Berkeley Fiction Review, Volume 32

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Andrew Abbott Claire Burgess Jackie Craven Josh Downey Aleksandra Dubon Jason Fairchild Chistopher M. Hood Erika Hoopes Michael Hicks Hunter Johnson Lane Kareska Jennifer Michelle Long Andrea Martinez Elizabeth O’Brien Perry Oei Dana Ostrowski Erin Popelka Michael Repoulis Martin Slag Stephanie Train Genesis Tramaine Jon Wesick

BERKELEY FICTION REVIEW

The Berkeley Fiction Review Featuring:

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Berkeley Fiction Review

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B F R

ERKELEY

ICTION EVIEW

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Issue

Published by University of California, Berkeley


Cover art by Josh Downey Copyright 2012 by Berkeley Fiction Review The Berkeley Fiction review is not an official publication of the Associated Students of the University of California or the University of California, Berkeley English department. These stories are works of fiction and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASUC or the University of California, Berkeley. The Berkeley Fiction Review is an ASUC-sponsored, undergraduate run, non-profit publication. http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~bfr/ Inquires, correspondence, and submissions should be sent to: bfictionreview@yahoo.com Distributed by Ubiquity, Brooklyn, New York Printed by Print Papa, Santa Clara, California


Berkeley Fiction Review Managing Editors

Jennifer Brown

Brighton Earley

Associate Editors Merany Eldridge Michael Hicks Lily Prasuethsut

Christian Bustos Tessa Gregory Elaine Ou

Bryan Gonzalez Eva Nierenberg Renee Rivera

Assistant Editors Kelsey Bagelmann Paige Vehlewald

Lisa Martine Jenkins Christian “Alex� White

Rocio Salas Jules Wood

Faculty Advisors Georgina Kleege

Xochitl Ortiz

Staff Kimberly Almanza-Gomez Zackary Alspaugh Shelby Ashbaugh Martha Avtandilian Ashley Blaylock Claire Burgess Andrea Campos Courtney Carson-Andersson Sean Chen Jennifer Cheyne Jane Chong Daniella Ciappara Sarah Covington Mengyuan Da Michael DeGroot Jessica Dieu Chelsea DuHaime Ha Duong Gabrielle Elias Reanna Esmail Katie Fullerton Benjamin Hahr

Elizabeth Jackson Jennifer Kern Alice Kelley Hannah Kim Regina Kim Alaina Kral Tara Landers Elizabeth Layman Siyu Li Adrian Lobdill Amanda Loo Nick Martin Nicolas Mertz Olivia Ngai Jacqueline Ngo Kelsey Nolan Jessica Pena Margaret Perry Kaitlin Petersen Michelle Poon Jonathan Prindle Ashling Quigley

Emma Remick Lauren Roger De Anna Sanders Jamie Santiago Joshua Santillian Alison Schoenbeck Adrina Schulz Mariam Sleiman Gretchen Smail Michelle Su Jacqueline Taing Airi Takashima Dean Arthur Taylor Jr. Stephanie Thomas Flora Trouilloud Anna Vorontsova Nicola Walker Joseph Wan Erskine Wilson Jiahe Xu Yuan Yao Kathleen Zheng


Foreword Suffering is taboo in our society. We each grieve in private and turn away from the sight of suffering when we encounter it in public. But pain is a universal human experience; like joy, it is a powerful occurrence that will touch us all, if it has not already. No one is exempt. In this way, suffering is a great equalizer--you can’t buy or barter your way out of it. It just happens. We’ve all heard the clichéd one-liners that attempt to put a positive spin on suffering: pain is just weakness leaving the body; no pain, no gain. Words are often used to obscure suffering. Still, it happens, and it will persist despite our best efforts to disguise it with the beauty of language and literature. In this year’s issue of the Berkeley Fiction Review, you’ll find stories that illuminate the dark themes literature sometimes avoids: murder and suicide, loss and disappointment, disillusionment and crude humor. There are stories about sibling rivalries, dysfunctional family dynamics, and romantic entanglements with dire repercussions. The presence of these dark topics in literature indicates that sometimes we do purposefully evaluate our strife and come to terms with the reality of suffering through the medium of writing. What we’ve gathered from assembling this issue of the Berkeley Fiction Review is the understanding that at its core, suffering is really about relationships. You can’t feel loss or grief without first experiencing love of someone or something. You can’t encounter disappointment and disillusionment without first tasting hope and expectation. You cannot die without first having lived. Suffering is universal, unavoidable, and everywhere around us. Sometimes it is an opporunity for heroism, for character building, or for self-sacrifice and overcoming the odds. You have to be put in harm’s way to acquire the title of hero. Every survivor was once a victim, and every hero once a coward. From reading about the suffering of others, real or fictional, we learn about our own capacity for grief, for tolerance of pain, for suffering, and for survival. As you peruse this issue of the Berkeley Fiction Review, we hope that you will be open to the possibilities of suffering and more importantly, open to the infinite potential of literature to articulate this profound human experience. We believe that there is something to be gained by talking and writing about suffering openly, and we hope you will agree.

Sincerely,

Jennifer Brown

Brighton Earley


Contents Cracked Doll Face Josh Downey

Cover/Back Cover

Metaphysical Consideration Geremy George

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Legacy Jackie Craven

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Flowergirl Aleksandra Dubov

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The Orchard Spider Martin Slag

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Apollo Genesis Tramaine

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Permeable Erin Popelka First Place Sudden Fiction Winner

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Home Andrea Martinez

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If Happiness Perry Oei

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I Struggle: Self-Portrait Genesis Tramaine

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The Doors Claire Burgess

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Untitled (Erika) Jason Fairchild

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The Bat Boy Christopher Hood

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Portrait Painted While Walking Home From the Cemetery Andrew Abbott

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Simmons Found Dead Erika Hoopes Second Place Sudden Fiction Winner

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Factory Green II Jason Fairchild

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Cursed Lane Kareska

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Sleeping Tree Michael Repoulis

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Billions of Ways Elizabeth O’Brien

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Agreement Unknown

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The Long, Bad Good Friday Jon Wesick

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Gentleman Walking Down the Street Michael Repoulis

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Doorway Monster Dana Ostrowski Third Place Sudden Fiction Winner

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Dreamer Jennifer Michelle Long

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The Girls Stephanie Train

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Hands Hunter Johnson

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At the Edge of Vision Michael Hicks

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Note on Contributors

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Geremy George

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LEGACY JACKIE CRAVEN

I come from a long line of cliff-leapers. Our home was on Chopakict, a rocky island just off the coast of Maine. You’ve probably never been there (not many people have), but you may have seen pictures. The astonishing cliffs along the northern edge of the island inspired Winslow Homer and several other important artists. Their paintings, however, were only approximations—no one can capture the enormity of our cliffs. Imagine, if you will, ragged granite as black as oil rising from a thrashing ocean, soaring up and up, reaching as high as the Empire State Building. Now imagine standing at the very pinnacle, the ocean so far below that its roar is no more than a soft, seductive swish. If it weren’t for that sound and for the salty taste of the air, you might never guess that an ocean lay below. Even when the sun is bright, a heavy white blanket of clouds obscures the view. They say my grandfather was twenty-five when he rode his mule through town and hollered that he had discovered the secret of flight. The blacksmith stepped out of his shed. Smoke from his forge made tears run down his red-hot cheeks. “Clarence, what are you yowling about now?” he asked. He and my grandfather, a silversmith, were always quarreling about something. The blacksmith’s wife, Missy, stood two feet behind her burly husband, her blue eyes bright as a branding iron. “Says he’s gonna fly!” she whispered hoarsely. Missy’s words echoed along Winding Way, hissing and swishing like the faraway waves. “Says he’s gonna fly,” said the grocer, spilling flour all over his polished leather boots. 8

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“Says he’s gonna fly,” said old Annie Stenstrom, leaning on her broom and standing tall for the first time in fifteen years. “Says he’s gonna fly?” asked Sheriff Boismier, fondling the filigreed handle of his pistol as he strutted from the jailhouse. “Fly-fly-fly-fly!” chanted a dozen children, slamming screen doors and dancing out into the road, their bare feet kicking up yellow dust. My grandfather shoved his hat to the back of his head. Lifting himself in his stirrups, he waved both arms. “I said I will,” he shouted, “and so I will!” My grandmother was a freckled teenager, but she already had a child—a boy with worried eyes and a stubborn chin—my father. Walking alongside the mule, mother and child led the parade of onlookers across the village green. They circled the grocery and the jailhouse and, without a backward glance, passed the steepled church. “Sally, wait—” Missy pushed past her blacksmith husband. She jostled through the crowd to reach the head of the parade. Wiping a dingy sleeve across her pink nose, she cried, “Sally, please! Don’t go no farther.” But, as legend has it, my grandmother didn’t answer. Her freckled face expressionless,she trudged deliberately in step with the mule. The road turned steep and jagged. My father stumbled and would have fallen if my grandmother hadn’t held onto him. Regaining his footing, he forced a grin and gave a little skip as if to say, “I MEANT to do that!” At the edge of town, Winding Way stopped and the clouds began. The blacksmith sneezed and snorted into his handkerchief. The children jumped up and down and flapped their arms. “Fly-fly-fly—!” My father, who was only four or five, didn’t hear the mockery in their voices. Puffed with pride, he shouted, “Papa’s gonna fly!” Missy grasped at the mule’s bridle. “Stop him, Sally! Stop him right now!” My grandmother stroked the animal’s velvet snout. “Clarence knows what’s best,” she said. Climbing down from the mule, my grandfather bent to kiss my father’s forehead. Then he gave my grandmother a hurried and formal hug. Then with a flourish, he swooped off his hat and bowed deeply. The salty air, I’m told, tasted like blood that day. The townspeople stood a full twenty feet from the edge of the cliff (they knew enough to be wary of sudden strong winds) and watched with open-mouthed astonishment as my grandfather turned toward the mist. “You always were a fool,” the blacksmith muttered, having finally found his tongue. Jackie Craven

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My grandmother stood with her back to the crowd. She tried to bury my father’s face in her apron, but he squirmed away. They stood as rigid as sailors in a storm, watching as my grandfather took a confident step toward the edge. He spread his arms wide, lifted his heels, and leaned forward like a diver at the edge of a pool. His floppy hat tumbled off his head, bounced across the clouds, and vanished. Bending and straightening his knees, he pushed off. They tell me that there was only a momentary pause before a loud, spontaneous cheer rose up from the crowd. “Yea, Clarence!” the blacksmith shouted, suddenly worshipping the man he used to shower with insults. Sheriff Boismier crossed his arms across his barrel chest. “Well, I’ll be damned!” “He flew!” the children shouted. “He flew!” “Told you he would!” my father retorted with a lift of his chin. Old Annie Stenstrom pressed a hand to her heart. “It’s a miracle,” she breathed. Missy took a timid step forward, her soot-smudged brow wrinkled with concern. “Sally…?” But she didn’t need to worry. When my grandmother turned to face the townspeople, she wore the kind of peaceful smile you usually only see on undertakers. “Clarence always said he would fly, and now he has.” There must have been people who knew that my grandfather plunged to his death that day. Among all the townspeople, surely someone thought, “No! This is wrong!” But if there were protests, I haven’t heard about them. By all accounts, everyone in our village congratulated my grandmother. She was fortunate, they said, to have a husband talented enough to fly. Even her dearest friend, Missy, decided that what had happened really was for the best. “You wait and see,” she told my grandmother. “Any day now, he’ll fly back home. And think what exciting tales he’ll have to tell!” Of course, my grandfather never did fly home again. My grandmother was brave but lonely. She yearned to fly after him. She longed to spread her arms like wings and glide out over the salty mist: buoyant, blissful, free. “But I don’t want a noisy crowd ogling,” she told Missy. “No fancy celebrations for me!” Missy sympathized and didn’t tell the townspeople what my grandmother planned. The two women went quietly to the edge of town where Winding Way ended and the clouds began. My father, who was now almost eight, walked several feet behind. At the edge of the cliff, my grandmother kneeled to kiss his lips. 10

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“I’m too old for that!” he retorted. Turning her tearful face away, my grandmother stepped quickly and purposefully into the clouds. Her lavender skirt and pink petticoats lifted up and closed over her head like the petals of a flower bud. Then the mist rolled over her. After that, my father was obliged to live with Missy and her blacksmith husband. Maybe the blacksmith meant well, but he had no patience for children. “Look at you!” he snarled. “You’ll never be half the man your father was.” Missy, however, was a kind soul. She stroked his hair and whispered, “Don’t worry, little one. Your papa will come back for you. Your mum too.” So, my father squinted up at the sky and waited. Each time a dark shape swooped from behind a cloud, his heart leapt up and then sank again, because the shape was only a hawk or a gull or maybe a bat. When he turned thirteen, he became an apprentice. He learned how to make iron soft and pliable. He made horseshoes, gate latches, and garden tools. And whenever he could, he slipped away to practice the art of flight. First, he jumped off the stone wall behind the blacksmith’s shop. The wall was only four feet high, but it was a beginning. He found another wall, one that was eight feet high. Sometimes when he jumped, the air seemed to swoop up beneath him and hold him aloft for moments at a time. Missy applauded. She declared that he was a born flier, just like his mum and pop. I was ten years old when I watched my father spread his arms and spring into the mist. The fog didn’t even leave a space to show where he had been. Now, I’m well past thirty. I know what happens to people who jump off cliffs: they drop down like lead. If they don’t die of fright, they’re killed the instant they hit the water. Still, I like to think how it would be to spread my arms and glide, to follow seagulls through the fog, and then to circle back and hover just beyond the edge. All my friends would be watching, and I’d wave to them and call, “Come on, you sissies! Jump in! The air is warm, and the fog’s not all that deep!”

Jackie Craven

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THE ORCHARD SPIDER MARTIN SLAG

Come with me into the forest. We'll go together. Just you and me. I'll show you some things. See that gap in the guardrail? That's where you enter the wood. Hold my hand. It's steep at the start of the trail. All downhill. Step lightly over the leaves, that's my advice. The undergrowth may look dry, but underneath it's black and wet and cold. You'll slide into the valley and drown in Buttercup Creek. See that sign? Hunters aren’t allowed here. But sometimes people fish. And every now and then you’ll come across a porcupine trap. But I don’t suppose you’d call that hunting. Some people want there to be hunting. They think there are too many deer. The deer eat all their flowers. They jump in front of cars. Deer kill more people than all other animals in North America—did you know that? More than sharks, bears, and bees combined. Some say we should shoot the deer with birth control darts, so they can’t breed. Do you want to know how to keep the deer from eating your rose bushes? Black pepper. The deer don’t like it. It rips up their four stomachs. Deer are notoriously picky eaters. Oh, a ladybug! Watch it crawl on my finger. Martin Slag

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Don’t kill it! Ladybugs are useful. They eat aphids. If a policeman sees you harming one he’ll throw you in jail. You’ll be an old lady by the time you get out. Hear that running water? That’s Buttercup Creek. It’s a blue-line stream, which means it isn’t fed by a larger body of water; it’s just a driedup ditch that collects meltwater and rain and swishes it back and forth, back and forth. You look beautiful today. Streams aren’t always small. They come in many varieties, fresh and salt water. The Amazon River is a famous example of a stream that has very little in common with Buttercup Creek. Some people spend their whole lives studying streams. But I could show them a thing or two. Let’s look for snapping turtles. There’s one! Isn’t that lucky? Finding one just like that? Don’t get too close. He’ll bite off your tongue. Snapping turtles are vicious reptiles. This is a lucky forest, wouldn’t you say? Let’s explore more. Lift up that rock. What’s underneath? Night crawlers. Useful as bait. I’ll tell you a secret. Never wear a coonskin hat in the woods. Owls will mistake you for prey and swoop down and rip the top of your head off. Buzzards will come and pick your bones clean. Your blood will nourish the soil. See that fallen tree? Let’s walk across it. I believe this tree is a Slippery Elm. Don’t let the name fool you. Its bark is fibrous and rough, and gives good footing. We could eat this tree. We could make its bark into gruel, or grind it up into a powder and drink it as tea. There are other things we could do with this tree, which I won’t tell you about. Oh, that? 14

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That's the haunted springhouse. Buttercup Creek runs through it. Maybe one day we'll come back with a flashlight and take a peek inside. What's inside? Horrors. Snakes and toads. Blind fish with ghost-white eyes and serrated teeth. Black slime. Huge spiders weaving careless webs. Mutant cross-breeds. Darkness. Let's keep moving. We’ll cut across that hill. See the day lilies? The mountain laurel? Smell the bloodroot? It smells like Listerine. Oh. How scandalous. A broken forty bottle. Drinking alcohol is forbidden in these woods. But I guess no one honors that rule. I wonder what other rules aren’t being followed in this forest. Now isn’t that pretty? An orchard spider. Nesting in the pile of glass. Catching dew in his web. It’s like a big balloon of delicious water to him. See those neon yellow markings? That’s to let predators know he means business. I ask you to stop for a moment and ponder: Which would you rather hold in your palm? The orchard spider? Or the broken glass. I thought so, Julia. But orchard spiders aren’t actually poisonous. They lack venom sacks. Their war paint is for show. The spider may bite you, but you’ll only scream. That’s the worst thing that’ll happen. The glass might cut you—and then you’ll have to comb the forest for herbal antiseptics like Goldenseal or comfrey, otherwise you’ll get an infection and go into septic shock and die. Truth is, the broken glass is far more dangerous than the spider. What’s that up there? A fort! And look! Up in the canopy, a line running from treetop to treetop! It’s some kind of swing. Grab hold of that Martin Slag

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triangle. We'll zoom down the line. Ready? Wheeeeeeee! That was fun. Let’s do it again. No? We don’t have to. We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, Julia. I don’t know. I think the fuckers built it. See how they carve their names in the trees? See all the beer cans? This is where they perform ablutions. Look. Candles. A fire-pit. Can you picture them doing their dances? See the high priest, in his brown cassock? Don’t say I didn’t warn you. We’ll visit the meadow. Watch out for deer ticks. They jump. And latch on with their pincers. And suck and suck and suck. Well, that’s unusual! What’s a rotting Jack-O’-Lantern doing out here? Look how they eat it. That’s what happens when something dies, Julia. Worms eat it. There’s a type of worm that gets into your stomach and eats what you eat. It just gets bigger and longer as it feeds, and if you fall asleep with a plate of food nearby, it crawls out of your mouth and eats the food on the plate, and then it crawls into your mouth and down your throat, right back into your stomach. And you never even know it’s there, you— Oh! What a treat! A beekeeping station! Probably somebody’s hobby. Birch wood, I’d say. Doesn’t it look like a birdhouse? Don’t get too close. The brood chamber is overrun with drones. Black and gold moss crawling up the side of a birdhouse. Drones growing on it like a cancer. Imagine that! Abandoning a perfectly good hobby! Just walking away from— Drones? Drones don’t do anything but fuck the queen. 16

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The worker bees do all the real work. Want to know something interesting about worker bees? They don't work all the time. Sometimes they take breaks. And even naps. If you ever want to steal honey from a beehive, here's what you do. Tie a string to a pinecone and light the pinecone on fire. Smoke makes bees hungry. When bees smell smoke, they think the hive is on fire and they start gobbling up all the honey to make energy for their swarm. Bees are at their most vulnerable when— Wait. Something bad happened here. Stop. Can you feel it? I don't know what. But something bad. It had to do with the fire-pit, the rotting pumpkin, and the bee blocks. We should go. We'll go. Should we walk back along the road? Or through the forest. Forest it is. Don’t look back! I’m scared too. Oh, those. Those are rubbers. Don’t touch it! You’ll get the crazies. Fuckers ought to be banned from this forest. They and the hunters and the bikers and the birdwatchers and the beekeepers and the old ladies and the little girls out here all alone. They should just round up all those people and shoot them like cattle. Cut ‘em and gut ‘em. Ring their necks till their eyeballs burst. They should— Oh my. Who’s he? What’s he doing? Cover your eyes. We’ll hide behind a log. We can’t run. He’ll hear us. The bad man. Don’t look. Martin Slag

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Well, I'll describe it to you. He's strangling a girl. About your age. Very pretty. He's strangling her with a wrapped-up piece of plastic. Got it all wrapped up like a braid of rope. A blue piece of plastic—the kind you line storm drains with. Her feet are off the ground. Her eyes are turned back in her head. She's dying. She's dead. No, I don't think he's a fucker. I think he's...something else. He's picking up the girl. He's carrying her off the trail. Let's follow him. He can't see us. Shh. We've been here before. Remember? There's the base of the fallen elm tree. The pile of glass. Remember the orchard spider? Maybe the bad man is a kind of orchard spider. Luring little girls into dark corners with his rainbow-colored markings. Shooting them up with his useless juice. Spinning them in his cocoon. Readying them for a later feast. Who knows? Where’s he taking her? Downriver. He sees the springhouse. He’s carrying her into the haunted springhouse. Hear that splash? He’s dumping the body there. He’s standing inside the dark springhouse. Just standing there. What’s he thinking about? You know what I think, Julia? I think he’s been here before. I think he had this all planned out. I think the dark doesn’t even bother him. I think he likes the spiders and the toads and the turtles and the algae and the fish. I think at night he comes out here and kneels down and puts his lips up against the black slime and sucks and sucks and sucks— Here he comes! 18

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Quick! Duck! Did you see that? He threw the murder weapon in a lilac bush. The abraded blue cord. It camouflages well with the flowers. We'll follow him from a safe distance. Don't worry. I know the area well. He's retracing our steps. He's crossing the Slippery Elm. He's traipsing the banks of Buttercup Stream. Not even pausing to consider the snapping turtle on its rock. He sees the guardrail. The "No Hunting" sign. He's climbing the trail. He's heading for the road. Hurry up! Don't let him get away! Step lightly over the leaves. Look both ways when you cross. He's hopping the fence to someone's private property. We'll hide behind this blue spruce tree and watch what he does. This is a rich person's house. You can tell by the size. And the Japanese garden. Whoever cooked up this house didn't follow the recipe. Just reached into a bag and took a little bit of this and a little bit of that and turned up the flame and stirred the pot. They'd probably call this Neo-Eclectic. But I prefer to think of it as a mini-McMansion. The Japanese garden looks well tended, though. It’s a kanshoh-style garden, designed to relieve stress and promote boredom. But good boredom. You follow the smooth, flat stones along the stream and end up at the tea hut. The path is symbolic of your journey through life. Teahouses are usually surrounded by stone lanterns or sugar maple. You go into the tea chamber and...think about stuff. There are many rules about how to make a Japanese garden, but here’s one I like. It’s called the Dead Stone Rule. If you find a stone under a fern, you have to put the stone under a fern in your garden. You can’t take a stone that stands up straight in the forest and make it into a horizontal-lying stone—that’s a Dead Stone. If you find a stone in a stream, it’s a water stone. You can’t use it to shingle the roof of your tea hut. If you put it anywhere else than in the water or near the water, it’s a Dead Stone. You don’t want Dead Stones in your garden. True Japanese gardens don’t have fountains, either. If it’s a wet garden, the water must come from a natural source, such as a nearby stream. There’s some debate about this. A lot of people don’t live by Martin Slag

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streams, so they have to dig a pond or install an electric fountain. Some people think those people should just have dry rock gardens. But my opinion is, if you want a fountain in your Japanese garden, go ahead and stick a fountain in it. There’s a fountain in this Japanese garden. A pile of rocks by the fire bush. They aren’t the kind of rocks you get at Home Depot. They’re ugly and jagged and dirty and misshapen. They look like they came from the woods. The bad man stands with his hands on his hips, appraising the pile of rocks. He looks at it as if it were a really tricky riddle. Then he picks a rock from the top of the pile and places it in a wheelbarrow. He takes another rock from the pile, and another. When the barrow is full, he pushes it out to the stream. What an odd thing to do! And look. Up towards the back of the house. There’s a woman standing in the door. You can see her silhouette. Is the bad man going to rape her? Is he going to bludgeon her with rocks? Is she calling the police? No. She opens the door. Steps out onto the brick patio. “Rudolpho!” The bad man turns his head. The woman edges closer. “Rudolpho?” He drops an armload of rocks into the wheelbarrow. “Ye-up?” “Have you seen Julia?” “No ma’am. Been movin’ rocks.” “Has she been playing out here?” “Not to my knowledge.” “I know she likes to play in the teahouse.” “I think she went off with that Harriet girl.” “Harriet Victor?” “That’s the one.” “Oh. Why?” “Why what?” “I’m asking you why you think my daughter went off with Harriet 20

