can I say?” “No. Three days. You have to give a sample,” Greta said as calmly as she could manage. “You want my blood?” Fox asked, as he flailed his arm over the side of the tub. “No,” Greta answered, as she tossed the only dry towel in the bathroom into his bathwater. “Not a blood sample.” Denise Denise ate frozen yogurt as a calm voice from her television screen catalogued all the species of roses that had disappeared from the planet during the last decade, and wondered if swimmers were quickly becoming extinct as well. A true swimmer hadn’t dropped off a sample at the fertility clinic in months. This shouldn’t have been remarkable since, like scarce varieties of tropical tea roses, they seemed to spring from the most unexpected place then disappear forever, but their absence frustrated Denise all the more. The world was drying up. Swimmers were growing extinct. The average human sperm count is around one hundred and eighty-million sperm per sample with about half of those active. Most of the men who came to the fertility clinic were either at or below that number. Every now and then though, a man would leave a sample that was extraordinary. A man like that was referred to by the lab techs as a “swimmer.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 71 Short Fiction A swimmer could have up to four or five million sperm per sample and up to ninety percent of those would be active. Under a microscope his sperm would look like an ant colony on crystal meth. The reason men like these were deemed swimmers, though, had nothing to do with the amount of writhing sperm they left behind. According to Damir, the term went back to Greg Louganis. Urban legend among lab techs had it that Greg Louganis had donated sperm in the early nineties in California, and that his counts were so high that from the day he left the clinic forward all men with incredible sperm counts would be known as “swimmers.” When Damir explained the rational for the term to Denise it seemed perfectly reasonable and impossible at the same time. It made sense in that Greg Louganis was a multi-medal winning Olympic athlete. Fitness in the scientific sense is the ability to reproduce. But to Denise medals alone couldn’t be an honest indicator that a man’s Speed-O held the fertility of the Nile Valley. It also bothered her that Greg Louganis was a diver after all, and not a swimmer. In the end she accepted the myth as truth, just as she had accepted in high school that the “Jumping Jack” was named after Jack Lalanne. Stranger things had happened, and were recreated to shock home audiences every night. With that taste of sugar bringing on the guilt of an unused gym membership, Denise watched the last Steputis tea rose get crushed under the tracks of a Brazilian logging company’s bulldozer. With the petals of the flower only white flakes on the ground, she turned off her television and returned to the website to update strangers about the status of her womb. It was easier to share her feelings with strangers since, unlike her mother, they didn’t bother her by recommending men who were newly divorced. On her computer screen she viewed pictures of women older than herself who were entering their third trimester. She scrolled through the photos of sloping mid-sections, and tried to post comments of encouragement. The fact that the women’s age heightened the risk of autism she kept to herself. She had gotten angry messages in the past when she volunteered the sad truths she knew too well. Instead, she wrote about how happy she was for the expectant mothers, and wished that she lived closer to Kansas, or Oregon, or Montana, or wherever else they happened to live. If she only lived closer, she posted, they could meet for coffee or shop for baby clothes Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 72 Short Fiction together. She had to be excited for the pregnant few as it was too easy to hate them out of spite. The women who posted all had an advantage Denise wished for desperately. They had men in their lives who could grant them children when the stars in the sky and the hormones in their bloodstreams aligned. Denise had to make do with men she met in dance clubs on the weekend or through online dating services; men who could be married, and posed more danger than promise. It was another regret she would not share with her mother, but a necessary one. To these men she was a body, one they believed to be on birth control. To Denise these men were nameless donors who had yet to succeed in changing her life for the better. The empty yogurt container mocked her efforts to stay beautiful for the nameless men who visited her when the longing became too much to bare. Before bed, Denise prayed for her body to realign itself in the night. She prayed for the cysts on her ovaries to break loose like kidney stones and roll down her bed sheets. She prayed for the swimmers to return. Fox Fox surveyed his surroundings as his feelings of hopelessness grew. Sitting on a plastic cushioned couch that reminded him of the furniture in a dorm lobby, he tried to collect himself. Half-awake in the cold room, he had never felt less sexual in his life. He could hear the sound of his wife pacing just outside the door. The plastic cup mocked him. A clock on the wall counted away the minutes, and he wondered how soon it would be before he could leave. If he left too soon would he be a joke? If he took too long would his wife shrug her shoulders at the pretty nurse who had escorted him to the room, and would they both laugh? He pictured his wife checking her watch and wondering what was taking so long, but what did she expect so early in the morning? While the secondhand clicked at a water torture pace, Fox took in his surroundings. The walls were drab and unadorned. The floor was tile, for easy cleaning. Paper flowers collected dust on an end table next to the couch in the corner, and nothing seemed meant to inspire the lurid behavior that was required of him. A television set sat quietly on top of an entertainment system with a VCR opposite the couch, next to a door that led to a private bathroom. It was his only hope. Atticus Reviewâ”‚Get Lit: Round 1 Page 73 Short Fiction The selection of videos left for him did nothing to inspire confidence. They were outdated tapes of bleach blonde over-tanned women with claw-like fingernails and muscle bound middle-aged men groping one another to bad dance music by swimming pools or in cheap office settings. They were tacky familiar fables he was too tired to believe in, and only made him want to run away. But escape was not an option, as it would only lead to days of explaining and arguments he couldn’t hope to win. He would have to perform if he hoped to forget. In the dim light of the room, he closed his eyes and tried to focus. He pushed the reason for his being there out of his mind along with the presence of the cold plastic cup and the sunburned bodies playing out on the screen. He became a robot, his mind intent on the mechanics of the act as if he was working on his follow-through on the golf course or his swing in a batting cage. He was an athlete and he would win. The crowd of naked bodies disappeared from the screen as he went through the motions he knew so well. He was a winner and he repeated the fact to himself. He would score. When he had finished, he sealed the cup the way he had been shown and put it by the dead flowers on the table. Then he left the room and walked to the parking lot without saying a word to his wife or the nurse who watched him pass through the waiting room. In the car, he imagined his wife apologizing for the way he’d behaved. He pictured her signing up for more tests and consultations he would refuse to go to. She had what she wanted, and he hoped that that fact would set him free. Damir Damir’s wife Irena sat at the table of their condominium reading a gossip magazine. She had brought it home with her from the drugstore where she had gone to get a flu shot. “They gave me the shot for half-price,” she had told her husband. “I said I was pregnant. There is a discount if you are pregnant.” Damir stood in the corner and watched her disappear into the pictures of beautiful people. He saw how careful she was not to crease the pages or tear the corners. She seemed to have forgotten him so quickly. He had walked to the bathroom after dinner, and when he returned she had the magazine and he felt like a memory. “It is a shame the way these people live,” Irena said. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 74 Short Fiction “What people?” Damir asked, as he worked the cap off of a bottle of cough syrup. “The ones who get divorced in Hollywood. The rich ones,” Irena said. Damir put down the cough syrup bottle for a moment and placed his hands on his wife’s shoulders. “Irena, you should come to bed now before I get tired.” “Do you think I should go on a diet?” Irena asked. “Why do you ask?” “This one here,” Irena said, pointing at a picture of a woman with huge sunglasses and a floppy hat, “she went on a diet and lost twenty pounds in one month. Not just water.” “Do you think a diet would change you?” Damir asked as he drank the cough syrup slowly. “What do you mean change me?” Irena asked as she closed the magazine on the table top. “I need to change?” Damir shook his head slowly and drank again from the cough syrup bottle, the thick cherry flavor filling his throat and promising him sleep. “We all look for it,” he said, then walked to the bedroom alone. Under the sheets of his bed, Damir listened to the blades of an oscillating fan in the corner skittering dust. The cough syrup failed him and again he lay in bed restless. He saw the man he was, growing older by the minute, eroding like a shoreline. He heard the echoes of women from the clinic talking about the children that would come to them, the sound of his wife ordering jewelry from the television in whispers over the phone, and the laughs of waitresses talking about the men who would deliver them happiness. Everyone in search of change. His mind pulled him awake, backwards in time to a vision of himself smoking cigarettes in a tavern and crashing into the bodies of young women on warm summer nights. In the vision he was an eager university student who was free, powerful because he believed only in passion. The man he was left the tavern alone and walked down the sidewalk as streetlamps shut off Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 75 Short Fiction overhead. The road ahead of him darkened while he walked toward his future. Greta Greta folded white undershirts next to a stack of pressed khaki pants, then arranged them on the bedspread by a neat row of rolled up dress socks and folded boxer shorts. She moved a pair of dress shoes and a pair of sneakers next to the suitcase where it sat on the floor, and checked the contents of her husband’s overnight bag to ensure that there was enough toothpaste to get him through the week. If she let Fox pack for himself she knew that he would inevitably end up with eight stained undershirts, a pair of underwear and no socks, so she took it upon herself to ensure that he had everything he would need for his time away. It wasn’t a divorce. It was a pause. When his things were in order, she loaded his suitcase and leaned it against the bed next to his shoes and jacket. Some men go on fishing trips when the world bears down too heavily on their shoulders. Others leave without any notice and blow through their 401Ks in Las Vegas. She took comfort in the fact that at least she knew where her husband would be staying, and that their bank accounts were all in her name. With the packing finished, Greta retouched her make-up in the guest bathroom as the sound of a football game rumbled up the stairs. Rosewater perfume wafted in the air from the nape of her neck. She would let him talk about himself. She would give him the time to change his mind. In the living room, Fox lay on the couch pouting. He had spoken in one-word sentences since they had left the clinic. This was something Greta could almost forgive, as she knew how it felt to be examined, had he made the slightest effort to explain his feelings to her. The results from his semen analysis hadn’t even come in yet, and still he wore a look of violation whenever he turned to face her. He wanted her to know he blamed her, but couldn’t seem to bring himself to say it. “You have everything you need,” Greta said. “I only ask that you give me a call when you get to the hotel. I’ve made your reservation.” “Reservations,” Fox answered. “What do you hope to gain from this? Honestly, I don’t understand how living two miles away for a week is going to bring any enlightenment.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 76 Short Fiction “I’m not looking for enlightenment. I just want to breathe.” The volume on the television grew louder as the thunder from a football game mixed with the sound of children playing in the street. “You can breathe here, can’t you? I’m not asking for your soul. I just want you to be there for me. This is something we are doing together.” “This is the life you want.” “And what do you want?” Greta asked, as she counted out twenty-dollar bills from her purse and stacked them neatly in an envelope. “I haven’t decided yet. I haven’t been given the chance.” “That’s not true and you know it. We’ve talked about this for over a year.” “I’ve listened.” “Some day you will look back at this and smile.” Fox raised himself off the couch and took the envelope from Greta’s hand without bothering to count the allowance she had portioned out for his escape. “Does the hotel allow dogs?” “No.” With that Fox walked up the stairs, carrying Whiskey in his arms. Under his breath he shared secrets with the furry mound, but Greta could only hear the sound of footsteps moving away. “He will have his way,” she thought. “This is only for a week.” In the living room, Fox placed his hand on Greta’s shoulder and nudged their dog closer to her legs with his foot. He promised to call when he reached his retreat, five minutes away. When he had left, Greta lit a cigarette in the living room and inhaled the taste of mint leaves and smog. Whiskey had apparently forgotten about his master and was busy chewing his way through a rubber ball. Reclined on the floor, she pondered the dried flowers on her coffee table and accepted the fact that smoking could hamper her fertility. Before the tears came, she Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 77 Short Fiction blamed Fox’s ridiculousness for endangering the few hopes that remained inside her. Damir For the majority of the morning, Damir had sat alone on a metal stool in the lab drinking flat soda and considering his options. He had no gift for lying so he imagined himself an actor. When the time came, he would leave his body and play the role just as he had envisioned it. He would watch the production play out with the same casual indifference his wife showed toward her daily soap operas. It was his only hope of success. One must not seem eager for an act as dull and common as procreation, for if one does, it becomes painfully obvious that the physical collision is only desire—the emotion which seemed to distress Americans the most. The lunch hour came and went. Through the slats of the Venetian blinds at his window, he watched cars leave the clinic parking lot and return. Women who worked in medical records returned with Styrofoam to-go boxes. Men from the geriatrics office upstairs smoked cigarettes by the entrance and drank out of plastic mugs. To work, to lunch, to work, to home; the people that surrounded him each day seemed to have no appreciation for life at all. They had whittled their time down to routines and habits. They were mechanical. He would be mechanical too. By two-thirty in the afternoon the office was empty. Appointments were rarely made outside of lunch breaks or morning hours that could be counted as half-days off. Alone with the echoes of his shoes falling onto the waxed tile floor, Damir made his way to the waiting room to begin his performance. He parted his hair on the other side of his brow at a water fountain in the hallway, unbuttoned his shirt collar, and admired himself in the reflection of the faucet head. The beard he had worn since his twenties was gone, revealing pallid gray skin. The eyebrows which had brushed out like worn brooms had been trimmed and dyed. “If my wife could see me now,” he thought, “she would not recognize me.” The face that stared back at him from underneath the water seemed foreign to him as well. With a casual stride which he modeled after George Clooney, Damir ambled up to the front desk where Denise was listening quietly to Chopin while she mused over a word for revolution with seven letters. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 78 Short Fiction “Denise,” he said. “If you have the time, I would like to speak with you. I have something to show you. I think you will be surprised.” Denise pulled the ink pen from her mouth, giving up on the crossword puzzle which had frustrated her for the last hour, and walked to meet a man she didn’t recognize in the hall. Greta When the news came Greta was in the car before the nurse on the other end of the call finished speaking. Through the receiver Greta heard the woman desperately trying to ensure that the results she had related were understood, but Greta was deafened by her dreams. She threw her cell phone onto the backseat of her Navigator and raced down the street ignoring both stop signs and crosswalks. Later, she wouldn’t remember driving to the hotel at all. Greta fishtailed her car into a fire lane at the side of the hotel, and moved through the lobby trying her best not to shout in ecstasy. Once in the elevator she arranged her auburn hair behind her ears, and smoothed out her dress. The numbers above the door lit up and fell dull as she ascended up toward the executive floor where she had reserved a room for her husband. She prayed that his depression had not lifted; that he was still battling a bogus flu alone. In the hall Greta removed her shoes before knocking on the door. There was no answer at first, but as she slapped her palms against the door she could hear rumbling inside. Fox answered the door in his underwear with three days worth of stubble showing on his square jaw. His eyes flashed pink in the sunlight seeping through the hallway. “What are you doing here?” he asked as he opened the door. “Something wonderful has happened,” Greta answered. “You are wonderful.” With that she made her way inside. “I am wonderful,” Fox repeated, as he made his way back to the bed to rest. In the bathroom, Greta touched up her lipstick and searched her purse for a thermometer before discovering that in her haste she had left it at home. She took a deep breath to calm herself as the television in the next room moved from one channel to another. Watching herself pose in the mirror, Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 79 Short Fiction she casually unbuttoned the top two buttons on her blouses and slid her panties off underneath her dress before walking barefoot across the dirty laundry that littered her way to the bed. “Fox, I have some wonderful news,” she said, sitting on the sheets which smelled of sweat and Chinese take-out. “Did you get a promotion?” he asked without taking his eyes of the television. “Why would you say that?” “You seem like the kind of person who would get one. Good things always come to you. You are the kind of person who gets what she wants.” “I didn’t come here to talk about money. I got my test results back today, your test results.” Greta slid closer to her husband on the bed, hoping he would at least drop the remote control. “Am I dying?” he asked. “What are you talking about?” “I fell asleep to the television last night. It was on one of the music channels. When I woke up this morning I found out I had been listening to soft rock all night.” “Soft rock?” “The thing is, and I can’t be sure of this, I think I was enjoying it.” “You need to listen to me,” Greta said as she took the remote control from his hand, “I’m trying to tell you something.” “I hate soft rock.” “I’m talking about our future,” Greta said as she turned the television off. “You are amazing.” “What did the results say about me?” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 80 Short Fiction Greta placed her palms against her husband’s arms and lifted herself to straddle his body. With her eyes fixed down onto his sad child face she said, “You are my husband.” “Your has-been,” Fox smiled with a sneer. Greta gave a slight smile as her fingers curled against his arms. “Fox darling, you are so strong.” Denise Denise could hear water running from the faucet in the bathroom and feared that the bath was dangerously close to overflowing. It was a silly thing to be concerned with given her present circumstances, but as she lay naked on the bed she allowed her mind to wander over the small details that surrounded her. There were pamphlets for local attractions stacked neatly on the nightstand, and a phone book half-visible from the drawer cracked open underneath. Outside the window she could hear the sounds of car stereos and the chirp of crosswalks. The mints which had been carefully arranged on the pillows now lay on the floor by her dress. As she came back into herself, she allowed her hands to move over the cold flesh of her stomach until they rested beneath her belly button. Rising up on her elbows, she stared at her belly under the tangerine glow cast from the lamp. Water met water and sounded out peacefully as if there was a stream flowing in the adjoining bathroom. The man she had just laid with was moving underneath that tide from the faucet. With contentment and a little sadness, Denise watched her stomach rise and fall as the water splashed against the floor. A happy song from another language moved through the vent above her head, and she knew the man who sang it would never see her again. In another lifetime this night would have been impossible to accept. But in this world, Denise made her peace. She had seen his results, and had taken the chance to deliver herself into a new world. Water flowed underneath the door of the bathroom as Denise dressed to leave. As she walked down the hallway she imagined Damir, still solemn in the warm water, a swimmer. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 81 Short Fiction ZENO’S SHOTGUN PARADOX By Andrew Farkas 1) The Paradox of Place “… if everything that exists has a place, place too will have a place, and so on ad infinitum”. – Aristotle Physics IV:1, 209a25 Where you are: Nowhere. But everywhere is somewhere. Every place is someplace. Yet where you are: noplace. It simply does not compute. So you explain— Before you, in a bluish light, a failing light, is a shotgun mounted on a wall. This could be anywhere, and if it could be anywhere, that is as good as nowhere. The shotgun is mounted on the wall in the room where you are standing. Scarcely more enlightening. The room where you are standing is in the house you purchased years ago. Yet where are those years? Where is your house? If someone asked, as they might, where you lived, you could not respond, “In the rooms of my house;” although, upon reflection, that answer is more truthful than any other. Perhaps. The neighborhood: Fort Sanders. Random fact. And should you bring it up, you would most likely have to explain (oh, how you love to explain) the history of the name “Fort Sanders” (detail upon life-saving, life-affirming detail). But sooner or later, you find, “Fort Sanders” is no better than “wall,” “room,” “house.” The city: Knoxville. The country: the United States of America. Alas, there are ten Knoxvilles in the U.S.A.: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas. You claim you are in Tennessee. That the continent is North America which, before the Panama Canal, was fully connected to South America. That these continents are in the Western Hemisphere. (The Western portion, of a globe?) On planet Earth. That Earth is in the Solar System. That the Solar System is in the Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 82 Short Fiction Milky Way galaxy. That the Milky Way galaxy is in the universe. Yet where is the universe? It must be somewhere. It must be someplace. Because if the universe is nowhere, then your precious details are meaningless. And what of the place where the universe is? And of that place’s place? And of that place’s place’s place? And so on. Yet you persist: before you, you think, you believe, in a bluish light, a failing light, is a shotgun mounted on a wall. False. Before you, there is someone else. Someone who resembles you, yes. But not you. No. And beforethat person is a shotgun. If the dimming light can be trusted. Wherever it comes from. If, indeed, it comes from anywhere. If, indeed, it isn’t an illusion (anywhere being as good as nowhere). An illusion as are “wall,” “room,” “house,” “Knoxville,” “Tennessee,” “the United States of America,” “North America,” “the Western Hemisphere” (!), “Earth,” “the Solar System,” “the Milky Way galaxy,” “the universe.” And what potential can we find here? Here? Where? Where are you? Everywhere is nowhere. Everyplace is noplace. So what can happen here? Everything. Nothing. 2) Achilles and the Tortoise “In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead.” – Aristotle Physics VI:9, 239b15 Who you Ulysses. inactive. undoing. are: Sisyphus. And the one before you before the shotgun: Anton Yet character is defined through action. You, Sisyphus, are Your doing is the same as your not doing, and that, in turn, is your Who you are: no one. You want to stop Anton Ulysses from reaching the shotgun. Previously, you wantedAnton Ulysses to get the shotgun. It was part of the plan. The foolproof plan. But now, you are not so sure. Now you want to stop Anton Ulysses. The man before you. The boy before you. You can never view him as a man. To you, characters are not defined by action but by thought. Boys are action. Men are thought. And you want to stop Anton Ulysses. You want to explain (oh, how you want to explain; oh, how you love to explain). You want him to understand. You want him to think. You want to overtake Anton Ulysses. You never will. Anton Ulysses has the lead. And he will continue moving. He will continue acting. As is his wont. And in order to catch up, you must reach the last point where Anton Ulysses resided. And even if Anton Ulysses Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 83 Short Fiction only moves a foot from that point, you will never overtake him. Because you will be in his last position; he will be a foot in the lead. And in order to catch up, you must travel that foot. Yet Anton Ulysses, always on the move, will no longer be there. He will still be in the lead. And on and on: Anton Ulysses progressing forward, you behind, no matter the speed. The father will follow in the footsteps of the son, ironically. You will be left behind. Anton Ulysses will reach the shotgun. Anton Ulysses will wrest it from the wall. He will spin around. He will point the gun at you. He will pull the trigger. And the blast will project outward. At you. You? Who are you? Sisyphus. No one. 3) The Dichotomy Paradox “That which is in locomotion must arrive at the half-way stage before it arrives at the goal.” – Aristotle Physics VI:9, 239b10 When it will happen: never. It must happen sometime. Anton Ulysses cannot be stopped. Your action is inaction. But sometime and notime are the same when you are only somewhere and therefore nowhere. No place. No chance. No time. When it will happen: never. Anton Ulysses wants to reach the shotgun. Once he reaches it, his motives are unclear. And although you cannot stop him, still, he will never arrive. For in order to get to the shotgun, he must first reach the halfway point between his current position and the wall (wherever the wall is). And in order to reach that halfway point, he must reach the halfway point between his current position and that halfway point. And in order to reach that halfway point, he must reach the halfway point between his current position and that halfway point. And on and on. Anton Ulysses, always the actor, will struggle, forever if need be, will strive, heroically strive, will endeavor to complete his (Herculean) task. In vain. His journey, although it appears so brief, will expand. It will expand and expand. Until the shotgun appears miles away. Yet, mockingly, it is merely a few feet. So close by. So far away. A mission that seemed like it would take no time at all, takes an eternity. An eternity not to happen. Happen? When will it happen? Never. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 84 Short Fiction 4) The Paradox of the Arrow “If everything when it occupies an equal space is at rest, and if that which is in locomotion is always occupying such a space at any moment, the flying arrow is therefore motionless.” – Aristotle Physics VI:9, 239b5 (Anton Ulysses has the shotgun.) What will happen: nothing. (Anton Ulysses has the shotgun.) Noplace. No one. Never. Nothing. Even though Anton Ulysses has the shotgun. For, in order to fire the shotgun, he would have to cock at least one of the two hammers, either of which may break or prove defective, although the weapon is of high quality, because, sooner or later, everything fails. Then, once he has cocked one (or both) hammers, he must pull the trigger. With a smaller gun, Anton Ulysses would have to aim. But at this distance…ah, but the difficulty of distance has already been discussed. So, perhaps Anton Ulysses should aim. Provided that his aim is true, he would next have to pull one (or both) of the triggers which will unleash the spring(s) that has/have been pulled taut by cocking the hammer(s). Much like the hammers, the triggers and the springs could very well malfunction. Not to mention that to completely pull the trigger, Anton Ulysses would first have to pull it halfway halfway halfway, etc. The spring would have to move halfway halfway… The hammers would have to move halfway… And if, somehow, Anton Ulysses is able to get the hammers cocked, the triggers pulled, the springs unleashed, the hammers pounding forward, still nothing will happen. For the gun would have to be loaded, and the gun is never kept loaded. The gun is usually kept unloaded. It is possible that it has been loaded. The gun is loaded. You loaded it yourself. It was a part of the plan. Yet even with the gun loaded, the hammer still must interact with the shotgun shell. A shotgun shell consists of the primer (the explosive cap), the propellant (gunpowder), and the shot (made of lead). If the hammer strikes forward, it will hit the explosive cap (which must create a miniature explosion) which will ignite the propellant (if the gunpowder is properly packed and pure) into yet another miniature explosion which will perform the twofold function of (1) creating greater pressure behind the shot than the atmosphere applies in front of the shot (hence, sending the shot forward), and (2) fragmenting the aggregate of shot (contrary to a bullet which is a single projectile). Yet the likelihood of any of this happening is low (see the previous sections). But even if it should happen, even if the gun mechanism and the shell mechanism all, Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 85 Short Fiction against the odds, operate perfectly, still nothing will happen. For the shot must have been manufactured properly. Shot is made by pouring molten lead down a shot tower (such as the Sunsphere Shot Tower in Knoxville, Tennessee (wherever that may be) that is 234 feet tall and made of brick (to add more random details)). As the molten lead descends, air pressure makes it round (the taller the shot tower, the greater the air pressure, the better the product). The now round pieces of molten lead then cascade into a pool of water in order to cool. Once cooled, the balls, the shot is filtered through screens so the balls of the same size can be collected, so the irregular shot can be re-melted down, can be put back through the process. The chances of any of this happening successfully: zero. First, it involves a worker leaving his home and going to work (impossible); it involves the worker making his way to the container of molten lead (doubly impossible); it involves the worker ascending a tower (trebly impossible); it involves the worker pouring the lead down the tower (quadruply impossible); it involves the lead falling through the tower (quintiply impossible) and reaching the pool below (infinitely impossible) and then being accurately filtered through screens so manifold shot balls do not cause a shotgun jam (absolutely impossible). But even if this entire ordeal were possible (and it isn’t…at all) still nothing would happen. For the principle behind the gun is that it will move lead through a target. Yet in order to move, the shot must not be at rest. Yet all objects that occupy a space are at rest whilst in that space. The lead which appears to be moving through the air, then, is actually stationary, and no more likely to injure you than the worker is likely to make his way to the shot tower early in the morning for another day of work doing… What? What can be done? Nothing. 