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Victor, Rudolpho." "Her mom drives a Range Rover, right?" "Yeah." "About an hour ago I saw a black Range Rover pull up to the gate. Then I saw it drive down the road. Now you're short one daughter. I suppose I did a bit of mental math there." "Oh. Well, if you do see her, tell her to come inside right away." "Will do," says the man, and goes back to piling rocks in the barrow. He seems like a nice, hardworking man. A real straight shooter. Maybe all he wanted to do was work and shoot straight. But then he got goosed into going into the forest with the little girl and it just ended up...happening. What do you think is going to happen to the little girl, by the way? After the sun goes down. Do you think the worms will eat her? Which part of her will the worms eat first? Her eyes? Her fingers? Her brain? How long do you think it will take the authorities to find her? Two days? Two weeks? Probably not that long. The hounds will follow her scent. They’ll find the gnarled piece of plastic in the lilacs. The coroner will do an autopsy. Scientists will harvest the cadaver for useful organs. A priest will bless the corpse. But none of them will be able to bring the little girl back to life. No one has that power. They left the window open. Let’s look inside. Maybe we can cadge a goddamn glass of iced tea off her. What a lovely home she lives in! Hardwood floors. Brand new kitchen. Shiny pots and pans dangling over the range. All the amenities. Do you smell fresh laundry? I’ve died and gone to heaven! I’d feel very comfortable here. There! That man sitting on the couch, with his feet up on the leather ottoman. Watching the History Channel. Why, it’s Rick Waring, head meteorologist for KYW-TV News! Should I ask for an autograph? No, I’ll restrain myself. He isn’t that good a celebrity. Not much of a scientist, either. They call him Dr. Waring but he isn’t a doctor of anything. Martin Slag

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Got a degree in Communications from Penn State University. Some people move heavy rocks for a living. He reads the weather off a little TV monitor. Half the time he's wrong. He doesn't know a storm cloud from a circus peanut. But he looks good in a suit. His wife is standing by the sink. Do you think she's about to make supper? Do you think she will offer us a plate? No. False alarm. She's only making tea. She sets the kettle on the stove to boil. He watches a program on Nazis. "You think she went to Saunders Woods?" "She knows better than that." "I told her I'd take her horseback riding on Sunday. But I've just had so much to do, and today's my only day to decompress. She might have gone anyway." "On a horse? Don't be crazy." "Not on a horse, jackass. She might have just...wandered into the woods." "So? I used to crawl around in sewage pipes when I was a kid. Are you making tea?" "Rudolpho said she might have gone off with Harriet Victor." "There you go. Make me a cup, will you?" "Harriet Victor is in the Poconos skiing." "She's probably playing in the creek." "I don't like her crossing Waverly. You can't see around the bend. They ought to lower the speed limit." "To what? Five? Speed limit's already fifteen." "Nobody honors that." “Then what good would it do? There’s already a sign. ‘Welcome To Gladwyne, Please Drive Slowly.’ I don’t think it does any good.” “Why would Claudia Victor drop by, unannounced, and take Julia skiing? And not come in and say hi. That doesn’t make any sense.” “Honey, please.” “Claudia Victor always calls. She’s very considerate.” “She’ll turn up,” he says, and it’s the same voice he uses on the news when forecasting clear skies and mild winds. This past winter, Rick Waring said it would snow thirteen inches. He sounded very confident in his prediction. Said all the schools would be closed. Got all the little kiddies excited. Told them, don’t even bother doing your homework, so none of them did. Then, the next day, no snow. 22

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It rained. But there was a flood, and everyone lost power. A transformer blew. All the cafeteria food spoiled overnight. So they ended up closing schools anyway. So in a way, he was right, and in a way, he was wrong. Do you think it might be like that with the bad man, too? That sometimes he's a gardener, and other times, a murderer? That some springhouses are actually tea huts, and others, mausoleums? What's it like in your mausoleum, Julia? Is it cold? Are you lonely? Are the worms eating your face? You think it's dark now, but wait a few hours. It gets really dark. Wait till the frogs start carping for their brood, and the walls start shrieking from the wind, and sightless spiders descend from moldy cracks. Then you'll want to scream. But you won't be able to. Dead Stones don't have voices. I wish I could go back to when we saw that orchard spider. I might have told you the orchard spider was trapped inside the bottle, and God sent a lightning bolt down to Earth to smash the bottle and set the spider free. You're so trusting. But you touched the rubbers. You picked up the glass. You saw the fire-pit, and the bee blocks, and the rotting pumpkin. And I knew one day you'd return to the tree-swing. Without me. Sometimes I think about your parents' bottomless grief, all the tea parties you will miss, and it occurs to me that I did a bad thing. On those occasions I wish I could carry you out of that springhouse and back in time and back to life. But no one has that power. And I would only kill you again.

Martin Slag

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Berkeley Fiction Review


FIRST PLACE SUDDEN FICTION

PERMEABLE ERIN POPELKA

The science makes sense. Bacteria entered her ten-month-old body and found a hospitable environment. Neonatal sepsis ensued. The bacteria overwhelmed her bloodstream, and the blood vessels dilated in response. Her blood pressure dropped. Organ ischemia was followed by cardiac arrest. I don’t have to think about her when I’m at work. I can examine my patients, their translucent skin, the wrinkles pulled by gravity at every joint, the litany of their pains. I can put my hands on their cool skin, prescribe the next round of drugs, watch as their bodies, one by one, succumb. The science makes sense. Decomposition is the process by which dead plant and animal matter is broken down into smaller materials. Earthworms, insects, and snails are primary decomposers. They produce detritus. Bacteria and fungi consume detritus. We don’t talk about her at home. My wife doesn’t ask how both of us missed the symptoms. She doesn’t say you – you – you’re the doctor. She doesn’t say many words at all. She’ll answer the phone and say the same phrases over and over. She’ll let me hold her in bed and all I can feel is her cool skin. The science makes sense. Tears are produced by the lachrymal gland and are used to lubricate the eye. Increased lacrimation due to emotion is often accompanied by facial coloration changes and irregular breathing. Tears contain lysozyme, preventing the growth of bacteria in the nose and eye. If tears can stop bacteria, why couldn’t I? Erin Popelka

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Berkeley Fiction Review


IF HAPPINESS PERRY OEI

The Black Oak Mugwort, hyssop, nettle leaf, witch hazel bark. Sheets of fog flew swiftly above my head in a dark night without moon and stars. It seemed like this winter would never end. I was thirteen years old and did not remember when I last saw a day of sunshine. I zipped my parka up to my chin and pulled the hood over my head as a gust of salty ocean air blew by, shuffling through the reeds. I waited in a ditch by the lone black oak tree on the ocean cliffs above the jagged rocks. Looking down at the mud, I noticed the front sole of my right boot had torn off and was flapping like a dog's tongue. The frosty ocean wind boomed in my ears, but I could hear her voice. — This winter will never end, she said. Hyacinth, moccasin flower, syringa, pennyroyal. Ragged robin with its deeply cleft petals. In a dark night without moon and stars, I waited for her by the black oak tree. This Winter In the morning, my older sister Holly sat beside me at the kitchen table next to the iron wood-burning furnace as we waited for the water in the copper kettle to boil. Holly’s big brown eyes were round like a cartoon cat’s. Her long, straight black hair flowed down the length of her back. Holly was looking at the book of pressed wildflowers and sketches which our mother left behind when she went away. On each page, under Perry Oei

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each blossom or leaf, Mother had written in fancy curlicue script the name of the plant: Meadowsweet and hawthorn, chestnut bloom and nettle flower. — I can't go on like this, Holly said. Father is never home. The world in the window flexed like a sheet of ice as the wind slammed against the house. The day before had been snow. Today was wind. The next day would be frost, to be followed by days of snow and rain, then wind, rain, and frost again. — I have to talk with Father when he returns tonight, she said. He's been away for almost two months this time. I can't keep running the flower shop and taking care of the house alone. The kettle shot ghosts of steam out of its spout. A week ago, we received a letter in the post from Father saying that he would return tonight. The letter did not say how long he would stay. She took the kettle off the stove and unhooked two mugs from the side of the furnace. I placed a bag of black tea into her mug and cocoa powder into mine. She poured hot water over them. — I’ve done everything that has been asked of me, she said. In the kitchen, sitting by the furnace for warmth, with the black kitten Blackie sleeping on my lap, we sipped from our mugs and ate our breakfast of oatmeal and apples. We then went to search for a tube of glue in the flower shop to repair the detached sole of my boot. The night before, Holly had brought in strawberry-scented candles and chrysanthemums from the shop. — I’m nineteen years old now, she said. We lit a stubby red candle. — I need to leave and start living my own life, she said as we descended the steps to the shop in the front of the house. The bare splintery steps creaked under our feet. The candle flared like a giant ruby in her hands.

The Flower Shop Holly held the candle over the tool box as I told her about the ghost in the black tree. Amid hammers, nails, hand rakes, and the pruning shears which Mother had often used, we found a tube of glue, bumpy from squeezing. — Father says that there is a ghost who lives in the black oak tree near our house, I told Holly. She haunts our town. People feel a chill whenever 28

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she passes by. I handed Holly my broken boot. — Father knows every ghost story in this town, she said. We stood in a dark corner of the shop under the stairs where porcelain vases and ceramic pots lined the wooden shelves. Mother's big picture books on flower arrangement and her botany field guides were wrapped in brown paper and string in the other back corner of the shop behind cylindrical containers of daisies and carnations. In the front of the shop, an arc of dull grey light slanted in from the overcast sky outside through the glass storefront windows. Specks of dust floated in the ray. Holly squeezed out a clear string of glue and spread it on the black rubber sole of my boot with the tip of the tube. — Father has been going away for longer and longer periods of time, Holly said. It wasn't right that he missed your birthday. Mother did not speak to me much. I often sat in this shop and watched her arrange bouquets just to be close to her, hoping she would talk to me. When she did speak, sometimes in another language, I did not understand what she was saying. — Please feed the cat this afternoon, Holly said. Then come help out at the flower shop. I’ll help you with your studies then. With Father away again for so long, I can’t do everything by myself. Blackie Blackie the kitten had yellow eyes, and pointy triangular bat ears. He climbed on my shoulders and perched like a parrot as I looked at Mother’s wildflowers journal. I tilted the book towards the light from the window facing the ocean and brushed my fingers across the face of a page: Crimson snapdragons, white peonies, mock oranges. — Maoh? Blackie asked. He stalked in a crouch, on the hunt. He climbed the window screen and hung there like a fly. He stood on his hind legs and batted the air at unseen prey. On my thirteenth birthday, Holly had brought Blackie home in a cardboard box with holes on top, for air. She had baked my favorite, oatmeal raisin cookies, and made apple cider as we celebrated my birthday, the three of us, Holly, Blackie, and me. We had gotten down on our hands and knees under the kitchen table and giggled, playing string and rubber mouse with our new kitten. That night, I went to bed holding Blackie in my arms like a stuffed animal, but I was so happy with my birthday gift that I Perry Oei

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could not sleep and instead lay awake listening to the rain and thunder until morning. — Tuna, flax, string, Blackie said, rubbing his neck and head on the hardwood floor and slithering like a snake. We heard tapping against the windows. His ears pricked up. — Sparrow, he said as he bolted across the house. This House Our house, behind the flower shop, was built among the reeds near the black oak tree by an ocean cliff. The fog rolled in through the windows and hung thick in the air, trapping sounds. Sometimes, through the cracks in the walls or through the chimney, or when I opened the door or windows, the wind rushed through the house and shook the sounds free and I heard words and voices from another time. The voices were usually faint, but I could hear them if I listened carefully. I could hear her now. — There is not enough light, Mother pleaded with Father. I must have more light. I closed my eyes and tried to remember the words and the night she said them. The winter had been coming. The first snow flurries had whorled outside our house. Mother had begun wearing a heavy black coat in the store while she worked on her flower arrangements. At first, there were only grey days in between, without rain or wind or snow. Then it got worse: Blizzards and then the thunderstorms which groaned across the sky. — Frimaire, nivose, pluviose, ventose, pluviose et frimaire encore, she said. I cannot work in this weather. Mother had eyes which changed colors: blue in grey weather, green in yellow lamplight, brown in white moonlight. Her hair was dark brown with a streak of white on the strands over the right side of her face. — Let's leave this house and this town, she said. It's too cold and dark. My father’s eyes were brown and his hair was salt and pepper color then. — You know we can’t, Father said. We have the flower shop. The children . . . . After Mother left us, Father’s hair turned completely white and he was never home. I never knew what he did, so busy traveling all the time. Father once told me that this town by the sea was built over a cemetery and that, when he was young, he had been one of the workers 30

Berkeley Fiction Review


who dug up the corpses. He told me how the priests came to deconsecrate the soil so that houses and roads could be built. Souls of the recent dead floated among the living, seeking a glimpse of their loved ones. When they returned to their resting places, they found them to be empty and they were forever separated from their bodies, left to wander eternity as lost ghosts, cold and alone, forever searching for a home. The Letter from Father A week ago, we received a letter from Father saying that he would return tonight. I had just helped Holly clean and put new wood into the furnace. She then made me a sandwich for my lunch. With Blackie on my lap, I sat at the kitchen table working on my mathematics lessons and listening to the rain. She smiled and flagged the sky-blue envelope in front of me. She took out a single white sheet of paper folded into thirds. She pointed an index finger at the scribbling in the final paragraph. From where I sat I could not read what was written, but I had my own hopes for what it said: The winter would end. The clouds would dissolve and the sun and stars reappear. Bat

Blackie looked like he might be turning into a bat. His eyes were yellow and his ears were hairy and pointy. He slept all day and went out all night. He hid in squalid crevices among rocks, hollow trees, cracks behind loose bark. He entangled himself in Holly’s long black hair. He had been sleeping at the door of the house under a grey overcast sky when I came home from my walk along the cliffs by the black oak tree. I was wearing my red parka, beaded by drops of rain, and carried my botany text books. I was happy that Father would be home that night, but the frosty air was difficult to breathe. It felt like there was ice in my lungs. — Blackie, I said, aren’t you cold? He snapped awake, and nudged at the door with his head as I tried to find the right key. When I opened it, he dashed into the kitchen to his bowl by the furnace, hoping for tuna. Seeing that his bowl was empty, he turned to me. — Old? he said. I’m not old. Perry Oei

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The Ghost The Ghost who lived in the black oak tree looked for her lover who took everything away from her: Her small fortune, her body, all the love inside her heart. He drained her of all self-worth and left her empty and hungry for a soul. Holly and I saw Father walking up to the door in the snow carrying only a single brown leather suitcase. I ran to the door first, with Blackie racing alongside me wanting to see what my excitement was all about. The Ghost ate everything to regain form: triangles, cones, dodecahedrons, oblong cylinders and cubes. She drank raindrops and sipped at her own tears. But still there was nothing. You could still see through her and her hunger. Father wore a brown wool coat with buttons missing. His hair was almost as white as the snow, as was the new beard that he had grown since the last time he had been home. — It's wrong to leave me so cold and alone, the Ghost sang. Already the frost crusts my eyebrows, my bones crack like icicles. Father patted me on the head, mussing my hair. Holly smiled, hugged him, and said that she had bottles of his favorite brown ale in the ice box. She retained the shell of her immense beauty. She had long flowing white hair and grey eyes. She was looking for young men to embrace and kiss her and breathe their essences into her. When they did, she would not let go until she had drained them of their souls and left them empty ghosts to haunt this hillside like her for all eternity. I had never seen the Ghost 32

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The Flower — There, I remembered Mother saying. Do you see it? Just under the moon. I was six years old then. I had been sitting in the store as she worked on a flower arrangement at night. She was cutting the ends and tearing the leaves off hyacinth stems which had blue, pink, and purple bulbs. Her eyes were unblinking, an intense green. She wore a thick black coat and had four lamps shining on the work table. — Quick, she said suddenly, look outside and you can see the star where the prince and the flower live. I curled my fingers and joined them at the nails to form a makebelieve set of binoculars which I held up to my eyes, looking out through the glass storefront windows at the thin crescent moon glowing faintly behind a layer of clouds. — I don't see it, Mother, I said. She said: N'ecoute jamais les fleurs. She never taught us her language of flowers, but I wanted to understand. — I still don't see it, I said. I don't even see any stars. — Mais j'etais trop jeune pour savoir comment l'aimer, she said. I did not understand what she was saying. She unlocked and opened the front door, letting a cold wind blow hard through the shop. I wrapped my arms around myself to keep warm. I sniffled from a runny nose because of the chill, but I stayed there in the store with my mother. She was inserting the hyacinth stems and sprigs of ferns into a wicker basket. Her eyes were hazel now. She unwrapped bunches of trumpetshaped red petunias. She gathered green fronds. She worked furiously, cutting and trimming, tearing and assembling the flowers in her hands like I had never been there at all. Before the Storm Outside, sharp icicles hung from the eaves of the house. The long tubular wind chimes bonged madly in the gusts. Dried leaves cracked against the windows. Holly lit a candle and we ate our supper with Father: A bitter salad purple, green, and yellow, looking like a field - then poached salmon with fennel, with beans and wild rice in earthenware bowls. Perry Oei

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— How long can you stay with us? I asked. Simple words, expressing simple desires, were all he could ache through his chest and throat since he came home. Cold, hunger, fatigue. His lips looked heavy and tight. —Father, there's something I need to discuss with you, Holly said. In this time of frost and wind, it became increasingly difficult to talk with each passing day. Our teeth clattered. Our skin was dry as tree bark. We were all very cold. — I am nineteen years old, Holly said. I have more responsibilities than I can handle. I felt a chill ice down the back of my neck. I looked behind me to see from where the wind was blowing in. I heard Mother's voice. — We have to leave this place, Mother said. I can't continue to live here. Father's brown eyes looked moist and tired. His gaze wandered amongst the lares and penates in the kitchen, at the book shelves, like he was looking for words with which to respond to Holly. — It's too cold and dark, Mother said. He drank from his pint glass of brown ale. I wanted, when I grew up, to be like Father and drink my stout thick and dark as crude oil with a thin creamy line of foam at the top. — I want to go back to school, Holly said. He looked down at his bowl of beans and rice, while we waited for him to speak. Argle-bargle, hubble-bubble, skimble-skamble. — I need some freedom to live my own life, Holly said. There was a time when the skies were royal blue and I looked out over the ocean and saw humpbacks and grey whales floating in the green sea like dark lumber. On clear mornings, I sometimes could see across the ocean to the coast on the other side of the world: pagodas and jade trees, sampans with rice paper sails docked in a bay guarded by sea dragons. On such mornings, the east wind blew the fragrance of ginger gardens to our shores. From the reeds and jagged cliffs outside our house, I once could see purple twilights and heard seals barking at night. Now it rained through the summer months and, further east, thunder showers flooded the desert acacias and filled the dormant volcano tops with lakes. Holly pursed her lips and looked at Father with a glaze in her brown eyes. 34

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Outside, the wind chimes had slowed its wild song into a soft melody, but we continued to sit in the kitchen by the furnace and waited, waited for Father to say something, waited for this winter to end and for the sun and stars to reappear. Tell Me — Tell me, I said. I want to know what happened. Blackie yawned as he stretched out long against his front paws on the window sill in the kitchen. After dinner, Holly and Father had gone into the flower shop where Blackie followed. I had stayed upstairs because Holly asked me to. I sat on the top step and watched them as they looked at Mother’s wildflowers journal together and unwrapped some of her picture books of meadows and flowers. — What did they say? I asked. Blackie looked at me, his eyes yellow. — Maoh? he asked. — Tell me what they talked about, I said. I scratched his head and he started purring like a motor. — Tell me, I said. Tell me what Father and Holly talked about in the flower shop. He snapped alert, and glared out the window at a sparrow shooting by through the air. — Tell me, I said. He closed his eyes and rested his head on his front paws. — Tell me, I said. He opened his eyes again and looked at me. — Maoh? Splinter She stuck the pin into the heel of my hand. — Did I hurt you? Holly asked. I shook my head no. She picked at the skin with the pin. I gritted my teeth. The wound had become red and tender around the place where the splinter was lodged. — Please try to understand, Holly said. Orange clay pots and lacquer and porcelain pastel vases lined the shelves on the walls in the flower shop. Perry Oei

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Roses, chrysanthemums, baby's breath. Scent of jasmine and the perfume of magnolias. Under a bare light bulb, Holly held my hand steady with one hand and the pin's direction with the other. — I can't continue to handle all this responsibility, she said. I have a right to live my own life. She tried to look into my eyes but I looked away. — I'm going to try to talk with Father about it again tomorrow before he leaves, she said. The sky was grey outside and the store was silent except for a cold wind that hummed through the chimney in the house and flowed into the store. I shuddered when the wind passed through, and I could hear a conversation between Mother and Father from years ago. — Do you remember that day when we decided to get married? Mother asked. We bought cheese and a sourdough loaf at the market and sat on rocks among the reeds by the oak tree just outside of this house. I closed my eyes and saw Mother and Father sitting at the side of the cliff looking over the grey mists above the jagged rocks where the ocean frothed at the shore. Sand blew into their bottle of red wine. Holly clamped the tweezers around the arrowhead-shaped splinter in my hand. From where Mother and Father sat in the reeds, they could see our house with its many bay windows, and its storefront, and decided then that this house was where they wanted to live. They sat together under a blue sky washed with varying thin and thick brush strokes of white clouds. Gannets and storm petrels glided motionless in cross-winds. Seals barked from their rocks offshore. — We can set up a flower shop in front and live in the back of the house, Mother said. Holly dipped a cotton ball into alcohol and rubbed it against the dirt in the open wound of my hand. — We will have a wind chime and listen to its music as we drift off into sleep, Mother said as she and Father looked outward over the blue ocean. At dusk, the bubbles of light formed by the returning fishing trawlers floated on the horizon like fireflies. On the Night She Went Away On the night she went away, our Mother made us a dinner of roast chicken and carrots, but set the table only for three. She said she was not 36

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hungry and that she was going to the store to work. We sat at the table by the furnace and ate our dinner in silence. Holly and I looked at each other. She was sixteen years old and I was nine. Her eyes were moist and looked even bigger then. Her hair was tied back in a pony tail. Outside, the rain smashed in sheets against the house. When Mother returned, she carried a hard suitcase and a bouquet of dried roses. I remembered that she wore her heavy black coat and black pointy ankle high shoes and a red hat adorned with tares of the field and a pale primrose. Her eyes that night were azure and her hair was slate. — I am leaving, she said. Holly and I looked at Father, who looked like words were choking his throat. His eyes were brown and round. — What are you doing? he said. Please. The children . . . . — I don't know how long it has been since I have seen sunlight, she said. This town has become a tundra. — We're all cold too, Father said. Please. — This winter will never end, Mother said walking towards the door. My father shot up, knocking his chair down behind him and tipping over his plate, food and fork flying to the floor. — Holly, take care of your little brother, Mother said as she walked out and slammed the door shut behind her. My father ran out after her into the rain. I looked at Holly. She sat still with her eyes closed. Argument From outside, as I stood knee deep in snow, all sound seemed muffled. The snow made the sky so bright I had to squint to look through the window into the kitchen. Holly was yelling at Father. A moment before, I saw Holly hand over money to him which he put into his brown wool coat pocket without counting. In tears, she picked up Mother's wildflowers journal, and lifted it up like she was about to throw it at Father, but then it slipped out of her hand on to the floor. He knelt on his hands and knees to unbend the spine, and flatten the splayed pages. The snow came down like rocks, hitting me hard. I could see Blackie, scared, crouched tight under the furnace, his yellow eyes shining in the shadow. The snow flew fierce into my face, Perry Oei

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causing my eyes to blur with tears. Now Father was yelling at Holly who sat down at the kitchen table by a glass vase filled with chrysanthemums. She cupped her hands to her ears. As I stood outside, my hands were numb and my face burned from the cold. My right foot was getting wet from where the snow soaked through the torn sole of my boot into my sock. Father was still yelling at Holly, who had now closed her eyes. He picked up his leather suitcase and walked out, leaving the door open behind him with the blizzard blowing snow flakes into the house. Blackie stayed tight under the furnace. I could not move. My legs felt heavy and numb. Wiping the snow from my eyes, I looked down at myself and saw that I was buried waist deep in snow. This Winter Coltsfoot, oatstraw, yarrow leaf, broom. — This winter will never end, she had said. By the black oak tree, I sat down in a ditch in the snow and waited. It was getting dark. I looked down at my right boot. Its sole had become detached again. — Frimaire, nivose, pluviose, ventose, pluviose et frimaire encore, she had said. This winter would never end. I was very cold. Already, the frost crusted my eyebrows, my bones cracking like icicles.

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Genesis Tramaine

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THE DOORS CLAIRE BURGESS

The house looked beautiful in the glossy brochure. It was almost a century old; built soundly of hardy, dependable brick and surrounded by hardy, dependable flora. Robert was inclined to select it even before setting foot on the property, and I was more than willing to make my home wherever he desired. We contacted the sales agent and embarked on the three hour long drive to the house the next day. We were awed by the ancient trees surrounding the drive and charmed by the flourishing lilies lining the ivy-covered exterior. We admired the windows, large, and the stables, large, and the groundskeeper, small and sweet. We walked closer to the entrance, the agent apologizing in advance for the neglected interior, hoping that we were not allergic to dust. The doors to the house had not been breached in nigh fifty years, and even then only so that the previous groundskeeper, the father of the man we had met, could chase out an elusive animal he had sworn he heard scratching at the door, but never found. Went quite mad in his later years, the agent said, and the scandal was enough to drive away buyers for decades. This was a very superstitious area, and the groundskeeper had engaged in some nefarious, even violent, business. Robert and I clucked our tongues and moved on to more practical matters. We chatted amicably as we walked along the drive, discussing window dressings and the hiring of help, when the agent called our attention to the queer front door. My eyes had danced about nearly the whole of the house before that moment, landing on anything but those doors, that dark shadow in the corner of my eye; now, wide open and defenseless, they beheld them. I was unable to look away. The massive 40

Berkeley Fiction Review


doors were nearly black; made of some dark wood straight from the forests of my own nightmares,traced with twisting lines of silver. I could not recognize any kind of pattern, but each curve and ridge and pock fit into each other obscenely, sensuously, like the limbs of corpses in a mass grave. They were horrible, terrible, but my eyes were captivated, sliding smoothly in their sockets as they followed every bend in this shadowy labyrinth and stared deep into the dark eyes formed in every notch; deep, sinister, and inviting. The eyes of the doors were hypnotic, and if they were gateways to the soul of the house, dark secrets certainly lay within. That groundskeeper was not entirely mad, I thought. There was something moving in there. Pacing. Writhing. My husband and the agent bantered distantly, a whole bright world away. I drew closer and ran my fingertips along the folds and sinuations of the doors, feeling along the edges. My hands landed finally on the silver doorknob, and I hesitated only a moment before pulling with all my might. The doors were open and suddenly, for a fraction of a second, I felt a more intense heat than my mind could comprehend. My very blood boiled, but before a scream could gather in my throat, it was over, and a hush descended upon our party. The next few moments passed as though it were an eternity. The deep and impenetrable darkness within the house seemed to leak out like a living thing, tip-toeing around my feet and limbs, testing the waters, nuzzling its way in and up and around me like a subterranean animal breaking through to the surface. Robert and the estate manager brushed past me into the house, either unafraid or unfeeling. My hand jerked forward to pull them back and into the light, but I forced it back down to my side. The heat gone, I was ashamed of myself, and I shook my head as though to fling the shadows off of me. Then I crossed myself quickly before following them both into the house. The months that followed were peaceful, and we were happy in the cottage we had rented in the small riverside town nearby while the house was being made habitable and furnished to my taste. It was a relief to be away from the city, where the demons of our past still stalked the streets. We would make a new start here, away from the reporters who still hounded Robert, despite his acquittal and magnanimous offers of restitution. We needed some form of peace, of the quietude which had eluded us for so long, and Robert was sure that we had discovered the only place in earth we could attain it. When I wasn’t shopping and meeting with decorators and designers, I was on the telephone constantly with friends in the city, describing the gardens and the portico and the curtains and the library. When prodded, I Claire Burgess

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told them I was certain the pitter patter of small footsteps would soon echo against the high ceilings of the gallery, bringing a pleasant distraction to Robert. I would not then admit to myself or others what I knew to be true: this house was no place for innocence. It was during one of these phone calls that I conjured up a plan: we would host a party at the house the very first night we planned to move in, and invite our guests to stay the night in our many guest rooms in the west wing. Robert agreed that it was a splendid idea, but suggested we make it another night so we could spend our first night together alone in our new home. I resisted this postponement with very calculated levity, thinking then what Robert would surely tell me if I admitted my fears: that there is no quality intrinsic to the bricks or mortar of our house that could possibly harm me. It was the middle of October when Robert and I finally moved into the house. Brown leaves lay heavy on the ground, and the air was just as heavy and just as dead. It was astonishing, the lack of wind that greeted the slowly creeping strides of the encroaching winter. It made for an eerie and stifling silence that surrounded the grounds like a breathless embrace. Robert remarked jovially that we should sleep soundly for the lack of tree branches tickling the windows, but there was something about the silence that made my heart race and my clammy hands ball up into fists. It rang in my ears, and I found myself emitting a tuneless hum to myself to keep the spaces between my ears from resonating. The guests trickled in between five and six o’clock, their Maybachs and Mercedes entrusted to valets. The women played bridge and sipped their sherry while the men and their hardier spirits occupied the library until the last of the stragglers, cursing the thick fog, arrived at half past six, at which point tumblers were discarded and dinner served. Wine flowed liberally and mingled with the conversation, and the guests, I believe, found both most stimulating. I did my best to engage and play hostess as I had done many times in the past, but my gaze kept landing in the corners of the room and catching in the cobwebs that had been missed by the staff. Someone’s eyes followed mine once, and kindly told me not to worry so much about the mustier crevices of the house. The staff was new, after all, and the house was large. I shot a quick, excessively bright smile at him in thanks and determined to keep my eyes on the table from then on. Throughout the meal, I heard the webs rustling like ash in a breeze; newly confident, they reached out farther and farther into the room, multiplying and expanding. I kept my teeth bared in a grimace of a smile, but my hands betrayed the state of my inner turmoil: the napkin in my lap 42

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was a twisted mess, and my knuckles were ghostly white. I wondered if my friends could see the shadows I felt creeping up around me. Midway through dinner, the lights flared up, and my hand clamped down on my mouth to stifle the scream that shot up from my lungs, and to brush away the cobwebs that were forming between my lips. Robert remained calm— So damnably calm! How did he not feel the same sinister fingers clutching his heart that had forced their way around mine?— and he chuckled at the interruption, making a remark about antiquated electrical systems. My eyes bulged as I forced myself to look at him sitting there at the end of the table ever so calmly, as the shadows crept up the sides of his chair. The entire room was suddenly a feverish, Caravaggesque nightmare. The room was stifling; the shadows in the corners and the mist from the windows seemed to be drawing all of the chill out of the room and condensing it, excreting glistening, hauntingly beautiful swirls and knots of moisture. While the shadows and the webs and the terror inside me gathered strength, we sweltered. The men sweat through their suits and the women lifted their hair from their necks, enticing the darkness, inviting it closer. The eyes of my former friends had become the deeply shadowed hollows found in skulls. Their teeth flashed brightly as they cackled and snorted. I squirmed in my seat and licked my lips, tasting salt. I felt faint, and sensed my eyelids flickering. The lights flickered once more, and then finally extinguished themselves. This time, I could not resist the force of my scream. I didn’t even try. I sat there, rigid, while I heard furtive shuffling about the room, and matches lit. I screamed again when Robert shook me roughly by the shoulders to alert me that the room was once again illuminated, for I had shut them tight against the dark. I blinked against the unnatural light and shrunk back into my chair. I knew what I looked like: a feral animal whose sanctuary had been deeply disturbed. I hissed to Robert, “We aren’t safe!” I hardly knew what I was saying. I had broken, and I felt like howling. “Robert, please! Don’t you see it? Don’t you feel how…?” My eyes darted up at the newly sinister face of my husband, cast in high relief by his single flickering taper. His lips curled at the edges in a devilish sneer; his eyes reduced to empty black ovals. I let out a cry of utter despair as I dodged Robert’s soulless embrace and ran out of the room. The bricks lining the hallway glowed like charcoal, blinding me, surrounding me in a haze of heat that only enhanced the demonic effect of the cackling that followed behind me. The silver knob of the front door singed my hand, but I did not stop. I Claire Burgess

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wrenched the door open wide and rushed headlong into the most invasive cold that I had ever experienced. The chill penetrated my body layer by fleshy layer until my very soul was drowning in it. I shuddered and forced my legs forward in fretful fits and starts, as if with every step I had to break my foot away from a thick miasma of tar, only to set it down once more in the hardening blackness. The moment I tore my foot away from the last step of the portico, my legs were able to move more freely. But the fog! I shut my eyes tightly, too afraid to face my still, grey blindness. There was no noise from the house any longer; it was a dead calm night, and for a moment I wished I were dead, as well. My legs were stilled once again, this time with fear. I quaked and made my way forward like a blind man, with arms outstretched. My feet inched forward agonizingly slowly, though my mind was screaming at me to bolt. I don’t know how long I moved like this, losing myself in the mist and in my mind, trying to keep my body and my soul my own. All I felt was the cold. All I heard was my heartbeat, quick as a rabbit’s, driving me mad with its insistent, incessant noise, so alien to my surroundings. It shouldn’t be so loud, I thought. It shouldn’t beat at all. For an eternity, it seemed, I walked unsteadily through my nightmare. Eventually I began to crawl, deaf to the raw, bloody cries of my palms and knees. I soon found it impossible to move, as though my weakened limbs were held back roughly and cruelly by some ungodly force. This twist of fate did not alarm me; I was relieved to know that struggling was futile. The gravel of the drive scraped comfortingly against my face. I slowly reached up my trembling hand to lovingly finger the cuts on my cheek, relishing the feel of the blood under my fingernails, the sound of my collar tearing against the stones, the smell of the dust, and the taste of my tears. I giggled, delighted by the sensations. My writhing body gradually calmed and my eyes opened wide once more to the slate grey, and I let the dew gather on my blind eyes as I lay there in the cold. An eternity after I had laid my head down, I sensed them. They crept in at the corners of my vision and my mind reeled at the thought of sharing my solitude. Gradually, they filled my eyes and mouth and ears and I choked on the specters like smoke. I coughed and sputtered and halfvomited their wicked grins and burning ember eyes from my violated orifices, thrashing my arms and legs until I found myself running, shrieking blindly forward. It didn’t matter what direction I travelled so long as it was away; so long as I could breathe again. My legs burned with the strain and my throat felt singed and coated with ash, until suddenly I felt a breeze. I stopped in my tracks, as did my heart. I was all at once very 44

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aware of my eyelids and how tightly clenched together they had become, as though opening them would let my soul escape. I breathed in and out in sharp bursts and shudders. My lungs rejoiced in the new air. It smelled of death and of something familiar; something that had once smelled of home and now smelled of hellfire. My eyes shot open, as if drawn open by the red-hot strings of a damned puppeteer, and there, just ahead of me, my suspicions were confirmed. Through the rapidly vanishing mist, suddenly there, alarmingly close to my naked eyes, I saw a shocking splash of color against the grey and black of the landscape. In one wing of the house, a flash of red and orange burst through the windows. I watched silently as the flames spread with supernatural speed across the facade, as though the house itself was egging the flames on as they tore through stone, mortar, and flesh within its walls. I was close enough now to feel the heat from the house caress my face. Slowly, as though preparing to pray, I lowered myself down to my knees and raised my arms to the smoke-filled sky, and the scream that I let forth from my lips joined those coming from the open, uncharred doorway into the depths of hell.

Claire Burgess

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THE BAT BOY CHRISTOPHER HOOD

I am on a barstool watching Ralph Cantellanotto’s miniature self perform the ballgame’s highlights on a flat screen when the life-sized version of Ralph Cantellanotto walks in. My mouth goes dry and I’m instantly aware of his body and mine, occupying nearly the same space. Seeing a big leaguer outside the confines of the ballpark is like seeing your math teacher buying breakfast cereal, like the difference between driving to the zoo and waking to find a panther on your porch. The bourbon in my right hand shakes. (My left hand, steady as a rock, continues to guard the bowl of bar mix that is my dinner. Are you allowed to say “dinner” when it’s your only meal of the day? It is my meal.). Ralph Cantellanotto walks up to the bar to my left, leans against it, gestures to the bartender and sits. He is a mere couple of bar stools away. The only other time I saw a baseball player this close, I was eight years old, and he appeared to be a legitimate giant. I am no longer eight, but Ralph Cantellanotto still appears to be just larger than life-sized. He reaches for the bar mix, looks at me and I yield my meal willingly to him. “Thanks,” he says. I never knew how much money my own father made and yet I know the exact figure for the man sitting to my left: 15 million dollars a year. Given an average of 550 at-bats per season, that means every single time he swings a bat in the on-deck circle, knocks the doughnuts off, steps into the batter’s box and faces a pitcher, he earns roughly 27 grand. The exact numbers don’t matter; no matter what, I am worth less than a single Ralph Cantellanotto strikeout, and yet, here we are. It is Sunday night, leaning perilously close to Monday morning, and for the moment we are both just Christopher Hood

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guys from Boston in enemy territory, drinking in a Manhattan bar and singing a lonely tune, although Ralph Cantellanotto does not look lonely. He is sufficient unto himself. His beer arrives, tall in a glass already glistening with perspiration. He takes a long drink. “Mother’s milk,” he says. The bartender nods and retreats an appropriate distance. Ralph Cantellanotto takes a handful of bar mix. A pale scar worms its way across his hand. I recall that he had hamate surgery early in his career. I’m not sure what the hamate bone is—a vestigial chip of calcium, I suppose, that existed only to interfere with Ralph Cantellanotto’s ability to put good wood on a 91 mile-per-hour slider—but the hand excavating cashews from the bar mix no longer contains that bone. “Nasty scar,” I say out loud. He looks surprised that I’ve spoken, although I can guarantee no more surprised than I am myself. He looks at his hand, flexes it. The scar flushes beet red, fades to pale white. “I don’t even notice it anymore. Funny how you get used to things.” “That’s so true,” I say, laughing with inappropriate vigor. How smart Ralph Cantellanotto is. And what a jackass I am. This seems like a theme that will carry through the evening until he leaves and takes his aura with him. It must change the way you view the world, when everyone around you is transformed by your very presence into blithering idiocy. Does this lead to the assumption that you are not only good at baseball, but smarter than everyone else as well? He drains the last of his beer, raises the glass to the bartender, who hustles to pour another. It strikes me that he didn’t even have to say what he wanted when he ordered his first. It just appeared. “And another,” Ralph Cantellanotto gestures toward my glass, “for…” He looks at me quizzically and extends a hand. “Joe,” I say, and I shake his hand with my damp one. His grip is all I’d imagine it would be, firm, his long fingers, wide palm and bulging knuckles making it feel as though I’m shaking the composite parts that make up a hand, not a hand itself. The bartender waits for my attention. “What’ll it be, sir?” “The same,” I say. “And that was?” I can’t blame him for not remembering the name of the shot of bourbon I was nursing while Ralph Cantellanotto was fielding ground balls, his left hand sweating in the glove’s leather, nursing while he laced an eighth inning single between first and second, nursing while he talked to reporters, nursing while he showered, dressed and caught a cab to 48

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arrive next to me at the bar. “Old Granddad,” I say. “Rocks.” “No,” Ralph Cantellanotto says, “gimme a break, two real bourbons chico, straight up.” No ice. Without ice it’s impossible to watch something melt as you contemplate the fact that you are drinking the gas money you need to get home. Wait long enough, and the cubes dissolve into vaguely bone-like shapes—femurs, scapulas, a skull drifting in watery amber before it is gone. “You ever had Booker’s?” he asks. “Can’t say that I have.” “You’ve got a treat in store.” He slides onto the barstool next to me. I feel a bit lightheaded. “It’s like drinking a glass of honey that’s been lit on fire.” “Sounds delicious,” I say. “It is.” We sit in silence while highlights from the game flash once again on the television above the bar. Travis Jones, with whom my bar mate has just taken a shower, is plunked in the ribs by a fastball. I wince audibly. Ralph does not blink an eye. I continue to watch him watch the television as his televised-self laces a single into right. I am narrowly holding back from sharing with him the fascinating bit of information that is occupying much of my brainspace: the fact that he is Ralph Cantellanotto. He has probably heard this before, must know it already. The television cuts to a commercial and he turns on his barstool, scans the bar behind us with an appraising eye. “Not much poontang in here tonight,” he offers in a conversational tone. “Not really,” I say, as though he’d just echoed what I was thinking. He has a blonde wife named Kirsten and three blonde children whose names all begin with the letter K. Sometimes, during his at-bats, the NESN cameras seek them out in the stands, rooting for daddy. “What are you going to do,” he says, turning back around on his barstool. “Yeah,” I say, “I guess it’s not that kind of bar.” He looks at me. “You’d be surprised,” he says. I look around. Hanging lights subdivide the space into nooks and corners. At café tables and in booths, men in suits with loosened ties drink and confer in hushed tones. Their shoes gleam with polish. “Looks like a bunch of guys to me,” I say. “A bunch of guys with money.” “Right,” he says, his tone weary. “Why do you think the girls come in? Christopher Hood

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Moths to the flame.” “Sure. That makes sense,” I say. Why don’t I understand the world? I have the moral sensibility of a small child. Men pursue advantage, compete ruthlessly against one another as natural selection intended for them to do, and I stay in the sandbox because someone once told me it was wrong to leave. And as a result I live, for the time being, in my ’83 Honda Accord and they live in four star hotel bars, waiting for poontang that comes to them. “Some guys like L.A., but for my money, if you’re going to be on the road,” Ralph says, “you can’t do much better than New York.” “Ain’t that the truth,” I say, but he isn’t listening. An ad for a sitcom is playing in which the “Oh man,” he says. “That guy took it right in the nuts.” “Yeah he did.” Any silence we settle into for more than a moment seems to portend the conversation’s end. The bourbon arrives in heavy cut tumblers. A fresh bowl of bar mix accompanies the drinks. He swirls and sniffs his bourbon, takes a swallow. I follow his lead. “What do you think?” “Fire,” I cough. “Not getting the honey yet.” “Give it time,” he laughs. Quiet descends upon us again. I distract myself with bar mix, trying to disguise my excitement that it has been refilled. “Speaking of honey,” he says. He nudges me on the shoulder, gestures with his chin. “See that woman?” he whispers. I start to turn around. “Don’t look.” “What woman?” I say. “She just came in. Red dress,” he says. “Five o’clock.” I stretch casually, shrugging my shoulders and turning my head as though to work out a kink. A woman is walking through the bar with purpose. Above her heels her red dress doesn’t hang, it clings to her hips, her petite waist, the gravity-defying underside of her cleavage. Although I’ve never been explicitly aware of doing so, I’ve always maintained a distinction between photographs of women and women themselves; models and actresses and porn stars might as well have descended from another planet, might as well exist only in the media of print and video. Nope. Here she is. “I see her,” I say. “What do you think?” What do I think? I think that I am fifteen years old looking at the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. I think that this woman seems as distant 50

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and perfect and unattainable as a model wearing a fishnet bikini bottom and no top on a beach in Thailand. I think that talking to Ralph Cantellanotto about Red Dress as though she were real makes me feel like anything is possible. Perhaps she will strip on the bar for the two of us. Perhaps monkeys will burst shrieking from the walls. Perhaps the clocks will start to melt. “She’s not bad,” I say. “You know what she is? She’s nasty.” He breathes the word, relishes it on his tongue. “Right,” I say. I’m not sure what I’m agreeing with. “Man, look at me, I’m serious. She’s nasty.” It sounds like he’s describing a wicked split-fingered fastball, a hammer curve. “So you know her,” I say. “Yeah,” he smirks. “I know her.” “You’re a lucky guy.” He looks at me, surprised. “I guess,” he says. “But it’s not luck.” “No?” “It’s confidence,” he says. “That’s all you need.” Confidence. Okay, I will be confident, starting now. I turn on my barstool to scan the bar. I look around the barroom at the tables of men, at the plants in their grand pots, at the oak walls. My eyes lock with Red Dress’s. She’s looking at me; she’s walking toward me. Except of course she isn’t doing either. She arrives at the bar, leans to murmur into Ralph Cantellanotto’s ear, gifting me with a view down the top of her dress. I swallow. Ralph Cantellanotto laughs, whispers something back to her, his hand presses against the small of her back. When she straightens up and strides out of the bar, there’s a room keycard sitting on the bar in front of him. A world I’d known existed but never before seen is revealing itself to me. He pockets the key, turns back to me. “Confidence,” he says. He winks, sips his bourbon. “Was that her room key?” I ask. Why am I asking this? At least he doesn’t seem to think I am as big an idiot as I do. “You got it,” he says. “Are you going to go up there?” “We’ll see how the evening plays out.” If that woman were to slip her room key to me, I certainly wouldn’t be able to turn my attention to the pleasure of bourbon and a chat with some guy I’d never met. This feels like the final piece of evidence in the case that Ralph Cantellanotto’s life is fundamentally and irrevocably different from my own. Christopher Hood

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“Don’t let me keep you,” I say. “Nah,” he says. “You got to make them wait. She’s not going anywhere.” “I guess not.” We sit quietly for a little while, the murmur of voices behind us providing the soundtrack for the silenced televisions. My brain, as usual, seizes the opportunity to beat me up a little. I have to get out of this bar before it becomes painfully obvious that my wallet cannot fulfill the basic social obligation of buying the next round of drinks. Instead, I will find my way back to my high school friend’s apartment in Brooklyn, and in the morning I will ask him for gas money back to Boston. He will give me a look, give me the money, and subsequently, my embarrassment will prevent me from contacting him ever again. However, I will get to Home Depot in time for my shift, which reminds me that before I ask my friend for money, I must use his shower. I can use the showers at the YMCA on Wednesdays, but Wednesday is a long ripe way away. In the mirror behind the bottles of booze, I look like a trespasser, someone who will, soon, be politely and firmly asked to leave the premises. Is it possible that being aware of hitting bottom means I’m not actually hitting bottom? “Do you own me?” Ralph asks. He swirls the bourbon in his glass, takes a swallow. “I’m sorry?” “Do you own me?” Is this an odd sociological reference? Is he referring to himself as a public good, a commodity? Or is this a strange form of celebrity theory, the appropriation of the object viewed by the viewer? This is the thinking I learned in college. “In fantasy,” he says. “Am I on your team?” “Oh!” I say, my voice alive with excitement at coming to understanding. Back on solid ground! “No, I don’t have internet.” “How can you not have internet?” he says. He doesn’t seem to share my excitement that we’ve resolved our communication issues. “It’s a longish story,” I say. He’s probably thinking about Red Dress, regretting his choice to stay here at the bar with me. But if my relationship with Ralph Cantellanotto is going to go anywhere, if we are going to become friends and do things friends do like exchange cell phone numbers and acknowledge that I exist, then he’s going to have to know who I am. Confidence. I dive in. “So I was dating this girl who was maybe out of my league. It was right after college and I didn’t have anything on the horizon. She had this 52

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great internship at a law firm in Lenox. I got us a little apartment that we couldn’t afford but she liked. I got a job at a hardware store, she had some family money, and we made it work. I don’t know, it was like we were playing house, you know?” I pause long enough to let Ralph interrupt if he’s of a mind to, but he appears to be watching the television. Perhaps I’m just telling the story to myself, something I do often anyway. “I came home early one day. I tossed my keys on the countertop. They landed in this patch of sunlight streaming through the window, I don’t know why I still remember that part, but I do. Anyway, I decided to go for a run. When I opened the bedroom door, I had my shirt halfway over my head, and I heard something, and I froze. I pulled the shirt away from my face, and she was on the bed, you know, interning with the lawyer. They hadn’t seen me yet, and I stood there for a second, my white shirt over my head like I was waving a flag of surrender.” This part doesn’t sound confident, but Ralph Cantellanotto has stopped watching television. He’s looking at me now; I’ve got his full and undivided. So I keep going. “I almost felt like I was interrupting myself, like I was the one on the bed with her, like I was divided in two, like I’d left my own body to watch us from the outside. She was on top, holding his hands down with her hands as she did the moving. She never could come in that position—it had to be straight missionary for her, often with an electrical assist—but it was her go-to position when she wanted me—him—to pop.” “Lots of women are like that,” Ralph says. “Sure,” I say, “I guess. Anyway, I’d already put myself in debt trying to finance our lives together and when she left to intern full time with the lawyer, I had to let the apartment go. I moved back to Boston, didn’t have the money for a deposit on a new place, but I had my car. Which is okay. I can park overnight by the Y and I got a job at Home Depot just up the Jamaicaway. But long story short, no internet.” He thinks about what I’ve said for a moment, arrives at an assessment. “What a cunt,” he says. “I guess,” I say. “But I wouldn’t stay with me either if I had a choice.” He shakes his head. “You got a confidence problem.” “You’re right. I do.” “Don’t do that,” he winces. “Don’t just fucking admit it. Show a little backbone.” “Right. Sorry.” “Have you been laid since she left?” “Sure,” I say. “Sure I have.” He just looks at me, and I recant. Christopher Hood