5) Paradox Solved “The solution to all of the mentioned paradoxes, then, is that there isn’t an instant in time underlying the body’s motion (if there were, it couldn’t be in motion), and as its position is constantly changing no matter how small the time interval, and as such, is at no time determined, it simply doesn’t have a determined position.” - Peter Lynds “Zeno’s Paradoxes: A Timely Solution” You are falling. You do not know how. You do not know why. Your arguments were perfect. Your logic, flawless. Noplace. No one. Never. Nothing. But just before you hit the ground, the ground which seems so far away, though it is not far away, as if you were descending from an airplane, you think: Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 86 Short Fiction only the man falling from the sky without a parachute truly knows the disproof of Zeno’s Paradox Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 87 Short Fiction ROSIE’S FUNERAL By Aaron Jacobs The Puerto Rican women were arguing over a basket of wet clothes. It rolled beside them, as they stood in the aisle between the washing machines. That they were of identical height, with squat legs and stunted torsos, each with a faded tattoo on her flabby upper arm and jangling gold bracelets on her thick wrists, was less amusing than it was a marvel of symmetry. What I found amusing was that they both had with them a small daughter and these girls could have passed for twins, not only because they were same sized but because they wore denim shorts with flowers embroidered on the hem and someone had fashioned their hair in pigtails tied with ribbons. The girls sat on the floor sharing a coloring book, oblivious or indifferent to the conflict above them. Though now it seemed as if the women weren’t arguing but complaining in unison about some unseen third party. This made more sense. What could two people with all that in common physically have to disagree about? Of course, I was speculating. I didn’t speak Spanish. When the women discovered I was staring at them, I looked to the newspaper in my lap just as we made eye contact. Then, to appear less of a snoop, I walked to my machine and conducted an ersatz inspection of my laundry’s progress, giving the water temperature dial a skeptical tap with my finger, peering through the fishbowl into my sudsy wash as though I was concerned I’d somehow left my watch in there. I turned around and saw the women had resumed their belligerent conversation. I returned to my chair and found someone in it, reading my newspaper. He was a huge man with a complexion so blotchy his face looked like a patchwork of different sunburns. He crossed his legs and turned the page, Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 88 Short Fiction shaking the paper in his hands to remove a crease. I watched his stubby fingers gripping my newspaper. They were pink like the ribbons in the girls’ hair, except the ribbons shone from their silkiness while his fingers glistened with sweat. I took for granted that he smelled like cured meat. “Sorry, but that’s mine,” I said but then I thought if anyone should be sorry it was him. Now that I was closer I noticed his actual odor was one of baby powder and cigarettes and I felt less ill will toward him. He closed the paper and laid it in the chair next to him. In the chair to his other side rested a canvas duffel bag. “You’re also in my seat,” I told him. He put his hands on his knees and began shifting his weight forward. The Puerto Rican women were watching me and they didn’t look away when our eyes met. I lost the staring contest and with it went my resolve. Before the big man got to his feet, I said, “Don’t worry about it,” and I put myself in the chair next to his duffel bag. “Feel free to check out the paper. I’ve already skimmed it.” Then he finally said something. “Doesn’t it seem as if more twins are being born than ever before?” He pointed at the girls with the coloring book. “I haven’t noticed.” “Everywhere I go I see a kid who looks exactly like the kid next to him. Last week, I saw triplets. I think children are afraid of coming into this world alone.” “Those women look alike,” I said. “I used to be married to a twin. We split up after a year. In court, the judge asked me why I wanted a divorce, so I said, ‘Your honor, from time to time my sister-in-law would visit and, because she looks so much like my wife, I sometimes ended up making love to her by mistake.’ The judge said, ‘Am I to believe that there’s no way to tell the two women apart?’ I said, ‘You better believe there is. That’s why I want a divorce.’” In between laughs, he said, “I’m Jay,” and extended his sweaty hand to me. I’d washed my clothes here for years but Jay was the first person I’d spoken to, or who had spoken to me, outside the times I’d flagged down a staff member when the change machine was out of order. I shook his hand to be polite and because I’d heard worse jokes. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 89 Short Fiction “I feel like a jerk for not introducing myself sooner,” he said. “Don’t feel too bad, I just sat down.” He shifted in his chair to look at me. “I know you, you know. I live across the street too.” I found it hard to believe. There were eight apartments in the building I lived in and since I was on the first floor, near the mailboxes, no one could enter or leave without passing my door. Sometimes when I was bored I watched through the peephole their comings and goings: the takeout delivery guys, the couriers and, of course, the tenants. I had a deeper relationship with the building’s foot traffic than anyone else. It struck me as unlikely that an enormous and oddly hued man lived upstairs from me and that I had never seen him but he had seen me enough times to feel embarrassed for not introducing himself. “Did you just move in?” “In March. So what’s that, going on five months now? We’re in 3R, my wife and I.” “Your former sister-in-law?” He laughed. “No, my wife’s no twin. She’s one of a kind.” I supposed it was possible he lived upstairs. There was a reasonable amount of turnover in the building, on account of the landlord being a habitual liar who was almost certainly never available when the boiler would break in January and we’d go days without heat. I stayed because when I moved in I promised myself I would own my next home. I wasn’t quite there yet. Also my girlfriend’s place was nicer and by virtue of this fact she didn’t press the issue of cohabitation. “Welcome to the building, belatedly, I guess.” “Do you know how I can get in the backyard?” Jay was being generous calling the lot behind our building a backyard. It was a gravelly rectangle, maybe fifty feet long and twenty feet wide, that supported the most stubborn species of weeds, festooned with broken glass and the remnants of dilapidated appliances. As far as I knew, there were only two ways of accessing it. One was by going through the basement. Since the landlord padlocked the basement door that wasn’t an option. The other way was through my bedroom window. On the weekends or after work I relaxed back there on a lawn chair, drinking beer and cooking on a Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 90 Short Fiction portable barbeque grill. It was how I’d planned to spend my afternoon after finishing the laundry. So while I didn’t own the gravel yard I thought of it as my own and I didn’t like the idea of sharing it. I told Jay he’d have to go through the basement. “Too bad neither of us have the key,” I said. “But I’ve seen you out there. You and your wife. Don’t think I was spying. I was just hanging my head out the window, checking the weather report the old fashioned way.” “I’m not married.” “Whoever she is. The two of you sunbathing. I’m not looking to barge in on your good time but I really need to get in the backyard today. I’d consider it a personal favor if you told me how you do it. Just this one time.” He added, as if unsure he should, “My dog died and I have to bury him.” He was serious. I could tell. He seemed to swallow his emotions and smile but doing so wreaked havoc on his complexion and he turned radish colored. “I’m only in this place because my wife won’t let me keep him in the house and the air conditioning here is freezing. I figure it’s probably best to keep him cold until I can sort it out.” I flinched away from Jay’s duffel bag, which until then I assumed contained his dirty clothes. “I’m not a freak,” he said, pulling the bag onto his lap. “I just don’t know what else to do. I can’t throw him out with the trash. My wife’s not insensitive but he was my dog, not hers.” The way he wore his grief so plainly on his face alerted me to the necessity of treading lightly. Besides, I didn’t want him to think I was callous to his predicament. I’d had pets before and knew the sadness of losing one. “That’s awful. What kind of dog was he?” “I’d show you but I think they’d ask me to leave.” “Or call the cops,” I said. “Or call the cops. Good point. He was a mutt.” “What was his name?” “Rosie, short for Roosevelt. I like to name my pets after presidents.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 91 Short Fiction “FDR?” “Do I look like a guy who’s impressed by cigarette holders and leg braces?” “You strike me as a Mount Rushmore kind of guy.” “You got that right,” said Jay, chuckling. I sighed at what I considered a no-win situation. “I can appreciate that you’re in a bad spot but my clothes aren’t done and I don’t trust this place enough leaving them here.” “I used to feel the same way but then I thought if somebody was desperate for size forty-six boxer shorts they could have them. I guess I’ll break the lock on the basement door. Just do me one favor and don’t tell anyone. I don’t know what the law says about burying animals on residential property but I bet it’s frowned upon.” He held the duffel bag in his lap. There was that hideous, defeated smile of his again, discoloring his face. It was then I realized that, against my better judgment, I was going to help. Jay was a nice person, which isn’t the rarest thing in the world but still uncommon enough, especially if you consider that a lot of what passes for niceness is posturing from people trying to butter you up. “Let me get my stuff out of the machine. I’ll dry it later.” He was still smiling when he stood up. “You’re a really good guy,” he said. “I’ll remember that when we’re both evicted.” “Hey man, you can share my refrigerator box any time.” We left the laundromat with our bags. Jay hugged his against his chest. With his free hand he smoked a cigarette and, as we waited on the corner for the light to change, he periodically spat and shook his head. I wondered what he would have done had he not recognized me or if I had decided to do laundry two hours earlier. How long would he have sat in the air conditioning hoping to get into the backyard? It made me think of coincidences and the notion of meeting specific people at specific times. Once we were in the building he said he was going to get his shovel. He rested the duffel bag in the hallway. “Keep an eye on Rosie?” Before I could protest, he disappeared around the corner to the elevator. He was Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 92 Short Fiction sweating through his shirt when he came back a few minutes later, a shovel over his shoulder and an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. We went into my apartment. He looked around and said, “I’m on the other side of the building. Everything in your place is the opposite of mine. I’m looking right when I should be looking left.” There was that symmetry thing again and I wondered how much was lost or gained in a mirror image. He tossed the shovel out my bedroom window and crawled through after it, carrying Rosie with him, showing more grace than I expected. He speared the shovel head into the rocky ground and leaned on the handle. He lit his cigarette and glanced nervously around the yard. “Oh, you know what? My wife wanted me to tell you she’s sorry. She thinks I suckered you.” “It’s no big deal,” I said, even though his comment made me question my earlier assessment of his niceness. Until then I considered him as guileless as an oak tree. Of course, it was too late to do anything about it. “Don’t get the wrong idea,” he said, “she’s very grateful for your help but she thinks it’s bad business to impose on a stranger. I told her we’re neighbors so even if we don’t know each other we’re not strangers. I guess I’m in trouble if you guys are of one mind.” “Is she coming down?” “No. She’s upset. She just shows it differently. She loved Rosie because he was such a sweet animal but she was less hands on always. One time she said I cared more about the dog than her. I told her I’d known him longer. She didn’t get a kick out of that. Between you and me, I was half-kidding.” He lifted the shovel out of the ground and scanned the yard for a good gravesite. I said I would give him privacy, out of respect. The truth was I didn’t want to see his dead dog. I didn’t need a visual memory of a furry carcass in an unzipped duffel bag, although that didn’t seem as bad, I thought, as a visual memory of Jay in mourning. I didn’t want to have to reconcile that image every time I saw him getting his mail. “I’m going to watch TV. Give me a shout if you need anything.” “But shouldn’t there be a witness?” he said. “I’m not religious but shouldn’t someone else see it, to prove it happened?” “Why don’t you dig and then call for me?” I said, hoping that by the time he negotiated the hard ground he would have forgotten about me in the other Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 93 Short Fiction room. I’d no sooner opened a beer and put my feet on my coffee table when I heard him shouting. “It’s tougher than I thought,” he said. “I don’t even know if there’s dirt under there. It might be concrete.” “I don’t mean the digging.” He stepped aside to show me his work. Jay was excavating the hole rather well. “I got Rosie when I was in college. He’s my last link to who I was then. Does that make sense?” “Maybe but, I don’t know, not exactly,” I said and sipped my beer. “I threw shot put in college. Junior year, I got kicked off the team. Fighting.” He ducked his head between his shoulders, remorseful and embarrassed years later. “I put our best two hundred meter sprinter in the hospital. I’m lucky I didn’t go to jail.” “What did you fight about?” “A girl, what else? All my friends were on the team so they went bye-bye after that. I got Rosie because I was lonely. This was during winter session and I had no classes, nothing to do all day. Rosie was full of energy so I took him to the park. I’d freeze my considerable ass off on a bench while he ran wild. The winter of my discontent and all that.” He shrugged as if to say, What can you do? “I know, I’m starting to annoy you.” The thing was he wasn’t annoying me. I sympathized with his story because I had one also. “I used to have a dog. She was a big Irish Wolfhound. Pearl,” I said, omitting the part of the story in which I adopted her to assuage a broken heart. Then she died from intestinal torsion less than a year later. Jay would have appreciated the unabridged version but I was a different kind of person from him and couldn’t bring myself to be as open. “Why Pearl?” “You name your pets after presidents, I name mine after eighty year old women. Want a beer?” “I’m not much of a drinker,” Jay said and resumed digging. He was exacting in his work. The hole grew larger and I could see that, at a depth of a foot, the earth was soft and brown and then got moister and darker in color. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 94 Short Fiction Sweat covered his face and neck, which was now the deep red of the flesh of a black plum. “Maybe you should take a break. I don’t want to end up digging a hole for you.” “I might look in terrible shape but I’m going to live forever.” “You made a deal with the devil?” “I promised my wife I wouldn’t die before her. I don’t have a choice in the matter.” He turned his attention to the duffel bag. “Okay, Rosie, it’s showtime.” Jay got on one knee and unzipped the bag. I couldn’t see anything with his huge body in the way. I’m sure for a while he had occupied himself with getting into the backyard and was then able to distract himself with the task of digging the hole. If he was ever going to lose it I knew it would happen now. He lifted a bundle wrapped in a blanket. I drained my beer in anticipation. “How did he die?” I said, hoping to forestall the finality of the burial. Jay looked relieved that I asked. “That’s what old dogs do. He was blind with cataracts and he’d been senile forever. But a happy senile, you know. Then a few days ago he couldn’t walk. I had to carry him outside otherwise he’d piss all over himself. When he stopped drinking water, I knew what that meant. I didn’t see a reason to put him down as long as he wasn’t in pain. I made a bed for him out of pillows and blankets on the floor. I’m glad it happened on the weekend so that I was with him all the way.” He unwrapped the blanket and I caught my first glimpse of Rosie. The dog was a shaggy thing, with brown and black fur on the body, white on his stomach and legs. Though his eyes were closed, he didn’t look asleep. His lips had tightened over his teeth and his tail had been bent so that it was parallel to his hind legs. Jay petted his head. “Hey pal. I don’t want to do this but what’s my other option?” It seemed as if he wished Rosie would offer a last minute alternative. The dog lay on the blanket and Jay kneeled over him, scratching him behind his ear and then ran a hand over the length of his body. “Alright buddy, this is it,” and he gathered Rosie in his arms and transferred him from the blanket to the hole. I watched from my bedroom window with a feeling that my presence was a great and heavy intrusion. As Jay stood over the grave, he continued Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 95 Short Fiction talking to Rosie. “So, I’m going to get started now and, after that, we won’t see each other anymore. But I’ll check in on you from time to time. I can look out my bedroom window and see that you’re alright.” He took up the shovel in his hands. “Are you ready?” he said, and I didn’t know if he was asking Rosie, me, or himself. He dropped the first shovelful in the hole. “Oh, Jesus,” he said. “When the dirt hit him, it jarred his fur a little. It looked like he moved. For a second I thought he was alive.” “I’m sorry,” I said. He went back to work. I couldn’t see what happened to the dirt once it fell into the hole but it seemed he was taking care to fill the end where Rosie’s tail was, as if he was avoiding burying the dog’s head. He kept talking. “I was going to keep you wrapped in the blanket and let you have it. It’s your blanket, after all. I hope you don’t mind that I’m keeping it.” Jay’s face was a shade of red I’d only seen on baboon’s asses but I didn’t dare interrupt. “You’ve got your fur to keep you warm and I think the dirt will help also.” He was about halfway done, probably to the point where another few shovelfuls would completely cover Rosie. He took a knee and put his hand into the hole. He said goodbye to the dog and then stood up and filled the rest of the hole without another word. When he finished, he walked back to the open window where I was leaning. He lit a cigarette. “How are you doing?” I said. “Once I catch my breath I’ll be fine.” It wasn’t what I meant but I let it go. He stubbed out his cigarette and crawled back inside with his shovel and the duffel bag. I offered him my bathroom to clean up. He said he preferred to do it in his home. He thanked me again and invited me over for dinner some night in the coming week. We never had that dinner and I can’t say I was disappointed. In the days after Rosie’s funeral, I remember hoping I wouldn’t run into Jay. I suppose I’m the sort of person who would have found it strange if he and I had become friends. I’d see him in the hall sometimes and we would talk about problems in the building or things going on in the neighborhood. He never mentioned his dog. Soon we no longer stopped to talk but only to say hello. Eventually, whenever we saw each other, we just nodded and went on our way. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 96 Short Fiction OPEN EVERY WOMB By Michael Hartford I saw my first when I was doing a rotation at the clinic on East Lake Street. The girl, thirteen or fourteen, came in with a sprained ankle and asked for a woman doctor. I was the only one on staff that day. She had slipped on the icy sidewalk and twisted her ankle: a common enough injury for a Minnesota winter, though certainly a shock for a girl from Mogadishu. It wasn’t serious, a simple splint would be enough, but I figured that while she was there we might as well do a general exam. It’s hard to get the children of immigrants to come to the clinic, and I had learned to take full advantage of any visit. When she scooted backwards to lie down on the table, her paper gown rode up over her thighs. And that’s when I saw the white and gray scar tissue, the jagged stitches, and the mess that had been her labia majora. She covered her eyes and looked away. I glanced back at her mother, a tall, thin woman with only her face exposed under her dark scarf and long black dress. She stared past me, silent and blank-faced. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 97 Short Fiction In our OB/GYN lecture last term, we covered the varieties of female genital mutilation. The practice ranged from ritually nicking the clitoris to full infibulation, with the clitoris and labia minora removed and the remaining flesh stitched shut. This girl’s mutilation was just short of infibulation; her clitoris and inner lips were gone, with rough, dead scars in their place. She had been stitched, and the wreck of her labia majora had fused together, but it wasn’t the tight, almost seamless stitching I had seen in the lecture slides. “When did this happen to you?” I asked the girl. My heart was pounding so hard my chest hurt. She didn’t answer. I touched the scar tissue where her clitoris should have been; there was a smooth crevice where it was cut away. The scars were old and thick: she probably had been cut four or five years ago, before puberty. “When did you move here?” I asked. She didn’t answer. Somali girls and women are hard to read; they’re so often silent, blank, almost invisible. The men and boys adjust quickly, learning to drive, listening to rap, becoming football fans. But the women in their heavy scarves and dresses, even when it’s summertime and sticky humid, seem not to be here at all, seem to be walking still in Mogadishu, not Minneapolis. Except for her ruined genitals, the girl was beautiful, almost perfect. Her skin, which probably hadn’t seen a scorching sun or felt blistering wind since she was a small child, was smooth and soft, the color of creamy coffee. Her hands and feet were long and agile. Unlike most of the kids I saw at the East Lake clinic, there wasn’t an extra ounce of fat on her; her hips and breasts were only just starting to swell, but she still had a lean, boyish body. “Did this happen in Somalia, before you came here?” I asked. She nodded. I looked back at the mother, but she continued to stare, unblinking, at a spot on the wall above my head. Perhaps she didn’t speak any English at all. I set the girl’s splint and showed how it worked, told her stay off it as much as possible and to be careful on the sidewalks. She slid gracefully off the table and retrieved her carefully folded clothes, apparently greatly relieved to be covered again. I walked them out to the front desk and made an appointment for them to come back in a week. They went out together, slowly, the girl leaning against her mother, and I watched until they Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 98 Short Fiction disappeared behind a snow bank, two black smudges against the gray and white of winter. “She was probably afraid you’d report her,” Jake said when I told him about the mother’s silence. We were getting ready for bed, going through our “nightly ablutions,” as Jake called them: standing at the sink brushing our teeth together, gracefully dancing around each other in the cramped bathroom while he passed me my face cream and I retrieved his pajama pants from the hook on the door, finally finishing together with a gargle of green mouthwash. “I think she was ashamed,” I said. “I doubt it. She’s probably circumcised herself.” “It’s not circumcision. It’s barbaric.” “It’s hard to pronounce ‘infibulation’ around a toothbrush,” he said, letting a little froth drip down his chin for effect. I wiped his mouth with my washcloth and kissed his cheek. “I just can’t understand why she would let her daughter be mutilated like that,” I said. “Shouldn’t her first instinct be to stop it?” Jake spat into the sink. “It’s how they’ve always done it. Like First Communion. Bar Mitzvah.” “Bat Mitzvah for girls,” I said, poking him in the ribs. “And that was just psychologically scarring—everything’s in physically good condition.” “I’m not convinced,” he said. I looked over at him; he had his pajama pants, a powder-blue plaid pair I bought for his birthday, halfway up. “No?” “No,” he said, putting his hands on my waist and squatting beside me. “I think I’m going to have to inspect for myself.” “Stop it,” I said, smacking his hand away from the hem of my nightgown. But he didn’t stop; his fingers walked up the outside of my leg and under my nightgown and across my belly, tickling all the way. I giggled into my fist. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 99 Short Fiction “Well, the tickle reflex works.” He nuzzled against my thigh while his fingers walked down my belly and between my legs. I smacked his hand again, but ineffectually. “Everything seems in working order here,” he said into my nightgown. “You jerk,” I whispered, and pulled his head closer. After Jake fell asleep with his pajama pants in a pile on the floor, I thought about Murray Horvitz, the first boy I let feel me up. He was a “good boy,” the kind who does better with mothers than daughters: chess club and Honor Society; volunteer work for the Jewish Federation; delivered both the Torah and Haftorah at his marathon Bar Mitzvah on his thirteenth birthday. My mother recruited Murray, who was a year younger than me, to help me with my Bat Mitzvah reading. Murray was twelve, and though still a year from his Bar Mitzvah he had already memorized his Torah passage and was mastering the additional Saturday Haftorah that would be his crowning glory. I was two months away from my Bat Mitzvah and still struggling with the meager eight lines about Rachel and Leah that I would deliver on the first Friday in May. There would be no Haftorah for me, to my father’s eternal disappointment. Every Saturday for two months, after morning Hebrew lessons at temple, Murray and I sat in my parents’ basement while he coached me. Hebrew didn’t come easily for me, requiring more phlegm than a teenage girl should have to produce. And I was more interested in boys and music than I was in the analysis of Torah. Murray, who had thick glasses, good manners, and a rabbinical streak even at thirteen, wrote the d’var Torah for me while I scribbled in my diary and whispered on the phone with my best friend Tabby. It wasn’t until three years later, that awful Bat Mitzvah behind me and all the thank you notes to my parents’ friends long ago mailed out, that I realized Murray was still around. He was there to hold the big glass doors into the high school in the morning, and to walk me halfway home in the afternoon. When I had trouble in geometry, he was there to help me make sense of the proofs and axioms that seemed like so much Torah again. He was almost an axiom himself, an assumption from which flowed proofs of which I was only barely aware. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 100 Short Fiction He was so axiomatic, in fact, that I hadn’t really looked at him until the day Tabby passed me a note in geometry class that said, “Murray’s getting kinda cute, huh?” Sure, he still had those glasses, but his face had grown into them, and his ears didn’t stick out anymore from the weight of his spectacles. His skinny body was starting to develop definition and shape, probably from toting bags of groceries to widows and opening doors for inattentive teenage girls. And even more beautiful, he was as unaware of it as I had been; in his head, he must still have been the chess-playing, Hebrew-tutoring nerd my mother called “that sweet Horvitz boy.” The boys I liked—brooding poets or gregarious jocks—were born cute. They carried themselves with an air of entitlement, and they were clearly entitled to more than a skinny Jewish girl with crooked teeth. So one night in my parents’ basement, when Murray was explaining one more time how to calculate the area of an isosceles triangle, I made my move. While he was looking down at the geometry book in his lap, his finger tracing the picture of a triangle, I lifted his glasses off the bridge of his nose and pressed my lips against his cheek. Chess and charity must be some powerful sublimations, because it wasn’t long before we were touching tongues and stretched out on the futon. We fumbled around until I was on top of him, and I didn’t resist at all when he started to work his hand under the waistband of my jeans. The look of awe and gratitude on his face when he made contact with the mysteries between my legs made me feel powerful and alluring. I was more than willing to let him explore all he wanted, but the position was uncomfortable—mostlyclothed teenage sex is challenging more than fulfilling—and my mother ruined the mood when she called down the stairs to ask if we wanted cookies. I let Murray resume his explorations several more times that year. He approached the topic almost scientifically; I half expected him to bring a magnifying glass to our “study” sessions. He would keep up a whispered interview about the effects of different movements and pressures from his dexterous fingers. I explored Murray a little bit, too, but more to be polite than out of any real curiosity. There’s no mystery in the penis. I’m not sure if it was Murray’s inquiries into the puzzles of womanhood that did it, but about that time I stopped being a ditzy teenager and started thinking about how things work. Suddenly biology and physics and math Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 101 Short Fiction were less chores to get through so I could move on to the telephone, and more like shining a flashlight into the secrets of the universe. Geometry’s legalisms still left me cold, but the wonders of fetal pigs excited me almost as much as Murray’s fingers. My mother noticed the change, and commented that Murray must be having a good influence on me, but she never fathomed the real cause. In the summer I took another generalist rotation at a clinic on Franklin Avenue. Somali immigrants who lived on the West Bank frequently used the free clinic, and I became accustomed to their genitals. The worst cases still shocked me, like the mother of six children who had been cut open and stitched back up so many times that her genitals resembled lean hamburger, and she had a chronic urinary infection that probably would never heal. But I knew that any Somali girl over ten years old stood a good chance of bearing those scars. I was pleased that the girls who were born in America, or emigrated very young, had all their parts in order. Only once was I asked to perform the surgery, by the mother of an eight-year-old girl. I flatly refused, citing the state law that made the operation a felony and suggesting that I would be compelled by that law to report any mutilation I discovered. The mother may not have understood English very well, but I never saw the girl again. “Maybe it shouldn’t be illegal,” Jake said when I told him about the woman with six children. We were lying in bed, covers off because it was so hot in the apartment. It was late July, and for two weeks now there had been no rain, only dense, humid air and constant sun. I wore nothing but a long Tshirt; Jake wore nothing at all because he’s a warm sleeper even in the winter. “What do you mean by that?” I felt the urge to grab the lamp off the nightstand and bash in his skull. Or his balls. “I mean—well, I agree, it’s horrible and barbaric. It’s clearly wrong,” he said, and I could hear him back-pedaling, his hand instinctively covering his crotch. “But if the girl’s parents really want it done, they’ll find a way to get it done. Or do it themselves.” “And then they should be thrown in prison, too.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 102 Short Fiction “Only if someone finds out. I’m just saying, if it were legal, it could be regulated. Done by a doctor, in a hospital. Instead of by some old woman with a broken piece of glass.” Now it was my turn to cringe. The week before I brought home some pamphlets from Amnesty International about genital mutilation. The testimony of survivors, particularly of a woman from Sierra Leon who had been dragged into the forest and raped by a group of women, including her aunts, with the jagged lid of an aluminum can, had made me nauseous. I couldn’t remember how many girls and women died of infection—10 percent? 20 percent? How could they even know? “It’s like the back alley abortion argument, right?” Jake continued. “Maybe it’s distasteful, maybe it’s wrong, but it’s better done by a doctor than someone with a coat hanger.” “Appeal to emotion,” I said as if I were a high school debater in cross examination. I had turned on my side, legs crossed at the knees and thighs pushed together tightly. I couldn’t banish the image of the girl being raped by her mother’s sisters with a circle of sharp aluminum. “False analogy! It’s not like abortion at all, it’s child abuse. It’s rape, damn it.” “Don’t get angry,” Jake said. “I was just trying to contribute. Seems like that’s all you talk about lately.” “Sorry,” I said. “It’s just—I don’t know. This is Minnesota, damn it, doctors in Minnesota shouldn’t have to see this kind of thing.” Jake reached over and pushed the hair out of my face. I almost started to cry. “When does this rotation end?” he asked. “Three weeks. Then another twelve weeks of classes, then intern applications.” “You’re almost through it.” And then I was crying, silently, my eyes leaking out onto Jake’s hand. I pulled my knees up under my T-shirt and shivered. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 103 Short Fiction Later that week I was browsing in the medical research library at the university. Even though I had some coursework to finish up and a report on my experiences at the Franklin Avenue clinic that I hadn’t even started, I was drawn to the crisp, regular shelves of journals. Each article was a gloss on some aspect of the human body, a commentary on the fleshy pages of the mortal Torah. When I worked directly with my patients’ bodies, I felt overwhelmed sometimes by the inscrutable mysteries they contained; these commentaries helped me see the sharp lines under all the bulges and bumps. The “hot” intern slots were at Region’s Hospital and Abbot-Northwestern, the emergency rooms that took in the drive-by shootings, crank overdoses, and bridge jumpers. Everyone in my program wanted that adrenaline buzz, the challenge to think fast, work nimbly, test their skill on the urban battlefield. I coveted an oncology research position at the university, where I was unlikely to see many patients, let alone mutilated genitals, where I could work ploddingly slow under the bright glow of laboratory lights. I read an article in a plastic surgery journal about clitoral excision done the way Jake had proposed: in a hospital, by a doctor, with a sterile scalpel instead of a can lid. The authors had a practice in California, and claimed that the surgery—removing the clitoral hood, or sometimes the whole clitoris—was helpful to women with a variety of sexual dysfunctions. One of their references was to an article about labial cosmetic surgery. I chased that one down, too. Women with very large labia minora could have them trimmed back to a more normal size. Patients who underwent the procedure reported greater sexual satisfaction for themselves and their partners, though the authors’ attempts to quantify this were unconvincing. If they can cut them back, I wondered, could a skilled plastic surgeon mold brand new genitals for these mutilated girls? Could he restore their magic and mystery? Would Murray Horvitz be able to tell the difference? I imagined teams of plastic surgeons dispatched to Somalia and Sudan, intent on restoring mutilated girls to their womanly glory. Every year a surgeon from St. Joseph’s takes a team to Guatemala to repair cleft palates and harelips, so why not repair other ruins as well? “It makes sense,” Jake said. We were sleeping naked on the living room floor on wrinkled sheets, because the bedroom was hot and humid as a sauna. “I’m just not sure how the fund-raising pictures would go over.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 104 Short Fiction “Fund-raising pictures?” “Well, they always show those before and after pictures. Kid with a harelip, kid with a big smile. Donors might be a little shocked at your pictures.” “I’m not joking.” “I know you’re not.” He traced his finger down my spine to where the sweat pooled above my buttocks. “I know this is hard for you.” I rolled onto my back and Jake pressed his palm against my belly. “It’s just so cruel,” I said. “They’ve been murdered; it’s worse than rape.” “It makes them anonymous, like ripping off their faces.” “Hmm?” His fingers were slipping lower, and I wasn’t paying much attention to his words. “Well, naked men are all pretty much identical,” he said. “Each woman is unique.” I squirmed under his hand. “And just how many naked women have you seen?” “Enough to be able to tell them apart,” he said against my throat. On the last day of my rotation at the clinic, a Somali woman in labor appeared in the waiting room with her mother and aunt. If not for the occasional involuntary cry followed by gasping breaths, they might have sat there, patiently waiting, until the baby came out. The nurse on duty hurried them into an examining room and called for me. It was clear there was no time for the niceties of epidurals, Lamaze breathing, and gentle music. The baby was well on the way down the birth canal, apparently in a rush to be born. The nurse helped the woman onto the examining table and hitched up her dress. I steeled myself and pulled the metal stool by the desk between the woman’s legs. It was the worst I had seen, a full infibulation that looked like it had been performed with a dull chainsaw and a hunk of dental floss. She had started Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 105 Short Fiction to tear, and thick, pus-streaked blood trickled from the tiny opening to her vagina. Unless the baby was made of Play Dough, there was no way it was going to come out. I asked the nurse to give the woman an injection of lidocaine, then started to work with surgical scissors. The scar tissue was so hard and thick I had a difficult time cutting. With each squeeze on the scissors, a little more blood and pus ran out, like a lake slowly escaping from a dam rupturing one thin fracture at a time. I had only just finished cutting when the baby crowned, its head covered with downy black fuzz. Except for those strangled, sharp gasps from the woman giving birth, the room was silent. The woman’s mother and aunt stood against the closed door, barely inside the room, while I worked the baby out of its ruined portal to the world. “It was a girl,” I told Jake that night. He had taken the day off to shop for an air conditioner, and we were snuggled up together under our winter blankets in the decadent chill of the humming gray box in the bedroom window. “A tiny, fuzzy little girl.” “That’s really exciting,” he said. “It’s a great way to end your stint at the clinic.” “It happened so fast I didn’t have time to think,” I said. “But that wasn’t the end of it.” “No?” I shook my head against his chest. “No. She was a mess. God, what a mess. She probably hadn’t been opened up since her wedding night.” “But she’s open now, right?” I shook my head again. “No. Once it’s done, it’s done.” While the nurse whisked the baby off for her APGAR tests, I went to work cleaning up the woman’s open wound. When the baby and placenta came through, they had torn her badly despite the opening I had cut. Ragged strips hung around her vagina, which yawned like a toothless mouth. I staunched the bleeding as best I could, but no bandage would put this damage right. The nurse brought me the sutures and applied more Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 106 Short Fiction lidocaine, and I set to work to close her womb again. I cried at first, but I couldn’t see through my tears so I stopped by pulling my stomach tight and squeezing my shoulders together. “Make sure it is tight,” said the woman’s mother, the first words I heard her speak. I looked over my shoulder at her, at her blank eyes and flat face. I imagined her with a sliver of glass, an iron knife, a sharp can lid, then with a long needle and rough-spun thread, pulling tighter, tighter, tighter. And I knew that this new girl, this miniature woman already so full of mystery, would be initiated with dexterous fingers, not sharp knives. I looked at the baby, red-faced at her first shocking taste of air, and I wished her a long life with Murray Horvitz. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 107 Short Fiction HALF A WORLD AWAY By Darragh McManus There’d been another crash, a three-car pile-up on a secondary road with a disembodied truck cab bringing up the rear. It had lost its load somewhere in the spill, flipping like a rattlesnake’s tail before velocity overcame engineering and the trailer jack-knifed upwards in an elegant arc, the cab ploughing five feet inside the back of a family saloon. The middle-aged husband and wife in that car were killed instantly, but the truck driver had survived – he sat slumped against the window, unconscious and bleeding. The three cars in front formed an S, a torn steel signature scrawled across the tarmac, and steam piped out of one of their engines, a meek little whistle that didn’t seem nearly enough to mark what had happened. A child had died in the middle car, a girl of nine or ten. Her parents had let her stand between their seats in the shape of the cross and the impact from behind had shunted her small body into the dash. That sort of thing always upset Mr. Oddie the most. A childless Englishman who had moved to Ireland with his second wife, he always felt the unnecessary loss of someone so young especially keenly. He stood in a gravel lay-by back from the wreckage, twisting a handkerchief and crying furiously. Tom the Busman placed a comforting arm on his shoulder – an almost hesitant embrace, as one couldn’t tell exactly how Mr. Oddie might react. This time he nodded at Tom, bleary-eyed and grateful, and resumed his twisting. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 108 Short Fiction The driver of the front car, a boyish-looking professional in his early thirties, stumbled through the door and tripped onto the road, his legs weak and flailing like he had seasickness. He looked confused and vaguely ecstatic, and I recognised that expression – the disbelief of survival, the almost manic sensation of relief. He was still alive and deliriously happy but didn’t quite know it yet. Sheila from Dublin was whispering behind me in the glaringly obvious under-voice of the perpetual gossip. “That’s the guy, him there. Young guy with the mobile phone. He’s the one started it all.” She was talking almost to herself, a whistling breeze exhaled from her lips, but Red Ruairí replied to her anyway, point to counterpoint in his soothing, compulsive monotone. “Ah now, Sheila. Come on, now. We don’t know that for sure.” “We know it for sure. We always know. Look at him. That’s the guy.” It was a hot, hazy day, the road shimmering as it ebbed away towards a far horizon, though none of us felt any heat at all. Dust swirls rose from the earth like woken genies and a woman in the middle car coughed as the particles caught in her throat. She was in shock. It had registered with her that the child was dead, her body crumpled against the dash like a discarded doll, but that was on a purely sensual level; the consciousness had yet to comprehend. Her husband lifted the child into his arms, gently although there was no doubt that she was dead. It seemed like a final act of respect, to hold that small frame tenderly against his chest, some sort of atonement for that simple slip in judgment and its horrific outcome. I drifted along by the cars’ sides, the three of them locked in stillness like links in a chain, to where Sonny and Patsy stood, arms around each others’ waists, tutting in kind regret at the finality of it all. Patsy was in tears. She was a sentimental, sweet woman; she felt bad about these things and showed that. Sonny shook his head as I approached, saying, “Awful, isn’t it? The fellow in the front car was on a call when he lost control. Wasn’t paying enough attention, I suppose.” Patsy sighed. “Did you see the little girl? Just…lying there like that. So young, and never more.” “So he went into a spin,” Sonny continued, “got in a panic, came to a halt right…” He pointed to a deep looping groove scored across the road. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 109 Short Fiction “…there. And whammo–the others didn’t have time to think, let alone stop. Stupid, stupid.” Sonny was less forgiving than most of people using phones while driving, with good reason: a young student had been answering a call from his girlfriend while taking a dangerous bend, and hit Sonny as he swerved off course. The boy was laughing at something, Sonny remembered, a joke his girl had told him, a pet name she had used, and took his gaze from the road for that critical split-second. Sonny was back two feet from the tarmac but it hadn’t been enough to surmount the laws of dynamics and fate, the inevitability of heedlessness and its bloody consequence. Red Ruairí walked over to where the truck cab sat embedded in the back of the saloon, one wheel lifted off the ground. Its shiny blue trim and chunky, almost childlike shape made it seem less threatening in some way, like a plastic toy. But of course it was nothing like that: it had fantastic mass and power, several tons of sleek heavy metal, and now it was stopped. I strolled over to Ruairí and belatedly noticed that the truck’s horn was sounding. Its deep tuba moan cut through the near silence with only the breeze for accompaniment. A primitive, mournful composition. Ruairí smiled, to himself or to me, saying, “I was one of those, too. Did you know that? I’m not sure I ever told you. Dozed off at the wheel on a long night drive. The cab was always so comfortable, see; it was easy to fall asleep in. Exact same make and model. Small world, isn’t it?” “You were bound to come across one sooner or later.” “Yeah, I suppose you’re right. Funny, though. I’m surprised I remember details like that, actually.” The truck’s horn was grating on my nerves so I moved back to where the group had clustered about fifteen meters from the vehicles. They seemed reluctant to approach for some reason, which wasn’t really like them. Patsy had curled into Sonny’s embrace, and he brushed her hair back from her forehead with the practised care of long years together. They were a good couple, I thought, and complemented each other well, their personalities interlocking like the secret mechanisms of a music box. Patsy’s car had been hit side-on by a much smaller hatchback, driven by a short-sighted pensioner. She laughed about it sometimes, how her sturdy saloon had crumpled before the feeble onslaught of this old man in his unimposing little car. He had barely been scratched in the crash but died of a heart attack on Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 110 Short Fiction the way to the hospital for a routine check, which was even more amusing, depending on how you looked at it. The young man who had driven the first car was still the only person to surface. He looked more composed now, like he had gotten his bearings, realized his good fortune and thanked whatever deity was looking out for him that day. He laughed abruptly–more from hysteria than simple joy–then started walking towards the other cars. Tom the Busman looked away from him. It was his age that was the problem –thirty-two, maybe thirty-three?– about the same age as Tom had been. I don’t think he’d ever quite come to terms with his relative youth at the time, vast tracts of life spread out, unused, before him. He felt that it was his fault; that he was destined to waste those long decades. There can be a bittersweet irony about all of this: Tom the Busman slipping under the wheels of a city-centre double-decker on his day off. (I was the same: a busy street-side kerb, an impatient crowd gathering, a push, a momentum behind me, then I slipped too.) Mr. Oddie, a relentlessly careful driver, missed his turn on a roundabout after getting distracted by the radio and drove straight in front of an articulated lorry. Sheila’s beloved dog slithered from his leash and dashed into the path of oncoming traffic. The animal somehow made it through that roaring iron stampede alive and Sheila was struck hard by a delivery van. She held no resentment for the dog. Emergency service sirens sounded in the distance, quiet but getting louder, that weird swinging Doppler effect, and we knew it was almost time to leave. The husband from the middle car had laid the child’s body out on the backseat and implored her to wake up, desperately trying to convince himself that there was still time–the ambulance was coming and there was hope, they still had time. His wife stood outside the car, staring into space toward a slow, insistent realization. She finally knew the little girl was gone. The young man walked up, frightened and embarrassed, and held his phone out towards them, an offering, a penance, a small hopeless something, the best he could do. The child’s father flashed an angry glance, shouting, “You stay back! Don’t come near her.” The young man turned towards the mother, arm still stretched out stiffly, and she took the phone from him, saying dreamily, “Thank you. I don’t know… Thank you.” Red Ruairí trotted towards where the group now stood together. He was breathless and animated. “There’s been another one–a drunk driver. Smashed into a telegraph pole. We should go.” We were turning to leave when Patsy gasped, pointing her finger in the direction of the middle car. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 111 Short Fiction The little girl had stood up and was walking towards us–wondrous, curious, unafraid. Patsy sprinted to meet her and bent down, holding the child by her shoulders. She said gently, “What’s your name, sweetheart?” The girl gazed at all of us ranked behind Patsy, standing silent and a little self-conscious, and said, “Charlotte. My name’s Charlotte. I’m ten years old and that’s my mom and dad over there. Am I…?” Patsy put a finger to the child’s lips and said, “Shh. Don’t be afraid, sweetheart. We’re all the same here. You’ve come to join our little group, I think. Take my hand.” Charlotte clasped Patsy’s hand and began moving with her, away from the wreckage and her grieving parents and her own dead body now being lifted gingerly by ambulance crew into the back of the ambulance. I could have sworn I saw her smile at that incongruous sight–perhaps she recognised some private irony. She waved once, a barely perceptible gesture of thanks and forgiveness, then moved to the front of the line with Patsy. Sonny strode forward and, smiling, took her other hand. They looked nice together. Mr. Oddie started crying again, jerky and metred, though his tears seemed less angry now, borne more of empathy and welcome. Welcome, Charlotte. I stopped and turned around again, looking back at what we were leaving. I was always the most nostalgic of us; I found it hard to move on from people and events, even ones I had only known for an instant. Red Ruairí stopped too, easing down the bank until he was close enough to place a hand on my shoulder. His voice was affectionate and understanding. “Come on. Time to go, kiddo.” “I know. I’m ready. It’s just… You know what I’m like. I get sort of attached to these things.” “Don’t worry. There’s nothing wrong with that. Anyway, look on the bright side–you’ve got someone your own age to talk to now.” “Yeah,” I said. “You’re right, Ruairí. I have, haven’t I? What age did she say she was?” “Ten. She was ten.” “Three years younger than me. Well, that’s okay. They do say girls grow up quicker than boys, don’t they?” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 112 Short Fiction THE MERMAID EATERS By Brandon Wells Cannibals prefer those who have no spines. - Stanislaw Lem 1. Tickets to my execution are going through the roof. You’d probably kill yourself if you knew how much they were getting for them, these damn ticket scalpers. My mother keeps me Photo by Jonathan Ruchti updated. She still visits me every day and after she enters my tiny jail cell— which she still calls “my apartment”—and she is smiling and her hair is a starfish engulfed in orange flames and red flowers and she says another famous television actor has just confirmed. She is waiting for me to be impressed. I think I recognize the name of the famous television actor, but I’m not sure. The papers, the news stations, these reporters, they are all going nuts about my execution like it’s the end of the world. They won’t shut up about it. They keep calling the house, my mother says, and one of the local radio stations even held an Apnea Contest and the winner got a single, adult, non-refundable ticket to my execution. I think I liked it more when it was just famous television actors that were going to be there. Hopefully when I’m gone…everything around here can just go back to being normal and everyone can just go back to being regular mermaids living in a regular secret underwater mermaid kingdom. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 113 Short Fiction “They held their breath for nearly 3 minutes and I think they nearly died,” says my mother, not eager to change the subject. “Can you imagine?” I try to imagine. “Nope.” My mother—she is still swimming around my jail cell and she’s all excited and she keeps talking about the damn radio contest winner. “And it isn’t even that good of a ticket. It’s in the way back. I mean… You know what I mean. Have I told you about the famous television actor yet?” Mermaids. We’re probably not nearly as grand as you think we are—you wouldn’t believe how quotidian and unsexy and morning-breathed we can be around here. Most of the time we’re just dying for something exciting to happen. Most of my “roommates”—mermaid thieves, mermaid rapists, mermaid tax embezzlers, and even some mermaid murderers—even do a lot of drugs because it’s more interesting to be on drugs than to not be on drugs. I should know, I do a lot of drugs. After all, you can only spend so much of the day racing pods of dolphins, tying old cans onto the limbs of somnolent squid, and going to the crab fights. But I am not a mermaid thief, or a mermaid rapist, or a mermaid tax embezzler, or even a mermaid tax embezzler. I am none of the above. I am considered far, far, far more dangerous. “Have you decided what you wanted to wear to your birthday party?” asks my mother. Oh—another thing. By some crazy cosmic fluke—the Universe being a real gas at times—the court scheduled my execution on the same day as my birthday. I’m thirty-two now. You do the math. “I still don’t know,” I tell her. “Something really heavy.” “I think you should wear a nice suit,” says my mother. “I’m not wearing a nice suit. So you can forget about any nice suits. I refuse, just so you know, I refuse to wear a nice suit for the rest of my life. Over my dead—” Mermaid prison—in case you don’t already know yet—is a lot like regular prison, except for there’s a lot more water. Aren’t I pretty friggin awesome with definitions? I definitely am! Most mermaids though are pretty good with things like definitions and words and sentences because first of all we Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 114 Short Fiction read all the time and secondly we’re always in school and thirdly whenever we don’t know what to call something—or just want to eschew vulgarisms in polite company—we just use “mermaid.” Don’t ask me which creative genius came up with that because I don’t know, but it’s pretty catchy, I guess, and clever as hell. “Maybe that gray suit with the green tie your aunt gave you on your last birthday,” she adds, straightening some stuff on my mermaid desk. There are some major benefits to being on mermaid lock down though. I bet you weren’t expecting that. Mermaid Row means that you don’t have to do any chores really like the other inmates and most of the mermaid jailors leave you alone. I like that part. In fact, most of the time— “Are you doing it again?” someone asks. It takes me a while to realize that the question is for me. I try to think on my feet. “HuH?” “Daydreaming!” yells my mother. “Isn’t that what got you into this pickle? Didn’t I tell you… that… if… you didn’t… ” Hmm, what else? The rest of the mermaid jail is pretty laid back, tons of space, room to breathe. I’m reading this book right now that I got. It might be my all-time favorite book, which is good because I would hate for my last book in the world to be crappy and full of clichés. I don’t have a copy here on me but on the cover of this book there’s a boy with a pair of butterfly wings growing out of his back—like this mermaid is crazy as hell— and he is sitting down in a field, or something, and he is holding a glass jar in front of him, and inside the glass there is another smaller boy who also has a pair of butterfly wings growing from him. The smaller butterfly boy just looks like all he wants to do is get out of that crazy jar he’s in. That’s what it looks like to me anyway. The cover reminds me of how sometimes the profile of a folded butterfly wing almost looks like a snake’s unhinged mouth, patiently waiting for something smaller and weaker to fall into it. “Visitor…” the mermaid jailor says. Mermaid jailors are always very curt and most of them barely finished mermaid high school. My girlfriend’s name is Bubbles. You would like her. Everyone does. She has really nice hair. Each week I slip a few sand dollars under the mermaid Warden’s door so that Bubbles, love of my life, reason I swim and breathe, Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 115 Short Fiction can make weekly visits and come see me. she has really nice hair. It’s not cheap, but like I said, “Hey, baby,” Bubbles says now. Last week, she couldn’t come by because of a hair appointment, but I understand. “Hey, is there any way that I can get another ticket?” “Please, Bubbles, tell me that you didn’t sell your ticket too,” I tell my girlfriend. “Your family has more money than God. Why would you need to sell your ticket to my execution?” “No, Gill, baby,” she says, with her large innocent mermaid eyes pleading with me. “I still have my ticket, baby. I would never sell it to anyone for all the sand dollars in the world!” “Thank you, dear.” She swims over. “It’s just that I’d like to bring a date.” “Oh…” “Yeah…” “Fine,” I say, “I’ll see what I can do. No promises.” One of the things that I like about my girlfriend is how much she likes sex. It’s really one of her more attractive qualities. She’s like me. She’s good at sex too. We are pretty good at sex together. The best way to be good at sex together is to practice and so we practice sex together as much as we can. It’s almost exhausting, but it almost makes me feel real again. Maybe not as real as the first time someone else spent the night in your bed. Probably not as real as the next morning. But sex—sexy, sex, sex—look up in the sky, count the planets, count them again, name the galaxies, figure out the matter with dark matter, then do the same for dark energy, hold the microscopes close and the telescopes far, far away—real, meaningful sex, embedding yourself in something deeply beautiful—is really the only thing keeping us around here these days. “You’re the best! The best! Best! Best! Oh baby, I’m really going to miss you when you’re gone.” “You better,” I tell her. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 116 Short Fiction Bubbles has the prettiest, sharpest teeth. “I hope I have a good seat too. Baby, don’t you want me to have a good seat?” “I hope you have the best seat, my dear.” “You’re the best, Gill!” “No, you are.” “Want to have sex?” “Okay, I thought you would never ask.” “Oh—but can you be sure that my seat is good?” “Bubbles, don’t be silly,” I say, moving closer. “Everyone knows that there are no bad tickets and no bad seats at a Mermaid Execution by Balloons. You’ll be fine.” 2. They bring me in wearing handcuffs. I’m also wearing a nice gray suit with a nice green tie that my mother says I look rather handsome in. She says it brings out my eyes. Funny, that is the one body part that I don’t really care to believe these days and maybe it has something to do with my mother giving me a big thumbs up as I swim through the doors with bailiffs at my side. I’ve been here before. I basically grew up a block away. The mermaid courtroom is made from the hulk of a sunken battle ship—there’ s a lot of rust and barnacles and framed photos of unsmiling mermen—that has been at the bottom of the ocean for about a million mermaid years. Us waterfolk are OCD recyclers—have you seriously ever seen a mermaid or merman that doesn’t consider ozone levels, climate change, anoxic waters, and overall resource depletion? No, I seriously doubt you have. By the way, before we continue, I don’t really want to get all environmentalism on you, but I really want to congratulate you guys on turning our digs into a toilet recently. The ocean, the place we live in. Do you think we haven’t noticed that? Mermaid, please. Lately, you guys have been on a ROOLLLLL. Every time some skipper goes on a Glenlivet bender and decides to take the whole crew on a sandbar crawl, or an oil rig starts painting our backyards (we call it the black ghost) because the lowest bidder forgot to tighten the lug nuts, we definitely feel it, you know, we really do. Everyone around here really appreciates all your hard work. Thanks. “Gill!” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 117 Short Fiction My lawyer is excited—but he’s one of those annoying mermen who are always excited about everything—when I see him in court. He swims over. He is still excited. I wonder if anyone told Neal that one of his clients will be executed today. “Gill! Gill! Hey, Gill! Great news, I think I can get you off today!” THIS MERMAID CRAZY. ”Of course you can.” “No, I’m serious! Are you listening? You can probably go home tonight.” “How?” “Pirates,” says sly Neal. “Have you seen any good movies lately?” Despite what your television and movie industries seem to think of us, mermaids and mermen do not simply “sprout” legs when they leave the ocean. Think about it. Do you sprout a tail and grow a set of functioning gills when you jump into the ocean? You don’t? Are you sure? We piss ourselves laughing every time we see your movies about us. (Of course, there are legends of “water walkers,” but my instincts tell me that those are largely a function of faith, not fact.) Instead—please note that all mermaids and mermen drown when we leave the ocean, after a certain amount of time, that is. Us merfolk, original shepherds of the ocean, magical hybrid animals, good singing voices the lot of us, we will eventually drown in air the way you drown in our water. Mermaids will always be most alive in the oceans. This is why a Mermaid Execution by Balloons is kind of one of the more excruciating ways for our kind to go. Between you, me, and Davy Jones’ Locker, I am not exactly looking forward to it. I’d rather be eaten by a mako shark. “What?” “Me and Gail just watched this really interesting documentary on whaling—” “No,” I say. “What did you mean about pirates?” “Pirates? Who said anything about the pirates? It was about whales and they—” “YOU DID, NEAL.” “I kneeled for what?” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 118 Short Fiction “No, idiot! What were you saying about pirates?” “Oh! Yeah, use the old pirate defense,” says my sly lawyer, flipping open what almost looks like an attaché case. “You should be fine. Just tell them that you were swimming along and—BAMMM!—a ship full of the meanest, beardiest, foulest dustbodies you ever did see done scooped you out of your… habitat… causing some mental distress, shock, et cetera… and only through luck and a determination to see your loved ones again (juries LOVE that, they can’t help but to get wet over those kinds of fish tales) were you able to wrangle free from…” “Anything else?” “Yeah, boredom. Juries LOVE to be bored! It shows how serious you are.” I look out one of the windows and see some crazy mermaid kids hiding behind the rocks, playing, probably sensing on some atavistic level that something big was going to happen today, but largely oblivious to the drag and the drab of the details. It’s impossible not to envy the size of their worlds. “Decadent Realism,” says my excited mermaid lawyer, looking over his notes again. “I don’t know if anyone has mentioned this to you yet, Gill, but they are planning on executing you today for it.” “I think I read something about it.” “It’s not too late though. Go with pirates.” “Go with pirates?” I can tell that Neal is full of mermaid now but I decide to let it go before it becomes a big deal. “Well, what will happen if they believe me?” “Not much,” says Neal, now feeling much better. “As long as you apologize for your whimsical nature, the inconvenience to the court, promise to settle down, show the court that you’re willing to make a go at being a successful, productive member of mermaid society, they’ll probably give you a slap on the wrist. Probably loads of community service though. You should marry that girlfriend of yours. They’d love to see that.” “And if I don’t? If I tell the truth?” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 119 Short Fiction My lawyer uses his hands to show what a balloon looks like as it’s filled up with air. It’s like this. According to the 410-page pamphlet they give you to read in mermaid jail this is how the Mermaid Execution by Balloon goes: i. They kind of strap the guilty mermaid (Me) into the gondola, or basket, of what probably looks like a hot air balloon to you, ii. The execution balloon is pretty much 600 feet below surface of the water, give or take 100, iii. And after some ceremonial mermaid mumbo jumbo, and some songs, they give the balloon lines the chop-chop, the ol’ snip-snip, and the execution balloon sends you rocketing through the water faster than you’ve ever gone before. If the mako sharks don’t get you, the bends will. And if the bends doesn’t get you, the clouds will. Once you break the surface of the water you are hurtling towards the clouds gasping and coughing and bleeding from the insides as your brain goes fuzzy and you’re wishing that you had been eaten by a mako shark instead. “Now… do you want to rethink your version of the story?” 3. The sun is gone and there are loud fog horns in the distance, coming out of the mist. My skin feels dry and hot and thin, like maybe it had been painted onto my body. It would be nice to just lay here for a while, maybe do some reconciling with oneself, but I finally make the executive decision to get up because someone or something is trying to eat my face off. “Jellybean!” someone yells. I try to say something, but my mouth and my throat are full of salt and nothing comes out. My attacker, however, continues a policy of aggressive slobbering—redoubling its efforts, or so it seems—with its smelly breath and great big spade-shaped tongue. “Leave that poor man alone!” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 120 Short Fiction I can barely sit up. I don’t know how I got on the beach—and I don’t know how long I’ve been on the beach for—and I don’t know if this has anything to do with my heavy drinking lately. “Come here, girl!” I can tell that it’s a dustbodies voice. The troubled pitch and lack of sonority is a clear giveaway and—for me at least—it’s the voice of panic. All mermaids are reasonably afraid of dustbodies because all mermaids have heard all of the superscary bedtime stories that mermaid parents feed their mermaid kids about the terrible dustbodies that live in the terrible dry kingdom above. Dustbodies are never to be trusted. There are only a few rules in our kingdom and that is one of them. Most of the stories are about the fair little mermaid, or handsome little merman, who—after being magically granted a sporty new pair of legs and set of brandspankingnew dustbodies lungs—tragically falls in love with one of the dustbodies, only to be ultimately betrayed and later pressed into the service of a terrible, nightmarish carnival where everyone is dirty and cruel and dry and boring and where sticky-fingered dustbodies offspring are free to play with one’s tail as much as they want to. Dustbodies also love to eat mermaid flesh. All of them. That’s common knowledge. We are their favorite food. They eat us to get immortality. When guys want to impress their dinner dates at expensive restaurants, they don’t order the filet mignon anymore, they order the medium-rare mermaid steaks with fried arugula. (Actually, I haven’t the slightest clue as to what arugula is, but I’ve always imagined that it’s red and pasty.) What I guess I’m trying to say, and what I want to make sure that you understand completely is this: dustbodies are the cruelest and nastiest creatures in the world which is why Davy Jones himself had to kick them out of the ocean millions of years ago… “Jelly-BEAN.” Finally, the large, ferocious, ill-smelling dustbodies beast known as “Jellybean” has stopped trying to eat my face off. Great big thankful tears began rolling down my cheeks. “Hey buddy, you’re pretty much…” The dustbodies standing over me is a female dustbodies—and she has bangs cut straight across her forehead and her mouth is wide, just a hint of toothy enamel. Hair always looks so weird when you see it outside of the water, the way it just hangs on the head in vines of dead protein. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 121 Short Fiction “Nice outfit,” she says. “I’ll be right back with some clothes. Don’t go anywhere.” Twenty minutes later—let the court records please note—the female dustbodies comes back with some dry materials and hands them to me. Meanwhile the stupid beast known as Jellybean has started chasing a seagull down the beach. “Good look for you,” she says. “You’re a little bit taller than my ex, but at least now you have a shot at getting through the gates over there. What’s your name, anyway?” “Gill.” I can hear the waves punching the shore with their tiny fists and it occurs to me that I might already be dead, that this is mermaid afterlife, the land of endless whispers and kisses and unbroken promises and purple moons and shiny white beaches, and I am surprised at how unsurprised I am, how effortlessly and fluidly I have come to embrace the emotional absurdity that my finite existence has been bound and bookended and now I am an official and permanent resident of the other side. All my past is a fan of old Polaroids that blows away in the angry waves and the misty dunes and the dust and the fog horns in the distance. You can always count on a mermaid for a fancy prose style. 4. The mermaid Judge is now wearing an octopus on his head to show great intelligence and great heart—as all octopuses have 3 hearts. “And did you ever find yourself visiting a place called The Young Liars Club?” “Yes,” I say. “You were a member?” “Yes,” I say. “And there were other members?” “Yes,” I say. “Mostly poets and physicists.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 122 Short Fiction “And were you not considered, in fact, a leader of a pernicious group of dissidents, students mostly, drunk on their own wine of rabblerousing and iconography…” Because my father went to school with the mermaid Judge (and scored higher on his mermaid LSATs) my mother was allowed to come in earlier today and decorate the mermaid courtroom with a bunch of birthday banners and party streamers and most of the people sitting behind the teams of lawyers are wearing cheap, plastic, conical hats. Sometimes I have to remind myself that things are really happening in my life. It all seems like such a joke. “Who sought to overthrow the well-established and distinguished traditions of Social Realism, Modern Realism, Post Modern Realism, Magical Realism, Real Realism…” For the first time it strikes me as odd that someone who went to school with the defendant’s father is allowed to preside over the case, but the judicial system has always been an enigmatic machine, better left to mermaid minds more talented than mine. A long time ago, when I was still studying for my mermaid LSATs, I read a book about a trial, but it was kind of like reading a book called TITS and then nobody takes their shirt off. Also, this happy coincidence has yet to work out in my benefit so far. “I asked you, son,” demands the mermaid Judge, a little more staid than before, “and how long did it take you to get through these gates you speak of in your mermaid affidavit?” “About two months, sir,” I say. There is laughter in the courtroom as if I have said something really funny, or really ridiculous. My money is on ridiculous. These days my life is pretty ridiculous-friendly so my money is definitely on ridiculous. They keep laughing now and I know that I should probably say something now. They are watching me. “I object, your honor!” screams Neal. “My client is undoubtedly suffering from hydroshock still. I move that—” “Can it!” yells the mermaid Judge. Then turning to me, he manages to calm the whole mermaid courtroom down with a well-practiced look. “Son, and why so long?” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 123 Short Fiction I try to think on my feet. “Well, I had to write a Queen’s Query Letter.” “Please explain.” “In the dustbodies kingdom,” I explain, “it is customary to be granted access through the gates only after petitioning the Queen with a QQL. It takes some years, that’s what I’ve heard. But it only took me two months.” “That long to write a letter?” asks the prosecutor. “What kind of kingdom would do that?” I think for a second. “One that is dry and full of dust?” Laughter continues. “And what was the title of your QQL?” “Umm. I can’t remember.” “Hostile!” yells the prosecutor, moving in for the kill. “I think… it might… maybe… it might have been called… To My Coy and Wylie Mistress?” The mermaid courtroom explodes once more and I see my mother get up and swim towards one of the exits, not looking back. That’s okay, I wouldn’t look back either. There’s a SWOOSH as the door closes behind her and I wonder if she meant to close it that hard and one of the HAPPY BIRTHDAY GILL! signs falls and floats to the floor. My only consolation now is that I’m wearing a nice gray suit with a nice green tie. The prosecutor is smiling though. It’s the first time I’ve seen him smile since the trial started. He’s got the same smile that I’ve seen on the face of an electric eel or a barracuda. It says everything—that he knows his job is done here, the hard part is done, the rest is just details. “And how long was it, this QQL?” I crack a big smile. “One sentence.” “And—for the court—what did it say?” “I don’t remember. I can’t remember.” “Hostile!” “I can’t remember!” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 124 Short Fiction “Your honor!” The meaning of life is a letter that says—Dear Universe, I know that you don’t care, but I still want you to know who I am anyway. 5. Her name is K. I ask K if it is common for other dustbodies to only have one-letter names and she smiles and finishes toweling me off at the beach. We come here every afternoon before she has to go to work. K is working at an aquarium, the gift shop actually, but she wants to do something that helps people, though I don’t exactly know what. I think I amuse her. I must amuse her, that’s the only reasonable explanation for why she has taken such a fancy to me since finding me washed up on the shore with no clothes on like a beached and boozy whale. K says crazy things like that are always happening to her. She doesn’t look like the sort of girl who always has crazy things happening to her but I decide not to push it. I’ll take what I can get. I am vague about my past, even vaguer about the future. She doesn’t understand why I spend so much time in the bathtub. I am always rushing off to the bathtub! One night she brings a DVD home for us to watch on her laptop and the movie has something to do with mermaids and I point out that mermaids probably wouldn’t be all that tan since they spend most of their time under the surface of the water. She floats, K floats. I’ve seen it happen. She isn’t heavy like I am, this female dustbodies with the bangs cut straight across her forehead and her dustbodies beast named Jellybean and her wanting to do something that helps people, though I don’t know exactly what. She just floats. Volcanoes don’t go off and everything is a little bit easier when she’s around. With her I can control the gravity. I like her dimples, her kindness, her curly hair, the way her apartment always smells whenever you first walk into it. She likes my tatts, my ability to locate certain types of smokeable seaweed, my unaffected indifference to social convention, the way my hair curls under a backwards ball cap. But there’s also something of the caged animal about me that worries her. She senses it, that the center will not hold. I sense it too because I am a caged animal. For a few months we live cozily and quietly in the small kingdom by the sea and life is all giggles and tickle fights and smokeable seaweed and tradewinds at night. I never get older with her. I want it to last forever. That’s when everything turns to mermaid. “One of my friends is throwing a party,” she says one night. “Wanna come?” “Actually…” “Pleeeaseee… Please come with me.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 125 Short Fiction I try to think on my feet. “Hm…” “You’ll love my friends!” 6. “And this K, the female dustbodies that found you, on the beach, the dustbodies beach…” continues the lead mermaid prosecutor, glancing down at the laminated photocopy of my affidavit, a genuine shape-shifter? These changes, she became a completely different person in one night?” “To be completely honest,” I tell the courtroom, “it only took a couple of hours.” “Are morphing capabilities common for all dustbodies?” says the lead prosecutor, making eye contact with a few of the mermaid scientists in presence—presumably brought in as expert witnesses. “I couldn’t say about the others, but definitely K could.” “Hair change?” “Yes, at first it was curly. Then it was straight.” “Face?” “Barely recognizable.” “Height?” “She became taller.” “Voice?” “Also went up.” “Quiet in the courtroom!” yells the mermaid Judge, laughing and incredulous himself now. “And…after you guys broke up…what did she say when you guys broke up, the dustbodies that could change her appearance?” “I don’t remember.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 126 Short Fiction “That’s odd. In your affidavit…ah, here it is…that she used the expression…” “At least it keeps the lights on.” “What does that mean?” “It’s a dustbodies expression,” I explain to the courtroom. “They say it whenever they are trying to rationalize something to themselves. Sadly, I believe that it is fairly common.” Lunch is finally called. I feel some relief as everyone begins to swim out of the courtroom together, leaving me alone. Besides, where would I go? I am not hungry and nobody makes me get down from the witness stand so I just stay and look out the windows. The mermaid kids are still hiding behind the rocks. In pairs they look like quotation marks, alone they are little ghosts swimming around. Sitting near the mermaid kids, reading a book during the lunch hour, is the court stenographer. We call her the catfish lady. Sometimes we call her the crazy catfish lady too. She’s about my age, I think, but she dresses a little older, a lot older actually, like a frumpy librarian who probably can’t wait to get through the rest of her day so that she can go back to where she came from. She’s one of the ghosts. I decide to go outside… Bubbles catches me in the courtroom hallway. “You think you’re pretty clever, buddy, don’t you?” “Hi Bubbles! Good to see you too Bubbles! I’m glad that both of us are even alive so that we can even have this conversation. Geez, I hope that never changes.” “Listen, Gill. From the bottom of my heart: GET OFF THE CROSS. I know that all you have to do is claim pirates and you’ll get a slap on the wrist.” “Who said that?” “Pirates, it doesn’t matter who told me. Do it. Take the damn deal! Claim pirates! And stop making little inside jokes (which are pretty obvious inside jokes—which makes it even more infuriating!) about ex-girlfriends, whoops, I mean girlfriends.” “What does that mean, ex-girlfriend? You’re not planning on sticking it out with me for the next three and half hours? That too long to wait?” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 127 Short Fiction Bubbles looks annoyed. “You’re overthinking this.” “You’re underthinking this.” “Umm, anyway, umm we’re talking about inside jokes.” “What about them?” I ask, already thinking about something else. After the break up—I realize how much I don’t belong. I miss the water, I hate the dirt. The ocean—I miss it so badly and I’m so hungry and everything makes me want to crawl back into the ocean and get lost at the bottom of the sea with no notes. I have no money, no real job prospects, I don’t own anything, all of my gestures seem to be entirely useless to the cosmos. I need a skill set. I can talk pretty well though and one day I apply to this business school and tell them I want to major in Soulcide, but halfway through the admission interview I lose focus and go back to being hungry and alone and rained on in the streets. It’s probably better that way for everyone. Everything—the people, the parties, the castles, the exotic animals, the giant monuments, the great universities, strange spices hanging in plazas, the roars of stadiums under lights—is always several feet away from me at least, like I’m walking around and trying to see the world through a set of dirty shower curtains. I know that I am making some mistakes. I do nothing to change it. I do bad things in the shadows. I indulge. I’m a lost monster. I have conversations with myself and sleep on park benches. I wait underneath awnings and watch people go by, unaware of all the hungry and scary things lurking in the pedestrian shadows around them. I stare in shop windows until the owners come out and chase me around the corner. I see pizza delivery cars and I start panting. I think about hitting the trash can circuit. This is just my human form, my dustbodies self, I tell myself over and over again, missing the water some more. It doesn’t help. I’m not really a monster, I just look and act like one now. I’m just hungry. I really wish that K would just find me again so that I could kiss her elbows and listen to the happy nonsense of her life, to fall and sigh and comfortably slip into the uninterrupted currents of real lived existence. I know that this will never happen. I know that this will never happen and I know that it’s better that it will never happen, but I still want it to happen. It’s probably better for everyone this way. No, it’s for the best. She’s probably already moved on, but I miss her. I still miss her. It’s really for the best. I miss her smile, her smell, her breath, the way her mouth always backed away at the beginning of a kiss and moved forward in the middle. I miss the way she closed her eyes after taking a long sip of Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 128 Short Fiction white wine. I miss the sex too. God, I really miss the sex. But after a few months of being on the streets, in the streets, I would give up so much just for a kiss. I do not really have anything to give up. I am starving and superfluous—like all the other lost monsters. “Well, stop doing them,” says Bubbles. I have no idea how long she’s been talking for. Maybe ages. Maybe just one paragraph. “Nobody cares. Gill, that’s why they are inside jokes and not outside jokes,” she says, taking off that brown jacket with the brown fur-lined collar that I always refer to as her “Wu Jacket,” even though she is clearly a mermaid and probably doesn’t wear that many jackets. “Well, I’m not even making inside jokes.” “First of all, you’re talking about ME up there,” she said, raising her eyes. “Secondly, I think everyone got exactly what you meant with all that shapeshifting nonsense. P.S.,really? Anyway, from a legal perspective, it would behoove you to show a little more lucidity and little less I’MAMERMAIDMARTYRANDLIFESUCKSBOOHOOHOO.” It occurs to me that I don’t really like Bubbles, I’m just addicted to the feeling she gives me. “Explain?” “It means, listen, I know what you’re about to tell them. I’ve heard you tell it 100 times already, your version of the story.” “Well, it’s the truth.” “Is it?” “I’m not having this conversation.” “I don’t want to tell you what to do with your life, Gill, but—if you tell the people in that courtroom what I think you’re about to tell them, I can ASSURE you that you will be executed TODAY. That’s a guarantee. That’s fate, buddy.” “Who’s giving you this legal advice?” I ask. “I am!” “Who are you?” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 129 Short Fiction “I’m Dave.” “Nice to meet you Dave. What’s Dave doing butting into a conversation I’m having with my girlfriend, Dave?” “Oh, I’m sorry about that. How rude. I should introduce myself,” says Dave. “I’m Dave. Bubbles told me everything. Honestly, you really shouldn’t tell them what you’re about to tell them.” 7. “THEY WERE EATING… WHAT?” The courtroom is a mess—all the mermaids and mermen are splashing around now and yelling and everything is all tails and scales and the water becomes momentarily a bit mucky but I can still see my mother over there and she is crying, she hasn’t been sleeping much lately, the bags under her eyes are full of tears. I can always tell when she is crying because of the way she holds her hands over her eyes. The bailiffs start trying to calm everyone down. It takes longer for the water. “Mermaid.” “Corpophagia?” asks the lead prosecutor even though he already heard me clearly the first couple of times. “Mermaid,” I say again. “Big piles of it. Big steaming piles. Most of them had it smeared all over their faces and hands. It was gross.” “Mermaid, mermaid?” The messenger is gone. One moment he’s standing next to some type of bipedal two-wheel machine that I never catch the name of. It looks impossible to ride. The next moment he hands me an envelope with a royal seal on it and tells me to wait to read its contents until he’s gone and before I can respond the messenger is gone. I start to run and I don’t care if anyone can see me. The castle is a large opulent thing sitting in the middle of the kingdom, there’s a lot of blues and purples and flags with lions on them squiggling high in the air. Everything is first class. It’s hard to believe that I belong here. Above the door is a large wooden plaque that says, At least it keeps the lights on. I am nearly out of breath by the time I pass under it. Inside, an oasis of comfort—there’s an indoor swimming pool, mahogany paneling, specialty wall finishes, fireplaces in every room, limestone floors and other Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 130 Short Fiction countless luxuries that mix with the perfume of ease and impervious modernity. I pass several beautiful people laughing on the stairs. More laughter seems to be coming from the dining room. That’s where I should go. There’s a long table laid out already and the feast has started and nobody asks what I’m doing here, they just assume I belong, or look at me and let their eyes pass over until they find something they think is more important. Two people walk into the room now and I imagine by their ceremonial garb that they are the big shots in this dry and dusty kingdom. The man is wearing a tight blue seat and his face is very pale and resembles what the dustbodies call a jackal. “That’s Andrew Marvelous,” someone next to me says. “Who are you?” I ask. “I’m U,” she says. She’s wearing reading glasses on her face and looks a little drunk. “I don’t know how they can eat that stuff. I’ve heard that it takes a while before you’re able to get the first spoonful down.” “Naturally,” I say, trying to think of something else to say. “Who’s that?” “The crowned Prince, duh. Don’t you read the trades or publishing blogs? All music aspires to the condition of Andrew Marvelous.” “Nope, sorry I don’t. Do they have any real food here? I’m starving.” “Steaks.” “I love steaks!” “Yeah, but here’s the thing,” says U. “All the steaks here have to be at least fifty years old before you’re legally allowed to eat them. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the steak here is REALLY good. They all come from sacred cows. That’s where they get them from. There are some exceptions to this rule, some ways to speed up the process—but you don’t want to know about those.” “And her?” I ask, eyeballing the sophisticated woman next to the crowned Prince. She’s got the forty-foot stare of the fated wanderer and her hair is all in exotic silks and she looks like the most beautiful gypsy I’ve ever seen in my life, one of those enchanters our mothers warned us about. She’s magnetic, dangerously so. I can tell. I would write her a poem, colonize an entire continent for her. “Who’s she?” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 131 Short Fiction “Wait, really? That’s the Princess, double duh,” says U, pointing to the elegant lady bringing a giant spade into her mouth full of dripping mermaid. “Legend has it that she can turn a man into an overnight success if she wants to.” “What a weird place.” U smiles. “You have no idea. Want to leave?” We get up out of our chairs and nobody notices. “Yeah, I’m pretty starving. I don’t think I belong here anyway.” “You a writer?” she asks as we walk outside the castle, probably noticing the state of my wardrobe. “Hunger artist,” I say, patting my stomach. “Let’s go find somewhere else.” The balloon is ready now. In my dreams I always imagined it much bigger, but they assure me that it will do the trick. They tell me that my dreams have hyperbolic tendencies too. They probably do. Under the giant red balloon the mermaids are tying me to the gondola now—a hand on each side, the ankles together, thank you—so I know that the trial must be over and I am relieved actually. I thought telling the truth would be much harder. It occurs to me that lying is harder than telling the truth sometimes. It also occurs to me that lies might be more truthful than truths. As everyone starts saying their final goodbyes now, part of me is still holding out for the last second escape, the phone call, the reprieve—but part of me is just pretty tired and heavy and curious about the general terrain of mermaid afterlife, the dunes, the sands, the whispering winds, all that. I don’t really think it’s what anyone thinks it’s going to be like. It’s hard not to be curious. It’s easy to be wrong. I imagine that it’s like the longest stretch of meditation that you could ever imagine. As the mermaids continue to swim around and the mermaid songs get louder and start to mix with the birthday songs and the tears and the crying and the yelling and the cursing, the word is given and I am finally… “Pssttt…” I look down at the bottom of the gondola and see someone hiding. She still has those reading glasses on. “It’s you!” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 132 Short Fiction “I heard about the trial,” says U. “I got a ticket by calling in to some dumb radio station and had to hold my breath for as long as I could.” “I heard you almost died. How long have you been hiding?” “No problem, buddy,” says U, as the big red balloon speeds through the water and the water is rushing past our ears now and past the Mako sharks and past the pirates and over the dustbodies and over the dry kingdoms and it isn’t until we fall into the alchemy of the clouds that we embrace and I know that U really was there the whole time and I breathe deeply until I float like a god. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 133 Short Fiction DEEP BLUE SEA By Christopher Bundy In the photograph the two of us are on the beach inside a sand castle. We’re wearing bathing suits in matching flower patterns, mine red and white, his yellow and green, little surfers. Our bare, adolescent chests sparkle with wet sand. We squint into the afternoon sun. My father probably took the picture, as he was the one who always took pictures on family vacations. The Tale of the Whale. Our second night at Nags Head, we ate plates of fried shrimp, fried oysters, fried grouper, fried clams, and stuffed crab. I don’t remember if the crab was fried. I asked my mother if the restaurant owners had accidentally misspelled tailas tale. She said, no, it was a pun and meant to be clever. My brother Allen, twelve to my seven, said Duh! and acted like he knew that already. I’m pretty sure he didn’t. Allen spent a morning crushing the shells of horseshoe crabs that floated over the soft, sandy bottoms of the shallow waters. He poked me with the sharp tail of one until it broke off in his hand and cut him, so that every time he went swimming for the next few days the saltwater stung. One day I would do a school project on the Atlantic horseshoe crab—Limulus polyphemus—complete with the hard, dark brown shell of one that I saved from Allen’s foot. The night after we went to The Tale of the Whale, we went to a smaller restaurant. Not as fancy but overlooking Roanoke Sound. We sat by an open window and tossed French fries and bits of hush puppies to sea gulls that swooped in and snatched the food from the air every time. They never missed, except when Allen threw the lemon from his iced tea—How ‘bout Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 134 Short Fiction this, ya’ stupid birds. Allen hadn’t fooled them at all. A country-western duo played in a corner, one on banjo and kick drum, the other on harmonica and guitar, singing songs I’d never heard. They both had beards and looked like they could be brothers, like maybe what my brother and me might look like if we got big, grew beards, and became country-western musicians in a seafood restaurant on the Outer Banks. They sang songs that said things like, She tried to love him / But he was all wrong. That night in the small bathroom next to the room where my brother and me shared bunk beds, Allen stood before the mirror and checked his face for signs of hair. I want to say it was the summer I realized there was no toad under the waves, no such thing as an undertoad. But I can’t. I think I just heard that from somebody else. Later when I tried to tell that story to be funny, it came out all wrong, and the person I was telling it to could tell I was lying. So it wasn’t funny at all. Because I wasn’t a strong swimmer, my mother insisted I stay close to shore. So, I made up a game called Look Out!, really just wading in the surf until a wave, big or small but mostly small, came rolling in, then running to dry sand before the wave crashed. I played Look Out! while Allen swam out into the bigger waves in places where he couldn’t touch bottom. He called to me—Hey! Landlubber, come on out!But I just stood facing east, the Atlantic Ocean the biggest thing I knew, the biggest thing I could imagine, and shook my head at him. That same summer, my dad had let me see a few minutes of Jaws or maybe it was Jaws 2 one Saturday night on cable TV, where the great white shark bites a boat in half. That’s all I saw, because my mom came in and asked what in the world he was doing letting a sevenyear-old see a movie like that, it would give me nightmares, which it did. There was no way I was going out there. My parents invited some old college friends from Elizabeth City for a bridge party at the rented beach house. They had two girls, one four, one twelve like my brother. He told the older girl how he had body surfed the big waves and how all I ever did was run like a scared little girl from the waves. She laughed and said she wasn’t afraid of the ocean. He told her he was either going to be a professional surfer or an NWA wrestler like “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, he had the long blond hair already, and flipped his hair with his hand. For a second, he looked like Ric Flair, like a superstar. They told me to stay inside, watch the four-year-old, and not say anything, they were going down to the beach. Before they left, Allen snuck a beer out of the cooler on the porch. From the second-floor balcony, I could just make out the two of them sitting close on the sand, looking out at the waves. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 135 Short Fiction While I was playing Look Out! calling Look out! to myself and no one else, I found a pirate knife in the surf. I called Allen out of the water and told him it was a pirate knife and he said it wasn’t, it was a fisherman’s knife, probably somebody fishing right then who would be looking for it. I wanted the knife, a big blade with a deer horn handle—a pirate knife. Allen snatched it from my hands and took it to our dad, telling him I was too little to own such a knife, and why shouldn’t he. Our dad held the knife in the air, squinting at writing on the blade. He weighed it in his hands then looked at me, turned to Allen, frowned and shook his head. Lot of shipwrecks out there, he said, so this definitely could have washed up from one of them, and maybe one of those was a pirate ship. Hard to say. Blackbeard was all over these waters. Still, he said I should go look to make sure it didn’t belong to someone on the beach. I never found the owner and took the knife back to the house we were renting. My dad said he would keep it for me. I had ten dollars to spend on anything I wanted. I considered a shell necklace like the one my brother had bought, a ship wheel clock, and a rubber shark. I finally found what I wanted at Pirate’s Cove Putt Putt: a pirate revolver made of real wood and a pair of mirrored sunglasses, the kind Ponch wore on CHIPS. As I walked out of the gift shop to play putt-putt with my family, gun tucked into my shorts, sunglasses on, Allen shouted, Argghh, matey! It’s Captain Dork! My mom and dad had brought a box filled with liquor, some of them big with handles on them. A red cooler with a white top stayed on the deck. My dad drank beers from the cooler. My mom liked the liquor bottles and poured them into a blender to make drinks like slushies. They looked good and my mom let me taste one but I couldn’t even get past the smell, which was part doctor’s office and part something ripe and sweet. My parents fought much of that summer. They never really stopped, even at the beach, which I thought they might. On July Fourth, we shot fireworks into the air and water—Roman candles and bottle rockets, and, as a grand finale, something called the TNT 500, which my dad let Allen light. One night after Allen and I had gone to bed, we heard our parents screaming at each other in their bedroom. My mom kept telling my dad that we were supposed to be on vacation and why did he have to keep bringing it up. They were supposed to be relaxing. I asked Allen what my dad kept bringing up that was making my mom so mad. At first he didn’t answer, Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 136 Short Fiction then he said it was nothing for me to worry about, grown-ups fought just like kids, and I should go to sleep. I believed him. My mom broke a clear glass lamp filled with shells—she wouldn’t say how. But that made her drop the glass she carried, which bounced and spilled into the thick shag carpet. It was the first time I had ever heard her curse. That made my dad laugh and then my mom and then me and Allen. She said we could keep the shells since we were paying for the stupid things anyway. At night, my dad played cassettes he had made for the trip. Cole Porter, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac. My dad danced with me, and my mom tried to dance with Allen, but he said he didn’t want to and went to his room to read a Stephen King book he had found on the bookshelves. My dad and I played air guitar to “Back in the USSR.” My mom was constantly cracking ice from the ice trays, the metal ones. I hated the sound: the crack of the handle, the ice, like teeth on teeth, like Allen’s grinding at night, grating against the aluminum. I found a notebook in the bedside table of a spare room. Inside were ink drawings of naked people. The men’s things were scribbly and small. The women had saggy boobs with little dots on the end and more scribbles for between their legs. Written underneath a drawing of a man standing naked before a dressed woman with his thing in the shape of a sword: “I told you not to bring your work home.” I didn’t get it but I liked it anyway. I didn’t show the notebook to anyone, especially Allen. Allen carved his initials into the upper deck railing outside our room. He carved them into the boardwalk hand rail, he carved them into a piece of driftwood I had found and planned to take home to put on my book shelf, a souvenir of our vacation on which I would have carved Nags Head / August 1974 with my pirate knife. Allen watched NWA on the television but the reception was bad. When he gave up on the television, he turned to me. One night we played Monopoly. I got both Park Place and Boardwalk on the first trip round. Allen stole five-hundreds from the bank and hid them under his leg. My mom cut her hand with my pirate knife trying to open an oyster from a sack my dad had bought at the local docks. My dad screamed Why hadn’t she used the oyster knife, you should never use an ordinary knife to open oysters and this was exactly the reason. She screamed back Not to yell at Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 137 Short Fiction her, she was bleeding. And she was, a lot into the sink, over the counter, and on to the kitchen floor. It looked like she had splattered Ragu over everything, something she did every time she made spaghetti. Dad said he was sorry but— He helped her wash the cut under the kitchen faucet, his arms wrapped around her from behind, said it was pretty deep, and she was going to need stitches. My mom started to cry, and my dad said it wasn’t that bad and kissed her bleeding hand. Dad poured her a drink—this calls for a double—and checked the info sheet on the refrigerator for the closest hospital. On their way out the door, my dad had blood above his lip in the space where his moustache used to be, as if he had been kissed. While my parents were gone, Allen said he would give me the advantage by lying on the floor so I could try and pin him. I took a dive off the couch and did a knee drop right across his chest. The house we rented had maps of the Albemarle Sound. It had maps of the known shipwrecks that littered the beaches like dinosaur bones. I had never seen anyone turn blue before. I saw this through a crack in the bathroom door. It had an electric heater on the wall, just coils glowing behind a silver grill and a little black knob, for winter months. Allen had turned on the heater while he was taking a shower. When he got out, he put his thing right on the hot metal, no accident, just stuck it there on purpose. I don’t know why, it seemed crazy to me but I also sort of understood. I was standing right there but Allen didn’t see me. He pulled away with a jerk and tried to wash his thing in the sink. I think he was crying, so I guess it really hurt. I heard the air rush out of him like a balloon untied, the dull thud of my knee against his chest, Allen’s cry turn into a moan. Then quiet, nothing but the sound of waves breaking over the sand. The beach house had a telescope, which Allen had tried to use our first night there. But he couldn’t see anything and gave up. Allen didn’t move for a long time, his face deeper and darker blue. I ran to the beach and kept running, but it was dark and I got scared I might forget where we were staying. When I came back, my mom and dad were sitting with on the sofa with Allen who was crying. His face was no longer blue but flushed. He was tucked under my mom’s arm, her hand wrapped in a big, puffy white bandage. My dad stood, whipped his belt off, and pointed to their bedroom. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 138 Short Fiction I got up early one morning to watch cartoons, which we were allowed to do on vacation every day, and found my dad asleep on the sofa. He was in his clothes, blue Bermuda shorts and an orange Izod. Beside the sofa, a cigarette had burned a black spot into the orange shag. I wondered if we would have to pay for that, too. Before I closed my parents’ bedroom door to receive my father’s belt, I looked once more at Allen. He didn’t look back, but seemed to be trying to catch his breath still, his chest rising and falling like a bird’s I had seen after it flew into the sliding glass door that opened to our patio at home. You could never get lost in this house. Every room had a name. The room I shared with Allen was called Buoys Town while my parents slept in the Captain’s Quarters. After the whipping, I said I was sorry as I was told. Allen screamed, Wrestling’s fake, you dummy. Everybody knows that, but started coughing and ran to our room. That night I sat with my mom on the deck looking up at the stars. She told me how to mix her drinks—medicine’s got mommy a little woozy, and we snuggled under a beach towel until she fell asleep and my dad told me to go to bed, he would take care of her. That night, Allen wouldn’t speak to me at all and even went to bed early, saying he was tired and wanted to finish his Stephen King book. He kept the radio on real low listening to a rock station in Norfolk. Up above and over the music, I heard him wheezing like he was breathing through a screen. Allen and I were supposed to go crabbing with my dad, but when my dad knocked on the door to Buoys Town, Allen said he didn’t want to stand in stinking muck and throw fish heads into the water. He was tired, and, anyway, he had his Stephen King book to finish. My dad asked if he felt alright, and Allen said yes, sort of grumpily. My dad made a mocking frowny-face when he heard that and turned to me. How ‘bout you, kiddo? How are you with muck and fish heads? In muddy water up to my knees, my sneakers making sucking sounds as I struggled to walk, I feared I would drown in the shallow, weedy marsh. I would sink like people in the movie sank in quicksand when they were chasing giant lizards through the jungle. I cried and said I wanted to go back, I didn’t want to go crabbing anymore and I was sorry I had jumped off Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 139 Short Fiction the sofa and done a knee drop on Allen. My dad looked at me—I knew he was disappointed or sad or something by his eyes, which looked heavy, like if he closed them it would be real hard to open them again. He stood there in waders and bit at his lip. I know, kiddo. You didn’t mean it. He reached behind his back, under his fishing vest, and pulled out the pirate knife. Will this help? My dad said I hadn’t meant to hurt Allen—He’s just a kid, for Christ’s sake. My mom said that’s what we get for letting me watch that ridiculous wrestling. Don’t tell me violence doesn’t beget violence. After that my mom didn’t talk much to my dad. In our room above the bunk beds hung a piece of wood wrapped in burlap and framed with curvy rope. Seashells had been glued to the burlap, but there were dried glue outlines where some of them had fallen off, maybe behind the bed, I don’t know because I didn’t see any when I looked. Thunderstorms blew through on and off our last day at the beach. My dad suggested we play Monopoly but no one said anything. Mom cleaned and packed. She asked if we still wanted all the shells from the broken lamp. We said no—it wasn’t the same if we didn’t find them ourselves. Allen stayed in bed most of the day, reading his Stephen King book, which he still hadn’t finished. Dad moved the sofa a few inches to cover up the cigarette burn in the orange shag carpet, putting a finger to his lips as I watched. Our last night, Allen left the radio and the little reading lamp he used on all night. I woke up to “Hot Child in the City,” a song my dad always turned up when it came on in the car, singing along to the chorus, running wild and looking pretty. I asked my dad did he still have the pirate knife and could I hold it in the car on the way home. He looked up from his hands, which he seemed to find more interesting than anything else in the world, his eyes narrowed and bouncing from side to side—he looked puzzled, like he had heard something but when he looked up nothing was there. I buried the notebook with naked drawings in the sand underneath the stilted house before we left. I dug a hole a few inches deep and wide with a plastic shovel and dropped it in there along with the pirate knife. We all went down to the beach one last time before we left, the thunderstorms blown out to sea. Mom sunbathed, saying her hand hurt and she just needed a few minutes to herself. Dad slept under an umbrella, his Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 140 Short Fiction feet out at his side and buried in the sand. I played Look Out! and Allen body surfed, riding in with the waves, each time splashing me and asking was I always going to be such a chicken-shit. I watched as he rode a wave all the way in, wishing I could do the same but knowing I wouldn’t. I lost him in the surf and ran from a wave that threatened to break over my knees. Then Allen grabbed my arm and pulled me away from the shore into the deeper water. We rarely saw others on the beach, as if no one took vacations that year. A few fishermen, a walker now and then, but no other families the whole week. The wave knocked me backwards. I had tried to run from it, but it rose in front of me like a mountain and broke over my head. I rolled, sand scraping my face, my shoulder, my knees. And I kept rolling so that I thought I would never stop. I swallowed a mouthful of ocean like fire and broke the surface facing the beach. There my parents were just as they had been before. Behind me, Allen laughed. Oh, man! My mom wore a solid white bikini that made her look kind of like a movie star because you could see the tan line around her boobs when she leaned over. I sometimes saw this same thing at the neighborhood pool when other mothers leaned over. I had also seen it on TV once. I wished Allen would hit his head on a rock in the water like Greg did when the Brady family went to Hawaii and Bobby found a tiki doll that was cursed, which Greg wore when he surfed in the surfing contest. I wished he would drown, I wished he would drown, I wished he would drown. My dad loved and often played a song sung by Ella Fitzgerald called “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” He played it on his Sony turntable and receiver—from the Sixties and still going, he said every time he put on a record. My dad told us his dad used to play the same song, but he was a trumpet player in New York City in the forties and played the song for real, the only white guy in Cab Calloway’s band. The ocean off the North Carolina coast where my family spent a week the summer I was seven was not blue at all. It was gray and choppy. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 141 Short Fiction THE MOST NATURAL THING IN THE WORLD By Shya Scanlon Tim was two years older, had a better bike, and knew the streets. It was all Shya could do to stop himself from yelling out, from telling him to wait up, but he knew it would be useless. Instead he pedaled faster, feeling Tim’s flathead screwdriver bump rhythmically against one sore, aching leg, and two Mercedes hood ornaments bump against the other. The dark streets were slicked with rain, though it had stopped, and the streetlights shone from both above and below, a tunnel of dull yellow light they passed through almost silently, the only sounds their wheezing and the warm buzz of their tires. It was 2 a.m. and they were headed home. Tim disappeared around a corner almost a block ahead, and Shya eased his crank, thinking he’d finally been ditched. They were out of danger, and he was sure he could find his way home from here, but still, it stung, Tim’s disappearance, and Shya felt deflated, the remaining strength in his legs Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 142 Short Fiction evaporating like the sweat on his face. He sat on his seat and, for the first time since they’d been chased out of Shilshole Marina, coasted. The air was dense and salty—he’d been living in Seattle over a year, and he still wasn’t used to the air—but he dragged it greedily into his lungs. “Stop!” someone shouted. “This is the police!” He knew right away it was Tim, but he stopped his bike and put his hands in the air, just happy he hadn’t been left. “I’m clean, man, I’m clean,” he said. Tim rode up beside him and grinned. His long, narrow face supported stiff, blond hair that topped his head like an eraser. “Got you,” he said. “Please,” said Shya. “I totally knew it w—” “Whatever, maniac,” said Tim. They straddled their bikes in the middle of the street. Tim had pegged Shya as a liar long ago, after he’d made the mistake of telling Tim how, on the last day before his move, his whole 3rd grade class had raised him up over their heads and carried him outside. “What are you, some kind of hero?” Tim had said. Shya didn’t know how to explain why this hadn’t seemed so strange in his little hometown. Why you didn’t have to be a hero to be treated like one. “Anyway, that was close back there,” Tim said. “That guy was fucking pissed!” “He chased us for, like, the whole parking lot.” Tim guffawed loudly. “I would have too if I saw two kids fucking with my Maserati.” Tim took out the hood ornaments he’d been carrying. He had two BMWs and a Cadillac, but the real score of the night—of the summer, really—was the strange bent pitchfork that meant Maserati. They looked at it in silence, in awe. Shya had never even heard of Maseratis before, but it hadn’t taken more than one glance to see how special the car was. He’d found it wedged between two Ford Explorers, lying low like a prowling cat, and had waved Tim over, who’d practically drooled all over its silver paint. At the time, it had seemed only natural that Tim take it, though he hadn’t found it himself. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 143 Short Fiction Watching him work the screwdriver under the flat steel gem, Shya had felt proud, for both finding it and for giving it to Tim. Now that he looked at it, though, being turned over in Tim’s hand far from the scene of the crime, he couldn’t help but feel that it was rightfully his. “What’d you get?” Tim asked. Shya showed him the two Mercedes pieces: respectable, but certainly not rare. “Nice,” said Tim, pocketing his crown jewel. “Solid additions to any collection.” They rode off, more slowly now, doing circles in the empty street and bunny hops up each curb, and Shya thought of the time they’d met. It was around this time last year, right at the beginning of 4th grade. Tim’s mother brought him over—the two of them lived alone in a small brown house down the block—along with a basket of fruit and single-serving cereal boxes. It had been late but not too late, and Shya’s parents had invited Tim’s mom to have a glass of wine. “Just a sip,” she’d said, and pushed Tim forward a little, telling him to introduce himself. Shya and his little brother Connor took him down to the unfinished basement playroom where boxes sat, lonely and unpacked, and they told him a little about Maine. “Did you have a girlfriend?” Tim wanted to know. Shya hadn’t had a girlfriend, not really, but there had been a girl. Hannah Evans. Hannah had just been a friend until the summer before they left, when he’d begun to feel something different about her. Something more. And when he’d seen her holding hands with a new kid on the first day of school, he’d suffered so much that at recess he fell down during touch football, pretending injury, just so he’d have an excuse to cry. Of course, he didn’t tell Tim any of this. He just shook his head. For his part, Tim made Seattle sound like a playground without rules. Shya listened politely, not knowing what to believe, while Connor, three years younger, kept looking over at Shya with wide eyes, as if needing confirmation. But what did he know? Connor was on his own. “It’s crazy out here,” Tim said. “We usually wait until the parents are asleep and then sneak out, go riding, drink some beers. Do you like beer? Miller Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 144 Short Fiction Highlife all the way. There’s a crew on the block. The twins, Jeremy and Josh, and Olivia and a slut named Becky. Becky’ll give you a hand job for ten bucks.” Connor began to look scared. “Cool,” Shya said. He’d never had a hand job. Not even by his own hand. “What’s there to do down here, anyway,” Tim said. Shya shrugged, and nodded at a box he knew had some games in it. Tim opened the box and started pulling board games out—Chess, Scrabble— mocking each one, until he found a set of darts. “Where’s the board?” he asked. “We didn’t get the board,” Connor said, suddenly animated. “In Maine, Dad drew a target on a piece of wood.” “He did, did he?” Tim said, sneering. Shya suddenly grew angry at his younger brother. Why did he have to open his fat little mouth? They weren’t in Maine anymore, and it didn’t matter what the hell they’d done there. “I got an idea. We’ll be the targets. But instead of hitting them, you have to miss them. Get it? Connor, why don’t you go first. C’mon little man, just stand against the wall.” Shya saw that Connor’s face was red, and thought that if he didn’t do something quick his brother would have a fit. “I’ll go,” he said. He stood against the wall—unpainted sheetrock scarred with rough patches of putty—and spread his arms and legs wide. Tim stood on the other side of the small room and took aim, but Shya didn’t look at him. He shut his eyes. He didn’t want to see Tim’s expression, he didn’t want to see the darts leaving Tim’s hand, he didn’t want to see the ugly, unfinished room, but most of all, he didn’t want to see Connor. He heard the dull thud of darts hitting the wall and waited for one to pierce his leg, or his arm, or his chest. He thought of a time in third grade when he’d reached down to pick up a pencil he’d dropped, but had reached down too quickly and stabbed Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 145 Short Fiction himself in the palm. He’d drawn his hand slowly back from the floor, the pencil hanging from it, gently swaying, and had sat quietly until, a couple moments later, his seating partner Susan had shrieked and he’d been sent to the nurse. But here there was no shriek and there was no pain, and eventually the dull thuds stopped. “Your turn, Mainiac,” Tim said. Shya reached down and plucked the darts from the wall. Unable to help himself, he glanced at his brother while switching places with Tim and found him startled and pale, though nowhere near tears, as he’d thought. He seemed pensive, remote. Tim splayed himself out against the wall, but didn’t close his eyes, and it seemed like a threat, somehow, like he wanted to catch Shya in the act. He suddenly wondered what would happen if he accidentally hit Tim. Would Tim beat him up? Would Tim’s mom sue them? He felt a small knot form in his stomach, but raised his arm nonetheless, not wanting to back out. Miraculously, however, before the first dart had left his hand, Tim’s mother called down from the top of the stairs, saying it was time to go, and Tim sprang from the wall and was gone. When they got back to their block, Tim continued on and Shya peeled off down his driveway. He dropped his bike and climbed up the tree to his roof, where he stood for a while looking out over the city. Their house was only a couple miles from downtown, but between the two stood a large hill called Queen Anne that blocked out everything but the flying saucer shape of the Space Needle, which glowed and hovered on the horizon like an alien scout. Are the humans friends or foes? It would find out and report back, and then there would be war. “Hey,” Connor whispered from the open window. “Can I come out?” “Do whatever you want,” Shya said. Connor slid through the window and sat beside him, shivering in his underwear on the cold, wet roof. Connor played mostly alone, making elaborate roadways for his Matchbox cars in the backyard and collecting fallen branches from the Monkey Puzzle tree next door. What was his secret? It was impossible to talk to him, so Shya had stopped trying. It just made him mad: Connor’s large, trusting eyes, his blank expressions. Sometimes he’d make him cry just to get some emotion out of him. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 146 Short Fiction “Sometimes I sit here and think about all those people,” Connor said, looking out at the expanse of city, the windows twinkling like moonlight on water. “What do you think they do?” Shya was getting tired. The thrill of the chase was now drained from his body, leaving only his sore muscles and parched throat. He stood up and lightly hit his brother on the back of the head. “Sleep,” he said. “They sleep.” Shya stood at the curb and watched people unload a U-Haul truck parked halfway up the street. It was Friday evening, after dinner, and Tim’s mother was out, chatting with the new family, laughing loudly like Tim. Shya wondered whether she’d given them a fruit and cereal basket too. She hadn’t visited his house again, and the only time he’d heard his parents talk about her, his dad had vetoed his mom’s suggestion to invite her over. “We don’t have enough wine,” he’d said. Jeremy and Josh appeared from behind the truck on their bikes and stopped on the sidewalk. The twins actually lived in a big house some blocks north, in a nicer neighborhood. Shya hadn’t ever seen it, or even been invited to, but Tim liked to talk about how amazing it was, how nice the stereo was, the size of the TV. How there was all kinds of junk food in the pantry and how their mom didn’t care what you ate. Shya walked up the street. It had been a sunny day, but it had quickly grown chilly as the sun began to set, and he wore an old green windbreaker he knew the twins would mention—they always made fun of Shya’s clothes—but he didn’t really care. He’d learned to toughen up around them, laugh along with their jokes. It was good just to be known. “Hey, guys,” he said when he reached them. They turned and acknowledged him, thankfully too preoccupied to comment on the jacket. “Have you seen her?” said Jeremy. He was the bigger one, the meaner one, though they both had the same small eyes and short brown curly hair swept back from their foreheads with hairspray. “Tim’s mom?” “No, dickface, the girl. The new girl. She’s totally fine.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 147 Short Fiction Shya shook his head. He remembered the day, shortly before leaving Maine, when Hannah had stopped him in the hall and given him a folded up piece of paper. “It’s for good luck,” she said, “on your trip.” She’d kissed him on the cheek and walked down the hall to her class, leaving him to stand there dumbly with a slight tremor and sweaty palms. He’d carried that note around for almost two days before opening it, alone in the woods behind his house. It had three words, surrounded by hearts with tears running out of them. We’ll miss you. The thought of this note made Shya sick, and he tried to push it back down inside him, to focus on the moving van and Tim’s mother, who was now walking over to them, now tripping on a hose. We’ll? We’ll miss you? What did it mean? Who was we? “Hey, boys,” she said. She was wearing a pink and white striped blouse that fell open to reveal a dark green bra. Jeremy and Josh snickered, but Shya was grateful for the distraction. “Where’s Tim,” he asked. She rolled her eyes. “On the phone with his idiot father, who had better, I might add, be paying for the call. I don’t want to see any phone calls to Phoenix on my bill this month.” Tim’s father lived on a golf course. At least, that’s what Tim always said. A golf course with a water fountain in his back yard. Tim’s mother started complaining about how often Tim was on the phone, and Shya looked up at her, both focusing on her and losing focus at the same time. She was a beautiful woman, actually, or had been once. He could see that. She always wore bright pink lipstick and a single gold chain around her neck. Shya’s own mother never wore lipstick, or even necklaces, though she had some. He felt a nudge in his side, and followed the twins’ gaze to find a girl, about their age, standing in the front door of the house. She was tall and thin, with long black hair pulled back into a pony tail. Her skin was very pale, almost blue, and Shya wondered if she was even American. “Wow,” he said. Jeremy punched him. “Shut up, freak,” he whispered. “She’s Tim’s.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 148 Short Fiction The girl gave a little wave, and both Jeremy and Josh waved back. Tim’s mother turned around and said, “Hi there, Katya!” What kind of a name is Katya, Shya wondered. And how did Tim have time to get her, or have her, or whatever, when she’d only been here for an afternoon? It seemed to Shya that there were still rules to the city he hadn’t learned, or even been allowed to know. He’d almost been beat up at recess near the end of the school year, just for catching a kickball. “I’m going to go get my bike,” Shya said, and jogged back to his house. His father was sitting on the front porch, reading a book and smoking. He barely grunted as Shya passed. “Going out for a while,” he said, and went through the house and down to the basement, where he kept his bike. Connor was in the playroom making a long line of marbles along the floor. “Don’t touch my marbles,” Connor said, spreading his arms out over them and scowling up at him. Shya pretended to kick at them, and his brother called out to their mother, “Mom!” But she didn’t hear. “Marbles are stupid,” Shya said, and took his bike outside. It was getting dark and the street lights were flickering. He rode up the driveway out onto the street and saw that Jeremy and Josh had been joined by Becky and Olivia, who lived the next block over. They always smiled nicely when he saw them, and though they seemed to make the twins meaner, he liked having them around. He rode up to them and said hello. Olivia would be going to the same school with him next year, and though they never really spoke of it, it had given them a kind of secret bond. “Hi, Shya,” she said. “Nice jacket.” Shit. He’d been in such a hurry he’d forgotten to change out of it. He looked down at it and shook his head, trying to think of some defense. “Gosh, yeah, it’s super,” said Jeremy. “Shut up, Jeremy,” Olivia said. “I’m serious. It’s retro.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 149 Short Fiction Shya fell a little bit in love with Olivia right then, but it only flashed and disappeared, because at that moment Katya emerged from her front door and walked slowly down to the sidewalk where they stood. She was beautiful, like an adult. He smiled stupidly at her until one of the girls introduced them. “Shya, Katya. Katya, Shya. Congratulations, you both have weird names.” “Correction,” Josh said. “You both have girls’ names.” Jeremy gave his brother a high five, but Olivia stamped her foot. “Will you two ever leave him alone?” she said. “You’re such major jerks.” “Nice to meet you,” Katya said. “Where did you move from?” Shya said. “I’m from Maine.” Katya laughed a little, though sweetly, as though he’d given her a compliment. “I’ve been to Maine,” she said. “It’s lovely there. We’re from New York.” There was a thick silence, and Shya suddenly felt ashamed that he didn’t have anything more to say. He wished that everyone else would disappear, even Olivia, and that he and Katya could talk a little about Maine, about how things were different there. Maybe she’d even understand how a class could raise a boy over their heads and take him out to the car because he was leaving, how that could happen and not be weird. Then he noticed something in her hand. It was the Maserati hood ornament. He felt a flutter in his gut, and she seemed to notice, but before either of them could say anything, Tim screeched to a halt on his bike in the middle of the road. “Yo,” he said. Olivia and Becky, having only moments ago come to Shya’s defense, were suddenly leaning up against the twins, pressed against their bikes and rocking into their shoulders and arms. The twins looked at Shya and grinned, and before Shya knew what was happening, they turned slightly and began to walk down the street. Tim had snuck around in a heartbeat to Katya’s side, and now the six of them were walking up the sidewalk, arm in Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 150 Short Fiction arm. Not knowing what else to do, Shya began to follow, but Tim looked back and, seeing him, left his bike with Katya and skipped over to him, grinning. “You can’t come,” he said. His hair was perfect. “Oh,” Shya said. Tim moved a step closer and in a lowered voice explained, “Three and three, you know?” Shya nodded solemnly, and watched Tim return to the group. Katya looked over her shoulder and smiled, but then walked on with the rest of them, as if they’d been doing it all summer, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Shya rode the short distance back home, stunned. His dad was still on the porch and grunted again as Shya passed. He brought the bike around back, pulled it through the basement door, and threw it down. Then he walked into the playroom where his brother had now lined up not one, but two rows of marbles, perfectly aligned down the center of the floor, and kicked them. Too surprised to speak, Connor looked up at Shya and then down at his demolished order, then back up, and opened his mouth. But before he could call to their mom, Shya slapped him across the face. “Go ahead,” he said. “Cry to mom, you baby.” He turned and left the room, springing up the stairs. He raced through the house past his mother, trying to get to the second flight before Connor’s inevitable blustering fit, and he almost did. He walked up to his room, and listened to his brother’s sobs, to the choked and stuttering explanation of what happened, to his mother’s attempt to understand, to her asking, “But why, why did he do it, what did you do?’ until she understood that there was no reason. He slammed the door to his room, and listened for his mother’s soft footsteps as she climbed the stairs. She stood outside his room for a long time before speaking. “Shya,” she said at last. “I know you’re unhappy. I know you’ve been going through a lot. We all have. But you’ve got to stop taking it out on your brother.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 151 Short Fiction She paused, perhaps waiting for a response, which he did not give. “I’m not going to tell your father about this, or you know what would happen. But please stay in your room for the remainder of the night. Your brother will be sleeping with us.” The footsteps went back downstairs, and then he heard something about ice cream. Shya thought about the little place they used to go in Maine, the place by the water, he couldn’t remember the name. They’d both get bubblegum ice cream, which even now sounded terrible, and long after their cones were gone their mouths would still be full of big, purple globs of tasteless gum, their jaws sore from chewing. After he’d calmed down, Shya went to his dresser and opened the bottom drawer, lifting out the sweaters. On the bare, unfinished wood lay over two dozen hood ornaments. Cadillac, BMW, VW, Mercedes, and even stupid ones like Buick and Chevrolet: the rule all summer had been to never come home empty handed. Shya grabbed as many has he could put in his pockets and wedged himself through the window and onto the roof. His family was planning a trip back to Maine before school started, just for something familiar, to see friends and family. His mom was making it happen even over the financial protests of his dad. It was “crucial,” Shya had heard her say more than once. He took out one of the ornaments, a smooth BMW disc, and hefted it in his hand. When he got to Maine he was going to call up Hannah, he decided, and ask her to be his girlfriend. He took the blue and white disc and reached way back and hurled it as hard as he could southward, toward the city, then listened. It didn’t break any windows or hit a car, at least not that he could hear. He would take Hannah on a walk, and he would tell her about life in the city, and he would hold her hand. Maybe even get a hand job. He threw another ornament, this time Mercedes. Still no sound. He didn’t care if she already had a boyfriend or not; once Hannah understood that he’d been around, that he’d seen the world, she’d be sure to go with him. He looked at the Space Needle, the alien scout. Friend or foe, he thought. Friend or foe? He took out another thin metal disc and reached as far back as he could, reached way back until his arm was stretched to the limit and his body was twisted and coiled like a spring. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 152 Short Fiction FANTASM By J.A. Pak I Nick confided, that night they were about to go and he was desperate for Sophy to believe, Nick confided he had a guiding angel. And that the angel was beautiful — he’d seen her one night — three or four o’clock so that it was really morning — not with wings, but with a light, a rainbow light which was scattered, maybe she herself was a scattering of light, an infinity of universes caught like the opening rays of sunlight. (“I’ve never told anyone — ” He smiled, looking deep into Sophy so that she was like the light.) Nick was an insomniac and rarely slept. Like Sophy. (They’d find each other, in the early mornings, like two wanderers recognizing some common place in the other but wary and hesitant. Finally, curiosity — and loneliness — gave them a bridge. Usually just sitting quietly together for an hour or two as the morning opened her skirt.) Nick didn’t trust sleep. “You miss so much.” He’d always felt, from birth, time spinning him, faster and faster. He could just harness that growing momentum, ride the chaotic stream, omnipotent. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 153 Short Fiction “What’s there to miss?” Nick looked at Sophy, all exasperated — as if she knew and wouldn’t admit it. “All this!” He spread out his arms and tilted his head and the universe popped open. The sun was just coming up, but low inside the horizon so you couldn’t see any of it. Instead, there was a shimmer in the sky, silver before the yellows and the pinks. Sophy remembered shrugging, going back into her trailer. She had the paperwork to finish, all the money to sort and count. And permits to fill. Her cousin’s carnival moved from town to town in a blissful haze, but she was the eye. She’d fought him. He was just nineteen. Sophy was twenty-five. He’d lost his mother at sixteen. Sophy’s mother had run away when Sophy was two. Sophy and her dad and the carnival — she could just be an eye. Her dad and his cousin Clam had been a clown act and everything else had accreted slowly, the magic acts, human rubber bands, amusement park rides, and doggy shows. Nick’s father had run away when Nick was six. A tot full of laughter. His mother had MS and it was just the two of them. And his aunt Emma who helped take care of them. Sophy’s dad had died when Sophy was fifteen. The collapse of a heart. Neither comforted (confided) in the other. They didn’t have long, intimate conversations, begging love and understanding. Nor was there a single epiphanic moment of cobbled commonality. The carnival was small and slips of information traveled to and fro in a circuit like inside the human body and what you knew you knew and were. Nick was part of the entertainment. Most acts (people) came and went fairly quickly. Like newspaper stories, you didn’t remember them from year to year (or, rather, they become the same, one story). Nick did card tricks. Using an ordinary deck of playing cards, he’d build castles in the air. So quickly, so gracefully, you didn’t see his hands, only the cards coming to life. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 154 Short Fiction He called his act FANTASM. He’d begin by amusing the audience with familiar objects (houses, cars, elephants). He never spoke and the only music was the shuffling of cards. When he felt the audience was ready, he’d bring an audience member onto the stage, someone he liked the look of, usually a woman, elderly. While she sat, sometimes somewhat embarrassed, he’d play with the cards, with patterns, all the while looking into the woman’s face, the cards arranging themselves so quickly, so hypnotic, until there was a shape in the air — nothing extraordinary, again a house or car, but something familiar, so familiar, and the woman would suddenly laugh, or cry, because Nick had taken something from inside her, something she’d forgotten and it was too surprising, seeing it there, a thought, a memory, built out of cards. It was rare for him to pick a man. Or even a young boy. “Why women?” Sophy asked. “Old women?” “It just seems to work better with them.” “What works better?” “Happiness.” His act didn’t impress Sophy. She’d seen many spectacles come and go. Winning hearts was part of the game. There was something about him, though, something that made her notice him at first sight. He was just nineteen, but he was much older, greying at the temples, the old soul in his eyes catching people: he was burning, faster and faster, and this heat made everybody around him glow, sparks flying. In their carnival everyone did a little bit of everything. Sophy kept the books but she also sold tickets, helped fill out thin audiences, cooked, cleaned, looked after stage props, operated some of the rides, kept an eye on the carnival children. She was also the end-of-the-line problem solver. Disputes, even between married couples, ended with Sophy. She was the eye. And out of the eye, two ladies appeared — that is, the carousel broke down and she was fetched. Ted, who kept all the mechanics going, figured it’d take several hours to get the old girl back on her feet. Nothing unusual. In such cases, the tickets were refunded and the disappointed customers redirected to other rides or discounted shows. But this evening, there was trouble: two elderly ladies were refusing to budge from their seats. That’s when Nick was sent looking for Sophy. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 155 Short Fiction She was sewing costumes for the poodle show. Tiny tuxedoes and starched skirts with petticoats. Nick watched her hands, the beauty of their song, how the song brought happiness to the little work dogs. Little soldiers of amusement. Trained to bark only on command, even their fluffed up tails bought for performances — their wet eyes shone with happiness. Sophy’s eyes, when they noticed Nick at the door, didn’t have a song. They reminded Nick of why he was there. Sophy followed Nick to the carousel. The two ladies were each in her own chariot. They did not know each other, and while there was a solidarity, neither spoke to the other. Sophy could only repeat what the others had said. But she saw immediately how anxious they were, how the thought of stepping off the carousel panicked them. “There isn’t any harm if we sit here?” one of the ladies asked. Sophy couldn’t see any harm. It was just the engine that needed coaxing. The two women smiled. It was then that Sophy noticed how calm it was on the carousel. Quieter, even, as if the carousel were moving further and further away from the rest of the carnival, she and the two elderly ladies its only passengers. The two ladies were as different as night and day. One was tall and muscular, the other pale, quiet, like a white shadow. Each was sitting in a cloud chariot, which seemed something more than coincidence. Unicorns, mermaids, dragons , fairies — mythical creatures circled the carousel. Only three cloud chariots were left, harnessed to wind and flanked by angles. The times the carousel worked properly, dry ice floated up from in between the wooden slats of the platform, the carousel lifting its passengers into a mythic sky of dreams. The tall, muscular lady was wearing the daintiest cotton dress. She had a thick pink ribbon around her hair like a little girl. She looked up at Sophy and said, “I’m here this time because I want to see the Queen of England.” No matter what people said, no matter what Sophy was thinking, feeling — Sophy’s expression never changed. Her face was always calm, always open. “Do you know what I mean?” the lady asked. “You must. It’s your carousel. I come here every year and sit in this chariot. Look — I’ve marked it here so I’ll always know this is the right chariot.” Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 156 Short Fiction She showed Sophy the squiggly “x” she’d once carved right underneath the left arm. “And, to tell you the truth,” she continued, “I only half-believe it, each time, but each time, it works. The first time I wished for a new sewing machine — the old one kept eating the thread — and I got one. Just like that. One of my nieces wanted a newer model so she gave me hers — perfectly good machine — I still got it. The next year I wanted the stinker next door to move — and three weeks after I made the wish, the stinker moved in with his daughter clear across town. Now the nicest gentleman lives next door. Comes and cuts my grass. After he cuts his. So this year I’m wishing to see the Queen of England because I’ve always wanted to see the Queen of England since I was a little girl. I thought I’d make a big wish this time. You never know, and I thought I’d better make a really good wish in case I never see this chariot again. I have to say, this thing really does deliver.” She pointed to the inscription written on the eaves of the carousel: “Dream a Dream ... Make a Wish ... Dreams Come True ... Believe ...” Was the other lady here for a wish too? What could the lady say? How could she explain? She looked at Sophy’s face. There was an expression in Sophy’s eyes — those eyes looked directly at you, seemed to, but inside, deep in her eyes, she was turning away, as if she could barely stand to look at you. It was too painful. The lady looked away, away from Sophy’s eyes, at Sophy’s cheeks, down along the long thin scars that followed Sophy’s jaw line, left and right like twins, beautiful in their symmetry. They were the scars her mother had given her, her last act before she’d disappeared. The woman reached up with both her hands and tenderly fingered the scars. Atonement and confession. Her fingers pronouncing the scars. Reaffirming the knife in negative. In the touch, the same offering. The child had stood so still because of the tenderness in the shape, the love in its intention, the warmth in the blood. Sophy hated being touched, especially her face. Her scars had always been hidden in Sophy’s remoteness. Now, there was this woman’s offering. Trying to move away, without hurting the lady, Sophy turned. “What’s your wish?” Sophy asked. “I come every year. I’ve been coming a very long time,” she said. “I was in love, with all my heart and soul, but he died. When I was very young. I fell in love again and married and had kids — but — One day the carnival came and I promised my daughter I’d take her. I only have my daughter. She was almost seven then and she wanted to ride that unicorn. So I sat on this Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 157 Short Fiction chariot, so I could be close to her, make sure she stayed safe. I remember the music playing, the carousel slowly moving, the clouds all around me, the carousel going faster and faster and I felt this incredible joy. And I started dreaming — only it wasn’t a dream — it was real. He hadn’t died and we were married and had a child. And then I began to think it was a dream, that I’d fallen asleep on the carousel, only the next year, when the carousel returned, I came back and sat here again. And this time I had another three years with him. We had another child, a boy we named Christian. We bought a farm too, only things didn’t go so well. We were badly in debt. We had two more children. And my life, this other life, goes on and on — only on this carousel. And it’s wonderful. So wonderful.” Nick was leaning across the unicorn, caught by the music of the chariot, the woman’s voice, the way it incanted and how Sophy seemed lifted out of herself by the summoned wind as the voice circled and circled, the chariot hinged forward. Suddenly Sophy stood up. The lady shrank back in fright. Sophy jumped out of the chariot. She was frozen for a second, and then looking left and right, she tried to find herself. Nick put his hand on Sophy’s shoulder. Sophy looked straight through him. And then there was a shout. Ted was getting hungry. He wanted Sophy to get him a sandwich. And some coffee. Sophy yelled back and flew off the carousel. Nick ran and caught Sophy. He was walking very close to her. She wanted him to leave her alone. She felt so heavy, her body like milky sea water. She’d stopped walking. She turned to Nick and kissed him and everything inside was breaking open. She loved him and he loved her. And it was now the rest of their lives. And dreams too, breaking open. Strange dreams. She often dreamt she was sleeping in Nick’s arms. Not the way they did, briefly, in fits, conjured by insomnia, but whole nights at a time. Nick in Sophy’s arms. Sophy in Nick’s arms. Tangled together, unclear what is Sophy and what is Nick, Sophy surprised because their bodies had physically merged, their togetherness so heavy she cannot move and it is wonderful. Nick speaks and his voice is the blood in her veins. Sometimes she dreamt they were kissing again, that first time, and she will say to him, “I love you, Nick” and Nick laughs joyously. Sometimes she waits for him to say it too. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 158 Short Fiction One night, Nick couldn’t find Sophy. By early morning he was distraught, and then he saw her, on the carousel, sitting in a cloud chariot. She seemed asleep, only her eyes were open. He tapped her wrist. She looked at him, but he was only a part of her dream. She reached up and touched his face. She looked surprised; she could feel his body, her own hand. He put his head on her chest, and wanting more comfort, raised his lips to kiss her, first the milky smell of her neck, and then her tender cheek, until his lips were touching hers. He started to make love to her, unbuttoning her blouse without realizing what his fingers were touching. “No.” Sophy pushed him away. “Not here. I hate this thing.” Sophy ran off the carousel. Nick had the strange sensation that the carousel was moving and that he could not. He held onto Sophy’s warm blouse and closed his eyes. He slept for a long time. He’d learnt card tricks to amuse his mother. Even before, there was such an expressiveness to his hands. His hands spoke before his mouth. Words came only because of his worried father, who wanted to tie Nick’s arms to his body. Nick’s first sentence was forced from him when he was four. He wasn’t verbally fluent until he was eight. His father said he was stubborn and willful. It was just incomprehension. He understood the language of mouth and hands equally and since he understood, he didn’t think to wonder if others could not. His father’s insistence on the verbal seemed to him a bizarre, arbitrary preference. With his mother, alone, he was free to speak with his hands. Like his mouth, his hands could shape air, manipulate sounds, translate desire, express astonishment, joy, sadness, envy, delight, fear. But his mouth was limited to words, and words were a poor cousin to hands. Words were easy. Easy to misplace. Easy to dismiss. Easy to forget. And what could you really understand from what people said? So much was ritual. Easy lies. Placeholders. You could clumsily travel the distance of a whole universe from one word to another. Whereas you could feel the whole being of a person with a hand. The touch of his mother’s hands could tell him how much she loved him much better than words. And in return, he could take his hands and massage her temples and make her headache disappear. A simple touch was all it took to make his sad mother smile. And what was more, hands could take objects, ordinary, every day objects, and reshape Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 159 Short Fiction them, remake them so that they were parts of him that did not disappear. He was afraid of disappearing. He was almost ten when he realized hands could also amaze people. That astonishing speed of his hands as they manipulated the old deck of cards his parents used for games of pinochle, fanning them across the table, shooting them into the air, bringing them back into the palm of his hand, neat and obedient. He’d wink at a card and the card would jump three places behind, two places forward, dancing at command. Hands made people gasp. Nick’s swift hands were for ever transporting cards too. The Queen of Hearts were now for Sophy. She’d find a queen leafed in a book. Underneath her pillow. Inside a shoe. With a stack of dollar bills she’d been counting. It was absurdly romantic. But she liked it and she secretly saved each card, hiding them in the old tin biscuit box where her other curiosities and mementos were, until, with a start, she realized it was always the same queen, the same worn card, and that no matter how carefully she hid that card, it’d always reappear afresh when she’d least expect it. It was natural, with Sophy. Since his mother’s death, Nick had kept his hands in a box, for tricks and games, a way to ease his way with people, even to earn money (that had surprised him most). But with Sophy, his hands were natural again. His hands could speak again. Teasing her hair. Taking just the very tip of his finger and gently wiping a speck of grime from underneath her eye. Sending the skirt of her flimsy cotton dress in a spiral. Walking his fingers across her naked back and then laying his palm above her tailbone. He told her what he wanted, what he felt with the slight degrees of pressure, his hand in hers. And she’d do the same, and for the first time he understood. He saw why his father was so angry, what the true objection had always been. He had been alone. Hands had made him an alien. His mother had understood his hands, but she’d only had words. Her hands had been only mother’s love. For the first time, another was speaking to him in hands, so naturally, he hadn’t realized she wasn’t using words. They had so much to say to one another — it astonished them. And the ways they found of speaking. It wasn’t hands, mouth, but their entire being, bodies, consciousness, charged into a new state of being. They were now inseparable. There was no coming or going, no division, no night and day. No doubts. No questions. Just life. And Nick had to choose. He wasn’t an ambitious person. But since his mother’s death, he’d become restless. He’d liked the carnival at first because it was all movement, spinning from town to town in benevolent chaos. But after a couple of months, this too was routine. So when an Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 160 Short Fiction impresario demanded that Nick follow him to the Big City where the spotlight was gold and life champagne, Nick said yes. And Sophy suddenly remembered, with a pain, how regularly people come and go through the carnival, the flow like the Nile, keeping things fresh and fertile. And lonely. After all, no promises had ever been made. Because it was always the present in the world they had created, time threaded to their desires. She felt clumsy. And angry. No world can exist without a future, and the future was a bully, stepping on their toes, tripping them, bloody noses all around. Sophy retreated back into the self she knew better. Only, now, she was two selves because the other self had no where else to go. And each self looked at Nick a different way, wanting such different things. She finally understood how a heart could collapse. Nick found everything easy. Nick reached for her hand; Sophy wouldn’t touch his. So he spoke: “Marry me.” He was surprised at the strength of his voice. The change which was his becoming. He was giddy and invincible and he was going to change Sophy too. Sophy shook her head, not even looking at him. She’d never stopped counting the money, putting the bills and dirty coins into rigid columns, counting in tens. Her head had never been so clear, her focus never so sharp. “Why not?” “If you want to go, just go.” He was a tall, strong boy. He lifted her over his shoulders and went. II “So. It looks like we are at the end of the road.” Nick looks neither at her nor away from her. In the hotel lobby, with its brown and yellow hues, it all seems to make sense. Sophy’s breath catches the hem of her soul. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 161 Short Fiction It’s like a routine and they’re finishing up. Nick stands, picks up his suitcase and it’s adios. The final frames of the picture as he walks away. She touches her wedding ring with her thumb, checking to see if it’s still there, the wedding ring Nick had made with the Queen of Hearts, his the King. She checks, a habit she’s had all her married life, checking, almost as if she knows the ring isn’t really there, and that the Queen is in another world. The problem with expecting something is that what you expect comes at you inside out. Or maybe it’s you that’s inside out so that what’s at the right angle is at the wrong angle so how you see it coming isn’t how it’s coming at all and you’re unaware even as you watch it coming, guarding your heart against the impact even as you give it to your eventual destroyer. Nick. Sitting in the lobby, the lights dim, she realizes it’s been like this for weeks, the world drenched in an amber hue, honied and rich, with everything massive, so massive, and two-dimensional, shadows heavy and arced, a treacle brown that weighs the earth with such sadness. This is not what usually happens when you follow a magician. Theirs, the one who had led them deftly down this hole, was the rabbit and hat kind, a friend of a friend — they were all staying with friends staying with friends, squatting in basements, vacated buildings, places without sunlight. The magician said he was going South, to the sunny resorts where all the work was — Nick and Sophy should come too. Nick stole some money for their train fares, the magician’s too, — he’d been pick-pocketing, but with so many people out of work, who was there to steal from anymore? All the rich were down South, we’re all heading down South, where the golden resorts are, where all the jobs are, where there really is an Easy Street, adjacent to Fortune, five blocks north. It was true — there was the sun, which made everything so golden. But too, there were the deserted hotels and the millionaires jumping out of buildings. The wrong kind of gold. The magician disappeared. They didn’t eat. Walking all day, walking all night, suitcases in hand, the only rooms occupied park benches and bus stops. And then a small miracle, grains of delirium: a piece of paper — money — floating down the street, Nick catching it in midair. Enough to keep them alive, if they were very careful, for a full two weeks. They ate their first real meal. Their shriveled stomachs grumbled in protest. They laughed. They’d grown so thin, they could see where the muscles were parting from the bones, even their noses filling with holes. And Sophy’s Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 162 Short Fiction scars — Sophy’s scars were now so prominent — it hurt Nick too much to look at her. Inside the diner the world was warm and friendly, the food oh-so good. And what was more, the menu was all-you-can-eat. Sophy cried because she couldn’t even finish what was on her plate. Neither could Nick. Their stomachs had shrunk too much. “He’ll take good care of you,” Clam had said. Life after the carnival was like a piece of music which was more static than song. The impresario led them this way and that. In that last stop, Nick became part of a large touring show, his name barely noticeable on the poster bills. They couldn’t live on what Nick made so Sophy earned money sewing costumes. She was always sewing, her hands so busy, even as she watched Nick perform. He performed for ten minutes at a time. Just filler at first. Which didn’t matter. That is, time didn’t matter. It was pouring out of him. Power. Stupefying. His hands effectively unnecessary, his ability to plunder people’s memories frightening. He felt glorious, so incredibly invincible. He was God. And then it happened, in the middle of a performance, what he’d somehow anticipated, and suppressed, deep in his subconscious: the cards opened their eyes and awoke. And with a surge Nick understood what this power really was. The Cards. The moment he was on stage, the moment he touched the Cards, Nick now disappeared. He said himself, he seemed to be watching the Cards from deep in another place. And he saw how the Cards lived and fed from the collective breath of the audience. Word got around. People became mad with Fantasm. FANTASM It knew each body and each life, churning, plundering, building towards a completeness. All his life he’d felt himself spinning faster and faster and now he knew why: all this heat, the surging momentum, to Fantasm, the air It breathed, his life like fuel, giving birth to this, Complete Beauty. One moment of complete, inexorable beauty. An achingly slow, magnificent burst of beauty, life and death in one. And it finished him. Complete Beauty was now Nick as ash. The cards were dead, his hands were dead: he was left performing sleight-of-hand tricks. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 163 Short Fiction He wondered if she knew. He was afraid to look at her, afraid to touch her, afraid of being touched. She watched him. Sewing costumes, cooking meals, hands so busy, Sophy watched him. He was so old now, the air around him stale, his hair, he skin, ash. He could barely control his hands. He knew she was hiding money. He’d always given her all his money, because she’d been so good at keeping track of that sort of thing and knew what it was to buy things and he himself only thought of money as paper. Until now. There was nothing more to give her. He needed the money. One day he ransacked the room. No money. Just the Queen of Hearts. It was all wrong. The Queen of Hearts should not come to him. Everything was all wrong. Fantasm had switched worlds on him. Thrown him with a kick into this sick, desperate world where he wasn’t him but Sophy was a constant. When Sophy came back, she found Nick sitting on the edge of the bed, bent forward, throwing cards on the floor, slowly, methodically. So lost in the act, he didn’t know she’d returned. The room looked strangely tidy. In the end, their life with the Impresario did not last very long. He was like Sophy, an eye, only his eye saw the future. Picking his cues very wisely, he disappeared one day, taking all the money. When she’d told Clam she was leaving with Nick, Clam said, “I like him. I really do. He’ll take care of you. In the City. He’ll take care of you.” The City was night time, cold and hard, all lights and glamour, tuxedo jackets and martini glasses. The Impresario had Nick perform in elegant nightclubs, some as big as theaters, with their own competing bands and dance floors. There was a constant din of clinking glasses, waiters moving, low-buzz chatter, stiletto heels on parquet floors. The women were beautiful and their clapping polite. The men were drunk, on perfume or alcohol. Together, their speech was mannered, their laughter rehearsed, the way they interacted, choreographed. Nothing they said must be taken seriously. There are no promises in style. The Impresario schooled him in panache. The act became entertaining tricks and elegant gestures. No more dangerous than bubbles spraying in a glass of champagne. The Impresario insisted on accompanying music. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 164 Short Fiction “A pity about your scars,” the Impresario said to her. “We could have dressed you up. Nice silk evening gown, your hair swept up. Earrings flickering in the light. You could have been the Girl. Just what an act always wants. A Beautiful Girl.” The Impresario smiled. And his smile was like a snake to their frozen bird. Shivering, Nick held Sophy’s hand; Sophy squeezed back in terror. They didn’t go to the City straight away. There was too much carnival world about him, the Impresario said. He needed polish. There was a resort in the mountains where Nick could develop his act, get a feel for the right kind of audience, upper middle-class, affluent, a little jaded but wanting nothing truly extraordinary, nothing outside their comfort zone. He’d have to wait a month though, when the summer resort season kicked in. But just outside the resort, there was a small farm that needed looking after. Nick’s impresario sent Sophy and Nick to the farm. It was a real farm, with chickens and cows. A nice big house with gingham curtains and a red barn. Nick and Sophy laughed when they first saw it — how could it be so story-book? A farm hand came every day and showed Nick and Sophy how to take care of the animals. There was even a kitchen garden for Sophy, peas, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, bushy dill and thyme. It was all so strange, their life, play-acting. Early every morning Sophy fried up bacon and eggs, boiled the coffee, toasted bread, which she even learned to bake. The stove had to be fed with wood and she grew expert at tending flames — every part of this life made her feel so proud. Nick looking after the cows, mending fences. Sophy feeding the chickens and collecting eggs. She fretted over the garden, killing snails at night, pulling weeds during the day. They watched the tall grass grow golden, almost ready to be stored as straw, anxious like all the other farmers that the rain keep itself amused with sweet bursts and nothing more. In the late evenings, after dinner, Nick tried to teach Sophy how to play the ancient spinet. She could eventually finger a few notes, but she would much rather watch and listen to Nick play. Sometimes when he was playing, she wondered if Nick wasn’t thinking about his mother. The whole room, the lace on the spinet, the small porcelain figurines, seemed like the essence of mother, from what she knew, from the touch and smell of Nick when he thought about his mother. And she tried to connect this with the scars on her face. Sunday roasts and picnics on the meadow. A life that fitted them more and more, a part of them like skin. They breathed and slept. Like any other Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 165 Short Fiction married couple, lying entwined, resting away from life the whole night through. Like any other married couple. That too sounded make-believe. “We’re married. “ “My husband.” “My wife.” It seemed so unreal, so ridiculous, they couldn’t help giggling. After all, they were just Nick and Sophy, Sophy and Nick. Watching the sun set, the molten pinks and amber hues, they knew what marriage was. “Do you think you’ll have a baby?” Nick asked. “Do you want a baby?” Sophy asked. “Yes.” He hadn’t thought about it before, but now, of course. Of course! “Do you?” “Yes.” She was so happy. The horizon was a rich, hot amber now. In the sun’s steep angle, everything was burning, breathing, even the rocks and stones along the uneven road alive. Nick took her hands and kissed them, their soft, fragrant palms. He laughed. “Your hands — what’s on your hand? What is it that they smell of?” Sophy smelled her hands. “Oh, it’s thyme. I like the smell so I rubbed it into my fingers. When I was weeding. Out in the garden.” Nick took her hands again, rubbing his face and neck, all over with thyme’s oil. “I feel reborn,” he said, laughing. Outside the hotel, remembering this, Nick’s voice and words and promises are the tears Sophy can’t shed. She reaches up with her hands, up to that Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 166 Short Fiction setting sun, up into the hot amber, up inside Nick, Nick smelling magical thyme, Nick rubbing her hands with a thick incantation: “This is our life. Everything else, before and after, was a dream. We’re awake now. And we’ll have children. Lots of children. Boys and girls. Enough to fill the whole house. Everything except now — it doesn’t matter, Sophy. It didn’t exist. It was just a dream. We’ve always been here. And we’ll stay here. Always. Right here on this farm. This is our life. I love you, Sophy. I’ve always loved you. I’ll always love you.” In the sun’s steep angle, everything burns, breathes, even the rocks and stones along the uneven road alive. “Look,” Sophy says, looking down at her arms, Nick’s face. “Look at us.” They are gold and brown, red and blazing. Immortal beings. Fantasm. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 167 Short Fiction DOMESTIC TIES By David S. Atkinson Charlotte pumped her arm in circular motions, hunched over the antique coffee table to pin as much pressure as possible between the polishing cloth and the darkly shining mahogany surface. That was the only way to ensure that the table gleamed. Force the wax into the grain. The table needed to reflect like lacquer. The prisoner would be coming soon. The shine faded fast. Dust collected daily. Even as time simply passed, a certain dullness crept in. A cozy would have been easier. Protect the surface with no polishing at all, but the table was an heirloom. It had to be polished and displayed. She rose and stood back to survey the light reflecting off the coffee table, hands resting on the hips of her light blue cotton dress. Tilting her head, she checked different angles. Then she rotated around the table to verify the uniformity of the wax. Finally satisfied, she nodded. It was as a mirror. The sunlight shone softly on the table top through the freshly laundered lace curtains. Charlotte approved. The living room was almost presentable. The Atticus Reviewâ”‚Get Lit: Round 1 Page 168 Short Fiction other rooms already were. Even if her home would house a prisoner, at least it was in respectable shape. Except for the carpet. Exactly three days had passed since the cream Berber was vacuumed. Charlotte vacuumed exactly every three days. Really, she wanted to do it daily. To be tidy. However, daily vacuuming wore good carpet too quickly. Three days kept the Berber from wearing but still allowed her to keep it free from dirt. Two days had passed, though. It was time for the carpet to be cleaned. Hurrying through the dining room, with the walnut dining table and freshly washed place settings arranged for the evening meal, Charlotte fetched the reliable metal vacuum cleaner from its closet in the kitchen. Not cheap plastic like the worthless more modern models that threw more dust than they picked up. No. This white and beige workhorse had been her mother's. Her mother used it for years before she passed, making sure Charlotte understood the difference a good vacuum cleaner made in a house. The vacuum cleaner roared to life at Charlotte's instruction and she shouldered it around the living room in circles of decreasing size. Of course, she carefully and gingerly circumnavigated the furniture inhabiting the room to avoid knocking anything askew. Then, after pausing for any possible dust kicked up to become complacent and settle, Charlotte repeated the task in the opposite direction. Once satisfied that all marks in the carpet were erased, Charlotte returned the vacuum cleaner to its post in the kitchen closet to silently await its next duty. She paused to take a breath after she sealed the closet door, but just then the grandfather clock in the dining room sounded. She immediately recalled the next chores to be performed, but she chided herself. The schedule would have to adapt, she reminded herself, since a prisoner was due to arrive. The letter of notification was on the kitchen table, by itself. Charlotte placed it there when she reread it that morning after Ward whistled his way off to work. She reread it again and again, just to make sure she understood. That she had it all right. The paper itself was a printed form letter. Only her and Ward's information and the specifics had been added in blanks by a typewriter. As run of the mill as a jury duty notice, only it notified that the state would be requisitioning the use of her home for the purpose of providing shelter to a convict. The prisons were impossibly overcrowded, the letter informed. Unable to determine any other immediate solution, the state had no choice but to place prisoners in private residences. Atticus Reviewâ”‚Get Lit: Round 1 Page 169 Short Fiction Charlotte looked at that portion of the letter again, still sure she must have mistaken the contents somehow. The measure was temporary, the letter assured. Citizens were chosen for the duty randomly in order to assure a fair distribution of the burden and each citizen only had to bear the burden for a month. Then, another home would be randomly chosen. The entire program would immediately cease as soon as an expansion prison could be built. This inconvenience, the letter explained, was a necessary obligation for the maintenance of a free state. Charlotte carefully placed the letter back on the kitchen table. Then she dashed to the hutch for a tumbler before hurrying to the refrigerator to fix herself an iced tea. The coolness of the iced tea and the clink of the glass tumbler on her lower teeth calmed Charlotte. She took a light breath and exhaled. Then she straightened the collar of her dress and took another sip. She thought the letter a mistake, or possibly a joke, when it first arrived. The idea was preposterous, putting prisoners in respectable homes. It had never been done. At least, she had never heard of such a thing. However, Ward only nodded, chewing his roast, when she scoffed at the matter during dinner. He'd heard about the situation at his office. It was real, all of the sales department talked about it. The overcrowding at the prison sure was a real problem. She was sure it was a problem, she told him, but in her home!? What if something happened to her? This was a convicted criminal! A dangerous man! She could be attacked! Ward chuckled at this. He was sure the state took appropriate measures to ensure safety. They wouldn't implement the program if they could not be sure of safety. He said she worried about nothing. That was easy for him to say. He didn't have to stay at home with the prisoner. He went to work all day. There was no need for him to worry, but things were different for her. She stayed at home all day. All day with a prisoner. Ward just sat back, digesting his potatoes, and pointed out that she didn't have to sit around the house either. Not if she didn't want to. Heck, it wasn't like they had any children to fuss over. She could spend the day shopping. Or, take some of those courses down at the community center. Hadn't he even said she could get her real estate agent license when she said she was bored that time? Yes, she should do that. Atticus Reviewâ”‚Get Lit: Round 1 Page 170 Short Fiction Charlotte sighed, remembering. She finished the iced tea and rinsed the tumbler in the sink. Then she turned the water hot, squeezed detergent from the bottle waiting there, and scrubbed the tumbler clean. After she dried the glass with the cloth hanging from the cabinet door in front of the sink, she paused to let the air absorb any remaining moisture before replacing the tumbler in the hutch. That was Ward. He didn't understand. If she spent her days gallivanting all over town, then the housework would never get done. The whole day was required. She couldn't just fritter time away taking courses or amusing herself. Ward always said he would help around the house. That she shouldn't finish everything before he got home. She shook her head. Ward was sweet, but sometimes a bit clueless. He was tired at the end of the long workday and needed the chance to relax. Otherwise, he wouldn't be fresh for work the next day. There would be no more promotions because he'd be too worn to distinguish himself. Then where would they be? No, as nice as help would be, Charlotte knew he needed to focus himself, first and foremost, on his job. That left the housework to her. Charlotte started as the doorbell suddenly rang. She swallowed dryly. Normally, it was such a happy tune, announcing a visitor to briefly interrupt the monotony of the morning. This, however, was surely the prisoner. This time, the chime felt more like an air raid siren. Well, there was nothing to do about it. She just had to accept matters and smile. This would happen. She straightened her dress and hair, ensuring she was appropriately presentable. Then she marched briskly through the dining room into the foyer and opened the cherry wood front door with the frosted panes of glass separated into a pretty pattern by connecting lines of lead. "Howdy," a heavy man in a tan uniform bellowed out pleasantly the moment Charlotte opened the door. She noticed that his light brown shirt, starched with the silver badge on the breast, bulged over his belly, was tucked haphazardly into his darker brown pants. His thumbs hooked into the pockets just drew her focus more to the sloppiness of the tucking around his belly. He unhooked one of his thumbs and used it to time the front of his cowboy-ish hat in an apparent attempt at a polite gesture. "Got your criminal here," the heavy man went on, shoving a little mouse of a man dressed in an orange coverall suit through the doorway without further introduction. "All ready for you." Atticus Reviewâ”‚Get Lit: Round 1 Page 171 Short Fiction Charlotte jumped, not expecting the prisoner to just barge right in like that. What if the guard had gotten the wrong house? He got right down to it. No pleasantries or anything. The little man in orange stumbled from the shove, apparently not expecting the guard's haste either. There were handcuffs on his hands and feet and a little chain running between, like Charlotte could just hang him on the coat rack by the door and be done. When he recovered his balance, the little man did not look at her or the home in which he was to be lodged. Perhaps he was not curious. Instead, he looked at his plain brown clunky shoes. Shoulders fallen like he had a sack of wet clothes on his back. Charlotte found herself staring at the bald spot on his little head, facing her and ringed by wispy gray hair remnants as it was. "Oh," Charlotte exclaimed, recovering herself enough to remember decorum. "Do come in. Of course, come in." "Thank you kindly," the heavy man blustered as he rolled inside past her, shoving the little man with a thick paw to keep the little man stumbling ahead. Charlotte quickly shut the front door and hurried to catch up as the guard and the little prisoner continued that way into the dining room. "Nice spread," the heavy man puffed, looking around almost like he expected highwaymen to be hiding behind the furniture. "Any little ones?" "No," she replied. "Ward and I-" "Kitchen'll be the best place then," the heavy man interrupted. He began shoving the little man in that direction without further delay. "Should be out of you folks' way pretty good in there." "The kitchen?" Charlotte could not imagine this man thought her kitchen an appropriate place to keep a prisoner. She hurried after him, though, since he shoved the little man in there. "Yep," the heavy man concluded, surveying the room while nodding. The little man stood quietly next to the kitchen table in his orange coverall suit, looking down at the floor. "This'll do fine." "The kitchen?" Charlotte repeated. "I need my kitchen! Wouldn't the basement be more suitable? Or perhaps the garage?" "Nah." The heavy man quickly dismissed her concern, taking a black oil chalk wrapped in rough brown paper out of a pocket. "This here little guy won't take up much room. Besides, I expect you'll probably want him where you can keep an eye on him." Atticus Reviewâ”‚Get Lit: Round 1 Page 172 Short Fiction He shoved the little man to an out of the way spot of the floor. Then he started drawing a big square around him. The little man just stood there, shuffling a little. The black oil chalk left a horrible looking mark on the floor. Dark and dirty compared to the nicely waxed white linoleum. "Wait a moment," Charlotte protested when she realized what was happening. "My floor!" "Aww, don't worry none," the heavy man reassured her with a tone that sounded just a bit too patronizing to Charlotte. "He's gotta know where his limits are, and this'll wash off with a little elbow grease later on." Charlotte's indignation deflated. She knew she really would have no trouble cleaning the mark later, ugly as it was for the moment. The heavy man was right. The heavy man? She still didn't know his name, or the prisoner's for that matter. Regardless, the black would disappear with cleanser and scrubbing. But…why have it at all? What would that terrible mark accomplish? The guard finished drawing the square and struggled back to his feet, puffing with the exertion. His face turned red. He put the oil chalk back in his pocket and hiked up his dark brown stiff pants. "There now," he commented, apparently to no one in particular. "You behave now," he said to the prisoner. "Hear?" The little man didn't acknowledge the instruction. Instead, he continued staring at his shoes. Motionless, more like a prisoner's statue. Charlotte noticed that the orange coveralls were several sizes too large for the little man, like a boy dressed up in his father's suit. Surely the state could find prisoners clothing that fit, couldn't they? "Well," the guard interrupted Charlotte's thoughts, "I should be on my way. Ma'am," he said, touching his thumb to his hat brim again, before turning and walking out of the room toward the front door. Charlotte blinked. Then, a moment later, she chased after him, catching him in the dining room. "Wait," she pleaded, clutching at his arm. "You are leaving? What about the prisoner?" "Shoot," the guard laughed. "You don't need to worry none about him. He'll stay in his box like he's been told. I'm sure you folks can manage. Just don't let him balance your checkbook and you'll be fine." "But…but…," she stammered, "who is going to guard him?" Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 173 Short Fiction The guard shook his head. "That one doesn't need any guard," he chuckled. "Just let him be. Someone'll be around each morning to take him to the shower and can. Bring him food and duds and all that. Other than that, he ain't no different than a plant. Just sits and pho-to-sin-theesizes and whatnot till his sentence is served." Charlotte stared. He was just going to leave her with the prisoner? Alone? In her kitchen? She thought for sure the guard stayed as well. She'd even made up the guest room with the guest sheets, even though he wasn't exactly a guest. Company was company after all. Still, was this safe? The prisoner had not moved. Charlotte peeked to be sure. Still slouched in the kitchen, inside the allowed square. Still staring at his shoes, apparently. He looked harmless enough, Charlotte supposed, even if he was a criminal. "Well then," the guard offered after Charlotte was silent for a moment. He cocked his head slightly as he looked at her. She felt like the look suggested she was perhaps a little feeble. She couldn't seem to respond, though. "Guess I'll be going." He rolled casually toward the front door, Charlotte's fingers sliding from their loosening grip on his arm as he moved. He let himself out and she just watched him go. She blinked a few times, taking it all in. "Well, please have a pleasant day," she mumbled after he had already gone. She glanced around the room aimlessly. Catching sight of the prisoner in the kitchen, she started. She rushed to the front door and locked it. This had taken up too much of her day already. So much remained to be done before Ward arrived home from work, prisoner or no prisoner, guard or no guard. Charlotte quickly fetched the broom and dustpan from the kitchen closet, keeping an eye on the prisoner as she went. He was still a prisoner, after all, regardless of how harmless he looked. Then she swept from the foyer into the dining room, and then on into the kitchen. Doubtless the men had attempted to wipe their feet, but they were men. Surely they tracked something onto her floors. Really, she needed to mop as well. That would have to wait for the prisoner's square to be removed, though. There just wasn't much point mopping until that was gone. She kept looking at the prisoner as she swept. He did not move, but Charlotte could not forget his presence. Could not concentrate on her work while worrying about him. Atticus Reviewâ”‚Get Lit: Round 1 Page 174 Short Fiction Well, she would have to do the work waiting in the other rooms of the house, she decided. Just till she learned to ignore him. She swept into the dustpan and emptied it before replacing the broom and dustpan in the kitchen closet. Laundry! That was just the thing. She'd get the laundry started. By the time that was finished she thought she'd surely have gotten a hold of herself. She hurried out of the kitchen after taking one last look at the prisoner. Then she marched through the dining room to the hallway at the back of the house that led to the basement. She flipped the basement light switch and pulled the door shut behind her, to have a little privacy now that she wasn't alone in the house. As she walked down the wood stairs, painted a thick gray, Charlotte noticed how prison-like the basement seemed. It seemed strange that she'd never thought of it before. The whitewashed cinder block walls. The smooth, dark cement floor. The small, solitary room. It was a bit cell-like, when she thought about it. She snorted. There was work to do and she was still thinking about that silly prisoner. Well, that was enough of that. Straightening her posture, she marched over to the laundry machines. In a large plastic sink next to the laundry machines, Ward's whites soaked in plain water. They'd been soaking from the night before. Charlotte always soaked whites in bleach water first, dilute of course so as not to burn holes. Then she rinsed before soaking them again in just water. The process was time consuming, but it had to be done. Whites dulled far too quickly with just laundering alone, and actual bleach in the wash or even merely rinsed out whites could leave light spots on her nice colors. No, her multi-soak method was the only way. She drained the sink of water and wrung out the excess, just in case any bleach remained. Then she loaded the whites into the washing machine, set the machine to hot, and started the cycle. After water filled the machine, Charlotte added the detergent. She always waited until the machine filled so the detergent would mix with water before sticking to the clothes. The washing machine, of course, had been empty. The dryer as well. She never left the wash in overnight, either in the washing machine or in the dryer. Leaving wash overnight caused wrinkles, or mold. No, laundry went from start to finish within a day or not at all. She closed the lid to the washing machine to let it do its work. The hamper with the clothes still to be washed waited next to the machine. She always brought clothes down to this hamper when dirty, never leaving a pile on the Atticus Reviewâ”‚Get Lit: Round 1 Page 175 Short Fiction bedroom floor. They had to wait still, though, until the washing machine finished and the whites moved to the dryer. Wellâ€Śthat was it for the laundry. Charlotte had no more reason to loiter in the basement, avoiding the prisoner. She figured she might as well go and get used to having him around while she did her work. As she closed the basement door and drifted back into the dining room, Charlotte realized she had not yet had lunch. The prisoner's arrival completely ruined her schedule. Otherwise, she would have lunched at least an hour before in order to ensure she would be hungry again when it was time to serve Ward dinner. She clicked her tongue and shook her head, deciding she better get it over with and salvage what she could of the situation. The prisoner looked up at her when she entered the kitchen, but just for a moment. Before Charlotte could react, he stared downward again. In fact, she couldn't be sure she'd seen him move at all. She noticed he still stood in the same spot in the square. Apparently she really didn't have to worry about what he might do if not watched. This really was as safe as she'd been assured it would be. Nodding quickly to no one, she set about making a small lunch. She was hungry, but lunch had to be small because it was so late in the day already. Otherwise her stomach would not be empty again in time for dinner. A sandwich was just the thing, small and quick. Wonder Bread, mayonnaise, leftover turkey, and sliced cheddar. Just like that. She didn't even have to scrub the counters afterward because she worked on a square of wax paper. She poured a wholesome glass of milk and it was all done. Turning around to take the sandwich to the kitchen table, she saw the prisoner. She realized she had been so focused on preparing the sandwich that she'd forgotten about him. He was just so easily forgotten. Looking at the little man, Charlotte paused while holding the glass of milk and the plate with the sandwich. The guard said that someone would be by every morning to feed the prisoner. Surely, though, that could not be all the poor man was allowed to eat? It seemed so cruel. Wellâ€Śthe state could run their prisons as they liked and she could treat people in her home how she liked. Charlotte marched up and held the plate and glass out to the little man. "Here," she said. "I imagined you might enjoy a little lunch." Atticus Reviewâ”‚Get Lit: Round 1 Page 176 Short Fiction The little man didn't look up. Charlotte stood for a moment, holding out the sandwich and milk, waiting to be thanked. Finally, she set the plate and glass in the square with him, figuring he must be shy from being ordered around for so long. "I'll just leave this for you," Charlotte reassured the little man. "You can eat it when you are hungry." She turned around then and repeated her efforts. Wonder Bread, mayonnaise, leftover turkey, sliced cheddar, and milk. Finally, she sat down at the kitchen table and efficiently enjoyed her lunch. She faced away from the little man, of course, so he would not feel self conscious about eating. Surely his table manners were a little lacking and would prove to embarrass him. When she finished, though, she saw that the prisoner had not touched the sandwich or the milk. Not a bit. In fact, he had pushed the plate and glass just outside the square, as if the unaccustomed kindness contaminated his imaginary cell. He shuffled as she stared at him. Charlotte huffed. He did not have to eat if he really was such a stickler for the rules, but she did not have to put up with ingratitude. She wrapped up the sandwich in the wax paper she had used for preparation and placed it in the refrigerator. That would be lunch for the next day. The milk she just drank, though she did not want it and it made her a bit nauseated to drink a second glass. There was just no way to wrap milk up to save. Then, she washed the dishes and glasses, dried them, and put them back in the hutch. She hoped the prisoner paid attention to all the work she had to do, what she had to do because of him. He had to notice, even if he would just stare down if she checked. They were in the same room after all. "Well," she told him as she turned to look. As she expected, he did not look at her. "I simply do not have time to worry about you. I have to start my husband's dinner." The prisoner did not respond and Charlotte huffed again. Then she turned and retrieved her Dutch oven from the cabinet. Dinner was roast again. A good roast required a few hours to cook, but it was hearty. That was the sort of thing Ward needed to stay on top at work. She told Ward once, just thinking out loud, that cooking roast all the time was a little repetitive. He told her that she could cook anything as far as he was concerned, take a Chinese course and cook chop suey. She shook her head, remembering. That was Ward all over. He did not even stop to recall Atticus Reviewâ”‚Get Lit: Round 1 Page 177 Short Fiction that Chinese dishes gave him those late night heartburns. No, roast was repetitive, but it was reliable. Charlotte set the Dutch over on the kitchen counter and pre-heated the stove. Then she got the roast from where it defrosted in the refrigerator and unwrapped the white butcher paper. Setting it in the Dutch oven, she rubbed the roast with garlic salt and pepper and onion powder. Even rosemary, for flavor, as always. Then she washed potatoes from the decorative potato box in the corner and carrots and onions from the crisper and sliced them over the roast. By the time the stove was ready, Charlotte was finished. She set the lid on the Dutch oven and placed it inside the stove. Wiping her hands together as if they were dirty, which of course they were not, Charlotte looked around the kitchen. Dinner was started. It would be ready just when Ward arrived home from work. One more task accomplished. She happened to glance the little man's way again. He looked so pitiful, Charlotte thought, all meek and crestfallen as he was. So wretched. Surely he was sorry for whatever crime he committed. He certainly looked sorry to her. "Now see here," Charlotte insisted, marching over to the little man while carrying one of the kitchen table chairs. "I understand that you are a prisoner and are accustomed to following prison rules. However, you are staying within my home now. This is the situation and we have to live with it." She paused, waiting to see if he would react in some way. He did not. "My home is not a prison and I will not have it treated like one," Charlotte pronounced, standing very straight. "We are civilized people in this house and we act accordingly." She jammed the kitchen chair into the square. The little man flinched. "While you reside in my home you will act civilized as well. If you are tired, sit down. Use the washroom when you need to. As long as you do not misbehave and be sure to stand in your appointed place when the guard arrives in the morning, then we do not have to live under lock and key." She smiled, not that the little man would know since he was not looking at her and all. No matter, Charlotte felt she made her point. Besides, she had the next laundry cycle to attend to. Turning away from him, Charlotte marched through the dining room and down into the basement. This time she did not shut the door behind her, just Atticus Reviewâ”‚Get Lit: Round 1 Page 178 Short Fiction so he would know she was keeping an eye on him. Quickly, she moved the whites to the dryer and put the next load in the washer. Then she started both machines and marched right back up into the kitchen, expecting to find the little man sitting obediently in the chair she had provided. He was not, though. Charlotte gaped. The chair was pushed outside the square and the prisoner stood just as before. He had pushed her chair away from his area, just like the sandwich. Like it did not belong there and had to be removed. "Now see here," she shouted at him, realizing with a shudder that she probably sounded like a guard. "If I offer you a place to sit, I expect you to be grateful. By all means, do not sit if you do not want to sit, but do not throw my hospitality in my face. No matter how much you pretend, that square is not a prison cell. It is my kitchen floor. You are a guest and you will behave as such. Do you understand?" The little man did not answer. He fidgeted as if he was trying really hard to pretend she was not speaking to him, but he did not speak in turn. "I asked you a question," Charlotte demanded. "Be courteous and answer me!" The prisoner fidgeted more. "Ma'am," he finally whispered, hoarse like he was not used to talking anymore. "Prisoners are not allowed to have visitors without prior written approval. If visitors have been approved, then a visitation may take place, but only on Sundays." Charlotte grabbed the prisoner by his orange coverall suit and yanked him out of the square. His eyes shot wide in apparent alarm. "Visitations? So, I am a visitor in my own home? That is the last straw," she shouted, yanking him through the dining room. "Get out of my house!" Charlotte tore open the front door and flung the prisoner out onto the lawn. Then she quickly slammed the door shut again and drew the bolt. For a few minutes, she fumed in silence. After a time, though, Charlotte's anger slowly replaced with a growing panic. What had she done? She evicted a prisoner that the state ordered her to keep! What would they do to Ward and her? What would the neighbors think? Slowly, she opened the front door, just a crack, and peeked out. The door flew inward, forcing Charlotte back, and the prisoner leapt onto her. His claw-like hands furiously grabbed at her throat and squeezed with a surprising strength. Charlotte gasped in shock, but she could draw no air. Atticus Reviewâ”‚Get Lit: Round 1 Page 179 Short Fiction The prisoner's eyes burned, blasting hatred full blast into Charlotte's own from only inches away. He pushed her backward with unexpected intensity, back through the foyer, back through the dining room, until he slammed her against the solid dining room table. The dishes, already placed for dinner, clattered from the force of the jolt. Charlotte's throat gagged, futilely attempting to breathe. A black ring formed around the edges of her vision and her legs buckled. She sank to the floor, the prisoner's twitching hands squeezing ever harder. And then, it stopped. Charlotte gulped feverishly at the air she could finally pull into her lungs and looked around wildly from where she was sprawled on the ground. The prisoner was no longer above her. She struggled to her feet, grabbing onto the dining room table frantically. Then she finally caught sight of the prisoner again. He was back in the kitchen. Back in his little square, staring at his shoes as meekly and quietly as he had before. As much of a mouse as ever, harmless. Charlotte slid down onto the floor, still clinging to the table, and just breathed. Atticus Reviewâ”‚Get Lit: Round 1 Page 180 Short Fiction A SIMPLE TASK By Michelle Bailat-Jones It is her second day of driving. Anne is traveling east on Route 12 and has finally descended from the fog that hangs over the bulgy waist of Mt. Rainier. Sunset is approaching but even as the light dims, the air on this side of the mountain appears brighter, cleaner, squeezed of its moisture. Anne squints, fidgeting. As the car advances now across the plain, she feels she has suddenly shot forth into an unsafe and exposed space. Her music is too loud, her passenger seat a mess of receipts and empty cups. She has been at it non-stop, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, stumbling into and out of fluorescent and sanitized convenience shops and then sliding back into the warm burrow of her seat. Anne runs her tongue along her teeth toward the back, worrying the spiky tips of a wisdom tooth that never fully emerged from the gums. Inside the action is her mother, how she looked when she brushed her own teeth. She had to take them out of her mouth to really get at them. She’d cradle the dental piece in her hand, then scrub at it with her toothbrush. Anne would watch from a perch on the closed toilet seat, watch her mother’s left breast jiggling under her nightshirt while the cloth on the right side hung still and flat. She’d watch her mother cleaning with such precision and wonder why she had such trouble buttoning a shirt or tying her shoes. Why Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 181 Short Fiction her hands failed her in certain domestic moments but never, ever, when she brushed her teeth before bed. Now the once lopsided nightshirt is tucked into a bag somewhere in Anne’s trunk and her mother is in the ceramic urn on the back seat. Anne wonders how much of her mother’s body was lost over time and would the funeral home have had to give her a bigger container if her mother had kept her right breast, one of her kidneys, her left knee and all of her hair. The car windows consume an endless stream of brown fields and dry grassland as she continues forward and faster. The scenery has turned violet in the darkening light. Anne has wanted to come out this way for a long time, wanted to see the part of the state that doesn’t live in the green and the damp or with the ocean as a constant companion. But now that she’s here she just recognizes the unfairness of geography. It really is more beautiful where she comes from. She passes a mobile home propped up on cinder blocks; its screen door lurches forward aggressively toward the highway. The front half of a windscreen-less car sticks out from behind the trailer and piles of tires mark the far edge of the property. How sad, she thinks, knowing her mother would never settle for such a mundane expression of sympathy. She would summon up proper indignation: “That’s just tragic,” or, “It’s a crime to let people get that far behind.” The urn has been sitting on the back seat since Anne left Aberdeen yesterday. She can’t keep ignoring her, although she is aware that addressing her dead mother’s ashes would be an indication that she isn’t coping. Anne lights another cigarette and lets it hang off her mouth, fully aware that her mother, were she alive and really in the car, would call her a ‘tart’ for the gesture. Worse, she would be pulling her I-didn’t-raise-you-to-behavethis-way face because Anne is too smart to be smoking. She only started in secret, four months after her mother’s mastectomy. She merges onto I-90 east, following the signs for Moses Lake. The car beeps a warning–low fuel. She draws in a quick, angry breath. She has not been paying attention and at this time of night most stations will be closing or closed already. She doesn’t have enough to cross the near desert that spreads out before her on what is left in the Honda’s tank. A diner materializes on the side of the road. Anne has no choice but to stop, really stop. Get food for the first time in two days. In the parking lot she Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 182 Short Fiction debates before getting out of the car, but decides, finally, she’d rather not leave her mother on the backseat. A bell jangles over the door as Anne slinks through, holding herself sideways like maybe this way no one will notice her. Several pairs of eyes turn to her, and then just as quickly return to newspapers, companions or plates of food. Anne takes a booth facing away from the diner’s other customers. At first, she places the urn in front of her, then pushes it left toward the condiments. Finally, she positions it on the other side of the table, a little toward the edge. She removes one of the diner’s menus from its little metal stand, and when the waitress appears she orders pot roast and mashed potatoes with gravy, a large lemonade and a slice of apricot pie. Waiting for her food, she stares at her mother’s urn. Not an urn really, not like she was expecting when she arrived at the funeral parlor to claim it, but a gray ceramic bowl with a lid. A beautiful bowl and a delicate lid with a small teardrop cut-out in the top. The glaze, which shimmers in uneven patches of purples and blues, is made out of Mt. St. Helen’s ash. Anne finds this in slightly bad taste. Her food arrives, covering the table, pushing her mother out of the way behind the condiment tray. Anne asks the waitress whether any gas stations will be open further down the road. The woman, harried and distracted, looks at her watch, “No, where are you headed? How much further do you have to go?” Anne doesn’t tell her she is supposed to be taking her mother’s ashes to the Olympic Peninsula, to be scattered among the seagulls at the Quillayute National Wildlife Refuge. First, because she is heading in the opposite direction, rapidly gaining on the Idaho border, but more importantly, because she has not yet decided whether to fulfill her mother’s request. “Spokane, I think.” “Can you make it another hundred miles?” Anne shakes her head. “We’re open all night, you’re welcome to sit tight. There’s newspapers and such over by the register. I’ll bring coffee.” She leaves but turns back. “But don’t sleep on the table.” Anne nods, as if this statement needs agreeing with. Two weeks before, Anne’s mother came downstairs after dinner. Anne heard her footsteps on the stairs and was confused because the noise was Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 183 Short Fiction unfamiliar, pointed and harsh. Her mother was wearing shoes and the sound echoed through the silence Anne had spent almost a year cultivating in the house. Her mother arrived in the TV room wearing a burgundy linen skirt and a black cashmere sweater. She’d even taken the pains to slip her legs into nylons and neat black shoes. “Stop staring at me,” she said. Anne angled her face back toward the TV. Her mother sat down on the couch and smoothed her skirt the way she’d done since Anne was a young girl. Her breathing was labored and Anne realized she’d struggled to get dressed. “You look lovely,” Anne said. “That’s not the point.” Her mother’s voice was nearly vicious. Silence stretched between them until she said, “But thank you.” Later, after a film they watched in a stifled silence, after her mother had gone to bed, Anne saw the pair of nylons cut into pieces and tangled in a flesh colored heap at the bottom of the bathroom wastebasket. The three original customers do not move while Anne is in the diner. They do not talk to one another. Anne reads several newspapers, smokes too many cigarettes, drinks coffee, eats another piece of apricot pie, eavesdrops on two truck drivers, and watches the waitress wash her face in a sink by the kitchen. She reads one of the newspapers again and almost forgets her mother on the table when she finally gets up to pay and leave. 