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“No,” I say. “No I haven’t.” He furrows his brow and looks at me as though calculating something. “So the last pussy you’ve been in is hers.” “I guess so.” I’d never thought about it that way, but it seems fairly condemning. “You still got dirty oil on the dipstick,” he says. “You need a lube job.” “I think I need to save enough money for a place,” I say. “Once I have a place to bring a girl then I can start worrying about a lube job.” He looks at me, his head tilted to the right just a hair. He’s thinking about something. “What?” I say. “What is it?” “I want to help you,” he says. “You already have. I mean, you’ve been really generous.” Money always makes things awkward. His knee is quivering and there’s color in his face. It’s one thing to accept a few drinks, it’s another to accept money. Although if he wanted to slip me a twenty for gas home, I wouldn’t turn it down. “It’s nothing,” he says. “Don’t worry about it.” “Well, maybe we’ll see each other again some day and I can pay you back.” Maybe now is the moment we exchange cell phone numbers. I imagine spending my breaks at Home Depot staring at my contacts list. Would I put him under Ralph or Cantellanotto? Perhaps both. “Sure,” he says. “You’ll pay me back whenever.” He stands up. “You leaving?” I try to keep the disappointment out of my voice. “We are,” he says. “Finish your bourbon.” I swallow the rest of my bourbon like a good boy. It’s more than I’ve taken down in one gulp yet, and I cough. He pats me on the back. “Let’s go upstairs,” he says. “Chico, put it on my room and add a fifty for you.” The bartender nods and smiles ingratiatingly. We stand and he guides me out of the bar. I feel as though I’m leaving something behind, but what do I have to leave behind? My wallet? Empty. My credit cards? Maxed. My car keys? No gas. There is nothing left for me to leave. I am only a body, leaving the bar with Ralph Cantellanotto. We get into the elevator. The mirrored doors close silently, and then I am looking at myself standing next to him. His foot is tapping, and he’s jingling the change in his pocket. He is impatient. “Where are we going?” I ask. “Upstairs.” I know that Ralph has talked about getting me a lube job. I also know that upstairs, lounging in her hotel room, is the goddess in the red dress. 54

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The logic connecting these two facts is terrifyingly clear. I already have performance anxiety, and I don’t even know if I’m going to be asked to perform. And now Ralph seems unnaturally eager, stabbing at the elevator buttons as though he could speed its rise, his body wired tight enough to quiver. The stories I’ve read about closeted ballplayers spring to mind. Am I going to be expected to have sex with Ralph Cantellanotto? I’m not gay, at least, I don’t think I am. I will admit, after my girlfriend left, as I picked through the wreckage, I wondered if maybe I was gay. That would have been a convenient answer for things, for why she left, for why nothing seemed to fit, for why I felt so out of focus in a sharply dialed-in world. “Hey,” I say. “Hey, how did you know I knew? Who you are, I mean. How did you know I knew who you are?” I’m talking to talk now. He looks at me with a quizzical expression. “I’m Ralph Cantellanotto,” he says, as though that explained everything. The numbers change as we slip past floors full of rooms on our way upstairs. The elevator glides so smoothly to a stop that I’m surprised when the doors open. He steps out. “Hey,” I say, stalled halfway out of the elevator. I feel like I’m about to dive into a pool and I don’t know the temperature of the water. “Hey, why are you doing this?” “I like helping people,” he says. “When I’m done playing ball, I think I’ll be a coach.” “Oh,” I say. The doors start to close, and I step out of the elevator. “Come on,” he says. We walk down a hallway lined with elegant sconces and dark wood doors with brass number plaques. 2814, 2816, 2818. He inserts a cardkey into 2818 and turns to me. He grips the back of my neck with one hand. “Are you ready?” he asks. “Ready for what?” I say, but he’s not even listening to my response. “Let’s do this,” he says. “Hey,” I say. “Ready for what?” But he’s already disappeared inside, and I follow him, leaving the door open behind me. The room is nice, bigger than I would have thought, and there’s art on the walls and stuff, but the room itself only registers on the outskirts of my consciousness because Red Dress is lying on one of the two beds, leaning on pillows, watching television. Her dress is hiked up almost to her hips and her bare legs shine in the hotel light. I can hear my heart pounding in my ears. She’s looking at Ralph Cantellanotto with lidded eyes and parted lips and then she sees me. “The fuck is he doing here?” The Long Island accent that emerges Christopher Hood

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from her lips startles me. “You. That’s what he’s doing here,” Ralph says. “What?” she says. “What?” I say. Nervousness, embarrassment and gratitude exist so simultaneously in me that they are confused into the same emotion. “You and him,” Ralph says. “You’re going to do it.” “The fuck I am,” she says. The look she tosses me is thick with disdain. “Okay,” I say, with a nervous laugh. It was a nice try. Ralph is suddenly at her side. He moves so quickly, I’d almost forgotten he was an athlete. He’s holding her shoulder tight; I can see her skin whitening under his fingers. I can’t hear what he’s saying, but he shakes her for emphasis. She says something back to him, and he responds in an urgent whisper. He’s telling her my story. He’s building sympathy. I have never had less of an idea of what I’m supposed to do with myself. Should I take off my clothes? Look in the other direction during negotiations? Take a shower? Do push ups? Pull my lower lip over my head like a hood? The television blares on the bureau next to me. I crane my head to see it. People are arguing with one another on the screen. A woman wags her finger and stands on a couch. The audience applauds wildly. The noise clicks off, followed immediately by the screen going black. The reflection of Red Dress appears on the screen, aiming her remote at me. “Alright,” Ralph Cantellanotto says. “Alright.” Ralph steps away from the bed. He walks over to me. I watch his reflection approach. “It’s all good,” he says. “What did you tell her?” I ask. “Don’t worry about it.” “Hey,” the woman says. “Why don’t you come over.” I look at Ralph Cantellanotto. “She wants it, man.” He nods toward the woman. “Give it to her.” He walks over to me, gives me a little push. I sleepwalk toward the woman and then I am standing next to the bed rather than next to the bureau. Ralph heads for hallway and the open door. I hear the door close. “You like what you see?” she asks. She’s kneeling on the bed, facing me. One strap of her dress has fallen from her shoulder, and the swell of her breast is… my mouth is so dry I can’t swallow. I could really use a glass of water. She grabs my belt and pulls me closer. My erection seems to be the only part of me that understands what to do. 56

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“I guess you do like what you see.” “Yes,” I stammer. “I guess I do.” Her fingertips brush against my erection through the cloth of my jeans. Apparently, her fingers are electrified. “Holy shit,” I say. “You like it when I do that?” “Yes,” I swallow. “You’re so big,” she says. “Really?” I say. “I mean, thank you.” She reached her hand underneath me, through my crotch all the way to my butt, and pulls me in closer. “You like it like this?” she asks. “Yes I do,” I say. But she isn’t looking at me when she says it. She’s looking toward the television. I turn my head to follow her eyes. Ralph Cantellanotto is sprawled in a chair at the foot of the bed. His belt is unbuckled and his hand is in his pants. I jump about a foot in the air. “Jesus Christ!” I say. “Yeah,” he says. “Now take him in your mouth.” “What?” I say. “Not yet,” she says. “I’m going to tease you first.” Her eyes are locked with Ralph Cantellanotto’s as she extends her tongue and licks the front of my jeans. “Wait a second,” I say. “What’s going on here?” “Shut up,” he says. His eyes are glazed. He’s talking to me but looking at her as he says it. “But…” “The fuck is your problem?” He looks at me for the first time. “Just shut up and let her do her thing.” She unbuckles my belt and pulls it from its loops. I’ve lost some weight in the past couple of months, and my jeans slip from my hips. She tosses my belt toward Ralph Cantellanotto on his chair. She breathes on the front of my boxer shorts. “Oh yeah,” she says. “Oh yeah.” “Oh yeah,” Ralph Cantellanotto says. It’s as though I don’t even exist. I’m an erection rising between them, I’m furniture, I’m a means to an end. “Just a second,” I say. I take a half-step from the bed. “The girl, Chico, just fuck the girl,” Ralph Cantellanotto says. “Joe,” I say. “What?” “My name is Joe.” “What?” Christopher Hood

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“You called me the bartender’s name by accident.” “The bartender? What the fuck are you talking about?” “Chico. The bartender. You know. Chico.” “How the fuck am I supposed to know the bartender’s name?” A crystal of understanding is starting to form in my brain. I do not exist. Nor does the bartender. Nor does the woman, really. There is only Ralph Cantellanotto. I look down as though to run this by her, and see that she has slipped the other strap from her shoulder. Her dress has become a skirt, and I am looking at her breasts. I have never seen fake tits in person. They are as tall and proud and firm as my erection, which through it all has remained at attention. “We doing this or not?” she says. “I don’t know,” I say, but again, she wasn’t asking me. “Yeah,” Ralph Cantellanotto says. “Do it. Throw him down on the bed and do it.” She gives me a shove and I land on the other bed. It’s an awkward angle, and though I land with my back on the pillows, I smack my head solidly on the headboard; a crack like a bat echoes in the room. “Ow,” I say. As though in response, the woman straddles me, aims her ass at Ralph Cantellanotto, and waggles. “That’s right, baby. You like what you see?” “Slap it,” he says. “Slap that ass.” It’s unclear to whom he’s talking, me or her, but she takes the initiative. She alternates between looking over her left shoulder and lowering her head to look between her legs; never once does she look at me. When she lowers her head, I get a face full of blonde hair; when she cranes her neck sideways, I can see our reflection in the television next to Ralph Cantellanotto’s chair. My head emerges at intervals, like peek-a-boo, a wide-eyed bafflement appearing whenever her writhing happens to swing her to the side. Otherwise, all you can see of me are my feet, splayed and flat, and occasional glimpses of my boxer shorts levered away from my body by my erection. That’s what I am on TV: feet, an erection, and bafflement. She waggles her ass so enthusiastically that her head gets into the act, her hair like a car wash mat scrubbing my face. “Oooh,” she breathes toward the foot of the bed. “You like that ass? You need that ass?” I start to laugh. I can’t hold it together. I lean my head back against the headboard and laugh and I don’t hold it in. She stops moving and looks at me for the first time, her hair draping around her face and around mine. It is as though we are sharing a tiny room together. “What’s so funny?” she asks. 58

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“Sorry,” I say. I pull it together. “I’m sorry. You may resume.” She looks at me askance for a second, and then her face clicks back into seduction, the tip of her tongue touching her lips as her eyes half-close with desire, and I start to laugh again just as she’s craning her neck to look back toward the shortstop at the foot of the bed. “What the fuck.” She sits back on my thighs, the dress a tangle around her legs and mine. “I’m sorry,” I say again. “Yeah,” Ralph Cantellanotto’s voice says. “Ride him. Ride him like that.” “He’s fucking laughing,” the woman says to him. “Ride him. Come on, ride him like you need it.” “What’s his problem?” By this point I’ve stopped laughing, but she’s half-turned toward Ralph Cantellanotto, sitting on one hip, and pointing at me. “What’s your problem?” he asks. “I don’t have a problem,” I say. “Take off your panties,” he says to the woman, and I start laughing again. “I’m homeless, for Christ’s sake,” I laugh to the ceiling. For some reason, this seems hilarious. “I’m lying on a bed for the first time in three months.” Tears leak from my eyes, and my stomach hurts from laughing. For the first time all evening, it doesn’t feel hungry. The woman is looking at me with revulsion. It’s a sincere expression, and it’s all for me. For the first time, she’s here with me on the bed. “You’re homeless?” she says. “Well, not really,” I say. “I have a car.” “You want me to have sex with a fucking homeless guy?” “You heard him,” Ralph Cantellanotto says. “He’s got a car.” “You asshole,” she says. She throws a pillow at him, an awkward toss with no real power behind it. He whips it back, a wicked throw like he’s trying to nail a runner at first across the diamond. The woman dodges the pillow, launches herself across the bed at him, all scratching nails and curses and flying hair. He grapples her hands into submission. She bucks and her mouth is going a mile a minute. He shoves her onto the other bed. “You want it?” he says. “You fucking want it?” Her writhing continues, but now she’s moving with him. It’s like he flipped a switch. “You gonna give it to me?” she says. “I’ll show you how a man takes care of business.” “Yeah? You gonna show me?” He climbs aboard. She keeps up a Christopher Hood

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steady pulse of half-rhetorical questions while he exhorts himself on. My girlfriend and the lawyer weren’t nearly as vocal as these two. He has pulled off his shirt, and his back is hairy. Her fingers grab the hair for leverage as she tries to tug down his pants with her feet, and he leans on one elbow while he works on tugging them down as well. I grab my jeans from the floor, pull them on as they succeed in pulling his off, which means he is now wearing only a pair of white tube socks. I pick up my belt from the floor, thread it through the loops of my jeans while I look for my shirt. There it is, a blue flash emerging periodically from beneath the writhing pair. I contemplate interrupting them for a moment, and then I see Ralph Cantellanotto’s shirt on the chair. What the hell. I pull it over my head, and I’m surprised when the arms are just a little too short. I head for the door. In the hallway outside another door, a room service tray sits on the carpet. Half a baguette and what looks like an untouched pork chop sit beside the scattered cutlery and napkins. I walk past toward the elevators. I press the button and the doors slide open with a chime to reveal my reflection in the mirrored rear wall of the elevator. Though the man I see in the mirror is wearing another man’s shirt, though he’s sliced in two by the beveled joint between two mirrors, I recognize him. He’s an old friend, and it doesn’t matter how much time has passed. We’re back together now. The first time I met a ballplayer, I was eight years old and walking through a T-station with my dad. The station was fairly empty, and the people that were there were exchanging looks and nods and sneaking peeks toward a pillar at the far side where Jack Ellsworth stood looking down the tunnel, waiting for the train. My father saw him; his hand gripped my shoulder and we paused. The station was quiet, and I could hear my father swallow. He took my other shoulder, propelling me before him like a talisman. Now the other people in the station were watching us. “Dad…” I started, but he shushed me. We arrived at Jack Ellsworth’s pillar and my father cleared his throat. Ellsworth turned toward us with all the weariness of a man waiting for a train, a man thinking why oh why didn’t he just take a cab. “Jack,” my dad said, “I want you to meet my son.” As though, what, he was introducing me to a friend from work? Jack? My dad’s hands were too tight on my shoulders, and he was bending me forward a little, as though I was between him and something he liked. It was the first time in my life that I was ashamed of my father. Ellsworth looked at us, looked at me, and I mouthed the word sorry. I would have shrugged if my father’s weight 60

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hadn’t been bearing down on my shoulders. Something changed in Ellsworth’s face, and he smiled at us, shook my hand, shook my father’s hand, asked me if I liked to play baseball. “Sure,” I said. “But I like basketball better.” Ellsworth laughed, and then his train ground around the corner, and I was grateful to see we were going the opposite direction. Ellsworth stepped onto the train, gave us a little wave, and was gone. Our train came moments later, and my father spent the train ride telling the other passengers about our conversation with Jack Ellsworth. I sat looking out the windows as we emerged from underground, watching snapshots of Quincy and Wollaston flip past, nodding when the story demanded it, holding my secret close like a possession I would never let go: Jack Ellsworth only talked to us because I apologized for my father. He told the story again and again, nudging me because he thought that I was being shy, that I didn’t know how to handle myself yet, but he was wrong. I did know how to handle myself. A grown man’s pride kindled inside me like a fire, the kind of fire that might die to embers from time to time, but will never go out.

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SECOND PLACE SUDDEN FICTION

“S

FOUND EMPLOYEE OF THE DEAD, BY MACKENZIE MCDONALD” IMMONS

BY ERIKA HOOPES

Simmons found employee of the dead By Mackenzie McDonald Paul Simmons, with his tall, lanky build and glasses, is the top-notch auto salesperson at Griffon Motors and has recently been recognized for his impressive work in the auto industry over the last several years. Simmons’ success in his career and his loving family make him the man everyone wants to be. Named 2008 Employee of the Year, Simmons has been an unidentified man found dead one of the dealership’s top employees ever since he began working at the company sixteen years ago. He began as an auto mechanic at the repair shop at Griffon but worked his way up to a salesperson after two years of replacing damaged parts and fixing old cars. Simmons now holds the company’s annual sales record.

Paul Simmons lives in the suburbs of an empty creek his hometown, Detroit, Michigan, with his wife and their two children. He fell in love with the auto industry at a young age. Simmons graduated from Greenville Technical University in 1992, with the desire on the corner of Stanton Rd. and Winsheimer Blvd. to work with cars, and he has made impressive contributions to the industry ever since. Simmons’ boss, Randy Jenkins, said a few words as he presented Paul with the traditional “Employee of the Year” plaque at the annual recognition party on January 17, 2009: “Paul has always been one of my best employees. He is a hard worker and very dedicated to his body Erika Hoopes

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discovered at 6:45 am job, but what sets him aside from most employees is his generous and intelligent character. Paul is very clever, and his knowledge of automobiles helps him sell numerous cars a day. He is friendly to customers and always persuades them to buy cars from our dealership instead of anywhere else.” At the recognition party, Simmons’ wife mentioned that this terrible tragedy Paul “makes the family very proud, and has always been a supportive husband and father. He works long hours on occasion, but he always comes home smiling and ready to help his kids with their homework.” “No wonder he sells so many cars,” his wife added, “I can’t imagine what appears to be suicide anyone not trusting a sincere man like him.” Simmons’ seven-year-old son, Ben, also had a few words to express his respect for his father: “Daddy is the best salesperson there is, and when I grow up, I want to be just like him!” Although Paul Simmons has increased the business for Griffon Motors tremendously, he is discovered by a woman on a morning jog mostly recognized for his overall contribution to the atmosphere of the company. Customers comment on his helpful advice and information, and they say his love for the cars he sells is very contagious. Paul is the most convincing salesperson in the city. 64

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Simmons’ was found holding a gun coworkers have plenty to say about him as well: “Paul is a great worker, and he seems to have a bullet in his head the perfect life. Everyone in the company enjoys working with him, even those who are a bit envious of his success.” The man was lying on his back in the creek, and a pair of glasses was found close by. No witnesses have been located—it is likely “people want to be just like him” nobody was there at the scene. The police report claims that the man has killed himself. He “really knows what he is doing in life” was tall and thin, and had curly brown hair. His pockets were empty, and no identification has been found. He was wearing a jacket with a Griffon Motors logo on the upper right. If you have any information regarding this unidentified man, please report it to your local police department immediately.


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CURSED LANE KARESKA

Pike sat at a back table in the barroom. He crossed one dusty jean leg over another, his boot hung out flat. He touched his glass and watched the whiskey knock around in the bottom. He took it up, drained it, let the warm rush settle in him and ride out to the tips of all his bones. He set the glass back on the table and left it there. The revelers in the room had grouped at a kick-stage. They watched a young man sing country songs. Pike didn’t recognize any of the songs. The kid wore tight pants and a tight shirt over no frame at all. The girls laughed and shouted along as he sang to them. Big men played pool at the tables. It was close to midnight. A waitress glided by with a tray of shots in little plastic cups. Pike signaled her with a nod. “Want one, honey?” she asked, eyes hooded in chalky blue make-up. “No,” he said. “Just the check, please.” She nodded. “Be right back then.” A girl he’d never seen before sat down at his table. “Aw, don’t go,” the girl said to him. He smiled at her, “Have to. It’s late.” “It ain’t but twelve,” she wagged her face at him. She was pretty and blonde and she had a white smile. “You ain’t but twelve,” he told her. This made her chuckle. “Twelve times two,” she said. “What’s your name?” “James.” “James what?” “James Pike.” 66

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“Well, ain’t you gonna ask me mine?” “Nope,” he said. “Why not?” “I won’t have time to know it.” He pulled out his wallet and separated the bills. “Yes you will, James. Buy me a drink.” “I’m sure there’s plenty here willing to help you with that.” “Yeah, but I want one from you. Just one.” The waitress brought the check and placed it on the table. Pike placed a ten dollar bill against the check and the girl said, “Just one.” When he asked her what she wanted, she said a “Prairie Fire” and he’d never heard of it but she said that didn’t matter, he wasn’t gonna be drinking it. He nodded at the waitress and he ordered it for her. “Well, what are you gonna cheers me with?” the girl asked. Pike ordered a Lone Star Beer, just one, and the waitress said okay and left. “Now you have time to ask me my name,” she said. “Okay, tell me.” “Luna Anne.” “Luna Anne?” he asked. “That’s what I said.” “All right then, Luna Anne.” “Where you from James Pike?” “Harver, Texas.” “My aunt lives there,” she said. “No she don’t.” “Yes she does. Aunt Jean Blayloch. She’s a hair dresser, you know the Gazebo Salon?” “No, I don’t know that one,” he said. “Well, that’s where she works. Maybe, I haven’t been down there in years.” “Where are you from?” he asked. “Right up the road. Lived here all my life,” she said. “You like it?” he asked. “What’s not to like? We got one bar and no jobs.” The waitress brought the drinks and set them down on the table. She looked at Luna Anne and said, “Luna Anne behave.” “Aw, I am behavin’.” Lane Kareska

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When the waitress left, Pike took up the beer and set his elbow on the table and tilted the bottle at Luna Anne. She smiled and raised her glass and chimed it against his bottle. “Cheers to you, James,” she said. “Cheers to you, Luna Anne.” Pike had rented a second floor room in the motel across the street. They fell into the door, kissing hard against each other’s mouths. He unlocked the door and they entered and he flipped on the lights. There was the one bed and the television and nothing else. “Where’s your stuff?” she asked. “What stuff?” She looped her arms around his neck and kissed him, pushing her thin cold tongue past his teeth. He touched her hips and his fingers shook. “Are you nervous?” He did not answer but he was indeed. This was his first woman in six years, and he had only just been released from prison a week ago. She smiled and lifted her shirt over her head. She tossed it down and came back into him. He entered her on the floor. He hadn’t known how much he’d missed the act. They sawed together and beneath him she was suddenly the smallest thing he’d ever touched. She was so like a child. When it was over they slept beneath the bed sheets. She curled warm against him. Her alcohol-vanilla scent thrilled him. He all but forgot prison. In there he hadn’t even wanted for sex, had shut that part of himself off—simple as a light switch. But now, and here, it all came back. He woke to whispers. His eyes opened and the girl, still naked, stood in the slatted darkness by the doorway. The door opened to the full length of the chain and a bar of moonlight shone there. A chilly current of street air pushed into the room. She whispered to the man outside the door in hurried, panicked tones. She said the words please and just leave. The man outside spoke back louder and furious: “You little bitch, little bitch…” Pike threw the sheet from his body and leapt at the door. It slammed open, snapping the chain and throwing the girl to the floor. The young cowboy stood there in hat, jacket and boots. He filled the doorway and Pike tried to hurl the door shut at him but the cowboy pushed it in and entered. He swung a knife and cut Pike across the chest. 68

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Naked, Pike fell backward and the girl wept against the wall. “Lionel, don’t,” she sobbed. “Get back. Sit on the bed.” He pointed the knife at her, then at Pike. “Listen to me mister, unless you want to lose that dick tonight.” Pike looked at the girl, her body so small and young, curled against the wall. Pike got his bare feet under him and looked up at the man, his wide hat and thin face—china blue eyes. Pike rushed him, speared him out into the walkway. The man slammed into the railing, his back spooned out over the parking lot, his hat spun away. Pike held him there and buried his shoulder deep into the man’s belly. The railing leaned out. It felt as if it were about to break. He took hold of one of the man’s boot heels and stood, lifting him over and the cowboy flipped backward. He fell and landed on the pavement below with a concussive clap Pike had never heard before. It sounded like he’d just thrown a bag of packed ice over the rail. Pike turned back into the room and shut the door behind him. The girl sobbed and hid her face in her arms. He pulled on his jeans and pulled on his boots. “Get dressed,” he told her as he moved to the nightstand. She cried and shook. “Get dressed,” he said. He took up the lamp and ripped the cord from its base and dropped the lamp onto the bed. He yanked the cord from the wall and balled it in his fist. He stepped out the door. Already, Lionel ran up the stairs toward him. Blood ran down his chin and his jaw was skewed terribly. Pike met him and punched him in the stomach. Lionel doubled over on top of him. Pike took hold of Lionel’s greasy head and looped the cord round his neck. He twisted the cord and held it at both ends. Like guiding a calf, he steered the man into the room head first and drove him back toward the bathroom. He threw him up against the mirror, took his head, held it like a basketball and forced it down hard against the sink bowl. Lionel dropped limp and fell to the floor. The sink came undone entirely and fell down beside him. Pike told her, “Get dressed.” Pike walked to the room door and shut it. He tried to lock it but the chain was gone. He came back to Lionel on the floor. He turned him over onto his side and checked his pulse at the neck, below the hinge of his purple, swelling jaw. Alive. Lane Kareska

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Pike’s chest was not cut deeply. He dabbed at it with the bed sheet and then put on his shirt and jacket. He looked at her. His heart slammed behind his breastbone. “I’m going to call the police now,” he told her. “I think maybe you better stay here until they arrive.” She just sobbed into the wall. He dialed 911 from the room phone and he left the receiver on the bed. He never spoke. He looked at Lionel on the floor, the destroyed sink, Luna Anne. Then he left the room. He went down the stairs and found his truck. He didn’t look at anything else. He got in the truck and turned the engine and drove from the parking lot. The sky became gray in the predawn. He drove out and found the highway and took it west toward New Mexico. He drove out the full tank and filled up again and drove on He thought about the girl and the kid. Maybe Lionel was an old boyfriend of hers. Just some local dirtbag. He hoped she’d be all right. He thought she would be. There were no other cars on the highway. No police cruisers behind him. None hidden in the off-roads scanning for speeders. He drove just over the speed limit and he fixed the cruise control there. They’d probably be looking for his truck. Had the girl seen it? Could she have described it accurately? Probably not. And probably not the little, half-asleep motel clerk either. He didn’t know what options he had beyond driving. None at all, he guessed. After nightfall, he pulled off at another motel. Before he even parked a woman waved at him from the sidewalk. He rolled down his window and looked at the woman. She wore a long t-shirt that bagged around her body. Her hair was thin and ratty and she smoked a cigarette. Her eyes rolled like she was on something. He looked at her but did not speak. “You got a flashlight?” she asked, brown teeth visible. “What for?” he asked. “My friend is asleep in the room and he locked me out.” “What do you need a flashlight for?” “I can see him on the bed, I wanna try and wake him up through the window.” 70

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“Knock on the door,” Pike said. “He’s deaf. I need a flashlight.” “Get another key from the office.” “I don’t want to do that,” she said. “I don’t have a flashlight.” “Yes you do.” He rolled up his window. She walked back to the room door. Damn it. She’d probably break into his truck at some point tonight. He quit that motel and found a different one. He rented a room and checked his wound in the mirror. It was shallow and would not leave a scar. He looked at himself, his chest, his tattoos. Prison had hardened his body. He showered and slept. He dreamt about his father. He dreamt about being young and the first car he and his dad repaired together—a little VW. Pike woke and stepped out to the balcony. He stood there in the night and held the railing and looked out the little strip malls and the small glitter of the city beyond that. He stepped back inside and shut the door behind him. He washed his face and set to shaving but stopped himself. He quit the idea and decided to grow a beard. Better start changing your appearance. He drove on in the morning. He ate at a café and the woman poured him coffee in a ceramic mug. She brought him biscuits and gravy and a fried steak. He asked if they could switch the egg with some fruit or something. “Don’t like eggs?” she asked. “No ma’am. Not since I was little.” “Well, I know he’s got no fruit back there. I can bring you a little dish of cottage cheese.” “That’ll work.” “All right then.” Folded sheets of newspaper were fanned on the countertop down from him. It didn’t seem to be anyone’s paper. He reached over and took it and began to read while he waited for his food. It was a business section and all the companies in the articles were companies he’d never heard of before. Couldn’t guess their industries from their names. He set down the paper and the waitress came back and set the plate down in front of him. She poured more coffee and asked “Where you headed?” He shrugged. “Nowhere special.” “Sugar, you’re there.” Lane Kareska

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He smiled at her and stirred cream into the coffee. He drove through the Indian reservations and crossed into Arizona. His heart boomed when he saw a police car but it passed him and that was that. Days of driving. He spent the money he’d piled in a secret bank account before he’d been incarcerated. Somewhere along the way he decided he would need to leave the country. Mexico or Canada. Hell, even Europe. He could buy a plane ticket, be gone. Never think about any of it again. If only it was that simple. If they ever caught up with him they’d toss his ass back in for leaving the state. The best thing in his life, he knew, was also the worst thing. He thought hard about it and decided that it was likely that no one was actively looking for him. There was a warrant surely, but perhaps they’d not pursue. No living family to speak of. No visible future. Pike imagined if he stayed still long enough he’d simply dissolve into the world, like ice in a glass of water. Become something simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. Alive and dead, here and not. An in-between kind of living. Would that be curse or blessing? He drove up toward Seattle. Stopped in a town, bought fresh clothes, visited a bookstore, looked at maps. He could make it into Canada. He could get rid of this truck. Cash out. Walk away. Early in the evening, he returned to his motel. He parked the truck and carried his shopping bag full of two travel books and one folding map toward the room. He followed the walkway and saw no one. He stopped at room 3, his. He unlocked the door and opened it and stepped inside. He shut the door and set the plastic shopping bag on the bed. He flipped the key onto the bed and a man he’d never seen before stepped out of the bathroom wielding a silver pistol. The man was old and wide. He wore no facial expression at all. Just open blue eyes. He wore a white paper jumpsuit like the kind golf caddies wore. He wore blue latex gloves and clean white tennis shoes and a dark ski cap. He held the silenced pistol at his waist. The skin of his face was rocky and pale. He was in his sixties. Pike stopped dead and he knew this moment was likely his last. The man in white nodded at Pike. He said, “Sit on the bed.” His voice was clear and grim, nearly sad. Pike could make a run for the door, haul it open and sprint. But at this distance, he thought, he would be easily put down. Pike sat on the bed. “Place your hands on your knees,” the man in white said. Pike did so. He sat as straight-backed as a courtroom witness. The man in white dragged the little desk chair and sat it six feet away, 72

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turned it to face Pike. The man in white sat down and rested the pistol on his knee. “James Augustus Pike?” the man in white asked. “That ain’t me,” Pike said. The man in white gave a soft, grandfatherly smile—nearly congratulating him with his eyes. “I know it is. I know all about you.” Pike said not a word. His heart hammered and each crashing beat drenched his body in a wave of cold panic. He swallowed and contained it, held it back, kept his breath steady. “You got in a fight six days ago,” the man in white said, “with my son, Lionel Brewster.” The cowboy in the motel. Luna Anne. “You pierced his brain with a shard of his own skull,” the man in white said. “He’s in a coma now. That was my son. He’ll be dead any day.” Pike inhaled slowly. He drew in the air and let it fill his lungs; let it occupy that space like a cinder block in his chest. “He was gonna hurt that girl,” Pike said. “That girl? What do you know? Who are you?” the man in white said slowly. “Nobody,” Pike said honestly. “Nobody. Nobody from nowhere. Is that what you say?” The man in white leaned forward. “You’re not James Pike from Harver, Texas? Son of Commander Howard Pike and Myra Jane Pike? James Pike dishonorably discharged from the Marines, convicted of involuntary manslaughter? You’re not wanted for parole violation? You’re not a fugitive? A drifter, a killer?” “What do you want?” Pike asked. “My son is neither alive nor dead. What do you think I want?” “I am sorry. I truly am. I didn’t want to hurt him or anybody.” “But you did,” the man in white said. “And I found you.” Yes. He did find him. In not a great length of time either. The man in white smiled as if he’d seen something flicker in Pike’s face. Some glimmer of recognition that Pike had been bested. “I been a lawman my entire career,” the man in white said. “I have killed two men in my lifetime, righteous kills each. They were low men, like you. Cowards. I know how to find people. I know how to talk to little pieces of trash like Luna Anne—get ‘em to tell me all they know about James Pike and his red Ford truck with a Texas plate. The point is: I’m smarter than you. I’m a better man than you. I have all the right in the world to take your life. Pike inhaled again and began slowly, “Mister, I don’t know you or Lane Kareska

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your son. I didn’t mean to hurt him. I just want to leave. You ain’t ever gonna have to see me again. It’ll be just like I’m dead.” The man’s eyes bloomed with pleasure. “Yes, that’s true.” Pike saw no outs. Just two men in a room, one armed, one not. “The last few days,” the man in white said, “I been talking about Lionel like he’s already dead himself. Folks have been telling me not to. People say stay positive. Well, look: I know Lionel wasn’t perfect. He had his problems, like any man. But he was my son. Can you understand that, Pike? Do you know what I feel now when I look at you?” “No,” Pike said. “No, I don’t.” The man scratched his face and nodded. After a long moment the man in white asked, “Do you regret it? Do you regret what you did to him?” “I regret it.” “I believe you. I do, Mr. Pike. I don’t think you meant to hurt him. I don’t think you were even looking for trouble that night. But, here it is, trouble found you, didn’t it? It always does, right? I have sympathy. I do. I know about men like you. I know that cursed men walk this earth. Violence seeks you out. Evil uses you to do its work. Men like you are not evil, but you are evil’s body. Evil uses men like you. You’re a cursed man. It ain’t your fault. I want you to be comforted by that. You are not stronger than what works through you.” Pike stared straight ahead at the man with the pistol. The man reached into the pocket of his coveralls and withdrew a pair of pruning shears. They were small and dark, no bigger than a pair of heavy scissors. “I’m going to let you buy your way out of this,” the man said. Pike looked at the shears. The man in white tossed them onto the bed beside Pike. “All it will cost you are your fingers.” Pike put his eyes on the man’s and fixed them there. “I’ll help you with the final ones. But you must start on your own. Your hands will commit no evil again,” the man said. “This will ensure that. We’ll do this together. We’ll collaborate.” Pike looked at the shears, then back at the man. He kept silent a long moment then said, “I could rush you.” The man in white raised his chin a bit, judging Pike. “Maybe even get to you before you cut me down,” Pike said. “That what you wanna do?” the man asked. “You want to risk it? Or you want to do the right thing? Stop the curse with me. Let’s commit an act 74

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of good together.” Pike eyed the distance. Imagined plowing straight into the old man, turning the pistol on him. Could he do it? How many rounds would the man in white put into him before he got there? Pike took up the shears. The man nodded. “Do the good thing.” Pike held the shears in his right hand. Both hands trembled. He opened the mouth of the shears and slowly fit the pinky of his left hand between the blades. The metal felt cold and dull against his skin. Pike held the shears at the bone just above the knuckle. Was this real? Was he really being made to do this? He looked into the man’s china blue eyes and squeezed the arms of the shears with all his strength. He squeezed and waited for the snap. In the fallen night, the motel held silent. Almost no lights shone from any of the rooms. A few run-out cars sat parked outside by Pike’s truck. The distant tear of the highway was the only sound. Streetlights winked their sequences in silence. The door of room 3 kicked open. Reeling, Pike stumbled out. He fell to one knee on the pavement. He hugged his chest with his left arm, squeezing the hand in his armpit. His shirt was all stained with blood. A thin rill of gun smoke issued from the bullet hole in his shoulder. Pike spat and struggled to his feet. He staggered to his truck and unlocked it with his right hand. He eased himself into the driver’s seat and turned the ignition. Cold blood slid all down his back and filled the creases of the seat. His shoulder felt to be exploding in white-hot pain. Bastard. Pike cranked it into reverse and gassed it. He backed over the curb. The truck bounced and trundled then stopped. He pulled it into drive and hauled off toward the highway. His truck swerved all across the breadth of the road. He held up his mangled hand to examine the stumps. Three fingers gone. The pain in the shoulder spread to his chest and back in thick, ropy tendrils. He had no idea where he was driving. Perhaps he’d get himself to a hospital. Perhaps he’d crash on the way. Perhaps he’d simply keep driving as long as he kept conscious. You’re a cursed man. You’re a cursed man. Curses? His father had told him of a curse once. Lane Kareska

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Little Bastard. The car James Dean drove. The car in which James Dean died. An old model Porsche Spyder. A little silver piece of work—the young star tore across the breast of the California desert and met his end. Little Bastard was sold and divided up several times. Everywhere a piece of the car went disaster and death fell also. Parts were installed in race cars that exploded or failed and killed their drivers and bystanders as well. The remains were crated and sent away by truck. And for reasons unknown, that truck swerved off the road and that driver and several other motorists were killed. The car was put on display outside a high school. It fell and killed bystanding students. A vandal’s artery was fatally opened by the car’s jagged edges when he tried to steal the blood-stained steering wheel. And somewhere along the way, Little Bastard just vanished. The cursed car just disappeared. It is everywhere and nowhere. Its scraps and shrapnel have been sold off and transplanted from car to car, its organs divided and redivided so that who is to say what car could not bear some of the curse? But also, it is whole and alive and driving through the desert beneath the stars and their circuit; claiming lives all the time. A mindless force, unreasonable as anything. What is the reason. What is the purpose. Pike floored the gas pedal and slid down the road. Stars and streetlights merged into neon lines, endless spears of light, as if he was plunging through the cosmos. As if he’d left his body already. Pike leaned over the bloody steering wheel as if in prayer.

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Michael Repoulis

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BILLIONS OF WAYS ELIZABETH O’BRIEN

My sister, Sil, she can frazzle me like nobody else: whining how the comet shimmer tails are blinding, or my corona’s too too hot. She thinks the ones on Blue love her better than me, ‘cause she’s cool silver and (to hear her) that’s superior to hot hot gold. I’m like fire, I say to her, which those little ones knows is a big deal; they danced and threw their hands up when they first got a blaze going to roast on. So let it go, little girl, let it go. She says she’s made of lightning, but come on, when do you hear the little ones thrill over lightning? They screech like dustfields and dive for cover and damned if they shouldn’t; one good crackle burns them to bits. She frazzles me good, little Silver; and you want to know the truth, it’s just as much her fault what happened as mine. Pop used to say, Let it go, be nice to her. He’d remind me that she’s the little one. And I know he’s right, and I try. Oh, do I try. Sometimes I can tune her out; I like to watch the ones on Blue, the way they swarm the green and slipper the blue just at the edges. Funny to hear them figure things out; so much they figure so wrong. They think Pop made their oh-so-blue Rock all at once. Ha! That’s not how it happened, things flying from Pop’s hands fully formed, no! He mashed out a hunk of warm rock and then brewed a thick stew to pour on it, and he said to me and Sil, You keep an eye. Left Sil and I to light up the Blue: Sil on one side and me on the other, and the Blue spinning slow in between us. Then off he went mashing out more lumpy rocks, saying, this one I called Red, this one I call Purple, and so on. He swirled gassy trails and sped off to start new galaxies, with this one not even done yet. He’s been gone since—who knows where—leaving us alone in the empty sky. For the longest time it was just me and Sil and 78

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rocks and dust and gas and nothing doing. We used to toss rocks addy-up over Blue to pass the time. Then Sil said, Look! The stew down there’s moving! Sure enough, when I looked real hard I saw the soup shifting and bubbling, and then that’s when things started to happen. Bits of pokey green sprung up, little toots of gasses, and bitty crawly things started coming out of the broth. Pop knew what he was doing, of course, but it took a long awful time getting going! So finally we got scuttle-things big and bigger; they were a hoot, all crawling and eating each other. But one slip of a rock and Foom! They all die right out, and were we ever sad to see them go. Won’t see us chuck rocks around the Blue anymore, cause it’s a long nothing again, Blue going round slow as death, and nothing to do but shine and keep an eye. Finally green things come again; I can’t tell you how glad we were for those tender shoots of green. Time went by, went by, and there were little things crawly and flying, and we just watch them come, me and Sil, near scared to move. So there we are, and now the Blue has little ones and milkers and grasses and whippers. So many things. It keeps getting better, everyone killing and eating and working all hours everyday. And we light the sky every hour, Sil on one side and me on the other, the Blue spinning slow in between. But Sil’s downright fractious these last thousand years, pouting why’s Pop gone so long, and how come we don’t have rings like the Big Ringed Rock. Wouldn’t Sil just love rings on her, she says. Not enough she’s silver like lightning. Tell you, it’s enough to frazzle anybody. That’s why I did what I did; I’m watching them haul rocks on Blue when here comes Sil saying, Look at them, doing whatever they please and no order to it. If I had rings I’d rule them all. Nonsense, I say, Pop rules us all and you know it. Him, she pouts, Where’s he been? Hush, I say, Hush up and keep an eye like he told us. Keep an eye, keep an eye, she says, singsong. And I have a flash of millions more eons and hours of Sil, always Sil, burning her smart little light on things we’ve got no say over, why can’t she have rings and why comet tails blind her, and why won’t Pop come back. I sure don’t know where he is; he said only he was going to grow the galaxy some. So why’s she got to make such a fuss? I do it before I know what I’m doing, before I can simmer down—I Elizabeth O’Brien

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pop her. I knock her and wow, she doesn’t see it coming. She scuds backward, hurdling rocks and gases through space and can’t stop herself, she’s a blur of silver light spreading over the sky. When she stops, she’s just a little white orb, and her side of the Blue’s gone dark. The little ones panic; they scream in terror and dive for cover. Soon as I hit her I feel bad; I didn’t really mean it. Would have stopped myself if I could. But I’m twice, three times as sorry when I see how pale she is: see what I’ve really done. Because her silver light’s splintered all over the sky, shimmering bit here, bit there, bit everywhere. My light, she yells, my light! Don’t cry, I holler back to her. Look at me, she wails, I’m like a ghost in the sky! She struggles through the black and I watch her pick up a single silver chit. There are billions across the dark, alight like white flicker-flames. Sil, I say, I’m so sorry. I’ll help you. How can you help? she cries, You can’t even light the whole Blue. Just look, my half ’s dark down below! She scrambles to pick up light, a piece at a time, and I look back at the Blue. They’ve curled on the ground and shut fast their eyes, and I get scared I’ve killed them once and for all. What would Pop say? But where my light shines is business as usual, and the Blue spins slow, and the dark come to light and behold, everyone rises back to life. The ones coming to dark, before long they’re lying in the sweetgrass in stupor. I tell Sil, Things are okay on the Blue; I really think they’re okay. She’s still picking up her light, mooning, a sad, pale thing. I tell her, Don’t worry, little moony girl, my little moon, I’ll help you. And I will, I’ll help her get her light back, because I’m real sorry for what I’ve done. Think I’ll ever shine bright like lightning again? Sil asks, sad-faced and small in the sky. I tell her, Sil, don’t worry. You will. And anyway, they all still love you best. They do? Look, I say, Look at them lying on the ground just to gaze up at you. Are they? she asks. They are, I say, They sure are. I tell her, You’re the most beautiful thing they know; you’re the whole sky. Just look at you, look how you shine in billions of ways. 80

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Geremy George

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THE LONG, BAD GOOD FRIDAY JON WESICK

It was late April, and the owners of cluttered homes were too busy thinking of chocolate Easter bunnies to employ a professional organizer. Even the criminals seemed to take the month off, preferring a walk in the flower fields to theft, extortion, or murder. All this left me with nothing to do. After reorganizing my case files, I drove to the Container Store in Mission Valley to keep up to date with the latest advances in household storage. For me, combining my passions of fighting clutter and fighting crime seemed natural. Like the old catalog you can’t bring yourself to throw away, the criminal takes up precious space, space better suited for the easy chair of economic prosperity or the throw pillows of art and culture. He needs to be stored where he belongs—jail, or better yet, the morgue. I left the storage room of Adolfo’s Mexican Bakery which housed my tiny office, drove down Roosevelt, and got on the I-5 at Carlsbad Village Drive. When my Volvo got up to 65 miles per hour, the steering wheel began shimmying like a topless dancer at a limbo contest, so I slowed down and pulled into the right lane. Until I caught some cases and earned enough money for Al from Al’s Auto Body and Copier Repair to fix the car’s torn rotator cuff, I’d have to put up with the blaring horns and extended middle fingers from my fellow drivers. Ah spring! It brings out the best in people. I took the Friars Road exit and parked in front of the Container Store. A boy dressed in a silk robe and dog-eared hat of a Taoist sage stood by the automatic doors. “Lao Tzu said, ‘A vessel is useful for what it is not.’” 82

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Sheer poetry! For what did the Container Store sell if not emptiness? Still, the lad’s words would have seemed more profound had it not been for his blonde hair, blue eyes, and smattering of acne on his chin. I pegged him for a part-timer, no doubt more interested in Radiohead than organizing and the Eternal Tao. For him, putting everything in its place was not the spiritual experience that it was for me. However, I forgot these musings once I was inside. A 10 mg IV of Valium couldn’t have calmed me more than wandering through the sparkling aisles stocked with the latest in storage technology. Shelves, boxes, milk crates; the razor blades of daily frustration sheathed themselves. If only the whole world could be made this neat and tidy! Sadly, the plastic shortage that had stemmed the tide of credit card offers and public hypocrisy had also raised the price of food-storage jars beyond my budget. I needed a case soon. I left the kitchen section, came upon a display of acrylic shoe boxes, lifted one from the stack, and turned it over in my hands. Ah, the simplicity of design. The perfection of geometry! If I went without ramen lunches for the next two weeks, I could take it home with me. I set it down reluctantly. For now I could only dream. When I was in the office section, I got a call on my cell phone asking me to go to the Carlsbad Library, not the old extension on Carlsbad Village Drive but the main branch on Dove Lane by the La Costa 6 Theaters. I was to meet with the Chief Librarian herself. Why had I been worried? City hall always needed someone to clean up their messes and I was their guy. As I chugged up the 805 toward the merge, I reflected on what I knew about the Chief Librarian Maude Gallagher. A political appointee with little hands-on experience, she’d enraged the veteran librarians who’d been passed over for the leadership post. She had a reputation for getting tough jobs done with a take-no-prisoners attitude. When I arrived at the library, I approached a stooped man at the reference desk. A silver chain that looped over his neck kept his glasses from wandering away, and his gray hair was cut like an ancient Roman’s. “Decker,” I said. “Here to see Maude Gallagher.” He scowled at the mention of the chief librarian and ushered me into a mahogany-walled office located near the self-help section. “Ah, Mr. Decker. So good of you to come.” Maude stood up from behind a cluttered, oak desk and took my hand in a firm grip. “Care for a scotch?” Without waiting for a reply, she poured two tumblers from a crystal decanter and handed one to me. “Glenlivet. The mayor has it flown in from Edinburgh.” I took a sip. It was smooth, smooth as the skin on her face. She was a Jon Wesick

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handsome woman with salt-and-pepper hair and an athletic body that had me believing she could crush beer cans in her vagina. If this wasn’t a professional visit, I’d have cleared the papers off her oak desk and made love to her right there. But why would a rich and powerful woman like her be interested in a guy like me, a guy who when he goes looking for love comes away with a Swiffer mop and a package of vacuum cleaner bags? “Mr. Decker, I need your help.” “Of course! I’d start with the papers on your desk. Divide them into three piles: those you have to work on, those that are optional and less than two weeks old, and the optional ones that have been around longer. Then, every two weeks throw away the third pile.” “No, Mr. Decker. It’s about books. In spite of Miss Ridley’s reservations about how you handled the Kite Runner affair, I’ve decided to give you another chance.” “Cut the crap, babe! We both know I’m not here for some run-of-themill overdue book case,” I retorted. The secret of dealing with the powerful is to show them they don’t intimidate you. I could tell my strategy was working by the way she squeezed her lips together. “Not for one overdue book, no.” She turned her computer display so that I could see. “Look at this.” It was a list of over a hundred overdue books featuring titles like: Entropy by Design checked out by Pat McGroin, a Law and Order – Victimless Crime Unit DVD set checked out by Seymour Butts, and Chicken Soup for the Sociopathic Soul checked out by Mike Rotch. Other offenders had aliases like Sarah Bellum and C.F. Icare. “Somebody’s forging library cards.” “Exactly! I want you to find out who and terminate their library privileges.” She handed me an envelope packed with one-dollar bills. “Terminate them with extreme prejudice.” “Don’t worry, babe. Once I get my teeth into a case, I’m like a terrier with a vacuum cleaner nozzle.” I withdrew my .50-caliber Desert Eagle from my shoulder holster and jacked a round into the chamber. The special ammo could drop a charging rhino. It had just the sort of stopping power the forces of righteousness needed to keep the elephants out of the atrium. “I’ll need the addresses and phone numbers from the bogus application forms.” “Already done. See Brad on your way out.” When I was halfway through the door, she added, “I trust I can count on your discretion. I don’t need to tell you the panic that would occur if news of this got out.” “Of course.” On my way out I stopped at the reference desk. 84