5:30. Anne returns to the safe cocoon of the car. The deep blue night and the rural road make it difficult to see ahead. She drives slowly, well below the speed limit. She considers a series of confessions she had promised herself she would tell her mother when the time came, untruths and omissions which needed to be corrected if they were going to part company on equal footing: how she’d cheated on several tests in high school, how she’d never liked her Aunt Cynthia, her father’s sister, and that she knew her mother had hated the woman too but had never dared to admit it, how she’d always taken her father’s side in arguments even if secretly she knew her mother had often been right. Anne looks into the rearview mirror, expecting to meet her mother’s watery eyes. And then she realizes—for the last two years Anne’s mother refused to ride in the front seat, claiming it was unsafe and that she felt confined. Anne has placed her mother’s urn in the back seat out of habit and this is actually quite funny. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 184 Short Fiction She can hear it still, the sound of her mother laughing. The way every laugh folded itself into a wheezy chuckle because she liked to hold onto a moment of laughter as long as she possibly could. Anne has to narrow her eyes a little to see the white and yellow road lines. They flash like crisp arrows across her peripheral vision, ducking away at the last moment to vanish into the night. She turns on the radio. But out in this part of Washington the reception is terrible. Still, she lets static fill the car. Anne’s mother passed away four nights ago, at 9.36 pm, just after Anne reset her mother’s bedroom wall clock to her watch. “Anne,” her mother said in a small voice. This was at 9:23. Anne told her, gently at least, to go back to sleep. She was tired herself and waiting for her mother to settle down so she could take a shower and make a late dinner. Her mother just looked at her, almost like she’d forgotten who she was or why she was sitting there. Her mother’s nearly bald head was covered with a scarf Anne had tied on for her, only little white tufts poked out near her temples. She raised her head slightly off her pillow and her neck cords stood out, punctuating the skin on each side of her throat. So Anne took her hand for a moment. While her mother relaxed she composed a shopping list for the next day; they needed avocados and ground turkey. For each item she ticked in her head she squeezed her mother’s hand a little. At 9:34, while Anne debated making spaghetti or stuffed zucchini, her mother’s breathing deepened and then stopped. Downshifting into 3rd gear, Anne considers her final confession, her greatest lie, the day she told her mother that she and Brian could not have any children. Brian is Anne’s ex-husband, seven years ex and six years happily remarried and living in Seattle. In truth, they got pregnant a month after the wedding but decided not to have the baby. There was no money, they were busy with their lives. There was still time. Anne was married to Brian for 8 years. “Dad knew about it.” These words slip out without Anne’s consent, cutting through the low crackle of the radio static. Anne’s father passed away four years ago when a heart attack stopped him in the driveway one evening. Anne’s mother found him when she went to cut chives for dinner. He had been retired only eight months. Anne remembers telling him the day she had the procedure and how he hugged her but wouldn’t look her in the eye. Now Anne is angry, feeling somehow she has trespassed on the honesty of her parent’s marriage. It is just like her to ruin a good conversation. She hits her thigh with a clenched fist as though the root of her anger were buried deep beneath the muscle. She actually kicks at the car door with her left foot. But disappointment suddenly dwarfs her small tantrum; she is too tired Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 185 Short Fiction to drive any further. Only forty miles from the diner, the light outside is already changing, but she canâ€™t wait for a gas station. She must rest. She exits the highway onto a small road and stops at what appears to be a meadow. Dry, brown grass. Stalks of runaway wheatgrass. A gray house faces the road further along, at the edge of the clearing. But Anne stays where she is, inching the car into the grass and nosing the Honda alongside two straggly bushes. Branches scratch against the windshield. When the engine quiets down she places both hands on the steering wheel and takes a deep breath. She can smell the dew damp fields outside. She takes another breath, pulling the air deep into her lungs and feeling the swell of her chest cavity. She rests her forehead against the steering wheel. Anne crawls into the back seat with her forty-four years and ten superfluous pounds, her fragile anger and perfectly healthy breasts. She lies down on the back seat and spreads her coat across her lower back and side. She cradles what is left of her mother and closes her eyes to wait for the day. Atticus Reviewâ”‚Get Lit: Round 1 Page 186 Short Fiction UNDERSTANDING SHEEP By Paul Lewellan Before the tragic donkey accident on his fifth trip to the Holy Land, my father, the former Bishop of the Central Iowa Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), took me aside and gave me this advice. “Matthew, you need to find a parish vacated by a head case or a heathen.” His point was that I would look good in comparison to the prior pastor. That was how I came to serve at All Saints Lutheran in Altoona, Iowa. Reverend Judson Zelinka, the former pastor at All Saints, had convinced the congregation that he was a decorated ex-Iraq War fighter pilot. His supporters attributed his ignorance of the fundamentals of flight to post traumatic stress and a head trauma sustained while moving into the parsonage. He was 6’ 5’ and hit his head on a low-lying furnace duct. Soon after Reverend Zelinka arrived, rumors surfaced of secret foot washing ceremonies. Dirty limericks written in Greek were found on the Sunday School blackboards. When plastic trolls appeared in the pews during Lent, a full-scale inquiry began. In his final sermon Pastor Z announced that prominent members of the personnel committee had succumbed to sins of the flesh in the nave. The head church teller, he said, had financed his birding trip to Costa Rica with money from the World Hunger Appeal. The church secretary, he claimed, was harassing the Sioux County Conservation Board because of oppressive deer hunting restrictions. The chief usher, who Pastor Z hinted liked to be Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 187 Short Fiction spanked, finally pulled him from down the altar where he had climbed to escape the choir. Pastor Z turned out to be a bipolar former Lutheran Brotherhood agent named Bob Johnson. Ironically, though, everything he’d said from the pulpit was true. A schism ensued. Bishop Borgland, who followed my father as Bishop of Central Iowa, assigned me to interim duties at All Saints after the unfortunate events at my previous parish, Good Shepherd Lutheran in Toledo. Mary, my second wife, left me for Ruth, the church custodian, and I had started to unravel. I got caught in a hot tub with the entire Ester Circle after someone at the Quilters Potluck laced the Jello with vodka. The Good Book says, “Repent ye therefore, that your sins may be blotted out.” I am a great repenter. My present position is temporary. All Saints is awaiting a slate of candidates from the bishop so they can choose their permanent spiritual leader. The synod supplies this slate, but the list has not been forthcoming. Bishop Borgland says I’m the perfect interim pastor because I’m noted for creating an immediate lasting impression. Sustaining piety is my problem. The congregation’s attitude toward the Bishop borders on hostility. It’s an old grudge centered on an ex-Sunday School Superintendent and an unfortunate cross-dressing incident at the Synod Assembly. I give credit to Bishop Borgland for seeing past the lawsuit and selecting me to lead this valued congregation into their next pastorate. “I did see all Israel scattered upon the mountain, as sheep that have no shepherd”—2 Chronicles 18:16. “To be a good shepherd,” my father told me, “you need to understand sheep.” Well, I know sheep. I’ve been on temporary assignment here for fifteen months. All Saints has a fine staff. The new choir director, Peter Petrick, earned a Ph.D. in opera from the Ukrainian Conservatory of Music. A brilliant man. We were lucky to hire him. Why the Red Bow Community College denied him tenure I don’t know. I’ll admit choir practices were more fun under Millie Teas. Millie and I were especially close when I first came to All Saints, but she left for personal reasons. Peter’s detractors say he is a card carrying Communist. I tell them that he burned that card. His knowledge of church music is limited, but the choir is quiet during my sermons. Peter reminds me of Father, or “Herr Pastor,” as he encouraged me to call him. Father was very German. Very demanding. But he had a soft side. After a couple steins of homebrewed beer Father did a great Martin Luther imitation, although without YouTube video to compare it to, who knows how good it really was. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 188 Short Fiction Father considered himself a twentieth century reformer, a prolific writer and theorist, but without Luther’s anti-Semitism. My mother’s name was Katherine, like Luther’s wife, but Mom was never a nun. She was a script girl and extra in the adult film industry until Father discovered her on a missionary trip to the San Fernando Valley. Father last performed his Luther reenactment on Reformation Sunday a week before his death. When I arrived at All Saints, the weak link on the staff was our youth director, Lily Gish. Her guitar repertoire consisted of “Kum By Ya,” “Amazing Grace,” and “One-hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” She’s now calling numbers at a Mesquawki bingo parlor in Tama. Our new youth director, Tran Lu, is first rate. Very charismatic. The personnel committee knew instantly that she was the person to revitalize the program. What an intellect! Fluent in Laotian, French, Russian, and four Chinese dialects. Some suggest she came to English a little late in life, but she does all right with the Lord’s Prayer. The Russian is a plus when Peter locks himself in the choir loft with a bottle of Smirnoff. If I had it to do over again, I probably would have asked more questions during Tran’s interview. Imagine the committee’s dismay when they discovered she was Buddhist. As Ethel Banks pointed out, the job description never specified a working knowledge of Christianity. Isaiah says, “The Gentiles shall see thy righteousness.” The kids love Tran, especially the older youth. Her inexperience with children turned out not to be a problem. The rumor about communion practice during the last lock-in proved totally false, even though three jugs of wine are missing in the sacristy. We hope to baptize Tran by Christmas. All Saints has always reached out to the special case, the hard to place, the person in need. Father despaired after my turbulent youth. He later acknowledged the ministry was my calling. “Show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of the darkness,” he quoted at my ordination. I have a weakness for the sacrament of marriage. I’ve been married twice, and I’m staring down the barrel of number three. The first marriage happened before I got to seminary. Some might have considered it a mistake, because we were so young and all. But Eve was a soul mate. We met on a mission trip to build houses for Native Americans in Las Lunas, New Mexico. My probation officer had recommended it as part of my community service. He felt the community would feel safer with me out of state. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 189 Short Fiction Eve and I became engaged while digging septic fields on a humanitarian mission to Xela, Guatemala. When her folks gave us two thousand dollars for a honeymoon in Maui, we kept enough money for four days at the Muscatine, Iowa, Holiday Inn and donated the rest to Lutheran World Relief. We wouldn’t have seen much of the Maui scenery anyway. Eve had saved herself for marriage and hadn’t realized what she’d been missing. Eve died two years after I was ordained as pastor at Interstate-80 Lutheran. The whole congregation loved her. What God-fearing soul wouldn’t? She directed the children’s choir, taught third grade Sunday school, and visited every prayer circle once a month. She baked raisin cookies for the coffee hour after the 8:15 service and made Swedish meatballs for every potluck. No one was surprised when she agreed to donate a kidney to her older sister, Ester. I’d always loved Ester, though not exactly as a sister. It never occurred to me that Eve would be taken from me. She had an averse reaction to the anesthetic and they lost her. My second wife was a twenty-year-old member of my next congregation, St. Johns. She was pregnant at the time. It wasn’t my baby; the blood test proved that. God enjoined me to love and protect Mary and her child, so I married her. On our first anniversary, she spoiled a very nice meal at the Olive Garden by announcing she was pregnant again. I interpreted her subsequent miscarriage as a sign from God, like something from Revelations but without seven sets of wings. When she ran off with Ruth, our custodian, it took me totally by surprise. Prophets get no respect in their native land. My fiancé is Francesca, the organist at All Saints. She is a skilled instrumentalist. I recognized this the night I stayed late after confirmation class to hear her rehearse. She threw her whole body into “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” I was reminded of the words of David, “He will fulfill the desire of them that fear him.” It was inspirational to watch her hands fly across the keys while her nylon clad feet danced on the pedals. Her talent was God’s gift. The personnel committee knew that. They did miss the fact that she had no prior employment record in this country, and now we’ve discovered she can’t be paid because she has no green card. We’ve channeled some cash to her from the loose offering, but she needs a longterm solution. I am the vehicle of her deliverance. She has a wonderful laugh, especially when I try out my high school Spanish. Francesca is good with my son, Sam. My last girl friend, Delilah, said he had pk (pastor’s kid) written all over him, but I know he’s just a plain kid. The oatmeal in the baptismal font could have been put there by anyone. And I Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 190 Short Fiction am teaching him the value of repentance. We are told in John, chapter 5, to “go and sin no more.” That’s tough. How do we do that? Our Lord said to the people when they attacked the harlot, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Christ wouldn’t say that today, not to my parishioners. They’d be muscling for a front pew so they wouldn’t have so far to throw. What I’m trying to say is All Saints may not be perfect, but we understand the essence of Christianity. Christ befriended publicans and sinners. He ate with tax collectors and whores. He told us in Matthew, “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.” Exactly, exactly. I play the role of Saint Matthew, or sometimes Saint Thomas, but not Judas. Never Judas. “Resist the devil, and she will flee from you.”--James 4:7. Even when troubled, there is never betrayal in my heart. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 191 Short Fiction THE LAST STORY By Marcus Speh The serious writer always knew there would be a last story but when the time was near, he felt ill-prepared. One day, after settling in his favorite chair by the window but turned away from it, he told a visiting friend: “It's well arranged that you don't know which of the many will be your last: your last piss, your last time being touched by someone, the last warm cup of coffee in the morning. The last chat with a friend. The last supper. You enjoy all of these in the most present of tenses, carried by the hope that there may be another one, and then another and so on. And since we are an ingeniously lazy and trusting species, we take the routine to be a principle and we shrink it on the occasion of its repeated occurrence without further thought.” The friend lit a pipe and said: “I think I see where you're coming from. I understand death is on your mind.” The serious writer shifted his weight in his chair and looked at the pipe with longing. Having stopped smoking years ago, he now afforded himself only the second hand experience. He made a mental note regarding the loss of certain pleasures over time. “The older I get,” he said, “the less I appreciate the fact that one of my stories will come round and not leave, (like a hot beverage going entropically from scorching to lukewarm to cold), and then what? Become an epitaph?” He chuckled. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 192 Short Fiction “You know that Koschinsky has begun to write your obituary already, I hear. That's outstanding,” said his friend and found himself obliged to clarify: “Given Koschinsky's reputation as a critic these days, of course.” “I have not only heard it, I suggested it to Koschinsky,” said the serious writer. “I thought: why not take the initiative in final affairs while I can?” He crossed his legs, laid one hand on top of the other, rubbing them so as to feel the knobbly bits. “I have recently disregarded my bodily needs terribly. Come to think of it, I also have not listened to my inner voice lately. I don't know why. Perhaps because otherwise I won't write that last story—I'm afraid to leave an unfinished opus behind, you know?” he said and his friend nodded, churning out bluish clouds. The serious writer said lightly, “I have always been a great fan of the autoda-fé as a way of maintaining a certain degree of control beyond the grave while at the same time keeping your fans giddy and guessing until Judgment Day: ‘Did he or did he not...?', ‘What if he had...?', ‘Could this have been...?', ‘We wonder if he...', and so on - it keeps me young I think. But the difficulty with burning your stuff in reference to the possibility of your death is two-fold: you don't know if you're wasting your time because you might be alive for another X years; and it makes you think of your own death.” “It would be a terrible crime to do that. I don't think your readers or your critics could ever forgive you after your death,” said his friend. He didn't seem to notice his own tactlessness. “Well”, said the serious writer, serious again, “as you know, I abhor both waste and thoughts of death. Hence I only carry the idea of an auto-da-fé around with me, together with a small canister of gasoline and a matchbox. Rather like the plan for a certain prayer and a rosary, which I never touch. I don't know if I fantasize that I might burn not only my work but myself, but I am certainly stocked up just in case.” The friend shook his head gently, trying to disperse the thought, and waved his hands, or so it seemed to the writer, because the fumes had become so thick now that he was separated from his visitor by a grey wall of smoke. He went on voicing his thoughts aloud, as was his habit even when he was alone. “The stories I will write before that last one will be as prayerful as anything I have ever penned: the characters will be mild and philosophical, apt to hold life's whole in appropriate balance, with an even demeanor gracing my own age, like a study of butterflies at the end of their long, arduous journey. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 193 Short Fiction These not quite last stories shall, I think, test my very existence by throwing up many questions that had plagued me for a lifetime of serious writing, like the question of whether we determine our fate or are determined by it.” He heard his friend mumble something across from him and took it as approval to continue. “One of these stories will be about a man who sat across me once on an underground train: his right arm hung limply as if he'd had a stroke and he looked at me open-eyed and yet guarding his self behind his condition. He had to lurch forward three times (as if performing a secret ritual) in order to shift his centre of mass and get up at all, ignoring me throughout this maneuver and finally smiling—unless it was not a smile but a strained grimace. I wonder: did this man feel that he chose his partial paralysis by making a silent wish between clenched teeth, or by dreaming it in advance? Perhaps he felt that he'd been dealt a bad card, not quite the last one, by some god not merciful, overlooking him, with respect only for the fabric of everything but not this particular man's happiness?” The serious writer realized in that moment how the word ‘happiness' betrayed its own meaning, because in reality it boiled down to mundane things like chicken soup, which he then dressed up as something less plain than farts and farewells. But he was not ready to interrupt himself quite yet and continued: “Or is this man, let us call him Max (a good, solid, reliable name for this type of man) like me, refusing to take sides on this question of questions, perhaps, again like me, writing for his passage between the a scylla of providence and a charybdis of randomness? A passage not to anywhere, a time filler, an artful avoidance.” “You tell me, my friend,” he invited the other. There was no answer, only the sound of the floor boards creaking. “Here's another question that bothers me—no less than the first: how much of us is unique and how much part of a grand collective of souls? When we breathe in and out, do we choose our own rhythm or do we enact an unconscious concert? Do we only imagine that we create our own thoughts but actually just sculpt an identity out of one and the same shared material? Is our whole concept of individuality just nonsense?” He broke off because he felt exhausted all of a sudden. His ideas, his questions all seemed unclear and somehow impure to him. As if there was a truth behind the words, but the more words he piled upon one another, the less visible was this truth. He put his hands over his face and felt their soft Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 194 Short Fiction insides now on his temples and the bones around his eye socket. On his cheeks, the palms pressed down on his the beard. He felt himself. “What a powerful illusion the self is, especially for me, with my oeuvre, my life's work, which I, in the hubris of the great individualist who also happens to be a snob (a most convenient combination against the power of the collective) trace back to myself: me, me again, me also, me-me, meee these are only some of the variations on the person at the centre of my consciousness, who is really only a persona and does not contain my soul, though the fingerprints of my soul are certainly all over it.” He felt himself to be alone. Sometimes, for some people, the Me broke down almost completely, very close to disappearing without dying altogether, he thought and closed his eyes. He wanted to write another story in this one-of-the-last-stories category about a man, always only called ‘the patient', who emerged from a car accident as a vegetable, his brain shut down until, after five long years, he suddenly began to respond to questions again and finally awoke, but as a different person. Perhaps his coma had been a form of cocoon, a phase he had to undergo in deep sleep in order to become who he needed to be. Perhaps he wasn't really asleep but communicated with non-human beings differently throughout those years. Perhaps he forgot all about it and, having rejoined humanity in its customary upright shape, could no longer understand the language of trees and interpret the trembling of the sides of his intensive care bed as he had when comatose—as the thought pattern of Earth itself. The serious writer was aware of a paradox at the heart of his art: his inner world, the place of the strongest stories, was infinite, but it was also embedded in—if this was possible!—an even more infinite universe of all things to write about. It was like seeing the Grand Canyon from outer space—a huge gorge that looked like a thin trickle, impossible to miss, hard to hit. “But my last story will not be about art or finding myself,” said the serious writer and opened his eyes. The air was clear again but his friend had left and robbed the writer of his audience. “My last story will be about love,” he said bravely. Atticus Review│Get Lit: Round 1 Page 195 About the Authors John Abbott is a writer, musician, and English instructor. His stories and poems have appeared in literary journals such as The Potomac Review, Georgetown Review, upstreet, Chiron Review, Underground Voices, Fast Forward: A Collection of Flash Fiction and many others. He is also the author of a novel, a story collection, and a poetry collection. He lives with his wife and daughter in Kalamazoo, Michigan. David S. Atkinson received his MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska. His stories have appeared in (and/or are soon to be appearing in) Gray Sparrow, Children Churches and Daddies, Split Quarterly, Cannoli Pie, C4: The Chamber Four Lit Mag, Brave Blue Mice, Atticus Review, and Fine Lines. His book reviews have appeared in Gently Read Literature, The Rumpus, and All Things Pankish. The web site dedicated to his writing can be found at davidsatkinsonwriting.com. He currently serves as a reader for Gray Sparrow and in his non-literary time he works as a patent attorney in Denver. Michelle Bailat-Jones is a writer and translator living in Switzerland. Her fiction, translations and criticism have appeared or are forthcoming in various journals including The Kenyon Review, Ascent, Fogged Clarity, Necessary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, Hayden's Ferry Review and Cerise Press. In February 2011, she was the writerin-residence at Necessary Fiction. Melinda Baker lives in Nashville with the artist Duncan McDaniel and their two cats. She has recently completed her MA in English with an emphasis in writing and is happy to report that she has just lost her publishing virginity to Atticus Review. She does not have a website, but probably should. And though she is prone to starting blogs, she manages to write only a couple of entries before forgetting about them. She does, however, journal, take lots of pictures, and sing whenever she can. She is also obsessed with animal and human psychology. Christopher Bundy's stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and magazines, from Glimmer Train and Atlanta Magazine to DIAGRAM and The Collagist. He teaches writing and literature at Savannah College of Art & Design-Atlanta. Chanel Dubofskyâ€™s fiction has been published in Glossolalia, Staccato, Dogzplot, Big Toe and Quick Fiction. She writes for the Sisterhood, Jewschool, Tablet, Oy Gay (at the Los Angeles Jewish Journal), and HBI: 614. She enjoys coffee, ambling, a good crossword puzzle and a reliable cardigan sweater. You can email her with comments, rage or concerns at email@example.com. Andrew Farkas' Self-Titled Debut, a collection of stories, won the Subito Press Book Competition and was published in 2008. His work has appeared or will appear in The Cincinnati Review, Another Chicago Magazine, PANK, Quarter After Eight, Artifice Magazine, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Chicago, a city whose nicknames don't mean what you think they mean. Steve Gillis is the author of Walter Falls, The Weight of Nothing, Giraffes (ssc), Temporary People, and, most recently The Consequence of Skating (October 2010). His stories, articles, and book reviews have appeared in over four dozen journals, and his books have been finalists for the Independent Publishers Book of the Year Award and the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year. A three-year member of the Ann Arbor Book Festival Board of Directors, and a finalist for the 2007 Ann Arbor News Citizen of the Year, Steve taught writing at Eastern Michigan University. Steve is the founder of 826michigan and the co-founder of Dzanc Books with Dan Wickett. Mike Hampton's work has previously appeared in numerous publications such as McSweeney’s, The Pacific Review, and The Southeast Review where two of his short-short stories were named finalists for the World’s Best Short Short Story Contest by Judge Robert Olen Butler. He has been a featured author at the InKY reading series, and his fiction is forthcoming in The Wrong Tree Review. He holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University. Michael Hartford is a writer and photographer living in Minneapolis with his wife and twin sons. His stories have appeared in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Small Spiral Notebook, and Failbetter. His travel guide to Minneapolis and St. Paul, Dad's Eye View: 52 Family Adventures in the Twin Cities, was published by Minnesota Historical Society Press in May 2011. Jamie Iredell is the author of two books: Prose. Poems. a Novel., and The Book of Freaks. His writing has also appeared in many magazines, among them The Chattahoochee Review, The Literary Review, Gigantic, Opium Magazine, and Hobart. He was included in Dzanc Books' "20 Writers to Watch," which was the independent publishing world's answer to the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list. Aaron Jacobs' writing has appeared in the Foundling Review, Umbrella Factory Magazine, 322 Review, and The Number Five Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. Paul Lewellan has published over fifty short stories, including fiction in South Dakota Review, Big Muddy, Word Riot, Porcupine, Timber Creek Review, The Furnace, and American Polymath. He just finished his third novel, Casualties, about a school shooting on the anniversary of Columbine. Paul is an Adjunct Instructor of Communication Studies and Business Administration at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. Nate Liederbach is the author of the prose collection Doing a Bit of Bleeding (Ghost Road Press), and the co-editor of the prose and poetry anthology Of a Monstrous Child (Lost Horse Press). Other publishing credits include Mississippi Review, Permafrost, Versal, South Dakota Review, Pindeldyboz, and more. A resident of Salt Lake City, Nate is managing editor of Western Humanities Review while completing his PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Utah. Darragh McManus' first book, GAA Confidential was released by Hodder in 2007 and he has just released a comic crime novel under the name Alexander O’Hara for both Kindle and all other formats. He has a novel and collection of short stories currently out with agents, and is about to start contacting theater companies about his first play, in conjunction with well-regarded Canadian director Andrea Montgomery. He writes for several national newspapers in Ireland and the UK, including the Sunday Times and the Guardian. J.A. Pak's work has been published in a variety of magazines, including Art/life, The Subterranean Journal, Quarterly West, Kartika Review, Everyday Genius, Tatlin's Tower, The Smoking Poet, etc. Act of Creation & Other Stories is her mini ebook collection of foodie short stories. Shya Scanlon is the author of the poetry collection In This Alone Impulse and the novel Forecast. His work has appeared in Mississippi Review, Literary Review, New York Quarterly, Guernica Magazine, and others. He is coeditor of the journal Monkeybicycle, and Fiction Reviews Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. He received his MFA from Brown University, where he was a recipient of the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. Marcus Speh lives in Berlin, Germany. He blogs at marcusspeh.com, curates One Thousand Shipwrecked Penguins and serves as maitre dâ€™ at the Kaffe in Katmandu. Brandon Wells went to the University of North Carolina for many years but one day when he was on the bus he decided to leave so that he could write about mermaids. Like most people, BW is the author of an unpublished novel. It is called The Boy with the Butterfly Wings and all of his family and friends hate it, so it's probably pretty good. He likes cats. Photo/Art Sources We All Have Needs: Photo by John C. Avise You’ll Never Get Anything Accomplished on an Empty Stomach: Eating Asia Madame Ordoñez: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain) Deep Things: Photo by Aaron Escobar on flickr Long Division: Rhema's Hope Assurance: injury.com Swimmers: Getty Images Zeno’s Shotgun Paradox: The Blaze Rosie’s Funeral: Razapoodle Open Every Womb: Anne of Carversville Half a World Away: Half a World Away The Mermaid Eaters: Simply Sewing Deep Blue Sea: Sanibel Captiva Blog The Most Natural Thing in the World: Richard X Fantasm: Crystalinks Domestic Ties: Number One London A Simple Task: “A Beautiful Day at Point of Arches” by Lois Miller. From COASST Understanding Sheep: St. John Lutheran Church The Last Story: Photo by Pawel Maciejewski