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“Her highness wanted me to give you these.” The male librarian lisped dragging his s’s out like a Spaniard from Barthelona. He handed me a stack of photocopied library card applications. “I take it you’re not too fond of her.” “For God’s sake! She thought The Life of Pi deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature. Please!” Then he turned his attention to the teenage girl with magenta hair standing behind me as she asked, “Does ear wax melt like other wax and can you use it in soup?” I left Brad to his duties and stopped for meat and cookies at the F Street Café before returning to the office and examining the applications. From the different handwritings, I concluded I was dealing with a conspiracy and not a deranged, lone reader. I dialed one of the phone numbers and got a recorded message saying it was out of order. A man with a gravelly voice answered when I dialed the second. “Committee to re-elect Duke Cunningham.” “Yes, is Euripides Pants there?” He hung up. More calls would get me nowhere, so I drove to some of the addresses listed on the applications. The first took me to a cable company. I didn’t go in. Those guys wouldn’t know a book if it crawled out of their sphincter. The second address was an empty lot on Hemlock. The third was a warehouse in an industrial park off Palomar Airport Road. I scouted its perimeter, noticed two workers putting old computers in the back of an unmarked step van at the loading dock, circled to the front, and entered the lobby. A plastic plant with leaves in need of dusting stood by the door. I began neatening the magazines on the coffee table. Without some silver mesh magazine files, it was the best I could do. When I turned over a copy of Field and Stream, I came upon a sight that chilled my heart into a twenty-pound frozen turkey. It was how I remembered it from that fateful day – the yellow border and glossy photo of Africa on the cover. I set down the copy of National Geographic faster than I’d drop a Gila monster with halitosis,and I quickly turned to the receptionist. “So what is this place?” I asked. “It’s a charity. We send old PCs to Nigeria to help struggling entrepreneurs start businesses.” “Have any luck?” “Some.” She pointed to a photo of a man balancing a loaf of bread on his head displayed in a simple, acrylic box frame. “That’s Barrister Mbiko. He started an e-mail business soliciting partners to free money from abandoned bank accounts. He pulls in more than three million a year. “Do you have an employee named,” I looked at the application in my Jon Wesick

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hand, “Hugh G. Rection?” They should have hired a receptionist who was more polite to the general public. Her cold reaction told me I wouldn’t find any answers there. There was only one thing to do: return to the library. On my way, I stopped at the office and checked the mail. I had a letter from the library saying I owed a $70,000 fine for the overdue book The Ruins of Machu Pikachu, a book I’d never seen before. Clearly someone was trying to scare me off. But who? When I got to the library, a woman I hadn’t seen before was standing behind the reference desk. Breasts, shoulders, and hips - everything about her was filed in the right place. She had hair the color of Birch Elfa shelving, eyes as blue as a Polo desk chair, and a body as ergonomic as a Good Grip grout brush. “Name’s Decker.” I handed her the photocopies of the forged library card applications. “I need a list of all the books loaned to these patrons. It’s for the Chief Librarian’s special project.” “Of course, Mr. Decker. I’ll just be a minute.” While she was getting the list, I reflected on the state of relations between the sexes. I realized I’d cut off my own uvula with a pair of rusty scissors for a woman like her. But what was the chance she’d fall for a down-on-his-luck private eye/professional organizer with a bad credit rating and one un-descended testicle? She returned a few minutes later, set a stack of papers on the desk, and leaned forward giving me a view down her shirt. “Here you go.” “Thanks.” I thumbed through the documents. “I’m Fiona, by the way.” She fanned her cleavage with a withdrawal slip. “It sure is hot in here. I could take these clothes right off.” She yawned and stretched. “This heat makes me sleepy. I feel like going back to my place and crawling into bed. What about you, Decker? You feel like taking a nap?” “No, I have work to do.” I bid Fiona goodbye and headed out. What a beauty! It was a pity she’d never go for a forty-eight-year-old guy like me,with a prolapsed colon who lived in a crummy studio apartment with his mother and whose bank account rarely got above the double digits. I hit the used bookstores on Carlsbad Village Drive to see if the missing library books had made it into their inventory. The Christian bookstore was a wash. But when I entered the Black Octopus, my psychic antenna received a trouble signal reading ten over seven. Maybe it was how the books were askew on the cluttered sale table or maybe it was the owner’s tiny, pig- like eyes. Either way I was on my guard as I approached the counter. “I’m looking for Eulogy for a Dead Plant. You have it?” 86

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“Nope.” The owner crossed his beefy forearms over his chest. “How about The Great Capybara Rebellion of 1911?” “Sorry.” “Mind if I look around?” “It’s a free country.” I wandered the stacks until a suspicious looking book in the cooking section caught my eye. I double-checked the printout. Indeed, The Feminist Collective Placenta Cookbook was on the list of overdue books. As I bent to retrieve it from the bottom shelf, I heard the rack of a pump-action shotgun. Milliseconds later its blast shredded copies of Julia Child and The Joy of Cooking just inches over my head. I rolled, drew my .50 caliber Desert Eagle, and sighted-in on the fleeing bookstore owner. I got off two wild shots, but he was already out the door. I ran after him down Roosevelt, past a skateboarder clutching a gunshot wound to his arm and into the crowded farmers’ market. A finger poke to the throat and two quick elbows to the face cleared the Cub Scout leader and his troop from my path. Overturning baby strollers and shoving grandmothers in wheelchairs out of the way, I pursued the bookstore owner past Yummy Fudge and the 911 Tamale Stand but couldn’t get a clear shot. He took cover behind a pyramid of Granny Smith apples, raised his shotgun, and click. “Game’s up!” I inched forward, my pistol aimed at his head. “Put down the shotgun and come out with your hands in the air.” The bookstore owner stared at the defective weapon that had betrayed him. As he bent to set it down, a shot rang out and he collapsed. Shoppers screamed and threw themselves to the ground, their artisan breads and organic tomatoes making an Abstract Expressionist collage of terror on the pavement that would have done Jackson Pollock proud. Frantically, I looked through doorways and open windows, searching for anything that would give the assassin’s location away. I heard the whine of a dirt bike’s engine and fired two rounds at the receding, leather-clad rider with a TEC9 slung over his shoulder. My shots went wide, shattering the Washington Mutual Bank’s plate glass window and setting off the car alarm of a late-model Audi in the parking lot. In the aftermath of the shooting I sat on the curb while police radios squawked from squad cars and officers took witnesses’ statements. In his off hours Detective Kobo Dashiki split his time between African dance and studying for the Shingon Buddhist priesthood. I sensed trouble at the first sight of his rumpled suit jacket. “You know, Detective, with some closet organizers your clothes Jon Wesick

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wouldn’t get so wrinkled.” “You’ve gone too far, Decker. Your karma’s finally caught up with you. This time I’m yanking your PI license.” “I don’t think so. I got juice with city hall.” With my thumb and index finger I inched my cell phone out of my jacket pocket, dialed the chief librarian, and handed it to Dashiki. “Is a PI named Decker working for you?” Dashiki’s smile sagged like a stalk of celery kept outside a Curver Food Storage Container. “Yes, Ma’am. I understand.” He returned my cell phone. “I guess you’re free to go.” Then a manic gleam came to his eyes. “But I’ll need to keep your pistol for evidence.” I handed it over. There was no other way. True, I still had the “Baby” Glock I wore on my ankle—its hollow-point bullets could leave an exit wound the size of a 7 ½” x 6 ½” x 3 ½” clear storage box– but, without my .50 caliber Desert Eagle, I was vulnerable. I had to solve this case before the assassin took advantage of my weakness. Clearly, the killer had murdered the bookstore owner to keep him from talking, but there had to be something I was missing, some pattern I wasn’t seeing. On a hunch I dialed the chief librarian. “Maude? Decker. I’ll be in your office in half an hour. Make sure Fiona and Brad are there.” They were all assembled when I got there: Maude digging through the stack of papers on her desk that could benefit from some file organizers, Fiona reclining in an office chair, her legs parted to reveal a glimpse of panties, and Brad standing by the doorway, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “Thank you for meeting me here.” I set my printouts on Maude’s desk. “You may have heard that the owner of the Black Octopus Bookstore was murdered just an hour ago. With his death all my leads have vanished.” Fiona closed her legs, Brad stopped fidgeting, and Maude continued rustling papers. “Then I asked myself, ‘Who would benefit from embarrassing the chief librarian?’” I spun on my heels until I was looking into Brad’s eyes. “The veteran librarians. That’s who!” The reading glasses slipped off Brad’s nose. “If you’re insinuating…” I pulled my Glock from its ankle holster and aimed it at his Mont Blanc distinguished service pen. “As I was saying, the veteran librarians would have the most to gain if 88

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Maude were to lose her job. But which librarian?” I pointed to the printouts. “I cross checked the Library of Congress numbers of the missing books with their locations in the stacks. They all lie between this office and the reference desk!” “All right. I did it…” Brad glanced at Fiona. “Jesus, Fiona! Wear a bra! Your nipples are showing!” And indeed they were. I wanted to fondle them right there in the chief librarian’s office. But why would a woman like Fiona let a guy like me touch her, a guy with an overdue student loan from 1976 and a prostate the size of a canned ham? Taking advantage of the distraction, Brad ran out. I raised my pistol and aimed. “Stop!” Maude said. “You can’t fire a gun in here. It’s a library. You have to be quiet.” I pulled the throwing star from my pocket and flung it at the receding law breaker. A scream came from near the health and wellness section. “Sorry, Mrs. Lundesborg!” It seemed I’d have to apprehend Brad the hard way, unarmed. I drew the bolo knife from my sleeve and ran after him. Nothing motivates a man like fear. Brad ran faster than an Olympic sprinter on steroids. I caught up with him briefly by the magazine display and cut a nick out of his shoulder with my bolo knife, but he toppled the magazine rack in my path tripping me up with two-month old copies of Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. Lungs burning and bunions aching, I chased him through history, current events, and fiction until I cornered him in the reference section. He held me off by throwing volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. When he ran out of ammunition with V through Z, his eyes darted back and forth for something to save him. He fixed on the Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, hoisted it over his head, and turned to face me. “Don’t do anything rash, Brad.” I lowered my knife to appear less threatening. “Put the book down and we’ll talk.” He put it down, all right, right on my head. I went out like the power in the 2003 Northeast blackout. When I came to, I was sprawled on the carpet and Brad was garroting me with microfilm of the San Diego Union Tribune from 1995 to 1998. I scrambled for my bolo knife, but it lay just a fraction of an inch out of reach. If only I could extend my arm… The room began to spin as the lack of oxygen made me woozy. Suddenly, I imagined myself in Donna’s Santa Fe mansion seven years earlier. “So where should we go for our honeymoon?” She raised her body on her elbow so that the sheet fell away. Her breast peeked out of the gap like a Jon Wesick

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one-eyed sea cucumber looking out of its cave, a very lovely sea cucumber indeed. “I know, the Maldives. There was an article some time last year.” Before I could object, she sprang from the bed and pranced into the study. “No!” I ran after her but arrived too late. Like a yellow Niagara Falls of death, thousands of National Geographics tumbled from the overstuffed bookshelf onto her vulnerable body and crushed her into the parquet floor. With the only woman I ever loved gone, I had nothing to live for. I took the Maldives issues from her twitching hand and prepared to bludgeon myself to death. Then I thought of all the innocents victimized by clutter. I could not let what happened to me happen to them. From now on I would dedicate my life to fighting disorder. Hah! I grabbed the knife, severed the microfilm, and buried the blade in Brad’s windpipe. He made a gurgling sound like a garbage disposal chewing on a stainless steel teaspoon. Then he collapsed. I returned, bruised and winded but otherwise in fine spirits, to the chief librarian’s office with news of my success. “Well, if you don’t need me anymore,” Fiona moved toward the door, “I’ll get back to shelving the returns.” “Not so fast, Fiona.” I intercepted her before she could get away. “When I said all of the missing books came from near the reference desk, I left one out, The Feminist Collective Placenta Cookbook, the same Feminist Collective Placenta Cookbook that contains a recipe for Mediterranean Placenta Salad by a Ms. Fiona Blackwell. Brad’s little scheme to embarrass Maude wasn’t enough for you, so you sold the missing books to the Black Octopus Bookstore. And when you thought he’d talk, you killed him.” “Please, Decker.” Fiona got down on her knees. “I had to do it. I needed the money to pay my health insurance premiums. You’ve got to let me go.” “No way, Fiona. You’re going down.” “Okay.” Her tongue traced an arc on her carmine-red lips. “Sounds like fun. You want me to do it here or in the AV room?” I could have helped her if only she’d offered me a sign of contrition. But why would a woman like her offer sexual favors to guy like me, a guy who suffers from both erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation? “I gotta hand it to you, Decker,” Detective Dashiki said, returning my Desert Eagle. “You sure work a crazy investigation. Let’s head down to the Terminal Bar for some brewskies.” 90

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“I’ll meet you in a few hours, Kobo. I have some things to finish up here.” “What could possibly be left?” Maude asked after Detective Daishi hauled Fiona away and the coroner removed Brad’s body. “We still have an hour until closing time—enough to start organizing that desk.” “All right, Decker.” Maude moved close enough for me to smell her perfume, perfume as intoxicating as a hit of cocaine on a brisk, Peruvian morning. “But I must tell you that I took your advice. I put all my clothes in three piles and decided I didn’t need any underwear.” As she swept the papers from her desk and lay back like a flesh-tone desk pad with non- stick backing, I wondered what her game was and more importantly whether I could still bill the city for the hour.

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THIRD PLACE SUDDEN FICTION

DOORWAY MONSTER DANA OSTROWSKI

I move from door to door ringing bells, knocking on wood, and always, always hoping for once somebody will give me the time of day. I cannot begin to tell you how many times a door has been carelessly slammed in my face and how many window’s eyes have dropped the blinds down once they see me. By far the worst is when they actually open the door and tell me to kindly be on my way. It gives me hope and that is cruel. So am I monster? Or some sort of apparition? Perhaps I’m death itself come to collect upon their souls? I find myself almost wishing that were the case! Then at least it'd make sense. Then I could forgive, forget and be on my merry way… but no. No I am but your average ignored door-to-door salesman. Over these years I feel like I have transcended my human form to become this other wandering creature that feeds upon housewives, steals children in the night and tricks innocents. A being that subsists on the broken dreams and financial dependence of middle class suburbia. A most delicious meal fit for a monster that lurks in the shadows and slides paper thin through doorways. It's a sad life being a monster, or rather slowly become this inhuman thing people see me as. Their stares sear me and I feel my flesh start to pucker. I should be growing fangs and scales any day now. Really and truly I should. I am well aware how I manipulate people into buying my wares. I am aware but I cannot afford regret. I cannot afford to stop and I trod on and on from one door to the next. All I can do is try not to scuff their front step with the massive clawed toes that protrude from my polished shoes. I sigh. Dana Ostrowski

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I sigh a lot. The stress makes me sigh. It’s my weapon in development. My sighs can’t yet blow down cities, but sometimes I wonder if they’ll get there. There will come a day when I’ll be standing in front of a potential costumer’s house and when nobody answers I’ll sigh. Then, but then, I’ll watch in horror as my sigh rolls over the neighborhood like a sonic boom leaving only a mass of flattened homes and bloody bodies. I’ll watch a cloud of dust and dirt rise from the ruins to join the clouds... Their deaths will be on my hands. I worry about that more than I should for an upcoming monster… Ah, but the guilt does gnaw and chew at my stomach. On one hand, I have my hurt feelings and conscience that tear me down bit by bit. Then there’s the other hand, the one that thinks of my family and how badly I need this job, and it helps build me back up. Just a little. Just barely enough to keep my human heart from crumbling away into a monstrous sea. This internal dilemma! It may just kill me. Until that day comes, I look into a mirror that reflects a face that is slightly more transformed than the day before. Every morning, as I view my reflection, I can feel myself slipping away. Then I’ll go down to the kitchen, kiss my family good bye, and I’ll exit the house while fixing my tie and sigh at another beginning of another day. Then it’s off to the grind and the eyes of strangers that shall distort my shape even more and I’ll growl like the creature I am surely becoming. I don’t want to be a monster. I want to stay a human even as I can feel it slipping away. It hurts and I want to cry. I want to burrow into the ground where no one can see me, and where I can be left alone. I am scared and insecure. I’m the type of monster that wonders about the future and worries about job security, a mortgage, and whether or not I’ll even have a job in a week. I thought evil creatures had no feelings? I wait for mine to disappear. On my lunch breaks I always go find a park. I go right to the middle of the grass and lie down and stare at the sky. I dream. I dream that I am not transforming. I imagine that I am a wonderful person, a magical person. I’m able to help people and heal ailments. Not a monster, but a human and a friend and I am happy. While I lie there I try very hard not to cry. My dreams make up the thread I use to pull myself through my days. Then I can pull myself to another town, another street, another door, another bell, another welcome mat that lies. I plod on the best I can. Just another monster wearing a suit. Your average everyday door-to-door salesman. 94

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THE GIRLS STEPHANIE TRAIN

“I can’t do this.” Boyd’s mom muttered into the porcelain bowl, the bowl that Boyd cleaned at least once a day for her so she wouldn’t have to stare at vomit stains or hard water buildup. Boyd’s mom had the acute nausea that came a few hours after her chemo. Then, twenty- four hours later she had the delayed vomiting. When they started her on the anti-nausea medication, she had what they called breakthrough vomiting. Boyd made sure she was stocked up on mouthwash and toothpaste so she could freshen her breath and so the enamel on her teeth wouldn’t rot away from the regurgitated acid. One day, after she had vacated the contents of her stomach, Boyd’s mom looked up at him. “I want to get the marijuana.” “Come on, Ma,” Boyd said, offering her a warm, wet washcloth. “I mean it, Boyd, I want to try the pot. I’ve been reading about it on the internet.” “It’s just pot mom, not the pot.” “Do you know where to get it?” “No, of course not,” Boyd said. She looked at him with her red-rimmed eyes, hunched over the toilet bowl. She had wet spots on the front of her gray sweatshirt from drool or backsplash. Her hair, what was left of it, was pulled back into a thin, wiry-looking ponytail. Boyd could see patches of scalp beginning to show, patches that grew bigger and bigger every day. She eyed him for a moment, her bottom lip protruding forward in an exaggerated pout. She inhaled and opened her mouth to speak, but another heave erupted from her insides. 96

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Once Boyd’s mom had finished, the quiet hung in the air between them. She stared into the toilet water. When Boyd was nine his mother had taken him to the amusement park to ride the Magic Mustang, an old-time, rickety wooden roller coaster--the fastest and wildest ride this side of the Continental Divide, the sign said. Boyd and his mom sat in the back seat as the coaster rattled up that first incline. Once they reached the top, time had slowed for Boyd as the cars in front of him began to disappear over the gigantic hill. He’d learned about Columbus crossing the ocean in school--that people still thought the Earth was flat and if you sailed too far, you would drop off the edge of the world. Boyd clenched his mom’s hand, watching the cars in front of him continue to vanish. He began screaming, “Off the map! Off the map!” When the last car had cleared the hill, Boyd remembered a rush that swept through his mouth and nostrils, boiling deep inside his gut. He hadn’t thrown up until after he stumbled off the ride, heaving into a nearby garbage can. His mother had rubbed firm, comforting circles on his back. “You are so brave, Boyd,” she told him that day, and when he looked up, the sun shone from behind her giving her a robust, golden aura. Now, he was the one rubbing her back, his meaty hand big and clumsy on her small, diminishing frame. “I’m not a person anymore,” she finally said. “I’m poison. I’m full of poison. What’s a little pot going to do to me?” This was the woman who had started in with the “just say no” sermons before Boyd could talk. In his baby book she had written a note to him, on the back page in careful letters, “don’t you ever ever do drugs.” Now she was asking him about pot, or rather the pot, the gateway drug, the one thing she had begged him never to try, a big heaping slice of ruin-yourbright-future all rolled up inside a thin, white paper. “Okay,” he finally said, and while she was taking her afternoon rest, Boyd called to make the appointment. Boyd was convinced that the doctor would discourage his mother, give her lectures about what marijuana could do to the brain, to the lungs. It wasn’t as though Boyd actually believed these things, but he couldn’t imagine his mom sitting in her living room toking up on an oily- looking water bong, watching poorly-drawn cartoons on some kiddie channel. “It could help with the nausea,” the doctor told them both. Boyd’s mother, who had been slumped on the examination table, now straightened up. “There’s a pill,” the doctor said. “Marinol.” That’s all Boyd needed to hear, a pill that his mother could obtain through legitimate means—through a pharmacist—a pill that would keep her from puking, that might lend her a small bit of normalcy. Stephane Train

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“I could go shopping for myself again,” she told Boyd in the car ride over to Drug-Rite. “I could keep on top of the housework. I could eat. We could go to Wu’s again. God, Sesame Chicken.” She clutched the written prescription in her hand. “Keep the window up,” she said, afraid that the scrap of paper might fly out of her hand. When they got to the pharmacist, Boyd’s mother pushed the prescription across the counter, keeping her fingers on the edge of the paper until the pharmacist had it safely in hand. Boyd stood behind his mom, towering over her, using his height to protect the delicate transaction. He tossed the occasional glance over his shoulder, half expecting to see one of the neighbors or someone who sat in a cubicle next to him in the IT department of the local stock broker firm where Boyd worked. The pills came in glossy white and they reminded Boyd of a jellybean with the letters UM stamped on the side. They sat on his mother’s coffee table next to a glass half full of tap water. She looked at them, hands folded in her lap, then took a pill in between her thumb and first finger, licked her lips and popped it in her mouth. When she swallowed, she looked at Boyd and nodded. “Okay.” Boyd sat with her at her behest, to make sure she was alright. Every five minutes she turned to him and said, “I don’t know if it’s working. How will I know it’s working?” Boyd went over the prescription literature with her again, reading side effects and warnings: confusion; decreased coordination; dizziness; drowsiness; elevated or relaxed mood; headache; trouble concentrating; weakness. A half hour passed, then a full hour. “It’s not working,” she said. Her eyes began to tear up. “Give it some time, Ma,” he told her, reaching out to squeeze her shoulder. “It’s not fucking working!” She broke down into sobbing spasms. Her whole body shook and she hid her face in her hands. Her frame, once robust like her hair, had thinned. She reminded him of a starved vulture, arched over, frail with hollow bird-bones, rocking back and forth on the cream-colored cushions of the sofa. He tried to hold her but she kept pushing him away. She had always been the pillar of the family, the “bread and butter” as Boyd liked to call her. Boyd hadn’t known his father, a man who had left well before Boyd was born. Now, Boyd watched his mom sob on the couch, the bones on her back forming humpy points under the thick fabric of her peach colored cardigan. “I’ll get some pot,” he told her so quietly that he wasn’t sure she could hear him over her own wailing. She stopped and looked at him with 98

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her raw nose and her blue-gray eyes lambent in the redness surrounding them. “I’ll get some pot.” “Some real pot?” “Some real pot.” Boyd got her a small baggie full of marijuana and a package of rolling papers, both of which he bought through a friend named Eddie at work. The doctor wasn’t willing to write a script for the “real stuff,” said he didn’t want the legal risks. When Boyd asked for a referral, the doctor shrugged. “You probably won’t find one willing, not without a lot of leg work.” When Boyd confirmed the price with Eddie, he went to his mom who, in turn, placed two brand new twenty-dollar bills on the dining room table next to a cup of cooling ginseng tea. She sat at her piano, a bright, limegreen scarf wrapped around her head. “That’s all it costs?” she asked as she moved her fingers over the yellowing-ivory keys. “That’s all,” Boyd said. He watched her play. It was a familiar tune, a light tune, Für Elise or Chopin’s Minute Waltz. “Is it bad? What we’re doing?” she asked, stopping her fingers mid-tune. Boyd thought for a few moments, thought about her in the bathroom, her head in the toilet, tears and snot streaming down her face. “No, Ma,” he finally said. “No.” Boyd’s mom smoked her first joint in the bathroom with the door shut and the ventilation fan on high. She sat on the toilet with the lid down and Boyd leaned against the sink, arms folded. “How do I do it? Like a cigarette?” she asked, looking first to the joint then to the lighter. “You are supposed to hold it in,” Boyd told her. “How do we know it’s okay?” She looked at the joint then sniffed it. “Maybe it’s laced with something. What if I hallucinate?” “It’s not laced,” Boyd told her. “Look, you wanted to do this. Put it down the toilet if you don’t.” She flicked the lighter and put the joint in her mouth, lit the end and inhaled. Smoke shot out of her nose as she folded into a coughing fit. Her body convulsed in spasms as she hacked and wheezed. Boyd filled a paper Daisy cup with water and handed it to her. Once she caught her breath she took a sip. “You alright?” he asked. She nodded and lit the joint again, this time drawing the smoke in slowly and holding it for a few seconds before blowing it out. Her eyelids fluttered shut. “Ma?” Boyd knelt down in front of her. Her eyes, still watery from the coughing, opened and she nodded. “I get it now,” she said. “Get what? Is it working? How do you feel?” “I get it.” Her expression relaxed into a lazy radiance. Boyd helped her Stephane Train

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into the living room and lay her down on the couch, placing his grand mother’s old knitted afghan over her. Her face, Boyd thought, was a mask of serenity and he was suddenly on that roller coaster again, climbing the hill. That day, he had looked over at his mom, her hair covered with a sheer pink scarf, bobby-pinned in place. Her eyes were shut against the late morning light. She had smiled then, a smile so tranquil that Boyd had almost forgotten the edge of the world and the falling cars in front of him. Twice a month, Boyd would buy more pot from his friend, Eddie, at work: $40 a bag. But, when Eddie lost his job for pissing a dirty urine test, Boyd started looking into alternatives. It wasn’t that he was worried about a dirty test—he had no interest in smoking himself—but losing his job was not an option, not when his mom had medical bills and food bills and drug bills that were flooding the tiny mailbox of her condominium, costs her insurance carrier didn’t cover. Boyd made trips to the library to use the internet anonymously. He searched for information on states where medical marijuana had been legalized, even thought about packing her up, moving her away, so she could continue smoking. While he perused decriminalization blogs and skimmed through advertisements for “glass pipes,” he came across an online forum dedicated to the growing and harvesting of marijuana. Boyd began taking notes, reluctantly at first. By the time the library closed that night, he’d written almost four pages in his legal, yellow notebook. The seeds arrived in the mail from Canada two weeks later. They came in a CD case, in a thin plastic envelope tucked underneath a blank disk. By that time, Boyd had gone to the library several more times to research the popular “grow sites” on the internet. The initial cost of setting up would run around $500. He would have to buy the soil, the nutrients, a vial-kit that would measure PH balance, the rockwool for the seedlings, smaller cups as the seedlings grew, larger pots for the full-fledged plants, and grow lights (along with a timer to ensure the proper amount of exposure). He would have to cut a hole in the small basement window, and tape newspaper over what was left of the glass. Then, he would install an aluminum duct-fan so the room had proper ventilation. Thankfully, the carpet in the basement storage room wouldn’t be difficult to pull out as it was already starting to curl up at the edges and one of the local discount stores had a sales-ad for white shelving and clean plastic storage bins to keep things dry and organized. When Boyd was, in his mind, fully prepared, when he had circled the final number on his notepad, he thought about his baby book: don’t you ever ever do drugs. Boyd hadn’t planned to do the drugs, to smoke the 100 Berkeley Fiction Review


weed. He’d smoked a few times in college. Boyd had taken a class on world mythology, had read about Indra drinking the Soma--a drink that would bestow divine qualities on its imbiber--and defeating the serpent Vrtra. He had asked his dorm mate if he could “hook him up.” Three hours and $20 later, Boyd was sitting in his room learning how to roll a joint, how to light the end, how to suck in and hold it until his lungs were ready to burst. But Boyd hadn’t felt anything like Indra and he certainly wasn’t in any condition to slay a serpent. Instead, he’d curled up on his bed and spent the night floating in and out of hazy, unfit sleep. Boyd started with six seeds, hoping he could get one or two to take. He was elated when three of them began to sprout “tails” during germination and even more elated when they took to the spongy rockwool. Before he transferred them to soil-filled Styrofoam cups, he considered calling his mom, telling her what he had been doing, what he was willing to do for her, but telling her would make it real and then it might all disappear. So, at first he decided to wait--to see if they took to the soil, then he decided to wait until after he’d transplanted them into bigger pots. Before Boyd knew it, they were flourishing under their artificial suns— dangling tubes of electric light that turned his storage room into a small but efficient nursery. Boyd felt like a god in his grow room, Apollo riding his sun chariot across the sky, bleeding life into the world below. When the plants hit the flowering stage Boyd could hardly contain his excitement. He stood over the pots with a magnifying glass in hand, his chest swelling up with hot pride like the insides of a fire balloon. Only one of the plants had been male; the polyps on the stems had just begun to form. Boyd removed it from the house, breaking it down, stem to root. Once the sacs opened, they could fertilize the females, causing them to seed and render the entire reproduction process inert, so Boyd shoved the plant in a black plastic lawn bag and tossed it in a dumpster outside an apartment complex across town. When the first batch was ready, Boyd harvested. He admired a newly plucked bud, its dewy resin shining in the lamplight and for the first time since his mom’s initial diagnosis, he did not feel like that helpless nine-year-old whelp on the roller coaster that day. As he turned the bud, the drops sparkled and winked. Perhaps, Boyd thought, it’s Soma after all. “This is good,” Boyd’s mom told him the first time she tried his homegrown batch. Better than the last. It has a nice taste.” She took another generous hit off her pipe—a cheetah-print pipe Boyd found for her at one of the local head shops. “Ma?” Stephane Train

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“Hmm?” Boyd wasn’t sure what to expect when he finally told his mom about the grow room, about the plants—every detail from ordering supplies to visiting chat rooms on the Internet devoted to growers. He stood up and made gestures with his hands: here’s how you transfer the seedling to a cup, here’s how you check for gender, how you mix the nutrients, how you arrange the lights. Here are the different strains: Shiskaberry, Apollo Mist, Cannalope Haze, Swiss Cheese, Isis. By the time he was finished, she looked up at him with glistening eyes. “What’s wrong?” he asked. She shook her head, wiped her wet cheeks and heaved a great sigh. “So, they have other flavors?” she inquired. Boyd slumped down into the warm cushions of her couch. “They have all kinds of flavors.” “You could get a variety going,” she said. “Yeah.” She brought the pipe up to her nose and inhaled. “It doesn’t smell so pungent. It’s nice. You must be taking good care of your plants.” “I water them. I give them nutrients. I have grow lamps.” “Do you talk to them?” she asked. Boyd thought. “I talk to myself sometimes when I’m in the grow room. I read directions out loud.” “It’s not the same,” she said taking another draw and holding it in. When she let it out, she closed her eyes. “Talk to them, Boyd. They do studies about that. Plants grow bigger when you talk to them.” Boyd might have told his mother that they were just plants, but that felt wrong somehow, as though he would be taking something away from her. Instead he said, “If it means that much to you, Ma.” “Talking to a thing gives it a reason to live, Boyd, makes a thing feel important. And they’re all female, you say?” she asked. “You get rid of the males?” “The males will fertilize the females.” “You can’t have that, right?” “No.” “Then they’re girls. Girls like to be talked to, Boyd. Talk to them.” Boyd’s mother smiled at him, her eyes squinting into glassy crescents. “Talk to them for me, okay? I would like that.” “Sure,” Boyd said. “Whatever you want.” Two weeks later when Boyd went to pick his mom up for a trip to the 102 Berkeley Fiction Review


doctor, he still hadn’t talked to the plants. Each morning before work, when he would enter the grow room with a fresh batch of nutrient mix, he would check the cuttings to see if they were taking to the soil. Then, he would check the leaves for signs of diminishing (or worse, mites); check the temperature of the room and the PH Balance. But every time he would open his mouth to speak to them, nothing would come out. His mom called them “the girls” now. What could he possibly have to say that would interest the girls—or any girl for that matter? When Boyd’s mom slipped into his car and strapped on her seatbelt, she turned to him. “Boyd,” she said. “You haven’t talked to the plants.” Her features knotted up, creating a screwed-up snarl between her eyebrows. Boyd could tell that she’d taken considerable time putting on her makeup. She had drawn darker lines around her eyes, and her shade of lipstick looked more peachy and vibrant than Boyd remembered seeing recently. She had a lavender scarf with psychedelic blobs of red and orange wrapped around her head. “How do you know?” Boyd asked. He tried to sound outraged. “You would have told me,” she said. “I don’t tell you everything,” he replied. “You would have told me that.” When Boyd pulled out of the driveway, and onto the main street that would take them to the doctor’s office, his mom pulled out a joint and a lighter. Boyd slammed on the breaks, which caused the car behind him to sound the horn. “Ma,” he said. “Good grief. Put that away. It’ll smell up my car.” “This doesn’t smell as bad,” she said and rolled down her window. The car behind him honked again, and Boyd motioned for them to go around. A tan sedan inched by, the driver pausing to look inside. Boyd’s mom had already lit up and was in the process of holding her breath, the joint poised between her first two fingers. Boyd saw the woman driving the sedan. In retrospect, the woman’s eyes probably weren’t as wide as Boyd remembered, and her mouth might not have curled up into what Boyd considered a horrified sneer. But in Boyd’s mind, she may well have been accusing him (and his mom) of murder. “Oh for Pete’s sake,” his mom said when she finished exhaling. She ripped the scarf off her head and pointed to her bald scalp, her eyes jutting out from behind the dark strokes of meticulously drawn eyeliner. The woman’s mouth clamped shut, and she accelerated past. “You shouldn’t be doing that in the car,” Boyd finally said as he pulled back out into traffic. Stephane Train

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“Let them pull me over,” she said. “They would pull me over, Ma.” “I’m sick, Boyd,” she told him. She wadded up her scarf and shoved it into the side pocket of her purse. “It’s no excuse.” “I’m going to go in bald today,” she said. She took another hit off the joint, held it and then blew the smoke out the window. “Put it out,” Boyd told her. “I’m not finished with it,” she replied, her voice clipped and taut. Boyd pulled into the parking lot at the doctor’s office. He’d meant to walk around the car and open the door for his mom, to help her out. Instead, she slipped out, stood upright and started off toward the entrance without him. He called after her. “I don’t need your help,” she said. She reached out to open the door to the office complex. “I’ll get a cab home.” Before Boyd could object, she was inside the building. Boyd waited a few minutes before following her in. He wanted to give her time to catch the elevator up. He would take the next one. A week after the doctor’s visit, Boyd’s mom called him before work and told him she was dying. Even though he waited for her in the doctor’s office the day she had lit a joint in his car and later drove her to Wu’s for sesame chicken, she hadn’t uttered a word about the prognosis. When Boyd asked what the doctor said, she waved a dismissive hand in the air and muttered, “Same old crap.” Now, she had him on the phone and was rattling off the names of local funeral homes. “McAllister’s nice but expensive,” she said. “Try Boorman’s. They won’t try to scam you into buying a coffin. I want cremation. No viewing, just burn me up.” “Ma, listen—” Boyd tried to cut her off a few times. She should be crying, he told himself. Wailing or screaming at him. Instead, she went on about flowers and song choices and Boyd’s cousin Irving who made “those music video montages.” “I have the pictures all ready to scan,” she told Boyd. “You give them to Irving, and he’ll put them on his computer. Tell him to make a good video for me. I’ve got a list of songs, too. He can pick from those. Don’t let him put any of that heavy metal junk on my video, Boyd. Are you writing this down?” “Ma,” he said again. “Jesus. Listen to yourself.” “What’s what supposed to mean?” She asked. “You can get a second opinion,” he said. 104 Berkeley Fiction Review


“The test results—” she started to tell him. “Might be wrong,” he shot back. “Boyd,” she said using the same voice she used when she first told him she was sick with cancer, the same voice she’d used on him as a child when he’d asked her about his father. “Listen—” “I have to go to work,” Boyd said. He hung up the phone. He made his way to the basement and unlocked the grow room. The girls were tall now, at least four feet high, with long, elegant, fanned-out leaves. “What do you want from me?” he asked the plants, his voice a whisper. The ventilation fan whirred in response. It wasn’t as if Boyd was expecting the plants to answer back, but a part of him wondered if they would offer some form of movement, something he could excuse as a sudden draft from another part of the house. “Did you hear me?” he asked a little louder. The girls stood rooted, unstirred. “I can’t do this,” he said. “I can’t take care of you.” Talk to the girls. His mother’s voice. Just go on up and talk to them. “I’m tired,” Boyd said. “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Before Boyd left his house, he’d given the girls the last of the nutrients, mixed a batch ten times the usual strength to use up what was left of the gallon-sized bottles. Then, he turned on the hose and began to water them, filling up the pots to the brim and waiting for the level to sink before dousing them again. He imagined coming home to find the girls twice as big, filling up the entire room like an overstocked hothouse. At the thought, Boyd grabbed a bottle of bleach nearby, opened the lid and poured. “I got some more Shishkaberry seedlings,” Boyd told his mom two months later. She had been in hospice for a few days, hooked up to a vast array of clear medical tubing. Monitors bleeped, and IV bags hung heavy from metal clips. He didn’t have the courage to tell his mom that he had killed the girls. He’d made every attempt to nurse them back to health. He’d gone to experts on the Internet, called flower shops (asking for advice on how to save his “dying tulips”). “I’ll transplant them soon,” he lied. “I have a great grow mix. I’ve been thinking of starting some herbs too, for your windowsill in the kitchen: fresh oregano, basil, maybe some cilantro.” “And you’re talking to them?” she asked. “Talking to the girls?” “I talk to them every day,” he said. “I tell them all the things I can’t say to anyone else.” “Even me?” “Even you,” Boyd said. “Boyd, do you think we come back?” she asked him. Stephane Train

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“Come back? Like reincarnation?” “Yes, only instead of a person, I could come back as a plant, a Shishkabe rry plant, and you could grow me from a seedling.” “Then I’d have to watch you die,” he told her. “But you could make cuttings of me, replant me, make copies and then copies of copies.” “What then?” Boyd asked. “Then you’d smoke me and I’d make you happy.” Boyd burst out laughing, his torso heaving in huge, bottomless breaths. Her mouth was open wide, her eyes glistening, a guffaw stuck in her throat. Her face, pale and shiny, beamed in the dim glow of the bile-colored hospital lighting. Boyd thought she looked radiant on her deathbed, glowing like Titania, like Aphrodite, like Gaia with her skirts of seeds and grain, flowers in her hair, the sun pouring from behind her in long strokes of gold and silver. She died four days later, in the night, while Boyd slept in a recliner next to her bed. He stood and drank in her face, every crease, every line, and even in its dying beauty, he knew she wasn’t there anymore. Boyd stood in the empty grow room, holding an old cardboard box that he’d filled with odds and ends—all that was left of his growing ventures, all that was left of the girls. He would have to come down the next day and scrub the cement floor, clean the soil and the chemical residue from fertilizers and plant food. Then Boyd could use the room for storage, for the boxes he kept after packing his mother’s condo. The new halogen light fixture cast a hard, electric blue tinge over the space, making the room appear smaller than it really was. Boyd closed his eyes and tried to remember what it looked like before, the grow lights hanging in rows, the girls in the middle, huddled together like old, stooped, green-haired women bending under the weight of their pointed leaves. He imagined what his mother might have looked like in a white burial dress, hands folded over her chest, that lavender scarf tied around her bald head. Boyd clenched the cardboard box. He had hoped to find the room full again, magically, the warm light filtering through the thin green leaves, plastic buckets stacked neatly against the wall, the smell of black, rich soil wafting through the air. It was vacant, almost sterile, in the cool, crisp light. He looked and looked, searching the bareness, his eyes watering, strained. Instead, he saw his mother’s piano sitting in the dimming light of day’s end, clouds of dust pooling in the golden beams. He saw her chipped teacup sitting on the table, spoon upright inside, the tag of the teabag hanging over the drab, porcelain edge. He saw her spice rack, labeled 106 Berkeley Fiction Review


meticulously in her pretty, precise handwriting, her number three Barbie doll sitting stiff-legged on the shelf in her sewing room next to a fabric tomato pincushion. He saw an outline of her form on the roller coaster, and in that moment, he was going up the incline again, reaching for her hand, finding it there, squeezing it with the strength of Hercules. As he turned, her lips parted and her head tilted back, the sun lighting her profile from the inside out like a roman candle.

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108 Berkeley Fiction Review


AT THE EDGE OF VISION MICHAEL HICKS

“Hurry, Livi! We have to find Abby before she falls off of that cliff!” Eli whispered to the empty space beside him. The hot noon sun had transformed the black asphalt of Sequoia Court into a vast, barren desert. Wiping away sweat that wasn’t there, the hero stood on tiptoe, peering warily around his family’s Camry for any sign of desert predators. His relief at being alone turned to sudden fear as the fire hydrant beside his leg sprouted legs and a tail: the giant poisonous lizards had come at last. Dashing around the car, he fled from his foes, one hand held rigidly behind him to pull Livi along. Leaping over the harrowing chasm of Doom (hidden so cleverly underneath a pile of leaves) with a silent, heroic bellow, he landed in a perfect crouch, right next to his neighbor, Mr. Byrnes. Under the camouflage of long dark bangs, he glanced up at the old man, looking with dread for the expression he knew would be there. Yep, there it was: the smile of Adults. When he told Mom that he would have to marry both Olivia and Abigail because the one left out would be lonely, the only answer he got was that smile. So, with a formal nod, he left Mr. Byrnes to Adulthood and returned to his World. Glancing perfunctorily at the massive trees overhead, locked in an endless wrestling match of bark and branches, he left the T-Rex and King Kong to their own devices—their battle was no concern of his. Eli walked toward the building a few blocks down the street, its image flickering in and out of his mind like a mirage. Reaching the front of the MLKJ library building, Elijah and Livi slipped inside the door just as the dinosaur’s teeth slammed against the metal—Kong must have lost, the useless ape. Slipping past the librarian, Michael Hicks

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Ara, at the front desk, he dashed up three flights of steps, now sweating in earnest. Together, he and Livi reached the edge of the balcony, leaned over the harrowing drop, and pulled Abby up to safety together. “We did it, Livi. We saved her. You’re safe now, Abby,” Elijah said aloud, smiling proudly at their accomplishment. They had set things right. And then, he put the two of them out of his mind, and they were gone. He looked back down below to the floor 23 feet below and, no longer distracted by his fantasies, became painfully aware of just how far 23 feet was. He stared at the endless rows of red and black diamonds and saw black sea snakes weaving through ominously red waters—or maybe they were hundred-rung ladders ascending the Grand Canyon at sunset, or a massive checkers board before the pieces have been sent out to die—until he shut his eyes tightly, trying to think of the floor as just a floor, colorless, harmless. But he couldn’t, because he knew with unsettling clarity exactly what would happen to him if he fell. He felt a claw pull resolutely on his shoulder, and felt annoyed that he had lost control of his imagination again and let the lizards come back. But no, it was just Ara dragging him away from the edge. She pushed him hard against the opposite bookshelf, glaring. Pursing her lips, she motioned, “Hand to forehead-twiddles middle finger-points at Elijah-rotates palms upward clockwise?” “I just wanted to check out a book, Ara,” he signaled, the picture of innocence. “Points at Elijah-jabs downward with hooked index finger-touches chin with inverted thumb-moves curved hand from chest toward the groundpresses four fingers down on other palm,” she retorted sternly, delicate fingers weaving a symphony of words into silence. “Pushes palm outward twice-points thumb to chin and forehead with palm extended-pounds fist against palm with thumb and second knuckle extended-points at Eli.” “My parents are worrying way too much over nothing. They don’t need to know, so don’t call them, ok?” She raised an eyebrow, smiling innocently. “Thumbs up pointing from chest to ceiling?” “I know you’re the one calling Olivia somehow. I don’t know how you’re talking to her but I know. Just stop it ok?” She smiled innocently, but her subtly twitching hands spoke volumes. He’d have company soon. Then again, he was counting on it: to save Livi. He looked back up at the bookshelf and plucked out the magazine Abby had been looking for. Turning back, Eli watched as Ara motioned shooting dual pistols at him. What did that mean? He had only started 110 Berkeley Fiction Review


taking lessons at the beginning of November and hadn’t gone since the 22nd, so obviously he had missed this sign. She sighed and spelt out, “H-U-R-R-Y-U-P,” at which Eli grinned impudently. She turned, “rubbingher-nose” at Eli. Of course, he didn’t know for certain if she was calling him a “brat” this time, or Abby and him the dozens of other times: maybe she was just allergic to books, or had caught a bad cold 11 months ago when she started working here and hadn’t recovered since. But only he and Abby seemed to have noticed that she existed at all, so he was pretty sure that she didn’t mean it. Trudging downstairs, Eli kept his eyes downcast, thinking about not thinking. He put each foot squarely in front of the other in the stair’s exact middle, making two 90º left turns at each landing. At the bottom he sighed quietly, eyes still fixed unblinkingly on the patterned floor, and walked toward the front desk, trying not to step on any cracks. Of course his left toes inevitably pressed on that intangible edge, so then he tried to step with his right foot on the same spot but ended up stepping more on the back part of his toes, so then he had to tread on another line for each, except then he lost his balance and stepped on another crack with his heel. So then he just gave up and started jumping up and down randomly until his feet were covered in so many lines that he couldn’t distinguish between them anymore. Knowing how his impromptu tantrum must have looked to passersby, he cleared his throat and walked the remaining distance with head held high, his feet cringing at each additional crack. To his annoyance, when he reached the front desk Ara, phone in hand, shooed him away disdainfully with the back of her hand—she called signals like those “pigeon signs” since people who didn’t know sign language could still understand them, and had been using them more and more recently. He sighed, tapping his chest absentmindedly with his fingertips (“Grouch”), and slogged back toward the reading lounge, purposefully ignoring the curious expressions of a class of preschoolers and their smiling guardians. A few of them imitated Elijah’s dance across the floor behind him, but quickly got bored: the game was much easier for their little feet. At last, he arrived at his sanctuary: a nest of armchairs and loveseats bordered on three sides by the “Literature of the World” section no one had touched or looked at in years, and on the fourth by a wall-length window overlooking the local playground. Eli plopped down onto their favorite chair, pressing hard against one side to leave some room, and pulled out from his backpack a black-and-white composition notebook with “JOURNAL” on the cover. Placing the National Geographic edition on Michael Hicks

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Komodo dragons in the empty space beside him and the notebook on the chair arm, Eli copied down his favorite paragraph: Dear Diary, As the dominant predators on the handful of islands they inhabit, the komodo dragon will eat almost everything, including carrion, deer, pigs, smaller dragons, and even large water buffalo and humans. When a victim ambles by, the dragon springs, using its powerful legs, sharp claws and serrated, shark-like teeth to eviscerate its prey. Dragon saliva teems with over 50 strains of bacteria, and within 24 hours, the stricken creature usually dies of blood poisoning. Dragons calmly follow an escapee for miles as the bacteria takes effect, using their keen sense of smell to hone in on the corpse. Love, Elijah Eli grinned evilly, picturing his parents’ reaction when they sneak into his room tonight, not quite softly enough to escape his notice, and look at his daily entry. They asked him to start writing down his thoughts after the 22nd, but he knew how long that would take. So he started writing random facts from books instead, and found it hilarious that they seemed to be panicking over what they meant. Didn’t they keep telling him that, “Grown-ups don’t pretend to see things that aren’t there”? Then why were they acting like him, pretending that a bunch of lizard facts and accident statistics meant something? The sun was falling quicker than usual, a bleeding heart obscured by porous gray clouds dripping down toward the top of the valley, bathing the pale faces of the children outside a dark orange. By this time he could only wait and accept his punishment, so he settled deeper into his couch and pulled out Bridge to Terebithia, morbidly curious if the ending would make him cry like it did the last three times. After all, his teacher had told him once that books matter because they make you feel something, “Eli are you there?” not because they mean something. So he decided he would keep reading any book “Hey, Eli!” as long as it could keep letting him be someone else, even for a moment. But 112 Berkeley Fiction Review


“ELI!” his moment as Jess Aarons was broken when Olivia plucked the book out of his hands. “You’ll read your eyes out, kid.” He looked up into Olivia’s blue eyes, shining catlike in the darkness, framed by long bangs plastered onto her tanned forehead. A light rain was washing away the bright colors of the deserted playground. A few days before the 22nd, Livi had barged into their room at 2:20 in the morning, scattering Abby’s thirty-two beanie babies she had enlisted to guard the door, and confiscated their flashlights. “Do you want to end up like me?” she had asked, gripping the brittle rim of her glasses between thumb and forefinger. “Yes,” they had replied, snatching the flashlights back. Only now he could not look back and see Livi’s lopsided grin anymore, hear her exasperated response, or feel Abby’s warmth as she glued herself to his side. Now Olivia was glaring at Ara, telling her not to call anymore unless it was an emergency. And when she dragged Elijah outside, she dropped his jacket onto his shoulders without any warning and it collapsed limply to the floor. To Eli, books and movies were mostly different, but the same in one key way: when he was reading or watching one, he could turn off his mind and just soak things in, becoming a setting for the action instead of a character. And so, sometimes, he would treat the world as if he were watching it through a screen, dreading the moment when he would be drawn back into the action. Act I Scene 2: The Father and Sister sit at the table arguing, while the Mother is off-screen cooking. One seat and its matching table space are conspicuously empty. Lighting is jarringly bright and cheerful, with “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” playing softly in background. Father: I got a call from your coach again. He says you’ve ditched practice four times in the last few weeks. Last time you just peeled off in the middle of an interval and left. Sister: (Not looking up from her salad) Coach can be a busybody and call you all he wants, but this is between him and me, not you. Drop it. Father: It’s all of our business. Ever since…what happened on the 22nd you’ve been neglecting your studies and you aren’t speaking to Eli anymore. Michael Hicks

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Sister: (not looking) I’m treating him like an adult that can be on his own for ten seconds. Father: Well obviously he can’t, Olivia. Mother: (walks in holding roasted chicken) Come on you two, let’s end this for now and just have a normal, nice dinner, ok? (Hesitates, looking at the empty space on the table, and then crams the pan in-between the other plates instead) Father: Yes, yes, that’s right, dear. Eli, how was your day? Son? Son, are you— “—ignoring me?” Dad snapped. Eli sighed. The world had been turned back on, and he had to think about how furious Dad was that Eli was still going back to the library, and that the unfortunate boy that Olivia wasn’t speaking to was, in fact, himself. But it was time to get back into character. “My day went just great, Dad. I aced my two tests and I assisted two goals during lunch break. And I made friends with a girl in class, Jasmine. Sorry, I was a bit distracted.” Eli spoke mechanically, his body language rigidly casual, waiting for Dad’s response. “That’s my boy,” Dad said, leaning forward and smacking him jovially on the arm. “I guess you’re reaching that age, huh? Your mother and I may need to give you ‘the talk’ soon.” Mother smiled, murmuring something indistinct. Not that he was listening to her anyway. It annoyed Eli that he wasn’t sure what that meant. “What talk?” “Oh, you’ll understand when you get older.” What the heck did that mean? Eli didn’t know how there could be a single thought he hadn’t thought of yet. Wasn’t that his problem? “Oh, I don’t know. The way he looks at Ara seems pretty old-mannish to me.” He caught the specter of a smile haunting Olivia’s face. “Ara?” Dad hesitated. “That’s that…retarded Indian girl, right?” Mother looked over disapprovingly at Eli. “Dad!” Olivia hissed, furious. “She’s not retarded. And I think she’s Arabic.” Eli kept his voice steady, recalling how “Nah, she’s got to be Indian…” she had stood still as stone, not hearing the violent insults “…we beat all the Arabs in Kuwait…” some teenagers were attacking her with, “…so why would they come here afterwards?” but reading every word on their lips. “Well, you won’t be going to that library anymore, heaven knows how 114 Berkeley Fiction Review


painful it must be for your sister to think about that place. And Olivia, you just stop this nonsense about skipping practice. I know things have been bad for you since Abby fell, but the best thing we can do is just make things normal again.” Olivia imitated Dad’s smile. “Oh? And how will that happen, do you think? Go back in time maybe? Or just turn off gravity with your incredible optimism?” Eli shivered. “None of that talk, Livi. Things will become normal again soon, you’ll see,” Mother echoed faintly. “Why don’t you take Eli and read to him like you used to? Cheer each other up?” “I never used to read to him. Besides, he’s not a little kid anymore. He can read to himself.” She rose, ladling extra food onto her plate. She swallowed everything in front of her “Young lady you sit down right now…” and never gained an ounce of weight, which had made Abby jealous “…Listen to your father dear…” until Livi told her solemnly about how boys rejected her “…Now, Elijah…” because she was too tall and skinny for their tastes. “…it’s too late for today, but tomorrow come straight home and take your and Abigail’s things downstairs to your new bedroom, all right? Remember, no going to the libra—” “Don’t call her Abigail,” Eli and Livi interrupted him in unison, without thinking. They stared at one another, until Mother and Dad laughed a bit too loudly at this little flash of nostalgia. Olivia turned, plate in hand, and dashed out of the room. Elijah watched her until she disappeared from sight. The light was off in the hall, but he imagined she was standing right there just at the edge of vision, waiting for him to run after her and ask her to read to him, except he wouldn’t, because he knew she didn’t want him to, and besides, she wasn’t actually standing there anyway. HANDICAPPED Eli stared transfixed at the word, his facial expression somewhere between exasperation and hilarity. Mr. Z had made the word large enough to take up the entire chalkboard. “Ok class, I know you all probably already know these things, but today I just want to quickly go over a couple things with you about the, um, unfortunate people who are handicapped and how we should treat them. Michael Hicks

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Now, thee ffiirrsstt ttthhhiiinnnggg wwwwwweeeeeeeeeeeee sssssssshhhhhhhhooooooooooooooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuulllllllldddddddd doooooooooooo—” Sigh. Normally Eli was able to last a lot longer than this. That is, until he got so incredibly bored that Mr. Z’s voice slowed to a soothing crawl, his voice losing the recognition of words and entering his mind only in its change in pitch, a melody locked into the tempo of the classroom clock, tick-toock-tiiick-toooock-tiiiiick-tooooock. He keyed in on Abby’s name a couple of times, and his own, but otherwise he didn’t hear anything, and was glad of it. Ignoring his classmates, who kept glancing over at him to see how he was reacting to Mr. Z’s spiel, he whipped out some construction paper and started sketching the class’s pet iguana Kermit. Initially, Mr. Z had constantly confiscated his drawings and writings, annoyed that this brat wasn’t even pretending to pay attention. When he continued to receive top grades in everything, however, the two of them had reached an unspoken truce: as long as he kept not needing Mr. Z for anything, Mr. Z would do his utmost to pretend Eli did not exist. And so Eli kept sketching Kermit, and then Abby strapped on top of it dressed in cowgirl attire. Her legs, spanning about halfway down the lizard’s flank, dangle lifelessly as the pair gallops toward a cliff edge, pursued by a stampede of cattle. Surveying his work, Eli frowned and tried to erase the cliff, since his parents had started stealing his sketchbook and analyzing it too, but his eraser sucked and the lead smudged around the still-visible line. Elijah was not half of a person with Abby gone. They never spoke in unison, except for the one time when they covered their faces and shirts in Hawaiian punch and Halloween makeup and, when Livi walked into the hallway, chanted, “Come play with us, come play with us, Livi!” She screamed so loud Mr. Byrnes called the cops. The only hobbies he had in common with her were drawing and horror movies. He thought she was plain and loud; she thought he was adorably juvenile. He was not more mature than her even though he was born two minutes earlier. No one ever got the two of them mixed up, even when Abby had the barber give her an identical haircut. When he tried sitting in her class, they called him a fag for wearing girl’s clothes. Abby refused to tell him what his classmates had called her. 116 Berkeley Fiction Review


They did not have the same friends except for the lame neighborhood ones their parents forced on them. They were not friends either. They were brother and sister. He did not need to surpass her or separate himself from her. They were separate to begin with. He had never been able to tell what she was was thinking without asking, no matter how hard he tried. In all these years, he hadn’t been able to guess what number between 1 and 10 she was thinking of, though he suspected by her evil grin that she just kept changing the number. He did not miss sleeping above her, when a single jerk of her head or soft mumbling in her sleep would jolt him awake instantly for another hour of useless, jumbled, unending thought. But he missed her. A lot. He missed holding her hand when they thought they were a safe distance from school; he missed her tone-deaf singing of “My Heart Will Go On” in the shower; he missed boosting her up to the ledge by Livi’s window to whisper lines from the Exorcist. He missed her the same way his Uncle Hank had missed his leg after Vietnam. He never complained once. He seemed happy enough. But inevitably he would feel that tingle of the routine, try to walk to the fridge for something, and collapse to the ground—again and again. At least with Abby, this would never be a problem. As he sat there, Mother walked in and reminded him how his father wouldn’t be happy that he was sitting there lazing about, so he put Abby out of his mind, grabbed the next box of dolls and fake weapons, and marched downstairs. Sliding silently past the two workers, who had seemingly finished installing the ramp to the front door and were now inside helping themselves to Mother’s blueberry muffins, he walked into Dad’s old study and set the box down, frowning: the room was much larger than before but it didn’t have a closet. So he gently kicked Abby’s basketball out of the way and set the box down in the corner. The ball rolled away along the hardwood floor, bumping to a halt against the freshly laundered sheets on Abby’s mattress. He picked up the ball. He had brought it with him to the hospital, but Abby had ordered him to bring it back. “Do you really think I’ll be playing basketball anymore?” “But you were always complaining how everyone beats you even though you’re a better shot because they’re taller. If you join the new league everyone will be the same height as you so you’ll kick their butts.” She laughed at this. “Are you saying I’m lucky?” “Well, there are other good things too. Like, you can cut to the front of Michael Hicks

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the line at Six Flags, and we’ll always get to park at the front of the parking lot, and remember how Livi told you that guys think shorter girls are cuter, and I’m being a total jerk right now aren’t I? I’m sorry.” “No, I’m glad there’s one person who doesn’t care so much about trying to make things normal again, or…Eli, there’s something wrong with Sis. Why is she acting like that? Is she still angry with me?” “I’m not sure, but don’t worry about it, ok? I’ll make her go back to normal again by the time you get back. Don’t worry.” He had lied. He knew exactly what was wrong with Olivia, but it looked like she just wasn’t going to let him help her. She had reached a place where he could not reach her anymore. After he was finished moving their things and had eaten dinner, Eli snuck outside into the twilight hours and headed for the library, hardly caring if his parents noticed. On the way, he once again fought the lizards with Livi and saved Abby from the brink before she fell. Again, he triumphantly announced, “We saved her Livi. Abby is safe.” And again, he had ended the dream there, because he could not imagine Olivia’s expression and he was beginning to know more and more that there wasn’t a point to it. He felt like he had reached the point in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon where he had just run off of a cliff onto thin air, and that the only reason he hadn’t fallen yet was because he was refusing to look down. Very slowly, Eli pushed the library door open and peeked inside. Somehow, Ara was standing right in front of the door waiting for him, hands on hips, her face cartoonishly annoyed. “Taps forefingers and thumbs together with puckered lips and furrowed brow?” “Why do you keep asking me that? You know this is a library, right? I’m here for a book,” he motioned, smirking. She rubbed her nose vigorously as she turned back toward the front desk. “You’re not going to call Livi again, are you?” he asked. She shook her head, beckoning him to join her behind the counter. When he got there she pulled out a 100-page notebook, and flipped about halfway through, the previous pages filled with writing in English and what he guessed was Persian. She picked up a pen and wrote, “You need to stop worrying your sister like this.” “Why are you writing now? Is my signing that bad?” “You learned sign language just to speak to me. The least I can do for you is to speak to you in your own language for once. Just for this last time. 118 Berkeley Fiction Review


But you should go home.” “How do you do it Ara? How do you tell Olivia that I’m here?” She smiled. “I don’t say a word Eli, I just call her, she sees my number and she comes running every time. I know you’re mad at her but even though I like seeing you here you shouldn’t come here anymore.” “I’m not angry at her.” “Then you need to make up with her, because I’m not going to be here to help you anymore starting tomorrow. I don’t work here anymore. I was just collecting my things.” “Why do you need a new job? Are you leaving? Why weren’t you going to tell me?” “I could collect my foster care and disability checks until I turned 18, so I could work here and not worry about money, but now that I’m an adult I have to worry about rent and marketable skills to get a job.” “So where are you going to work now?” She clenched the pen as though she was getting ready to stab downward, and then wrote, “I’m not staying here, Eli. I’m going home, to my own country.” He felt his insides breaking into two pieces, crumbling, trembling at the foundations, but he kept smiling, faking as always. But unlike everyone else Ara wasn’t fooled, and drove on ruthlessly. “I wish I had never come here, Eli. I had hope. I ran here because there was supposed to be a home for everyone here. But there wasn’t one for me.” He couldn’t hold himself up any longer and his smile fell, first one side and then the other. He tried to hide the trembling desperation in his hands. “I’m here for you. I learned sign language for you. I can be y—” She shook her head before he could finish. “You’re a person, Eli, not a home. And you’re going to figure out sooner or later that everybody leaves. They support you and they resent you for your dependency, because they don’t know, like you and I do, that we want to be independent a hell of a lot more than they want us to be. We don’t want help; we need it. So all I can do now is hope that my old home is still waiting for me. ” “Then why do you keep telling me to hang on to Livi?” “Because she is too important to you to lose over something as stupid as a simple misunderstanding. Hold on to her for as long as you can, and then be ready to lose her without any warning. You can’t keep relying on thinking, Eli. People leave faster than you can think of a reason for them to stay.” Eli noticed that the library clock was showing 10:01 p.m. So did Ara. She smiled, tapping her wrist with her finger. She grabbed his face softly Michael Hicks

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with both hands and mouthed, “Goodbye Elijah.” Then she reached onto the desk and thrust a few books into his hands, their barcodes removed, roughly turned him around, marched him outside, closed and locked the door, flicked off the lights, and sat back down in her chair before he had finished thinking Please don’t go. He knew then that he would remember this image of Ara, bleak and faceless in the dark, just out of his reach, long after all of their happier moments together had plunged into the void. Elijah had hoped to blend in on campus until he found Olivia, but he was as shorter than some 4th graders at Sequoia, let alone high schoolers, and by the time he reached the track field he had a small following of giggling freshman girls asking him where he was going. He noticed her immediately, half a head taller than any of the other female sprinters, leaping at the crack of the starting gun and running away from Eli. She finished a close second. She didn’t wear glasses while she ran, so he had to walk right up to her to get her attention. She jumped. “Eli…I thought I told you that I would pick you up at your school.” “I wanted to see you run,” he replied. She looked annoyed but then her coach came up asking if this was the mystery Casanova that she had been ditching practice for, and she grabbed his hand and dragged him away, cheeks reddening even further at her teammates’ jovial laughter. When they reached Olivia’s old Camry, she reached into the glove compartment and handed him some Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit, since he often got carsick while reading. When she started the ignition, she immediately turned off the radio, knowing that a catchy chorus of a song Eli hated would drive him crazy for hours. She even drove the speed limit for once. Of course, she didn’t say a single word while all this was happening. But Eli finally had the advantage, since the hospital was a twenty-minute drive and Olivia had nowhere to run to. And for once his stupidly smart brain was doing him good, since he had rehearsed this scenario about a hundred times. He knew he had to get her mad. “You know it’s my fault that Abby fell off the balcony in the library, right?” Hooonk. The SUV to their left swerved away as Olivia jerked into its lane, then corrected herself. He continued before she could protest, “I’m older than Abby and I should have known better than to let her play near the edge. She was my responsibility and I let her down. I’m sorry.” “You—you just quoted me, you little—” Olivia looked as if keeping 120 Berkeley Fiction Review


her eyes on the road and her clenched fists on the wheel was causing her intense pain. “Well, aren’t I right? Mother told me that I’m the smarter one and that I need to look—” “That woman would say anything to get out of being an actual mother. Abby was my responsibility, not yours. Stop distracting me, you’re going to get us killed.” Eli maintained his calm, cheerful demeanor. “Would you like to hear another quote? Or are you going to leave to visit Abby again? Oh, wait a minute…” He didn’t need to see her face to know he had her exactly where he wanted her. He continued, softly, “Please tell Livi that it was my fault, not hers. She’s the one that told me to grab that lizard book and come straight back down. Ask her to please not be mad at me.” Olivia silently moved over to the shoulder, put her car in park and turned on her hazard lights. She turned to face him, looking stunned. “She…said that? Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t she tell me?” “Because you wouldn’t let me,” Eli said, real emotion seeping through for the first time, “and she was afraid you hated her for being an idiot and getting you in trouble. I kept getting Ara to call you over but…She doesn’t blame you and neither do I, but I will blame you if you keep making Abby feel bad about it. Don’t you think she’s suffered—” “ALL RIGHT…all right, already. I get it.” “You shouldn’t drive when you’re crying.” “Shut up, you little brat, I’m parked. And I’m not crying,” Livi muttered, wiping away nothing from her eyes. “Now it’s my turn to give you advice: stop thinking so much. What kind of 6th grader are you? You won’t need me as an older sister much longer if you keep this up.” He had, of course, noticed the college application forms strewn beside him on the back seat. “Don’t be like that. You know you’ll never get tired of bossing the two of us around.” “Maybe not,” she laughed. “But you’ve shown me that I can’t treat you like immature little kids anymore. You’ve done great on your own without me. You’ve grown up.” He knew Livi was wrong. He knew that he couldn’t change himself so easily, and that people and places would pass in and out of his life as a rock is warmed and abandoned by the sun day after day. He knew that the structures of his life were collapsing, leaving an empty space where nothing could ever be rebuilt. He knew that none of them could ever go back to how things were, because “how things were” never really existed in the first place. Michael Hicks

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But for today, at least, he had a home waiting for him. He desperately hoped that soon, Ara would be able to say the same thing.

BFR 122 Berkeley Fiction Review


NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS ANDREW ABBOTT was born to itinerant amber carvers. He regrets daily his missed opportunities for ………….allabbott.com CLAIRE BURGESS studies Art History at UC Berkeley. This is her first published short story. JACKIE CRAVEN is the architecture writer for About.com and has also written for House & Garden, Old-House Journal, and other magazines. Her books are The Healthy Home and The Stress-Free Home (Rockport Publishers). Her fiction appears in literary journals such as The Fourth River, Verdad, and Zahir. Visit her at www.JackieCraven.com. JOSH DOWNEY has been artistically photographing for about six years. He has grown to love the art of photographing the inanimate and invoking feelings, emotions, and ‘human’ reactions to subjects that inherently have no life, no thought, and no feeling. Downey finds his works to be on the more macabre end of the artistic spectrum. His upbringing in the suburbs of Chicago in a close, largely Irish-Italian Catholic family, meant that he spent a good part of his childhood at wakes and funerals. The dark subject matter that he portrays in much of his works now may result from those events and represent his way of coping with the darkness in life. ALEKSANDRA DUBOV is a singer, performer, visual artist and a native New Yorker who suddenly felt the loving pull of Berkeley calling out to her across the coast. She is currently creating music and taking pictures of her Notes on Contributors

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new home. Her music, music videos and other pictures can be found at www.aleksandradubov.com. JASON FAIRCHILD is a modern visual artist that is based in Chicago. He received his training in art and medical illustration at The Ohio State University. His work spans from Figurative and abstract paintings to video. For more info look him up on Youtube. GEREMY GEORGE is a thirty-one-year-old graphic artist. Born in Texas, he currently resides in Denver, CO. His most recent work involves monochrome, vector collage, produced through a series of physical and digital processes, highlighting various social, political and existential themes. Many of his images can be found and used freely at geremygeorge. com. CHRISTOPHER M. HOOD is a graduate of UC Irvine’s MFA program. He teaches English and Creative Writing at the Dalton School in New York City. He has published work in The Santa Monica Review, The Anteater Reader, and Teachers & Writers, where he was a finalist for the Bechtel Prize. He wrote the libretto for the opera “The Prioress’s Tale,” premiered in Boston in 2007, and the lyrics for the song cycle “Brutal Arithmetic.” He lives the Bronx with his wife, Greta. ERIKA HOOPES is a sophomore at UC San Diego pursuing a degree in Literature and Writing with minors in Film Studies and French. She is an aspiring author and is overjoyed to share her first published work through the Berkeley Fiction Review. Currently, she is studying in Lyon, France to expand her horizons and capture the beauty in this world from a new standpoint. MICHAEL HICKS is a student at the University of California, Berkeley, set to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in English this May. He is proud that his first published work (hopefully of many) will appear in the Berkeley Fiction Review. HUNTER JOHNSON was born and raised in Mississippi and is currently a freshman at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, MS. She graduated from the Mississippi School of the Arts, where she focused on visual art. She explores science (specifically astronomy and the study of light) and color theory through her artwork. Although she often works with various 124 Berkeley Fiction Review


media, painting is the art form that she is the most devoted to. LANE KARESKA was born in Texas and raised in Chicago. He has a degree from Columbia College Chicago and an MFA from Southern Illinois University. He is currently shopping a novel entitled “Dead Wolf City.” JENNIFER MICHELLE LONG has been studying and exploring the language of paint for several years now. Creating artwork since childhood, Jennifer has taken her work into her adulthood as a means for her own sacred communication, expression, and connection. She studied privately through BYU professor Sydney Bowman for two years. Later she attended the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. She then took her education into her own hands and interned with Bay Area artist Hilary Williams. Her many styles range from delicate grazings of oil to the ferocious markings of a palette knife. Jennifer has been showing her work in various galleries around the western United States as well as working on commission pieces since 2007. She will be attending a painting seminar in the Mischtechnik this summer in Torri Superiore, Italy with Visionary masters Amanda Sage, A. Andrew Gonzalez, Laurence Caruana, and Maura Holden. She wishes to use art as a tool to ground and articulate visions, and perception of reality. ANDREA MARTINEZ i am a finger painter. i was a human doing. now I am a human being. aqui. ahora. ELIZABETH O’BRIEN writes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Swink, Pank, Slice,Versal, Juked, A capella Zoo, Euphony, Flashquake, The Charles River Review, The Emerson Review, The Found Poetry Review, and other journals. She lives in Somerville, MA, and can be found online at elizabethobrien.net. PERRY OEI received his B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of San Francisco and his J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. When he was a law student at Berkeley during the 1980s, he worked briefly on the staff of Berkeley Poetry Review. Also during the 1980s, he Notes on Contributors

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co-founded and co-edited a literary magazine in the San Francisco Bay Area called Ceilidh. DANA OSTROWSKI enjoys writing short stories and this is her first publication. She is currently studying film at CSU Monterey Bay. She also enjoys reading, the Internet and watching B-movies from the 60s. ERIN POPELKA makes her home in Oregon after living in Washington, DC and McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Her writing has appeared in Johnny America, The Externalist, Collective Fallout, and The Tower Journal. Her work can be read at www.erinpopelka.com. MICHAEL REPOULIS was born in Athens, Greece, February 12, 1955 and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa. He began drawing at the age of five and at the age of eleven, took his first lessons on the guitar, after which he began to write his own melodies and songs inspired by poetry. In his music he particularly likes to combine melody with dissonance, modulating and syncopating contrasts. Many of Repoulis compositions have been published worldwide and have been included in the University of Toronto, UCLA, Berkeley, University of Cambridge libraries and the Library of Congress. Michael Repoulis is now residing in Toronto where he continues to practice the art of composition. MARTIN SLAG is a nursing student and emerging horror author. His short fiction has appeared in BFR #29, the Kennesaw Review, Barbaric Yawp, Morpheus Tales, and a few other places. He lives in the City of Champions. STEPHANIE TRAIN received her MFA from Colorado State University where she is currently the assistant director at the Center for Community Literacy. Her work has given her the opportunity to facilitate inmate writing workshops which enable her to give a voice to underserved populations. Her work can be found in The Copper Nickel, Midnight Screaming and Construction. GENESIS TRAMAINE, born and bred in bed-stuy, lives the bustling life of a visual artist, high school math teacher, and co-founder of bklyn boihood. A graduate of Syracuse University, Genesis worked in the corporate sector for years before applying to be a NYC Teaching Fellow. She is currently in her third year of teaching math in a Brooklyn public 126 Berkeley Fiction Review


high school. Art, by Genesis’ own admission, is “the only thing she’s ever been really really good at.” JON WESICK is the host of the Gelato Poetry Series, instigator of the San Diego Poetry Un-Slam, and an editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual. Jon has published more than fifty short stories in journals such as Space and Time, Zahir, Tales of the Talisman, Blazing Adventures, and Metal Scratches. He has also published over two hundred fifty poems. Jon has a Ph.D. in physics and is a longtime student of Buddhism and the martial arts.

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Andrew Abbott Claire Burgess Jackie Craven Josh Downey Aleksandra Dubon Jason Fairchild Chistopher M. Hood Erika Hoopes Michael Hicks Hunter Johnson Lane Kareska Jennifer Michelle Long Andrea Martinez Elizabeth O’Brien Perry Oei Dana Ostrowski Erin Popelka Michael Repoulis Martin Slag Stephanie Train Genesis Tramaine Jon Wesick

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